The Heli-Ski Blog

Cotton, Polypro or Merino Wool: What's your ski wear of choice?

Posted by Jane Carswell on Apr 11, 2011 12:05:00 PM

Icebreaker merino wool gear is perfect for Heli SkiingIn the past few winters CMH Heli-Skiing has been carrying Icebreaker apparel in our retail shops in each of our Heli-Ski & Heli-Hiking lodges.  After hearing guides raving about the stuff, claiming they never got cold or had to do laundry I figured I'd better get to the bottom of it.

I put a few questions to Kent Hawkins at Icebreaker and here's what I learned:

JC: Kent, I was skiing the other day at Mt. Norquay here in Banff and was surprised to notice the guy beside me at lunch was wearing a cotton t-shirt and a cotton sweatshirt under his gore-tex ski jacket.  It's been a while since I've seen much cotton at the ski hills.  What's the evolution we're seeing with polypro and merino wool?

KH: We do find that there is an important education about clothing fibre that needs to happen with consumers between cotton, polypro and merino wool.  Consumers are very familiar with cotton but do not often realize that the natural characteristics of cotton are for it to absorb moisture-and hold onto it.  When you are skiing you want a fibre that wicks/pulls moisture away from your body so you don’t over heat or don’t get the chills.  That is the great part about merino fibre.  Because it was born in the mountains on the backs of sheep it is the perfectly designed fibre for us as humans to wear when we are in the mountains.  It moves moisture from the body as a vapour and a liquid, keeps you warm in the cold and cool in the heat and most importantly (and different from polypro) is that it does not create a home for bacteria which cause odors.  That’s right, you can wear your Icebreaker baselayer on the ski hill all day long and then wear it in for a pint after and not scare away any snow bunnies.  The fibre was designed by nature to help the sheep survive in the hot of summer and the cool of winter.  At Icebreaker, we have adapted this fibre so we can use it for skiing, hiking, biking and more.

JC: What are the benefits of merino wool like Icebreaker uses, vs polypro?

KH: The two main differences in merino and polypro are breathability and odor control.  First off, the merino fibre is breathable, which allows moisture vapour to through the fibre itself.  This increases breathability, temperature regulation of the garment.  Polypro is a solid fibre, made from plastic, designed to move liquid moisture through the holes in the weave-this fibre cannot breathe.

Odor control is a noted characteristic of Icebreaker. The fibre is anti-bacterial which means that when you sweat, the bacteria that is released onto the clothes does not remain.  Hang up your Icebreaker after use and you will not notice any odor remaining.  Try that with a polypro top and that will be one stink test that will make you an immediate convert to Icebreaker.

JC: In heliskiing we don't need to worry about getting cold on the chairlift like at the ski hill.  What tips do you have for our readers for dressing for heli- and cat-skiing vs resort skiing?

KH: Merino sheep have a built in natural layering system which helps them stay cool in the summer and warm in the winter.  In the summer, they have a thin layer of merino wool, while in the winter they grow more layers of merino to keep them warm in cold weather. It insulates them against the cold with millions of tiny little air pockets that trap air to keep them warm in cold temperatures.  This goes the same for us as humans when we wear merino.  I would suggest wearing one of our baselayers right next to your skin for any type of skiing as Icebreaker performs best when it is right next to your skin.  Then, for those of you in a helicopter or ski-cat that get to warm up between runs, you are likely fine with either an Icebreaker mid-layer and a shell or even just your shell.  Don’t forget your extremities.  Icebreaker  is the perfect insulator for heads, hands and feet too.  If you can keep those parts warm, the rest of you will likely stay a lot warmer.  Icebreaker  beanies, glove liners and socks will keep you warm in any ski condition.

JC: And how effective is a garment like Icebreaker for ski touring - where the uphill is even warmer than in the heli but the chill can settle in quite quickly when you stop for a break or start your decent?

KH: Again, the moisture management and temperature control properties of Icebreaker make it a hands down decision for ski touring.  Icebreaker pulls moisture away from your body so you don’t get chills on your ski down.  It also insulates when it is wet so even if you get your shirt wet from working hard on the skin track, it will still keep you much warmer than a sythentic when you stop moving.  This is so true that we often find kayakers and even scuba divers wearing Icebreaker underneath their outer shells to help keep their skin and core warm. Also, because Icebreaker is a natural insulator, you don’t need to wear as many layers and thus you can reduce the bulk and weight of clothes that you wear, which can really make a difference in a sport like ski-touring.

Other benefits of Icebreaker merino for ski-touring is the design and cut of the clothing.  Icebreaker bodyfit has a close fit to the body which means that when you are doing an active sport like ski-touring the clothing is moving with you.  This reduces rubbing and chaffing and makes for a more enjoyable experience.

Bottom line, the merino sheep in New Zealand have survived in the harsh cold and raging heat of the southern alps for thousands of years. Their wool is perfectly evolved to handle these rough climates and conditions. Merino wool was born in the mountains and Icebreaker just adapted it for humans. Give it a try and you definitely have a hard time going back to cotton or synthetic.

Have you had any experience yourself with merino wool vs polypro for a baselayer while heli-skiing or ski touring?  Give us your first hand testimonial here and we'll be sure to pass it on to our friends at Icebreaker!

Don't let bad gear run a perfect day of HeliSkiing!  Photo by CMH Revelstoke guide Kevin Boekholt.

Topics: Gear, CMH Experts