Last spring, I spent six weeks living in crowded huts in the Alps with a bunch of European climbers and skiers. I couldn’t help but notice a few cultural differences: Europeans preferred skinnier skis, drank more wine and wore high-tech, snug-fitting base layers. Their long johns used differing thicknesses and weaves, theoretically allowing for hot and cold spots and differing stretching qualities. I had seen this style of varied insulation in socks, soft-shell jackets and wetsuits I had used over the years, but had yet to see this method used in a base layer. Curious, I jumped on the opportunity to test Ortovox’s Merino Competition base layer, which uses this technology.
Eighty percent merino wool and 20 percent nylon, the Competition weighs just under 7 grams. The fabric is complexly woven to keep you warm where you need extra insulation, and cool where you don’t. The shirt has lighter layering in these extra sweaty areas that Ortovox calls Heat Spots: back, armpits, chest and sides, with a bit more insulation in the arms and portions of the torso that do not produce as much heat. Ortovox claims the pattern of the weave is also varied to maximize elasticity. To optimize this technology, the shirt is made to fit like a second skin. My usual size large was a bit more form-fitting than I prefer, so in this case an XL fit best.
The base layer arrived in my mailbox four months ago, and I immediately added it to an assembly of gear for my upcoming trips to Mt. Rainier, just a few hours from my house. Having a mild wool allergy, I also packed a short-sleeve synthetic t-shirt to wear under the base layer to fend off itchy skin.
When I unpacked this wool shirt, the first thing I noticed was an odd smell. At first, I assumed it was a normal scent for new wool, but the odor persisted and smelled almost of chemicals. I washed the shirt, carefully following the manufacturer’s instructions: wash in water that is 40 degrees Celsius, no dryer, no ironing (but who irons long underwear anyway?). This decreased but did not eliminate the smell. I also threw it in with a full load of laundry and didn’t notice any bleeding of the color onto other clothes.
Despite my malodorous first impressions, the base layer slowly won me over in the field. I took the base layer on numerous four-day ascents on Mt. Rainier, all of which provided wet, windy and miserable conditions, perfect for testing a wool shirt. At first, I wore my short-sleeve T-shirt under the Competition layer, but phased it out over the following five weeks as the wool didn’t irritate my skin–in fact, it was quite soft and comfortable. I enjoyed wearing the layer and rediscovered that wool really is warm, even when wet. For the sake of comparison, I also packed my usual long-sleeve, synthetic base layer, but the wool was, by far, the most comfortable piece I had.
Though the layer was cozy and warm on the soggiest of days, I was disappointed to see the colors bleed onto my pack and layers directly against the shirt when it was wet. Fortunately, the discoloration was not permanent.
As a final note, I will admit that eventually I accidentally washed the shirt and then threw it into a dryer with my other clothes. It shrunk a bit but was otherwise unharmed. While this is clearly mistreatment on my part, it is what happens to most users’ gear from time to time, so I was happy to see the Competition pass the test of practical use.
After a couple months of testing, both the bleeding and the chemical smell disappeared and the shirt has become a reliable and durable addition to my base layer arsenal. Though the techy base layer is still a little ways from perfection, I think the Europeans might be onto something.
Pros: Soft; warm when wet; durable; smart design.
Cons: Chemical smell and color bleeding at first; pricey.