This natural fibre gets a lot of positive hype for being superior when it comes to thermal and active wear. It is beautiful to touch and doesn't tend to smell as quickly as a synthetic fibre or cotton. You only need to take a trip along the east coast of Tasmania to appreciate how warm and comfortable it must be – sheep have been wearing it for yonks.
What works for sheep should surely work for us. Of course, we have seen much refinement and multiple variations compared to the bales of wool that come off the sheep’s back. One way to keep track of those variations is to take notice of the gsm or grams per square metre. The gsm is a standard unit of measurement across lots of different fabrics. The fineness of merino yarn can also be defined by microns. A micron is equal to 0.001mm, so the lower the number the finer the merino yarn used. For instance, a garment that displays 150gsm and 17.5 micron would be finer and lighter than one that is 170gsm and 22 micron.
When it comes to selecting and buying an item of clothing or gear there are a few other things to consider which are expanded below.
Where are you going?
It is a good idea to understand the area in which you will travel and what kind of conditions you will face. This includes access to water and amenities (for washing clothes and yourself) and availability of an outdoor store in case the weather does change. On a trip to Alaska I knew there was an opportunity to visit an outdoors store in Anchorage if I had a last minute change of heart about my gear selection but this isn’t always the case.
What is the weather and altitude?
Probably the most important consideration is the weather. In my experience I like to cater for the lowest potential temperature at the destination location. I will continue to use Alaska as an example. Alaskan summer is similar to that of the south eastern parts of Australia (Victoria, NSW and Tasmania ). Whilst most of the historical forecasts for July in Alaska were between 10 and 18 degrees celsius it was important not to forget we would be hiking up into the mountains. Often forecasts are recorded at villages and townships and not on top of mountains unless there is infrastructure atop them. So if you intend on climbing mountains and overnight hiking you must be considerate of unpredictable weather events.
How long are you going for?
The duration of a trip can often lead to overpacking. There is a fine line between too much and not enough when it comes to clothing but there are ways to minimise the bulking of your pack. Sometimes a longer trip can force you to allow for a washing day if facilities permit. On the flipside a shorter trip of a few days can be difficult to pack for as you probably won't have the time to wash any clothes. Personally I usually wind up wearing the same thing for most of a trip and then treat myself to a fresh top, socks and jocks on the final day for the hike out. Merino can be a godsend if you opt for the single item of clothing thanks to its ability to avoid stinking when compared with synthetic and cotton fibres.
Are you ultralight packing?
Now here is an ever-emerging concept. Well, it’s not even a concept - it’s happening fast (and light). I haven’t mastered the art of leaving the kitchen sink at home when I go for a hike but I have kept an eye on this segment of the hiking world. One thing I will say, I have seen Ultralight trekkers (friends of mine) get very cold and uncomfortable and run low on food and water in a quest to trek light in weight. That is another whole blog topic but for now we can touch on Merino being a fantastic option for lightweight packing. I would suggest a 50/50 Merino Poly long sleeve in conjunction with a light fleece or puff jacket* and of course some kind of waterproof outer layer. Layering is rather important for ultralight hiking.
What other items of clothing are you taking?
Leading on from above, the other items in your pack can play a large part in which other items you can take. Generally you would have a base layer, a mid layer and an outer shell. There is also the option to beef up the base and mid layer. The outer shell will be integral to the success of other layers. If it fails in wet, windy and cold weather you will be seriously compromised. Having a high quality waterproof breathable shell will give you confidence in what you wear beneath it. A nice merino base layer and a polar fleece is a toasty combo for colder weather. If you were to get too hot you can lose the fleece. Having a long sleeve base layer can help if it is being worn directly beneath the outer shell as sweat can feel a bit slimy against the inside of a rain jacket.
When it comes down to it, if I could take just one base layer for a week-long trip, I would most certainly take something with at least 50% Merino and 50% Polyester, and it would be long sleeved. I would then have a mid-weight polar fleece and a waterproof jacket as a minimum for most climates. I have been on top of Kosciusko in January in -2 degrees and snow. I learned the hard way about what to pack when in the Alps, even in summer. If I knew it was going to be warm, I would swap out the long sleeve base layer for a shorter sleeve merino t-shirt or merino fusion t-shirt for comfort when hiking. As I don’t mind packing on the heavier side I would most likely take both the short and long sleeve base layers as options. I would also pack 3 pairs of merino socks for any duration hike more than 2 days. It is nice to put fresh socks on especially if you are stepping off hiking.
Shop base layers here
Shop socks here