Merino wool has dominated the outdoor gear industry for the last two decades. It has many properties that make it ideal for the outdoors – it’s breathable, insulating, odor-resistant, and lightweight. That’s why it’s often used in the manufacturing of hiking socks, underwear, baselayers, jackets, pants, hats, and gloves.
Having said that, you’ll still find some outdoor clothing made from regular wool, or at least containing a small percentage of it. In this article, we’ll explain what are the main differences between merino and regular wool and whether merino wool really is better than regular wool.
What Is Merino Wool
Marino wool is a type of wool that’s made from a single breed of sheep, called Merino, most commonly grown in Australia and New Zealand.
Merino wool is usually used in outdoor and sporting gear due to its superior properties over synthetics and cotton. Most importantly, merino fabrics have an excellent heat-to-weight ratio, meaning that you can stay warm with a much thinner layer.
Another one of its benefits is that it’s breathable and naturally thermoregulating. It absorbs sweat very well and moves it to the outer layers of the fabric, where they evaporate over time. This allows you to stay cool and dry in the summer, and warm in the winter. It also absorbs nasty odors and keeps them within the fibers of the fabric, which allow the fabric to stay fresh for much longer than synthetics or cotton.
What Is Regular Wool
When we’re talking about outdoor gear, regular wool refers to typical wool made from various breeds of sheep from all over the world.
However, in a general sense, “wool” is a broader term. It can be made from not only sheep, but also cows, camels, alpacas, ox, and even rabbits. “Wool” is a product that’s made from any animal’s fur, by collecting the fibers, spinning them into yarns, and then weaving them into a fabric.
Some other popular wool types include “lambswool”, which is made from the fur of young lambs, “cashmere wool”, which comes from the cashmere goat, and “alpaca wool”, which comes from the fur of alpacas.
How Merino Wool Differs From Regular Wool
Wool is usually measured by the thickness of its fibers, which is measured in microns (1/1000000 of a meter). The thicker the fibers, the less quality the wool is considered because thicker fibers result in a rougher fabric that feels itchy to the skin. At a certain diameter, the fiber doesn’t bend when pressed against the skin, and instead pushes into the skin and irritates the nerve cells.
Typical wool usually ranges between 24-32 microns. Generally, anything above 22-24 microns will start to feel irritating, which is why typical wool clothing is usually associated with itching.
Since merino sheep like to live in a warmer climate, their fur is naturally more breathable and made of thinner yarns to deal with high temperatures. On average, merino wool’s fibers range between 16-24 microns in diameter.
Comfort And Smoothness
Merino wool is much smoother and softer to the touch compared to regular wool. That’s why it’s often used in baselayers, socks, and underwear, where the fabric is directly touching your skin. Compared to cotton, it still feels a bit rougher, but generally, it’s really comfortable to wear even for extended periods.
Insulation And Warmth
Merino wool is generally warmer than regular wool, but only in certain situations.
Merino wool is made from thinner fibers, so the yarns are also a smaller diameter. When they’re weaved together in a fabric, the fabric ends up being thinner, denser, and lighter than regular wool fabric. Because it’s denser, it also lets through less air, which allows your body to stay warmer for longer.
However, if your body does get cold eventually, it takes longer to warm up with merino wool clothing than it does with regular wool clothing. That’s because regular wool has a lot of air inside the fabric, which heats up much more easily than wool. That’s why it makes sense to use merino wool underneath something, not as an external layer.
Merino wool is better at thermoregulation than regular wool. Regular wool is more breathable due to the gaps in the fabric. Merino wool has a much tighter structure that keeps air trapped inside it.
In the summer, the trapped air will absorb the sweat from your body and slowly evaporate it through the outer layers of the fabric. In winter, this trapped air will help you stay warm for longer because the fabric is less breathable than regular wool.
This is why merino wool is usually used for active outdoor gear, which involves a lot of sweating and being exposed to different temperatures.
Moisture Wicking And Water Resistance
Because merino wool is weaved from finer threads, it’s better at moisture-wicking and water-repellence compared to regular wool.
Merino wool can soak up to one-third of its weight in water without feeling heavy and abrasive on your skin. Regular wool soaks up much more water, which means that it drys much slower and also feels uncomfortable when wet.
Regular wool is definitely much more breathable than merino wool because it’s made from thicker yarns and has bigger gaps between the fabric.
However, regular wool soaks up more water and doesn’t release it as well as merino wool. So whenever you’re doing something active, merino wool will be a better choice because regular wool will just become wet over time.
Both wool and merino wool are generally equally odor-resistant. Wool naturally has the ability to absorb bacteria within its fibers, and release them when it’s washed.
However, merino wool usually stays dryer than regular wool due to its moisture-wicking and thermoregulating properties. This means that within the fabric, the environment is worse for bacteria to live in, so when used in active conditions, merino wool stays fresh for longer.
Merino wool is less durable than regular wool. The finer the thread and yarns of the fabric, the less durable it is. That’s why merino wool is usually mixed together with synthetics, like polyester, nylon, or acrylic, to improve its durability. 100% merino wool base layers will usually last only a few years because over time they’ll wear out and develop holes.
Merino wool is much more expensive than regular wool because it’s considered a finer-quality fabric, and it’s harvested from only a single breed of sheep, only in certain parts of the world.
For outdoor gear specifically, merino wool socks usually cost 20-40$, and baselayers start at 80$ and go up to 200$. That’s why merino wool isn’t used in all outdoor gear – only where it’s really necessary.
Merino Wool Vs Regular Wool Applications In Hiking Gear
Down below, I’ll explain in which situations it’s worth it to spend more on merino wool gear, and when regular wool is enough.
Choose Merino Wool For Socks, Underwear, Baselayers, T-Shirts, Gloves, Hats, And Buffs
I would definitely recommend choosing merino wool over regular wool for any hiking gear that touches your skin. Mainly because merino wool isn’t itchy. In fact, it feels almost as soft as cotton. So this would include hiking socks, underwear, baselayers, t-shirts, gloves, hats, and buffs.
Merino wool also has other benefits over wool. It’s better at thermoregulation (keeping you warm in winter and cool in summer), it’s better at moisture-wicking and staying dry while doing something active, and it’s much lighter compared to regular wool.
In a pure form, merino wool isn’t very durable, so I would use 100% merino wool only for gear that isn’t exposed to abrasion and increased wear, like baselayers, hats, and glove liners. For everything else, I recommend getting merino wool composites, which have about 40-70% merino wool in combination with synthetics (polyester, nylon, elastane, spandex, Lycra, or acrylic).
Choose Regular Wool For Jackets, Sweaters, Hoodies, And Pants
For exterior layers, I think it’s completely fine to choose gear that’s made from regular wool. That’s because regular wool also has many beneficial properties, but it costs much less than merino wool.
Regular wool is better at insulating and keeping you warm when worn as an exterior layer. That’s because wool contains a lot of air in it, and it’s naturally thicker, so it’s easier for your body to heat it up. It also doesn’t matter whether an exterior layer is itchy to your skin or not.
Wool is also more durable than merino wool, and your exterior apparel is put under much more abuse. And finally, regular wool has good odor resistance, moisture-wicking, and thermoregulation properties (although a bit less than merino wool).
Expensive Merino Wool Gear Usually Has Better-Quality Fabrics
The problem with merino wool is that it describes a large range of wool fiber diameters, ranging from 16 to 24 microns. Older Merino sheep and ones grown in colder climates will usually have thicker diameter fibers.
Lower-diameter wool fibers can be spun into a merino wool fabric that’s softer to the skin, has better breathability properties, and doesn’t itch, which is why thinner-diameter fiber merino wool is usually more expensive.
For example, Darn Tough, an expensive, good-quality merino wool sock manufacturer, uses 17.2-micron yarn merino wool, which is considered to be top quality. Cheap merino wool gear usually ranges between 20-24 microns, which is why it may feel a bit irritating on your skin and not perform as well as alternatives from top-end brands.
So if you’re getting merino wool gear, especially socks, underwear, or baselayers, it’s worth it to not cheap out more affordable options.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is merino wool warmer than regular wool?
Regular wool is easier for your body to heat because it contains a lot of air, so if you’re cold, you’ll warm up faster with regular wool apparel. Merino wool is better at keeping your body from cooling off, so it’s better for physical activities, like hiking, running, skiing, and so on. In a few words, regular wool apparel feels warmer when camping and sleeping, and merino wool gear is better for physical activities.
Is merino wool gear good for winter hiking?
Merino wool is the best fabric for winter hiking gear that touches your skin, including baselayers, socks, hats, and glove liners. For any gear that isn’t touching your skin, it’s also fine to use regular wool because it’s much cheaper, more durable, and performs similarly to merino wool.
There are other wool types that are even better for winter hiking compared to merino wool, including alpaca wool, lambswool, and cashmere. They have even finer threads, which makes the fabric denser and offer a better weight-to-warm ratio. That said, these fabrics are very expensive, so they’re rarely used in hiking gear.
Read Next: Can You Use Ski Socks For Hiking?
Is merino wool gear good for summer hiking?
For summer hiking, merino wool outperforms regular wool and most other types of fabric. That’s because merino wool has excellent thermoregulating properties. It traps air inside the fabric, which absorbs the sweat from your skin and slowly releases it through the outer layers of the fabric, keeping you dry.
Merino wool also has many other properties that make it excellent for summer hiking. It can absorb 1/3th of its weight in water and still feel good on your skin, it starts to smell bad much slower than other fabrics, and it’s very breathable.
For summer hiking, merino wool fabrics containing 30-70% merino wool are usually the best choice for hiking socks and t-shirts.
What are the disadvantages of merino wool?
The main disadvantage of merino wool is that it’s very expensive and it isn’t durable. Both of these problems are improved with merino wool composites, which contain a percentage of merino wool and a certain percentage of synthetics. This makes the fabric more durable, cheaper, and more resistant to water, while still having good thermoregulating, odor-resistance, and breathability properties.
Is merino wool better than alpaca wool?
Alpaca wool is the main rival of merino wool because it has better insulation and thermoregulation properties, it’s lighter and more durable, and it’s softer to the touch. So in most aspects, it is indeed better than merino wool.
However, alpaca wool is roughly twice as expensive as merino wool, which is why it’s much less frequently used in hiking gear. Merino wool offers very similar levels of performance while being only marginally behind alpaca wool, so when the price is taken into account, merino wool is a more sensible choice.
Is merino wool better than virgin (new, pure) wool?
Virgin wool, other called pure wool, or pure virgin wool, just means that it hasn’t been recycled, because wool can indeed be recycled. So in terms of its properties, it’s identical to what we call “regular wool”.
And when compared to regular wool, merino wool is generally considered better. It has better thermoregulation and moisture-wicking properties, it’s softer on the skin, and it doesn’t itch.
Is merino wool better than lambswool?
Lambswool is collected from sheep lambs, usually in their first shearing at roughly 7 months old. Lambswool fibers are much finer than regular wool, but they are generally not as fine as merino wool. And the fiber thickness is what directly affects how good a certain wool is. Because merino wool is finer, it’s softer than lambswool, it has better thermoregulation properties, and it wicks away moisture better.
But compared to regular wool, lambswool is definitely better. If you’re shopping for an exterior wool item (something that doesn’t directly touch your skin), then lambswool might be a good choice. It will be more durable than merino wool and cost a lot less while still maintaining a similar level of performance.
Is merino wool gear worth it?
I would say that merino wool gear is definitely worth it, but not for all items. I recommend getting 100% merino wool gear for baselayers, hats, and glove liners, and 30-70% merino wool/synthetic composites for socks, t-shirts, and buffs. Exterior pieces that don’t touch your skin (sweaters, jackets, pants, etc.) can also be made from regular wool since it’s cheaper and more durable.