Merino Battle: Icebreaker vs Smartwool vs Minus 33

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It’s easy to become a merino wool addict. I’ve yet to find another fabric that is as versatile and as cozy during all seasons. As sturdy and body-friendly during all kinds of ultra intensive outdoor activities.

Going back to cotton or even standard wool is like eating cold leftover pizza.

Icebreaker, Smartwool and Minus33 are probably the three best known companies dedicated to merino wool clothes.

Minus33 crews are legendary, and you’d surprised how elegant and hip Icebreaker tees can get.

And don’t get me started on what a treasure Smartwool’s PhD socks are for daily walks in the city…

There’s also First Light, but as I haven’t tested any of their products, I can’t say anything. I’ve read good things about the brand, though.

So, the big question:

Icebreaker vs Smartwool vs Minus33 – is one better than the others?

Let me start with an important note. Only a few months ago, Icebreaker got acquired by VF Corporation (original press release).

You know who else is in VF’s portfolio?

If you raised a hand with a ‘Smartwool!’, you’re right. So technically those brands are now under the same corporate umbrella. Good thing to keep in mind.

Also, before I continue with this rather big brand comparison, let me have a quick trip down memory lane.

Here’s my very first merino wool purchase a few years back. Me and Kate were on a short digital nomad stint in Tokyo, so we paid Uniqlo a visit:

Why am I mentioning this?

I got both of these for $45 or so. I felt in love with them, until I upgraded to Smartwool (and then Icebreaker.) I have worn this Uniqlo maybe two times at most after that.

I know real, 100% merino wool clothes seem expensive. They are. But the genuine quality you’re getting is totally worth it.

Icebreaker vs Smartwool vs Minus33:
So where’s the difference?

If you’re concerned about quality, scratch that off your list. All three brands are top of the top when it comes to merino wool products.

In fact, there’s not that much tangible difference between their corresponding product lines.

Let me try to paint my own impressions with what I found specific for each one of them.

Icebreaker clothing: Definitely a bigger amount of slim fits. Interesting designs, more elegant and stylish. You can wear some of their base layers to nightclubs even, which can’t be said for Smartwool or Minus33.

Smartwool clothing: Very fine merino wool, even though it might not feel as soft as Icebreaker. Amazing quality of the seams, a definite plus. Also, PhD socks – they’re simply the best.

Minus33 clothing: Definitely durability is their forte. Clothing is a bit more tightly woven and great for ultra harsh winter conditions. Think of expeditions in really freezing corners of the earth. This all comes with a price, as Minus33s can feel a bit heavier.

Pricewise, I feel Smartwool are the most expensive.

The usual standard is that all these 3 brands’ merino wool is sourced from New Zealand. Why? Because NZ produces the best one in the whole world 🙂

Are their product lines the same?

There’s definitely a bit of variation, but generally you will find them offering clothing for all layers and of various weight. Needless to say, their essentials will be made of 90%+ merino wool without saving on the fabric and its quality.

If you’re not familiar with the merino wool basics, here’s a quick guide.

First come the layers:

  • Base layer

  • Mid layer

  • Insulating layer

  • Outer shell layer

Each layer can vary in weight. Usually, base layers can be either lightweight, or ultra lightweight a.k.a. Microweight. The latter is 150 m/2 like Smartwool’s 150 line.

But usually, a lot of base layer merino wool clothes are 200 m/2 in terms of weight.

Mid layers are also known as the three season wear: early spring, late in the fall, and winter. They range from 230 to 260 m/2. Lots of insulating layers are around the same.

As expected, outer shells a.k.a. Jackets are heavyweight. A good rule of thumb is 380 m/2 weight of the fabric, but you can find many exceptions.

Any recommendations?

Definitely! Of course, I encourage you to shop around on your own too. All 3 brands run their own storefronts on Amazon, with prices usually being a bit lower than their own sites.

Luckily, the storefronts are neatly organized. I especially like the layout of Minus33’s one:

So, going back to the recommendations…

For base layer T-shirts:

For socks:

For bottoms:

  • Minus33 leggings are definitely the best choice for women

  • For men, Icebreakers are a bit more convenient than Smartwool’s offer here

All three brands have a good collection of underwear items too. As I’ve noted in my guide to hot weather underwear, though, I’m mainly sticking to Under Armour now.

If you’re not looking for ultra thin liners, Minus33 has this slightly bulkier pair that will keep you warm with an outstanding portion of 90% merino wool.

Do they have enough variety: men’s, women’s, kids?

Icebreaker definitely have the biggest women’s collection, in my opinion. They also have quite a few products for kids, which can’t be said for Minus33 and Smartwool’s storefronts.

Generally, some of the merino wool clothing all of the brands offer can be easily viewed as unisex too. Obviously, that doesn’t apply for the underwear!

Concluding thoughts

There really isn’t a wrong choice here. However, as I noted in my concise comparison above, while all these 3 brands offer similar quality and rely on the fine comfort of merino wool, there are some subtle differences.

I’m quite curious to find about your own impressions, actually – for those who have owned clothing from any of the brands. Please let me know in the comments below.

In any case, the real beauty lies in the fact that both Icebreaker, Smartwool and Minus33 give you an access to a wondrous world:

The world of merino wool, the cozies clothing material you can find on Earth!

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