There has been an explosion in the popularity of Merino Wool baselayers in the past few years. This trend has been led by two companies in particular - Smartwool and Icebreaker. There are now many manufacturers who have Merino products in their ranges - Arc'teryx being one of them.
The Rho LTW has actually been in the Arc'teryx range for a number of years, but has flown under the radar a little. Having been a fan of Merino form Smartwool and Icebreaker pretty much since the beginning, I was interested to see how an Arc'teryx designed top would fare against the big boys of baselayers. I'm actually on my second Rho LTW now after having used one pretty regularly for coming up on 3 years now. On first appearances it's fairly similar to any other merino baselayer. There are, however, a few key differences.
For a start the Rho's Merino has Lycra woven into it. Traditional Merino baselayers tend not to have a Lycra mix. Due to the way that the garments are constructed and the natural give in the wool, most Merino baselayer tend to stretch without the need for Lycra. I've always found, however, that once you have worn a garment for a day or so Merino tends to sag and lose its shape somewhat. Now that's not a big deal if the item is only ever worn a day at a time, but I've always felt that the real advantage of Merino baselayers are their performance over long periods of continuous wear. Especially given the fabrics ability to fend off smell. Due to the presence of Lycra, the Rho will not sag or lose its shape even after a week of wear without washing. For this reason I think it's fantastic for multi day and expedition use. It really is the only baselayer you need to take on that week long ice climbing trip to La Grave, or your annual ski trip to Chamonix. For serious expedition use I don't think I've seen a better baselayer.
Another advantage of the Lycra infusion is the fact that it makes the Rho very close fitting - exactly how a performance baselayer should be. Combine this close fit with extra long arms and a torso that's long enough to stay well tucked in and your laughing. The theory goes that putting Lycra in there may slow the tops drying time. Whilst I agree that the Rho doesn't dry as quickly as an equivalent weight polyester fabric after you wash it, I haven't found any difference vs. any other Merino fabric. I also find that the difference in drying time between Merino and polyester less obvious when I'm actually wearing the garment. Ok, it's useful to have a very quick drying fabric after washing when you're traveling, but it's a fabrics ability to dry next to the skin whilst in use that's most important to most users. When it comes to this test I rarely notice a difference between Merino and other man made fabrics. Without doubt when I do manage to get a baselayer wet, Merino wins on comfort every time in all but the warmest conditions when I prefer a lightweight polyester fabric.
Features wise the Rho LTW, as you would expect, is pretty basic. You do however get a chest pocket made from a stretchy nylon material. This is laminated onto the top in typical Arc'teryx fashion. The lack of stitch lines means the pocket sits nice a clean and doesn't rub against the skin at all. It's useful for a key or credit card and, whilst it's hardly a deal breaker, I'd rather have a pocket there than not.
The zipped collar is nice and snug and, again, sits very comfortably next to the skin and under any midlayer that's worn over the top. The collar is double fabric so insulates the neck area well and the zip is deep enough to provide good ventilation when needed. This is fairly important as the Rho is a pretty warm top. I tend to keep the Rho for cool to cold conditions, though a friend of mine wore his mountain running in the Alps in August and loved it, so this probably comes down to personal preference.
The only negative comment I can direct towards the Rho, and again this applies to pretty much all Merino baselayers, is the long term durability. Wool baselayers (and socks too for that matter) tend not to be as durable as their synthetic counterparts. They are also usually more expensive. At £75 the Rho is without doubt one of the more expensive baselayers on the market. Though having used the product extensively, I still think represents good value for money and I wouldn't hesitate to spend this amount on another one.
Overall then I see the Rho LTW as a proper baselayer with high performance levels. It's hands down my favorite baselayer for climbing, snowboarding and running in winter.
Images: Dave MacFarlane/planetFear
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