It’s happened to all of us. Eight pitches up the Eiger Nordwand (or 800 feet into a winter hike), you’ve leaned the wrong way and caught a whiff of your trusty old baselayer.
Yuck. It makes sense for gear to get a bit malodorous while we’re out galavanting in the wild. But certain items (and base layers in particular) seem to hold on to their stench even after multiple washings.
To borrow a phrase, that stinks. So last week, I asked a few winter wear experts how they keep their gear smelling less-than-fetid.
know your enemy
When bacteria feed on the oils in our skin, oils that end up on our clothes, they produce gas. That’s what we’re smelling. And as it turns out, the very fabrics that work best for playing in the outdoors tend to be the most likely to hang onto body odor.
“Athletic fabrics, synthetics, and even things like wool, which have natural oils that make them preferred for high levels of activity—basically, things that wick moisture—are hard to get the stinky out of for the same reason that we prefer them for activity: they are hydrophobic,” says Michelle Anjirbag, a running expert who facilitates outdoor experiences for scouting groups.
“Unlike cotton, which will soak up the water and the detergent and get to the bacteria we leave behind when we sweat, hydrophobic wicking materials are simply harder to clean.”
Still, it’s not hopeless. I talked to runners, (horse) riders, thru-hikers and round-the-world skiers to find out their favorite fabrics and washing tips to keep clothes smelling fresh.
Prevent the stench
Since the smell problem starts long before your clothes see the sink or washing machine, let’s start there.
For many, including skier Steph Jagger and wilderness guide Caroline Owen, it’s all about the fabric. If you can tolerate the itch, they say, you should always choose wool.
For the last several years, Owen has spent summers guiding horseback trips in Iceland‘s blustery, unpredictable climate. Appropriately, she swears by wool no matter the weather. “Wool for all layers!” she says.
“[In Iceland] I wear a lightweight merino wool base layer and slightly heavier merino wool mid layer. If it’s cooler, I add my wool Icelandic sweater and if windy, a wind breaker overall. Last year, I did three trips in a row and ended up wearing the same shirt for about two weeks. I honestly never smelled it at all!”
Steph Jagger spent almost a year skiing all over the world, and although she also sings wool’s praises, she tested its limits while chasing winter from one continent to the next. And she learned the importance of storage.
Her number one tip? Whether you just got off the slopes or didn’t have enough time to finish the dryer cycle, don’t ever pack your gear away when it’s wet.