Norrona Equaliser Review
Cons: Bulky seams, not as stink-resistant as other merino blends
Our Analysis and Test Results
Norrona may not be as well known in the US outdoor-gear market as other brands featured in our testing. Still, this highly-regarded Norwegian brand has been developing technical clothing for 90 years — in fact, they were the first company to use Gore-Tex in Europe, back in 1977. The designs employed for Norway's harsh, rugged, and often cold environments are condensed into the Equaliser top. A highly versatile layer, ready to be included in your winter layering kit or worn standalone as a running top in the fall, the Equaliser is lightweight, durable, and impressively breathable.
It is definitely cut in a European-style, with a tighter, athletic fit than other layers in this test. This fit allows the layer to trap heat when you need it most, with the Merino-poly blend also doing a great job of wicking away sweat, resulting in a top with impressive thermoregulation in a wide range of temperatures — we were just as comfortable wearing it on chilly alpine mornings underneath a puffy as we were biking in the blazing, mid-day sun of the desert southwest. It is this balance of warmth and breathability, combined with uncommon durability, that took particular notice, and we found this top quickly becoming our go-to jersey for fall mountain bike rides.
The Equaliser is certainly on the lighter end of the spectrum. With a material weight of 135 g/m², it is thinner than the majority of other layers included in this review. Considering this fact, it did an average job in terms of providing warmth when layered over — we wouldn't wear it by itself on cold, mid-winter adventures, but it's not designed to be a thick, cold weather base layer. Out on chilly mornings running or riding, we found that we only needed a lightweight jacket to supplement this layer, particularly when it involved higher-output activities that generate a fair amount of body heat.
Merino wool, in particular, has a high amount of loft when compared to other wools — that's why so many manufacturers opt for the wool from Merino sheep — and even at a 47% wool / 53% polyester blend, we see the body-heat-trapping benefits of this impressive, natural fiber. On a chilly night sleeping out on the windy eastern plains of New Mexico, we found this layer too warm for our sleeping bag. While we must note that our head tester sleeps warm, even when we pulled our arms out of the bag, we were able to sleep through the rest of the night comfortably.
The Equaliser crew proved itself, almost surprisingly, to be the best-rated top in terms of breathability — off the bat, this layer felt heavier than the lightweight, full-polyester layers we tested. But in a similar way that this top strikes a nice balance in terms of warmth-to-weight, the merino and polyester blend does an awesome job of managing heat and moisture. The close-fitting wool sucks up any sweat and passes the moisture over to the synthetic fibers, which quickly dries out, keeping you fresh while working hard.
In the shoulder seasons of the desert southwest, we often experience nearly 40-degree temperature swings over a single day, making it really tough to plan accordingly for all-day outings. On a ride that started on a cold, alpine morning, but ended up back in the near-70-degree heat of the day, the Equaliser proved its powers of thermoregulation. Even as we traversed a long cross-country section in full sun, there was never a point where the shirt felt too hot. Just to put a final stamp on this point, the normal sweat-ring that accompanies a backpack on a hot day was nowhere to be found at the end of our ride!
Comfort and Fit
As is the case with many European outdoor-clothing companies, the style of the Equaliser is tailored for the tall and slender. Definitely on the tighter-fitting side, the cut is nearly perfect as an athletic shirt through the torso and upper arms, but is a little constricting around the shoulders. The Merino/poly-blend affords a fair amount of stretch, and the hem sits just below the waistline, two features particularly coveted by climbers — easily worn under a harness, and the shirt doesn't ride up when you're reaching for that last bolt or an overhead gear placement.
This comfort-in-action is enhanced by thoughtful seam placement, that create articulation zones not seen on other, similarly designed base layer tops. For example, the upper arms, shoulders, and upper-back are completely separated from the torso, which helps with freedom of movement despite the shoulders feeling a little tight. Flatlock seams also help enhance the stretch of the material, although they're thick and can be a little itchy in places.
On that same note, the Equaliser is not nearly as soft next-to-skin as other 100% merino tops — or even similarly weighted full-polyester options — making it difficult to want to reach for it as the base of your layering system. We weren't nearly as comfortable just hanging around in it as we were in many other options we tested. The fact that the fabric is a blend also contributed to an unexpected stink factor, one that was surprisingly more potent than full-Merino competitors.
During high output activity, we never seemed to sweat in the Equaliser (of course, this doesn't mean that we head out in midsummer, sunny days in this top). This isn't possible, so it must have evaporated as quickly as it accumulated — a feat almost as magical as stopping us from sweating. Whether running or riding, we were comfortable and dry with this on our backs, a feeling we're sure would carry over to more-layered, mid-winter activities, thanks to this top's impressive breathability.
These findings were backed up by our lab testing, where the Equaliser dried out faster than any other layer — wool or synthetic — in an impressive 25 minutes, in direct sunlight. Norrona doesn't recommend putting this top in the dryer, and with its already-almost-too-tight fit, we're keen on taking their advice. To help prevent this urge, the designers included a small loop on the hem of the shirt to help properly dry this layer out, anywhere that you have access to a coat hook or tree branch.
This layer is impressively durable, thanks to the support of the polyester woven into the fabric. The Equaliser feels much more heavy-duty than its weight suggests. The close-knit stitching pattern and tight fit — particularly in the arms — means that you don't need to roll up your sleeves when cramming yourself into that chimney or worry about catching a branch while flying down the trail.
The burly, flatlock seams only contribute to the durability that must have been designed for the harsh realities of the Norwegian backcountry. The material of this shirt held up to our abrasion test without dropping a seam or blinking an eye. Although our testing-period limits our assessment of durability, we cannot imagine that this layer will deteriorate much over time — just as long as you keep it out of the drier.
The tight-fitting, Euro-styled athletic cut makes it incredibly easy to layer over the Equaliser crew — just don't expect to fit much underneath. The close-to-skin fit makes it possible to layer even a looser-fitting, second base layer overtop without any constrictions, which gives you the ability to double-up for those bitterly cold, ice-climbing days. The fabric is notably smooth, and avoids getting caught up on the notoriously grabby fleece of the crowd-favorite R1. While this shirt isn't one just to hang out in, we did find that as soon as we got moving and sweating, the itch-factor almost seemed to disappear.
The highlight in terms of layering are the internal, flatlock seams that fasten the cuffs of the Equaliser at the wrists, preventing almost any movement at all. While this does make it tough to pull up the sleeves very far, it also ensures that you won't lose your sleeve to the inside of your mid-layer while in transition — the constant annoyance with layering many, many other base layers. While we wouldn't suggest this as a casual option, as an athletic layer, the Equaliser gets the job done — as a single layer, or as the base of your kit.
The Equaliser crew is smack in the middle of the price-spectrum for base layer tops — not as expensive as thicker, full-Merino options, but not quite as wallet-friendly as full-synthetic lightweight options, either. As with many products included in this review, your purchase decision begins with the question: what purpose am I buying this layer for? If you're looking for midwinter warmth for mild activity, we suggest looking at some other, heavier options in this review. But if the answer is for a highly versatile top that's tough-as-nails and comes in equally handy for fast and light ski tours, we don't think you could find a better value base layer than this one.
The Norrona Equaliser impressed us immediately upon its debut in this category, bringing with it lightweight durability that is nearly unrivaled by other competitors. Just warm enough to wear as a standalone top for cool-weather running, and breathable enough to wear for long alpine days in the summer, this top earns a Top Pick Award for Lightweight/Aerobic activity. Have confidence dragging this thing up desert crack climbs, on all-day cross-country rides, and on long-uphill slogs when ski touring — knowing that you will be dry and comfortable no matter what level of intensity your activity of choice pushes.
— Aaron Rice