Smartwool PhD Run Winter Apparel Review

Be it that we’re now in the ides of January, I thought it fitting to review apparel appropriate for the oncoming polar vortex in your neck of the woods. There is plenty of winter-running gear out there that works well in the dry and moderate mountain West, the drizzly Northwest, and most of the eastern United States. But, I decided to review some gear that manages well in those truly cruel places to reside in winter. I’m talking about Montana, Idaho, Minnesota, the Dakotas, Iowa, Wisconsin, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine. These are the climates where you spend the first 20 minutes of your run warming up your extremities and gauging for wind direction to avoid hypothermia on the sweaty return trip. The places where you have a decent chance of running with Vaseline smeared all over your face to help buffer the wind. You can always scoff at the below-zero temperatures, but it’s the wind chill that causes bad winter-running gear to feel permeable and useless.

For those of you hearty souls who would rather risk a creeping hypothermic death than set foot on a treadmill, I offer you my pick for best really cold weather running apparel.

Smartwool PhD Run Tech Tight ($120)

Smartwool PhD Run Tech Tight

The Smartwool PhD Run Tech Tight.

Most runners will hear Smartwool and think of a tight made entirely of Merino wool. While this is partly true, Smartwool engineered this tight with the Merino fiber next to the skin to allow for excellent moisture management and a toasty-warm feeling, and stretch nylon on the outside of the tight to shed snow and other moisture.

In fact, this tight contains only 24% Merino wool, so what makes it any different than your run-of-the-mill $60 tights? Well, you know that feeling when you’re out in sub-zero temps and you feel the wind blowing right through your nylon tights, chilling you to the absolute bone? These don’t do that. The PhD Run Tech Tight maintains a dry and toasty-warm feeling even while plowing through shin-deep snow and getting wet running on slushy roads and trails.

In fact, on runs above 25 degrees Fahrenheit, I felt like I was going to overheat several times because the tights have a warm feeling when you put them on from the Merino fiber against the skin. But, miraculously the Merino transfers moisture away from the skin and moderates your temperature.

The fit is really what justifies the price for these running tights, and while I realize that fit is completely subjective, these tights maintained their feel and form over the course of three weeks of daily wear without a single wash. They didn’t even smell! They held their form and fit during every run and never felt stretched out the next day. But, it is important to point out that these tights aren’t too tight, and they fit a bit more relaxed than traditional tights. I also appreciate that the finish of these tights is not too revealing, offering more of a matte-black finish rather than nylon’s sheen. The PhD Run Tech Tight features simple zippers that zip up the outside of the ankle to avoid irritating the Achilles, and a drawstring waistband.

Smartwool PhD Run Divide Jacket ($200)

Smartwool PhD Run Tech Tight and PhD Run Divide Jacket

The Smartwool PhD Run Divide Jacket and PhD Run Tech Tight.

I received a sample size of this jacket back in November, which was one size larger than my preferred size. So, initially I wrote the jacket off as having a bit of a baggier feel and being a lot heavier jacket than what I’m used to wearing. Once the temps dipped into the single digits, I started taking the jacket out for early morning runs in the dark, and the warmth added by the soft Merino wool along the collar, arms, and back made it a bit easier to get out in the elements.

I would characterize most of my running jackets to be a bit more similar to shells with varying degrees of protection, and sometimes the hard edges of these sleeves and collars make those first couple miles a bit chilly. The Merino backside and soft underarms vent very well and the windproof front and arm panels keep wind chill at bay. The jacket also features a zippered chest pocket which will fit a smart phone and it has an internal hole to feed ear buds through.

There are two drawbacks to the jacket that I’ve found. First of all, the Merino cuffs tend to have a stretched-out feeling which doesn’t create a great wind seal around the wrist or gloves. While this allows room for giant GPS watches, it doesn’t feel very form fitting. Secondly, the jacket only offers the one chest pocket which, as I mentioned, fits a smartphone, but bouncing makes it feel very awkward.

Overall Impressions

I left all of my cold-weather toughness growing up in north Iowa and later running through the frigid Minnesota winters as an adult. Contracting hypothermia twice during my teenage years due to starting my winter runs with the wind in sub-zero temperatures has lead me to a new appreciation of well-engineered winter clothing. I often show up to winter runs way overdressed compared to my compatriots, and I’ll gladly take whatever grief they give. In my reasoning, if I am cold during a run, then my body is burning more calories and energy keeping me warm rather than maintaining efficient forward progress.

I continue to reach for the PhD Run Divide Jacket when the temp falls below 20 degrees due to the fact that I don’t have to layer nearly as much as I normally would beneath a shell. The PhD Run Tech Tight is simply, hands down, the best running tight I’ve ever worn. Previously, this title was held by the Salomon Trail Tight, which I’ve worn for three seasons almost every winter morning.

A nice bonus is that you can find both of these items on reduced prices since they’ve been on the market for awhile.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Have you run in the Smartwool PhD Run Tech Tight or PhD Run Divide Jacket? If so, what were your thoughts on each of them? What did you really like about this apparel, and where could you see room for improvement?
  • Have you run in any of Smartwool’s other running apparel? What are your thoughts on the integration of Merino wool into running clothes?
Tom Caughlan

is iRunFar’s Minimalist Gear Editor. Tom’s passion for trail running and specialty running retail experience shine through in all of his highly technical reviews, which do range outside minimalist shoes.

There are 10 comments

  1. @urbanwilderness

    I want to challenge the prevailing notion that wool provides good moisture management. Wool certainly absorbs water (sweat), but so does cotton! Synthetics are a better option for managing moisture because they also transport sweat away from the body but dry MUCH quicker. This makes synthetics lighter and more comfortable in warm temps, and crucial in the cold when wet clothes can be a significant liability if you need to stop or slow down. Of course, wool retains its ability to keep you warm when wet, so that is not to be overlooked, but I prefer to stay dry in the first place!

    I always reach for the polypro for winter running and nordic skiing; my wool baselayers are great for less sustained aerobic efforts.

    Perhaps the author's experience with these pieces is a result of the synthetic/wool blend. The synthetic fibers expedite drying while retaining the antimicrobial and insulating properties of the wool.

    1. TomCaughlan

      Agreed – I'm not a full wool convert. Over the years I've collected a lot of Icebreaker tops which worked especially on wet/ cold runs, but I usually wore a poly t-shirt underneath and the wool top would be soaked and stretched out later.
      But these tights are something else. They are not full merino, but have a blend of poly and elastane if I remember correctly. The blend makes them maintain their shape and they had the moisture wicking properties of my poly tights. They never got stretched out, and when I overdressed they never felt sweat logged or heavy. You definitely pay for the them though!
      It seems that most of the companies are moving towards these types of blends which seems to maximize the strengths of each fiber.

  2. andymxyz

    Dude! Why didn't you do laundry? I don't care if they smell or not, wearing them every day for three straight weeks is just nasty!

    1. TomCaughlan

      I've gotta keep things interesting on here! Testing to the max! Fortunately nobody else smells me at 5am on the trails.
      It is pretty nasty though.

  3. Tom Stockton

    This winter I've taken some old wool sweaters, shrunk them down a bit and lanolinized them. The lanolin makes them soft and depending on how much lanolin you add increases wind and water resistant. I'm finding a next to skin lanolinize sweater great for winter/snowy running/turn earning. They don't seem to retain odors so don't need washing (which removes the lanolin). I'm a wool convert!

    1. TomCaughlan

      kjz,
      The coldest I tested them in was 5 degrees F. That's about as bad as it gets here. My concern, if I were to wear them in the upper Midwest, would be the lack of windblock as they tend to breathe a bit.

  4. @AmieeMaxwell

    How warm were the tights good for? I have some Icebreaker Rush tights which I LOVE, but I seriously roast in them if it is above 30. They are all I wear for ski touring and I go a whole week without washing them and no stink :)

  5. Denzil Jennings Photography

    I have the run divide jacket, and I feel like it's too warm for anything above ambient temps in the teens. When the temps were cold enough to where I didnt overheat, the jacket performed very well.

Post Your Thoughts