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Traveler's Gear Box: When It Comes To Base Layers, Do You Opt for Wool or Poly?


Dale of Norway will expand its collection of Merino wool baselayers this fall with women's and men's models in short-sleeve, long-sleeve, and zip long-sleeve.

For years it's been hammered into us to dress in layers when we head outdoors for extended periods. But should your base layer be wool or polypropylene when you set off into a national park's backcountry?

Mention wool and many of us have bad memories of an itchy fabric that was incredibly uncomfortable to wear next to our skin. Talk about "poly" layers and we often think about quick-drying fabrics that wick moisture away from our bodies.

Well, wool has all of the beneficial characteristics of poly, and then some. And just as, if not more, importantly, finer wool threads are being used in today's garments than those of yesteryear, threads finer than a human hair, threads that feel almost silky next to your body.

Now, someone in the fabric industry told me earlier this year that if you're just heading out for a quick workout and will be heading back inside afterward, poly is a great base layer. But if you're going on for extended periods, wool should be on your body as it'll keep you warmer while performing the same chores as a comparable poly garment.

Why is that? Well, wool not only wicks moisture, as does poly, but it will keep you warm even if damp or wet. Those in the business say it can absorb 35 percent of its weight in water vapor and will still feel dry. Finer blends (those made with Merino wool threads in the range of 17.5-18.5 microns in diameter go into base layers; outerwear often is made with threads in the neighborhood of 24.5 microns) can be almost silky smooth against your skin, and, unlike poly, wool has a natural antibacterial quality to it to combat your odor after days in the woods.

Plus, it's hypoallergenic and, if you lean too close to your campfire, it's not going to melt like poly. And, in today's enlightened consumerism, wool is not only a long-lasting product, but renewable.

So valued is wool for its properties that you can easily find it in socks, mittens and gloves, base layers, mid-layers and outer layers, mated with Windstopper membranes for jackets, woven into hats, hiking pants, and even cycling shorts and knickers.

Among the companies that make wool base layers (and other layers and garments) are Smartwool, a somewhat new company (dating to the 1990s) that got its start in New England making socks; Ibex Outdoor Clothing, a somewhat older (it dates to the 1970s) company, also from New England, and; Dale of Norway, a venerable Norwegian company that has been making wool clothing since 1879.

Later this fall (possibly as soon as September), Dale will be sending to market its latest base layers. The "180 Baselayers" for men and women (cut specifically for women) will come in both short-sleeve and long-sleeve versions, as well as a partial zip long-sleeve model. Befitting Dale's fashion reputation (Have you seen their ski sweaters? Gorgeous!), the base layers come a bit splashy with a print design that runs down the sleeves.

These 180-gram Merino wool products feel somewhere between cotton and silk next to your skin. During a ski outing last weekend the sample I obtained stayed dry beneath my mid-layer and outer shell jacket. No chills ran through my body after numerous long mogul runs followed by slow rides back up the hill on the lift.

As a bonus, Dale's base layers are machine-washable, so no trips to the sink for hand-washing and rinsing.

These base layers, made from 18.5 micron threads, will retail for $69 in the short-sleeve version, $74 for the long-sleeve crew, and $79 for the zip long-sleeve rendition. Sizes run S-XL for women, S-XXL for men.

True, while shopping for wool layers you might catch your breath at the pricing. The reason, I've been told, is that the companies that make these garments head to much the same Merino wool marketplace as do those high-end suit makers (check the price of an Armani lately?).


Have been layering with merino wool in the backcountry a while now.
While they do take a moment longer to dry out, I will never go back to synthetics.
I enjoy Icebreaker products and ethics.

I have both. As a kid growing up in the 60's and 70's my base layer was Duofolds 50/50 blend between wool and cotton. It was really 2 seperate layers sewn together; merino wool outer and cotton inner. I still have some of them and my kids used to wear them but have since outgrown them. Very comfortabe but on the heavy side. In the 80's the synthetics became popular and they were much lighter weight, so I purchased them and lightened my backpack and they dried very quickly, but they felt clamy when I had them under a mid layer. And the stink so they were rinsed or hand washed daily.

Now the new merino wool micron threads are out and are wonderful! They don't feel clamy when damp, don't stink but do get gamey after a week but a rinse and some Bonner's soap and are good as new, light weight, and they wear and feel great. My first items were Ibex and now I go to E-bay and pick things up. Usually Ibex or Icebreaker, but SmartWool is bringing out some nice stuff now as well. Be ready for sticker shock when looking at the new stuff!

A lot of the newer synthetic fabrics come with odor-control properties - usually from treatments with silver compounds. I find that it works (a lot of socks use them now) although there's some controversy over silver contamination of treated wastewater and its toxicity to wildlife.

And I suppose the price of good quality wool is an issue, as well as moths.

I do remember buying what I thought at first was a new (old stock) polyester fleece jacket at REI really cheap at their clearance sale. At first I thought it might just be a little bit musty but when I got home I realized that it had been worn before and not washed. They used a new hang tag (the plastic thing) that didn't match the other ones on the rack. I think someone bought it, wore if for a while, and returned it as new with the original tags. It looked in good shape (I didn't mind if it was used because of the price) but I later realized that whoever wore it must have had the foulest underarms known to mankind. I washed that thing four times (pretreating the pits with liquid detergent), and I still couldn't get that smell out. What finally got the smell out was copious amounts of Shout Foaming Action (it was an old can and I think they call the new version something else) which contains some sort of petroleum-based solvent in addition to detergents and enzymes.

I grew up in the northwest rain and wool was the only thing that kept me alive on more than one occasion. I've tried all the synthetics - or at least most off of them - and I always come back to wool. Guess I'm one of those people who takes comfort in the scratch factor. And I don't need the new uber-wools either - I'll still trust my life to my Filson's in any kind of cold or wet weather.

That is the beauty of the new micron wool threads, they don't itch, unless of course you are allergic to wool in the first place. They are so small and smooth that they are very silky next to the skin.

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