If you've never owned Merino wool, you're missing out. Up until just a couple of years ago, I hadn't owned any either and to be honest, I didn't think I needed to. My trusty cotton Long Johns that I had worn my entire life were doing a fine job and the price tag alone on a Merino shirt was enough for me to look the other way. My first set of Merino base layers were given to me by the company I work for so I kind of lucked out in that I didn't have to spend a wad of cash just to see if I liked them or not.
There are a ton of forums, retail descriptions, and blogs about what Merino wool is, where it comes from, and how the wool is made and as much as I'd like to dive into that stuff, I'd rather just tell you about my experiences and let you make the decision on whether or not you may benefit from a set of your own (which I promise you would). The main thing you need to know about the fabric is that Merino wool comes from the Merino Sheep, is softer than regular wool, and is an excellent substitute for cotton. Merino wool can come in many different colors, blends, and textures depending on what you're looking for so if you have sensitive skin that is easily irritated by wool fibers then you should look into more of a Merino blend rather than pure Merino. Keep in mind, the more pure the wool is the better its properties. Blends have a tendency to stink a bit more, but it'll certainly be better than cotton ever would be!
So why is Merino so great? For starters it won't zap the heat from your body when it's wet, it will keep you cool when you're hot, warm when it's cold, and it's antimicrobial which means it's less prone to smell after a long weekend of hiking. If you currently wear a cotton base layer or shirt when hiking or backpacking, you've probably experienced the hot and cold flashes that make it difficult to regulate your body temperature. Add a fleece sweater into the mix, and you'll find yourself battling being too hot or too cold all day long. Thus is the cycle with cotton and fleece but not so much with Merino. Merino wool is excellent at regulating body temperature and instead of going into how, I'm just going to give you a few personal experiences where I've actually felt the difference and benefit from the magic of Merino wool.
Experience #1: White Water Rafting
Two years ago I went white water rafting in Washington State during the month of April. The outfitter I went with provided wet suits but it still wasn't going to be an end-all solution to the frigid water. I decided to try wearing my Icebreaker Merino base layer under my wet suit to help stay a bit warmer, but honestly didn't think it would do very much. Two hours in the river left me pretty wet and cold but it wasn't as bad as what I had figured it would be. When we got out of the raft, I noticed everyone was shivering from the cold and though I was chilled, I wasn't nearly as bad off as the others appeared to be. I figured maybe I wasn't as wet as everyone else but when I got back to the changing room to strip down, I was shocked at how wet II actually was. I took off the wet suit and saw my body heat pour out in the form of steam and when I touched my base layer, I noticed that though it was wet, it wasn't cold like a cotton garment would have been. My base layer was so wet in fact that I could actually ring the water out! I couldn't believe how much water I had retained in the base layer but more shocking than that, I couldn't believe how warm I was. Sure, the wet suit aided in keeping me warm, but the Merino was the culprit in keeping my body heat from escaping to quickly throughout the day. I came away from that rafting trip having just experienced the power of Merino wool and though I was impressed, I needed more proof.
Experience #2: Circumnavigation of Mount St. Helens
In May of 2015, I hiked with a friend of mine around the base of Mount St. Helens in Washington State. I wore an Icebreaker Merino t-shirt and long sleeved half-zip on the trip and my friend wore what looked to be a cotton shirt and a fleece sweater. I remember him fighting the battle of heating up and cooling down and playing that familiar game of putting layers on and taking them off throughout the hike. We've all been there before, the fleece heats up too quick making you sweat and overheat so you remove the fleece and hike in a cotton shirt until your sweat cools down and you find yourself too cold. Back to the fleece, then back to the shirt, and so on and so forth. I really didn't think much of it the first day, but on the second day when we would hike through mist, light rain, and sun patches, it became much more clear to me that my Merino base layers were keeping my body temperature regulated to the point where I was neither hot nor cold. Body temperature swings were much less pronounced and I remember taking my long sleeved shirt off only once over the 16 miles that day. The battle continued for my hiking partner with the heating up and cooling down and by the end of the hike, I was actually shocked to realize how well my Merino had done on the hike when compared to the common fleece sweater. To top it off, my two layers didn't smell all that bad after the hike was over even though I had been wearing them both for the past 30 miles. This Merino thing was starting to show its true colors, and I liked what I was seeing.
Experience #3: Loaning My Layers
I took some friends hiking later in the summer back up to St. Helens and our trip turned out to be slightly wetter than I had anticipated. We hiked the first day in a little bit of rain but the next day proved a bit worse. The group I went with remained positive in light of the sour conditions and as we prepped to head back to the trailhead in the rain that following morning, I knew one of my friends wearing jeans would likely benefit from my Merino leggings which were packed away in my bag. I didn't say anything to him about what they were other than that they might help keep the cold off his body since his jeans were getting wetter by the minute. When we reached the trail head 4 miles later, his jeans were soaked through but when he handed me back my leggings he mentioned to me how warm he had actually been during the hike. There's nothing worse than a pair of wet jeans in the wind and rain and while my friend’s body temperature should have been reduced over the course of the hike, the Merino layer he had counteracted the cotton material rendering him comfortable and warm. Sure, he was chilled, but it could have been much, much worse. I was sold on this Merino thing and would never look back to cotton again.
Here's the deal - the price of a Merino base layer, t-shirt, or sweater is high, but the benefits are priceless. In case you didn't read the above text, I'll put everything into bullet points.
· Merino has all the benefits of wool, but is lighter, softer, and can feel like cotton.
· It keeps you warm when you're chilled, and cool when you're warm by regulating your body temperature better than any other fabric out there.
· It's antimicrobial so you don't smell as bad, or grow a funk after days in the backcountry. Just air it out at the end of the day and you're good to go. This is huge for backcountry hunters!
· When completely soaked, Merino continues to regulate your body temperature unlike cotton that sucks the heat from your body when wet. Hypothermia can set in quickly if your core temps drop too much and given how well Merino performs, it could actually safe your life.
· Comes in various blends, weights, and textures.
· Pack a t-shirt, long sleeved shirt, and leggings, and you have a great layering system going. Not to mention, for most 1-3 day hikes, you really only need one shirt. No need to bring those extra items to change into.
· Merino makes a fine hiking sock - again no stink.
· Quality Merino is expensive. The more pure it is means the more money you'll spend, however high quality Merino is totally worth it. You'll agree with me once you experience it for yourself.
· Merino is a delicate fabric. Never put it in the dryer or you'll be donating it to the nearest kids clothing store.
· If you know you're going to be wet for days upon days with the inability to dry out your clothes properly, you may want to go with synthetic materials. Merino will still perform when wet, but it does take a bit longer to dry out than a synthetic would in those situations.
Until something better comes out, I will never wear anything but Merino for a next-to-skin layer even if I'm just out for a day hike. If the weather turns, I can rest easy knowing that if I get wet I'll be less apt to feel the onset of hypothermia. Additionally, I can bring less clothing due to its antibacterial properties.
Do yourself a solid and buy a set of Merino Wool. You're going to love it!