Smartwool Tops – Lisa and Lou Review

Post by blogger | June 18, 2012      
Backcountry skiing with Smartwool top.

Yours truly in my Smartwool Lightweight Hoody, hat optional.

Lisa in Smartwool top, backcountry skiing.

Smartwool MerinoMax top, backcountry skiing Colorado this past spring.

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.

Backcountry skiing with Smartwool clothing.

Lou in the MarinoMax full zip, laughing at the moisture and cold of a sudden snow squall.

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


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11 Responses to “Smartwool Tops – Lisa and Lou Review”

  1. Mark W June 18th, 2012 12:29 pm

    Merino is fantastic. Started wearing merino blend socks a few years back, and everything else stinks (sometimes quite badly) by comparison.

  2. Glenn Sliva June 18th, 2012 4:19 pm

    I have a pair of Icebreaker GT 3/4 Sprint Legless Tights for outside the boot base layer and on a hot day up Buttermilk quick “skin up” workout. Very comfortable and light. Of course men in tights is another subject of similar to Roger Marolt’s men in bike shorts. I guess it depends on the size of the beer gut.

  3. Mark W June 18th, 2012 5:48 pm

    In parts of Europe, spandex is worn regardless of beer guts.

  4. joe john June 18th, 2012 6:11 pm

    In Europe the speedo is common, even with beer gut.

  5. Jon Moceri June 18th, 2012 9:09 pm

    I’ve been wearing the Icebreaker and Smartwool merino wool stuff for years. But my skin itches even with the best merino wool. So I started wearing silk as my base layer and then wool over that. Perfect! No itch. It doesn’t smell when wet and it doesn’t trap body odors like the synthetics.

    The best silk I’ve found is at Winter Silks. I like the turtlenecks and they come in several different weights and colors. I like the heavy weight, which isn’t that heavy.

    But I have to be careful. With the black turtleneck and blue jeans, I’m nearly a Steve Jobs look-a-like.

    As an aside, and a safety note. Wool and silk are much safer than synthetics in fires. They won’t melt and stick to the skin like synthetics will. Imagine your stove catching on fire in a tent, and spilling white gas all over. With synthetics, your screwed, but with wool or silk, you have a chance.

    In fact, I believe the Marines and the Forest service have banned synthetic underwear because of the fire hazard. Unless your wearing Nomex or Kevlar, go with wool.

  6. Lisa June 18th, 2012 9:51 pm

    Jon, thanks for the interesting info. To alleviate itching, have you tried body lotion? My skin is much less sensitive when I moisturize it with unscented lotion. A dermatologist recommends Cetaphil Restoraderm, which you can buy at Walmart or Target. Hope it helps.

  7. Christian June 19th, 2012 7:56 am

    This is my absolute favorite base layer:
    In my mind, nothing can really compare. When it is cold (-20 – 10c) I often only use this layer under a shell w/o ventilation, and just add ventialtion as it gets warmer. A base layer that is both warmer and colder than anything else has to win!

  8. Jon Moceri June 20th, 2012 12:03 am


    That’s a good idea. I’ll have to try it out. Thanks.

  9. XXX_er June 20th, 2012 2:04 am

    I got poly and I got merino and IME, mid weight wool is itchy, all wool is rather more expensive than poly and it does not wear near as hardy as poly, evidence of that can be found in any hut full of BC skiers whom will all be wearing merino with big holes BUT wool absolutely does not stink

    SO if I am near a washing a washing machine I just wash my poly before it stinks too bad, but if I am going to be stuck with myself for 10 days I wear a non-itchy super light wool base layer just for that layer that will touch my filthy/sweaty body and the 2nd or 3rd layer can be a harder wearing poly because i really don’t find much difference in performance warmth wise

  10. Lynne Wolfe June 20th, 2012 7:49 am

    Agree with you 100% on the lightweight wool topic. It is yummy. I do want to put in a plug for the Ibex stuff- have found it to be quite durable and well-made. Their lightweight hoody is great too:

    and they have a baselayer cami with a shelf bra- which Smartwool used to have but no longer: this has become a big fave as it is long in the back for complete coverage:

    I am a big fan of the front-to-back zipper for pants, have my seamstress (who thinks I am crazy) put one in soft and hard shells without fail. Arc’teryx makes a medium weight wool long john with the crotch zip option- hooray.

  11. neonorchid June 20th, 2012 1:45 pm

    Safety wise, Wool is also better as a outer layer when on the steep’s hard pack icy non blizzard days. Better braking in a fall, less likely to slide like a rocket as in synthetics.

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