When you’re planning your ultimate travel packing list, it’s tempting to get excited by all the high tech performance features. There’s a lot of cool stuff out there. Every pair of travel pants and merino t-shirt features 4-way stretch, moisture-wicking fibers, and ripstop durability that’s simultaneously waterproof and perfectly breathable. But you don’t need all those features.
Wrinkle-free, odor repellent fabric is awesome, but 9 times out of 10 you’re going to wash your clothes in the sink, or in a regular old laundry machine, and dry them on the line or a dryer after a normal amount of wear (1-2 days). You don’t need a backpack full of fancy travel clothing. You just need one or two pieces you can beat the crap out of, hand wash, and hang to dry in a few hours.
The most important feature of a truly portable wardrobe is a few choice pieces of quick dry clothing. 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. Get ready, because like a good pair of hybrid travel shorts, this is gonna be over fast.
What is “Quick Dry” Fabric?
Quick drying clothing is everywhere these days, but it’s a pretty new invention. Before synthetic fabrics like polyester and nylon, quick dry travel fabrics didn’t exist. The only real option back in the day was clothing that kept you warm—like wool—or clothing that kept you dry—like wool with the lanolin still intact, waxed canvas, or thick, heavy rubber.
The demand for fast-drying fabrics didn’t really happen until the hiking boom of the 70’s when more people hit the trails for the heck of it and discovered that hiking in wet clothes sucks. Even worse, it’s a pain to travel with damp (smelly) fabrics that never get dry. This is why you need a wet/dry bag. So while there are a million quick dry fabrics there still isn’t a technical definition for “quick dry” clothing.
My personal measuring stick for quick dry is for an item to go from wet to damp in 30 minutes, and hand dry in a few hours. Barring that, quick dry clothes should always dry completely when hung overnight.
Why 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.
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 2%), but we lose nearly 20x that much body heat in water. It’s why hypothermia sets in so quickly in the ocean (never let go, Leo).
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.
Damp clothes are also heavy clothes. Every ounce of weight you bring up the hill on a hike makes the trail that much harder, and packing wet clothes is an absolute bummer.
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 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 = 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.
Here’s a comparison of the best quick dry fabrics in today’s travel clothing.
Quick Dry Fabric Drying Times Comparison
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 pretty dang fast, 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 super affordable. The downside is polyester doesn’t have the built-in odor control and limited breathability of fabrics like merino (depending on the weave), but you can’t have everything.
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.
Nylon is more than just a stretchy neon fabric from the 80s. This hydrophobic wonderweave 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 travel pants that will go the extra mile, and if you can find a merino wool nylon blend shirt on sale—buy it.
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 that’s the thing about quick dry—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 more important to me).
Hardcore hikers avoid cotton like the plague, not because it’s a bad fabric, it’s just 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 those cotton t-shirts in favor something a little less absorbent. Unless it’s a really cool t-shirt. Like a “Got Milk?” t-shirt. Those were amazing.
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.
Outlier Merino T-Shirt ($110)
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 one.
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.
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.
Just hand wash them and hang dry and you’re in business in no time.
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 radness during the hike and quick dry awesomeness afterward.
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, 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 that extra warmth.
Most quick dry clothing looks dopey as hell. Honestly. 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.
Quick Dry Clothing: Use Your Body Heat
Quick dry underwear are a great staple, and some performance or athletic base layer stuff (running tank tops or Uniqlo base layers) are a nice add if you plan to trek during the hot summer months or you’re a hiker, but aside from that everything else is just gravy. While it’s nice to have, you really don’t need quick dry clothing for most trips.
If you hand wash and hang dry your clothes overnight most fabrics will be wearable (except cotton or denim). If your clothes are a tiny bit damp in the morning, wear ’em anyway. Your hot ass body is one of the best travel dryers around. Seriously.
You are a calorie burning factory designed to put out heat. More than half the food you eat goes to maintaining your body temperature, so use it. I routinely wear damp t-shirts and pants on trips when I’m in a hurry and things didn’t dry because it was a muggy rainy night. Stuff happens, but my clothes are always dry after 20 mins of walking in the sun. Your body heat is faster and more efficient than you think.
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.
- Merino is a great quick dry fabric that’s worth its weight in gold (it’s a little heavier)
- Polyester blends are awesome, affordable quick dry clothing; look for nylon blends for extra stretch
- Quick dry clothes are important for hikers to stay and warm and dry when the temperature drops
- A few pieces of quality quick dry clothing can transform your carry on bag into a top of the line travel capsule wardrobe