A tip for packing light while looking good.

As a recreational traveler, hiker, and backpacker, I don’t know how I lived without Icebreaker until I discovered it in late 2008 during a trip to New Zealand.

If you’re not familiar with it, Icebreaker is a New Zealand-based line of merino wool clothing for outdoor and athletic activities and travel. Two and a half years since my discovery, I’ve accumulated four shirts, pants, long underwear, and a dress.

My first buy was a long-sleeved baselayer. I’ve worn it, on average, once a week for more than two years—pretty much every time I go skiing, snowshoeing, or hiking. The only flaw I’ve noticed is a slight tendency to develop small holes from wear. This has happened in the places I’m most likely to tug at it (the bottom of one sleeve and the right bottom side of the shirt). I also noticed a small hole in my Icebreaker pants where I caught them on a thorn while cutting brush on the side of the mountain. Not bad considering the heavy use I’ve put these items of clothing to.

The most striking thing about Icebreaker gear (unlike capilene and polypro) is that it really doesn’t hold smells. At the end of a sweaty day there might be a faint wet-dog aroma, but it goes away upon drying. I’ve tested this many, many times. I’ve worn the same baselayer skiing for two or three days in a row. I wore my sleeveless Icebreaker top on a five-day backpacking trip through 90-plus degree temperatures. It was repeatedly soaked, SOAKED, in sweat, but I could have worn it out on the town the night I finished the trip and no one would have been the wiser. Other fabrics just don’t work like this. (I should say that I’ve never owned any Smartwool, a competing brand of merino wool clothing. It probably works just as well, but I’ve always opted for Icebreaker because I prefer the design.)

As great as Icebreaker clothing is for outdoor activities, it’s even better for traveling. On a backpacking trip, a certain amount of stink is to be expected. You can live with it. But travel is different. I want to fit in and look at least minimally stylish when I’m in a city like Istanbul.

I also want to pack light. I’m more of a budget traveler than a backpacker–I go to restaurants and take cabs, and if I stay in a hostel it will usually be in a private room–but I hate lugging around a bag filled with dirty clothes. And there are obvious advantages to carrying luggage on a plane instead of checking it.

So I want to pack clothes I can wear over and over again, and Icebreaker is perfect. It doesn’t smell, it holds its shape, and it stays looking clean. Even better, it does all those things with great design. For me, Icebreaker is a magical combination of utility and style. It’s a bit more expensive than comparable non-wool products (and it’s hard to find sales of any note), but I think it is worth every penny.

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