View Full Version : Wool or Synthetic?

10-17-2005, 20:52
Does any one have reliable data on the warmth, breathability, and time-to-dry-out of wool versus synthetics? I've seen the manufacturers claims, but don't trust any of them. I need to upgrade my base layer (ie. next to skin) for a mid winter section hike, and also something at the Grand Canyon in January. I tend to sweat even in cold weather, and often strip down, open zippers, etc. if I'm on sustained uphill. Even with that, my base layer is generally damp when I get to camp. I want something that really breathes well, retains maximum warmth when damp, and then dries out as fast as possible if I wear it around camp.

Also, what do you like to hike in in cold weather? Just your base layer, or something on top of that? If so, what goes on top?

I'd appreciate any advice.


10-17-2005, 21:16
I usually go with a short sleeve synthetic top and then a longer sleeve, light synthetic top. On top of that I use a Frogg Toggs rainjacket or something of the sort. When I get hot, I take off either the rain jacket or the long-sleeve shirt.

I always bring separate things to wear at camp and for sleeping. I use a heavyweight polypro top and then a down jacket usually. I have a pair of long johns I crawl into before bed. Depending on your hiking clothes to dry out when you're at camp can be a risky business. Nothing dries that quick in sleet or snow and freezing conditions.

Wool vs. synthetic... it's anyone's guess I think as to which is better. You'll hear a 100 different opinions.

10-17-2005, 22:17
I recently purchased a couple of Smart Wool T-shirt (one short sleeve, one long sleeve). I'd heard they weren't as "odiferous" as synthetics. I sweat just thinking about work. Peter Pan can attest to my perspiration tendencies. By the end of a weekend hike I can't stand myself! Anyway, I used them over the three day Columbus Day weekend. Here are my observations:

1. They really don't smell as bad.
2. They take a little longer to dry out - but not a major issue.
3. It really wasn't cold enough to evaluate their insulation capability.
4. The first time I put them on at home I thought they were just a little scratchy, but they really never bothered me on the hike.

Bottom line is I'd recommend them.

10-17-2005, 22:19
In cold weather hiking, I currently use Capilenes as a base layer, although Smartwool makes a similar product for a similar price. For travel on an airplane, I'd probably go for the Smartwool as a safer it of clothing (fire danger). On top of that, I use a variety of synthetics and a woolen shirt that works in city wear. I expect to have damp clothing by the end of the day, and count that as good functioning of the clothing. I keep a spare/dry set of Capilenes for camp wear and sleep wear.

Wool is a bit heavier, but a bit more sturdy and longer living. There are always trade offs for any choice of gear.

10-17-2005, 23:00
I don't have any quantitative data. My personal experience is that breathability is about the same, warmth / weight depends on the quality of the wool and the synthetic is approx the same. Time to dry is significant better for the synthetic. Wicking is better with synthetic. Range of temps that the base will be comfortable goes to wool.

If you tend to sweat even in cold weather than I would strong recommend Power Dry. It drys quickly, is warm and soft. I have been very happy with my Patagonia R.5 but there a number of Power Dry bases out there. If you can, get one with x-static, embedded silver which kills nasty odor causers. Power Dry is what the US military's new special forces field uniform uses as a base layer. It was selected after careful analysis of many materials.

As to what I wear in cold weather while hiking... a base layer (above 35F typically a light-weight coolmax shirt, below 35F a patagonia r.5) plus an unlined windshirt. IWarm hat and gloves get added as the temp dips, followed by a montbell thermawrap vest).


10-18-2005, 07:03
I'm a recent convert to lightweight merino wool garments. I've been using capilene for over 10 years and even when considering the lesser price of polyester, i've found wool to be much more comfortable.

I sweat constantly, it's annoying to me even, but it keeps me cool no matter the effort or temps so I can't complain too much... With capilene or cotton shirts, the pits will be soaked through in less than 30minutes. I've noticed wool garments wick longer until they get to the "saturation" point where you can feel wet fabric against your skin. Also once wool reaches this "saturation" point it still seems to retain heat and feel better than a thin polyester layer.

A large silkweight capi longsleeve will set you back 6.5ozs and $40. Comparatively a wool L "midweight", in comparison b/c I have not found a merino knit as thin as silkweight capilene, weighs 10ozs and runs about $50-$80.

Considering the extra sweating that my body constantly is doing. I'm phasing out most of my capilene garments. Stink factor is 1/3 that of synthetics. OH YEAH, best thing about wool is they regulate temperature more evenly than synthetics. Once again, I believe it's the superior wicking action of wool fibers, that create a much better convective surface area versus relatively flat structure of polyester.

Currently packing, Icebreaker skin 200 longsleeve crew, short sleeve smartwool crew, capilene bottoms--considering buying wool bottoms.

10-18-2005, 09:47
I switched to wool last summer and now have several wool base layers (IBEX Summer weight LS shirt [my favorite. Wish I paid $5 more for the Zip version], Arc'Teryx T-Shirt [a bit heavier than the IBEX], Mid-Weight Duofold Zip LS top and bottoms). I love it mostly for the stink factor. My synthetics start to stink within an hour or so after I put them on. Even if I'm just sitting around the house. And I have actually gagged a bit from them on 2-3 day trips. That doesn't happen with wool. I just get the stale BO smell after 2-3 days, but not the "Oh my God get that out of the state" smell I get with synthetics.

Wool does seem to take a bit longer to dry, but I've never found it to be much of an issue as I always wear my day clothes to bed, so they are dry in the morning regardless of what I'm wearing.

10-18-2005, 14:53
The whole AT smelled better over Columbus Day weekend .... must have been Smee and a lot of other switching to good wools for polypro...hmmmm.

Dear Santa...

The Smartwool UL t shirts short sleeve and long sleeve in any muted color are numbers one and two on my christmas list....

Beore you ask... yes I've been a good boy, packed out some one elses trash last hike...


10-18-2005, 16:17
in any muted color are numbers one and two on That's my one complaint about wool products. They are only in boring colors. Give me some loud red, yellow or blaze orange already.

IBEX has a few bright colors but only in their outerwear (ski jackets, etc.).

10-18-2005, 18:04
wool takes dye... do your own colors... one red sleeve, one green... etc...

10-19-2005, 23:16
For travel on an airplane, I'd probably go for the Smartwool as a safer it of clothing (fire danger). I will bet that more people are injured by camp fires than airplane fires.

10-20-2005, 07:35
And I'd agree. Which is another reason to consider clothing that won't melt and adhere to your skin with a fire, as synthetics will.

I am just even more careful what I wear when I fly, due to phobias.

Just Jeff
10-20-2005, 09:35
I have actually gagged a bit from them on 2-3 day trips.
Damn. Now that's impressive.