I like wearing wool. I always have. Some may think it's because I'm too cheap to buy some of the "fancier" fabrics on the market, or that I'm too "traditional" to go beyond wearing an old wool sweater. But that's not it at all. Wool generally keeps you dry when wet, unlike a lot of other materials. It's also darn environmental (the animal doesn't die when the material is obtained so it's definitely a sustainable resource). The new-age stuff is also incredibly light-weight, so there's no need to dress up in an over-sized sweater your grandmother knitted you a dozen or so years ago for Christmas.
My favorite wool gear is a product called Woolpower (www.woolpower.se/). It's made with Ullfrotte Original, a material two thirds fine Merino wool and one third synthetic fiber, giving the product ultimate strength. It's also knit with a distinctive terry loop stitching, which gives it the best overall insulating capability. However, the layering system that this wool garment company has developed is why I started buying up their new wool products in the first place. It's not just one bulky sweater but a series of layered clothing that can be added or removed to stop you from sweating and becoming chilled.
The best part of any of the newer wool products coming out now is that even though wool generally doesn't smell bad due to its "self-cleaning" abilities, these newer wool products on the market now can be washed in warm water without shrinking. That's darn incredible. I absolutely love it.
Wool underwear is also in fashion. If you're questioning that outdoor skivvies have nothing to do with fashion, or ability to keep you cozy, think back to the union suit. That red cotton one-piece with a trap door was in vogue for years. Recently, however, what's replacing cotton undies is wool (or a second option equally as good is polypropylene or what was once known as polyester). A common theme now is a two-layered system, having Polypropylene material for the inside layer and wool as the outside layer; the outside fabric having a greater affinity for body moisture then the inside layer, which in turn pulls the sweat away from your body and lets it evaporate. The after affect is that you won't suffer from chills after building up a sweat and then stopping your workout. Odor still isn't a problem with the Polypropylene being because the new fabrics being used have silver or gold compounds incorporated in the fibers which discourage bacteria from growing.
Of course, I'm not a total wool snob. Good wool clothing can also be compared to good fleece, especially when used as a second layer under a wind/waterproof jacket. Fleece technology has greatly improved since its inception. It's softer, compresses down to a smaller size (remember those Cookie Monster jackets) and has greater insulation and weight ratio. I prefer the shag look. It's a terrible choice for in-door carpets but for a fleece this texture has a low density but lots of room to capture air for insulation. There was a trend not long ago that pushed fleecy fabrics that shed wind and rain. They worked but your sweat had a hard time escaping and most of the time you put on a waterproof outer layer to rebel wind and rain anyway. Now more people are buying up fleeces that repel moisture from the inside, even if they lack good protection from the wind and rain. A hard-shell fleece fabric used to make a soft-shell outer garment is the key here.
For the perfect outer layer, however, it's definitely debatable what material to choose. Almost thirty years ago, Gore-Tex revolutionized outerwear fashion. It claimed to be the end all fabric to block wind, shed water like a traditional rain jacket, and breath out body moisture better then a wool sweater. But it didn't take long for pure the hard-core outdoor enthusiasts to begin questioning the claims being made. Basically, with hard use they leaked and you sweat buckets the more aerobic you got. My first Gore-Tex purchase worked so poorly that I actually went back to using a rubber rain suit instead. Then came the era of the soft-shell outerwear Gore-Tex. This worked 90 % of the time but was still lacking during a nasty rain storm. Nowadays the jackets have greatly improved but care still has to be taken when choosing which one to purchase for your type of outdoor sport. The light weight Gore-Tex are good for all-around camping. There's also the new Level Six paddling jacket (www.levelsixinc.com/) with a trademarked 2.5 ply Syphon Zone waterproof breathable material that I just picked up this Spring, and I got to say it has proven itself to be absolutely fantastic so far...
But when it comes to cost and amount of time actually spent on off-season paddling, you might consider just buying a cheap rubber rain suit over your grandmother's knitted wool sweater instead and tell your friends you're going retro.
Kevin Callan is the author of 11 books including "The Happy Camper: An Essential Guide to Life Outdoors" and "Wilderness Pleasures" A regular keynote speaker at major North American canoeing and camping expos for over 20 years, he has received three National Magazine Awards and four film awards, including top award at the prestigious Waterwalker Film Festival. Callan lives in Peterborough, Ontario, birthplace of the modern-day canoe.