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Testing Outdoor Clothing - Two Idiots Outside

Posted in Product Reviews on February 21, 2014
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Contributors: Andrew Schuth

Tis the season, although what exactly that season is, we don’t know, other than what some people seem to call “sweater weather.” Yet we’ve come to find out that no cool kids are still doing layers of clothing like sweaters when going outdoors. Nowadays, it’s all about clothing called “layers.”

Take the offerings from the company SmartWool: baselayers and midlayers. Base refers to it being close to/against your skin, while mid is typically worn between the base and outerlayer. Or, wear either of them as is, in any season. (An outerlayer is generally referring to actual weather protection, such as a raincoat.)

Despite the logic behind this newfangled layering, we still weren’t entirely clear on why we couldn’t go with our usual uniform on the trail or when camping: T-shirt, maybe with a thermal underneath, a hoodie, and jeans, maybe with thermals underneath those. SmartWool explained that “used properly, we think it’s the best fiber available for outdoor apparel. It manages moisture better than cotton, it’s smarter than synthetics, and is more comfortable in any weather condition.” The “fiber” referred to is Merino wool, which seems to be the next big thing. SmartWool produces a collection of clothing and socks, each with the same Ws: wicking, warmth, and wool.

You can imagine our next question, seeing that anytime we sport wool, we scratch at our body like a Giant Schnauzer with fleas. “Wool is infamous for being an itchy fabric. Merino wool, however, is a different story,” the company told us. “The ‘itchiness’ people associate with wool is determined by the diameter of the fibers used. Larger, broader fibers are less flexible and have less ability to bend, which results in a prick when pressed against the skin, causing the sensation of itch. Merino wool is able to ditch the itch, thanks to its fiber’s smaller diameter, or being ‘finer.’ These fibers are more flexible and softly bend when pressed against the skin, and therefore don’t itch like other wool. These finer fibers also enhance wool’s elastic nature, making garments made with Merino wool more able to conform to the shape of the body, enhancing the garment’s performance and the wearer’s comfort.”

Yet…we still weren’t convinced on wool being comfortable. It’s wool. Wet wool sounded even worse. SmartWool countered with, “Wool will move liquid mechanically, just like synthetics do. Both synthetics and wool have the ability to wick, but only wool has the ability to wick away moisture in its vapor state.” Wicking is a term that might be unfamiliar to people outside of a gym, yet it’s becoming increasingly popular in material for all walks of life. Simply put, it pulls moisture, aka sweat, off your skin so that it doesn’t feel like you’re standing around in a wet diaper.

Another proponent of the wool/wicking combo is Darn Tough Vermont, which specializes in performance socks for all types of weather and usage. We expressed the same wool concerns to Ken Liatsos, the PR guy; Merino is also the sheep of choice here. “You can wear Merino wool right up against even sensitive skin. Furthermore, it is naturally antibacterial—you won’t get stinky—and will not absorb moisture. Our yarns are extremely wear and shrink/deformation resistant, making caring for your socks a breeze.”

Darn Tough Vermont utilizes Coolmax technology for wicking. We wondered aloud about why a sock even needs technology. A sock is a sock, right? “I love that you asked this question. It lets me geek out,” Ken said. “Wicking is critical in a sock or any baselayer; it’s probably the most important factor contributing to comfortable, healthy feet.” In the case of both socks and clothing, wicking keeps feet and body parts dry and ensures you don’t get cold from being wet. Ken further explained that successful wicking is based on there being small pores in the fabric. “Think of a straw in a glass of water. If you look closely at it, you’ll see that the water level in the straw is a bit higher than that in the glass. That’s wicking. If you reduce the diameter of the straw, the water will rise up it still farther. Hence, small-diameter pores wick more aggressively. This is a major reason why we knit our socks so densely.” Nerd alert.

Another sock manufacturer that specializes in outdoor performance is Swiftwick, which in addition to boasting wicking capabilities also has compression—that’s another term thrown around a lot at the gym and in the athletic world, but is also an important consideration for any of us on our feet a lot outdoors. Compression sets out to improve blood flow and circulation.

We also turned to a name maybe more familiar to you in outdoor stuff: REI, possibly the place you bought that kayak sitting in the garage collecting dust. REI carries lightweight tops and bottoms functioning as various layers, and with a wicking/quick-drying polyester/spandex blend (90/10 percent, respectively).

After talking to all the companies about how their stuff works outdoors, we realized the only way to truly grasp layering and wicking was to put the wearables to the test— Idiots style.

Darn Tough Vermont ( Hike/Trek microcrew sock
REI ( Lightweight quarter-zip shirt (long-sleeve)
SmartWool ( PhD outdoor ultra light crew sock, NTS Light 195 lightweight bottom, NTS Micro 150 tank, NTS Light 195 Zip T baselayer (long-sleeve, despite the T in the name), NTS Microweight T-shirt short-sleeve, and PhD HyFi Half Zip midlayer
Swiftwick ( Sustain Four crew sock

PhotosView Slideshow

It should be noted that since Four Wheeler is based in Los Angeles, and this testing was done in the month of August, facilitating a proper cold-weather test at first posed a problem. But Idiots know how to improvise: We headed to a secret location at Abbot Kinney and Washington in Venice, California: a restaurant with a big freezer, allowing us to replicate the extreme temps of the East Coast. Taking the foodbox down to a chilly 35 degrees, each Idiot spent one minute inside the freezer per various layers of clothing, seeing how effective the baselayer would be alone, then adding or subtracting a midlayer of various sleeve length, slipping on the different socks, then isolating which body parts remained warm.

Warm-weather testing involved being outdoors on the trail at different times of day—morning chilliness, high noon, and evening cool-down. To make the testing even more realistic, we simulated an average day on the trail: standing around waiting for people to drive over an obstacle, walking or running up hills as if we were a spotter, eating a bag of chips (we got hungry), squatting (to look under a vehicle, we mean), and sitting for an extended period of time around the campfire.

Starting with the socks: The Swiftwicks felt durable, and the athletic/compression design is tight but comfortable, especially at the top. Although we had no issues with the other socks sliding down, we’ll admit to having a bit more confidence that these wouldn’t, especially when we sweat and moved a lot. They wicked well during both intense exercise and when running on the trail. While in the freezer, they keep the feet warm. The Darn Tough Vermont and SmartWool socks both resulted in warm feet that didn’t overheat, another stereotype with wool that we were able to break. The latter two both looked like wool, but the feel was soft and there truly was no scratchiness or itchiness. While they wicked well, they wouldn’t be our first pick to wear during vigorous exercise, but on the trail they performed exactly as intended. In the freezer, both felt like having a fancy sheep wrapped around our feet.

As with the socks, the clothing from REI and SmartWool wick, although the intense sweating portion of the test may have pushed all to beyond their limits (saggy and heavy from the extreme wetness, although all returned to their original shape when dry. There were no issues during light sweating). SmartWool said its clothing has the ability to regulate body temperature, and as weird as it sounds, it seemed true. The company explained it to us as being “because of wool’s efficiency assisting your body’s natural cooling process, you can maintain a lower heart rate when wearing wool next to skin instead of synthetics.”

When it came to the freezer test, REI and SmartWool offerings both kept us surprisingly warm for the duration, although we’d probably wear the REI over something, whereas the SmartWool products would be worn against the skin. However, considering how ridiculously soft the REI baselayer was, any underlayering would be done with hesitation.

A note on fitment: We found the socks and clothing to run true to size except for the SmartWool bottoms and tank; both seemed to run a size larger than normal, so if you’re a large, consider going medium. While the bottoms were cozy and felt almost like loungewear, wearing the incorrect size wasn’t practical for the purpose it was to serve: wicking and warmth. You can’t have gaps or loose material, because it can cause issues like chafing and blistering, like when your thighs rub together, since moisture isn’t being removed properly from the skin. And when clothing isn’t fitted, the cold temperature finds its way directly to your skin.

One other big thing we noticed: None of the clothing or socks, no matter how wet we got them, nor how long they sat around after testing (and we’re talking hours), had any odor. And that may be the best technology of all: clothing for a weekend getaway that doesn’t make others want to get away from you.

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