The most important feature of a truly portable wardrobe is quick-dry fabrics. Here’s everything you need to know about travel fabrics and quick-dry clothing that will keep your travel backpack smelling fresh.
Quick-dry clothing is anything that dries fast enough to wear the next day. The best quick-dry clothes are worth the extra cash (really), but you don’t have to break the bank to get a few essential pieces that last for years.
The best travel fabrics are quick-drying and durable. Here’s everything you need to know about how quick-dry fabrics work, what to look for when buying quick-dry fabric, and when to get (or not get) quick-dry clothing.
What is Quick Dry Fabric?
Most quick-dry fabrics are made from nylon, polyester, or merino wool.
I judge something to be quick dry if it goes from wet to damp in under thirty minutes and to completely dry within a few hours. Quick-dry clothes should always dry completely when hung overnight.
Quick-drying clothing is everywhere these days, but synthetic quick-dry clothes are a relatively new invention. Before synthetic fabrics like polyester and nylon, the only option was wool.
The demand for fast-drying fabrics didn’t really happen until the hiking boom of the 70s when more people hit the trail and discovered that hiking in wet clothes sucks. Even worse, it’s a pain to travel with damp (read: smelly) fabrics that never get dry.
What Are The Best Quick-Dry Travel Fabrics?
The best fabrics for travel are polyester, nylon, and merino wool.
All of these fabrics are quick-dry and durable, but each functions a little differently from the rest. Cotton is a decent budget option, but not as great as the others. Below is a comparison of these four quick-dry, travel fabrics:
Polyester is easily the most widely used synthetic fabric, and it’s especially great for quick-dry travel clothing because it’s extremely hydrophobic. That means polyester fibers don’t absorb much water. The amount of water they absorb varies with different weaves—60/40 poly-cotton absorbs more water than 80/20 poly tercel—but generally polyester fabric only absorbs about 0.4% of its own weight in moisture.
That’s nothing. An 8 oz. polyester t-shirt absorbs less than half an ounce of moisture which means it dries quickly and stays dry most of the day because there isn’t much to dry in the first place.
The best part is that polyester is super durable, which is why it’s blended into everything from shirts and socks to pants. It’s also affordable. The downside is that polyester doesn’t have the built-in odor control and limited breathability of fabrics like merino (depending on the weave).
Polyester isn’t ideal for extreme hiking gear, but if you’re gonna put in a few hours on a sweaty bus to Chiang Mai, polyester is a solid choice.
Does Polyester Clothing Dry Quickly?
Yes. Polyester clothing takes around 2-4 hours to dry completely indoors, depending on temperature. It can take as little as 1 hour or less if you’re drying them outdoors in direct sunlight.
Nylon is more than just a stretchy neon fabric from the 80s. This hydrophobic wonder weave is more durable than polyester and absorbs about the same amount of moisture. Look for nylon blends in travel pants (you don’t need more than 4% to get that signature stretch) to get a pair of that are particularly comfortable. And if you can find a merino wool nylon blend shirt on sale, buy it.
How Long Does it Take Nylon Clothing to Dry?
Nylon clothes will take a little longer to dry than polyester. Depending on the temperature, it could take anywhere from 4-6 hours if drying indoors.
That I love merino wool travel clothing is no big secret. Merino wool is cozy, warm, lightweight, and odor resistant. Plus, it looks awesome. The downside is that merino wool absorbs up to 33% of its own weight in moisture. However, the story doesn’t end there.
No, pure merino wool isn’t a quick-dry fabric, but that’s fine, thanks to the incredibly small width of high-quality merino fibers. The fiber is measured in microns (typically thinner than a human hair), and only the inside of each merino fiber absorbs moisture, meaning the outside (the part that touches your skin) stays warm and cozy. That’s why merino is so great at keeping you warm, even when it’s damp. Also, it’s super rare to see 100% merino in anything but a sweater.
Merino socks and shirts are usually woven with polyester, nylon, or tercel, meaning you get the benefits of merino and the quick-drying features of synthetic fabrics. Merino wool is significantly slower to dry than polyester or nylon. But the thing about quick-dry is that faster isn’t always better.
The whole point of wearing a quick-dry fabric on a hike is to wick away moisture from your skin to keep you warm, and merino does that better than anything. Look for a polyester merino wool blend (if you can afford it), and you’ll have a quick-dry garment that takes a little longer to dry than the thin stuff, but feels a million times better when you’re wearing it (which is most important).
How Long Does it Take Merino Wool Clothing to Dry?
Merino wool dry times depend on the thickness of the wool and lightweight wool will dry faster than heavyweights. That said, they take about the same amount of time to dry as polyester indoors, so around 2-4 hours. It can take as little as one hour or less if you’re drying them in direct sunlight.
Hardcore hikers avoid cotton like the plague, not because it’s a bad fabric, but because it’s terrible when it’s wet. Cotton fibers make up of the most water-absorbent fabrics you can find—up to 10 times its weight in moisture, according to some studies. If you’re an active traveler, hiker, or just a lightweight packer on the go, avoid cotton t-shirts in favor of something a little less absorbent.
How Long Does it Take Cotton Clothing to Dry?
Expect your cotton clothes to take 2-4 hours to dry inside or as little as one hour outside in direct sunlight. Thicker clothes, like cotton jeans, will take longer.
The Best Quick Dry Clothing
The best quick-dry clothes totally depend on who you are, how you roll, and what you’re doing. However, here are a few of my favorites.
This shirt packs a premium price tag, but it’s a top-notch quick-dry t-shirt without that clingy artificial polyester feel.
Thanks to the ultrafine merino weave (17.5 microns thick!) and the natural ability of merino fibers to pull moisture away from your skin, you can hike and hike and hike in this shirt and still wear it to dinner.
This was one of two t-shirts in my backpack when I hiked across Spain. And I barely wore the other.
Bluffworks has a new women’s Threshold t-shirt that is the essence of simplicity is a great fabric that’s made for travel and is quick dry!
They say that one pair of these travel underwear can last for 6 weeks. While that might be true (gross), I don’t want to test it.
However, if you include these in your travel wardrobe you’ll have a pair of quick-dry underwear you can rock on hiking trails, bike rides, and nights out in the big city without any hassles.
Hand wash them and hang dry and you’re in business in no time.
Ladies, the Ex Officio line up for women is strong, too! All made for travel, all quick dry… it’s just a matter of your style.
Bluffworks Travel Chinos ($125)
I love these pants for so many reasons—the zipper pockets, the beautiful color, fashionable cut and modern fit—but the unsung feature of these pants is how quickly they dry.
I’ve biked in the rain in these pants only to sit comfortably at the bar. I’ve hung them up to dry in the afternoon and packed them rolled up tightly in a ball at night.
The technical polyester fabric can take a beating (and a soaking) and come back for more.
Bluffworks women’s line is definitely worth checking out, with great quick-dry fabrics and lots of pockets, even in the dress!
These socks have been my go-to for day trips in Rome and hiking trips, including the Camino de Santiago. They look awesome, feel even better, and keep my (super sweaty) feet dry in even the gnarliest conditions. They hold their shape after multiple wears and multiple washes, and never smell, which is amazing.
I love these socks, and they’re well worth the price tag. If you’re putting serious miles on your feet, upgrade to a merino blend hiking sock for moisture-wicking awesomeness during the hike and quick-dry awesomeness afterward.
What Are The Benefits of Quick-Dry Travel Clothing?
Quick-dry clothes can be expensive, uncomfortable, and pretty dorky looking, so why pay more for something you might not like? Because quick-dry fabrics do one thing really well: moisture-wicking.
Keeps You Warm
The main purpose of quick-dry clothing is to keep you warm by moving moisture (sweat) away from your skin. We lose a small fraction of our body heat through the air (about two percent), but we lose nearly twenty times that much body heat when we’re submerged in water. It’s why hypothermia sets in so quickly in the ocean.
Wet clothing increases the rate at which you lose body heat, which can actually be pretty dangerous at colder temperatures. When you work up a sweat hiking on a steep trail, then the temperature plummets at night or at chilly elevations, sweat-soaked damp clothes can be deadly. The faster your clothing wicks moisture away from your skin into the air, the warmer you’ll be.
On a less dire note, damp clothes are just plain uncomfortable. Moisture increases friction between the fabric and your skin, which can lead to blisters (wet socks) and rashes (wet pants or wet armpits). Quick-dry clothing can prevent all that by keeping your clothes dry and fitting the way they did when you first bought them.
Easier to Wash
They’re also much easier to hand wash while you’re on the road, which is important for any traveler who wants to pack light and not bring a ton of clothing. Great travel fabrics and quick-dry clothing allow you to wash your basics at night and have them clean and ready to wear the next morning.
Problems With Quick Dry Clothing
While quick-dry clothing can be a miracle for lightweight travelers, it’s not without its flaws. Here are a few quick-dry clothing downsides:
There’s no doubt about it, quick-dry clothing is expensive. Quick-dry t-shirts typically start around $50 and can soar well over $100. Pants can be twice that expensive. High-quality performance travel gear comes with an equally high price tag, but it’s so worth it.
If you’re a budget traveler, start with one quick-dry piece that you’ll wear a lot (I love a good pair of socks or a comfy merino blend shirt that fits you well. You won’t regret it.
Quick-dry clothing isn’t known for its durability. These fabrics can break down after even a handful of machine washes (check the label!) and high heat dryers are even worse. If you have hydrophobic treated fabric (water repellant), the chemical will eventually stop working (which sucks), and thin fabrics aren’t great at handling snags and tears. Handle with care and always follow the washing instructions.
Aside from merino blends, quick-dry fabric can feel clingy, artificial, and plastic. A lot of people balk at quick-dry base layers, especially the cheap stuff. Again, you really do get what you pay for with quick-dry fabrics, so before you buy a whole wardrobe at Walmart, try on a few high-quality pieces. One good quick-dry shirt is worth a hundred bad ones.
Some quick-dry materials aren’t insulated, so while they wick moisture away from your skin, they don’t provide the warmth that you get from other fabrics like wool, flannel, or cotton. There’s always a trade-off. Try to get quick-dry fabrics with a little merino in them for extra warmth.
Let me speak honestly for a moment: Most quick-dry clothing looks bad. If you want to look like a tourist, cheap, ill-fitting, quick-dry shirts and flimsy chemically treated hiking pants are the way to go.
Spend the extra couple of bucks for quality gear, or try on a ton of options until you find a fit and a style that suits you. It sounds vain, but if you hate the way you look in travel clothing, you’ll never want to wear it no matter how great it is.
How Clothes Get Dry
I know it sounds boring, but to really understand quick-dry clothes I have to explain how clothing gets dry in the first place. Don’t worry, this’ll only take a second.
All clothing is made from woven fibers of fabric. Some weaves are tight, others are loose. Some fabrics are thicker than others. The point is, the more fibers a garment has, and the thicker those fibers are, the more surface area there is to absorb moisture, like sweat or rain. The more moisture a garment has, the longer it takes to dry in the sun, the dryer, or hanging on the back of a chair in your hotel. A thick cotton shirt is basically just a big sponge with sleeves.
Thicker garments take longer to dry than thin ones, but they also keep you warmer than wafer-thin clothing thanks to all those fibers trap that body heat and warm air near your skin. It’s a give and take relationship, and every fabric is valuable for a different reason. Generally speaking, more warmth equals slower drying times. However, new insulated quick-dry fabrics and hi-tech polyester blends that lock in heat without trapping moisture are changing the rules of travel clothing.
How Do You Dry Quick-Dry Clothes When Traveling?
If you handwash and hang-dry your clothes overnight most travel fabrics will be wearable (except cotton or denim) the next morning. And if you’re clothes are a tiny damp in the morning, they’ll dry off quickly as you wear them.
Quick-dry underwear is a great staple, and some performance or athletic base layer stuff (running tank tops or Uniqlo base layers) are a nice addition if you plan to trek during the hot summer months or you’re a hiker.