The Itch vs. The Funk
by Jason Whitehouse
Everyone has an opinion—some inherently stink like the armpits in your polypro shirt, others rub you wrong like an itchy wool shirt, and some are like Goldilocks’ perfect bowl of porridge. In the spirit of refusing to test products on animals, we used five of our employees as guinea pigs. We gave each of them a synthetic and merino wool base layer with a simple instruction: test the hell out of it.
They each spent two weeks sweating, lounging, and everything in between while wearing these base layers. With contributions from all five testers, we have about ten cent’s worth of opinions for you to enjoy. Have a look for yourself.
Let’s start off with the basics:
Synthetics: The Outdoor StaplePolypro has been a staple longer than the classic Nintendo NES gaming system. Synthetic polypro has always come through, especially with that trademark outdoor enthusiast odor. Beyond the familiar scent, polypro wicks like a champ, is comfortable enough to replace your old flannel pajamas, and provides a great breathable option for layering in any season. Nothing wicks or dries like polypro, especially when it comes to heavy perspiration. Industry giants like Patagonia have built legacies by producing endless permutations of polypro to great success and even greater die-hard followings. So, if there’s one thing you know, it’s that polypro works—it does the job better than the dreaded killer cotton as well as most other natural fibers. If you’re like me, you have an old polypro shirt that you nurse like a childhood blanky—you’ve just been through so much together, you would never dream of retiring it.
Merino Wool: These sheep have been rattling the cage lately
Is super soft wool and a no-funk promise enough to tear you from your beloved polypro companion? Merino approaches the base layer mentality from a different angle than synthetic polypro. Instead of wicking, merino wool manages perspiration as a vapor through thermo-regulation and hydroscopic transport. In words all of us can understand—merino wool doesn’t wait until you are sopping with perspiration to start pulling moisture away from your body. The fibers pull moisture away from you in a vapor form, and in doing so, avoid the nasty bacteria issues that causes your polypro to reek like rotten sauerkraut. Hence, your fellow car mates don’t have to breathe out of their mouths when you ride home from the trailhead, resort, or the gym. Throw in the fact that high-grade merino won’t itch or irritate like common wool, and that wool will keep you warm when wet, and we have an interesting debate. Burgeoning companies like Ibex, Icebreaker, and SmartWool have developed a cult-like following because of the attributes of merino wool.
It’s the proverbial Man vs. Nature. Who will prevail?
Our Guinea Pigs and Their Results:
Guinea Pig #1: Jim Holland - Founder, CEO, and ripping backcountry skier
Patagonia Capilene 2 Zip- Neck 4 out of 5
“I went for a 4+ hr ski tour with the Patagonia Capilene 2 Zip- Neck (Cardiac Bowl – we hiked about 4,500 feet). It had been below zero for a few days prior, but when we got to the trailhead, we were all surprised by how warm it was. During the initial hike, I sweated as much as I’ve ever have on a ski tour. Later, when the sun set behind the ridge, I felt amazingly dry and warm.”
Ibex Pico Zip T 5 out of 5
“I went for a 2 hr ski tour on the Park City ridge wearing the Ibex Pico Zip T. In my opinion, this is the ideal layering piece for colder weather. It was in the teens and I was very comfortable. Merino does not itch at all as some people may think.”
Guinea Pig #2: Brenda Leonard - Warehouse-extraordinaire, fierce ice climber, and snowboarding queen
“I really liked the feel of the synthetic against my skin. It is very soft and smooth. Quite honestly, I couldn't tell much of a difference between the synthetic and wool as far as wicking, breathing, overheating, drying, & warmth. Each day I wore the synthetic, I felt the same as if I was wearing the wool.”
“I was very comfortable wearing this while snowboarding, although I didn't work up too much of a sweat at that time. Didn't smell at all after 1 1/2 days of use during ice climbing, and trust me, I worked up quite the sweat. I thought maybe my nose wasn't working, so I gave it to my boyfriend to smell, and he didn't smell anything either. I never had a problem of overheating from either activity. I get cold and stay cold very easy, so it's hard for me to overheat. It dried very quickly. It had to have because it I never felt cold against my skin.”
Guinea Pig #3: Eric Miller - Marketing crony, powder hound, and new daddy
Helly Hansen Dry Crew T-Shirt- 2 out of 5
“This shirt felt cold to the skin the entire time I used it. This was nice in the middle of the run when I was warm, but at the beginning and on the descent, it was too cold. No temperature regulation. Wicked moisture away from my skin, but held it in the shirt too long. Very cold descent. Very smelly after first use.”
“As the run progressed, I began to realize the “temperature regulation” I had heard about. Even though I was working harder at the end of the run, I was still at a comfortable temperature.”
Guinea Pig #4 Kate Moeschler – two-plank terror,
“I wore The North Face VaporWick Mid 1/4 Zip running. It seems to work perfect for this type of activity. I am happy with this top in this capacity. Maybe running, x-country skiing, skate skiing etc is what this top would be perfect for.”
Icebreaker Bodyfit Tech Top – 5 out of 5
Loved that when I went to the bar in Park City that I didn't have to change because I smelled like a hippie*. I could just chill in the top and be non-offensive. That works for me. I liked that I could just wear that and a non-insulating shell and be fine, even on the hottest days I get cold, don't ask me how. With this, I was cozy.
* An opinion, friends, just an opinion.
Guinea Pig #5 Mitchell Kruesi – ski touring machine, wearer of sweet t-shirts, and former child TV star
The North Face VaporWick Mid 1/4 Zip - 3 out of 5
“Took the The North Face VaporWick Mid 1/4 Zip out today, and noticed that wind seems to permeate the fabric a little easier (making it wick/dry faster, though not providing as much warmth). The nice thing about synthetic is that snow does not stick to it (no tiny microfibers like wool). When you brush against a snow-covered pine, the snow is easily brushed off the sleeves of the synthetic, whereas brushing against trees with wool leaves a lot of snow clinging to the shoulders and sleeves and is difficult to brush off (usually just melts onto you).
Icebreaker Bodyfit Tech Top - 5 out of 5
“I have worn the Icebreaker Bodyfit Tech Top for 5 sweaty tours now, and there is no perceptible difference between clean and theoretically “5-tours-later dirty”. I am definitely a wool convert.”
“I used the Icebreaker Bodyfit Tech Top on this tour, and this was where I first encountered its slight itchiness, when I was sweating on the uphill. Although it was itchy, I was very impressed at its ability to quickly warm you when you zipper it up (without even throwing a shell over it). I do not get the claustrophobic effect of being too hot in this, which I probably would have sensed had I been in my synthetic with today’s temps.”
Employee Test Journals
It’s 17 degrees out. Foolishly, I decided to do a back to back merino vs synthetic test on my 5 minute jog to and from the gym. It struck me that if you aren’t getting cold then you haven’t really pushed the limits of the garment. With that in mind I wore only the Ibex Pico Zip T on the jog to the gym. During this test, its safe to say that I was cold. On the way back I wore only the Patagonia Capilene 2 Zip- Neck. During this product test, I was very cold (teeth chattering, some difficulty enunciating). In fairness, Capilene is definitely a thinner material than the merino, but there’s no question that merino holds heat much better.
*Note, I also wore some marmot driclime side-zip pants for this test. While the most pure test might require that I wear nothing other than the top in question, it seemed best to avoid indecent exposure fines and/or a streaking lawsuit.
I went for a 4+ hr ski tour with the Patagonia Capalene zip top (Cardiac Bowl – we hiked about 4,500 feet). It had been below zero for a few days prior but when we got to the trailhead, we were all surprised by how warm it was. During the initial hike, I sweat as much as I’ve ever have on a ski tour. Later, when the sun set behind the ridge, I felt amazingly dry and warm.
I went for a 2 hr ski tour on the Park City ridge wearing the Ibex Merino Woolies Zip top. In my opinion, this is the ideal layering piece for colder weather. It was in the teens and I was very comfortable. Merino does not itch at all as some people may think.
In summary, merino is definitely warmer than Capilene. I have a merino tee shirt which I’ve worn at times on hot summer days. Merino manufacturers may suggest that their garments are also ideal for warm weather use (I believe merino is supposed to have a broader temperature range than other materials), but my preference is synthetic for mountain biking and mountaineering in the summer.
Ibex Norgie Crew - a little itchy on my skin, which is weird because I've worn another wool top and it didn't feel like that. (Note: the itchy one is Icebreaker and the non-itchy one is SmartWool). Definitely kept me dry & warm when I worked up a sweat, which is good because I would have froze even more during ice climbing if I didn't have that wicking layer to keep me dry. I was very comfortable wearing this while snowboarding, although I didn't work up too much of a sweat at that time. Didn't smell at all after 1 1/2 days of use during ice climbing and trust me, I worked up quite the sweat. I thought maybe my nose wasn't working, so I gave it to my boyfriend to smell, and he didn't smell anything either. I never had a problem of overheating from either activity. I get cold and stay cold very easy, so it's hard for me to overheat. It dried very quickly. It had to have because I never felt cold against my skin. We had to hike in to some of the ice climbs, so I sweated then and then had time to cool off. Also, worked up a sweat while climbing and then cooled off between climbs. So wicking was very good and it seemed to breathe very well (I had so many layers on though, so it was kind of hard to tell). I haven't had this long enough to test durability, but it's still in one piece so far.
The North Face Moxie Tee - I really liked the feel of the synthetic against my skin. It is very soft and smooth. Quite honestly, I couldn't tell much of a difference between the synthetic and wool as far as wicking, breathing, overheating, drying, & warmth. Each day I wore the synthetic, I felt the same as if I was wearing the wool. There was a difference as far as smell goes. There was a slight odor to the synthetic versus the wool, but not much. In fact, I wore the synthetic to work today without washing it after using it for ice climbing this weekend. I asked my sister if I smelled and she couldn't smell anything. I also used the synthetic for 1 1/2 days of ice climbing with the same sweating to freezing ratio. Haven't had this long enough to test durability, but it's still in one piece.
Bottom line - Since I couldn't tell much of a difference between wool vs synthetic as far as function goes, I think it all comes down to how it feels on my skin. Because the wool felt a little itchy on me, I think I would lean more towards synthetic. But I'm not done testing, so I'll let you know if anything changes as far as time goes.
I did another test of how well each one kept me warm in the warehouse. I wore the synthetic yesterday with just a down vest over it (still haven't washed it and no one complained of a smell). The temp was 58.7 F. I stayed warm enough that I did not need to put on my Sub Zero Jacket. There were times when I was moving stuff around and worked up a sweat. It kept me dry and went back to the same temp when I cooled back down. And it is so comfortable.
Wore the wool today. Temp is 60.2 F, so a little warmer. Wore the same layers today as I did yesterday and still haven't washed this as well. I asked a few people who I trust to tell me the truth if I smelled and they said I did not. Again, I moved stuff around and worked up a sweat. I actually got very hot this time and felt overheated. I wish the temp was the same as yesterday b/c I don't know if that was because it was warmer in here. The wool still feels itchy against my skin. I would definitely prefer to wear the synthetic as opposed to wool.
Most of my testing was done while running. Each time I ran, I found many consistencies with the shirts.
Ibex Woolies Crew:
Run 1: 40 degrees, no wind. Slightly damp when finished (even with profuse sweating), dried within an hour. No smell. I started the run feeling a little chilly. I was surprised to see that just a couple minutes into the run, I was at a comfortable temperature. I was a little concerned that I was warm already because I was warm early in the run. As the run progressed, I began to realize the “temperature regulation” I had heard about. Even though I was working harder at the end of the run, I was still at a comfortable temperature. The shirt did extremely well wicking away moisture, even after returning to the warm indoors. Once the moisture was in the shirt, it dried relatively quickly while I ran..
Run 2: About 20 degrees, slight wind. Stayed warm even with the wind, not very wet when finished. Slight smell when finished (can only smell when sniffing armpits of shirt), not BO, but maybe wet sheep? On the other end of the spectrum, I wore the shirt on runs when it was about 20 outside. Once again, I was surprised to see that the shirt did remarkably well at regulating my temperature. This particular shirt felt very thin for the mid-layer and I was convinced that it wasn’t going to be enough.
I only had one chance to get out touring during the test, and I wore the Ibex Woolies Crew. About 30 degrees, partly cloudy, no wind. I wore a mid-weight fleece over the baselayer. On the hike up, I did get a little too warm, that is partially to blame on the fleece. I unzipped a couple of zippers, and things were better. I was a little nervous for ski down since I had gotten so warm, and all I had was a very breathable fleece jacket. I was surprised, however, on the ski down that even though the wind was blowing through my jacket, I did stay relatively warm with the wet wool baselayer. I also stayed warm loading up the car with gear afterwards. After a couple of runs, hiking, climbing, and touring, I thought for sure the shirt would smell, and it didn’t. Still haven’t washed it.
This shirt was incredible. It is rated a midweight shirt but it is very thin. I was skeptical at first about it being rated midweight but after one use my skepticism was put to rest. There were a couple of things that stuck out in my mind about the performance of this shirt. First was temperature regulation. From 20 degree F to 40 degree F runs this shirt regulated very well. If I was chilly at the start of the workout, once I warmed up to a comfortable temperature I stayed there. For colder excursions this shirt and a softshell were all I needed. Second was smell. I had previously heard about wool shirts not holding BO and also smelling like a wet dog when they get wet. I found the former to be true and latter to not be true. I've had this shirt for over a month and have yet to wash it and it doesn't smell at all. After a couple of heavy sweat sessions this shirt had a hint of BO (you could only smell it if you were sniffing the armpits) but after airing out for a couple of hours the smell was gone. Also during those heavy sweat sessions I was expecting to smell like a wet dog but it never happened.
The one thing I didn't like this shirt is that the cuffs are stitched so they can't stretch. I couldn't push the sleeves up more than about an inch. There were a couple of times where I wanted to be a little cooler and pushing up the sleeves would have been just right. I did, however, manage to stretch the cuff out (while breaking a couple of stitches) so I can now push up the sleeves. Wool does take a little bit longer to dry than synthetic shirts, but that is a mere compromise for the increased performance I had over synthetic shirts.
Helly Hansen Crew T-Shirt: After wearing this shirt once, I didn’t want to wear it again. This was perhaps one of the worst synthetic baselayers I have used. I did continue to use it though.
Run 1: 20 degrees, slight wind. This shirt felt cold to the skin the entire time I used it. This was nice in the middle of the run when I was warm, but at the beginning and on the descent, it was too cold. No temperature regulation. Wicked moisture away from my skin, but held it in the shirt too long. Very cold descent. Very smelly after first use.
Run 2: about 35 degrees. Same performance as first test. Cold against the skin, once I started feeling warm, I quickly became too warm. Wicked moisture away from skin but held into shirt too long. Cold on latter part of the run. Having not washed the shirt after the first run, the shirt was almost unbearably smelly after the second run.
Run 3: high 30s. Drizzly outside. Performance similar to the other tests. Shirt felt cold against my skin the whole time. The shirt was very cold and wet at the end of the run, and it made me cold. The shirt didn’t seem to insulate very well tonight. It was hard to tell how sweaty I was because of the light rain. Shirt smelled horrible, I really need to wash it.
This shirt gets low marks. It felt great against the skin but the performance was definitely lacking. There wasn't any temperature regulation. Once I started getting warm it just kept on going. The shirt always felt cold against my skin, which was nice when I was warm or working uphill, but wasn't nice on the downhill or cool down. The arms have a wrap-around of striped fabric at about the forearm. This was uncomfortable at first but them I got used to it. Then as with all synthetic shirts there was the smell factor. This shirt held BO like all other synthetic shirts. I was curious and hung the shirt up for a couple of days and the smell did not dissipate.
This shirt did have a couple of redeeming qualities. It was a very comfortable shirt to wear, soft and smooth on the skin. Although it did hold smells, like all synthetic shirts do, it took longer to make the shirt unbearable. Other synthetic shirts smelled horrible after one use (some even after light use). This shirt took a couple of workouts to get ultra-smelly.
12/8/06 Canyons front country: Used Icebreaker top. 50 degrees – hot. Wore a soft shell , Icebreaker mid, lightweight base. This top was too heavy for spring temps but I felt it wicked incredibly well. I am a sweaty gal when I am work and this top was fab. Was on the hill from 10:00 until 3:25 non-stop. Loved that when I went to the bar in PC that I didn't have to change b/c I smelled like a hippie*. I could just chill in the top and be non offensive. That works for me. I liked that I could just wear that and a non insulating shell and be fine, even on the hottest days I get cold, don't ask me how. With this I was cozy.
12/10/06 Togwatee Cat skiing: Used North Face top: It's white and I am a skeptic. Clearing branches for buddies cat skiing business early season. 40 degrees. Lots of hiking then tons of stopping and starting to clear. The zipper sucks on this . I am afraid I am going to zip up my goiter. The top fits correctly everywhere else but the neck is too short and way too tight. It wicks well and absorbs tons I just prefer heavier weight items. I feel like this doesn't insulate at all, which it is not really supposed to but I would rather wear a super light weight base and skip mid all together and bump to heavy. I would never wear anything white either, my friends gave me shit about that.
12/16/06 Edelweiss bowl Idaho side Teton Pass: Icebreaker top. 16 degrees 25 at bottom of track.5 hours round trip . One lap. This is my first tour with the top. I have been touring here for years and can't seem to dial it in .I am usually pretty comfortable with what I have worn in the past, however with this top I can finally wear normal layer like everyone else. I get cold really easily – don't have tons of body fat (although some days I would disagree with that statement) and when I am cranking I burn tons of calories so if I get cold it is super hard to warm back up no matter what. Now with this top I can wear base layer, icebreaker top, Marmot mid weight jacket and a shell and be FINE. INCONCIEVABLE ! Am in love and stinky free.
12/17/06 Jackson Hole Mtn Resort Rock Springs: Icebreaker top. So sitting on a chair lift in the Tetons blows always! This is a strange combo doing this tour because you are inbounds traveling to get out of bounds, then with the tram being closed you have to hike (they are putting in a temp lift but not operating yet) So I get super cold then sweat my ....... off hiking. I am still really well regulated with this top on. My mental giant sister washed this then dried it this weekend so the top shrunk and balled up. This is a huge deal. The balling up of fabric and the fit is really affected when you have someone who doesn't know any better dry this item. Would warn that you will ruin this if you dry it. However I am dealing with it and it works fine. I don't really believe the integrity is diminished. It is my baby I love it .
12/22/06 Attending Clinic for instructors at Snowbird: Ok I made myself wear the N. Face top again. I forgot to wash it so I hoped that the layer I wore over it will keep the stink in. (drinking coffee makes me stink). The deal with today is lots of standing outside, then demos, so a bit of riding here and there. I was cold but I think I would have been regardless. The top does fit but it is a bit short in the torso and I am a peanut so if a slender taller woman wore this it would ride quite high I think. I would pair this type of layer with a wind proof layer and I think that would be the ticket.
12/25/06 Running: I wore the North face top. It seems to work perfect for this type of activity. I am happy with this top in this capacity. Maybe running, x-country skiing, skate skiing etc is what this top would be perfect for. So that being said: I love the long neck on Icebreaker, hate The North Face one. Icebreaker doesn't smell. The North Face does. Icebreaker is my choice all around for sure, I try to not use The North Face period so I am trying not to be bias but I may be failing. I am not super techy so when something works and makes me smile I stay with it. If you need more tech info I may just point out that Icebreaker is new technology and is not out-dating synthetic perhaps just complementing it. Wool in my opinion is a profoundly better option for winter activities.
Mitchell Kruesi’s Observations on Wool vs. Synthetic
- Primary activity for below observations is backcountry skiing
Icebreaker Bodyfit Tech Top
- Wool definitely regulates temperature well. When hiking (skinning) with just the baselayer, a simple zip/un-zipping of the ¼ length zipper helps to quickly cool you down or warm you up
- The wool refuses to stink, even after six sweaty tours, and wearing around the house.
- I found that when you start to sweat in the wool piece, your back and upper arms/shoulders start to get a little itchy (especially at contact points between pack and baselayer)
- It appears as if wool is a little stretchier than synthetic, and due to this, the ¼ length zipper does not have tons of fabric tension when zipping it up (usually takes 2 hands to zip up vs. an easy movement with one hand with synthetic (I have found this with other wool manufacturers as well)).
- None so far, except for annoyance of needing two hands to zip up (due to flexy wool fabric)
The North Face VaporWick Mid 1/4 Zip
- Synthetic fleece appears to dry faster after sweating. After sweating on the uphill hike, the synthetic seems to wick and evaporate the sweat a little faster than wool. I do think though that wool feels much better on your skin when it is sweaty and cold after hiking than synthetic does. Wool feels a little warmer when the midlayer is frozen than synthetic does.
- Synthetic is LIGHT. Definitely weighs a lot less than wool layer, though this also gives the impression that it is not as warm (purely anecdotal, probably comparable to wool in R-value insulation).
- Synthetic definitely stinks more after 2+ days of use. I can barely detect odor on the wool layer after 4 days of use, whereas the synthetic has a very malodorous aura after 2 days of use.
- Due to the thinner weave of the synthetic, I definitely found it colder than the wool. Wool seems to be better at blocking wind than the synthetic, and gives you the sense of being warmer when zipped up.
- I used the Icebreaker on this tour, and this was where I first encountered its slight itchiness when I was sweating on the uphill. Although it was itchy, I was very impressed at its ability to quickly warm you when you zipper it up (without even throwing a shell over it). I do not get the claustrophobic effect of being too hot in this, which I probably would have sensed had I been in my synthetic with todays temps. On ridges, this is definitely sufficient to keep me warm with a shell over top in windchill temps ~ mid-teens.
12/16/06 (6.5 hour ski tour, temperatures in the low 20’s, low teens with ridge windchill)
- It was moderately snowing today, and I was not very impressed with my synthetic MW insulation. When the baselayer got wet due to snow and sweat, it appeared to dry faster than my wool layer, though did not keep me very warm in the process (wool seems to offer the façade of warmth even when wet???). This may be due to the wool piece having a slightly higher insulation factor than the synthetic (not perfect apples to apples comparison).
- The synthetic has very streamlined stitching and fabric overlap, making seams imperceptible to pack straps
12/23/06 (6 hour tour, temps in the low 30’s, no wind even on ridges)
- Wool is definitely better at regulating my temperature than the synthetic piece I was given. This tour involved “catching up” to my friends who left ~ 15 minutes before me, so very strenuous effort in warm temps. With rolled up sleaves and fully unzipped, the wool MW is very good at letting out steam.
- The wool takes longer to dry, though keeps me warm even when wet (and as mentioned above, feels heavier and warmer/more protecting than synthetic).
12/24/06 ( 5 hour tour, sunny southside temps in the mid-30’s, ridge wind chilly)
- Wool refuses to smell. I have worn the wool piece for 5 sweaty tours now, and there is no perceptible difference between clean and theoretically “5 tours later dirty”. I am definitely a wool convert (or Icebreaker wool at least).
- Synthetic smell after 2 tours (and is smelly enough that you need to wash it if you are planning any future public appearances with it).
12/25/06 (5 ½ hour tour – sweating ridiculously on south aspects – blowing snow on the ridges)
- Took the synthetic out today, and noticed that wind seems to permeate the fabric a little easier (making it wick/dry faster, though not providing as much warmth).
- The nice thing about synthetic is that snow does not stick to it (no tiny microfibers like wool). When you brush against a snow-covered pine, the snow is easily brushed off the sleeves of the synthetic, whereas brushing against trees with wool leaves a lot of snow clinging to the shoulders and sleeves, and is difficult to brush off (usually just melts onto you).