Gear Review: Smartwool for Ladies Only

Okay guys – as in the gentlemen-  sorry but…you might want to sit this one out. This one is for the girls.

Recently someone sent me a not-so-subtle hint to take a look at merino wool sports bras, and I have to admit, at first I wasn’t all that enthused. But then I started thinking about being cold, especially after a paddle, when that particular garment is usually the last to come off, when changing. Often times, I make the 20 minute ride home from the lake in dry clothes, all except for that. For whatever reason – lazy or to tired to change, or not enough privacy to change (guys, you really have it lucky in this regard, trust me) or I forgot a dry one to slip into, whatever. In that 20 minutes, there is just enough time to get chilled to the core eventhough things seem relatively dry.  Seems like sports bras ought to dry faster than they do, but usually, they don’t.  And that one piece of essential clothing for most of us lady paddlers is always a soaking mess. And as a result, it can promote bone and body chilling literally at the core which is sometimes really hard to warm up from, even once you’ve changed clothes completely.

Oh, and for the record – I beat the crap out of my sports bras.  I don’t do bikini tops – they don’t cover me enough, they are not supportive enough, and after Brandi Chastain took of her jersey when the US Women’s Soccer Team won the World Cup, hell, sports bras right then and there became the new bikini top. So there.

So, it is winter

Maybe it is time to take a look at a merino wool sports bra or two.

Smartwool Phd Seamless Racerback Elite


I ordered the Smartwool Phd Seamless Racerback Elite Fit, plus the Icebreaker Sprite Racerback  and one made by Ibex, the Balance.  I goofed (in a good way) on the sizing of the Smartwool, so sent it back for a smaller version.

Icebreaker Sprite – the picture is deceiving, it plunges more dramatically than it would seem…at least on me.

Sadly, the Icebreaker is going to go back, too – the design of it just does not work for me.  Seems they sacrificed function for form, and instead of just sticking to the tried and true basic sports bra,  they went more for style in its design.  It doesn’t offer nearly enough support for me.  Which is too bad because of the three, it is the softest. Icebreaker did make a more functional garment, the Rush but I hunted all over the internet and found it to be out of stock in my size just about everywhere, and it’s on sale for half off on their website but now all they have are extra smalls.  Things don’t look good for the Rush.

Ibex Balance

Field Test

I tested the Smartwool  thoroughly on Boxing Day, the day after Christmas, when I went down to Wrightsville Beach to join some of my training group members for a fun surf session.

First of all, merino wool is super soft.  If you have ever worn Smartwool socks, you know.  I found the sports bra to be just as comfy.  Even when it got wet. The water temperature, according to NOAA was 56.1 degrees while the air temp was in the mid to high 50s.  I was wearing the Phd underneath Virus baselayers and my thickest wetsuit, 4/3 mm.  So, I was toasty.  Even in the water.


Once I got completely submerged and wet, the merino wool continued to be itch-free.  The surf session was, for the most part comfortable, until I caught a wave way inside, pearled right into the sandbar and took a snoot full of the cold water right into the sinus cavity.  Brain freeze/ice cream headache of the most intense sort – in fact, I still think I feel it. That pretty much ended my session. I stood around on the beach for a while, still not cold, then tried to demo a very short, square shaped surf board which had me rolling around in the shorebreak until I just couldn’t take it anymore and really called it quits.

I purposely took my time changing out of the kit – which really didn’t take that much purpose-  that much neoprene comes off on its own dang time.  There is no rushing that. But I made sure I stayed in that wet undergarment for as long as possible.  By the time I was ready to put on the dry Ibex Balance, I had been out on the cold dry air and wind for about 15 minutes, if not longer.

In my regular top, I would have been cold by then.

But my upper body, despite being wet, was still nice and warm.  And it did not feel waterlogged or soggy.

By the time I got home, two hours and 15 minutes later, the bra was pretty close to dry, even though I had made no special effort to lay it out for drying purposes.

I have to say, I was impressed.

The Ibex Balance is comfortable, as well, and was nice to slip into for the warm ride home, but testing it will have to wait until the next session.

What this test did not take into account is how the merino wool does in a big time, flatwater cardio session when sweat, not drenching seawater, is the nemesis. However, I suspect it is going to perform pretty well, especially under the proper baselayers. I was sufficiently impressed to be able to recommend the Smartwool Phd for winter time activities.

Who knew?