No matter what cold weather outdoor activity you pursue staying warm is a constant battle. Before I started using merino wool I went along with the mindset a lot of us were told…The more layers you wear the warmer you will be. Following this mindset I dressed up like Ralphie’s brother in “A Christmas Story” and headed out into the woods. Unfortunately, 30 mins later sitting in the stand and I was already freezing my butt off. Eventually after freezing time and time again I thought there has to be a better option.
When I started researching merino wool base layers for hunting I had to switch my thinking from the more the merrier to the right type of layers is the most important factor. Everything works together and having the right foundation so to speak is what will make all the difference.
So what is merino wool exactly?
Merino is a breed of sheep, orvis aries is its scientific name, prized for its wool that is used to make high quality clothing for its following attributes.
- Keeps You Cool
- Moisture Wicking
- Odor Resistant and Antibacterial
- Biodegradable: Disappears After 12 Months On The Ground
- UPF Protection
Warmth and Cooling Ability
Obviously one of the first things people think of when they hear wool is how warm it is. When I first started wearing merino wool my wife would ask me if I stayed warm when returning from a hunt. My immediate answer was always yes because I truly did noticed how much warmer I was. This also provided me the ability to hunt longer. When I started to wear the garments around the house though is when I noticed something.
Due to our wood burning stove it gets warmer in some rooms faster than others. My wife again would ask how I could wear a long sleeve shirt when she was burning up but I was also fine without a sweatshirt or blanket in the colder rooms. I noticed that merino wool is a great regulator of my body temperature. It was keeping me warm or cool depending on how my body was reacting. It makes sense when you think about a sheep. They only have one shot at staying warm, cool, and dry. God designed them to live in all types of weather conditions. We as humans have been able to take advantage of this natural fiber. Essentially we are wearing a sheep’s coat and are reaping the benefits. Compared to a human hair, merino wool is much smaller.
Lets look at why merino is able to provide both warmth and cooling properties.
Merino wool is actually warmer than its synthetic counter part of the same weight. Air is the best insulator and dead air is even better. Merino wool has a natural crimped design. This helps it trap an increased amount of dead air in the micro-climate (area between your skin and a merino layer) which will keep you warmer in cold temperatures.
Better yet is merino wool’s ability to absorb moisture while still keeping you warm. Merino wool can be soaking wet but still provide you warmth because of its superb ability to keep moisture away from your skin. It can absorb up to 30% of its dry weight before it starts to feel wet!
Synthetics are around 7% to 8%
Because of its tremendous ability to absorb and store moisture wool is very good at cooling you down. Wool works the same way your body does in terms of cooling you down. Your body temperature rises and sweats. Sweat evaporates and you cool down. The moisture from your body is absorbed by the wool and the heat from your body causes the moisture to evaporate cooling you down.
As mentioned above merino can absorb a lot of moisture. How is it able to keep you dry? Merino is a moister wicking machine for this reason. It is porous by nature. This allows the moisture vapor to be trapped by these porous fibers. Because of this it can absorb moisture in the vapor state to keep you from feeling wet.
Synthetic fibers only absorb moisture in its liquid state meaning you actually have to start sweating. As you body heats up it will then start to evaporate the moisture. With synthetic you have to become wet before getting dry. Merino can skip this step completely.
I can vouch for this through first hand experience. For my elk hunt last fall I packed the following wool garments.
- Long sleeve shirt
- 2 pairs of socks
I wore the shirt and underwear all week long (believe me it’s not as gross as it sounds). Due to its antibacterial and odor resistant qualities these garments didn’t smell. I wish my boots would have fared as well.
Merino wool is coated in a waxy oil called Lanolin. This oil helps sheep stay dry in wet conditions but it also has properties that prevent bacteria from growing. Odor comes from growing bacteria.
Also the moister wicking and ability to keep you cool during physical activity mentioned above will help you sweat less because it can regulate your body temperature.
Synthetic garments stink. I’ve owned a couple. After awhile you can’t get the stench out no matter how many times you wash it!
Merino garments are broken down into categories based on the weight of the garment in grams within a square meter. You may see it written as g/m2. Usually the 3 categories are lightweight, mid-weight, and heavyweight. Here is an overview of each.
- 120 – 200 g/m2 or less
- Low Activity 60+ degrees F
- High Activity 30 – 60 degrees F
- Running,Hiking,Mountain Biking, Every Day Wear etc
- 200 – 300 g/m2
- Low Activity 30 – 60 degrees F
- High Activity 0 – 30 degrees F
- Hiking, Camping, Hunting, Fishing
Both my long sleeve shirt and leggings are 250 g/m2. Personally I think this covers any type of hunting situation I will be in very well. As I mentioned, I wore these on my elk hunt and was comfortable whether I was hiking, glassing, or sleeping in the tent. They are also versatile enough for me to stay warm in a tree-stand here in the Midwest when the temperature starts to drop or doing chores around the house in the late winter.
If your new to merino wool and want to buy a garment to see what all the hub bub is about I recommend going for a mid-weight garment. It can handle just about anything you will put it through.
- 300 – 420 g/m2
- Low Activity 0 – 30 degrees F
- High Activity 0 and below 0 degrees F
- Hunting, Ice Fishing, Snow-sports
No matter what temperature you hunt in there is a garment that can suit your needs. Honestly, I can’t recommend getting a pair of merino underwear enough. It’s a game changer in my opinion. Besides the undies I have a long sleeve shirt, leggings, and a couple pairs of socks. My next purchase will be a t-shirt that I can wear for early season or spring hunts and also a toboggan.
As for fit I would go with a slightly snug fit. It shouldn’t be tight because you want room to allow air between your skin and the garment but snug enough that you can wear a jacket or other layer over it comfortably.
When I’m in the mountains hiking I wear only my merino long sleeve in temps from 20 to 60 and fair just fine. If we stop to glass or take a break I’ll throw a puffy on once I have cooled down. If I am in a tree-stand and the temps are 45 degrees and above I am comfortable in just the long sleeve merino shirt. Once it starts to get below 45 I like to wear a fleece pull over or a jacket that cuts the wind. Below 30 or so and its merino, puffy, and fleece outer-layer to help reduce noise.
You will be surprised how comfortable you can be with just merino and a puffy jacket.
As for brands I have Smartwool and Meriwool. I have been happy with both companies and don’t have any complaints. Using merino wool base layers for hunting will make a world of difference for you. To be honest with you I would recommend spending the money on merino before I buy the latest and great hunting jacket and pants. Having a solid base layer, a garment to break the wind, and an insulation layer you will be set for just about any type of hunting situation.
It all starts with the foundation.
If you have further questions regarding merino wool base layers please leave me a comment below. I’m glad to help anyway I can. If you wear merino wool already let me know you thoughts below.
Have a good one.