I’ve been hiking off and on for more than 30 years, but I never have had an interest in winter hiking, until now. Not a big fan of the cold and snow, but I gave it a try this year, and I’m glad I did. The key difference maker, for me, was layering. Starting with a good comfortable wicking base layer, and then covering my core area for warmth, then topping it with a shell layer helped me stay warm and dry, and able to enjoy the great outdoors even when it was cold.
Natural fibers like cotton, and the wool your mother made you wear growing up, tend to hold moisture. Through exertion, like climbing a mountain, I would sweat, even when it’s cold. Likely you do too. A cotton long sleeve t-shirt as the first layer next to my skin would simply soak up the perspiration, and hold it in the shirt. This can cause chafing, but worse, it would make me chilled. If the temperature is very cold there is a serious risk of hypothermia. For the past decade or so, apparel manufacturers have gotten much better at creating “wicking” base layer products to keep us dry.
Wicking occurs because of capillary action, the ability of water to flow through porous materials. If the base layer wicks moisture away from your skin and into the outer layers, you stay warmer. Microfibers and polyesters have been good choices for this, but if you prefer natural fiber, so too is Merino wool. Merino is a breed of sheep prized for its soft, non-itching wool. Merino is excellent at regulating body temperature, especially when worn against the skin. Merino wool is also odor resistant.
The Smartwool Company specializes in products made from New Zealand Merino wool. They started with socks, but have branched out to base layer products, sweaters, and other accessories. They have established long-term partnerships with New Zealand Merino growers who seek to continually improve animal welfare. When I made a conscious decision to try winter hiking this past year, I wanted to get appropriately geared up. So I started with a set of Smartwool long johns to prepare from the base layer out. I purchased a NTS (next-to-skin) Midweight Crew top and a NTS Midweight Bottom. They come in multiple colors, I chose black, but it really doesn’t matter. After all, no one else is going to see it.
I’m a little guy. I am 5’9″ and weigh about 138 pounds, with a 30″ waist. So I wear size small clothing. It’s getting harder and harder to find size small these days. It seems like the scale keeps getting larger and larger too. What is a medium now is what used to be XL 20 years ago, or so it seems to me. Smartwool was able to fit me. The Merino wool is naturally stretchy, so both the top and the bottom fit me like a glove, good for wicking. It is also a comfortable fit. I don’t feel like I can’t breathe like I do in some of the microfiber products. The first time I tried my new Smartwool base layer, I knew this was the product for me.
It was a cold, snowy day in early November and I was hiking at about 5800 feet in the Middle Prong Wilderness. There was a lot of climbing involved, so I was sweating quite a bit. My core and my legs, however, remained nearly completely dry. I had been wondering about itching because all the wool I wore growing up was horrible for that. Nary an itch. The Smartwool fibers against my skin felt very comfortable. When I completed the hike, I changed tops before driving home. My mid-layer shirt was pretty wet from perspiration, but the Smartwool base layer was hardly even damp. I was impressed.
Smartwool is not exactly cheap, so I wondered about its durability. I wore my Smartwool NTS top and bottom probably a dozen times through the winter on various hikes, washing and tumble drying them after each use. They are still in as good condition as the day I purchased them, and they have retained their shape. They have neither shrunk, nor stretched out. They still fit just as snugly as when new. I am convinced. Merino wool is definitely the way to go for base layer products. Smartwool also makes microweight and lightweight long and short sleeve tops. I am considering trying one out for summer hiking as well. If I do, I’ll be sure to let you know how I like it.
I have not received compensation for the endorsement of this product. The product was not given to me by the manufacturer or any of their representatives. I paid for the product myself.