The Australian-New Zealand rivalry can be witnessed in realms beyond the world of sport. Whether arguing over who invented pavlova or which nation birthed a particular celebrity, it seems all that really matters is the perennial competitiveness.

Rugby fans are of course more interested in events like the recent Bledisloe Cup, in which is seems the All Blacks are continuing to dominate. Yet for those less interested in rugby and more interested in staying warm and comfortable throughout the cold months, there is a more important competition at stake.

Base layers are a critical item of clothing for anyone who loves to hike, climb, paddle or spend any significant amount of time outdoors in adverse conditions. Traditionally a woolen garment, recent advancements in materials technology have opened up a new category in performance clothing, which has even gained something of a foothold in the casual fashion space. However, wool – particularly merino wool – is still considered a favourite of the adventurer due to its versatility, breathability and singular virtue of resisting body odour.

Australia and New Zealand have always been proud of their wool-producing heritages and so there’s little wonder that a number of outdoor brands specialise in merino-based products. As part of our efforts reviewing a range of base layer leggings for Wild 149’s Tried and Tested section, I had the opportunity to directly compare an Australian merino product versus its Kiwi compatriot.

The following is my commentary on what could be seen as a ‘base layer Bledisloe’, with fresh-faced Australian upstarts I/O Merino being pitted against veteran New Zealand brand Icebreaker. To begin, let’s see how the two products compare:

Mid-weight Leggings

Icebreaker ‘Apex’ I/O Merino ‘Chaser’
Size Mens / Medium Mens / Medium
Weight 260g/m2 265g/m2
Colour Black Black
Price AU $119.95 AU $94.50

While listed as mid-weight fabric, these are the heaviest weight base layer leggings available for either brand. Leggings of this weight of fabric are ideal as a base layer in snow and alpine activities, but are also targeted toward winter runners and hikers who need something extra under their shorts to fight off morning frost.

Fine merino wool is generally considered the top tier fabric for base layer leggings, where warmth and comfort are desired. Lightweight, breathable, moisture wicking and the ability to stay warm when wet are all characteristics of good base layers fabrics. As mentioned previously, merino stands out above alternative fabrics due to its comfort and ability to not retain odours (an important attribute for adventurers who might not bathe or launder for several days at a stretch).

On paper the Apex and Chaser Leggings and are largely identical with the only significant difference being the $25 difference in price. Of course, only so much can be discerned from specifications alone. The most important information is gained from physically trialling the products.

ROUND 1 – Outdoor Performance

Having been around for a while, most outdoor enthusiasts know the reputation the Icebreaker has for high-quality, comfortable garments. Their Apex leggings are no different. They are warm and comfortable and perform as expected and as advertised. When running on an icy morning, they were so comfortable that they were barely noticeable apart from the lack of frozen legs. The I/O Merino Chaser leggings were almost identical: they performed well and no difference was noticed in similar use. Both garments were warm and comfortable.

ROUND 2 – Closer Comparison

Given that my initial wearing of these items hadn’t yielded any significant differences, I decided to take a closer look at the contruction and fabric of each garment.

Notes from close scrutiny:

  • Softness – On visual inspection, the I/O leggings had a noticeably finer weave that produced a slightly softer feel to the touch. This was also noticeable while the garments were being worn. The Icebreaker leggings were certainly soft, but just not as soft in direct comparison.
  • Fabric weight – On paper, both leggings were near identical in fabric weight with the I/O Merino option having a slightly higher fabric density. In practice, the Icebreaker product actually felt heavier in the hand, and scales supported this. The Icebreaker’s were in fact 10 per cent heavier than the I/O Merino alternative.
  • Fit – The I/O leggings were noticeably longer than the Icebreaker, while both had near identical waist-bands size and stretch. If you have a narrow waist and long legs then the I/O leggings will comfortably reach your ankles. The Icebreaker variety stopped well short of the ankles.
  • Seams – The I/O leggings had fewer seems with a noticeably lower and smoother profile compared to the Icebreaker. The Icebreaker had an extra outseam (seam on the outside of the leg) that the I/O didn’t have. In general fewer and smoother seams mean less chafing. The I/O seemed to fit just as well despite its single seam leg construction.
  • Durability – merino wool clothing is generally more durable and longer lasting that other fabrics. Unfortunately, due to the time available no proper comparison of durability could be performed.

Judges Decision: It’s a tie!

In this circumstance, it’s difficult to call a clear winner of the match. While things like material density, construction and feel are all important when it comes to choosing a pair of leggings, I think any user would be hard pushed to spot a clear difference between these two unless they were comparing them side by side. Ultimately, it may be a simple decision regarding which nation’s wool industry you’d prefer to support*.

As for the ongoing rivalry between Australia and New Zealand, it would seem the rugby produces a much clearer result.

*Neither product is manufactured in the brand’s country, however each advertises the use of either 100 per cent Australian or New Zealand merino wool.

Want to get our full suite of reviews of base layer leggings as well as adventurer profiles and intrepid features in the latest issue of Wild? Visit our subscriber page to sign up for issue 149.