Is Merino Necessary for Everything?

Among performance (or travel) clothing favorites, you will often see the seemingly magical properties of merino touted. Properties like odor resistance and thermal regulation are king as these allow the garments to wear more comfortably and to go longer before they develop odors. Merino can be made into fabrics anywhere from luxuriously soft (Outlier’s Ultrafine Merino T-shirt being a great example), to durable but still soft (in the case of nylon core spun fibers, like the Wool & Prince T-shirt) and then to heavy and rougher (like Filson’s Crew Neck Guide Sweater). Merino garments, though, also tend to be some of the most expensive you can add to your closet.

It’s natural then to look at the abundance of merino based clothing and wonder when it’s too much. When do you hit a law of diminishing returns with merino wool? And, if you’re looking to cut some cost in your clothing lineup, where can you move away from merino to less costly materials?

We’ve been debating just this for a while now, especially for layering pieces that don’t directly contact your skin. But also for pants where the durability of merino, as well as the performance make us question the utility of such garments. In these instances, you can often even get multiple wears out of a traditional cotton garment (most people don’t wash their blue jeans very often, or in some cases, ever).

While a merino garment certainly will go longer than anything else without starting to smell, we’ve come to find that this isn’t always necessary. Take a pullover for example — you probably wear it over another shirt and when it’s cool out, so it doesn’t see your skin and you are probably sweating less. This type of wear isn’t a recipe for odors, and thus probably not a scenario where the performance of merino wool is going to add a ton to your life. There is a logical argument to be made that with a pullover (or something similar), merino is overkill. It’s not going to make the garment worse — you will still get the benefits — but at the same time you are paying a premium for something where the net realized benefits will be marginal at best. Or, put another way: whether lambswool, cashmere, or merino (or even a good synthetic blend), the sweater would perform within a close enough range on all fronts that you should buy the one which price works best for you.

On the thermoregulation aspect, you certainly won’t find any (comfortable or normal looking) fabric that will keep you warmer than merino. The natural ability of the fibers to trap air helps keep you warm. Therefore, in cases where you value packability or weight, it can be worth it to go with merino. But not always, as some merino wool will not pack as compactly as down, or even some newer synthetic garments. That said, merino adds another benefit in being easier to wash when traveling.

Another area we’ve started seeing merino show up is in jacket insulation. Icebreaker has their MerinoLOFT technology, which is an insulation made from merino wool. They tout it as an evolution of down and an alternative to synthetic down. While we haven’t tried anything like this, it seems like another area where merino probably doesn’t offer much over its synthetic counterparts. And you pay a high price for something you are likely not to notice, and perhaps which has other drawbacks from more traditional insulation pieces.

With pants, Ben has thoroughly destroyed a pair of Icebreaker wool pants over the course of just a year — while noticing little benefit from the merino wool itself. Often the wool needed washing more than basic blue jeans did — and didn’t perform as well as synthetic pants options like Outlier’s offerings. So even in the case where these pants are coming into direct contact with your skin, there’s little reason to select these over more durable options. Since Ben’s experience, many others have released merino blend pants (like CIVIC’s Frank Chino). I tried purchasing a pair to try, but the fit seemed really off so I didn’t keep them to give them a thorough test.

With the hoodie Ben recently reviewed, he found that while comfortable and performant, a hoodie may not be a good garment to use 100% merino wool as the material. Outlier has long made a HARD/CO Merino ZIP Hoodie which has cotton facing on the outside for better durability and merino on the inside for the performance — yet you pay a significant price ($395) for that benefit. Whereas most people rarely have performance and durability issues with a standard cotton hoodie.

Ultimately, the choice between merino or other performance fabrics comes from your use case for the garment. We’ve found pieces that don’t spend much time directly on skin as good places to look elsewhere where the expense isn’t justified. That said, you can often find very inexpensive merino sweaters from big box stores like J. Crew and Banana Republic (among others). While you don’t necessarily need merino in these garments, it is an added bonus if the price is right.

For most layering, outerwear, and pants, we have found that merino wool is often overkill and comes at an added financial cost as well as, possibly, durability issues.

Is Merino Necessary for Everything?

Steve’s One Bag Journey

My journey becoming a one bagger started in 2015 with an eBags TLS Mother Lode Weekender Convertible, moved onto an Osprey Farpoint 40 in 2016, and has brought me to my Mystery Ranch Urban Assault and GORUCK GR1 26L.

Motivation

I was traveling with the typical backpack or messenger bag and a roller suitcase. As I started to travel more for work, I realized this setup was making my life more difficult while traveling. It seemed like 2015 was the year when one bag travel was becoming popular, so I was able to get some advice and give it a try.

The Journey

I started traveling with a set of cotton clothing for each day, a pair of sneakers, and too many electronics. All together, this made for a stuffed and heavy backpack or a full sized roller bag. Whether I packed all this into my eBags backpack or a roller bag, it ended up getting gate checked (or checked to my final destination) on any small plane and many full flights. It only took a few trips before I got very tired of all this and got motivated to slim down on my packing.

To start packing lighter, I started to move to synthetic underwear and polos. While this didn’t allow me to pack less clothes, it helped my clothes pack smaller and better fit into my bag. After packing like this for a while, I decided it was time for a better bag.

The Osprey backpack, while not much smaller, was easier to fit under the seat while flying. Once I experienced flying without fighting for overhead bin space, I was sold.

The next phase of my journey consisted of beginning to explore better technical clothing that I could wear for multiple days. That search brought me to Wool & Prince Button-Downs (our review) and OUTLIER Futureworks pants. These two items are still part of my wardrobe and come along on almost every trip. The Wool & Prince shirts are almost magical in how many times they can be worn without needing a wash. The next key acquisition was Darn Tough socks and a merino undershirt, further reducing my clothing load.

At this point I had shirt and pants, socks, and an undershirt that gave multiple wears. I tried to find underwear that could last for multiple days, so I just wash my underwear in the sink. Finally, I decided to leave the pair of sneakers at home and just do bodyweight exercise in my hotel or walking for exercise. If I had one tip for one bagging, it would be to leave the extra shoes at home — you’ll be amazed at how much space you save.

It was at about this time that Ben and I decided to start Everyday Wear. Through trying out pieces and reviewing them for the site, I’ve found some other great pieces for my travel wardrobe, including the Bluffworks Gramercy Pants (our review) and the Wool & Prince Blazer (our review).

Conclusion

It is a journey to become a one bagger, and even a longer one to get to the point where you can pack in a fairly small backpack. If you are new to one bagging and are intimidated by packing lists you see, you can rest assured that it wasn’t a quick journey for that person to gain the wardrobe and confidence to pack lightly. We are also here to help with our reviews, guides, and packing lists.

Steve’s One Bag Journey