Gear Nerd: How Does MIPS Save Your Noggin?

You’re cruising along sweet deep powder carving down the slope with the wind whipping on by and a giant grin on your face. And then suddenly…the slope isn’t where it should be and you’re about to experience what it’s like to be a snowball. Lovely.

Fortunately for you, you’re smart and you’re wearing a helmet. Because you’re wicked smart you picked a helmet with MIPS. Maybe this won’t hurt so bad?

As you’re lying in a snowbank catching your breath and checking to make sure everything still feels intact, you might be wondering just exactly how your helmet and the MIPS technology works.

Courtesy: MIPS

What is MIPS?

Identifying a MIPS helmet (whether it’s a ski helmet, a bike helmet, or something else) is pretty easy. From the outside, it looks pretty standard, but flipping it over puts the business end in full view.

All helmets have at least 2 layers: the hard outer shell and a thick inner foam layer. If something falls straight onto the top of your head, or you make a perfectly head-on (pun intended) impact with a tree, these two layers crush and absorb a lot that impact before it can get to your skull and brain.

But that’s not how most accidents work. More likely, you fall off your bike and your helmet hits the pavement at an angle, or you side swipe a branch after losing control on your skis. It’s those indirect impacts where the MIPS layer really comes in.

Taking a look at the inside of your helmet and you’ll find a thin piece of yellow plastic inside the foam layer. The pads sit on this one so it’s what comes in contact with your head. But it also moves in relation to the rest of the helmet thanks to some elastic. The result is a helmet that can “slip” back and forth, or side to side, when it’s on your head.

But how does that help you in a crash?

With a non-MIPS helmet, your brain and skull would have played a wild game of ping pong: As the helmet hit the ground, it would force your entire head to rotate violently, sloshing your brain inside your skull. But the MIPS layer let the helmet slip without your head, redirecting the energy by allowing the low friction layer to move 10 to 15 millimeters. When your helmet hits the snow, the outer two layers slide along the MIPS layer and your head, absorbing more impact and redirecting it away from your brain.

So where can I find it?

MIPS helmets are becoming more and more popular every year, making their way into ski, bike, climbing helmets and more. Look for the little yellow circular “MIPS” logo to know that the helmet features the technology.

Merino Wool: Our Tester Wore The Same Shirt for Over a Week Without Stinking

While I think we can all agree that this year hasn’t exactly shaped up to be anything fantastic, our super odd physically distant world does make for a great time to do gear testing that might… erm… stink?

After writing up a total nerd article last month about the science of merino wool, it only seemed to make sense to put all those cuticles, cortexes, and matrices to the test. How many days and sweaty activities did it take to make the EMS Merino Wool Crew Neck Base Layer stink?

Fortunately for me, I was already working remotely, my Thanksgiving plans were nonexistent, and my housemates (husband and two dogs) are tolerant of my quests in the name of science. Needless to say, scientific quests are rather common around here and usually involve more than just a potentially smelly shirt. Mud? Random plants? Moss and microscopes? Yep!

To start, I set some ground rules:
• I have to wear the shirt from the time I get up to the time I go to bed.
• There will be no washing, no odorizing sprays, etc. Just lay it out and let it be.
• There will be no avoiding sweaty activities just because I’m stuck in the same shirt for as long as this takes. If I’d workout in a clean shirt, I’d work out in the Merino.

So, how’d it go?

Day 1: Work followed by three hours of the messiest thing I could possibly do on the first day of wearing a shirt: glazing a big batch of pottery in a freezing cold studio. I somehow managed to keep all the glaze off me, which might have been the biggest accomplishment of the week.

Day 2: Errands. Boring.

Day 3: Mountain biking at Musquash (Londonderry, NH) as I chased my husband around the woods on his new fat bike. He’s just plain fast. Also, some wood stacking and around the house chores.

Day 4: Work. Boring.

Day 5: Mountain biking and trail work at Litchfield State Forest. ‘Tis the season for downed trees!

Day 6: Mountain biking at East Hampstead to tackle the long and hilly Skunk Skull. Felt like I was dragging, but eight Strava PRs (entirely fueled by gummy bears) proved otherwise. I promptly sat on my rear the rest of the day.

Day 7: I wanted to bike, but the weather had other ideas. So, I decided to organize the basement. Much sweat and dust were experienced but I made an abundance of food anyways.

Day 8: I ventured to Pine Hills (Plymouth, MA) for a physically distant group ride on an oddly warm day. I somehow managed to bike uphill both ways.

By the end of day eight, the stink was far from a full-blown locker-room smell. But just a faint whiff of “This experiment is over” had me tossing it in the wash.

Credit: Jillian Bejtlich

What did I learn while wearing the same shirt every day for 8 days?

First, merino wool actually does suck up moisture and odor. To help me sort of benchmark the performance, I spent the week prior to the test putting some of my other favorite shirts to the test:

  • Cotton long sleeve shirt: Obviously a terrible idea, but all in the name of science! Needless to say, it was a sweaty and miserable ride almost immediately. The shirt hit the dirty laundry bin right after.
  • Standard mountain biking jersey (all polyester): 1 day and 1 ride. While I didn’t stay too soggy, I had to change after the ride since I couldn’t deal with how I smelled.
  • EMS Active Wool Long Sleeve Shirt (84% Polyester / 11% Wool / 5% Spandex): 2 days and 1 ride. I probably could have pushed it one more ride, but I was starting to get a bit ripe.

Second, layering matters. With the exception of one day, it was a chilly week of testing meaning that the shirt alone wasn’t enough to keep me warm. And while the merino did an excellent job wicking, it can’t get rid of the moisture if trapped by other layers. After trying sweatshirts, vests, jackets, and fleece – I found it was best paired with vests and/or high-quality mid-layers made for moisture management, like the EMS Vortex Midlayer.

And last but not least, I am not one of those women who can work up a sweat and look (or smell) pretty after. Yet, the merino wool actually did pass every single pit sniff test. I just kept smelling like my deodorant, which was an improvement all around.

All in all, I’m super pleased with how the shirt performed. It’s already gone back into rotation for mountain biking, hiking, and more. And I think it will be the ideal shirt to bring on trips when I need to pack light. One shirt to rule them all? Looks like it.

Gear Nerd: Why You Should Be Wearing Merino Wool Year-Round

It’s not terribly often we get to go full science nerd on here, but today we’re digging into the most magical material of them all: merino wool. It’s natural. It’s renewable. And it’s oh so comfortable. But why is it so comfortable, versatile, and fantastic?

Unsurprisingly, merino wool comes from merino sheep. While we don’t exactly know how these fluffy little magical wool makers happened (they likely originated in Morocco or Spain and are definitely a domesticated breed), but we do know that they are the bearers of the softest wool of them all.

The detailed science behind merino would take a lot of articles to explain, but the general gist is that the strands that make up merino wool are much thinner than traditional wool. This means we can achieve a much finer weave than traditional wool and take advantage of all the other perks: it’s light weight, softness to the touch, amazing moisture management, and odor resistance.

Courtesy: CSIRO

The Merino Wool Matrix

But we have a feeling you came here to nerd out, so let’s briefly get into it.

If you were to break out your microscope (you do have one, right?) and some super cool microscopic cutting tools, you’d discover that merino wool has an exterior called “cuticle cells”. These cells have a slightly waxy coating which is what allows the strands to both shed water and absorb vapor. If you dig in further, you get to the “cortical cells.” These cells are like little tiny springs that allow merino to be flexible, elastic, and wrinkle free. And even further in, you hit the “matrix.” This contains proteins that love water molecules; So much so that they can absorb up to 35 percent of their weight without feeling wet (in your face, cotton). This region is kind of the coolest section of them all as it is why merino wool is fire resistant, anti-static, and eats odors for lunch.

Feel smarter? Us too.


Wool Mythbusting

With all that being said, it makes a lot more sense now why merino wool is the ideal material for all four seasons. But in the event you’re still not convinced that it’s the most magical material and are going but “Wool is itchy! And only for winter! And smells weird!” we’re going to bust all those myths… with science.

“Wool is itchy.” Under normal circumstances, we’d agree with you and suffer through flashbacks to those sweaters grandma knit one year for Christmas. But merino wool is different because it’s actually thinner than your own hair. And because it’s so thin, it bends out of the way when it encounters your skin meaning you just feel nice soft material from some super fluffy happy sheep instead of being stabbed by rogue traditional wool. Busted.

“Wool is just for winter.” Psh. Nope! Unless you’re in the “I don’t sweat, I glisten” crowd, we all sweat year round. And getting sweat away from our skin ASAP feels lovely all year, which is where merino excels thanks to that whole cuticle cell and matrix thing no matter the season. Removing moisture from our skin helps us regulate our temperature and keep comfortable. Being hot, sweaty, and stuck in a sticky damp material? Not so comfortable and not going to help regulate your body temperature. Interestingly enough, this same scientific aspect is why merino wool is also your safer bet during the winter when sweating. Being cold and damp is flat out dangerous (ever hear someone say “cotton kills”?), so we recommend rocking merino year round.

“Wool smells weird when wet.” We all know that musty smell you’re thinking about, but once again going back to the matrix, merino wool eats odors including whatever it puts off… and what you put off. That means that you can skip smelling like a wet (traditional) sheep and a locker room. Your friends will thank you.

And so concludes our nerd session. Give merino a try. And thank a sheep.