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Wool vs. Synthetic: Which is the Better Baselayer?

Wool vs Synthetic Baselayers. Which is Better?
Wool vs Synthetic Baselayers. Which is Better?

Wool baselayer garments are warmer than synthetic baselayers, but synthetic baselayers dry more quickly than wool. What are the pros and cons of each and which should you buy for winter hiking, snowshoeing, or skiing?

The Role of a Baselayer in Layered Clothing Systems

When dressing for vigorous winter activities, it’s best to use a layered clothing system consisting of a wicking baselayer than moves perspiration away from your skin, an insulating mid-layer that absorbs the perspiration but still holds in your body heat, and a waterproof/windproof shell layer that keeps external moisture or wind from cooling you.

The purpose of a baselayer top is to move perspiration generated while you’re active away from your skin so it won’t chill you when you take a break and rest. A good baselayer should have a close fit so it can effectively capture moisture, without any seams to chafe or irritate your skin.

Synthetic Baselayers

If you sweat a lot when you’re active, go with a synthetic baselayer like Patagonia’s Capilene Lightweight Crew Jersey or Under Armour’s Base 2.0 Crew, which have fast-drying porous weaves designed to rapidly transport perspiration from your skin up to your mid-layer. While these tops are cooler than wool, they’re quite durable and affordable, and you can wash and dry them a gazillion times without any special care.

Wool Baselayers

If you run cold in winter, try a wool baselayer, since wool feels warmer against your skin. While wool absorbs more moisture than synthetic baselayers and dries more slowly, it is less stinky making it a good choice if you plan on using it for a multi-day hike or tour. Merino Wool baselayers are the softest, and we recommend the Minus33 Ticonderoga Lightweight Crew or the Smartwool NTS Micro 150 if you need a bit more warmth. Wool can be a bit harder to care for however (tumble dry on low) and is less durable over the long haul.

Mix and Match

Can’t decide? Many people buy both wool and synthetic baselayers and switch between them depending on the activity and outside temperature. Others mix and match, going with a wicking synthetic baselayer and a wool mid-layer that doesn’t have to stay dry, because its function is to stay warm when it absorbs perspiration passed to it from your baselayer.

Wool and Synthetic Blends

Still another option is to look at garments that blend wool and synthetic yarns. For instance, we’ve had good luck with the LS Top 175 Baselayer Jersey from a company called Super.natural which blends wool and synthetic materials to create a hybrid form of Merino wool that is comfortable to wear and odor-resistant, while being easier to care for and more durable than wool. It’s as expensive as Merino if you pay full retail, but Sierra Trading Post also has plenty on sale at about 50% off.

Which do you prefer? Wool or Synthetic?

 

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32 comments

  1. I love Merino wool but have found out that I’m one of the few people allergic to it so I’ve switched to synthetic for what’s next to the skin. I’m typing this with my feet propped up while ensconced in Darn Tough synthetic socks.

  2. I also prefer merino wool for base layers. Ibex used to offer a 120 weight shirt that was excellent for cooling in sub 100F temps. Not sure if it still available. But, this article is a good summary of the classic synthetic/wool debate.

  3. For all my years of hiking, backpacking, fishing, hunting, and walking our cities 10 mile Green Belt Trail in 3 hours, I prefer Natural materials to any one item that is man made. Wool insulates even when wet. In my opinion due to it’s thickness and padding ability and preventing friction I get fewer Blisters when hiking long distances on multi-day trips wearing nature made. I also feel that just because a fabric keeps you DRY does not mean it keeps you warm, so I have found when using a layer that keeps me Dry, I have to buy another layer (which the marketing people love) to keep me warm.. In fact I took back and sent back the 3 Base Layers I was testing out over the last two weeks… I have three Vests made of Wool, Goose down and Man Made insulation.The wool is good for wearing while doing yard work and under a Jacket. The Goose down is great for putting on after a long climb and a long day on the trail for warmth, the Man made Insulated Vest is good for wet weather and extended wet weather…My Coats not made of man made and Gore Tex are natural materials, for cold weather Fishing and Hunting Wool still is at the top of my list with a Goosedown Vest. For Cold wet Rainy Weather when cold weather Fishing and Hunting, Manmade Goretex shell and Vest are my choices… So in many cases it depends upon the weather, so I use both….

  4. Wool, as a natural fiber has been my preference, but it’s expensive and wears out quickly, so I switched to a blend that last longer, but still not as good as synthetic. The current method for me now is featherweight wool base then a featherweight synthetic over that. My favorite lightweight wool for warmth is Cashmere.

  5. I find that when it comes to thin clothing like base layers, the differences tend to be minor. They are much more pronounced in thicker clothing.

    I find that very few assertions when it comes to the debate of wool vs synthetic have any support in actual data. Synthetic materials like Capilene insulate just as well as wool, both wet, and dry. There is no scientific support that I have seen which shows that wool retains any more insulation when wet than different synthetic equivalents. When dry, similar thickness will yield similar insulation.

    Most synthetic materials do however dry out significantly faster, which makes wool FEEL warmer. Since in synthetic materials the same amount of water evaporates over a shorter period of time, one feels an initial chill, that you do not get with wool because the evaporation is spread out over a longer period. For the same amount of water however, the cooling is similar. Evaporative cooling of course is different from the issue of how much insulation is retained when wet.

    These days for me it’s synthetic materials all the way. The only reason is the drying time. I’ve worn wool on trips where I got wet on day one, and was still wet on day three. I’ve had much better luck with drying out synthetic clothing. Again, the differences are not as pronounced with thin base layers.

  6. I’m a wool freak. I would love to have nothing but merino wool for my entire hiking and mountain biking attire. My wallet disagrees however.

  7. There is scientific evidence that laundering one polyester garment sheds thousands of microplastic contaminants into the ecosystem. These contaminants are not biodegradable. This information has given me pause in selecting synthetic clothing. Your followers may be interested in that discussion and the potential environmental consequences. Thank you for all your well researched reviews.

  8. Appears to be a minority position here, but I prefer synthetic base layers. My experience has been that the synthetics dry more quickly if a garment does become wet, and stay drier in use. For me that means I stay more comfortable. I’ve used wool base layers, and generally they end up vaguely clammy by day’s end no matter how careful I am. They will dry eventually, but meantime I feel chilled from the damp layer on my skin. So synthetics it is.

  9. I agree with Illimani that wool just doesn’t dry as quickly as synthetic. However, to me, even damp wool is warm while damp synthetic transfers heat from the body and feels chilly. I live in the Pacific Northwest so it’s often wet and chilly (or cold). Since I’m not of the ultralight religion I often hike in synthetic then switch to wool when in camp.

    • I’ve done a few trips to the PNW, and I’d rather be in the serious cold of winter in northern Minnesota or Ontario than the wet snow, drizzle, and damp air in the Cascades. In real cold if you don’t manage sweat properly you’re gonna suffer, but at least the air is sort of dry. So I’ll give you guys the Sufferfest title.

      One thing I’ve noticed about damp synthetic base layers is that they can temporarily feel chill and then suddenly they’re dry. I think it’s what Mark Twight described as “flash off” in his book Extreme Alpinism. The good news is that it’s short; given a chance the layer dries out and all is well. On the trail that means I adjust layering, slow down, whatever is needed to manage overheating. At a stop I throw on warm layers over the top to keep in the warmth that will dry the base layers.

  10. I like synthetic purely from a cost perspective; although, I recently found some really great merino wool/synthetic blend base layers from Costco for only $19! Picked that up and they have been great. I should have bought more!

    I think they each have pros and cons. In the winter time I usually run pretty cold, so I like the feeling of wool a lot better, I think it just feels nicer on skin, and with the dry air synthetic clings to your skin and creates static.

  11. I sweat like an absolute hog no matter what I do; always been that way. So synthetic it is. Wool does keep me warmer, but It holds my sweat against my skin too long which can (and WILL) cause me a rash or bad rubbing irritation.
    My Base Layer is an old 80%poly 20% wool Terramar Bodysensors that they don’t make any more :( It’s two gossamer thin layers on top of each-other – the layer on skin is more ventilated and quickly wicks out to the top layer. GREAT Base, wish I could find a similar replacement.

  12. It’s wool for me. I haven’t had an issue with durability. That only happens if the garment receives “trauma” or is over-wash and/or over-dried. Wool does not need to be washed after ever use. And should never be fully dried in a machine, best method is partial dry in machine, remove damp and let air dry on flat surface.

    No issue with getting too sweaty either. I was told long ago if you are sweating in the winter you are overdressed and/or moving too fast. Take off your clothes and slow down. Huh, kinda sounds like a tropical tourism campaign.

    I have also learned of the information Joanne posts and had the same reaction. I rather have animal fiber against my skin than petroleum.

  13. I’ve used Montbell merino wool shirts for years, and they work way better than others I’ve tried. The way the wool is woven, allows it to stretch to twice its size. I’ve had one for two seasons, and it is still as good as new. My smart wool shirts get tears too easily.
    The Montbell shirts also cost less.

  14. Polartec is just so much more comfortable to me. Washes easier. Not itchy. No allergies.
    Do I like wool stuff, especially milsurp and historical, absolutely, but “fleece” is just too easy and practical.

  15. Next to skin layers are a very lightweight merino wool. Synthetics smell too badly after a time. I agree, heavyweight wool takes a long time to dry. I’ve had very good results with synthetic layers over fleece. I haven’t had the urge to try a mixed fiber layer. Not yet, anyway.

  16. Over wool, not fleece

  17. I use merino, not for any perceived, or real, performance benefits, but for the non-stink factor. Most of my trips are usually for 3 days/2 nights. By the end of the first day synthetics start to smell and by the end of the third they stink. By contrast, merino can last for a whole week and still not be too offensive to the nose.

  18. I concur with most commenters here. If you haven’t tried merino, you should. The superiority in stink/stickiness is decisive. I like montbell and icebreaker. Including the IB ~70% (?) merino blend.

  19. My go-to base layer is the Rab Meco line…65% merino wool and 35% polyester with antimicrobial carbon. It has the benefits of wool and the incredibly quick drying of a synthetic.

  20. Silk and wool base layers for trips longer than a day. Synthetics are day trips only. I can’ t do the smell! They don’t feel warm to me like wool does either. Silk is light, breathable, and not smelly either. No cotton, spandex, or synthetics that aren’t bacteria resistant. I forgot what they call it, but it says on the labels. I wore my Helly Hansen wool base layer for a week in Southern Virginia last October, rained about 3-4 nights and had frost a couple of nights, and I was comfortable and stink-free, relatively speaking. ? HH is expensive, but I bought mine at the outlet mall in Seattle the last time I was there for half price, which made it affordable.

  21. I bought my first Icebreaker Merino shirts this year. I’m a convert! I have sensitive skin, and normally find wool too itchy, but the Icebreaker shirts are soft enough not to bother me. I waited until backcountry.com had them on sale. I even wear them to work :)
    I took them on a 3 week hiking trip, and bought them for their lack of stink. I’ve been wearing them this winter so far with temps in the 30’s and 40’s. If I sweat too much, I put a houdini over to prevent myself from getting chilled.

  22. that synthetic stuff gets so smelly

  23. Most synthetics make me itch if they’re on my skin too long. Pity, b/c they transport moisture better and keep me drier in cold temperatures (through trial and error, I’ve found dampness next to skin makes a huge difference in perceived warmth. My core can be fine, but if my skin is damp I feel chilled.). I haven’t tried blends like the Rab MeCo, but I’d like to.

  24. I prefer blends. 70-30 or 80-20. Gives you the advantages of both sides. Newer Patagonia models are of such kind for example.

  25. Base layers of Icebreaker are superb. I vary the weight depending on the trip. I bring a light and a heavier one. Top that with MEC T3 Hoodie then a Montbell Ultralight down puffy then a ZPacks Rain jacket and I have every combination needed for any weather. I wear both merino base layers if it is extra cold or just the light one if very warm. Total pieces = 5 and the two bases give flexibility for swapout. Icebreakers briefs always for the best hygiene care.

  26. I have been trying a lot of first layers (working for the army), and my conclussion is that merino wool is the best solution when you are on going to spend more than one day on the field. My favourite brand is Woolpower and specially its 200 gr/m2 Ullfrotté zip turtleneck (http://www.amazon.com/Woolpower-Turtleneck-technical-underwear-grey/dp/B00AF7TNBK); it is terry-knited and its composition is: 60% merino wool, 25% polyester, 13% polyamide and 2% elastane. Its fabric allows perspiration to go out very quick. It is used by many erupean armies (Sweeden, Norway, France, etc) so it is very realiable. Perhaps the only problem is budget…., nevertheless, as it is mixed with polyester and polyamide, it will lasta for a lot of years. Last winter, the Sweedish army show me a 15 years old zip turtleneck and it look almost like new: it had been washed hundreds of times (40 ºC) without any problem.

  27. I’m surprised no one has mentioned silk. Silk is as warm as a lightweight wool or any synthetic, it dries faster than wool (especially via body heat) , and it has the same “magic” self cleaning ability as wool in that it doesn’t stink so embarrassingly horrible like synthetics. I wear wool mid and insulating layers with no shell in dry or damp weather, but always silk as a base. Funny it’s not so popular with the UL crowd.

  28. Michael Adrian Howard

    Hiking all day at 45f – 50f degrees, steady cold drizzle, wearing mid-weight Patagonia fleece, completely soaked through, remove top and wring out, remove pants wring out by hand, put back on, warm as toast, keep going. Cannot do that with wool, once completely wet and soaked, wool is done.

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