Merino wool has changed my life. I still love cotton, but in my travel setup, it’s entirely absent. If you’re a backpacker or traveler looking to save space and weight and start traveling light, you need merino wool. In my experience, it’s the best travel shirt for living out of a backpack.
Below are the many properties of merino wool and why they make it an exceptional choice for travel, along with my reviews and recommendations of the merino shirts I use.
But first, a short background
Merino sheep are a highly-valued breed of sheep that are renowned for having some of the softest and finest wool available. Although their origins are in Spain, merinos are reared predominantly in New Zealand and Australia today.
For those unfamiliar with merino wool, its fibers are thinner than regular wool fibers, giving the merino an unexpectedly soft feel. Merino fibers range from 11-24 microns (µm) in diameter, with slight differences in grade and quality between these thicknesses: medium (19.5-23 µm), fine (18-19.5 µm), superfine (15-18 µm), and ultra fine (11-15 µm)—with ultra fine being the most expensive grade.
For comparison, regular coarse wool is around 40 microns.
Properties of merino wool
Sweat itself is odorless when it’s secreted. The smell actually results from bacteria found on the surface of the skin, which break down proteins and lipids in the sweat and cause the release of odors. So in a moist, damp environment like the armpits, it’s the perfect storm for generating pungent aromas.
However, due to merino wool’s ability to pull moisture off the skin and evaporate it into the air, the odor-causing bacteria lack the damp conditions required for growth in the first place, thereby nipping the odor in the bud. This aspect alone makes merino a top choice for any kind of multi-day adventure such as backpacking, traveling, hiking, etc.
To be clear though, the odor-resistance isn’t perfect. After several days of wear and sweat, the shirt is going to begin smelling funky. But, it takes multiple wears to reach this point. I’ve sweated for hours while hiking in my merino wool tees, and while my body may smell quite terrible, the merino wool has no odor whatsoever.
Multiple wears with no washing
This is one of my favorite qualities of merino wool: its low maintenance. I can wear one of my merino wool shirts all day, hang it up for the night, and the next morning it smells fine.
No washing. No laundry. Air it out and it’s ready to wear.
First and foremost, the quick-drying ability of merino wool depends on two things:
- How much moisture is held within the fibers when it begins to dry
- The level of humidity in the surrounding environment
Sometimes travel makes doing laundry difficult, so when circumstances aren’t ideal for drying your clothes, there are other ways!
In my experience, whenever I’m wearing one of my merino tee shirts and it gets soaked through with rain or sweat, I just hop on my motorbike and after 20-30 minutes of driving, it’s dry nearly everywhere. Even when I’ve had to hang dry one of my shirts in a stuffy room overnight, and find it still slightly damp in the morning, I put it on anyway and within an hour or less of starting my day, it’s dry.
It insulates you in the cold, and cools you in the heat
Merino wool is an active fiber that adapts and reacts to changes in your body temperature, meaning in hot weather it’ll help keep you cool, and in cold weather it’ll help keep you warm.
But don’t be fooled by its thin, lightweight feel—merino wool has an impressive warmth-to-weight ratio thanks to the natural crimping of the wool. These coiled fibers basically trap the air that sits in the space between your shirt and body. This air is then heated up by your core, and essentially acts as a Thermos does, keeping its enclosed contents nice and toasty.
Conversely, when temperatures rise, wool’s high breathability allows more air to circulate, and its fibers are especially adept at pulling moisture and heat away from your body, keeping you cool and content.
Soft and comfortable
Wool automatically triggers thoughts of itchiness on the skin, but merino wool differs here from traditional wool. The fibers of merino wool are thinner and “finer” than regular, coarse wool fibers, and therefore bend more easily, giving the merino a soft and elegant feel against the skin.
Even when wet, merino wool is surprisingly comfortable, which I can’t imagine has ever been said about cotton. Plus, it takes a healthy amount of water for merino wool to actually feel wet. Merino wool fibers can soak up up to 30% of their weight before feeling wet to the touch.
Merino wool drapes beautifully. The way it naturally falls and moves with the body gives it an effortlessly sleek appearance. What enables it to drape so gracefully is its static resistance. This results from its ability to absorb moisture vapor well, thus ceasing the build-up of static electricity and that awful clinging to the body which some fabrics do.
These anti-static properties also help it to repel dust and lint.
The fibers of merino wool are like miniature coiled springs. Whether stretched or compressed, they will always return to their natural shape.
When I’m traveling and I take one of my merino shirts out of my pack and unroll it, it usually has a few wrinkle lines, but once I put it on, the fibers restore themselves to their original shape and the wrinkles disappear shortly after.
Merino wool offers the additional benefit of being naturally resistant to UV radiation from the sun, with most merino products providing a UPF rating of 30-50+. Not much of an explanation needed here—this is just awesome.
Merino wool is a natural flame retardant, meaning when it’s exposed to flames, it will not catch fire. Instead, it will just smolder and even self-extinguish, meaning no melting or sticking to your skin. There’s a reason why fire fighters wear wool-based layers..
Easy care and maintenance
While most merino wool brands advertise their garments as machine-washable these days, I still hand-wash and hang dry all of my merino clothing. Considering the upfront investment of merino wool, I want mine to last me for years, and hand washing will always be gentler on the fabric than a machine.
Hand washing may be a turn-off for some, but considering how infrequently it’s actually necessary, it doesn’t bother me.
Is merino wool right for me?
Due to the high cost of a single merino wool t-shirt, I can’t recommend that just any person buys merino wool clothing. However, for certain activities and lifestyles, it’s a worthy investment and I wholeheartedly recommend buying yourself a merino wool t-shirt. Or three.
You should buy merino wool for:
Backpacking / Long-term travel. Now, is it imperative that you have merino wool for backpacking?
I only recommend it because it makes life much easier when living out of a backpack. But I realize many people looking to do long-term travel are young, perhaps just out of college, and can’t afford to spend a couple hundred dollars on a few t-shirts.
But, if you’re really intent on traveling and packing light, investing in merino wool should be high on your list.
Minimalistic lifestyles. Whether you’re living out of a backpack, or simply want to own fewer things in your quest to pare down your life to the essentials, merino wool probably deserves a spot in your wardrobe.
Wilderness backpacking / trekking / hiking. In nearly any outdoor situation or environment, a merino wool t-shirt is likely to be your best base layer. The only exception that comes to mind is an adventure involving lots of bushwhacking—only because it may tear if it gets snagged on any thorns.
Best Travel Shirt Recommendations and Reviews
I have three merino wool t-shirts that I wear regularly, each of which always has a place in my backpack.
Icebreaker Tech Lite Merino Wool T-Shirt
Icebreaker makes some of the top merino wool clothing in the market today, and source all of their merino wool from stations in the Southern Alps of New Zealand. Like all high-quality merino wool products, Icebreaker’s are not cheap, but due to their popularity and prevalence, it’s easier to find them on sale compared to other brands.
I bought my Icebreaker shirt in July 2016 and have worn it religiously since then. I absolutely love it.
Before purchasing the shirt, I read a lot of reviews about it, and found out that Icebreaker had recently switched from 100% merino wool to 87%, and had infused the new merino shirts with a nylon core in order to increase the strength and durability. Some reviewers commented that the newer shirts didn’t perform as well as the older ones, but others said the new shirts were great.
Considering I have no experience with Icebreaker’s older 100% merino shirts, I purchased the merino/nylon blend and it’s been great so far under heavy usage.
My only gripe with it is the logo on the left chest region of the shirt. I could do without that.
Of my three merino tees, it’s my go-to choice every time for overall performance, comfort, and appearance.
Triple Aught Design Traverse Tech T-Shirt
With that said, I wanted to see how a 100% merino wool shirt would compare to Icebreaker’s 87% merino wool. After much research, I discovered Triple Aught Design (TAD), a San Francisco-based clothing company that specializes in tactical military and performance wear with a minimalistic design and great earth-tone colors.
The reviews I found of their products praised their gear, so I decided to order a shirt from them. I wasn’t able to find any third-parties selling their clothing, so I ordered the Traverse Tech T directly from their website. And at $70 a shirt—$80 after shipping—it’s quite steep for a tee shirt. However, it’s an incredibly functional piece of clothing and one of my core favorites.
As for performance, it is entirely on-par with the Icebreaker shirt, even surpassing it in odor-resistance (I haven’t actually tested this, it just seems this way to me after almost a year of wear). Where they differ is the fit: I ordered a medium size in both shirts and for my frame and build, I prefer the fit of the Icebreaker. The TAD shirt is cut just a little bit larger in the circumference of the sleeves and chest.
But, the Triple Aught Design shirt is free of logos or branding on the exterior, which I love. They also have an excellent selection of colors.
Wool & Prince Merino Wool V-Neck T-Shirt
Wool & Prince is a newer company that launched via Kickstarter through a brilliant marketing campaign in which the founder wore one of their wool button-down shirts for 100 days straight without washing or ironing it, and the story took off. Their goal was to raise $30,000, and they surpassed $300,000.
Wool & Prince’s clothing combines a classic style with a modern cut, and I was drawn to this because I wanted a merino wool shirt more suited for a night out. Wool & Prince’s V-Neck in Phantom black was a great choice.
At 78% merino wool and 22% nylon, it has the lowest amount of merino wool in it of the three, but it still performs as a merino wool shirt should. One of the most notable differences between this shirt and shirts of a higher concentration of wool is the reduced pilling of the Wool & Prince shirt.
Perhaps due to this reduced pilling, it has a slightly “dressier” look to it so I usually don’t wear it hiking. But for an evening in the city—it’s perfect.
Whether this is your first introduction to merino wool or you’re an owner and lover of it already, I hope you’ve found the information here helpful in some way. I only review and recommend items I have used personally, and vouch for the performance and overall value of what’s listed here. Before purchasing merino wool though, I encourage you to do your own research to discover what suits you best.