View Full Version : Question About Merino Wool Clothing

Turkey Sandwich
09-16-2013, 12:12
I've been hiking almost completely in Icebreaker regalia for a two or three years now, and I'm fairly certain that I'll never go back. However, the prospect of thru-hiking brought up a question that I haven't encountered before.

One of the few disadvantages, in my eyes, of merino wool is that it takes a sight longer to dry than synthetic stuff. This has never bothered me on previous trips, as I just go without washing until I go home. However, I will have to do washing of my garments fairly frequently on a thru-hike. Can anyone who has thru-hiked in merino stuff tell me if this became a problem for them? Were you always putting on soggy clothing the day after a town stop? Did you find yourself lingering in town waiting for your stuff to dry? Is synthetic a better choice for a thru hike?

09-16-2013, 12:44
I've been hiking almost completely in Icebreaker regalia for a two or three years now, and I'm fairly certain that I'll never go back. However, the prospect of thru-hiking brought up a question that I haven't encountered before.

One of the few disadvantages, in my eyes, of merino wool is that it takes a sight longer to dry than synthetic stuff. This has never bothered me on previous trips, as I just go without washing until I go home. However, I will have to do washing of my garments fairly frequently on a thru-hike. Can anyone who has thru-hiked in merino stuff tell me if this became a problem for them? Were you always putting on soggy clothing the day after a town stop? Did you find yourself lingering in town waiting for your stuff to dry? Is synthetic a better choice for a thru hike? I wore Merino (ice breaker as well) exclusively myself on the AT, and will probably always do so on future long hikes. My shirt is fairly thin Merino though, seemd to dry fairly fast, some town-stop mornings it might have been a tad damp when I did laundry in the hotel sink, but never was a problem. I cannot believe how (relatively!) non-stinky merino is compared to synthetics.

Just Bill
09-16-2013, 12:57
While you are not wrong about wool, you are wrong about wool.

Merino wool can see a 1/3 to 50% increase in drying time versus a comparable weight synthetic fabric. That data is a fact, but it needs a bit of perspective. When a synthetic garment takes twenty minutes to dry, it's wool counterpart takes thirty minutes. Even a heavier shirt may take 40 minutes versus 60 minutes. Backpacking Light did an article with drying times, while I'm going from memory, these numbers were basically the gist of it. The drytime tests involved simply wetting the garment and hanging it up to dry. Coupled with your body, these numbers could easily be cut in half in a real world situation, something their tests also verified. So while wool takes longer to dry, it's not like you are laying out a 1/2" thick traditional wool sweater on the countertop to dry for two days- you're drying out a lightweight garment, most often while wearing it. Oftentimes in well under an hour. Fifteen minutes versus twenty or so really isn't any measurable difference.

That said- the thing that makes Merino wool good is the thing you are also knocking it for. Synthetic fibers avoid wetting out and wick moisture by not absorbing moisture. Merino wool sheds moisture but also draws moisture into itself, leaving the outer layers dry but drawing moisture into it's core (on a microscopic level) This is why they dry slower. But this feature is an advantage to the wet weather backpacker. The constant wicking of synthetics is great in hotter weather, where evaporative cooling is critical. But in mixed weather, or when leaving a densely wooded area for a windier peak, pass, or even above treeline situation can lead to flash cooling and a rapid dip in your temperature. Synthetic does one thing very well- it dries fast. Merino though dries slower, but reduces the spikes in temperature and comfort. A damp merino garment, especially in mixed temps (40-70's) feels much better because of it's properties. By bringing the moisture into it's fibers the water it does trap can be warmed by your body, creating a wetsuit type insulation. Since the outside of the fiber stays relatively dry, you stay relatively comfortable.

There is a lot to this debate; but here are my basic rules regarding the two items-
When temps are greater than seventy, and I will wear one garment as a base layer- I use synthetic, most often a Capiline 1 or a loose button up shirt. Merino is a bit less durable as a primary garment under a backpack, but will hold up. However, as daytime temps are at 70 or above, all I care about is cooling, making the synthetic the better choice.

When temps are below seventy- regardless of how many layers I will need- I wear Merino, most often Merino 1 by Patagonia, which is actually a 65/35 (or so) blend of merino and synthetic. I don't think 100% merino is a good choice for a base layer on long trips for both care (wool stretches) and durability, especially in the ultrathin baselayers. Wools wearability when wet trumps the synthetic material at these temps. When hiking, especially if doing so at the limits of your physical ability, wool's warm when wet, cool when warm characteristics make fighting hypothermia an easier task. Hypothermia is most dangerous in that 60 degree range, even for an AT hiker. I've hiked with plenty of folks who sweated up climbing a peak then dipped into light hypothermia as the sixty degree day turned to a wind adjusted mid 40's day when a windy ridge is reached. This is a much bigger issue out west.

Generally speaking- many eastern hikers use synthetic. It's durability is slightly better, the cost is lower, and exposed ridge walking is limited, even on the AT. Most thru-hikers on a 5-6 month schedule will see temps of 60* and above for the bulk of their hike, and most of them will swap clothes at some point. Synthetic is a hair easier to care for, but a blend like Merino 1 reduces that difference.
Many western hikers use merino- mainly do to the flash cooling issue and the lower humidity which lets the garments dry faster, making wool nearly even with synthetic.

I would not expect a Merino 1 shirt to make it through a six month hike intact, especially as my primary, and often only layer. That said, I would still use one for a portion of the trip. Hand washing on trail and wearing it under a pack will wear it pretty thin in a month or two. But I have no issues with doing so even as low as 50 degrees- the wool is simply more comfy when wet, especially at cooler temps. In an hour (or as little as 15 minutes) I know it will be dry. Personally I find I use two pieces most often- A merino 1 crew neck longsleeve and a Capiline 2 1/4 zip longsleeve. Both have their places, if I had to wear one all year- it would be the synthetic- I know it won't fail and has the most versatility. While I wouldn't want to, and don't have to- if I had to wear one base layer 365 days a year it would be a cap 2.

For you personally- nothing wrong with icebreaker stuff- especially if you know it and are familiar with it. That's worth more than anyone's opinion. But a Merino 1 top, if you're up for experimenting, would be worth a shot. After your next to skin layer, the differences between the two tend to be less signifigant- and the edge goes to synthetic- if for no other reason than economics.

09-16-2013, 13:09
Excellent info Bill

The two things that can be seen as a downside to merino wool is durability especially in lightweight versions and cost. The $95 T-Shirt does you no good if your wife sees the bill. I'm sporting the $9 Starter T-Shirt myself.

09-16-2013, 13:21
the downside to synthetic wicking fabrics is they sop up every bit of moisture in the air, so if its wet out, synthetics do not dry unless you wear them dry.wool also smells better as synthetics have a tendency to accumulate smell.
regardless, i wear synthetic base layers except in winter, where i wear wool.

Just Bill
09-16-2013, 13:35
Not that I'm a big fan of the practice- but Patagonia does have a ridiculous warranty. While I have yet to take a worn Merino back to take advantage- if you were so inclined- I'm sure you could. The only reason I would is in the case of a seam failure, which I have yet to see. If you are patient though- you can get Patagonia pieces as low as $25 (synthetic) and $35 (merino)- but the merino rarely goes on sale.

09-16-2013, 13:50
Bill's technicals look spot on (not that I've taken out a thermometer, anemometer and wet-bulb, of course ;) ) That said, if I know I'll be sweating a bunch anyway, I will often go bareback if the temps are above 60. If I'm feeling a bit more self conscious about it, I'll throw on the merino (smartwool in my case). My base is the t-shirt super thin ultralight fabric and I almost always wear a synthetic tee over it for the durability Bill mentions. I do ultralight so some of the wear under the straps is less I suppose than if I had a heavy pack on constantly rubbing.

Even when temps are in the 70s or 80s I prefer my black merino top to my synthetic tee. Despite the sun shining on it full bore when out in the open it's wicking power keeps me feeling at least as cool as my synthetic tee and the smell is oh my goodness better than the tee. I can't tell you how much better (my wifey will testify).

Still the ultimate choice is really yours. If you've invested a bunch in icebreakers and you're comfortable with them then I would say that you won't have THAT much of an improvement to warrant buying all new gear. But I haven't owned a pair of IBs so I can't really comment there. Take mine with a grain of salt.

09-16-2013, 13:53
My very thin, Merino wool hiking shirt has lasted many months on the trail, though it is showing definite signs of wear finally (Icebreaker brand). You can find these puppies on sale, just look around. They are stupid-expensive regular price (around $100), but can be found usually for 50-60. I just bought my second Icebreaker, long sleeve, $60. Sorry, I cannot remember where, probably campmore.

Just Bill
09-16-2013, 14:30
My BFF Lone Wolf does say, "Stinky clothes are part of the deal- get over yourself." That said- if you're concerned about that sorta thing- the ladies always prefer me in Merino over synthetic- two to one.

09-16-2013, 15:09
This is just personal observation. The fact that synthetic dries a little bit faster is totally irrelevant for me. The reason is that within 10 minutes of starting to hike I start sweating, essentially WETTING the first layer first ... thus your quick drying synthetic will become wet in a jiffy and all technical comparison to the time it takes to dry is moot.

Again from my personal perspective I will expect both layers to be wet during hiking no matter what I do. What is crucial for me however is the fact that wool still retains warmth while synthetic does not. Therefore wool wins.

09-16-2013, 16:32
I use Merino but have to be careful with it, anytime I use if off trail or maintenance it is far more prone to damage.

09-16-2013, 16:36
true, depending on manufacturer and blend there are tradeoffs in durability. I don't bother with lightweight anymore. Did not last for me. Midweight's durability is great for me. (I have Icebreaker, Patagonia and Ibex)

09-16-2013, 20:19
My Icebreaker 150 weight T-shirts make it about 1500 miles before they start to wear through. I sweat a lot and the T-shirt is usually my only layer in 3-season hiking. If it's windy, I throw on my rain jacket. Although at the end of a hiking day the T-shirt is usually quite wet across my back, I find it dries well with body heat as I cook and eat my dinner. By the time it's time to clean up, the T-shirt is dry. I like the way the wool shirts feel and, especially, I like the non-stink (relatively) factor. I find that just laundered synthetics start to smell after about 15 minutes of wear time whether or not I'm exerting myself.

Biggie Master
09-16-2013, 20:33
Since I've never been "perfectly dry" nor "shower fresh" when out on the trail, I'll stick to the lower cost synthetics. Then again I drive an 11 year old vehicle -- because it WORKS just fine and its long been paid for. That's just me...

09-16-2013, 20:48
used Merino on my thru this year...
a thin Ibex tshirt and a smart wool pair of boxer briefs wore out quickly...
I had to replace the drawers by Damascus, (synthetic Exofficio replacement last all the way to Katahdin and are still holing up nicely)
I replaced the shirt in NY cause my wife came out to visit and would be seen with me wearing it, (it looked like swiss cheese)

That being said wool items I used less held up pretty well including a smart wool long sleeve T, wool long underwear and an Ibex mid layer long sleeve shirt

While drying time was longer, I never had a problem with it, ie: leaving town with wet cloths the next day...
I also dried my wool on the lowest temp in every laundry mat along the way with no ill effect

09-17-2013, 13:26
I've used Icebreaker and Smartwool which you can often find on sale from Sierra Trading Post. I'll never go back to synthetics, and the merino wool doesn't itch at all. I was saved from hypothermia by wearing lightweight ziptee top which got wet in the rain. (I was too stubborn to stop and put on rain gear, but when I did, the top dried nicely and kept me from the chill.)

I wash all my performance gear in Atsko SportWash, and don't use the dryer on the woolies...except for sox. I've never tried, but another person recommended Minus 33 brand(?) which is less expensive. Just be sure you are getting 100% Merino and not a blend with much less, IMHO.

One other thing is sometimes the corners of the tags will "scratch" or the inside end of the zipper will chafe. You can carefully cut away the "glue/heat melt". Both companies have remedied that problem now. :)

However, moths are fond of Merino wool. Be sure to store away in plastic bags or cedar closet. Well, not to worry on the Trail.

09-17-2013, 14:32
Oops...in the posting above, I was speaking about next-to-skin baselayer wear. :rolleyes:

09-17-2013, 21:27
I like having you around JB. Saves me from typing much the same stuff. That BPL article I read a while ago. While it's a very good starting off place with the merino/ synthetic comparison much more has come to light recently especially in my own use.

I use merino 85% of my hikes but as of the past few yrs 85 % of my hikes have been in COLD dry conditions or hot dry conditions not on the AT or on the east coast during summer. A synthetic(and all synthetics aren't the same), like Patagonia's Cap 1(wish they made a 1/4 zip cap 1 or 2 tee), OR something like a 65% merino 35% synthetic blend is better(in the sense it dries faster) on shadier "green tunnel" hot AND HIGH humidity hiking IMO. In 2008 I rolled with micro wt Smartwool tees through the Mojave Desert astonishing a great many PCTers who had the notion that synthetics were the way to go in hot dry desert hiking. I think I had much better thermoregulation with the micro wt Smartwool merino tee than the synthetic(mostly polyester or polyester and other synthetic blends) wearing PCTers. Seems some have this idea that merino is best used in only wet cooler hiking conditions. Under those HOT DRY SUNNY desert hiking conditions I would say those Smartwool micro wt tees dried as fast if not faster than the wearers using similar wt synthetic tees. . And even on those shadier high temp high humidity trails like AT thru-hikers experience in late spring, through summer into very early fall IMO the same wt merinoas a same wt poly doesn't take much longer to dry anyway. So, to answer the OP's question, "Is synthetic a better choice for a thru hike?" I think a good starting pt to consider are the weather and trail conditions. After that think about price and how you layer. Heck you can snag a cheapy no big brand name synthetic tee for $10.

One thing about my Icebreaker 150 GT 1/2 zip( wish I had a dozen of these, $$$), GoLite MAPP(good bang for the merino buck), Minusd 33(another good bang for the merino buck), Smartwool and Ibex merino tees and long sleeves is that you have to treat then right when cleaning. Placing a micro wt or light wt merino piece into the laundry with a bunch of other very grundgy heavier wt hiking clothing with zippers, buttons, snaps, hanging cords, etc and merino can get chewed up. Dry merino flat in shade keeps things in shape. At the very most when in a hurry at town stops I'll tumble mostly dry on gentle cycle on low/med heat for a short duration. Don't get in the habit of what basically amounts to drying your clothes on HIGH heat to death. These pieces aren't heavy cotton bath towels, Levis, etc. Also don't wring out merino like a damn Chammy cloth you washed the car with. You'll weaken and possible tear the wool fibers and unduly stress seams. Same when putting it on like when you put your head though the neck hole. Likewise, take care when snapping the hip belt on your pack or when zipping up say a rain jacket while wearing a merino piece. Those micro and light wt merino pieces can get eaten up if caught in zips, buckles, etc. I've made those mistakes too often to mention with $60 and more pricey merino shirts. I've created too many expensive merino wool rags that I care to mention. And, don't be afraid to be creative with merino. Just because it's labeled as a base layer you can wear it as a stand alone piece or over the top of something else as a mid layer. The vice versa holds true, pieces labeled as mid layers can be worn next to skin.

09-17-2013, 21:43
One of the few disadvantages, in my eyes, of merino wool is that it takes a sight longer to dry than synthetic stuff.

Another disadvantage, is that mice really like to eat salty wool, even while you wear it.

Del Q
09-17-2013, 22:28
Love merino wool, ton less stink, granted-is more expensive and does not hold up as well, great baselayer, I have experienced fast drying times, sometimes place damp tee shirt under sleeping bag at night, warm and toasty in the am.

Turkey Sandwich
09-22-2013, 13:23
Thanks so much for the advice, folks! I think my fears have been allayed. Merino wool it is.