You’ve probably heard a lot about these two popular base-layer materials over the last few years.
Perhaps you’ve even already trialled a number of garments and are now confident in your outdoor clothing choice. However, if you’re anything like us you probably became rapidly overwhelmed and intimidated by the passionate promotion of one material over the other as dedicated campers, travellers, and outdoor enthusiasts everywhere clambered to have their say on the fabric that produces the best results – with vastly different conclusions. With this in mind, we sought to finally unravel the mystery and answer that age old question: Is merino wool or synthetic better?
Like all good questions, there is no simple answer.
Indeed, to work toward a solution we need to reorient our thinking slightly by setting individual benefits and limitations against specific activities and environments, instead of simply comparing merino wool and synthetic fabrics in the scope of ‘all outdoor activity’.
With this in mind, let’s see how the different materials weigh up:
As you can see from the above chart, both materials tend to be lightweight, comfortably non-itch and moisture wicking (pulls moisture away from the body to keep you dry and help regulate temperature), making them both excellent candidates for a number of outdoor activities.To get to the root of the question, therefore, we need to turn our attention to the differences.
Both merino wool and synthetic materials are quick drying, although if it comes to complete saturation or attempts to dry in moist or damp conditions, synthetics tend to come out on top, as they dry faster than just about any other material. In terms of wearing clothes in wet conditions, however, merino wool might be a safer bet, as it’s able to retain about 30% of its own moisture while remaining warm and dry.
Synthetics will dry faster in damp conditions or if fully saturated
The benefit of base layers made from merino wool or synthetics is that they wick moisture to help regulate temperature, keeping the wearer warm in cool weather and relatively cool in warm weather. However, if you want to wear the same item over multiple days in warmer conditions, you should definitely turn to merino wool. After all, as a naturally antimicrobial substance, it resists odour for days on end, giving it a distinct advantage over much smellier synthetic materials.
It’s cheaper for clothing manufacturers to produce synthetics, so you will likely notice at least a marginal price difference between merino wool and its synthetic counterparts.
Ease of care:
Synthetic materials are much easier to wash and are quite capable of being banged about and rinsed over and over – a necessity given the amount of odour they can accrue! Merino wool, on the other hand, requires gentler, more delicate care in order to avoid snagging and potential shrinkage, which can make it more of a hassle out on the peaks.
If you’re environmentally-conscious, you can’t look past the renewable, recyclable and biodegradable properties of merino wool. That being said, a number of environmentally-conscious brands, like Patagonia, are making fantastic develops within the synthetic field through innovations including recycled polyester, so it is certainly possible to shop for synthetics without compromising your values.
When is synthetic good?
On short trips in dry conditions, synthetics might be the best option, especially if you’re able to pack multiple changes of clothes or wash during your trip. After all, synthetics will be lighter on your wallet without compromising on effective insulation, and will dry incredibly quickly after washing. You can even beat the infamous synthetic stink by achieving a machine-quality wash in only three minutes with your Scrubba wash bag! Synthetics also tend to snag less easily than merino wool, so if your trip will involve lots of scrambling or wandering through brambles, synthetics might be preferable.
When is merino wool good?
If you’re travelling across multiple days with minimal gear and no opportunity to wash, opt for merino wool to beat odour. If you add wet conditions to your trip, you should also consider switching to merino wool, as the extra cost is a small price to pay for something that will help keep you dry and warm despite the rain. Just remember that merino wool won’t be quite as quick drying as synthetics in the event of total saturation or colder, moister conditions, so be sure to add a waterproof shell to your merino layers to form a formidable defence against whatever the environment decides to throw at you. If your merinos do become wet through, use our lightweight, inflatable coat hangers to help them dry off again! You don't even need to worry about how to appropriately care for your merino clothes on the go, as the Scrubba wash bag has you covered with its gentle internal washboard.
If your journey promises to bring you into contact with extreme cold, merino wool may also be the better choice, as it tends to keep wearers slightly warmer. Nevertheless, synthetics are also good insulators, and as the level of warmth provided is highly dependent upon the item itself and the layering tactics utilised, this one is mostly down to personal preference.
Thoughts from the Scrubba wash bag team:
As environmentally conscious travellers always concerned about our carbon footprint, we here at the Scrubba wash bag remain firmly enamoured of merino wool! We’ve been lucky enough to test out a few awesome brands in our time and, as patriotic Aussies with a certain affection for all things "Down Under", we find it difficult to look past the 100% merino wool range from Icebreaker, our neighbours over in New Zealand. Although we can’t personally vouch for it, we’ve also heard great things about American company, Smartwool, and will definitely been keen to test it out in the future.
Our founder in a Scrubba branded Icebreaker tee and Icebreaker cargo shorts (not an #ad :)
The bottom line is that both merino wool and synthetics are great for outdoor activity, so why not experience the best of both worlds by mixing and matching these truly miraculous fabrics? Otherwise, use the above points and the handy charts below to help you decide which material will best complement your journey, then get out there and see the world in ultimate comfort and style!