A quality rain jacket and a pair of good hiking shoes can and will protect any trekker from most elements. However, it is Merino wool that keeps outdoor enthusiasts truly warm and comfortable whether they’re climbing rugged mountains, or hiking through forests.
And when it comes to companies that design, manufacture, and sell clothes made out of Merino wool, none are as famous and reputable as Smartwool and Icebreaker. Which one of these two brands is better? Whose clothes should you go with? To find the answer to that question, keep reading – here’s our in-depth comparison of these companies and their most popular products.
Behind this interesting name hides a reputable brand founded some 25 years ago by Jeremy Moon. A short meeting with a Merino sheep farmer inspired Jeremy to try his hand at incorporating Merino wool into clothes made for hikers and other outdoor enthusiasts.
Besides making some of the world’s best Merino wool clothes, Icebreaker is a brand that pays special attention to animal welfare. For example, they have banned mulesing, which is an unnecessary and painful procedure of removing wool-bearing skin from the buttocks of a sheep. In addition, they have engineered a replacement for down in order to reduce the killing of goose and ducks.
Icebreaker sources most of its wool from New Zealand. The small farms, open pastures, and clean waters of New Zealand, combined with proper nutrition, result in healthy sheep that can provide enough Merino wool for thousands of Icebreaker garments every year.
Smartwool was founded at around the same time as its biggest rival in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Just like Icebreaker, this brand sources most of its wool from New Zealand, but also from South America (Uruguay). Another similarity with Icebreaker is in the fact that Smartwool ensures that the farms they source the wool from are treating their sheep well.
In other words, they don’t buy Merino wool from ranches where the land, sheep, and workers are not properly cared for. The company values humility and humanity above all – if these qualities can’t be found on a particular Merino wool farm, be it small or big, Smartwool immediately takes its business elsewhere.
In addition, Smartwool’s partner called New Zealand Merino Company has developed ZQ – the very first Merino wool accreditation program. As you can already guess, its goal is to ensure the protection of the sheep and the sustainability of the wool they provide.
Icebreaker vs Smartwool – Products Comparison
In this part of the article, we’ll be comparing the quality of materials, the design, and the comfort offered by clothes manufactured by Smartwool and Icebreaker. Both of these brands offer top-notch underwear, socks, base layers, mid-layers, t-shirts, and jackets manufactured from Merino wool, with decent prices to match. It’s also important to know how you should layer for outdoor activities.
Smartwool vs Icebreaker – Merino Wool Socks
Outdoor Merino Wool Socks
The very first products we’ll compare are outdoor socks, in this case, the Hike Light Crew Socks from Smartwool and Hike+ Light Crew Elevation Socks from Icebreaker. Not only are these socks named similarly but also sport similar features that make choosing between the two a daunting task.
Both the Icebreaker and Smartwool socks were designed for moderate hiking. They sport arch bracing that adds support while stopping the socks from slipping. There is also some light cushioning. Both models come in 4 men’s sizes and 3 women’s sizes, with the model offered by Smartwool being available in a few more colors.
In terms of material, Icebreaker socks are made out of 3% lycra, 38% nylon, and 59% merino wool. The fit they offer is an anatomical one – getting the best fit is easy since you’ll always know which sock goes on which foot. In addition, these socks provide excellent ventilation and have reinforced toes and heels.
The Smartwool socks, on the other hand, use 1% elastane, 30% nylon, and 69% merino wool in the men’s version. The women’s variant uses 1% elastane, 32% nylon, and 67% merino wool. For added comfort, these socks come with flat-knit toe seams. They are also a bit cheaper than the ones offered by Icebreaker.
LifeStyle Merino Wool Socks
Not everybody needs a pair of socks for outdoor adventures. Those who want quality-made lifestyle socks for regular day-to-day wear should check out Heathered Rib Crew Socks from Smartwool and Merino Lifestyle Light Crew Socks from Icebreaker.
As expected, both pairs are excellent when it comes to regular everyday wear. However, taking a closer look at them shows that they’re pretty different in almost everything. The Icebreaker socks, for example, feature reinforced heels and toes, breathable weaves on the insteps, and are lightly cushioned. If you’re looking for a new pair of lifestyle socks, you certainly won’t regret going with these.
The Icebreaker LifeStyle socks come in 4 sizes and 2 colors. The women’s version of these socks is available in 3 sizes and just one color. Smartwool’s offering, on the other hand, can be obtained only in men’s sizes of extra-large, large, and medium. They are available in six different colors, all sporting medium cushioning for extra comfort and impact absorption.
These lifestyle socks designed by Smartwool are constructed from 2% elastane, 37% nylon, and 61% merino wool. The fabric combo of the Icebreaker socks differs in men’s and women’s versions. Men’s socks use 2% lycra, 31% nylon, and 67% merino wool. Women’s variant of these well-made socks consists of 2% lycra, 38% nylon, and 60% merino wool.
Smartwool vs Icebreaker – Merino Wool Underwear
Icebreaker Merino Wool Underwear
When it comes to underwear, Icebreaker’s most famous line is undoubtedly the Anatomica Line for men. This line of underwear includes briefs and boxers (ribbed, relaxed, long, and regular).
Icebreaker’s women’s merino wool underwear, on the other hand, includes lines such as Sprite, Cool-Lite, and Siren. The Sprite line of women’s underwear includes racerback bras and hot pants. The Cool-Lite underwear styles include long and regular sports bras, as well as the popular “Hipkini”. Finally, Icebreaker’s Siren line of women’s underwear includes bras, thongs, and panties. (Read the best hiking shoes for women)
Most of the underwear styles listed above feature 83% Merino wool that is combined with lycra and nylon for additional strength and durability. The exceptions include Cool-Lite women’s range of underwear (Tencel & 50% Merino wool) and men’s ribbed boxers (86% Merino wool).
Read also: Best Hiking Underwear
When it comes to disadvantages, Merino wool pairs of underwear made by Icebreaker may loosen up after a couple of uses. This is quite typical for Merino wool underwear – wearing it may feel a bit “looser” when compared to quick-dry or cotton underwear. For that matter, make sure to always go for a size smaller.
Smartwool Merino Wool Underwear
When it comes to Merino wool underwear offered by Smartwool, the company has 2 lines for men (Merino 150 and PhD) and two lines for women (once again, Merino 150 and PhD). Both ranges come with a few different types of underwear to choose from.
Men’s line of Smartwool Merino 150 uses 87% Merino wool. The materials used in the PhD lineup, on the other hand, vary depending on the type of underwear you decide to go with. The company also offers long underwear, too, and this type uses 100 Merino (%) to keep its wearers warm and provide them with extra comfort.
Women’s line of Smartwool PhD underwear comes with variable Merino wool content, just like in the case of men’s range. The wool content will depend on whether you choose to go with thong panties, bikinis, or seamless boy shorts. The same goes for the bras, the racerback, and the Seamless strappy.
The Merino 150 range of women’s underwear only includes the micro-stripe and standard bikini panties. Both of these use nylon and 87% Merino wool. In terms of flaws, pairs of underwear made by Smartwool (both men’s and women’s) typically run a bit big. So, make sure to go for one or two (or maybe even three) sizes smaller when shopping.
Smartwool vs Icebreaker – Merino Wool Base Layers
With both brands offering a number of different products in this category of Merino wool clothing, we’ve decided to go with just two of their most popular base layers. These are Oasis Long Sleeve Crewe from Icebreaker (available in men’s and women’s variants) and Merino 250 Wool Active Crew from Smartwool (also available in men’s and women’s versions).
Icebreaker Merino Wool Base Layer
This base layer is a darn good choice for a number of outdoor activities, such as running, hiking, mountaineering, as well as regular outdoor travel.
Just like many other garments of this type, Icebreaker Oasis is a garment made out of 100% Merino wool fabric. The density of this warm fabric, on the other hand, stands at 200 g/m2 (the “g/m2” stands for grams per square meter and is also the model’s weight rating ). For that matter, this shirt is one of those garments you can wear during three seasons, with summer being an exception.
Due to the fact that it’s made out of pure (non-blended), high-quality Merino wool, this baselayer feels exceptionally comfortable on the body. Much like the base layers provided by the competition, it also has some moisture-wicking and odor-resistance properties.
You will love the fit of this base layer, too. Many users love the model’s slim fit which works great for low-bulk layering. An important thing to mention here is that the model’s slim fit still offers excellent freedom of movement, though – the material is very stretchy!
Icebreaker Oasis also sports a dropped tail hem and offset shoulder seams. You’ll find that the model’s dropped tail hem stops the fabric from going up and, therefore, protects your back from being exposed. Many users found the offset shoulder seams of this garment to be good at reducing rubbing and chafing when they’re carrying their backpacks.
In conclusion, we think that this base layer is a fantastic choice for those who need a versatile base layer that they’ll be able to wear for the years to come – get yourself one and you certainly won’t regret the purchase.
Smartwool Merino Wool Base Layer
One of the biggest differences between this base layer and the one offered by Icebreaker is in the density of the fabric. Time and time again, Smartwool has shown that they know how to create clothing that keeps users warm in cold weather. Just like Icebreaker’s garment, this one is also made of 100% Merino fabric but sports a much more substantial weight/density rating of 250 g/m2.
Obviously, this turns the Merino 250 Wool Active Crew into a really good choice for those who need something that they’ll use for their winter hikes. This item of clothing provides much better insulation than the one from Icebreaker – choose it if you often hike or travel in cold weather.
However, an important thing to keep in mind here is that the shirt’s thick fabric absorbs more moisture and takes longer to dry. Still, you’ll find its tight fit and the weight/density to be great at keeping body heat from escaping to the outside. Another outstanding feature of this base layer is that it comes with shoulder panels and flatlock seams.
All in all, we think that Merino 250 Wool Active Crew is a better choice than the Icebreaker’s base layer for those who often hike in cold conditions. It’s a great choice for regular outdoor travel as well – get it if you like its style and want a really warm base layer.
Smartwool vs Icebreaker – Midlayers
For mid-layers, we decided to take a brief look at Merino 250 Wool Active 1/4 Zip from Smartwool and Quantum Long Sleeve Zip Hoodie from Icebreaker.
Smartwool Merino Wool Midlayer
Just as we expected, Icebreaker’s offering provides a very slim fit. Smartwool’s mid-layer, on the other hand, tightly hugs the wearer’s body in a very similar way. In other words, both garments sport the same style and wear very similarly.
You may find Smartwool’s model to be more feature-packed, though. This item of wool clothing sports a style that includes shoulder panels with no seams. Also, you’ll find that the seams on the rest of the garment sport the so-called Flintlock construction. Together, this pair of almost-unnoticeable but very convenient features remove chafing.
Another important thing to say about Smartwool’s mid-layer is that it features a 100% Merino wool construction. In other words, wearing this garment means experiencing less moisture than usual. In addition, Merino 250 Wool Active 1/4 Zip will keep you comfy all year long as it feels really soft on the skin – it doesn’t get much better than this.
With a mid-layer this good, who would want to wear anything offered by the competition? As it turns out, Icebreaker’s Quantum Hoodie is just as good – it may even be more up your alley.
Icebreaker Merino Wool MidlayerIcebreaker Merino Quantum Long Sleeve Zip
While it doesn’t feature a pure Merino wool build (it uses a small amount of lycra, too), Quantum Hoodie comes with a hood, as its name suggests.
The hood of this mid-layer is really well-made and offers a bit of extra protection from the elements. You may want to get yourself a hooded mid-layer if you often hike or travel in moist and rainy environments – the hood & beanie combination protects both the head and the neck.
Furthermore, Quantum Hoodie has two or three more tricks up its sleeves (literally). It has a zippered chest pocket with a media port, zippered hand pockets, a reflective zipper, storm flaps, and chin guards. Last but not least, its underarms are gusseted for additional mobility. We think that all of these features combined turn into a great regular outdoor travel mid-layer and one of the best garments of this style on the market.
Smartwool vs Icebreaker – Jackets
For jackets, we’ve decided to compare the Double Corbet 120 Jacket from Smartwool and the Helix Long Sleeve Zip Jacket from Icebreaker. These are among the best Merino wool jackets on the market – both are really well-made and are durable enough to last for years.
Icebreaker Merino Wool JacketIcebreaker Merino Men's Helix Long Sleeve Zip Coat
Icebreaker’s jacket has a low weight of just 1.1 pounds and provides a regular fit. Just like most garments of this type, it is available in both men’s and women’s variants. No matter which size and style you decide to go with, you’ll end up with a jacket that uses unique Merino-LOFT insulation for extra breathability and warmth.
In terms of material, Icebreaker decided to make their Helix jacket out of lycra, polyester, and Merino wool. There is also a DWR coating (which translates to less moisture), a storm flap, and a hood for experienced hikers and would-be adventurers who want to protect their heads from the cold and the elements.
Smartwool Merino Wool JacketSmartwool Men's Double Corbet 120 Jacket
The Double Corbet 120 Jacket is just as good when it comes to protecting its wearer from rain and cold winds during regular outdoor travel. This is because it features a DWR finish, a draft flap, and a chin guard. In terms of construction, this jacket uses elastane, polyester, and Merino wool. Both the Smartwool and Icebreaker jackets have external and internal pockets.
Smartwool’s jacket, on the other hand, sports an even lower weight of just 1 pound and is also available in men’s and women’s sizes. As you may have expected, it also offers a standard fit and is designed for use during the colder part of the year.
Smartwool vs Icebreaker – T-Shirts
We think that Merino wool t-shirts make an excellent addition to anyone’s collection of outdoor travel clothes. Due to their antimicrobial and moisture-wicking properties, they are your best choice for outdoor travel adventures during the warmer part of the year. Keep in mind that you’ll feel less heat with a Merino wool t-shirt on your body – it will help you feel cooler during a long hike on a hot July day.
For our comparison, we’ve decided to go with the Tech Lite Short Sleeve T-Shirt from Icebreaker and the Merino 150 Baselayer Short Sleeve T-Shirt from Smartwool. Both of these sport a similar style, weight, and construction. In addition, both are available in men’s and women’s sizes, with Smartwool’s model coming in one size less.
Icebreaker Merino Wool T-ShirtIcebreaker Merino Men's Tech Lite Short Sleeve T-Shirt
As one would expect, this t-shirt is available in both men’s and women’s styles. One thing you’re bound to like about it is the color choice – there are 9 different colors to choose from. Men’s version is available in XS to XXXL sizes. The women’s variant, on the other hand, is available in XS to XL sizes.
The best thing about this garment is that it uses the so-called “Core-Spun” fabric. This fabric consists of a nylon core that is wrapped with some Merino wool to increase the material’s longevity without sacrificing the comfort it provides. The model can be used as a stand-alone garment on warmer days and as a base layer on colder days. It comes with offset shoulder seams and is exceptionally odor-resistant and breathable.
Smartwool Merino Wool T-ShirtSmartwool Men's Merino 150 Baselayer Short Sleeve
As mentioned a couple of paragraphs ago, this model is also available in men’s and women’s versions. The men’s version is available in S to XXL sizes and the women’s in XS to XL sizes. However, this shirt is available in only 4 colors in the men’s version and just one in the women’s variant (black).
Just like Icebreaker’s t-shirt, this model is also made out of “Core-Spun” fabric. It can also be used as a stand-alone garment or as a base layer. Furthermore, this shirt also sports offset shoulder seams but adds side-located flatlock seams as well. It is just as breathable and odor-resistant as the Icebreaker’s model.
Icebreaker vs Smartwool – The Verdict
So, which one of these two companies makes better Merino wool t-shirts, jackets, mid-layers, baselayers, socks, and underwear?
As far as we’re concerned, there’s no clear-cut answer to this question. Both Smartwool and Icebreaker make excellent Merino wool garments and accessories – you won’t regret going with either of these brands.
I love hiking, backpacking, and camping. From the Camino de Santiago to the West Highland Way in Scotland or simply a great day hike on the weekend. Hiking refreshes me, my mind, and keeps my body reasonably fit. So far I have walked three Camino routes and many other long distance hikes in the UK, Canada, and around the rest of Europe. One of the best was my hike up Ben Nevis.