Gear Guy

Does wool clothing perform better than synthetics?

I have read that wool clothing is better than any synthetics made. Is that true? Smartwool is coming out with a 5.2-ounce lightweight shirt in August-could this be possibly the best shirt out there for backcountry travelers? Also, is there a pair of lightweight pants that perform well in a wide range of climates? I would prefer convertibles, but regular pants are okay as long as they breathe well. Peter Portola Valley, California

Outside's long reads email newsletter features our strongest writing, most ambitious reporting, and award-winning storytelling about the outdoors. Sign up today.

Nah, not “better than any synthetics.” On a practical level, not even close. Synthetics are so good today, and so affordable, that wool will never be more than a niche product. Not that that’s a bad thing, mind you, and wool certainly has its place and in fact is expanding its market base. Smartwool, Ibex, and a few other outdoor-clothing makers offer wool clothing to folks who just don’t like synthetics or who genuinely prefer wool’s feel and performance. And wool is indeed a good-performing fabric. It wicks well, retains warmth when wet, and is exceedingly durable. It also can take a long time to dry when wet, and while today’s Merino wool-based products are very soft, some people will find it a bit itchy. The price can make people itchy, too. A long-sleeve top IN Smartwool’s current long underwear line, for instance, sells for about $60, about twice what most mid-weight synthetics sell for. So, while I’m sure Smartwool’s shirt will be worth a look, I wouldn’t go so far as to say it will be the best shirt there is for backcountry users.

As for the pants, it depends on whether you want a pant for cool-to-cold conditions, or cool-to-warm. For cool-to-cold, I like most any pant made with Schoeller Dryskin. A good example: L.L. Bean’s Stretch Schoeller Guide Pant ($125). Very comfortable, wind-proof and water-resistant, and extremely breathable. For anything from 20 to 60 degrees, dry to light rain or snow, they’re just about all you need whether you’re hiking, touring, or lounging. For the cool-to-warm range, try something like the Gramicci Quick Dry Pant ($48), made of a light, fast drying nylon. For a convertible, REI’s Sahara pants ($55) are good ones, and not bad-looking. Ditto for Sportif’s convertible Tahoe Rim pant ($49).

promo logo