Wool vs Synthetics

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    Justin Baker
    BPL Member


    Locale: Santa Rosa, CA

    What gives you more insulation value per ounce, wool or synthetics? I'm not talking about fluffy synthetic stuff though, just woven fabrics like fleece. How does cotton compare in this? (disregarding moisture issues)
    I find myself packing a cotton hoodie for hanging out around the fire, but I am thinking about getting a nice, lightweight wool sweater. (probably euro mil surplus)
    How much more would a wool sweater weigh compared to a comparable thickness fleece sweater/jacket?

    Stephan Doyle


    Generic poly fleece is much warmer for the weight than even the best merino wool.

    David Thomas
    BPL Member


    Locale: North Woods. Far North.

    I concur. Weight per warmth, poly fleece beats wool. And wool beats cotton. Even with no water around.

    But sometimes there is water around. If you have a good wind shell, a loose weave of fleece or wool can be shook to get rid of excess water and then will insulate very well under your wind-block layer. But if you wouldn't have a wind-block layer, a tighter weave will keep you warmer.

    Eric Blumensaadt
    BPL Member


    Locale: Mojave Desert

    Wool, when very damp can still feel fairly "dry" because of its microscopic scales on the fibers. But… wool will hold a LOT more water than synthetics – and thus a lot more weight. Plus wool is much slower to dry than polyester or polypropelene.

    Polyester fibers with tiny lengthwise grooves wick moisture the fastest throught their capillary action. Coolmax and Capelene are two of the brand names of this type.

    I prefer polyester long johns in different weights. Cabela's are my favorites for their great durability and reasonable prices and REI-style garantee. (I have some Cabela's longies over 12 years old!) Get some medium weight and some heavier "Polar" or "Expedition" weight sets.

    I like zippered turtle necks tops for their zipped closed protection when cold and unzipped venting when I heat up too much.

    Justin Baker
    BPL Member


    Locale: Santa Rosa, CA

    This is why I love wool socks. I can cross glacial streams and walk all day through fairly cold rain and my feet are never really that cold.

    Roger Caffin
    BPL Member


    Locale: Wollemi & Kosciusko NPs, Europe

    Let's first deal with cotton. It is actually good around a fire (or in the workshop) because it does not melt like synthetics when a spark hits. Apart from that, it is a total disaster in the cold and especially in the wet. Jeans have been responsible for a number of deaths in the snow.

    Wool is also good at resisting heat or sparks, and is a LOT warmer than cotton. But a woll jumper in the wet can be miserable: it is quite weak when wet and I have seen nice fluffy wool jumper become mini-dresses in the rain. Drying them takes days.

    Good synthetics are cheaper, lighter, dry a *whole* lot faster, and are warmer. But they melt when hit with sparks and hot metal chips.


    James Marco
    BPL Member


    Locale: Finger Lakes

    I like wool. I like synthetics. I don't get all religious about clothing while hiking. Actually, cotton works well as an insulator, but fails miserably at water absorption. Under the right conditions cotton can be considered the best. Under other conditions, the adge "Cotton Kills" has real meaning.

    Like so many things, evaluating the whole environment of a camping situation means a lot to what I choose for hiking/camping. I do about equal portions of hiking and canoeing in the ADK's. I generally choose corse wool socks, a fine(merino) wool base layer upper/synthetic lower, and, also mixed outer wear(fleece pullover, down jacket, synthetic rain gear) after that.

    It is not about "Wool vs Sythetics", it IS about maintaining a comfortable evironment and carrying it. Wool is not light. A typical merino wool shirt will weigh 6oz with a synthetic shirt weighing just 4.5oz. Synthetics wick better. And, they dry easily. I don't know for sure, but I would guess that equal weights of merino wool and super drys(insert synthetic of choice) are roughly the same for thermal efficiency. But, wool generally distributes sweat better around my entire body, not just the primary sweat areas, so, it also keeps me cooler when it is warm, and, maximizes my use of my sweat…hence, my water use and how much I need to carry…hence, my pack weight. (Just making a point….)

    Soaked wool??? Well, it's warmer than soaked synthetic if a LOT heavier. Wet is wet. But you cannot compare them without comparing them under the same circumstances and goals. And, as with "Wool vs Synthetics", with the same set of values/preferences… you end up getting very subjective about things. How much time do you spend wet? How long will the rain last? How good is your rain jacket?

    Anyway, I use both as needed. They are different and have different strengths I *try* to exploit to my advantage.

    Adam Rothermich
    BPL Member


    Locale: Missouri Ozarks

    For me, merino wool's biggest advantage is as a baselayer where its odor resistance becomes invaluable for maintaining good relations with tent mates.

    If you're wanting an insulating layer for around camp, why discount synthetic insulation? If I had to choose between a fleece or wool top, I'd take the fleece because it will be lighter and dry faster, but I'd take my Primaloft pullover over either of them because it also packs smaller than the other two options (for the same warmth). It also blocks the wind better than fleece or wool which I find extremely helpful when trying to stay warm while sitting still.

    If you're choices are cotton hoodie or army surplus wool sweater I'd get a wool sweater only because you won't be as miserable if you get it wet (but you'll probably be itchy!). If you're trying to keep it cheap you can probably find a serviceable light fleece jacket at Goodwill/Salvation Army/thrift store, the one's around here always have quite a few at least.


    Andy F


    Locale: Midwest/Midatlantic

    Since wool is warmer when wet, I like to use wool for things which are likely to get damp or wet, yet are difficult to dry. Wool is also nice because it doesn't compress as much as synthetics. I use socks with more wool content when my feet might get damp (from perspiration, rain, or streams), or there is little insulation under my feet in my footwear. I also wear midweight baselayer pants which are polyester on the inside and merino wool on the outside.

    As the temps get colder (and definitely well into the cold-dry range), I'm more likely to wear wool pants made of a 24 oz-weight fabric and supported by suspenders.

    A tight-weave cotton anorak works well as a shell in cold-dry conditions, and it won't get melt holes around the fire. Another around-the-fire option is a lighter weight military surplus snow camo jacket made of a light cotton. Another option would be to make a loose jacket or anorak from a cotton bed sheet.

    Vince Contreras
    BPL Member


    Locale: like, in my head???

    Before too much loose language gets tossed around:

    Wool vs Synthetics

    edited because I suck at making hyperlinks…

    James holden
    BPL Member


    for yr purposes id either get a cheap wool sweater … or an even cheaper fleece …

    theres no need to spend $$$$ on merino if yr going to be sitting around a fire … or simply wear a light cotton oversized shirt over yr normal layers exclusively for camp

    IMO merino wool has 2 things against it … durability and drying time … note the BPL test was done around ~65F and 40% humidity …. in certain areas it may be much colder and wetter …

    as to the warm when wet … IMO its more important to wear a base layer that wicks well in order to not have that damp against the skin feel … that is what will get you feeling cold …

    Brendan Swihart
    BPL Member


    Locale: Fruita CO

    I have several wool and synthetic pieces and I keep going back to cap 2 as my favorite. extremely breathable and cool but can be surprisingly warm with a windshirt over it. Absorbs very little water and dries super fast. I also love the stretchiness and that pulling up the sleeves isn't uncomfortable or constricting like on most other ls tops I've tried. I love merino for everyday wear but the only wool stuff I like for backpacking is the really thin stuff (old paty merino 1 wool/poly blend, the old BPL stuff). I see Rab has some new super fine (120gsm) wool/poly blend baselayers that look promising.

    edit: just realized that I kinda got off track from the original question here (apologies)…

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