I’ve been testing a few next-to-skin upper body clothing layers for backcountry skiing and other outdoor recreation. Doing so brought me back to the wool vs synthetic clothing issue…
I’m liking two types of base layers these days. Our old standby Mountain Hardware eXtend synthetic anti-microbial is still a family standard. If the wash doesn’t get done you can pluck this stuff out of the laundry pile and use another day without stench, it wicks, and doesn’t cook you while you’re exercising. But like any thin synthetic eXtend doesn’t offer much warmth once it is damp — and even the best breathing techno-fabric gets damp during tough climbs. Thus, the limits of synthetics sent me back to using sheep fur, so I recently acquired the latest zip-T merino wool “Skin200 Mondo Zip” from Icebreaker.
Wool such as that from Icebreaker is an amazing material for base layers (and many other clothing applications as well). If the knit and thickness are right it wicks well, isn’t too warm, and merino wool such as used by Icebreaker is not itchy for most folks. Wool still insulates when damp or wet — unlike synthetics, it won’t chill you if your base layer is damp and you quit exercising. And sheep fur it is naturally anti-microbial. High quality merino such as Icebreaker doesn’t exude that damp woolly smell, and it doesn’t encourage BO the way many synthetics do.
Safety and convenience are also considerations when choosing between wool and synth. Wool is fire resistant, and doesn’t melt when heated as synthetics do. This quality makes wool a good choice for situations where heat or fire hazards might occur, such as aviation (heli skiing) or power sports. If you like campfires, wool outerwear is less likely to be damaged by sparks, and wool knit gloves can be used to handle hot items that would melt synthetics (we buy military wool glove liners at the surplus store to use for this type of thing).
There are environmental issues with wool vs synthetics, but enviro-yammer about clothing is frequently overblown and takes on the flavor of green washing PR speak. Wool is “natural,” but sheep farms take land, and ranching is not exactly wilderness preservation. Synthetics are made with chemicals that are usually not biodegradable and require more industrial infrastructure (I’d rather see a ranch then a chemical plant). Both sheep fur and petro thread require energy for manufacture, raw material supply, and product shipping. In the end, I’d guess both products probably have virtually equal environmental impact, so I’m not worrying about it.
What about wool for insulation and outer layers? If weight isn’t an issue, wall-to-wall wool can be excellent for any clothing application. Ever since my days with wool favoring NOLS in Wyoming, I’ve liked having a pair of durable wool pants for outdoor activities such as winter campfire sessions and hut work days (again, acquired from army surplus).
If you’re looking for wool outerwear for backcountry skiing, Ortovox is making some amazing stuff that combines synthetics with wool. I’ve been testing their Black Phantom soft shell jacket, a very innovative piece that combines wool fleece laminated to high-tech Schoeller fabric, with a stylish cut that gets the nod from my wife.
Icebreaker, Ortovox — or surplus, give wool a chance and you may be surprised at how well it works.
Other clothing in play:
For a colder day base layer I’m liking a new Patagonia Capaline zip-T made with a super wicking weave and a nice minimalist breast pocket. Capaline still has an odor problem, however, so I’m only using this piece for skiing day trips and getting it back to the washing machine after every use.
The backcountry skiing insulating layer is always an issue for me. Some are too heavy, others too thick, and so forth. I’ve been using a Patagonia R2 fleece jacket all winter, and like it. The R2 is lightweight, slightly wind resistant, and compresses better than other fleece so it’s easier to stow. Highly recommended.
As for my eternal quest to shed ounces, I’ve realized that my Marmot ATV soft shell pants work for about 99% of my backcountry skiing days, but I still need hard shell pants for that other one percentile (such as digging an emergency snow cave or encountering unusually wet conditions). The hard-shells I was carrying were too heavy, so I mounted some suspenders on a pair of Cloudveil Drizzle pants. This rig weighs 14 ounces and packs the size of two fists — perfect for something that spends most of its time in my pack. (And speaking of Cloudveil, I’m still favoring their now classic but still available Serendipity soft shell, what a jacket!)
And here is a good one: I’ve got a hut trip scheduled that involves quite a bit of distance — and the hut’s we’re going to are warm. To lighten up the pack for that it’s important to carry a minimal sleeping bag. Marmot makes the perfect sack for this: Their Atom weighs just over a pound and packs down amazingly small since it’s filled with ultimately puffy 850+ goose down and constructed with gossamer thin fabric. By using the Atom, I can actually do hut trips with my day pack.
WildSnow.com publisher emeritus and founder Lou (Louis Dawson) has a 50+ years career in climbing, backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering. He was the first person in history to ski down all 54 Colorado 14,000-foot peaks, has authored numerous books about about backcountry skiing, and has skied from the summit of Denali in Alaska, North America’s highest mountain.