Here at WildSnow, we’ve been wool clothing fans forever. Thus, it’s been exciting to see how wool has improved over the years. No longer do you have to wear thick itchy castoffs from the army surplus store. Advances in fiber selection and fabric construction make wool garments lightweight and soft — without sacrificing qualities such as odor resistance and warmth when damp.
I’ve been in search of the perfect wool base layer: lightweight, hood, not scratchy. I found an excellent layer at one company but they went out of business. As if reading my mind, Smartwool provided an outstanding replacement in their Women’s Lightweight Hoody. Along with that, I’ve also been testing a Smartwool Woman’s MerinoMax Full Zip (for our take on that, see Lou’s review of the men’s version below. He includes notes about women’s version).
The Lightweight Hoody has every feature I look for in a base layer, and more. It is soft next to my skin, lightweight enough to provide foundation, and in warm conditions I can wear it as a single to shelter from the brutal rays of high altitude sun.
Features that make the Lightweight Hoody extra nice: Two pony tail slots in the back of the hood, minimal pockets so it’s low bulk, trim fit, and thin fabric that doesn’t overheat you when you’re working hard. And Smartwool doesn’t forget about the style police. Look into any fashion magazine and you’ll see the hottest trend is a playful splash of bold color. Your inner child will jump for joy at the bright choices for the Lightweight Hoody: Wine, which will remind you of those youthful days of stuffing your mouth full of raspberries until everything was stained crimson, or a bright green which is equally as fun.
Downside of wool is it’s heavier than an equivalent layer in synthetic (and also absorbs more water weight if it happens to get really soaked), so you have to look at the tradeoff. Using a thin wool baselayer is only an ounce or two of difference versus synthetic, but use a thicker wool midlayer and you’re adding what some would consider to be significant mass. Thus, the Lightweight Hoody is pretty much what I always wear, but the Smartwool MerinoMax midlayer is more of an optional piece I use for days when I want the look and feel of wool, and weight is less of an issue.
Beyond all the technical stuff, what I like best about wool is it simply feels more versatile. I’m more likely to wear it as an outer layer, and more likely to use it as a sweater when I’m in civilization. Thus, whether I’m traveling or at home, these two Smartwool items are a terrific combo.
Lou’s take: In my endless search for good mid-layers, I’ve liked synthetic fleece because it’s so light. But fleece has a downside; it’s simply not that great an outer layer and after a certain amount of moisture attack it gets chilly (though easy to dry). Enter wool, specifically my Smartwool MerinoMax full zip torso mid-layer. Though I pay about a 3 ounce weight penalty when using the Smartwool top instead of my fleece, I gain big — with caveats.
Though wool does absorb moisture and is slower to dry than synthetic, it stays warm when damp or wet. Conversely, if a wool layer does get super soaked it can end up weighing a ton and be tough to deal with — especially in stormy expedition conditions when sun drying is impossible. Fleece, on the other hand, has a much lower limit to how much water it’ll hold after a soaking, and is easy to wring out and air dry or even dry with body heat. I’m thinking situations like getting caught in a brutal rain storm, or an accidental soaking from falling in a creek or pond (I’ve seen it happen).
The Smartwool MerinoMax is of course made with eponymous wool from the merino sheep breed. This textile is soft, not scratchy. If you have no wool allergies you’ll find merino as friendly to your skin as fleece or cotton. Features of this layer are minimal, which is why we like it. No side pockets, just a flat vest pocket for the men and a shoulder pocket for the ladies. Men’s version has thumb holes in nice long sleeves ending with moderately elastic wristlets. Women’s cuffs don’t have thumb holes, but rather a built in mitten (runner style). MerinoMax fabric is thick enough to have an effect on your body temp, but this is not a heavy sweater. Waist length is “classic” instead of athletic-modern, meaning it rides a bit lower (good). Mainly, my MerinoMax looks the best of any layers I’m using these days — my bride says so anyway. Lisa’s looks good too.
Smartwool MerinoMax Full Zip and the new lightweight hoodies will be available in August, men’s size M Merino Max weighs 15 oz, 426 gr, women’s size M is 12.4 oz, 356 gr