Comfort and Moisture Transport in Lightweight Wool and Synthetic Base Layers

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Home Forums Campfire Editor’s Roundtable Comfort and Moisture Transport in Lightweight Wool and Synthetic Base Layers

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    John Davis


    Same here, Eins.

    But I'm glad because this was a good read. Your 2007 post is interesting and possibly calls for an answer from those who tested the swatches. Strangely, the conclusion drawn from your calculation is completely at odds with my experience. After a run I feel an urge to get out of a merino top within 30 seconds of getting back home because the heavy weight of cold sweat feels horrible against my skin. In the only synthetic top I have left, after ending the run, I can keep it on long enough to prepare a recovery drink and run a bath.

    No one has mentioned getting a hot, sweaty back under a rucksack. I was one shouldering long before reading about it in Beyond Backpacking because I can sweat enough over a couple of days of backpacking to cause nappy rash. I find merino particularly unpleasant against the skin of my back when a day's walking has turned uphill and aerobic. It really itches when warmed up a bit.

    Merino has numerous, clear disadvantages so why do I prefer it? On my last Pyrenean hike I had a Capilene T-shirt and a Smartwool long sleeved top. I had thought that the T would be the garment I walked in and the merino top would be for evenings. That is not what happened. The T-shirt became so stinky within half a day that I could not stand it. (One of the 2006 posts mentions this problem. I wish I'd read it back then.) The merino went on and stayed on day after day without becoming unpleasant.

    There must be something physical and measurable, apart from lack of stench, which accounts for my preference for merino. Perhaps it's to do with the drape. Merino feels more classy, somehow.

    By the way, synthetics do wear away. Mine became thinner and thinner till all that was left was a net of fine fibres. The seams on synthetic tops have always had a tendency to carve away at my delicate skin, particularly round the armpit, and this becomes much worse once the top is a bit worn.

    Best wishes.

    david plantenga


    Interesting detailed article.

    Did I miss "cost"?
    Synthetic "T" shirt about $8 to $10
    Wool "T" shirt about


    Off subject comment: First thing I thought of with Trail Runner Don in the Desert … Rattlesnake Magnet …?

    Happy Trailz

    Steve Arlowe


    Great info here! Anyone have additional comments about using a long sleeve merino baselayer to block sun and keep cool, especially in more or less low-humidity conditions? I took a white Zensah compression shirt on a Kilimanjaro trek in 2007, and just last week to Muir on Rainier. The compression shirt is fantastic at blocking/reflecting the sun and acting almost as an air conditioner. Any sweat evaporates immediately, keeping me nice and cool. And since it's a compression shirt, this is the case for every square inch. No baggie sleeves to trap air – which seems to me would allow heat build up and impair wicking. So the only drawback on the white compression shirt in that setting is, of course, the stench. Zensah uses an antimicrobial treatment. But while the stink is reduced (and kind of a different, slighlty less pungant odor) than your typical untreated wicking synthetic, it's still there, still pretty objectionable. Meanwhile my Smartwool midweight that I also wore off and on all week has no discernable odor. So now I'm looking at Rapha's white merino baselayer or Smartwool's microweight in silver. I gather merino's wicking is better, but evaporation is not as good. Is the evaporation enough poorer that I'll go from feeling air-conditioner-like properties to feeling like I'm wearing a thin but soggy insulating layer? Anyone have any experience with the newer generation UnderArmour heatgear? It claims antimicrobial properties – does it fight stench as well as merino? Thanks!

    Paul McLaughlin
    BPL Member


    I have used lightweight wool long johns as a baselayer/sunscreen, up to about 12,500 in the sierra in early May on a ski trip – worked great. Have not used a wool top in the same way, as I don't have one in a light enough color. I found the wool bottoms to be nearly as cool as wearing nothing, and they definitely wicked, evaporated and kept the (very intense) sun off just fine.

    Steve Arlowe


    Thanks Paul! Good to know. I suppose it's a question of finding something that works in a certain range of conditions. A merino baselayer might fail in hot/humid conditions (while a synthetic compression shirt is able to keep up evaporation-wise). But I suppose on a glacier with ambient air temps of 20-40 degrees yet brutal sun, the merino's evaporation performance will be adequate to give me that effect.

    Thomas Rayl
    BPL Member


    Locale: SE Tx

    I don't know if anyone will see this as it's 3 years+ since the last post.

    I noticed the discussion points which seem to indicate that differences in drying time are apparently most closely related to difference in water-holding capacity of the different materials. In the tests, the swatches were soaked. So… If my shirt (or whatever) is soaked, I'm not just going to throw it over a bush as is…I'll WRING IT OUT FIRST. It would be interesting to see a follow-on which takes the soaked test swatches, wrings them out to see how much water they will "mechanically" release, then compares drying times.

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