The Best Quick-Dry Fabrics for Travel
Having clothes that can dry quickly is essential for your travel wardrobe. Drying time is as important as durability, re-wearability, and odor resistance when you’re living out of your backpack.
Quick-drying is important because it means that you can hand wash your clothes today and have them ready to wear tomorrow. For this article, we’ll define quick-dry clothing as anything that dries overnight so that you can wear it the next day. You don’t want half of your clothes hanging all over your Airbnb waiting for it to dry for a few days.
The best travel fabrics are quick-drying and durable. In this article, we’ll cover everything you need to know about how quick-dry fabrics work, what to look for when buying quick-dry fabric, and when to buy (or not buy) quick-dry clothes.
What is Quick-Dry Fabric?
Most quick-dry fabrics are made from nylon, polyester, merino wool, or a blend of these fabrics.
I judge something to be quick-dry if it goes from wet to damp in under thirty minutes and if it completely dries 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 exploded during the hiking boom of the 1970s. More people hit the trail only to find out that their clothes got wet and stayed wet. No one likes hiking (or traveling) in damp clothes that never dry.
Benefits of Quick-Dry Clothes
Quick-dry clothes have two primary benefits.
First, moisture-wicking fabrics keep you warm and dry 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. If you can stay dry, you’ll stay warm.
Moisture also increases the friction between the fabric and your skin, which can lead to blisters (wet socks) or rashes (wet pants or wet armpits). Quick-dry clothing can prevent all that by keeping your clothes dry and fitting as they did when you first bought them.
Second, quick-dry fabrics are ideal for life on the road because you can hand wash them, hang them to dry overnight, and wear them again (clean) the next day. When packing light, we recommend packing one week’s worth of clothes then washing and re-wearing them. Otherwise, you’ll be packing twice as much stuff for a two-week trip.
Which Are the Best Quick-Dry Travel Fabrics?
The best fabrics for travel are polyester, nylon, and merino wool. All of these fabrics will dry quickly but each works a little differently from the rest. Cotton is a good fabric in general but dries too slowly to be your first option for travel.
Below is a comparison of the four most popular fabrics for travel clothing.
Polyester is the most widely used synthetic fabric and qualifies as quick-dry because it’s extremely hydrophobic. Being hydrophobic means that polyester fibers repel water rather than absorbing it.
The amount of water they absorb varies with different weaves—60/40 poly-cotton absorbs more water than 80/20 poly-tencel—but generally, polyester fabric only absorbs about 0.4% of its own weight in moisture. An eight-ounce 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 water to evaporate in the first place.
The best part is that polyester is durable and affordable. You’ll find it blended into a variety of products and other fabrics as a low-cost way to make those fabrics more durable and quick-drying. The downside is that polyester doesn’t have the built-in odor control and breathability of fabrics like merino (depending on the weave).
Polyester isn’t ideal for extremely sweaty environments but is a perfect fabric to hand wash and re-wear in milder conditions.
Does Polyester Dry Fast?
Yes. Polyester clothing takes around two to four hours to dry completely indoors, depending on temperature. If outdoors in direct sunlight and open air, polyester can dry in as little as an hour or less.
Nylon, like polyester, is hydrophobic. Typically, nylon is more durable than polyester and offers a bit more stretch in the fabric. Its stretch is great for comfort and range of motion. However, check reviews before buying nylon clothes and avoid any brands or products known to stretch or “bag out” and lose their shape.
Look for nylon blends for comfortable travel pants. Nylon also blends well with merino wool to add durability to an otherwise excellent fabric.
Does Nylon Dry Fast?
Nylon clothes will take a little longer to dry than polyester. Depending on the temperature, your clothes could take anywhere from four to six hours if drying indoors.
I love merino wool travel clothes. Merino wool is cozy, warm, lightweight, and odor-resistant.
The downside is that merino wool absorbs up to one third of its own weight in moisture. However, the story doesn’t end there. Pure merino wool isn’t a quick-dry fabric. But that’s okay because of 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. 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.
Merino socks and shirts are often woven with polyester, nylon, or tencel, meaning you get the benefits of merino with the durability and quick-drying features of synthetic fabrics. Merino wool is significantly slower to dry than polyester or nylon but faster than cotton and other natural fibers.
The 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 merino blended with polyester or nylon, and you’ll have a quick (enough) drying garment that feels a million times better when you’re wearing it.
Does Merino Wool Dry Fast?
Merino wool dry times depend on the thickness of the wool. A lightweight wool t-shirt will dry faster than a heavyweight wool sweater. Both take about the same amount of time to dry as polyester indoors, around two to four hours. Drying in direct sunlight will be even faster.
Hardcore hikers avoid cotton like the plague but because it performs poorly when it’s wet. Cotton fibers make up some of the most hydrophilic (water-absorbent) fabrics you can find. Cotton can absorb up to ten times its weight in moisture, according to some studies. If you’re an active traveler or hiker, avoid cotton t-shirts in favor of something less absorbent.
Does Cotton Dry Fast?
Expect your cotton clothes to take two to four hours to dry inside or as little as one hour outside in direct sunlight. Thicker clothes, like cotton jeans, will take significantly longer.
The Best Quick-Dry Clothing
For quick-dry travel pants, look for bottoms made of nylon, polyester, or blends. Most pants marketed for travel will be made of synthetic fabrics with a durable water repellent (DWR) coating so that any liquid will run right off of the fabric. The coating helps to repel moisture, whether that’s rain or a coffee that you spilled on yourself. Either way, less moisture means faster to dry.
Our favorite quick-dry travel pants are:
You have a lot of options for quick-dry t-shirts from cheap polyester or poly-cotton blends to top-of-the-line merino wool. Start with the Travel T-Shirts Buyer’s Guide to learn about the breadth of options for men and women. You’ll find merino wool options there but can learn even more in the Merino Wool Buyer’s Guide. There, you’ll find quick-dry dress shirts, hoodies, and more in addition to t-shirts.
Quick-Dry Underwear and Socks
Aside from shirts and pants, you should consider quick-dry underwear and socks. If you have quick-dry versions of these items, you’ll be able to bring fewer pairs because you can easily hand wash them as you travel.
For socks, check out Darn Tough and Smartwool. Both are made primarily with merino wool which, in addition to drying quickly, also helps to repel odors. Read the Travel Socks Buyer’s Guide for more recommendations.
How Do You Dry Quick-Dry Clothes When Traveling?
If you hand wash and hang-dry your clothes overnight, most travel-friendly fabrics (except cotton or denim) will be wearable the next morning. If your clothes are a tiny bit damp in the morning, they’ll dry off quickly as you wear them.
When air drying your clothes, put them in direct sunlight and give them as much airflow as possible. Open a window or turn on a fan. Humidity—the moisture in the environment’s air—is your enemy. Your wet clothes will take longer to dry if they’re hanging in “wet” air. Keep this in mind if you’re trying to air-dry your clothes in Southeast Asia. I had a lot of problems trying to dry anything in a room that alternated between hot and humid or freezing cold air conditioning.
If you have to leave before your stuff is dry, just hang it from your travel backpack to air-dry. Never pack your wet clothes.