Friday, January 31, 2014

Let's get wooly!

So last week's post may have been a bit thin on content and high on cheek - I have clearly managed not to freeze solid, despite having continued to run outdoors through one of the coldest winters I can recall.

One of the major reasons I haven't died of exposure is this happy fellow:

That's a merino sheep, and their wool is an outdoor enthusiast's best friend. Several companies make apparel and accessories from merino wool, and while it's incredibly expensive compared to synthetics, I've found the price to be completely worth it.

Especially when running in these kinds of conditions.
That's a merino wool neck gaiter keeping my face from freezing.

As I discussed last year in my Winter Running Tips post, you need to be able to manage moisture in order to survive with all your toes. Merino wool not only wicks sweat away better than any synthetic I've ever worn, it also (like all wool) stays warm when it's wet, and even feels dry against your skin when it's soaked since the actual fibres are incapable of absorbing water. This can make a huge difference in extreme conditions, be they hot or cold - dry (or at least dry-feeling) fabric against your skin is less prone to chafe or blister, and leaves you much less at the mercy of the air temperature around you. I happened to hear a fellow ask after the Frosty Trail 3-hour this year what kind of socks other people were using: myself and both others who were there at the time all heartily endorsed SmartWool socks for keeping feet warm and blister-free when running through the snow for hours on end. If ultrarunners will recommend them for long slogs in harsh conditions, you know you can rely on them for your everyday training needs! Make no mistake, though - I don't relegate merino wool use to the winter.

Midsummer Night's 30k in a merino singlet.

Merino wool has an amazing ability to assist your body in temperature regulation: you'll stay warm when you need to, but dump heat as the thermometer (or your effort level) rises. I even wear merino wool longjohns under my trousers to go to work, knowing that they'll keep me toasty in the chilly car but won't make me overheat even in the sweltering heat of my office. I love how dry and comfortable I stay in my merino wool items on the hottest days of summer, too - I wear the socks year-round, and have no less than 3 merino wool tank tops and an additional 3 short-sleeved shirts! The fabrics will vary in their hand by company, but this isn't your grandma's scratchy knitting - even my "no way will I ever wear wool because it makes me itchy" husband is a total convert to SmartWool's incredible socks and the silky, light-as-air Icebreaker garments.

So many applications.
Don't think that merino wool is just for running, either - any outdoor activity, particularly ones where your energy expenditure varies (leaving you potentially sweating and then freezing), can be a wonderful use of merino wool apparel. Tanker and I both lived in longjohns made by Icebreaker and longsleeve merino shirts from Mountain Equipment Co-op while backpacking on the Western Uplands Trail last fall, bringing along merino t-shirts as well for when the weather was warmer. When packing for fast-and-light travel, then diminutive size & weight of merino wool makes a great deal of sense. It's really resilient stuff, too - the pieces I own have been put through the wringer, and while I've managed (through my own stupidity, which we all know is abundant) to put some small holes in a couple of things those holes don't seem to grow. I don't know if it's an effect of the wool itself or the way in which the various companies fabricate the garments, but holes that look like they'd quickly spread and destroy the piece just seem to stay the same size for years on end.

No pants before coffee at Maggie Lake.

There's one more great aspect of merino wool that makes it ideal for endurance sport, travel and outdoor pursuits - being naturally antibacterial, the garments don't stink even after days of heavy, sweaty wear. Seriously. Those longjohns above? I wore them for 5 days straight, took them off for a day, then threw 'em right back on again. No stench, same with the socks that didn't leave my feet for 6 solid days. When you're talking about feet that spent most of their time hiking rugged terrain encased in Gore-Tex boots, that's saying quite a bit. This makes the fabric ideal for commuter apparel, too - I have a great merino shirt made by Bontrager that I use for warm weather cycling on my lunch breaks and after work.

Or running around at -15c in a snowfield. Whatever.

The last major advantage of merino wool is that it dries from soaking wet faster than just about any other material I've ever encountered. Between the complete absence of any smell after wearing and the quick dry time, this means you can push a very small number of pieces very hard - I have been wearing my heaviest-weight merino base layer shirt almost every day during this polar vortex to run in the evening, hanging it on the side of my laundry hamper overnight, and finding it ready to go again less than 24hrs later. Decided that you've worn it enough to warrant a good bath? Just chuck it in the washer (we wash everything in cold and use the delicate cycle for athletic apparel), then either hang or lay flat to dry. It'll be ready for more abuse within 24hrs at most - sometimes as little as 4 hours, depending on temperature, humidity and how much water the spin cycle gets out. I've heard you can send it through the dryer as well on low heat, but that's not a thing I've ever tested. I've never had cause to, either; I've actually taken garments off in the evening, laundered them in a hotel sink and hung them up, then put them right back on in the morning. I have even washed out a pair of briefs in a campground comfort station and used a hot-air hand dryer to have them ready to wear within a few minutes. It's probably best you don't ask for further details there.

An Ibex sweater for a chilly, windy training run.

The long & short of it is, you need some of this stuff. I balked at the price when I bought my first piece (an Icebreaker base layer shirt that I still wear 5 years later - that's the one I mentioned above that's been saving me from the polar vortex!), but I've since invested in enough to clothe me from head to toe. Gloves, neck gaiter, hats, a pair of pants, plus different weights of base layers - it's all delicious to wear and can save your life if things really get rough out on the trail. I heartily endorse just about anything made by Icebreaker (they even have a neat "BAAcode" tag on their garments that will let you track the origin of your piece to the very farm where the sheep was raised), SmartWool socks and accessories, and I've had good experiences with Ibex as well. These companies all pride themselves on making quality products using wool from mulesing-free farms.

Wool all over!

If you needed another reason, you can also feel great about the fact you're using a naturally sustainable resource - the sheep need shearing anyway, and will grow another huge, fleecy coat the next year! Much better than contributing to depletion of non-renewables through consumption of petroleum-based synthetics, most of which won't last as long as the hard-wearing wool. So what are you waiting for? Go treat yourself to the very best!

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