The right gear will make any trip a great adventure, but the right material will keep you comfortable throughout the entire journey. Whether it’s a hike in the forest, climbing rugged mountains, or strolling along the shores of a lake, Merino wool has always been a top choice to weather any condition.
And when it comes to the best of the best, it always boils down to two brands: Smartwool and Icebreaker.
The innovation of Merino wool has changed the game for outdoor clothing forever. Gone are the days for stuffy, scratchy traditional wool to keep warm. Merino wool has invaded much outdoor clothing and gear because of its natural breathability and moisture management. It’s also great for both warm and cool weather.
In cold weather, Merino wool can trap air in its fibers and functions as an insulator. In hot water, the moisture stored in the wool evaporates and gives a cooling effect. It also wicks moisture away from your skin, keeping the material dry to the touch. This in turn means it doesn’t retain nasty odors, no matter how hard you work outdoors.
Smartwool and Icebreaker both produce a wide range of apparel from socks and underwear to shirts and garments. Price-wise, they don’t differ that much either and you can get yourself a couple of items very easily.
Having said that, it’s a bit more of an investment than the usual synthetic socks and baselayers that most people use. This bit of investment goes a long way for any kind of travel.
Before we go into what makes them different (which are very subtle, to be completely honest), let’s look at what makes them equal.
There’s no question – once you’ve made a switch to Merino wool, your cotton underwear will gather dust. Merino wool is comfortable, soft to the touch, stays dry, and very durable. Both Smartwool and Icebreaker produce high-quality products with at least an 80% blend of Merino wool into their garments.
Some people might worry about the “scratchiness” or itch of a wool-based product, and I must say I did too when I first tried Icebreaker about 8 years ago. At first, you might notice a slight scratchiness, very slight.
But after a few wears you won’t. And both brands are about the same with this too. I wear t-shirts from both regularly for hiking and these days it feels just like cotton to me.
Both Smartwool and Icebreaker garments will last you years. They’re at the top of the Merino wool game, and they’re pretty hard to beat. They both have a large distribution all over the world and are actually owned by the same company, VF Corporation.
For the question of which lasts longer, that’s really a matter of wear and tear. It’s pretty hard to measure which brand makes tougher clothing as it solely depends on where, how, and how often you wear them. Needless to say, your Smartwool and Icebreaker haul will definitely outlast your synthetics.
I have Icebreaker t-shirts that I have been using since 2011, and although the pattern wears off the front a little over time, they are still good to go. Same with my smartwool t-shirt that is at least 5 years old. There is no pilling and no real sign of wear on the pattern/print. Here are some shots to show you. (ignore the wrinkles, I often keep them thrown in the cupboard and not nicely folded).
My Smartwool & Icebreaker T-Shirts side by side (I don’t fold them – excuse the wrinkles :>)
My oldest Ice Breaker T Shirt (at least 6 years old and well worn)
Blue Icebreaker Sweater
Note: The only thing you need to be careful of with wool is moths. They love to eat wool. And, if you get them (and they are sneaky little critters) without noticing, you might go to put your shirt on and notice a small hole. Not a deal-breaker, you can still wear them, but it is a shame to ruin an expensive item like this.
So, I put moth paper in the drawers where I store merino thermals and shirts to deter them – ever since I have not had any issues.
Again, both Smartwool and Icebreaker perform very well under many conditions. Merino wool itself has inherent properties that keep the wearers comfortable, especially in colder climates. If you are in a super warm place, they are not as good as synthetics at wicking sweat or keeping you cool, but they are ok in most situations.
Where they excel is in their ability to “not stink”. You can wear these babies for a week-long hiking trip (or even traveling with no access to laundry) and not notice. Seriously! Ok, so I am a guy and we don’t notice, but my fussy girlfriend with the world’s most powerful nose agrees. And if she says they don’t ever stink (she wears them too) then trust her, they don’t!
So how do you know which one is better than the other? It all boils down to preference. Smartwool and Icebreaker have different styles and builds for different kinds of garments, but for the purposes of this review, let’s narrow it down to the most basic ones: Socks, Underwear, and Baselayer.
|Warranty||2-year satisfaction guarantee||Lifetime|
|Fabric||66% Merino Wool, 33% Nylon, 1% Elastane||65% Merino Wool, 33% Nylon, 2% LYCRA®|
|Made for||Rugged day hikes or moderate backpacking||Trekking in colder weather and all-day comfort|
|Function||Comfort; Moisture Absorption||Shock absorption; Arch support; Stability|
|Fit||Slim fit, midrise||Slim, large inseam|
|Fabric Weight||Merino 150||Merino 150|
|Fabric||87% Merino Wool, 13% Nylon Core||83% Merino Wool, 12% Nylon, 5% LYCRA® corespun|
|Features||Merino fibers wrapped around a nylon core for added durability while still keeping the comfort of Merino next to skin; Flatlock seam construction designed to eliminate chafing; Wide elastic waistband (40 mm) designed for ultimate comfort||Corespun fabric for enhanced durability; LYCRA® content for stretch and mobility; contoured pouch with functioning fly; flatlock seams prevent chafing; Icebreaker branded elastic waistband|
|Fabric Weight||Merino 250||Merino 200|
|Fabric||100% Merino Wool||100% Merino Wool|
|Sun Protection||UPF 50+||None|
|Features||Interlock knit; Crew neck with set-in sleeves; Shoulder panels to eliminate seams; Flatlock seam construction designed to eliminate chafing||Offset shoulder seams prevent pack rub; Flatlock seams prevent chafing; Drop tail hem for added coverage; Icebreaker heat transfer logo|
If you get very technical about it, Smartwool tends to weave in a bit more Merino wool into their fabrics. This may or may not justify the slightly higher price of Smartwool over Icebreaker for the most part. Smartwool also tends to have more features in its garments, like sun protection for its baselayers or stretching technology in their underwear.
When it comes to durability, Smartwool and Icebreaker are neck and neck. It all depends on how you wear, and how well you take care of them. One major plus side for Icebreaker, however, is its lifetime warranty. They make it easy for anyone to replace any Icebreaker item if it doesn’t live up to your expectations in the long run.
In general, Smartwool has more fun colors and patterns. Both brands come in basic colors of black, white, and grey, but Smartwool tends to be a bit more adventurous when it comes to design.
On the other hand, Icebreaker has a slimmer cut to most of its garments. Most people prefer their closer fit and better silhouettes. While they may not be strong on color options, Icebreaker has also invested in a lot of research to beautifully print patterns on Merino wool.
They used it to prominently display their logos, which, again, is a matter of preference if this is a good thing or not. Overall, Icebreaker has a lot more stylish options, which you can easily wear on a night out as well.
Some of Icebreaker’s shirts also have thumbholes. This comes in very handy when you’re layering clothing and keeps your wrists insulated.
Smartwool has a better reputation for comfort, however. The bit of Merino wool they spin into their fabrics make a difference in the garment’s softness and comfort. Seams on Smartwool also tend to lie flatter than on Icebreaker garments, which is an important detail when you’re wearing the garments for long periods of time.
Again, there really is no wrong choice between the two. The differences are very subtle, and their similarities encompass practically everything you’ll ever ask for in Merino wool clothing. However, if you really have to choose one:
Choose Smartwool for:
Choose Icebreaker for:
Roger is a little obsessed with travel. He has been to over 40 countries, broken 3 suitcases and owned over 10 backpacks in 12 months. What he doesn't know about travel, ain't worth knowing!