The Nature Shop in New Zealand contacted me about testing some of their wares. After some discussion about which kit I would genuinely use, they sent me an Icebreaker Quantum GT260 Hoody. This, I reasoned, would be a good winter base layer and competition for the Patagonia R1 Hoody I am currently using - pitting merino against synthetic in sweaty, cold weather activity environments like winter and like mid-Norway in June.
First, a little bit about the Nature Shop, which is something I write about on my own terms and not something I have been asked to do by them. I am often asked to review kit on behalf of retailers rather than manufacturers and usually I tend not to. With the Nature Shop, from whom I have bought before, I decided to take a different tack as I genuinely support the attitude of this Kiwi company. First port of call to demonstrate what I mean is their webpage about their Values. Sure, you could be cynical and take this to be a marketing ploy and perhaps it is. That said, charities still benefit from the relationship with Nature Shop. As does the environment. With CarboNZero certification, they take their commitment to having an impact on climate change seriously. Have I verified all of this? No, of course not, but I have certainly looked into as much of it as I can and if, as on the face of it seems to be the case, it is all genuine, I am happy to purchase from them. Do your own checks and tell me what you think. The Quantum can be found on their Icebreaker page.
So, onto the Icebreaker Quantum GT260 Hoody. I am a tremendous fan of merino wool and I prefer it to synthetic base layer materials. This is a personal choice based in part on effectiveness and in part on comfort. I have yet to find a base layer made of synthetic fabrics which performs all round as well as merino wool. Merino has its flaws - of course it does. Everything requires a cost/benefit analysis and, on the downside, as a consequence of the way in which natural fibres work, merino tends to get saturated and heavy when wet. It does not dry as quickly as synthetic fibres. It can be scratchy when first bought, despite the fact that merino itself is a superfine wool but I normally obviate this by washing it first. That said, my personal love affair with merino finds it roots in comfort and olfactory positivity. It simply does not smell after days of long, hard use. Every synthetic fabric I have ever used, even treated fabrics, reeks after more than 2 days of use. After a week of use, merino simply does not. It may sound trite but this really is a consideration which is important to me as staying in alpine huts with smelly base layers is not much fun.
Additionally, I find merino base layers cool in the warm, and warm in the cold, even when wet, depending on what you are doing and the thickness of the fabric. There is much greater flexibility (a range of effectiveness, if you like) to it as a base layer than synthetic fibres. It does not dry as quickly, of course, but in reality this means little to me. A 150 weight base layer t-shirt dries overnight - that's good enough for me. Anything else is sufficiently dry for me to wear in the morning and, with that proximity to human body, anything made of merino will dry quickly enough to keep me warm (the only effectiveness issue with wet clothes next to the skin, although see my analysis later about wet merino and warmth).
There has been lots of debate about sourcing and quality of merino wool. Icebreaker say this about their own wool:
"Is all merino created equal? Nope. We buy the world’s best merino wool from the Southern Alps of New Zealand. New Zealand produces the longest, strongest, purest, whitest merino fibre on the planet, which means it’s more durable, stays softer for longer and is less likely to pill. Our long-term contracts with the world’s best merino growers create a win/win situation. The contracts allow us to take responsibility for every step of the process, from the quality of the wool to how the animals are treated. And growers can lock in long-term price security, which gives them a certain future. Our three-year-contracts with growers are the biggest long-term merino contracts by a single brand in the world. When you’re in Icebreaker merino, you know the sheep felt as good making it as you do wearing it."
True or not? Anything to say about that claim - comment below. Otherwise, I will take it at face value. I encourage debate (not vitriol). This is what Chocolate Fish have to say about their own merino, and they've been getting rave reviews online over the last year or so at least. In short - make up your own mind and know what you are wearing:
"We only use 100% merino fabric - MAPP merino - that we buy from Designer Textiles, Auckland and which uses Zque accredited NZ merino. We believe, having looked at the evidence and tested it for ourselves, that adulterating merino with any other fibre only serves to lower the quality and reduce real performance. It does however lower production costs substantially as genuine superfine grade merino is very expensive, and mixing in other fibres can mean it's possible to use lower grades of wool as well as using less wool."
So how does the Quantum compare to other merino products, by Smartwool in particular? Favourably, I would say from a completely subjective, uncontrolled standpoint. I have 125, 150 and now 260 weight Icebreaker products and several 200 weight Smartwool products. All seem much of a muchness to me but Icebreaker products seem more robust and more carefully considered. Each of my Icebreaker tops seem more durable than their Smartwool equivalents - not by much, but there is definitely a discernible difference. The 125 and 150 weight Icebreaker tops have lycra woven into the fabric which enhances the athletic cut, gives them a stretchy quality and also makes them quicker-drying. This continues with the Quantum 260. It gives the whole fabric a more robust, springy feel which I find lacking in my Smartwool tops. This reduces what I'll describe as the 'drag-factor' associated with merino when it gets wet and begins to sag.
The Quantum is a thick merino midlayer or, as I use it, a winter base layer. With thumb loops, a close fitting hood, stretch eyelet side panels to assist breathability and raglan sleeves to increase articulation, it seems at first blush to meet all the criteria for a winter base layer. It weighs 428g in a size large (which fits me perfectly - not too tight but tight enough to be a base layer - I measure 34" waist, 39-40" chest and 21" torso). It features a zipped pocket at the small of the back - this is utterly pointless for me but it does not interfere with the back of whatever pack I am wearing either.
All the high quality YKK zips run smoothly, and the main zip has a windbreak construction. Each has a good size grip, shaped and bevelled to assist locating it with your cold fingers and tugging at it to adjust your ventilation. There is, of course, the ubiquitous Napoleon pocket which is so small as to be almost pointless for anything I might want to put in there other than a credit card. On a base layer, I simply do not see the point but if you were to use this as a mid-layer, then perhaps it has some application. Not for me.
The hood is two layer merino which enhances the warmth protecting your head and makes it more comfortable. It is a close fitting hood but it does in intrude on the eyeline. The zip extends comfortably to over the chin if necessary.
I have worn the Quantum hillwalking on several multi-day trips - three in total - as well as some short but hard day walks. On each overnighter, the Quantum went on at the start and only came off back at the car at the conclusion of the trip. In short, I wore it constantly for 48-72 hours on trips with hefty milage and ascent as well as changeable weather and temperatures. On some occasions, I would be lazy with my layering and either leave a shell layer on unnecessarily when ascending or not put one on when I should have done. I'd overheat a little with the shell on, but not overly - the Quantum would breathe well enough - and it would stop enough of the chill wind that I was not feeling sufficiently cold to stop and pull on a shell. That sort of versatility is useful, especially in winter when stopping to change layers is not something I enjoy doing.
Sure, I sweat in this top but certainly no more than any other, including the R1 Hoody. They both dry quickly enough to keep me warm. Yet, even when wet, merino, and the Quantum in particular, keeps me warm and here vive la différence! Synthetic tops, in my experience, are simply not as warm when damp or wet. In fact, when it comes to keeping ourselves warm, we have yet to beat natural fibres like down and wool when compared to their man-made equivalents. Synthetic fibres are breathable as a consequence of their weave, not their innate nature. Not so, wool. Woollen fibres themselves soak up moisture which then evaporates - hence the temporary weight change in damp or wet wool. Wool works in symbiosis with your body in a way only natural fibres can, adapting to your environment because that's what nature constructed it for. Don't believe me? Go speak to someone who uses this stuff in conditions where risk takes on a new meaning.
The thumb loops are great as winter base layers often go (hand-in-hand) with gloves and a shell. However, in Jotunheimen, where the weather was hugely varied and there was a great deal of ascent (over 1000m), I would find that I'd often be rolling up my sleeves. The cuffs retained much of their shape but there was some sagging. Not so much that they became useless, but enough that it was noticeable. It's inevitable without some elastication in the cuff.
All in all, I loved the Quantum. I was surprised by just how perfect was the fit, the cut, the lycra/wool weave, the warmth it offered me throughout the trips I took it and above all, the comfort. Andy Kirkpatrick, a man I respect, once drifted into what I thought was new-age hippy nonsense, when he said (several times) that merino felt more a part of him when outdoors than synthetic fibres but having tried various base layers, and always crawling back to merino with my tail between my legs, I know what he means. And the Quantum feels part of me more than most.