Thursday, August 18, 2011

Wool, Natures Perfect Fabric for Outdoors Lifestyles

On a 4 day backcountry winter trip this February, my polypro (DuoDry) base layer smelled so bad I couldn’t even stand my own body odor. The problem with advanced synthetic base layers isn’t breathability, it’s bacterial growth. I’ve tried almost every big name brand wicking fabric over the years. Polartec Powerdry, Patagonia Capiline, Wickers, Coolmax, DuoDry and many others. I actually find that Champion branded DuoDry or Coolmax available at your local Target store is about as good as any of them, all at a fraction of the price of the big name brands. I know the brand snobs out there are snickering, but the truth is the name on the label adds nothing to the key component of a wicking layer -it’s ability to move moisture from skin to the air, and Coolmax is by far the best at doing this.

Over the years quite a few companies have come out with fabrics that are anti-microbial, however, few actually are stink resistant. There is one fabric that can be worn pretty much indefinitely without stinking, wool!

Wool is naturally hydrophobic, which makes it a good mid and outer layer for outdoor activities. But with nanotechnology applied to the fibers that same wool can become hydrophilic and wick moisture from the skin towards the atmosphere. Bearing this in mind, it’s not surprising that my recent gear upgrade to wool base layer wicking t-shirts has proved to be a smart choice.

I purchased some Wickers wool t-shirts, which are 50% wool, 50% synthetic. The combination works sort of like a modern wool sock with it’s mix of synthetic and wool blend. It wicks moisture away from the skin rapidly while also reducing odor.

I’m very very warm natured. It gets over 60F and I am ready for winter. Even in the winter I rarely need more than a very thin base layer or two, and I’ve been seen sweating profusely in below zero ambient temps when the winds were calm. The only time I like it to be warmer is when I’m paddling, swimming or at the beach, and even then I’m content with 75-80F maximum depending on the wind.

The problem with synthetics is they act like a Petri dish for bacterial growth, and that bacteria is on both sides of the shirt. When you take the shirt off you still smell like a rotten 4 day old sausage.

At this point I’ve had the shirts for almost 6 months, and I’ve put them through the ringer. Wearing them to the gym, playing with the dog at the park (which involves me running around since he’s a herding dog), outdoor sprint intervals, short hikes, all day hikes and multi-day trips where I wore the same shirt every day. On one trip I alternated between the two shirts over 8 days, including sleeping in them. On another stretch I went 5 days of intense activity in a single shirt, including 3 over a weekend where I didn’t shower or use deodorant (typical of a 3 day backpacking trip), as well wearing the same shirt around the house, it barely smelled offensive at all. A full synthetic shirt will stink in about 1-2 hours of intense activity. After 3 days you will consider burning it!

How did it breathe? Well, my gym workout usually involves doing hill intervals on the treadmill (5-8 minutes at maximum intensity, average 10% incline, at 6.0mph average x 4-5 reps). Usually my heart rate is at or above it’s maximum (based on age) during most of the session, lots of sweat dripping! I can only compare it to my cotton t-shirts I typically wear to the gym, but I was reasonably dry by the time I left the gym, and felt much less clammy during the workouts. With the “SynWool” combination appearing to move moisture away from my skin, I was also cooler than I typically am when wearing cotton.

On the trail the shirts breathe very well. They seem to breathe as well as typical synthetics under similar conditions, but not quite as well as Coolmax. Another neat feature of Coolmax is how fast it dries out, the syn-wool t-shirts don’t dry out Coolmax fast, but dry out almost as quickly as most performance synthetics I have used. The downside is they seem to be a little more stretchy when wet, such as hiking in the rain or taking an unexpected swim.

My biggest complaint of the wool t-shirts is their shape holding. It says on the washing instructions to machine wash and hang dry, but I found drying them at the lowest setting is useful for returning shape to the shirt. The neck, especially, seems to stretch under the pack straps.

As far as the feel of the shirts, they feel a lot like a thin cotton t-shirt. They are very thin and from the start I was a little weary of them holding up over the long haul. I definitely don’t think they’d hold up to bushwhacking or rock climbing. I’ve already ripped one when I took a decent slide down some roots. My skin looked far worse than the shirt, 3 months later there is still a healing scar, but I feel like pure synthetic wouldn’t have ripped. I’ve also put holes in the belly area from the pack belt catching. Overall, while they do seem durable enough to last a single summer season, it’s just too easy to get a pull in the material, only time will tell.

In comparison, initial impressions of some of my full synthetic base layers isn’t much more confidence inspiring, yet I’ve had many thin wicking shirts for 5+ years of hard use. Some are mildly pilled but none are ripped.

At full price, wool t-shirts range from $40-60+, or about $30-50 more than a typical synthetic wicking t-shirt, and still a bit more than your overpriced synthetic luxury brands mentioned above. Of course, unlike most textiles, these mostly seem to be made in the USA -for now. Perhaps that is worth a little premium. Having payed $36 for two t-shirts, I’m pretty happy with the investment provided they hold up. But before I go buying anymore of this wonder hybrid material, I’m going to figure out just how much durability comes with this perfect combination of natural and man made fibers.

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