Wool vs Synthetics – What to wear?

It is now winter. Should trusty wool be used or synthetics? Read on to find out more.

There has been a resurgence in the use of wool for back country use esp for  base layers. So what to use? It honestly does not matter for most people; it comes down to personal preference. As long as you do not use cotton (with a few exceptions; mainly winter), you should be  fine. Many people use a combo of wool and synthetics.  If you are curious of the pros and cons of each, here is my personal take:

Wool
  • Warm when damp
  • Can be inexpensive (thrift stores, surplus) or expensive (Smartwool, Ibex, etc)
  • Tends to breathe better than synthetics and have a wider range of comfort
  • More durable overall
  • Less odor
  • Takes longer to dry when wet and becomes heavier
  • Usually bulkier and heavier than comparable synthetics or fleece
Synthetics or Fleece
  •  Synthetic base layers dry quicker (but is not warm when damp)
  • For base layers, good ole’ polypro can be ridiculously cheap
  • Usually less heavy and bulky than the wool equivalent
  • Can get a pungent odor
  • Fleece itself is good for cold and wet conditions vs synthetic fill jackets
So what do I use?
For winter use, when I am more concerned about warmth than weight,and I am wearing most of my layers, I tend to favor wool base layers , with the exception of the liner socks, as it is more forgiving of moisture I find. A wool hat tends to be warmer if it gets damp in snow vs a fleece hat,too.   In the cold and dry conditions of Colorado,  I find wool works very well overall.
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Rocking the wool pants!
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In three season backpacking, when weight and bulk is a chief a concern (and most of my layers are stowed), I tend to wear synthetics. Any moisture in spring through fall tends to be rain (or very wet snow), so  the quick drying properties of synthetics comes in handy.
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As  mentioned, you can mix and match a as needed. A fleece jacket, wool pants, wool liner gloves and merino wool base layers have served me well.
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Overall, you may find one combo works better than another based on your budget, availability of what you may already have or just personal preference.
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Wool and synthetics. They both work.
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Check out this great website for a lot of info as well….
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Interested in learning more about winter activities? Check out more of my winter themed articles here
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6 Replies to “Wool vs Synthetics – What to wear?”

  1. Synthetics are better in every respect except two and those two are so significant that I never wear synthetics next to the skin.

    Firstly, stink. When you say “can get a pungent odour” you aren’t joking. The older I’ve got, the less tolerant I’ve become of my own and other people’s body odour. Just half a day to unbearable with capilene set against four days to noticeable with merino. I’ll admit to wearing synthetic mid-layers outside winter for the superior wicking.

    The other issue is what happens in a fire. I’ll never forget getting into a Sea King helicopter and seeing a notice which said synthetic clothing was not permitted because it fuses with the skin when set on fire. If you do anything bushcrafty, I’d advise sticking to natural fibres. My dad was a fireman and his tunic and trousers were made from thick wool.

      • From what I have seen, the US military has gone fully synthetic. Modern synthetics do not stick to the skin when exposed to fire-they just contract. The issue of synthetic materials melting is a concern that emerged with early synthetics, that has been resolved since then. Millions of outdoorsmen use synthetic clothing around fires, including me, without any problem (and so do virtually all firemen).

        I also find the claims (from personal experience and testing) about wool staying warmer when damp that fleece to not be exactly true. Wool feels more comfortable under such conditions, but I find it loses just as much heat. The slower drying time of wool spreads out the cooling process, so it might feels warmer than the faster drying fleece in the short term. Overall though, similar amounts of heat are lost.

        There are three reasons why I stopped using wool in winter.

        The first one you mentioned-very slow drying time. I’ve had instances where I’ve gotten my pants wet on day one of the trip, and they were still not dry on day three. It’s a big problem for me in winter.

        The second issue is that it is a snow magnet. Without some type of shell layer, by mid day I look like a snowman. The snow then melts and gets into the fabric.

        Most importantly, for me being in the woods in winter is no different from any other season. I do not limit my mobility just because it is winter. As a result, the bulk and extra weight of wool clothing is a major problem. When compared to fill based insulation it is significantly outperformed in terms of insulation per weight.

  2. And then there is the pong. I’m solitary at the best of times but, when other backpackers are wearing synthetic base layers, I’m positively reclusive. Synthetic underpants are particularly offensive and there is no excuse. Whenever I hit the laundrette after a few days in the hills, I find cotton boxers are second only to my handkerchief when it comes to speedy drying.

  3. Hi Ross, I enjoy your blog too 🙂

    With wool it is the weight and bulk. If I have to carry it on my back I tend towards synthetics. I often say, “Synthetics for the trail, wool for the cabin”. On day hikes I love wool for the old timey feel. I have had good luck finding military pants in thin wool and some heavy civy wool pants; shirts too, I pick up Woolrich wool dress shirts and combine them with the thicker military wool shirts. I’d really like to try out a wool baselayer but I have not found cheap ones around here.

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