Friday, February 05, 2010

The limits of wool? A quick review of the Wool Buff

Just walking home from the shop at -25 needs warm clothes

Boring techy outdoor equipment post alert. Please move along if stopping your face from freezing in sub-zero temperatures isn't a regular worry for you...

I realised the other day whilst out ice climbing that the Kiwis had won and I was totally woolified from head to toe, at least with my base layer. Only a few years ago, the only bit of outdoor clothing where wool was regularly seen was in socks. But merino wool, almost all from New Zealand, has revolutionized outdoor clothing in the last few years and has become hugely popular for base layers. Merino works as well as any synthetic on the whole, but has the huge advantage of just refusing to become stinky and disgusting which synthetics do quickly. That day I was wearing Smartwool socks (about €10 from an outlet store in Sweden – which still seems to me like a huge amount to pay for socks but was half the normal price), Devold longjohns (bought half-price in a spring sale a couple of years back) a Decathlon Quechua long sleeve merino top (reduced from £30 to 20, but free to me I discovered later after the ‘yoof’ at the cash desk got distracted and neglected to beep the bar code!), a merino Wool Buff scarf-neck-tube-thingymabob and a rather fetching woolly hat from Marmot.

Soggy then frozen Buff

The merino Buff came recommended by Scottish gear-guru Petesy, and using wool as a face covering because it is more resistant to freezing up was a recent tip from Andy Kirkpatrick who tells me he heard this from Gary Rolfe, a Brit who lives and mushes dogs in Greenland. So with those top recommendations I thought I’d ask for one as Christmas pressie. On first acquaintance the wool Buff is lovely: warm, snugly and stretchy enough to hold tight over your face, but not tight enough to feel claustrophobic. But after ‘field testing’ I’m less convinced – in temperatures around or little below freezing whilst winter climbing in Wales, the Buff got rather damp from my breath and the soggy snow being blasted about and lost its elasticity. It went slack and heavy, and would quickly fall down off your nose if you pulled it up to protect your face. Wearing it in Finland in January whilst hiking to ice climbs in temperatures into the –20s, it again got heavy and slack from moisture in my breath, and then subsequently froze into unhelpful lump around my neck. When I went out skiing last week with the temperature again getting close to –20 I decided instead to wear an old Meraklon headover – a stretchy tube made out of synthetic material, polypropylene at a guess. Even when damp with moisture and then subsequently frozen, the synthetic material seems better at retaining its shape and elasticity.

They synthetic alternative - walking home after 15 kms of XC skiing at -20

The wool Buff feels luxurious and is very nice to wear, and of course I had to try it out in some relatively harsh conditions to produce these criticism, so I’m sure I’ll still get plenty of use out of it in less silly weather. But if you are looking for scarf/face covering for wild conditions either for winter climbing in the UK, or for very cold weather in places further north, I might skip the wool Buff. Merino wool is wonderful stuff, but even it has its limitations.

1 comment:

Hendrik M said...

Hei there, nice to see other foreigners blogging about outdoor activities in Suomi!

I actually never wear the Merino Buff over the face, I use a Cyclone (the Winter Buff) around neck, and if it really gets that windy that face protection is required, the Cyclone is put over the nose, where it stays fairly well (being synthetic). I have used the Woolpower Balaclave for the face, and that was staying up well, also in -25°C.