Why merino wool t-shirts are the best travel t-shirts

There’s an interesting pattern that emerges from perusing the packing lists of long-term (or frequent) backpackers; they end up using eerily identical sorts of gear. You’ll see surprisingly consistent suggestions, such as using down jackets for warmth, traveling with just one pair of do-it-all shoes, using tiny airplane bottles, and so on. I call it the “objectivity funnel.” Despite the broad range of circumstances long-term backpackers run into, there’s an objectively correct answer (at least conceptually) to just about every situation. And one of the most consistently suggested items for travelers of all sorts is a merino wool t-shirt. Everyone will tell you to get one. Or two or three.

Icebreaker Tech T Lite Merino Wool T Shirt
The Icebreaker Tech T Lite, the backpacking world’s ubiquitous #1 t-shirt recommendation. Kinda weird how it has two logos, but it’s otherwise great. Get it here.

There’s a good reason for this. Cotton and polyester, which seemingly comprise 99% of the t-shirt world, have a number of irritating liabilities that simply won’t go away, which become especially problematic when subjected to the sorts of conditions that long-term backpackers often encounter.

  • Cotton is incapable of drying quickly, meaning it’ll hold onto moisture all day long, so hand-washing clothes is nearly impossible. If you perspire heavily in the middle of winter, the moisture will stay all over you, sucking body heat away and slowly destroying your soul, a tragedy which I discovered the hard way in a below-freezing Italian winter with inadequate gear. I literally crawled under one of those hand dryers in a random bathroom to warm my chilled bones. Cotton is a problem in the heat as well; if you’re sweating heavily all day, particularly in humid weather, your t-shirt will become a sopping wet ordeal within a matter of hours.
  • Polyester has a different sort of problem, as it dries quickly enough that it won’t accumulate horrific amounts of sweat, but it will accumulate horrific amounts of body odor. The smooth surface of the fiber is a spectacular breeding ground for bacteria, particularly when it’s hot and sweaty. Entire civilizations of microorganisms will rise and fall within the synthetic fibers of your snazzy polyester t-shirt, producing waste products that cause offensive and socially unacceptable smells. And it doesn’t matter if you’re using deodorant. That’ll make you smell fine, but not the fabric, where the colony will thrive. Polyester is also non-absorbent, meaning that when moisture has nowhere to go (if you’re sitting against a plastic chair, or carrying a pack), it’ll just sit there, feeling like a wet garbage bag. It’ll smell like one, too. Plenty of anti-odor treatments exist (it’ll say so in the product description if it has one) but they’re not always present, and occasionally ineffective.

Merino wool has none of these problems.

Why merino wool t-shirts work so well

Triple Aught Design Traverse Tech T Merino Wool T Shirt
This one looks great. Lightweight, subtle (but mostly dark) colors, and with zero logos, this is Triple Aught Designs’ Traverse Tech T. Get it here.

As any long-term backpacker (whether traveler or mountaineer) will tell you, merino wool has something of a legendary reputation for comfort (mentally and physically), in a broad range of situations, from summer heat to winter chill, and outdoorsy adventures to lazy hostel lounging. It’s incredibly versatile, which is absolutely essential to shrinking a gigantic pack to practically nothing, particularly if you’re going to put it through the rigors of extreme temperature fluctuations and rivers of sweat flowing down your torso.

Merino wool pros:

  • Merino wool is an excellent insulator, keeping you warm in the winter, and cool in the summer…within limits, of course, but much better than cheaply produced polyester t-shirts, which can often make you feel like you’re stuck in an oven.
  • Merino wool is absorbent (unlike polyester, which just lets moisture sit stickily on the surface), but merino actually absorbs moisture to the interior of the fiber, whereas the surface pushes moisture away. This means it can actually be somewhat damp, yet still feel completely dry, which is a big part of the reason it’s so comfortable.
  • It dries a lot faster than cotton; usually not as fast as polyester (though different fabrics vary), but fast enough that you can generally wash a merino wool t-shirt in the sink at night, and hang it up to dry by morning. Colder climates (and early risers) will make this more difficult, but only by a matter of hours. It also means you can go on a 12 hour hike and won’t be sopping wet by the end, because moisture won’t continuously accumulate like it does with cotton.
  • It will never accumulate body odor. You will smell, but your clothing will not. The surface of the fiber provides a horrible environment for bacterial growth, so it just doesn’t survive. No bacteria, no smell. Mountaineers have literally worn the same outfit for several months at a time with no problems. If you’re wandering around in burning hot sunshine all day and then you have to walk into a hostel and hope to be socially acceptable, this is a huge deal.
  • It otherwise looks and feels just like cotton, AKA it’s super soft and comfy, and doesn’t look techy. It can be a little out of place wearing polyester t-shirts all the time (particularly when the vast majority of those are about as shiny as the chrome plating on a brand new car, and have just as many ventilation panels, showy logos, and racing stripes), whereas merino just looks like a regular t-shirt (although I can tell the difference, because I’m obsessed with these things).
  • Compared to other types of wool, merino has the additional benefit of not itching…at all. It’s a much finer fiber than “regular” wool (and often treated to soften the microscopically scaly surface of the fiber, which usually causes the itching), so if you’ve tried wool before and it drove you insane, it’s worth giving merino wool a try. You might legitimately be allergic to wool, but it might just be that you’ve been trying the wrong kind this whole time. I can’t wear a regular wool sweater for more than five minutes without going crazy, but I can wear merino forever.
Merino Wool Fiber Comparison
It’s the scaly surface that makes wool itchy. Since merino is much finer, it’s a lot less of a problem.

These advantages come at a price, however. Pun intended.

Merino wool cons:

  • They’re horrifyingly pricey…like, $70 for a t-shirt. It will very likely be your favorite t-shirt, and if you’re rotating through just a few items, you only need a few of them…but whether it’s worth the cost or not will depend on how seriously you make use of the advantages listed above.
  • Bugs will eat them! Silverfish and moths will be your arch nemeses. People rarely run into these problems, particularly if the items are stuffed in a backpack, but it’s worth taking into consideration if you happen to see bugs like these. On the upside, merino wool is flame-resistant (whereas polyester burns immediately), so there’s a durability pro/con tradeoff here.
  • They’re somewhat less durable than slick and smooth polyester. This is generally only a problem with really vigorous hand washing, which can eventually degrade the fabric, whereas with smooth polyester, you can scrub all day long as hard as you can, and nothing will happen. Thus if you’re hand washing merino wool, it’s a good idea to scrub a little more softly (and use more soap and water for extra cleaning power) so it’ll last longer. They don’t need to be washed that often anyway, but it’s still good to be gentle on a $70 item. Durability is comparable to high-quality cotton t-shirts, so this isn’t a “problem,” aside from the fact that you’ll want to maximize the lifespan more so than you would with anything else.

So! Are merino t-shirts worth the cost?

Patagonia Merino Daily T-shirt
The Patagonia Merino Daily T-shirt, a summer-weight merino t-shirt blended with polyester for increased wicking and durability…though it pills far too soon. Get it here.

Many people will tell you that merino wool is so vastly superior in terms of comfort and versatility that there’s simply no reason to bother with anything else, and, if you aren’t in a financial mess, they’re correct. But I’m somewhat more price-sensitive than “just get them, they’re awesome,” because at $70 (or more) per t-shirt, it’s simply out of reach for a lot of people. Ironically, they’re especially out of reach for budget-stricken college-age backpackers on their way to sweltering summer climates where merino wool works amazingly well. Life is annoying that way.

So I’m going to describe the situations where merino wool works best, so you can decide if the cost/benefit analysis is worth it for you. The more you make use of merino wool’s spectacular features, the more it’ll become worthy of the investment.

You should probably invest in merino wool if:

  • You need a minimum of clothing that handle whatever. Hot, cold, and everything in between, through long days of brisk walks through humid tropics, followed by sociable evenings that start too soon for you to take a shower. The more climate variations you’ll encounter, and the more you exert yourself throughout the day, the more sense it makes to use merino.
  • If you sweat all day, every day, and have horrific problems with workout clothing smelling horrible after just a few hours of intense use, or cotton accumulating so much sweat that you feel like you’re wearing a wet sponge.
  • You hate the sticky feeling of polyester, but still want something quick-drying, whether for comfort, or ease of hand washing.
  • If you’re heading into snowy mountains, where you’ll be sweating ridiculously on steep uphill climbs, with windswept peaks with appallingly freezing wind chill, where moisture next to the skin will ruin your whole day.

As you may have guessed, merino wool is most useful at extreme temperatures (and trips that involve wild temperature fluctuations), and, if you’re traveling, I would argue that it’s more likely that this will be relevant in hot weather, as you’ll gain the advantages of moisture management and odor resistance, which are most important in sweaty conditions. It’s relevant in warm weather as well, since sweating lightly for 12 hours is going to create just as good a breeding ground for offensive bacteria as sweating heavily for 2 hours.

Outlier Ultrafine Merino T Shirt
Outlier’s Ultrafine Merino T Shirt uses a slightly thicker fabric (200 grams per square meter vs. the usual 150) for extra durability, though it might be a little too warm for intense heat waves. Get it here.

Merino also works nicely in cold weather, as it still manages to insulate, even when somewhat wet, and dries quickly enough that you can stay warm, which is critical if you’re sweating heavily in winter. I would say this is probably more important for hiking backpackers, and somewhat less important for travel backpackers, because travelers sometimes have a backpack which makes them sweat ridiculously (before they drop it off at the hostel), but hikers pretty much always do. Hikers also can’t duck into a coffee shop and sip a hot drink whenever they feel like it, or throw their stinky used clothing into a laundry machine, whereas travelers usually can.

You won’t need it if:

  • You’re walking around in cool weather, you’re not sweating, and you have a warm-enough jacket anyway. If you’re wandering around town at a leisurely pace that doesn’t result in immense perspiration, merino wool’s moisture management and odor resistance are largely irrelevant. In cold weather it’s useful, since any perspiration might literally start freezing, but that only comes into play if you’re exerting yourself. In mild conditions at a slow pace, you can get by cheaply with ordinary clothing. Particularly if…
  • You also have continuously available laundry facilities. If you plan on washing everything in a machine anyway, you’ll just take a shower whenever you feel the need to do so, and put on a brand new set of clothes afterwards. If you’re in mild weather and you weren’t even sweating much anyway, the performance advantages of merino wool will pretty much be invisible all day, and the quick-drying fabric will be mostly irrelevant if you’re also doing a machine wash.

I would actually argue that if you’re planning on a trip where the weather is going to hover between room temperature and slightly-cooler room temperature with a zero percent chance of rain, you don’t need performance clothing of any kind. It’s mostly in the crushingly brutal temperature extremes that high-tech clothing is most useful, and, when you’re traveling (or hiking), you often run into this a lot, and you don’t always have a home to hide inside of, so your only means of shelter is clothing. And it had damned better be good.

Smartwool NTS Micro 150 Merino T Shirt
Smartwool’s NTS 150 has a subtle microstripe pattern that adds a little visual variation. Get it here.

I’ve been through ridiculously blazingly hot summers, and brutally below-freezing winters, and got locked in a damn Italian train station overnight with inadequate gear in the middle of winter, where my stupid body decided to perspire all night long for no stupid reason, and since pretty much all I had was cotton, that sweat stayed there. Let me tell you, being wet and cold in the middle of winter while locked in a train station at 4am is the worst. Damn you, Italy. Damn you!

But that’s why merino wool is so beloved by scruffy backpackers all over the world. It’ll regulate your body temperature, pull excess moisture away from your body and let it evaporate, and it’ll look, feel, and smell great the whole time, no matter what sorts of nonsense you get yourself into. So no, it’s not that you “need” merino wool, but, if you find yourself ending up in these ridiculous situations over and over again, merino will make you feel a whole lot better than just about anything else.

Where can I get some?

Lots of people make merino wool t-shirts nowadays, so you’ll have plenty of options, from outdoorsy merino wool companies that specialize in the fiber, such as Icebreaker, Smartwool, Ibex, and Minus33, and outdoor/travel/performance companies such as Patagonia, Rohan, Outlier, and Wool & Prince, all of which have good options.

Aside from personal preferences on style and fit, the one thing you’ll want to look for is the fabric weight; 150 grams per square meter is a pretty standard, “normal” t-shirt weight, and good for a wide range of climates and situations. Some go down to 120 (which will be super light, but much more delicate), and up to 200 (which will be much stronger, but maybe too warm for the tropics).

Minor side note: Personally I prefer to wear nothing but t-shirts as a base layer (even when part of a winter packing list), because that way you can strip down to a t-shirt if you’re too warm, and leave the insulation to the other layers. Packing multiple t-shirts is also lighter than packing multiple thermal long underwear tops, and much easier to wash and hang dry as well. So regardless of where you’re going, I’d say just bring regular t-shirts, and add more layers when it’s cold.

Merino wool also makes great dress shirts, which not only do everything you see here, but are also completely immune to wrinkles! I’ve compiled a brief list here. Never iron anything ever again!

Is there anything comparable to merino t-shirts?

Yup! There’s magical miracle fabric out there that pretty much does everything merino wool does, and could probably be sold at half the price. It’s called Tencel, and nobody uses the damn thing. Argh!

Nau M2 Crew
I picked up this Nau M2 Crew which is a merino/Tencel blend that feels great, and has been discontinued. Sigh. Get it here before it’s gone.

Well, that’s not true. They use it for women’s clothing, because apparently only women enjoy feeling comfortable!?!? Argh again! But oh well. If you happen to have two X chromosomes, take a look at Nau, Royal Robbins, and Horny Toad, all of which have a billion Tencel options for ladies. It’s also called lyocell, so keep an eye out for that too. It drives me crazy how this is somehow a women’s fabric even though men sweat lots more. Argh!!!

I finally managed to find a couple things for men made out of the damn thing, and it shares a lot of the same properties as merino, but actually dries faster, which is why I keep blathering on and on about it. I’d love to see a t-shirt made out of this material, because I think it could be a great budget-friendly (and vegan) alternative to the tried-and-true merino wool t-shirt that everyone loves. Tencel is highly absorbent, quick drying, odor resistant, environmentally sustainable, and ridiculously soft. I can’t entirely determine at this point whether it’ll work just as well as merino (I literally cannot find a men’s t-shirt made purely of Tencel), but it feels great, and people should just start using it already.

What if I’m too poor?

If you simply can’t spend $70 on a t-shirt, have no fear. A decent budget alternative is simply to use a cotton/polyester blend t-shirt, which will give you the benefits of both fibers; it’ll be soft and absorbent, but quick-drying and shrink-resistant. It won’t be as good as merino, particularly when it comes to odor resistance (most cotton/polyester t-shirts are intended to be cheap, so they don’t bother with additional anti-odor treatments), but it’ll do.

I’m voting for Uniqlo’s Dry Packaged Crew, which is only $6 per t-shirt, and is pretty great. Not wear-it-three-days-in-a-row great, but maybe one or two, particularly in cool-to-warm (rather than cold-to-hot) weather. It’s made of seemingly higher-quality materials than anything I’ve seen at this price, and it’ll allow you to deal with sink washes and intense sweating fairly well, and for $6 each, you can spend the extra cash on other important things, like beer.

I would also add that if you’re traveling, it’s not a bad idea to bring one outfit you don’t mind ruining; a cheap polyester t-shirt makes a good “I’m going on a hike for 2 hours and showering afterward” layer, since you don’t have to worry about body odor in that case, and polyester t-shirts can be as cheap as $10, and if they get destroyed on a thorn-filled jungle trek, you won’t care.

Well, I hope you’ve enjoyed me going into ridiculous detail (I certainly did!), but I also hope this’ll help people make a better decision as to whether or not it’s worth dropping $300 on a few new t-shirts. Everyone will tell you they’re totally worth it, but I think it’s worth knowing exactly why. It’s a major investment, but a merino wool t-shirt is very likely going to be your new “I wish this were my only shirt” shirt.

About SnarkyNomad

Eytan is a pretentious English major whose rant-laden sarcastic tirades occasionally include budget travel tips and other international nonsense. You can follow his every narcissistic word on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+.

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144 Comments on “Why merino wool t-shirts are the best travel t-shirts”

    1. Montbell has some good stuff. Pretty outdoorsy-looking stuff, but their insulated jackets are quite nice. We don’t really have Quechua over here in the States, but it looks good too.

  1. I own a lot of merino.

    I don’t wear it as a base layer much any more, for two reasons.

    Firstly, it shrinks a little after repeated washes, but also tends to stretch in places. Combine with the main brands’ tendency to make them with short trunks and sleeves, and you end up looking like a ski bum in mismatched hand-me-downs.

    Secondly, merino is not itch free, especially after repeated washings, and particularly when pressed against the skin (outer layers, backpacks, tight fit, motorcycle gear, sitting down). I have sensitive skin.

    I’ve found Uniqlo’s airism base layers to be relatively stink free; enough to wear the same tee for day, night, day without discernable odor. (And I have a very sensitive nose to match my skin.)

    I’m totally sold on merino on paper, and continue to use it as mid-layers. But the airism tees and boxers are so compact and comfortable (and 1/10 the price!) that I no longer use merino for travel.

    1. I’m a huge fan of the Airism boxer brief, but for some reason the t-shirts have odor problems for me. I suppose different people have different bacterial colonies living on them, so this’ll differ from person to person. But I still used it, because it was my “I don’t mind getting this ruined” shirt.

      And I’ve found that anything slightly damp will feel weird, and it just happens to be that certain types of merino have a bit of prickliness, but I’m not sure if this is better or worse than what happens when you’re leaning against a non-breathable plastic chair with a wet cotton t-shirt. Either way, it feels icky.

      1. I’ve been traveling for two years with basically the same clothes. Both hot and cold climates and a lot of walking but I don’t do any strenuous hiking. At the start of my travels, I bought a five pack of poly/cotton Fruit of the Loom boxers at Target for $10 and they have been amazing. Very thin and lightweight and I think a 60/40 blend although I can’t read the label anymore. I only brought two pairs with me and they are still going strong although they’ve lost a little shape. When I was back in the US in November I bought a pair of polyester REI briefs (they seem to be a copy of the ex-officios) and a pair of CK poly Boxer briefs which I picked up at TJ Maxx. The latter two have been a huge disappointment in terms of odor and drying. The Fruit of the Loom boxers dry in 60-70% of the time required for either the REI or CK and I’ve gone a few days without washes with no odor. I can only wear the REI/CKs for a day and they make me feel sweaty. I seem to be able to wear poly t-shirts with no issues and I’ve got a reebok short sleeve and an underarmor longsleeve which have both been amazing and cheap. I also picked up an ex-officio long sleeve vented dress shirt at Seattle airport on a whim and I’ve been really happy with it although my back sticks to seats after a while if it’s warm. Even on a supposed sale it cost $70 but I think it’s been worth it. Pants-wise I seem to have settled on the Kuhl Raptr as my daily wear. I’ve got a packable cheap synthetic down jacket that has been fantastic although it’s on its last legs now. I did try a merino icebreaker long sleeve shirt but I lost it somewhere along the way. I only got to try in cold weather but I don’t seem to be missing it so I guess it didn’t have that great an emotional impact on me either way. Shoes have been a pair of waterproof skecher slip-ons and I picked up a pair of the go walk 3s in November which seem to be working out well so far.

        1. Sounds like a great setup. Underwear was a problem for me too, until I discovered these. There’s one more thing I’d like to try, but for $13, they’ve been better than anything else I’ve ever tried.

          1. Those Uniqlos look fantastic. I’m in Southern China now and there is a Uniqlo store nearby. Whether they have the undies AND keep european sizes is another issue but if I can ditch the REIs I’ll be happy. I’ve found the minimum I need to survive is three pairs.

  2. My biggest complaint is that the women’s shirts usually have a modern fit (tight) Vs a body skimming fit. This creates a lot of cultural problems in areas that require modesty for women.. In addition, few of the shirts have features a woman likes – scoop necks Vs crew necks, 3/4 sleeve Vs long sleeve, flutter sleeve Vs unflattering cap sleeve.
    Another complaint – the colors are very limited. Navy, grey, chocolate neutrals are hard to find. If you do find them then there is some sort of artistic print on the shirt which really limits mixing/matching with other clothing. I want my neutrals to be neutrals, thanks. I’ll find my own ways to dress the shirts up with scarves and statement jewelry.

    1. I agree. I want my clothing to be as neutral as Switzerland. Nau is a good place to go for that sort of thing. They usually only do subtle neutrals.

    2. Really? Icebreaker have a great range of colours and do scoop necks.
      I also find Kathmandu and Macpac do a great range of styles. Maybe these two stores aren’t around outside of Australia and New Zealand?

      1. I know this comment is a bit old now, but for what it’s worth; yes, to my knowledge Kathmandu and Macpac are primarily AUS and NZ-based. As an American who lived in NZ/AUS for a couple years, I can say I’ve never seen either in the States (at least not areas I’ve been/lived) and had never heard of them before going over. I quite liked some of the things at Kathmandu, and I can’t recall their merino wool products being as prohibitively expensive as in the States. I got a great little merino cap from there, and it served me well during my travels in NZ. I seem to recall Icebreaker things (Icebreaker being Kiwi as well) were relatively more available there, too? Not too long ago, I found a merino blend Icebreaker hoodie/jacket at Marshall’s here for like $25, in the clearance section. The same jacket appeared to go for ~$200 on outdoor gear websites. It seems no one recognized the brand, because I guess it’s not as prevalent here as North Face, etc.

  3. Merino t-shirts – expensive as hell, worth every penny. I’ve tried a lot of brands (Ibex, Icebreaker, Patagonia, Smartwool, Minus 33, IO Merino) and now stick with Ibex and Icebreaker as my two favorites. I really like IO Merino as well, but harder to find locally. Washing tips for home – use the delicate cycle on the wash machine and line dry. I have merino garments I’ve worn for many years (5+) with no signs of wear by using this method. Watch for sales and the price will drop to something that is still not inexpensive, but more reasonable.

  4. I have 3 Icebreaker tech T lites which I absolutely love as well as a Smartwool NTS 150 long sleeve shirt. I wouldn’t trade these for anything. I wear them in generally warm weather but like you said the awesome thing is they double as baselayers in very cold wather. Awesome!

    They are pricey like you say but ok for my budget. Where I draw the line is the Outlier world traveler long sleeve button down merino which is around $200! Would love to have it but just too expensive. Maybe some day…

    Also, I have one REI mens tshirt that is 100% tencel. But i found it on the discount rack so I assume they discontinued the thing. I like it but it just doesn’t feel as comfy or smooth as merino. Waaaaayyy cheaper tho.

    Keep up the awesome work!! Cheers.

    1. I think part of the difference is that Tencel is actually made, as you take the wood pulp and make it into something that resembles thread, so you can have all sorts of variations based on thickness, and things like that, and it would still qualify as Tencel. There’s some variation with merino as well, but you’re just taking it right off the sheep, so I would expect that there’s probably less. I’ve seen a few different Tencel fabrics that barely resemble each other at all, so I think it’s simply a matter of production variation. Kind of neat, though. They can make it super fine or thicker and stronger, and it might be useful to be able to do that.

      1. There is actually tons of variation in merino (and all wool), but it’s carefully sorted into different grades and then used very differently so what gets made into t-shirts is all from just a couple grades. The higher the micron the thicker and scratchier the wool. 25 micron and up is mainly for carpets, blankets and industrial uses. 20-25 micron stuff is the scratchy wool you might remember hating as a kid. At below 20 it gets to be pretty soft, with most companies going for 18.9 micron (for suits this is a Super 100). We like to use 17.5 as its noticeably softer and smoother, but it also costs a lot more. Below that it gets insanely expensive, and it also gets less durable as the fibers get thinner and thinner.

    1. Costco is a really great place to get just about everything. Plus they don’t try to plunder the wealth of their employees the way a certain “mart” does.

  5. I really wanted to like merino wool. I really did. It sounds awesome in theory. I even waxed poetic at great length about how magic it was when I got my first merino shirt:

    http://bounceyzone.com/2010/09/20/why-i-wore-the-same-shirt-for-8-days/

    (Yeah, I know. I haven’t written anything there in 2 years. Gotta start finding time.)

    Here’s the problem: After a year or so of basically wearing the same 4 merino wool t-shirts in constant rotation, very carefully hand washing each one about 1 1/2 times per week, they started developing little holes all over. I’d hold one up to the light and mumble “buy shirt, get free planetarium!” Ended up returning 1 to REI (they gave me funny looks and said something about bugs, but still took it back) and 2 to Backcountry under their generous return policies. The fourth should have been returned but I just forgot. Maybe I’ll use it as a base layer someday.

    For that kind of dough I expect them to outlast the cotton t-shirts that companies hand out for free as advertising. Now I tend to wear polyester shirts bought gently used at thrift stores or on sale at Old Navy. Also those free cotton shirts.

    Wonder if anyone has done much with merino-nylon blends…

    1. I think Patagonia started making their merino garments with 30% nylon for added durability. I have some of the original Patagonia 100% merino and it does not hold up as well as it should. That said, still no issues with 100% merino from other sources.

    2. Agreed. Merino from icebreaker, smart wool and Patagonia have been like fragile unicorn hair for me. Always hand washed and they’ve developped holes all over.

      The fabric is so thin and doesn’t drape nicely like a quality cotton t. Still on the hunt for the best travel t-shirt.

      1. A lot of the companies are experimenting with nylon blends, either with nylon in the core of the yarns with merino wrapped around it (new Icebreakers, QOR, and others), or the exact opposite, with a merino core, with skinny nylon filaments wrapped around to hold everything in place. Both are going to hold up a lot better than pure merino, so that’s the direction I’ve been moving lately.

        Ably Apparel has a treated cotton that’s highly water-resistant, which from the description sounds like something that could provide a nice alternative, though I haven’t given it a try quite yet.

  6. Looking at the other end of the body, all of my everyday cold weather socks are some kind of merino wool blend. They’re remarkably warm without being bulky. There’s a lot of variability in quality between brands though.

    My REI merino socks are fantastic. The thicker socks are starting to wear in a few places (but only to the point of slight discoloration) and the thinner ones have weird caterpillar fuzz inside. But no big deal. Got them on sale for $5-$10.

    Compare with my black Icebreaker socks: Looks classy, but we’ve already had to mend one hole in the leg (maybe two) and another hole has appeared recently. The instep has a few spots that are wearing so thin I can see skin. I don’t wear these socks THAT often… They were a bargain at $15 but are soundly beaten in real world value by REI.

    I’ve been avoiding smartwool socks after reading too many reports of them wearing out quickly.

    Again, for that kind of money I expect merino to at least match the useful life span of cheap cotton. But it’s nice to have socks that are warm and don’t smell funk-tastic after a stroll in the snow boots.

    Merino is good stuff and has a lot of potential – if it’s blended with the right other fibers.

    1. Try Darn Tough. If you look at any comparison of Smartwool and Darn Tough, it’s pretty unanimous that Darn Tough lasts longer. I bought some recently, and it’s still too early to comment on durability, but I can see that they’re knit more densely, and they’re working nicely so far. Though of course if you’re happy with the REI socks, well then that seems great too.

      1. Darn tough…purchased a few pairs in 2012, wore daily, all day, every day, for construction projects, office, exercise, camping, canoeing….etc…exchanged one pair last week with no questions asked. They had a dime size patch ‘almost a hole’ in the ball of my foot. The remaining three pair look good enough to be new-ish. Compared to every other sock I have tried (all of them!) they are the only sock worth buying.

  7. A few notes on Tencel.

    First off, it’s really nothing like merino, it has its advantages and disadvantages, but it’s not a substitute at all.

    First off, Tencel is just a branded subset of rayon, it is made in a more eco and health friendly manner than other rayons, but it performs very similarly to say a rayon made from bamboo or hemp. It’s also worth noting that it’s a very chemical intensive process to make any of these, Tencel’s main difference is it’s made in a super closed loop factory in Austria.

    Second, Tencel (and rayon in general) is really a warm weather fabric. While it does dry a bit faster than cotton it is still very absorbant and does not insulate when wet. If you are spending real time outdoors in below freezing weather it can seriously harm or kill you. Wool is unique in its ability to both absorb moisture and still insulate. (For a cheaper cold weather fabric you want a fiber that doesn’t absorb moisture like polyester or polypropylene)

    Less critically but worth noting, it’s got an odd property of stiffening when wet, and is rather prone to pilling. It’s also got a very soft hand feel that many people love but some hate, you’ll know which the second you touch it.

    As for finding it, it’s probably easier to find men’s stuff in either bamboo rayon or hemp rayon, I know Jungmaven does tees of the later. More interestingly Icebreaker is pushing a merino/Tencel blend for this spring/summer, should be available soon (forgot the name but there is a European brand doing that blend already).

    Personally I’m way happier in a pure merino, preferably 17.5 micron, but then again I make that stuff so I’m biased…

    1. That’s all good to know. It’s so difficult testing the fabric in an actual article of clothing, because it barely exists. I was quite surprised at how much faster it was drying than merino wool (I have something made purely of merino, one thing that’s 50/50 merino/tencel, and something that’s nearly pure Tencel, and I could see the difference pretty clearly), but I can’t do a side-by-side comparison of a merino shirt compared to a Tencel shirt, because I can’t find one.

      The insulation in cold weather while perspiring makes sense; Tencel seems to hold moisture on the outside of the fiber as well as the inside, whereas the outside of merino wool fiber pushes water away, so it won’t cling to your skin and suck warmth away. I’ll still test one out as soon as I find one, but maybe I’ll try not to get my hopes up too much.

      1. Tencel. I purchase tencel men’s wear from lululemon. I have found it to be the perfect sweater, and a worthy shirt material. I used your website 18 months ago to begin seeking out the perfect travel wardrobe. Ended up with a mixture of merino (ie SAXX merino wool underwear), tencel and equivalent pants and sweaters…and some quick dry Nike stuff which I assume to be someone’s recycled pop bottles? having said all that, it’s almost guaranteed that lululemon will switch to another fabric.

        1. I’ve seen more and more Tencel here and there, so hopefully it’ll become more popular. Merino wool is still great, and probably better, but Tencel has the potential to be a lot cheaper, so it’ll be more accessible.

    2. Tencel does not have the same properties as other rayon fabrics. Modal and bamboo are like cotton on steroids. They are softer, more plush, and more breathable than cotton but they are very delicate and take even longer to dry than cotton. Also, bamboo and modal get very cold when wet (though they still feel soft and comfortable, unlike wet cotton). So modal and bamboo make very good warm-weather lounge wear, but not good active wear.
      Tencel, however, is a whole other beast. It is silky and smooth, not soft and plush. It resembles polyester far more than it does cotton. I have a tencel Hugo Boss T-shirt that I bought about 10 years ago and it is still like new (tencel is very durable). Like polyester, it dries very quickly and is cool to the touch, but tencel breathes far better, wicks moisture better, and resists odours very well. I would say it’s actually more comparable to a very high quality tactel nylon.
      Tencel is nothing like merino in texture, but it is actually very much like merino in function… with one key difference. I may be one of those people with a legitimate allergy. While I do find a nice merino to be better than regular wool, it still itches me like crazy. Tencel is one of the most comfortable fabrics I’ve ever worn. Like the author, I too have been very frustrated by the scarcity of tencel menswear. Wake up manufacturing world, we need more tencel!
      Ps. You may be interested to know that Uniqlo makes a tencel boxer brief. Unfortunately I can’t get it in Canada, but you might want to look into it.

      1. I’ve seen a few different variations of Tencel; it’s kind of like how cotton can be made into nice dress shirts, stretchy t-shirts, or jeans. But with Tencel (because they actually MAKE the fiber) I think there’s even more variation. Most of the Tencel items I’ve seen look and feel quite a bit like cotton, to the point that I can barely tell the difference, pretty much like modal or bamboo.

        I’ve tried the Uniqlo Tencel boxer briefs, and the fabric is great, but the fit is a little different from the Airisms, and they move around a lot. It depends on what else you’re wearing, but I end up having to readjust quite a bit more, and sometimes I just switch back to the Airisms halfway through the day. I was excited about them, but the fit isn’t quite right for me…

        1. You are right! I have just bought a 100% tercel shirt and was surprised to discover that it feels just like a very, very thin and light-weight cotton. I guess my prior experience was not indicative of all tencel materials. Still, I should mention that the shirt is very breathable and comfortable, it just isn’t really silky.

          1. Johnathan, we are making a baselayer out of 40s high quality Lenzing Tencel. it’ll be available in Canada since we are Canadians :)

            launching it on kickstarters on Nov 7th, if you want to get a set check us out. if your in Toronto you can do a local pickup as well.

            http://www.elementpure.com

        2. So I finally got my hands on some tencel underwear from Uniqlo as well as the airism. Tbh, I’m not thrilled with either of them. The tencel ones breath quite well, but have a more cottony feel than I’d hoped for and the legs are too short (they ride up like crazy). The Airism is very thin and light-weight and the cut is pretty good, but I just don’t find the material to be super comfortable or breathable. Hopefully it will improve over several washings. I still prefer bamboo SAXX over anything else. If only they could make those in a nice, silky tencel, I’d be set.

          I also finally found a nice tencel t-shirt here: http://www.yoox.com/us/37661166VW/item?dept=men#sts=sr_men80&cod10=37661166MP&sizeId=
          It cost way too much to ship it to Canada, but it is pretty smooth and light. It feels like something between a mercerized cotton and a silky synthetic. It’s still not quite as luxurious as my old Hugo Boss tencel t-shirt, though. As for the cut, it isn’t perfect but it’ll do. All in all, I’m satisfied with it as it’s the best I’ve found in ages, but I still hope to eventually find better.

    3. There’s actually alot of variations in Tencel. for example if you want to remove the peach skin effect and reduce pilling you can use Tencel A100 which will be silky smooth and look almost like polyester but much softer.

      also if you use super fine 80s tencel, it’s softness will incomparable with any wool product no matter how fine you go with the wool.

      but yeah one of it’s disadvantages is if you are expecting to get wet and stay wet for long periods of time, it’ll be better to get wool because of wool insulates much better when wet due to it’s hollow fibers. for expedition and wet conditions, a tencel + wool blend would be awesome. you’ll get the incredible moisture management and comfort of tencel + wet insulation value of wool.

      also you guys should check out alpaca wool, it’s in many ways a lot better than merino wool. especially if you find the super fine versions.

      we are actually looking to make an super fine alpaca wool blend with 80s tencel A100 for the ultimate travel clothing :)

      1. I have been dorkily looking up the characteristics and differences between alpaca, mohair, angora, merino, cashmere, and bison wool today, because that is what I do with my time. It’s interesting to see how many different options exist out there, even though the outdoor market is dominated only by merino, or synthetic fibers. There’s a company called Kona that makes yak wool base layers, and they’re supposed to be great too.

        1. sweet i’ll check them out.

          angora is actually the softest and best insulation value by weight. BUT man oh man do they mistreat these rabbits. basically they get slaughtered to harvest the fur. after we found out how they were farmed and treated, we decided to permanently ban the usage of any rabbit fur in any clothes we ever make.

          the main reason we decided on alpaca is because there are just alot of benefits over sheep wool.

          – lighter than even merino or cashmere wool

          – higher thermal retention value than sheep wool due to hollow cores (like polar bear fur)

          – super fine <22 micron are softer than most sheep wool, on par with merino, this is also due to it having a smoother scale surface than sheep wool.

          – Alpaca fibers have a higher tensile strength than sheep wool fibers

          – Alpaca wool does not retain water, is thermal even when wet and can resist solar radiation effectively. These characteristics guarantee the animals a permanent and appropriate coat to protect against extreme changes of temperature. Alpaca origins which evolved over a long period of time. In the high Andes where Alpacas originated, they can experience temps anywhere on average from -30 degree F, to above 100 degrees with super intense U.V., and in the paramo levels lots of rain/snow and moisture at times, but in other places desert like. The Alpaca's "wool" developed to be able to handle all these and keep the animal alive and in relative comfort.

          – Laundering Alpaca is innately easier, because it has less tendency than untreated Merino to felt and thus doesn't shrink as much.

          – Alpaca does not contain lanolin, which is the chemical that causes wool allergy in some people. so if you are sensitive to wool, you'll be fine wearing alpaca.

          the downside is good quality 18-25 micron wool is quite expensive, that's probably the main reason people are using merino over this. but if you want the best, we think there's nothing quite like a good alpaca blend.

          unfortunately due to the cost we can't make it for the first round production as we are launching a kickstarter soon for a tencel baselayer, but i think we will be making the alpaca + tencel blend a stretch goal. so if you guys are interested in supporting the kickstarter campapign and possibly get your hands on this type of shirt / pants, please check us out at:

          http://www.elementpure.com
          http://www.facebook.com/ElementPure
          http://www.twitter.com/theelementpure

          we'll be launching the kickstarter on nov 7th 2015 :)

          1. Good to know. I did have some alpaca socks from Dahlgren, and they were fine, but it was hard to tell the difference, because socks have all sorts of other things in them, like nylon and spandex, so it’s hard to tell the difference when they’re all mixed together like that. Plus if it’s just a millimeter thicker from a nearly-identical merino sock, I might think it’s the alpaca making the difference, instead of different thicknesses, or something like that.

            Any info on shape retention? I’ve heard here and there that pure alpaca doesn’t spring back to its original shape quite as well as merino, and I’m wary of dropping $200 on this nice-looking alpaca sweater, for just this reason.

          2. from a structural point of view there shouldn’t be any huge difference in terms of shrinkage and structural integrity between alpaca and merino.

            but i definitely wouldn’t throw either one of those sweaters into a dryer and blast it. if you line dry it i think it’ll be fine.

      2. Michael,
        That sounds very interesting. I love what you’re doing and you seem to know your stuff. I’m not really in the market for long underwear or long sleeves as I’m looking more for hot weather gear, but I might still consider hopping on board. What I’d really like to see, though, are t-shirts. Particularly in some nice, earthy tones (better than black if you plan on wearing it in hot weather).
        I just joined the wait list. I’m looking forward to seeing what you have in store for us.
        Ps. I’ve actually also heard a lot of great things about Alpaca. I was looking into getting an Alpaca blanket but they’re just too damn expensive. I had one of those Ecuadorian or Peruvian sweaters that I’m pretty sure had at least some Alpaca (got it at a market in Ottawa with no tags or anything so I can’t be sure). That sweater was amazing. Super comfy and kept me very warm (even when wet) when I was working construction in the winter.

        1. yeah alpaca is great for keeping warm. basically their fur is structured similar to polar bears (so you can imagine how effective that ends up being for thermal retention).

          in terms of tencel, like i said there’s more than 30 different kinds of variation. we have the full spec sheet from Lenzing AG who produces the fibers. it’s pretty crazy but they even make tencel carbon fibre precursor for aerospace insulation.

          even for textile there are tencel standard, tencel micro, tencel lf, tencel a100, tencel fill, tencel C, tencel sun, tencel skin, tencel biosoft, tencel short cut, tencel tow etc. etc. each of these variations has different titer and cutting length so you can imagine how many permutations in end up with!

          as for the kickstarter, we had alot of people asking for short sleeve shirts so we will be making that a stretch goal. for the short sleeve shirt we are planning on using tencel a100 super 80s yarn count knitted in single jersey. it’ll probably be the thinnest and softest shirt you have ever tried so it’ll be great as a summer gear.

          as for color, it is very difficult to offer different colors at this point. the minimal order quantity is quite high, the only way we can offer more colors is at 15k intervals but it’s also just alot more SKUs for us to deal with. maybe we’ll set another color as a stretch goal and people can vote on it.

          1. OK, you got me sold. I like what you’re doing, so I decided to support you. Good luck on reaching the goal!

  8. You got me to thinking… So I dug around in my closet next to the funky old coats and khakis that don’t quite fit. Found the merino shirt that I hadn’t returned! Stoic brand from Backcountry, black with blue seams. Precisely the same holes as a few years ago (which suggests it might not be bugs after all, otherwise they would’ve eaten more) – armpits inexplicably worn thin by regular movement – but not too bad from a distance. Think I’ll wear it without washing for a week or so and see what happens.

    Without washing the shirt, I mean. I smell horrible without daily washing.

    1. If it gets permanently ruined somehow, you can always take it to a tailor or a friend who can sew, and try to sew the scraps into a hat or something. A headband or neck warmer would be even easier. The fabric is still great, and you can cut it up into pieces that don’t have those little holes.

      1. Almost 2 years later, I had forgotten about that holey shirt (again), and I still haven’t got around to blogging yet. Yeah I need to get better organized… Last week I ordered an Ibex 87% merino 13% nylon tee for $20 from Sierra Trading Post. (Actually $25 but I had a coupon code and free shipping with in-store pickup. Alas, that particular deal appears to have disappeared from their online catalog since then.) I’ve only had it a few days, but after 2 1/2 full days of wearing, it looks and smells as a brand new poly-cotton shirt would smell fresh from the package. Of course that was as expected. I’m more interested in testing durability. I think this time I’ll try machine washing instead of hand washing. But wash it less often. Any good tips for wool care?

        1. I think low heat on both the wash and dry cycles is helpful, and air-drying it is even more helpful. But for regular use, on cool days when I’m not sweating much, I think it’s fine to wear cheap cotton or cotton/poly t-shirts, since you’re not using the moisture management feature if you’re not sweating anyway. That way you can save your fancy merino shirts for sweaty times.

          1. My main goal is to cut back on how much laundry I have to wash. I do the laundry for a family of 5 including myself, so any reduction in wash volume is good. Also I’m curious how much time between laundry loads I can manage while traveling. Get the practical value of bringing a big suitcase full of clothes, but without any of the baggage…

          2. Good merino t-shirts can basically last forever in terms of odor, but I don’t like going more than two days in the same outfit, especially in warm weather, or if I’m walking around all the time. But in cooler weather, especially if you’re wearing a jacket so your t-shirt doesn’t really get anything spilled on it, you can easily go a week without running into any sort of trouble. Airing them out and rotating between two different t-shirts each day can help.

  9. I have bought a lot of gear based on your recommendations; Bluffworks and Rohan – just to name a few. I really appreciate your reviews and website.

    A friend of mine was raving about this t-shirt he had (he is a Marine Combat Vet) and said that he wore it over in the Middle East and highly recommended it for back-packing.

    It is made by a company call Potomac Field Gear. Here is the link:
    https://store.potomacfieldgear.com/store/comersus_viewItem.asp?idProduct=139

    I was wondering if you ever heard of them, tried it out, or had an opinion on it.

    I was looking to buy some undershirts for my trip in July (Africa) and was looking at these – however before I do any shopping I usually visit your site first. Do I splurge on Merino Wool or try these Potomac shirts….

    Love for you to check them out and give us (me) some feed back.

    1. I usually avoid merino wool for undershirts, because it can get pretty warm. It depends on what you’re doing, but usually if you’re wearing two different shirts, it gets pretty warm, especially if the outer shirt is long-sleeved, which is why I try to find the lightest undershirts possible. I don’t have a particular favorite at the moment (I don’t wear buttoned shirts that often), but modal is a great natural-feeling undershirts fabric, and ultra-thin polyester (like Uniqlo’s Airism) are good for quick-drying needs.

  10. I work for two technical apparel companies, Marmot and ExOfficio, and still love learning new things about technical clothing. Thanks for shedding light to this topic in only the way you do.

    Cheers,
    Nick

    1. No problem. I’m happy that I can finally put all this dorky knowledge to use somehow. Also, I’m a big fan of the Marmot Mica. I don’t know why nobody else does rain jackets as light as Marmot, but now I don’t have to bother with anything else.

  11. Eddie Bauer has developed a fabric which they call Travex. It’s essentially 69% Tencel Lyocell and 31% Polyester. Travex boasts performance features such as UPF sun protection, moisture wicking, wrinkle free, breathable, water repellent, quick drying, and more. I have several of the shirts which I bought simply based on how they looked on me without knowing they were Tencel-based. I have to say they wear great and are some of my favorite shirts.

    1. That sounds good. They’ve been using the Travex name for a while, though I think they apply it to whichever items they make that work for travel, rather than just a specific fabric. I’m pretty sure they’ve had some nylon/polyester shirts that work too, though a Tencel version would feel more natural.

    1. It’s funny, a few hours ago the prices on Icebreaker and Kühl were lower (Fjällräven was the same).
      Maybe 6pm has good BI-tools and checks the clicks and play w/ prices!?

  12. Thanks for writing up a great article!

    It seems merino wool is a big deal these days. There are many companies jumping on the wave. There are also merino wool blending with cotton, polyester, and Tencel for people with sensitive skin, or looking for something different.

    My favorite merino wool T-Shirt is from Outlier. I’m a bit biased, I’ve been a big fan for a long time. I only own two Outlier merino wool T-Shirts due to the cost, they are worth it! I’ve had them for three years, wearing them almost everyday, and they are still like new. I love Outlier quality! I took them to SE Asia this past January, they were great for sleeping and lounging around. They were a bit hot in warm and humid weather for me.

    I actually preferred wearing the Arcteryx Phase SL and linen T-Shirt in hot and humid weather.

    The Phase SL is a polyester blend with silver-ion for odor control. This material is very thin, silk like feel, and very fragile. While it does not insulate when wet like merino wool, it does wick and dry very fast. Arcteryx make several T-Shirt versions using the Phase SL material. I used the base layer version, layering with a linen button-up long sleeve most of my trip. I would wash them at night using the Scrubba Washing Bag, and my clothes are dry by morning.

    Linen T-Shirt was actually my second preference for the SE Asia weather. Linen also has natural anti-microbial properties, absorbs moisture and dry better than cotton, it’s stronger than cotton, and feels great after many years. Linen blend with cotton or ramie is great on softness, and wrinkle a little less.

    1. Icebreaker and Smartwool both have merino/tencel blends this year (as I’m writing this, anyway), and I expect they’ll become popular. I should probably give linen a try at some point. Linen/tencel or linen/merino could be good. I have a hemp/cotton shirt from Royal Robbins, and I think hemp has similar properties compared to linen, though I haven’t gotten a chance to try that in hot weather yet.

    1. Modal feels great, although it doesn’t dry quickly. It’s perfect for people who just want a comfy t-shirt, and have access to laundry machines, and plan on using them as everyday t-shirts or whatever. I prefer the quick-drying properties of Tencel, but of course that’s a universal necessity.

  13. Still looking for that tencel t-shirt? Fjällräven makes one called the Abisko Trail T-shirt, 85% tencel/15% wool. They sell them in lots of colors with only a tiny logo on the left chest, color matched to the shirt so it doesn’t jump out. They’re great shirts and super comfy. I don’t remember this being in their lineup before. Have they been reading your blog? Hehe

    1. FINALLY. That looks like a good one to try. Merino is still great for insulation when wet (which seems to be Tencel’s only downside), but it’s mostly Tencel, so it should dry quickly and it keeps the cost down. The merino/Tencel t-shirt from Nau is pretty good, but I think they actually use a thicker fabric, so it’s not quite summer-appropriate.

      And I’ve always made of point of complaining as loudly as possible, as it’s the only way to make things change.

      1. Hah! I have the same philosophy. Fjällraven also make a button down shirt out of 100% Lyocell called the Abisko Vent, long and short sleeve versions. Fjällräven is worth a look. Most of what they make is trail oriented but they do have some nice travel clothing that doesn’t look like travel clothing.

      2. Icebreaker now makes a merino/tencel/nylon shirt call the cool-lite. I won a free sample and so far it looks promising. My guess is the wool/synthetic mix fabric will continue to grow.

        1. I’ve seen that one recently, and from their product description, it sounds like it does exactly what I was expecting. It wicks and dries faster, so it might work even better in summer heat. Sounds like Tencel doesn’t insulate when wet, so it’s more of a summer item than a winter item (particularly up in the mountains) but that’s less of a problem with travel, and if it dries fast enough, it might work just fine.

  14. Check out merino wool shirts at kitclothiers.com. They are creating high quality 100% New Zealand merino wool shirts for everyday life, not just to wear outdoors.

  15. i hacked 100% merino wool sweaters from target into t-shirts. the sweaters were on sale for $15 including tax and delivery. even h&m has sweaters for $20. they are pretty thin, so they are closer to heavy t-shirts. with a little elastic, the sleeves make nice arm warmers.

    1. That’s a good idea. Uniqlo sells theirs pretty cheaply, and they’re super thin. Maybe a little see-through, though…

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