Gear Review: Icebreaker Merino Wool(!) Base Layers

The peeking Siren long sleeve crew
The peeking Siren long sleeve crew

When I hear the term “base layer”, the first image that comes to mind is the long underwear I wore beneath ski clothes as a child (you know the kind, little pink roses on a cotton diamond-weave pattern).  Base layers may be widely associated with warmth, but in fact they are used in the summertime as well.  Mostly comprised of synthetics, they wick moisture from your skin which helps regulate your body temperature.  When I think about wool as a base layer material, I’m hesitant.  Wool sweaters + wool socks = winter weather.  I have a difficult time wrapping my head around the concept of wool keeping you warm in cold weather and cool in warm weather.

Enter Destination: East Coast during one of most humid, rainy seasons on record.  A wool base layer had been recommended to me for use in conjunction with my Gore-Tex motorcycle gear, which was great for wet weather riding and anything but breathable.  I could have opted for other gear but waterproofing typically encapsulated in a thermal liner and not within the shell itself.  So that toasty all-black Gore-Tex jacket-pant combo was looking pretty solid without needing the extra thermal liner…but the issue of breathability was a huge concern and I met the challenge with the Icebreaker Siren long sleeve crew and Sprite leggings.

Icebreaker makes their base layers using locally-sourced New Zealand merino wool, a practice noted as natural, renewable, and sustainable.  [Side note: their modest packaging is printed on recycled and recyclable paper stock.]  Merino wool is made from a breed of sheep called the Merino.  The ultra lightweight weave Icebreaker uses for the Siren and Sprite line is 150 grams/square meter, which makes it ideal for a warm weather base layer as opposed to a thicker weave for the snowy winter months.  The merino wool is mixed with 4% Lycra elastane so that it’s a touch stretchy which is optimum as a form fitting base layer.  You want a base layer to not be tight but to fit snugly against your body so that it has enough contact with your skin to do its job.

Now down to the brass tacks…I packed the Siren long sleeve crew and Sprite leggings for the trip east.  I had initially planned to ride from West Coast to East, but Mother Nature wreaking absolute havoc on the Midwest nipped that idea in the bud.  I spent two long, hard days at BMW Performance Center in Greer, South Carolina, during a two-day stretch that was in the mid-70s Fahrenheit (F) with 90%-100% humidity.  Not the two hottest days on record, but some of the wettest.

Riding out with the base layers beneath my Gore-Tex gear, I started to sweat out of sheer anxiety over the course that lay ahead (dirt has that effect on me).  There was a brief moment where I started to question if wool packaging was a good idea, but after pounding a half-liter of water, I realized my internal combustion was due to dehydration.  I could say the base layers kept me cool beneath my gear, but really the best compliment I could dole out is that I felt nothing.  I was neither hot nor cold, neither wet nor dry.  That’s optimum.  At day’s end, the base layers did not have an odor (as advertised by Icebreaker) but I did and that is to be expected after being comfortably sealed beneath Gore-Tex to keep more focused on the road and less on me.

Beating the 105F heat in Joshua Tree...
Beating the 105F heat in Joshua Tree...

After a second road trip through Joshua Tree with temperatures eclipsing 105F (!), I remained unaffected by the heat while staying properly hydrated.  With long hours spent in the saddle, seams can be critical to motorcyclists.  The wrong seam can be eight hours of discomfort and distraction.  The flat seams on the Icebreaker base layers went unnoticed. No discomfort whatsoever.

Overall, the Icebreaker base layers are an excellent addition to your treasure trove of motorcycle gear to complement its breathability (or lack thereof).  Their utility doesn’t stop at your motorcycle closet either, which means they can be used year round as a base layer and for a wide variety of sports, if not for day-to-day wear.

Raise your hands if you're happy to be riding in dry, desert heat!
Raise your hands if you're happy to be riding in dry, desert heat!
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