By James Ryan
“People are usually more convinced by reasons they discovered themselves, than by those found by others.” – Blaise Pascal
The first time I ever heard about merino wool, I was on an overnight hiking adventure during a typically cold February evening in minus 20-degree weather. My trail partner, Jonathan, who by 4am had already been hiking for close to 20 straight hours, was layered in merino wool from top to bottom. Although he was understandably tired from his physical efforts, he was seemingly quite comfortable and unaffected by the blistering cold temperatures that surrounded us.
I, on the other hand, had not properly prepared myself for the arduous 12-hour hike that was ahead of me. My synthetic long underwear, which had served its purpose for so many years prior in less extreme conditions was performing as well as always, but still nowhere near the level that my hiking companion was experiencing. Truth of the matter is; I had no idea what I was missing out on.
“Man, I’m freezing,” I told him, as we trekked along the snow-covered highway, wind and snow whipping into our faces.
“What are you wearing?” he asked.
“Why, what are you wearing?” I inquired back.
Personally, I was wearing a synthetic base-layer, a cotton t-shirt, a long-sleeve cotton shirt, a non-breathable fleece sweatshirt (in hindsight, not the best choice), and my trusty wind-proof, non-insulated QIKPAK™ rain jacket. I hadn’t initially planned to go hiking that night, but in fairness, I did think that I had prepared well-enough for the cold weather from the safe interior of the support vehicle, which no doubt I would have been. Hiking at all hours of the night however, proved to be an entirely different challenge.
Jonathan, on the other hand, was toasty-warm in nothing more than his merino wool base-layer, a merino wool mid-layer top, and a lightweight GORE-TEX® jacket and pants. He also had merino wool socks and a woolen hat. I was amazed that he was handling the cold so much better than myself in what seemed like half the amount of clothing.
Another problem that I experienced that night was the constant overheating. One of our first hurdles was a long, steep climb up to the top of the Beaver Valley Ski Resort along the Bruce Trail. Half-way up the climb, I had to strip off both my jacket and my sweatshirt. Perspiration had completely soaked my entire back from where my backpack was resting, leaving myself open to the unforgiving wintery elements. By the time we got up to the top and out of the shelter of the wooded trail, the wind immediately cut through my drenched upper layers. Whatever body heat I had at that point was now long gone. I tossed my sweatshirt and jacket over my cold, sweat-filled layers of synthetic and cotton fabrics, and proceeded to suffer for the entire remainder of the evening as they never did dry out completely and they certainly never warmed up.
The next day, as I was recovering from my hellish experience, I decided to do a little research. What was merino wool exactly? How did it work? Why was it out-performing my synthetic long-johns by such leaps and bounds? But also, how did it differ from regular wool? – you know… those socks we had as kids that made our feet sweat and stink and itch like crazy, but looked much cooler with a nice pair of hiking boots than ordinary white cotton socks, so we wore them anyway. And don’t even get me started on those insane sweaters that you’d swear were made from discarded old Brillo pads.
What I proceeded to learn reminded me of the old saying: “If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is.” The more I read about merino wool, the more it was sounding like some made-up miracle fabric, concocted by someone who I imagined was a young, ambitious marketing executive.
So let me get this straight, I thought. Merino wool, because of its origins in New Zealand where the sheep live in extreme climate changes throughout the entire year, keeps me cool in the summer and warm in the winter? It self-regulates my body temperature? It wicks moisture AND resists odor? It dries quicker than synthetic and it uses 100% all-natural, soft fibers? – no plastics or other dangerously flammable or toxic materials next to my skin?
My next question was; how can such a material, particularly a natural one, even exist? It just didn’t make any sense to me. If it was so great, then how was it possible that I had never even heard of it before?
Oh, and best of all… apparently when it gets wet (from sweat for example), merino wool still retains body heat and keeps you warm in cold weather while it dries out quickly and naturally. No way! I thought, once again thinking of those old itchy socks from yesteryear.
Then I got to thinking about my predicament at the top of Beaver Valley and how Jonathan didn’t seem to be experiencing the same level of discomfort as I was. I was also thinking about how halfway through the hike, my synthetic socks were completely soaked right through, causing my feet to freeze up and blister on the outsides of my pinky toes and where my Achilles rubbed up against my boot. There had to be a reason and all solutions were pointing to merino wool.
Knowing that I had another 12-hour hike scheduled for the following weekend, I figured I had nothing to lose and everything to gain by trying it out for myself, so I went for it, and let me tell you… I’m extremely glad that I did.
To this day, my merino wool purchase has been one of the best investments that I have ever made. That following week, I was forced to deal with colder temperatures, deeper snow and rougher terrain, but other things that I didn’t have to deal with included: overheating, extreme heat loss, soaked feet, and a drenched, freezing back.
Reading about merino wool is one thing, but I learned that trying it out for yourself is quite another. But hey, don’t take my word for it… take a leap of faith and give it a try. I genuinely and sincerely believe that you won’t be disappointed. I know I wasn’t. Cheers!