A snug bed, warm beach with sand sliding between your toes, a quietly crackling fire. Humans love to be warm–comfortably warm. When you are traveling to Europe in the winter, base layers are your bed, beach and fire all rolled into an easily packed package. You should bring them. But what kind?
Wool vs. Synthetic
Wool. You should bring wool. You already have polyester, nylon or some other cool sounding new blend? That’s fine, but wool next time, OK?
Wool does one thing better than any other fiber. Resist smell. You are going to wear this clothing directly on the parts of your body that smell. These base layer bad boys will be fighting for you in the trenches, so to speak. And when you are on the road without easy access to a washer, they are going back into your luggage dirty. Putting an absorbent base layer in your luggage is like putting in a stink bomb. Everything you own will adopt that smell. And so will anything you wear on top of them later.
Wool also resists wrinkles like it’s being sold by Neutrogena. You can wear it day after day with no visual signs of sloth. But given that we’re talking base layers, it’s unlikely other people will get to see your perfect looking clothes. (right?)
Seasoned Traveler Tip: Mernio wool is the softest wool option for base layers. It’s nearly ubiquitous in the base layer industry, mostly because cashmere is too fragile and regular wool feels like sandpaper.
So wool resists smell and wrinkles better than synthetic fabrics–that sounds perfect for a trip that lasts longer than a weekend. There must be some downsides, right? Two big ones. But we can get over those together…
Overcoming Wool’s Downsides
Wool is expensive and it needs to be carefully handled during washing. It’s not perfect, but you can overcome wool’s two main issues relatively easily.
To get around the expensive part, I recommend shopping at Sierra Trading Post. I’m not sponsored by STP, but man, that store is great for budget travelers. You can get some of the best brands half price. How? They are last season’s model, overruns or seconds.
Additionally, I can personally vouch for Woolly’s undershirts and boxers. Truly spectacular. I had two of each on a two week trip and didn’t need any more. At the end of the trip, they smelled neutral. Which is way more than you can say for cotton.
Wool doesn’t need to be pampered, but it can’t be dried. Wash it inside out, lay it out to dry and you are done. Also, be sure to read the tag about water temperature for washing to avoid shrinking.
In fact, not having to dry the wool is kind of nice when traveling and clothes dryers can be rare. Wool base layers will dry out over night as long as it’s not too cold, so you can wear them the next day.
Base Layer Weight
Most wool manufacturers will include and NTS (Next To Skin) or other similar acronym followed by a number on their product. You can chill, I’ve got the breakdown for you.
>150 NTS – Time for the beach
150 NTS – Warm spring day
170 NTS – Cool spring day
190 NTS – Fall day
>190 NTS – Winter
Is that scientifically accurate and supported by a peer review? No. But it’s straight forward and cuts through a lot of complications to get to the heart of the issue. You want a higher NTS when it’s cold and lower NTS when it’s warm.
When Jane and I were in Denmark and Germany for two weeks, we both wore Smartwool 200 NTS bottoms. They were wonderfully cozy on the street but still breathable when in museums or during concerts.
What We Use
I prefer Smartwool over other brands as I know their products last a long time under heavy use. I’ve had some of their wool socks for longer than I care to admit. That said, branch out. Travel is about new experiences. Why not start with your clothes? That’s what I did with the start-up Woolly and was really pleased with the result.