Gear Review: Why I’m Wearing Wool This Winter

I bought a big wooly sweater at an outdoor market on the Portuguese coast; it must be 15 years ago now. It’s my favorite sweater. It’s starting to unravel a little, but it still keeps me warm and dry. Thing is…it’s a bulky piece of clothing…fine for going to the store, but for a snowshoe hike, it’s ridiculous.

My favorite sweater has all – minus the bulk – the qualities you expect from a perfect piece of outdoor wear. It’s warm – but it has range – meaning it doesn’t get too hot just because the sun is out. It’s naturally water repellent. Speaking of wet sweaters, it doesn’t smell like wet sheep when I’ve been wearing it for a few days. And it breathes. Plus, contrary to what you might expect, it’s washable. And it wears like nothing else I own.

About that smell. You wash your gear in hot water and still … well, ewww. There’s a bacteria that takes up residence in your polypro. It’s difficult to get rid of because it’s activated by body heat. Older synthetics are particularly prone to this – newer products claim to have figured it out.

At any rate, wool doesn’t bond with your special something the way synthetics do. Your tent mates, your co-driver, your sweetheart, will thank you for wearing wool.

Synthetics are so common in outdoor wear now that wool gets overlooked. The sheepy stuff is still perceived as itchy, heavy, and, antique. But a number of companies are outdoor wear that will make you look again at wool.

Just a quick note – I’ve looked at women’s clothing, but there are men’s lines, of course. And these aren’t the only manufacturers heading in to the wool pasture – there’s a surprising range of options.

Base Layers

You might think that the last thing you want is a wool base layer. All that itchy next to your skin, right? Wrong.

The Ibex Woolies Bottom [Link:] and the Woolies Crew [Link:] – will have you recycling your polypro. I wore this on sunny days and in snow flurries and I was never uncomfortable. It’s soft, stretchy, and super lightweight. And it goes right in the wash, requiring no special care.

SmartWool [Link:] also makes a lightweight, base layer. The Lightweight Zip-T serves double duty as a base or mid layer. The Lightweight Bottoms are thin enough to fit under your stretchy snow pants (or your tight jeans) but don’t compromise on warmth.

The Ibex and SmartWool base layers passed the ultimate itch test: I slept in them. This stuff is warm and comfortable in the sleeping bag or in bed.


Folks always ask what to put on their feet when snowshoeing. Hiking or racing, I think it’s all about the socks.

For warm feet on a cold day, try any of the wool blends by Teko. I’ve got the EcoWash Wool Quarter Cut Socks [Link:]. They are a bit heavier weight and have some padding; you need a little more room in your boot with these.

Smart Wool also makes a full range of socks – many suitable for snowshoers. The Adrenaline line comes in two weights and there’s a hiking line too that works great with boots. Smart Wool socks have a nice fit and a little extra padding on those blister prone areas.

Up top? If you run hot, a headband is the way to go. The SmartWool headband [Link:] is ultra lightweight, thin enough to fit under a hat but still substantial enough to keep those ears warm in the shade.

A headband isn’t always enough; sometimes you need the whole hat. I’ve traded my polar fleece cap for a stretchy wool Sketch Hat [Link:] by Outdoor Research (OR). It’s cute and warm without being heavy. Perfect for milder days, it doesn’t itch or take up much space.


The Outdoor Research Reva sweater [Link:] has officially passed the washer test at my house. I wash almost everything, though I do try to follow the instructions on the tag. No dryer for this one, but it’s light enough that it air-dries, pronto.

This lightweight, warm, full zip sweater has a bonded synthetic lining that’s designed to pull moisture away from your body vent it outwards. It’s light enough to fit under your jacket, but the weight doesn’t mean it’s not warm.

The Columbia Hoody by SmartWool [Link:] wins the new favorite shirt award. It’s got a flattering cut, a hood to protect your ears from the wind – and that will fit under your jacket hood, no problem. The Hoody also has a cool extra – thumb loops and slightly longer sleeves. The loops keep the sleeves down over the backs of your hands while you’re changing the settings on your camera. Your hands stay warm while you’re scribbling down the phone numbers you got from Swedish Nordic team, who, enchanted by your snowshoes, invited you to a party. No, wait, I mean, when they give you directions to that perfect snowshoe trailhead. Yeah, that’s it.


I’m sorry I ever had my hands the Ibex outwear because it’s spoiled me for other products. The Cirque jacket [Link:] is made from Ibex’s Climawool, a nylon and wool blend. It repels water, keeps you warm, and it’s good looking. I wore this with the Ibex Woolie Crew and went from base camp to glacier and back again in complete comfort. I wasn’t too hot on the ascent and in that cold breeze that comes off the blue ice of the glacier – I was warm and protected.

Ibex’s Guide Light pants [Link:] are ideal for snowshoeing, a little narrower at the cuff to keep snow out of your boots – though I’d still wear gaiters in deep snow or powder.

More baaa-ang for your buck

Don’t be surprised to learn that wool clothing is more expensive than synthetics. It’s worth it. Wear time alone – a well-constructed wool item tends to outlive a synthetic – will make up for some of the cost. You also get attention to detail – not just in materials selection, but in things like flat and itchless tags on the base layers, machine washability, and even style. Add up the other features – the warmth, the comfort, and the quality – and you’ll a wool gives you terrific value for the big outdoors.

About the author

Pam Mandel

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