What clothing do you pack in your bug-out-bag and for long term wear in troubled times? One of the things you can count on in trying times is limited access to shower and laundry facilities. Most clothing you wear next to your skin gets pretty skunky after a few days, especially synthetics. What’s a survivor to do? You want something soft and comfortable, light weight, warm when cold or wet, cool when hot, wicking, doesn’t stink, doesn’t get dirty, easy to wash, and while we are wishing–how about cheap?
I am into ultra-light backpacking. I used to wear a long sleeved dress shirt during the day to keep the sun off. It wasn’t very warm and it got so nasty after hiking in it all day, much less after 5 or 6 days, that I certainly didn’t want to wear it to bed at night. This necessitated carrying another shirt to wear in camp and to sleep in. Another shirt added weight I didn’t want to carry.
Enter Merino Wool. Merino wool has a very long and fine fiber. A long fiber results in fewer fiber ends for a given unit of fabric. It turns out that the fiber ends are what cause wool to feel itchy against the skin. Merino wool is naturally bactericidal and fungicidal (doesn’t stink and protects you from infection). My understanding is that this is somehow related to the wool’s property of having no liquid moisture on its surface. This property also keeps the wool from being damp, clammy and sticky against the skin. It also keeps the wool from flash cooling you when your activity level drops off like you experience when wearing cotton. Another advantage of Merino wool over synthetics is that it doesn’t melt or burn. This makes it suitable for high fire risk activities like flying or military operations.
The same features that make Merino wool the best choice for back country adventures make it a great choice for troubled times. Merino wool always feels good. It is a very comfortable fabric to wear against the skin. It is typically a very fine but open knit. When held up to the light you can see through it. This provides for good ventilation in warm weather. When I switched to a wool top for hiking I found that it was the only top I needed. I added a full length zipper to the front for maximum ventilation under heavy exertion when hiking away from the sun. When facing the sun it was easily zipped for sun protection or warmth when entering cool, shady, or windy areas. Wool doesn’t seem to get dirty. If you slop your dinner on your front you can just shake it and brush it off. It tends not to soak in. More absorbent finer woven fabrics get stained and dirty. It also helps that it generally comes in darker natural colors. I have worn a Merino wool top 24/7 for 6 days of strenuous hiking. It just doesn’t get stinky and foul like any other fabric. You can take a bath in a creek after 6 days of hard labor and when donning your Merino wool top it feels just as nice and cushy as when you put it on clean a week earlier. If you do decide to hand wash it it comes clean easily and dries reasonably fast. To speed things up I swing my socks or underwear around on the end of a string. At home I machine wash my Merino wool in cold water with the rest of my clothes. Just don’t put it in the dryer. And, lest I forget it is great for sleeping in. No need to bring another shirt.
Another issue is the message you sent by how you dress. Most Merino wool tops look a little dressier than athletic clothing. This could be an advantage when being approached by the authorities or if you need assistance.
Where can you get Merino wool? Smartwool and Icebreaker are major names. They make garments designed and cut for athletic activities. I have seen the tops for a modest $80! Also cycling shorts and tops are made from Merino wool. The performance of Merino wool has been well know to the professional cycling crowd for a long time. You can sometimes find Merino wool tops at Costco for $25 to $30. I just checked the Sierra Trading Post  website and saw tops on sale in the $20 range. Where do I get Merino wool? I actually purchase Smartwool socks retail (retail, what a horrible word) form Sierra Trading Post. For tops, I shop at Savers . Savers is a chain of second hand clothing stores. They have 20 or 30 feet of rack space for sweaters. Once you know what you are looking for the Merino wool sweaters are easily found. They are typically finely woven, Italian made, in darker natural colors with a polo style button up neck and a collar. Occasionally the acrylics will fool you. Just check the label (it kills me when I see “100% virgin acrylic”). They have a distinctive symbol and say Woolmark and “100% fine Merino wool”. Savers color codes their tags so they can tell how long merchandise has been on the rack. Every week they put the next color tag on sale for 50% off. I move all the Merino wool to one spot on the rack and the day the new tag goes on sale I buy the half price ones for $3.50 to $4. The nice ones that are too big for me I give as gifts. The big ones I don’t give away I can make 2 or 3 sets of underwear out of. Yes, I wear Merino wool top and bottom.
For a bug-out-bag or for uncertain times Merino wool has a lot of advantages:
- It is comfortable over a broader temperature range than any other fabric
- If necessary it can go for long periods without being laundered and comes clean easily when washed – reduced laundering and minimizes need for extra clothing
- Doesn’t support bacterial or fungal growth – stinky clothing and skin problems are two less things you need to deal with when trying to survive.
My bottom line advice: Pack and wear high performance minimum care Merino wool.
The Memsahib Comments: Wool has the distinct benefit over other fabrics of being warm even when wet. I once was out in the snow three hours but my feet stayed toasty warm in two layers of wool socks even though the socks were soaked through. Wool can be a life saver in foul weather and when there is risk of hypothermia. Thrift stores like Savers are a great place to find high quality clothes at great prices. Merino is the very finest and softest type of wool. Also note that most military surplus wool clothing uses low grade wool and is fairly itchy. If you’ve never worn wool, it is probably best to buy just one wool garment to start, to see if you are allergic–although most most people aren’t truly allergic but rather have just had the misfortune of wearing a garment of poor quality wool. Oh, one word of warning don’t agitate your wool garments in warm and especially not hot water. And don’t tumble them in a hot drier. Wool felts with moisture, heat, and agitation. And felting cannot be undone.