Synthetic versus natural materials: Which is the right choice for the outdoors?

Synthetic versus natural materials: Which is the right choice for the outdoors?

When it comes to choosing the right clothing and gear for outdoor adventures, the debate on synthetic versus natural materials is as old as sewing itself. Each of these material categories has its own set of advantages and disadvantages, and the key to making the right choice is just understanding the differences between them.

If you can then make the right choice, your outdoor experiences will not only be safe, but you'll enjoy them just that little bit more.

That's why we've taken a closer look at the characteristics of both material categories and compared them in several aspects to make your decision-making process a whole lot easier in the future.

The eternal battle: Synthetic versus natural materials

Before we look at each aspect and compare the differences between synthetic and natural materials, let's first clarify exactly what these material categories mean.

Synthetic materials: These are materials that are the result of human effort. They have been created in an attempt to imitate natural materials as much as possible, or even to improve them in certain aspects. They are versatile, durable and have an undeniable place in the world of outdoor clothing and equipment. The most well-known synthetic materials are polyester or nylon, with brands such as Gore-Tex®, LYCRA®, Polartec® or eVent® among the most well-known manufacturers.

Natural materials: These materials, as the name suggests, come straight from the womb of Mother Nature herself. In addition to their specific properties, they offer a certain sense of authenticity and connection with nature that no synthetic equivalent can replace. Among the most widely used materials within the outdoor industry are various types of wool, different types of down and cotton.

Now that we've explained these terms, we can get down to the battle itself.

Round 1 - Weight and packability

In one corner we have synthetic materials that are specific in their lightness. In the wild, every gram counts, and synthetic materials are the answer if you just want to save some of those grams. Synthetic materials also excel when it comes to packability, so they can save you not only weight but also space in your pack. Natural materials are typically heavier and bulkier, but in turn offer more comfort and better thermal insulation.

Synthetic materials are therefore the first choice for fans of so-called ultralight hiking, while natural materials may be a better choice for those who find the higher weight and worse packability an acceptable compromise if they're looking for unrivalled warmth and comfort.

Round 2 - Durability and protection against the elements

Let's not overstretch things in this respect - synthetic materials clearly dominate here. They're extremely durable and won't break in even the biggest storm or the strongest wind. Rain, snow, abrasions - there's nothing to surprise synthetic materials. Natural materials are much more delicate in this respect, for example, such wool can soak up moisture very quickly in a downpour, down is also not at all friendly with water and loses its warming properties on contact with it.

Although there are technologies such as DownTek™ that can elevate the durability of natural materials, synthetics have absolutely no competition in this respect.

Round 3 - Sustainability

On the contrary, nature dominates when it comes to sustainability. They are renewable, degradable in nature and meet all the characteristics of the Leave No Trace principles, i.e. they leave no unnecessary footprint on our planet. For those of us for whom nature conservation is a core value, natural materials are therefore the right choice.

Moreover, the farmers and producers themselves are not satisfied and are doing their utmost to minimise the environmental impact of their processes too, whether we are talking about eliminating unnecessary animal suffering in the processing of raw materials in the case of wool or down, or about organic farming in the case of cotton. Internationally recognised certifications such as GOTS, RDS or RWS are a guarantee.

However, it should also be said that although synthetic materials are often made from petrochemicals, producers are not lazy when it comes to sustainability and there has been huge progress in the outdoor industry as a whole in recent years. Many materials now have their recycled alternatives and to a large extent producers are trying to work with sustainable resources, there has also been a significant shift in terms of ecology when it comes to the manufacturing processes themselves.

Therefore, people who care about sustainability no longer have to strictly rely on natural materials.

Round 4 - Comfort and breathability

Here again, we give natural materials an imaginary point. Such wool can wick away excess moisture fantastically and, thanks to its thermoregulatory abilities, can keep you warm in cold conditions or, conversely, cool in hot climates. Cotton, a familiar material, is extremely comfortable to the touch and to wear. And down? Its warming abilities will hold you through even the stiffest of frosts.

Synthetic materials can't offer comparable parameters, although they can come significantly closer to natural materials in terms of effective moisture wicking, and their competitive advantage is their quick-drying properties, which keep you dry even during intense hikes.

Round 5 - Maintenance

The champion when it comes to ease of maintenance is clearly synthetic materials. They require minimal care, can be washed on all standard programmes and are such reliable workhorses of the outdoor industry.

Natural materials are more delicate and therefore require special treatment, whether we are talking about special detergents or gentle washing programmes. Most of the time, they are not even friends with the tumble dryer.

Verdict: The charm of the outdoors is diversity

There is no universal answer to the question of which type of materials is the best. The key to the best possible outdoor experience is the ability to adapt, to be able to make the right choices and to harness the strengths of different materials, whether they are natural or synthetic.

So consider the requirements of your next adventure when making your choice. When it comes to a waterproof jacket or a reliable tent, synthetic materials are not so much a choice as they are a must and the only alternative. If you want to spend a pleasant evening around a campfire or in a mountain hut, with family or friends, nothing beats an honest wool sweater.

After all, synthetic and natural materials are no competition. They exist to complement each other. They create a balance together. They offer a diverse range of options that cater to all specific needs. You don't have to pick a side - embrace both worlds, choose according to the conditions, choose according to personal preference, and make it a priority to focus on enjoying every moment out there to the fullest.

Because at the end of the day, it's not about whether the timeless allure of natural materials or technology-packed synthetics are better. But it's about the experiences you collect, the memories you create, and the connection you make with nature. See you out there!

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