Best Merino Wool Base Layers

Just a couple years back, it was hard to find quality winter-weather base layers made of anything but polypropylene. But the tide has turned, and this year wool is the fabric of choice for more than a dozen outdoors apparel companies.

It’s easy to see why. Advantages to wool include warmth and breathability. And unlike polypropylene and other synthetic fabrics, wool has natural odor resistance.

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For the most part, wool has lived down its reputation of being scratchy against the skin. New finer blends, notably with merino wool, are less likely to irritate, though some blends I tested were softer than others.

Among the softest wool base layer I tried out was the Merino Slalom Olympia Zip made by Icebreaker (www.icebreaker.com). The fine merino wool used for this top is so smooth that it could easily be mistaken for a synthetic.

The Merino Slalom Olympia Zip can be worn alone as a shirt or as a base layer under fleece and a shell jacket. It has a chest zip for ventilation and thumb holes to keep your sleeves pulled down partway over your hands.

The Icebreaker top was good looking and comfortable, but for rigorous activity it did not wick sweat as quickly as some of the other products in this review. It retails for $90, which seemed quite pricey to me. (Wool clothing, in general, is 30 to 50 percent more expensive than comparable synthetic apparel, but the fabric will often last longer.)

SmartWool (www.smartwool.com) was one of the first companies to put wool back on the map in outdoors circles. The company’s Slater Zip ($95) is a mid-weight top that functions as a shirt on its own. It is the best-looking piece of clothing I tested.

Like the Icebreaker Slalom Olympia Zip, the SmartWool top fit perfectly and was toasty warm. (The Women’s version of this top is called the Saratoga Zip, and it sells for $90.)

Of all the products I reviewed, my favorite wool apparel comes from Ibex. The company’s 3/4 Long Johns ($68) are basic form-fitting leggings with an elastic waist and a gusseted crotch. Ibex’s blend of merino wool, which is a touch rougher than the wool from Icebreaker and SmartWool, breathes superbly.

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