Since buying a couple of merino tops a few years back I am completely sold on the stuff. For years I had been using Helly Hanson Lifa or Sub Zero Factor 1 thermals. All of which developed that characteristic kayaking odor.
Up until very recently my thermal base layer of choice was the Howies merino surf thermal. The merino is thin, the arms are nice and long and also include thumb loops. These are superb when your putting on your drycag or dry suit as they help prevent the sleeves rolling up. The neck is a turle neck so you get a bit of protection from latex dry cag seals. Unfortunately they stop production of these quite a few years ago and I needed to make a change simply due to wear and tear.
Now not all Merino is made equal. There are different weights and depending on the quality of the wool and what it is mixed makes for some good and some bad merino gear.
As merino gear has become more wide spread and popular I think the overall quality has gone down. Some of the initial big players don’t seem to producing gear that lasts as long as I think it should.
The bad stuff tends to feel quite rough and can be itchy to wear. I tend to stick to a number of safe brands that have always delivered great gear.
Although most merino tops are relatively expensive compared to synthetic thermals they do offer a number of advantages. The fibres of the merino wool are different to both synthetic and regular wool, this makes them softer, non-itchy and resistant to the kayak stink monster. The lack of that kayaking smell is one of the most obvious advantages, but they also offer a good level of warmth even when wet and they provide a good level of UV protection.
Icebreaker, Smartwool all make great merino gear. I have gear from each of them and all are very good and highly recommended. However the current merino gear of choice is the stuff being produced by Sweet Protection. The Alpine range of gear includes the Alpine crew neck. The top has been created primarily for snow duties with both body and arms that are nice and long. It’s close fitting and articulated but not an athletic fit. Both of these make it ideal for paddling as I can layer up as required without it being restricive. I have never had and issue with my back being exposed and getting cold.
This super fine Merino jersey is the ultimate next-to-skin layer. With its fantastic 17.5 micron wool fiber and a unique knit, it keeps an articulated fit throughout demanding activities. In a 200g/m2 quality, it is ready to tackle the elements. The Crew jersey has double panels on the elbows and wide double waistbands, which protects the exposed areas of the body in the harshness of winter.
If it gets really cold I layer two tops together or wear one with my Palm equipment onesie. I currently have two Alpine crew neck tops. One in black/grey and the other in blue. They also produce a green/white version but I am unsure how this would handle the peaty water within the North East of England. Unless synthetic gear gets better I won’t be planning to change back.