Merino wool is odor and moisture resistant, dries quickly and keeps you warm without being heavy. However, merino isn’t for everyone. The best merino alternatives are made of synthetic fibers like polyester or polypropylene.
We recommend merino wool a lot because it’s great and we love it.
But—there are people out there who don’t love it, or they simply can’t wear because they’re allergic, or it feels itchy.
Are there other really good fabrics, which travel well, that you can wear instead of merino?
The answer, is yes.
What is Merino Wool?
Surprisingly, merino sheep—and wool—have a nearly 1000 year long history.
The breed originated in southern Spain in the 1100s and was helpful in growing Spain’s economy throughout the next several centuries. In recent years, merino sheep, not to mention their to-die-for soft (wool), are now bred all around the world.
Merino sheep grow wool with strong, lengthy fibers, and are also known for having the finest and softest wool of any sheep. The material makes an excellent insulator because it traps heat between its fibers and is naturally lightweight, water-resistant, odor-reducing, and antimicrobial.
Sounds like nature’s perfect solution, right? In some ways it is. But merino isn’t for everyone.
Disadvantages of Merino Wool
The benefits of merino wool are well known, but what are the shortcomings of this beloved material?
Not everybody wants to spend $70 on a t-shirt, and merino wool clothing can add up quickly. Since making a garment with merino wool can use twice as much material compared to conventional wool (the fine fibers of merino require additional layering), the high cost is justified, but it can still feel painful when you’re making the investment.
“Warmth technology” has come a long way in the last few decades, giving rise to a number of synthetic fibers and fabrics that can out-perform merino wool. While your basic merino top should last you through enough cold-rinse washes, don’t be surprised if the occasional hole pops up as the fibers break overtime.
Still a Little Itchy
While merino wool is approximately 1 million times softer than that conventional wool sweater your grandparents gave you, it can still feel uncomfortable to those with ultra-sensitive skin.
A quick Google search elicits hundreds of ideas and best practices for wool care.
Cold rinse. Hang dry only. Wash in a mesh bag. Wash only with like fibers.
When traveling, the last thing we want to be thinking about is our laundry game plan, other than a quick wash and dry so we can be on the go again. While careful laundering can increase the longevity of your merino wool garments, it can be a pain when you’re doing laundry on the go.
Polypropylene vs Polyester Base Layer
Common base layer alternatives to merino include garments made with synthetic fibers like polypropylene or polyester.
Polypropylene is more “hydrophobic” than polyester, which means it is “afraid of water” and thus, absorbs less. This is an upside, as water—or sweat—spreads evenly throughout the garment, allowing it to evaporate much more quickly than polyester, which can absorb and retain water / sweat. As such, a base layer made of polypropylene will dry much faster than polyester.
Polypropylene retains more heat than polyester, so it can be a great base layer in cold weather.
Polyester shines more brightly as an outer layer, as it is more UV resistant than polypropylene. Don’t be surprised if your polypropylene fabric starts to fade in color or wear out overtime if it is used as an outer layer.
How to Choose Thermal Wear
Your thermal wear selections should check off the following boxes.
Your thermal wear should have excellent moisture-wicking properties that help move sweat away from your body to the outside of the garment where it can evaporate.
For example, Eastern Mountain Sports Techwick® claims to dry 4x faster than cotton. It doesn’t just matter that the materials wick the moisture away from your body, they also need to dry quickly so you can stay on the move without wrinkly, sweaty gobs of clothes stuffed in your pack.
Merino alternatives made with breathable fabrics means you can still stay cool in the heat.
Comfortable and Lightweight
You don’t have room in your pack for your giant winter parka—you need to optimize your space. That’s why it’s essential that you find merino alternatives that are still as lightweight and comfortable as the original prized material.
Lucky for you, plenty of merino alternatives have mastered the art of airy fabric. Uniqlo®’s HeatTech collection for men and women is designed to insulate your own body heat without the bulk. Air pockets built into the special blend of ultra-thin rayon, polyester, and acrylic fibers trap the heat and retain it. Awesome, right? :squeezes into pack:
Are you stocking up on merino alternatives for as an odor-prevention strategy for long bus rides? Or because you’re planning on doing a multi-night backcountry backpacking trip with a couple friends?
If your primary aim is to chill out and relax, a looser fitting garment will do the trick. If you’re planning to be more active, then buy a garment that fits you more snuggly—then the sweat-wicking capabilities can do their job effectively!
Polyester knits can hold up against sun, abrasion, rocks, backpack straps, and more, while also absorbing minimal water (sweat), and drying quickly. While it might seem like the dream thermal wear, be warned: After a few days, it stinks.
Some of the best alternatives to merino are the blended fiber garments that have hit the market in recent years—combining the best of both merino wools and synthetics. This means more sweat wicking, comfort, and durability, and less odor!
When choosing your thermal wear, consider a material’s sweat-wicking capabilities, its comfort, it’s overall performance, and its durability. Merino blends with synthetic materials can be an optimal choice that balances the benefits of all sides of the coin.