My thoughts on base layers for active adventure

I hesitated to write the footwear article I published last week, for reasons I’ve written about on several occasions, namely that I don’t want to feed the gear obsession that for many perniciously supplants actual experience.  Yet the response I got to that article, for quarters expected and not, has been positive and profuse.  So I going to do more in that idiom in the future, with an emphasis on broader overviews of important equipment issues that can be both important and complex.  I’ve been studying gear catalogues too closely since I was in third grade, and while the volume and type of my outdoor experience is not exceptional, I hope I can put forth some words in ways that folks will find illuminating.  Ergo this article. 

Base layers are, with the exception of foorwear, the most important piece of gear you’ll use outside.  Unlike footwear, the same base layers can be used year round across disciplines.  It’s a worthwhile endeavor to match your physiology and approach to outdoor adventures with your base layer choice.

Base layers exist to be a buffer between your skin and the environment.  They move sweat away from your skin (wicking) so that it can evaporate, keep the sun brush, and rough rock off you, and provide a modicum of warmth in the dry, the wet, and the states between.  An ineffective garmet will leave you damp and cold, and in the case of underwear or the interface between skin, fabric, and pack straps, allow chaffing to occur.  Good clothing and gear elsewhere can be rendered largely ineffective by a bad baselayer.

The normal debate here begins with material, namely ultrafine merino wool versus the various polyester weaves.  But first, it’s worth mentioning cotton.

Cotton is known as the death cloth in outdoor circles for its ability to retain lots of moisture and dry very slowly.  Under most conditions, this makes it totally inappropiate for any item of gear, save perhaps a bandana.  However, in serious heat, cotton can be put to good use.

And not just in Vegas.  The rather natty shirt pictured above was a Patagonia outlet purchase, and is made of a very tight, fine weave of 65% poly and 35% cotton.  It is a fantastic hot as hell base layer.  It keep the sun off (flip the collar up to protect the back of the neck, and wicks and dries just fast enough to cool without chilling.  I’ve worn it mountain biking and hiking in 90+ heat the last two summers and become a big fan.  Of course, in any conditions other than serious heat and full sun, it would become dead weight in the pack.

Most folks will wear a poly or merino base layer.  At present the stereotypes governing the two fabrics are well established and a matter of empirical and subjective consensus.  I’ll review them briefly.

Merino wool:
-Highly resistant to stink
-Softer
-Comfier/warmer when wet and damp
-Fragile
-Dries slower
-Absorbs slightly more water (the above BPL article puts it at ~20% more)

Polyesters:
-Moderately to horrendously stinky
-Lighter
-Tougher
-Dries faster, absorbs less water

I’ve yet to use or hear of a fabric that seriously breaks with any of the above.  My preferences for the last few years have been to use a wool shirt as a base layer in winter conditions, when I’ll be using a midlayer, and synthetic in three season conditions and for more active pursuits like mountain biking.

There is a bit more to the story here, and that is fabric weight.  I sweat more than most under any active circumstances, years of living in Arizona and Utah, I suppose.  I’m also a pretty warm person compared to most.  Thus I value fast wicking and drying highly.  Not only does this prejudice me towards synthetics, it leads me to only select thinner base layers, and fabric thickness plays a large role in water aborption and drying time.

Take Patagonias Capilene 2 (my favorite for the last 15 years) compared to its Wool 2.  Cap 2 fabric weighs 124 grams per square meter, while Wool 2 weighs 165 grams per square meter.  Cap 3, significantly warmer in my experience than Cap 2, is 167 grams per square meter, essentially identical to Wool 2.  One of the reasons Wool dries slower than synthetics, and why I’ve had a hard time embracing it, seems to be that the structural limitations of ultrafine merino make it difficult to make it into fabric light enough to be a truly year round base layer.  BPL has a line of merino clothing made of 115 grams per meter fabric, which seems promising.  I snagged one of the beanies they made, in a single production run, from this fabric last fall, and find it an extremely versitile hat.  Unfortunately this light merino is proportionally more fragile, enough that the product page carries a disclaimer, and that BPL is currently struggling to find a shop willing to work with the finicky fabric.

 This is Kevin Sawchuk heading up to Pentagon Pass almost exactly 365 days ago during the Parcour de Wild wilderness race.  We both wore light wool base layers (Patagonia Wool 2 for me, Ibex Woolies for him) under lighter synthetic midlayers (Patagonia for both, R1/2 hoody for me, R1 hoody for Kevin).  In the cold, wet conditions we found this system worked very well, keeping us warm even though we were damp most of the time.

In summary, pick your fabric weight carefully, and lean towards the lighter ones, especially for active uses.  Pay attention to weave as well; Cap 2 wicks and dries faster than Cap 1, even though the fabric is marginally heavier, due to the weave.  Open knits with a three dimensional structure are best.

Your base layer shirt will get worn a lot, and the lighter fabrics that get summer usage will often be the only thing on your torso.  They’ll get a lot of abuse, be it from pack straps, slot canyon walls, or mountain bike crashes.  It is in this department that merino comes up drastically short, and why I can’t see myself buying more of it.

This is me riding the then brand new Karate Monkey in Granite Basin during December of 2006.  I’m wearing a long sleeve Capilene 2 crew neck under my thrift store jersey.  I bought that crew neck in 2004.  It’s still in service today, and gets worn at least once a week.  I have two Wool 2 shirts that are 12 and 16 months old.  Both have a few small holes in them.

Beyond selecting a base layer fabric that suits your needs, getting one that fits is vital.  Fit in many respects determines function.  A good wicking layer can’t do its job if it flops away from your skin, and can’t be a comfy part of a clothing system if it forms creases and pressure points under a midlayer.  Keep the big picture in mind when making selections.

The most useful base layer is the long sleeve crew neck.  Rolled up sleeves are only mildly warmer than short sleeves, and with so many blood vessels close to the skin on the inside of the forearms, rolling down sleeves adds a surprising amount of warmth.  I’ve never found turtle neck comfortable, or zip necks especially useful, but others have different experiences.

Base layer undies are vital.   Spending 30 bucks on a pair of synthetic undies is not an exciting way to spend money, but will end up being among the best you’ll ever spend on outdoor gear.  Goodbye swamp ass.  I like boxer briefs for the balance of comfort, good wicking, and chaff prevention.

Long bottoms are useful as well.  I have a pair of Cap 2 long johns I hacked to below knee (knicker) length.  They provide complete coverage when paired with knee high socks, avoid bulky overlap under ski boot cuffs, and the additional thigh and knee coverage adds more warmth than you’d think.

Ariel, Isaac, M, me, and Phillip in the Robbers Roost during November of 2005, with a lot of old canyon anchors.  We camped out in the cold for a few weeks, did a ton of canyons, and celebrated T-day with a bitching dutch oven cook out, beer, and shooting cans with my .45.  A few days before this picture was taken Phillip and I descended an obscure fork of Upper Blue John.  M and I did an unknown, possible first descent of it a few days prior.  Phillip and I had intended to upclimb the publicized east fork into which our fork fed, but our attempt to pack toss and tent pole hook past a 25′ drop didn’t work, and we had to wade the 150 yard long, chest deep pool below.  In near freezing weather, with no sun, and no wetsuits.  I wore Cap 2 knickers and soft shell pants and was cold, but survived.  Phillip wore something similar, but the cold seemed to affect him more.  When we exited the long wade he immediately dropped his pants and shuffled back and forth giving his manhood a vigorous two-handed rewarming.  Ya gotta do what ya gotta do.  We climbed a sandy 5th class ramp to escape the slot.  Lesson: know your physiology and buy clothing accordingly.

Last but not least, a good synthetic base layer headband is handy in winter.  It will keep your ears warm, disperse forehead sweat, and let heat vent out the top of your head without soaking a hat.  I made one last winter, with a double layer of Cap 1 and a single layer of Cap 2 in the back.  When the aforementioned thin wool hat would get too wet skinning uphill, but it was too cold to wear no hat at all, this little thing was amazingly useful.

In short, baselayers are important, and a matter of personal need and preference.  While there is no substitute for trial and error, and lot of money and bother can be avoided with a little research and introspection about how and where you’ll be wearing them.  I’m hopeful that a poly/wool blend (like Patagonia’s newest generation of Wool 2) will come into being soon, and will allow the anti-stink, warmth, and coziness of merion to be enjoyed in a ~120 grams per meter fabric that dries fast and is tough enough for real world, four season use.  In the meantime, I’ll keep using the boxes full of baselayers I’ve accumulated over the years, because so many of the quality synthetics just refuse to die.

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9 thoughts on “My thoughts on base layers for active adventure

  1. the lightest icebreaker tee's i have have been bomb proof….I agree with the gear choices here however you do not wanna be 30 yards downwind of me if i've been wearing synthetic for more then 10 hours =)

  2. Icebreaker does seem to be the best in terms of wool durability. I've still beat my one IB shirt up in the last two years (4" tear during a crash when capilene would've barely been scratched).Trade offs.

  3. Of the wools (Ibex, IB and Smartwool): IB has the best fit, but is most scratchy. Smartwool is most soft. Ibex all around good. The very light weight smartwool has a lot of holes that I am always sewing up.I was surprised to see Merino listed as "softer" because it always itches me just a little. I can stand it, but by the end of the day I am more than happy to exchange for something else. Synthetics rule in the softness realm (and in pretty much every other way IMO), but the stink….crazy stinky!! I can't recommend them for the commuter:)

  4. My anecdotal experience is that lycra dries slowly, and for this reason I've always been skeptical of Under Armour et al.I've never experiences merino (be it Ibex, Icebreaker, or Patagonia) to be itchy. I find capilene et al to be quite comfy, but wool (patagonia wool espeially) is fuzzy and actively comfy.

  5. I guess I have sensitive skin.I looked up the ingredients of the under armor stuff and it is 60% nylon, 25% Polyester and 15% elastin (whatever that is).

  6. Wool! All the way. Upper base, mid and outer, lower base when it's really chilly-willy and of course wool socks.My flimsiest woolies; an IceBreaker T-shirt and an Ibex sleeveless have survived countless expeditions and serious abuse. It amazes me that they are as good now as when I got them years ago. And they never stink. And I have had one of each for 5+ years, the same damn ones.Wool. I love wool.I do have some artificial cycling jerseys and wear them in hot weather – they stink, always, but they are light and cool.Ed

  7. Excellent post Dave! Wool for me on backpacking trips. My BPL beartooth hoody, which has yet to be washed in almost a year now with the exception of a few stream crossing rinses, is still kicking strong and is my go to top for backpacking trips. I like the natural hand of the merino, the smell, the stretch, the weight, and the light warmth. By far my most versatile piece. For trail running I'm kind of a dirtbag, using whatever gets the job done. When I do wear a top I run in cotton T's from thrift stores and 50/50 blends for as long as I can, the profusive salt depositing from sweat, gel mishaps, GU brew, and ocotillo thorns snagging me on weekly runs do a number on pricier synthetic tops. Right now however I've been trailrunning in my Capilene 2 top (sometimes longsleeve zip neck, sometimes short sleeve T) in the mornings and early evenings as the chill of the fall air combined with sweat now warrants synthetic over cotton. I'm in a high desert region so cotton dries like mad as you know in the heat most of the year.If I could afford an all merino closet of varying weights I would probably do so, but Capilene is so affordable and durable. I have an R1 hoody and have used it for dead of winter pre-dawn runs, I've found it unmatched for keeping me warm while moving even if completely saturated. Once I stop running though that thing does nothing for me, it's a chill fest. Any thoughts on powerstretch? I've yet to explore those options.

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