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Baselayers: Synthetic Versus Wool?

The question as to which fabric is a better baselayer, synthetic or wool, is a long-standing one, with strong proponents of each fabric. It is a topic that our staff deal with weekly and requires some further understanding to make the right decision. (Hint: there is no wrong decision, unless it’s cotton!) 

First, let’s discuss what a baselayer is truly meant to do – as many get confused with this. Once you understand the purpose of your baselayer, it may make a decision on a fabric choice less difficult.

What is a baselayer? 

A baselayer is basically a shirt and leggings that go against your skin, as your first defence against the elements. Baselayers are also commonly referred to as long johns, long underwear, etc

Baselayers have two purposes:
1.    Provide warmth
2.    Keep you dry

They act as an insulation piece to keep you warm, and as a sweat protection piece, to keep you dry. However, the sweat protection part is actually the most essential. By wicking sweat off your body, the baselayer is also keeping you warm. Therefore warmth is almost a by-product of wearing the baselayer. 

How thick of a baselayer do you need?

How thick or thin you need the baselayer to be will depend on your activity level. Too thick a baselayer and you will sweat, then get cold. Too thin and you will not trap enough warmth, but will wick away sweat easily. At times a difficult balance, but when done correctly the outdoors becomes even more enjoyable – no matter the weather. If in doubt, our staff error on the side of a thin baselayer that allows for multiple midlayers, if needed, to be worn on top.

What type of fabric should you choose as a baselayer – synthetic or wool?

So, which fabric to do you choose?

Synthetic Baselayers

An entirely manmade fabric, usually of a poly composite, synthetic layers have been around for quite some time. 

Synthetic: The Advantages

Where synthetic fabrics are very useful is in sweat management. Synthetic fabrics are by nature slightly hydrophobic, and are unable to hold much moisture in the weave of the threads. This is very useful for outdoor enthusiasts, as these baselayers are incapable of keeping you too damp for too long. This is something that they actually do better than wool. This definitely makes synthetic fabrics worth looking at when deciding upon a baselayer for your next trip. 

Synthetic: The Disadvantages

The negatives of synthetic fabrics are what first come to mind for many: environmental pollutants, feeling clammy and sweaty, along with the smell after a few days of use. The reality is that much of those problems, while still of minor concern, are being fixed by manufacturers. Many brands are far more environmentally conscious in production, and have been fixing the clammy and smelly problems that were common with older synthetics.

Wool Baselayers

Wool is one of the longest worn outdoor fabrics, having been around since ancient times. Wool is well known to people spending time in the outdoors, and for good reason.

Wool: The Advantages

Wool is very warm, even keeping you warm when wet, and can be used in many different forms such as baselayers, sweaters, toques, hats, gloves, jackets, etc. There is very little that wool cannot be used to make. 

Wool: The Disadvantages

Wool does have its down sides though, and they are important to be aware of. 

First off, for some people wool is very itchy. That is usually due to the quality of wool used, as the poorer quality wool has coarse scales on each fibre that cause the scratchy feeling. In wool such as merino (a higher quality wool from merino sheep) the scales are finer, therefore less itchy. 

The other downside of wool is actually related to how you still feel warm when wool is wet. The many small hairs that make up wool can hold up to 30% of their weight in moisture, roughly, before getting oversaturated. The moisture is generally held in the core of the fibre, therefore away from your skin – allowing you to go without feeling very cold in a wet wool garment. That is both great, and problematic. Because the wool is holding moisture, unlike synthetic which can’t, it is doing worse at wicking moisture from your skin. This is the main job of a baselayer, yet wool needs more time to do it. Does that mean you throw out all your wool baselayers? No. However it may explain why you feel wetter in your wool garments than synthetic ones after working hard. 

A Comparison: Synthetic versus Wool

Synthetic can hold less moisture, wick sweat better, but is smelly at times and is a man-made plastic fibre. 

Wool is natural, renewable, yet it holds more moisture causing you to wick sweat worse than synthetic fibres. 

Based on all of this information, which is the right fabric when choosing a baselayer? 


Honestly, as we tell our customers often, whichever garment helps to get you outside more often and is comfortable to wear is the right one. Many people own both merino wool and synthetic baselayers, and are happy with them. Choose the right item for you, and that is always the best choice.