Wandering off into the woods with nothing but essentials on your back is a glorious and wonderful thing. But before you hit the trail, you have to decide exactly what items you’re going to carry and what kind of bag you’ll be putting them in. Picking out those items can be overwhelming at best and a true nightmare at worst. When I began gear research for my AT thru-hike, I had no idea where to start. Now, knowing slightly more about that precious and expensive gear, I can at least help you learn the first important step: understanding materials.
That includes cotton shirts, denim, sweatshirts, blankets, canvas tents, hats, etc. Cotton is not the fabric of this life.
Synthetics (polyesters) are used in many pieces of backpacking gear such as clothing, tents, backpacks, and stuff sacks. Synthetic fibers are more durable than natural fibers and can stand up stronger to sunlight, moisture, and human oils.
Synthetics are known for their moisture-wicking properties. Basically, the material draws the moisture (ie sweat) from the body to the outside surface of, say, the shirt. From there, the moisture can evaporate more easily keeping you dry.
Synthetics are also used as an insulator in sleeping bags. Cotton and wool sleeping bags are out for backpacking. They are much too heavy and bulky. Instead, choose between synthetic or down. Synthetic bags will be significantly cheaper than down and much easier to wash, but they will also be considerably heavier, bulkier, and take up a majority of your pack space.
Down is the soft layer of fluff underneath the outer layer of feathers of a goose or duck, and it creates the most luxurious insulator for jackets and sleeping bags. Seriously, you could convince me that down feathers came from angels’ wings. Down is easily the most expensive material used in the backpacking world, but it is typically well worth the price. Down is beneficial to backpackers in that it is extremely compact, comfortable, extra light weight, and will keep you particularly warm.
Dyneema (formerly Cuben Fiber), also a synthetic material, is primarily used in ultralight backpacks, tents, tarps, and stuff sacks. This creatively designed material is incredibly durable, lightweight, and waterproof. If you want to go ultralight (base weight under 15 lbs.), cuben fiber is for you.
Merino wool is another option for clothing. Unlike synthetic material, wool actually traps moisture keeping you cool on those unbearably hot days. The natural fiber also has impressive odor neutralizing properties. Deciding between wool and synthetic is simply personal preference. Wool keeps you cooler, but also is more expensive. On this one, I favor synthetics just to save a few bucks.