Say no to damp cotton tee shirts and yes to, well, what? We help you stay dry and comfortable on the hill.
Baffled by baselayers? Our latest Buyers' Guide will help you
understand what baselayers do, the differences between the most
common baselayer fabrics on the market, the pros and cons of
different cuts and which type will suit you best.
When Berghaus surveyed walkers in the Lakes a few years back they
found a good number were still wearing cotton tee-shirts under their
expensive fleece and high tec breathable waterproofs.
is a BAD THING. Cotton - think denim - soaks up water and holds it
close to the skin, chilling your body and preventing sweat from
evaporating through your layers.
Proper technical baselayer garments are designed to move moisture
away from the skin and into your outer layers so it can be dissipated
into the atmosphere. You'll stay drier, warmer and more comfortable
and won't chill rapidly as soon as you stop. Dry clothing insulates
better because water transmits heat more efficiently, so ideally you
want to stay as dry as you can.
Your baselayer is there primarily to move moisture away from your
skin, not to provide insulation - that's what your mid-layer is
Top tip We've found, all other things being equal, thinner
baselayer fabrics move water across themselves and dry faster than
So what are we looking for in a baselayer?
- Wicking - the ability to move moisture out from the
skin and spread it across the surface of the fabric so it can
escape more quickly.
- Comfort - no one wants a hair shirt against their soft
skin, so a soft, comfortable fabric is preferable.
- Anti-Stink - the best baselayers will resist odour for a
day or more, the worst will pong unpleasantly after just a few
- Protection - although baselayers are often worn under
other clothing, they can also become the outer layer, particularly
in warm conditions, so sun protection may be a factor.
Top tip if you want to use a baselayer on a multi-day trip,
anti-pong properties make life a lot more pleasant.
FIT AND CUT
We've already touched on fit, but here's some more. Ideally your
fit closely enough to allow sweat to be soaked up easily. That means
a snug fit will work best for most people, in really hot conditions
though, it may be more comfortable to opt for a slightly looser
Our favourite configuration is a long-sleeved top with a
collar and a deep zip-neck. The sleeves can be rolled up for venting
or rolled down for warmth or sun protection. A long zip can be opened
for increased venting and a decent collar will help to protect the
back of your neck from sunlight and chafing from other layers.
In all designs, check for flat-locked seams on the
shoulders. They're flat and are far less likely to lead to discomfort
under pack straps.
Check too for scratchy labels. Heat transfers that are
simply printed onto the fabric side-step the issue neatly or cut them
Top tip Long-sleeved zip-neck tops offer more versatility
and are a good all-round choice. Look for flat-locked seams for
comfort under pack straps.
There's now a wide range of fabrics out there, most have pros and
cons, here's what to be aware of...
most commonly used synthetic fibre is polyester. It usually wicks
thanks to the structure of the yarn which has a different weave
inside to outside helping to first move moisture then spread it out.
It wicks very well and dries fast too.
Polyester doesn't have natural anti-pong properties, so it needs
ether an anti-microbial treatment, which will eventually wear out, or
silver impregnation like Xstatic, which is permanent and effective
As used by Lowe Alpine, Berghaus and countless others.
Excellent wicking, quick drying and can have good anti-pong
Petrochemical derivative, can smell if treatment not
synthetic fabric which works differently from polyester.
Polypro' is hydrophobic meaning that it doesn't absorb moisture, so
dries fast and moves moisture away from your skin, or at least
doesn't hold it next to it.
It's best known as Helly Hansen's Lifa and used to have a real
pong problem though that's now been largely solved, it can still get
whiffy after a day on the hill. Also used by The North Face. In hot
conditions can feel a bit plasticky.
Repels water and dries wickedly fast.
Still needs washing after a day and arguable not as
comfortable as polyester in the heat.
is a feel good fabric in several ways. It's natural and renewable -
comes from merino sheep - and ultra-fine fibres sidestep the itching
issue you get with coarser wool making it comfortable next to the
skin. It also has the handy property of feeling cool in warm
conditions and warm in cold ones. Nice.
Merino works differently from synthetics. Rather than wicking
moisture it can absorb lots of it while still remaining comfortable
by holding it away from your skin and stil feels comfortable even
when quite damp. That's great if you're a moderate to medium sweater,
but if you run hot, you may be better off with a fast-wicking
polyester top to move moisture away. Merino also takes longer to dry
As a bonus, merino doesn't pong and can be used for multi-day
trips. It does develop a distinctive damp wool aroma when wet, but
it's not unpleasant and not a problem.
There's more and more merino around, brands using it include
Icebreaker, Smartwool, Rab, Embers and others. It is quite expensive
Comfortable, good moisture management, anti-stink
Quite expensive, manages moisture rather than wicking
few companies use a mix of merino wool and synthetics. The idea is
that the merino sits close to the skin for comfort and anti-odour
while an outer layer of, say, polyester, moves the moisture away and
outwards. The best of both worlds in theory.
We've found they can work very well - the Sportwool used by Macpac
and Montane for example, and Odlo's similar arrangement - do seem to
combine some of the properties of merino and synthetics, however the
mix is crucial. One Helly version we tried combining polypro and
merino actually seemed to offer the worst of both worlds, so choose
Synthetic and merino pluses in a single package.
Hard to find, plus using the wrong combination can give
IT'S YOUR CHOICE...
There's no absolute best choice, just what works best for you. In
our experience, all the synthetics - polyester, polypro and
Coolmax - work far better than a cotton tee shirt, though in general,
the thinner the fabric the faster it will wick.
There are performance differences between different brands and
types - we like Lowe Alpine's Dry Flo, Berghaus's Xstatic tops and
GoLite C-Thru best - but any of them will be far better than a sodden
We'd opt for a synthetic if you sweat lots and run hot or if
you're on a tight budget.
The main alternative is merino wool we like the fabric a
lot. It has natural anti-stink properties and remains comfortable
even when damp or in hot or cold conditions. It's expensive though
and strictly speaking, it doesn't wick though it will stay
comfortable even when quite damp. It's also less hardwearing than
some synthetics, we think.
Merino is great for cool to medium metabolisms and ideal for
multi-day treks. It's also natural, though it's expensive with
Hybrids offer a bit of both and we like them as a good
Top tip Whatever fabric you choose, thinner ones will tend
to be cooler and move moisture faster in the case of synthetics.
HELP AND ADVICE
This article should have given you some basic
pointers. The good news is that there's a load more advice on
Ask on the gear
forum about general issues or specific
Check the member
reviews section for user experiences of
See OM editorial reviews on the front of the site
for our impressions.
Richard Gear if you have a specific
question you need answering.
Discuss this story
Good points well made.
On the subject of hybrid merino/synthetic, I've got a couple and the contrast is stark indeed.
The Helly Hansen wool affairs have the merino on the outside, for no apparent reason. I like it on the bike as a single layer on cool days, but it stays damp and when layered and is really hot. Annoying as well the cut of the zip neck is superb.
I got a Macpac Intertwool Active Warmth L/S Zip a while back and it has the wool on the inside. It's a bit like a lighter powerstretch, soft and furry inside and smooth on the outside (I'm still not sure I should have got the brown though...).
Anyway, it's a marvellous bit of kit as a heavy base or light mid layer.
Does all the good merino stuff and dries a lot quicker.
Posted: 14/03/2007 at 13:05