Best Lightweight Wool Shirts for Hiking and Backpacking

Merino wool shirts are perfect for any outdoor activity and I’ve got my favorite lightweight wool shirts for you below. It’s difficult to compare wool shirts of varying weights because they have different uses, so I’m sticking to lightweight shirts here because they’re the most universal.

Lightweight Merino wool is perfect as a bottom baselayer or worn as your hiking/backpacking shirt in spring and summer.

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Why Choose a Merino Wool Shirt?

Wool is fire resistant, offers UV protection, insulates when wet, has anti-microbial properties, and is biodegradable and sustainable.

The same Merino wool shirt can keep you warm and cool, depending on the situation. What other material can do that?

For people who feel wool is itchy, good quality Merino wool should be soft and not cause itching. You can also look for shirts that blend wool with other fabrics.

Personally, I only wear wool shirts when backpacking. While I may go with an alternative for a day hike, there’s no way I’m heading out for a weekend without my trusty wool. I also only wear wool when I’m on a day hike in the rain.

For more information on what to look for in a Merino wool shirt, and how Merino wool works (including what micron and “weight” aka GSM mean), you can jump to those sections at the bottom.

The list below highlights women’s shirts, but all of the companies also sell men’s shirts made from the same materials and many have lines with 100% Merino wool even if that’s not the product highlighted below.

Best overall: Icebreaker Merino Tech Lite II

Best budget: REI Co-op Merino Base Layer Top

Best for hot weather: Minus33 Woolverino Wool T-Shirt Micro Weight

Best base layer: Ibex Journey Short Sleeve Crew

Best versatility (town to trail): Ridge Women’s Wander T-Shirt

Best Lightweight Merino Wool Shirts for Hiking and Backpacking

Icebreaker Merino Tech Lite III

Woman sitting on rocky overlook in blue shirt with pink hat.

By 2023, they were just shy of their goal of 100% plastic-free by 4% including tags, packaging, and products. They also offer their sheep farmers 10 year contracts providing economic stability to growers while still maintaining strict animal welfare standards for the sheep and dogs . I lean towards Icebreaker because I appreciate what the brand is doing, and they make great clothing.

I wore my Tech Lite shirt on almost every hike for 2 years. To date, it’s held up with no tears or holes. The fit is perfect for me, slim but not body-hugging tight. Overall, the Tech Lite is lightweight and comfortable. A lot of my hiking photos are in this shirt and it’s always flattering.

New for 2024 are darker colors that help with the see-through factor.

Cons: The newer version is slightly wider in the shoulder which could look odd if you have a heavier bust.

Specs:
Price: $80
Fabric: 100% Merino wool
Microns: 18.9
GSM: 150

👉 Click here to check prices on Icebreaker shirts 👈

Ibex Journey Short Sleeve Crew

Ibex Journey short sleeve shirt in Deep Ocean, a teal blue.
Photo provided courtesy of Ibex

Ibex started making Merino wool apparel in 1997 and was a heavily sought-after niche brand. They briefly went out of business for 2 years, but came back in 2023, much to the delight of many backpackers.

Their Merino wool is sourced from Australia and wrapped around a nylon core for durability. In my opinion, Ibex hit the wool percentage on the nose. High enough to provide all the benefits of wool, but durable enough to put up with a backpack carried for days. The fit is slightly longer, which could be a pro or con, depending on your height.

What I really love are the sleeves. They’re not as long as some short-sleeve shirts and have a slight roll. This means no rolling your sleeves when you hike to avoid weird tans. You get the short sleeves to protect you from your pack straps, and can wear a tank top when you get home.

They also make a short sleeve 100% Merino wool shirt in their 24 Hour Collection. It fits more snuggly than the Journey and makes a great base layer.  

Cons: The neckline is a bit narrow if you have a larger neck.

Specs:
Price: $85
Fabric: 89% Merino wool, 11% nylon
Microns: 18.5
GSM: 150

👉 Click here to check prices on Ibex shirts 👈

Minus33 Woolverino Women’s Wool V-Neck T-Shirt Micro Weight

Woman wearing black v-neck shirt with woods in the background.

I cannot adequately describe how light and airy this shirt feels. Once you put it on, you forget about it. If you’re new to wool and worried about itching, the buttery softness of the Woolverino makes it a good entry-level wool shirt.

If you want to wear the Woolverino micro weight shirt as a true base layer, size down for a tighter fit. For a hiking shirt, go with your usual size. While I wouldn’t call it a loose fit, the fabric drapes nicely without hugging every curve and making you feel self-conscious.

I felt comfortable all day backpacking in this shirt. The lightness and quick drying abilities make it perfect for hot southeastern summers. It’s also perfect for wearing around town, on airplanes, walking down hot shirts to see the sites on vacation, and just about anything else you can think of.

Cons: The tradeoff for the lightweight, airy feel is a lower percentage of wool. While still above the 80% mark, it’s one of the lowest wool percentages on this list.  

Specs:
Price: $69.99
Fabric: 84% Merino wool, 12% nylon, 4% spandex
Microns: 17.5
GSM: 145

👉 Click here to check prices on Minus33 shirts 👈

Ridge Women’s Wander Crew Neck T-Shirt

woman backpacking in green short-sleeve Wander wool shirt and panama hat.
Photo Courtesy of Ridge Merino

Ridge Merino is a small, family-owned California business that started in 2014. They specialize in low-fuss, accessible, well-made Merino products that get the job done. They have multiple lines including a 100% Merino wool line, Merino wool blended with Tencel, and Merino wool blended with nylon. 

The Wander T-shirt is made with sustainably sourced wool from New Zealand fortified with their (m)Force™ Nylon Core technology. The fabric is lightweight, yet durable.

A friend has this shirt and I’m envious every time she wears it. The Wander is slim fitting, but not tight, and (as a shorter person) I found the length gives me coverage without impeding my movement. But what I really like are the longer sleeves that provide better sun protection. If you don’t like crew necks, it’s also available in a V-neck.

The price point is one of the best on this list making them excellent entry level wool shirts.

Cons: Some reviewers mention the lighter colors may be a bit see-through.

Specs:
Price: $59.95
Fabric: 87% Merino wool, 14% nylon
Microns: 17.5
GSM: 145

👉 Click here to check prices on Ridge Merino shirts 👈

REI Co-Op Merino 185 Base Layer Top

Woman wearing peach wool short-sleeve shirt.
Photo provided courtesy of REI

REI makes great Merino wool products, but traditionally the short sleeve was only available in their men’s line. Finally (FINALLY), they made a women’s version.

Made in a Fair Trade Certified™ factory, the wool is certified to the Responsible Wool Standard (RWS). The fit is a little loose for use as a base layer, but perfect as a shirt, especially on hot days thanks to the UPF 30 protection it offers.

For me, the length is a bit long, but that could be a good or bad thing depending on your height. And you can’t beat the REI return policy if it doesn’t hold up as expected.

This is also one of the best price points for a 100% Merino wool product. And with the REI generous return policy you really can’t go wrong.

Con: The underarm gussets provide a greater range of motion, but cause the sleeves to fit oddly, especially if you’re not very tall.

Specs:
Price: $69.95
Fabric: 100% Merino wool
Microns: not listed
GSM: 185

👉 Click here to check prices on REI wool shirts 👈

Smartwool Women’s Merino Short Sleeve Shirt 

Woman wearing Smartwool short sleeve wool shirt in pistachio, a light green, against grey background.

Smartwool was my go-to wool shirt for years. I backpacked in the same 150-weight short sleeve shirt for three years. They have a tighter fit which helps the wool do its job as a baselayer. The wool is spun around a nylon core to increase durability while still allowing only wool to touch your skin.

Smartwool offers multiple products on its website that look similar. Make sure you’re looking at the Merino short sleeve tee and not the plain short sleeve tee which only has 50% Merino wool. It can be a little tricky in-store because the fabric information isn’t obvious.  

Expanding the description and reading description will ensure you’re choosing the right product.

They’ve refreshed their colors for 2024 with a fun pink and orange print, and a solid Fern Green I’m in love with.

Cons: Difficult to find the wool percentage on the tag, you often have to check online to verify. The price is high for the amount of wool in the fabric.

Specs:
Price: $80
Fabric: 88% Merino wool, 12% nylon
Microns: not listed
GSM: 150

👉 Click here to check prices on Smartwool shirts 👈

Runner Ups

Woolly Crew Neck Tee

Woolly designs wool clothing for every part of your lifestyle, including the outdoors. Based in Seattle, their mission is to introduce natural fabrics at an affordable price.

The Crew Neck tee is great for layering and I like the shorter length since I’m well..not tall.

Check the reviews before ordering because it seems the sizing can be tighter than anticipated which is normal for a base layer, but if you want to wear it as a shirt, you may need to size up quite a bit. I would say the way the shirt fits on the models is accurate.

Specs:
Price: $64.99
Fabric: 95% Merino wool, 5% elastane
Microns: 17.5
GSM: 150

👉 Click here to check prices on Woolly shirts 👈

LL Bean Cresta Ultralight 150 Crew Top Short Sleeve

LL Bean is often overlooked when it comes to hiking and backpacking clothing, but they have a solid Merino wool line. Slim fitting with a slightly longer length, the Cresta is a well-priced Merino wool hiking shirt.

The seams in front of the arms can rub with a backpack making this a better option for day hikes.

These may be discontinued (or possibly updated) soon. Now’s a great time to grab one on sale.

Specs:
Price: $69
Fabric: 100% Merino wool
Microns: not listed
GSM: 150

👉 Click here to check prices on LL Bean shirts 👈

What to Look for in a Wool Shirt

Wool works by wicking moisture away from your body while keeping body heat in. When you’re cold, the insulation helps keep you warm. When you’re hot, it wicks moisture away from your body and allows the vapor to pass through the fiber keeping you cool.

Even wet, wool maintains its insulation. I’ve been in a soaking wet wool shirt in 30-degree F temperatures and felt fine.

For a wool shirt to maintain its properties, it must contain wool. I like to look for clothing that’s at least 80% wool. If I’m backpacking, I prefer it to be in the higher 80% range (87%+). For day hikes, I’m a little less picky, but still prefer my shirts to be at least 80% wool.

I’ve tested quite a few shirts and found that 3 days in a shirt with less than 85% wool doesn’t provide the same odor reduction. Also, the higher the synthetic material percentage, the less the shirt will breathe, making it hotter on hot days.

Many people feel that 100% Merino wool is too delicate for backpacking. I haven’t found this to be true, but the quality of the fabric and how well it’s made factor into the durability.

How to Care for Wool

A hand passing freshly sheared wool through two pieces of wood to flatten it.

Always read the manufacturer’s instructions on caring for your products.

Generally, Merino wool can be washed in a machine with cold water on gentle cycle, with no fabric softener. Many companies recommend drying on a rack rather than using a dryer. Some will say you can tumble dry on low.

I’ve seen people recommend using a special wool soap, but I use a detergent with no dyes or perfumes and haven’t had any issues.

You don’t have to wash wool frequently. If I’ve been backpacking and had the shirt on for 3 days, then yeah, it’s getting washed. But when I’m day hiking, I’ll just hang it on a rack overnight to air out, then wear it again. The natural anti-microbial protection will prevent it from smelling, and the less you wash it, the longer it will last. (Remember – it’s biodegradable).

Finding Inexpensive Wool Products

I get it, Merino wool products are expensive. While I know this sounds cliché, you do have to think of it as an investment. For me, clothing is part of my safety gear when backpacking. Your survival may come down to what you have on.

Over the years, I’ve tested a bunch of synthetic shirts that claim to insulate when wet, and wick moisture away from you, and I’ve wound up freezing in my tent at night because the shirt is wet and isn’t keeping me warm. Luckily, when I’m testing products, I always bring a backup I know I can trust — my wool.

You can find discounted backpacking gear, including clothing, online and in stores. Be patient and wait for sales. Often a color will be discontinued, and you can get a good deal. This is why so many backpackers have green shirts and blue pants. We buy our gear on sale and you get what’s available in your size.

Monitor outfitters on a regular basis. Every time I’m in REI, I check out their garage sale section. Also, haunt manufacturer websites for sales (including free shipping), as well as Amazon and online outdoor stores like Backcountry.

You may also be interested in:
Backpacking Basics
Backpacking and Hiking Gear
Backpacking and Hiking Tips and Tricks

All About Merino Wool

Microns and Grams per Square Meter

Micron refers to the diameter of the fiber. The smaller the micron number, the softer and less itchy the fabric will feel.

You may think that thicker microns equal more durable fabric, and while that is correct, the way fabric is knitted also factors into the equation. Merino wool shirts have to balance the soft feel with strength.

Grams per square meter (GSM) is a way to measure fabric density, which is not the same thing as thickness. You’ll sometimes see it as “weight”, as in, “this wool shirt is 150-weight wool.”

The reason it can’t measure thickness is that different fabrics have different size threads. A 150 GSM cotton shirt may be thicker than a 150 GSM wool shirt, but it’s less dense and won’t provide greater warmth.

But you can use GSM to compare one wool shirt to another. Typically, warmer weather wool is under 200 GSM, but you’ll want something heavier than this for colder weather.

Is Wool Eco-Friendly?

Almost every company selling wool products will tell you how wool doesn’t contain microplastics. While that’s true, keep in mind that many products are not 100% wool.

Many manufacturers use blends to increase the durability of wool and help it drape better. In some instances, a nylon core is used. However, some companies have started using a blend of Tencel and wool. Tencel is made from sustainable wood, is biodegradable, and does not contain microplastics.

Wool itself is biodegradable. Over time, the fabric degrades, which is normal. You may see this in a pair of socks that are a wool and nylon blend. As the wool biodegrades, you’re left with the nylon.

Just because a company has nylon in its product, don’t give up. Several companies are trying to lower their environmental impact, but Tencel is new, and sourcing enough wool to make 100% Merino wool products can be difficult.

Is Shearing Detrimental to Sheep?

Many sheep grazing in a field with blue sky and some clouds.

There are some shearing processes that are inhumane. However, there are sustainable ways to shear sheep that do not harm the animal.

New Zealand banned a process called mulesed in 2018, so you can feel good about wool sourced from there. Several countries have guidelines that farmers must adhere to or organizations that provide specific certifications and the farmers are monitored to ensure they continue to meet those guidelines.

Every company on this list sources their wool from farms that adhere to a recognized entity for handling their sheep in an ethical and sustainable manner.

Merino Wool Shirt Wrap

If you’re looking for a good, lightweight, Merino wool shirt, any on this list will be a good option. All of the companies also make heavier-weight wool shirts if you need something warmer, as well as long-sleeve versions.

It will take a little trial and error to see what you prefer, but once you know what you like, you won’t go back to synthetics.

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