How suitable are merino travel t-shirts for life’s adventures?
Are they versatile enough to wear on a summer blast around South East Asia all the way through to a short winter break in Europe?
Is the durability strong enough to last a three, six, or even twelve-month sabbatical?
For the last few years, I’ve packed a merino travel t-shirt or two for all my trips. Not only is merino wool soft on the skin, but it also has the benefit of helping to resist odour. Which in travelling terms translates to be able to keep fresh for longer.
However, it would be hard not to overlook the fact that merino travel t-shirts can be expensive – often costing 3-4 times of the price of an equivalent high street t-shirt.
Which leads to the question: how good are merino travel t-shirts and are they worth the steep price tag?
Benefits of Wearing Merino Travel T-Shirts
For the jet-setters and those with itchy feet purchasing one or two merino travel t-shirts can be a worthwhile investment.
I’ve noticed that merino t-shirts are:
Comfortable: the days of wearing prickly, heavy and lumpy wool clothing are long gone as merino is lightweight, comfortable and can be worn for days without itching.
Warm: merino helps to insulate by trapping body heat in air pockets. In winter situations, you can use a merino t-shirt as a base layer under another merino item, which increases the warmth trapped around the body.
Breathable: merino’s natural fibres a perfect for regulating the body temperature helping to keep you comfortable in any weather.
Dry: unlike cotton, merino wool can absorb up to 30% of its weight in moisture while still maintaining its ability to insulate you outdoors.
Odour resisting: surprisingly it’s not the sweat that smells, but rather the build-up of bacteria. Merino naturally resists bacteria so you can wear a t-shirt longer than others.
Easy to clean: because merino resists odour, bacteria and stains, you don’t need to wash it as often or as rigorously as synthetics. Plus unlike the traditional wool tops, all the men’s merino t-shirts I’ve owned have been machine-washable.
Presentable: due to its fine fibre, merino wool is incredibly elastic. It’s able to retain its shape after years of stretching, wear and repeated washing. I also find it doesn’t fade as fast as cotton meaning it looks presentable for longer.
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Disadvantages of Merino T-shirts
Like everything else in life, there are also some disadvantages.
Merino travel t-shirts can be:
Expensive: I put this at the top because merino t-shirt can be ridiculously expensive. The number one thing that puts me off from buying more is the merely the steep price tag. Even an on-sale a men’s merino t-shirt comes in at two or even ten times the price (depending on where you shop) of an equivalent cotton t-shirt.
Limited in style: for a long time if you were looking at a merino t-shirt then the only option was the backpacking staple of black and blue or cream and green. Thankfully that’s slowly changing as more modern styles are starting to hit the market.
Odd with sizing: many brands out there that produce merino t-shirts still have questionable sizing. While some appear to have been designed for extremely skinny guys, others have abnormally long arms.
Funky when wet: it might just be me, but I can’t get comfortable with the smell of wet merino wool.
Not always durable: you might recall that merino keeps its shape and doesn’t fade as fast as cotton. While that’s true, not all not merino t-shirts I’ve used have held up well to the rigours of travel. Very ultra-lightweight t-shirts are the worst culprits and after a few months of constant use can develop holes.
Where Is Merino Wool Made?
Australia produces the majority of merino wool found in travel clothing today. Neighbours, not the TV show but New Zealand, are also well known for providing top quality merino wool too.
The history of merino wool in Australia has been traced back to the early settlers arriving from Great Britain. The records show that John Macarthur came on the second fleet and once in Australia bought his first merino sheep from a flock of merino sheep reared in South Africa.
Today he is recognised as the pioneer of the wool industry that was to boom in Australia in the early 19th century.
The merino sheep originates from Spain, a country with a warm climate like Australia. Unlike some of the other animals imported from Europe at the time, the breed thrived as it was able to cope with the summer heat.
The Napoleonic wars during the years 1793 to 1813 almost destroyed the Spanish Merino industry. From 1810 onwards, the Merino wool scene shifted to Germany, the United States and Australia.
Today the Australian Merino is not a single breed but many different ‘strains’ of sheep. They are either Peppin Merino, South Australian Merino, Saxon Merino and direct descendants of the Spanish Merino.
So Why Doesn’t Merino Itch?
After wearing merino t-shirts for travel and many other activities for the past few years I know it doesn’t itch.
But why does other wool make you itch and merino doesn’t?
It’s because most merino travel t-shirts on the market today are manufactured using wool fibres of around 18–19 microns. They are so thin that they sit well below the human itching threshold of 25 microns.
Due to being so soft, the fibres bend when they come into contact with the skin, which means they don’t create any unpleasant sensations like traditional wool tops you may have worn as a kid.
The finer the fibres are, the higher quality and less itchy (and costly) the wool is.
Merino wool fibres thickness is measured using microns, where one micron = one-thousandth of a millimetre and is classified as follows:
- Ultrafine: up to 16.5 microns
- Superfine: 17 to 18.9 microns
- Fine: 19 to 21.9 microns
- Medium: 22 to 23 microns
- Strong: 24 to 25 microns
The only wool that is finer than merino wool is from angora rabbits which have fibres of 12 to 16 microns.
My 5 Favourite Merino Travel T-shirts
So which merino travel t-shirts do I use and recommend?
I’ve purchased a variety of brands in the past and used products from both speciality brands and also high street names.
Based on durability and comfort my current favourite merino travel t-shirts are:
For Casual Wear:
Designed with more of a modern urban look the Kathmandu Federate Men’s Merino Top is one of my favourite merino travel t-shirts. The fit works for me, plus the style fits a variety of travel situations.
At present, the t-shirt is available in 2 colours, grey and granite marble.
- main: 100% merino wool
- trim: 95% polyester 5% elastane
- woolmark certified
- weight 227g
For Choice of Styles:
If you’re the type of guy who sticks to what he likes, ok so that’s me, then check out the Icebreaker Tech Lite short sleeve t-shirt.
Icebreaker has a good choice of colours and patterns in the Tech Lite range. Its possible to wear ‘same t-shirt’ day in day out but change the look to suit the occasion.
- regular fit
- material 87% merino wool, 13% nylon
- weight 150g
Best Budget Buy:
The Karrimor merino t-shirt is manufactured from a merino wool blend and is one of the cheapest merino travel t-shirts I’ve found. I picked mine up from Sports Direct while on a trip to the UK and paid a vast £14.50.
The only downside is the sizing is a little snug, and I had to go one size up from my usual large.
- antimicrobial finish
- 83% Merino wool / 17% polyester
- machine washable
Merino T-Shirts with a Collar:
The Macpac Lyell men’s polo shirt is an excellent travel all-rounder which can give off a smarter appearance. Yes, there are occasions where flip-flops are not acceptable, and decent polo t-shirt can be a good compromise. It’s perfect for more upmarket restaurants or venturing around town on the weekend.
Macpac has stores across Australia and New Zealand.
- 100% merino wool
- weight: 180g
- 18.5 microns
For the Taller Outdoor Guy:
If you’re looking for a range of no-frills basic merino travel t-shirts, then I suggest you check out Brass Monkeys. Ok, their name is a bit cheesy, but I’ve been using their black crew neck thermal t-shirt since 2014.
I mainly use as a lounge top and for sleeping in but as it’s slightly longer than other merino t-shirts it also doubles up as a decent base layer that can be tucked in to cover the mid-section when hiking.
- 100% merino wool
- Weight 215g
- Fine wool 19.5 microns
Because wearing merino clothing allows you to pack less and therefore carry less, on a recent 6-week trip to Asia, I only travelled with my Osprey 30-litre Momentum backpack.
Its a tiny backpack even by carry on standards and I was limited to just a few items clothing for these 6-weeks.
My main tops were a cheap cotton vest, 2 x merino travel t-shirts and a light merino jumper. Along with these items, I packed my zip-up fleece top, lightweight pants and a pair of shorts.
Not a lot really but enough to last me the summer heat of SE Asia plus a few winter days transiting in Europe.
But as I also brought along a synthetic t-shirt and pair of running shorts for working out, part way through the trip I felt the opposite. Because I was wearing the merino t-shirts so much it felt like I had brought along too much clothing.
Even in the 32c+ environment of South East Asia wearing a merino t-shirt every day meant I didn’t need as many t-shirts as previous trips.
Years ago I used to travel with a 65-litre backpack (even for just a two-week trip), and that’s not including hand luggage. This trip lasted three times longer, so even I was surprised to see it was possible to survive with so little clothing.
I love travelling but one of the downsides is accepting the fact that it might be a while until you see a washing machine again.
While it might be unavoidable at times, if there’s a way to prolong the freshness of clothing between washes then I’m willing to give it a go.
Clothing style is a personal preference and one thing for sure wearing a merino top won’t win any fashion contests. Unlike some expensive fashion t-shirts, at least merino travel t-shirt does bring some practical benefits.
For anyone contemplating making a purchase, I recommend starting out with the one t-shirt and give it a try. Wear it in a variety of everyday and travel situations to see how it feels.
If you like it, then pick up another in a different style – although I’m sure one will be more than enough for some ultralight travellers!
On many occasions, I’ve returned to my accommodation after a long hot sunny day of wandering around the city and simply left my Merino t-shirt to air overnight.
By the next day, it’s usually good to go and do it again!
My 5 Favourite Merino Travel T-Shirts by Tools of Travel.