Outdoor Baselayer Clothing
As the temperature drops it’s time to have a look at the clothing we wear next to our skin as we try to stay warm and comfortable.
Often referred to with the generic term “Thermals” sports and outdoor baselayer has to do a lot more than add heat, although this is definitely one aspect of their performance. The items of clothing next to your skin are functionally very important. Outside of the world of lingerie they have to do a lot more than just look good. The right baselayer should help to: regulate temperature, keep the skin dry, reduce chafing and move perspiration away from the body.
In the ideal world the perfect base layer would enhance comfort in all conditions, be unobtrusive and cost nothing. Sadly this is not quite the state of the art at the moment but this short article will run through of the best and most common options available now. All fabrics have areas where they are strong and equally where they are less impressive than a competitor, nothing is ever perfect but hopefully this will help find the best type for you.
This was one of the first fibres used in synthetic baselayer clothing and is still pretty popular for many activities. The two best known brands in the UK and Irish market are probably Capilene by Patagonia and Lifa by Helly Hansen.
Polypropylene absorbs virtually no water and so dries really quickly. Lightweight polypro is great for warm weather and any activity where you expect to raise a bit of a sweat. It helps maintain warmth by trying to keep a dry layer at skin level and forcing perspiration to move outwards to the next layer. When woven it can feel quite hard to the touch, but this is not a problem with the thicker, knitted garments designed more for skiing or other cold weather activities.
Branded garments can be quite expensive and there may be value in a high end top in areas such as fit and flat seams but polypropylene is a cheap fibre to buy and so there are many non-Gucci options on the market which will perform as well as required for all but high end users. On a personal level I find it a bit chillier than I like in cold conditions and if you have circulation issues I would recommend wool over synthetic.
“Wicking” tops, “Technical Tees” and all manner of moisture managing garments are everywhere on the shelves of sports and outdoor retailers and they are almost all manufactured from polyester. Mixed with lycra for a spray-on fit, logoed up as a “free” race tee or mixed with other fibres and features to maximise performance this stuff is hard to overlook.
The better the fibre, the better the shirt and therefore the dearer it will be. The tech tee handed out as a reward for finishing a marathon will usually cost the race organiser peanuts and be fairly basic. A Columbia Omni Freeze top will be softer on the skin, move moisture better and cool you down as you sweat. Pay more, get more.
Polyester will absorb more moisture than polypropylene but it deals very well with perspiration and is good for keeping you cooler (not necessarily cool) on a warm day or if you are one of life’s hot people. Again as Stated above I would tend to use these mainly in warmer weather or high energy activities as I am definitely not one of life’s hot people.
As well as Columbia; Craghoppers, Helly Hansen, Craft, Eider, Under Armour Mtn. Equipment and a thousand others all produce good branded garments. On top of that there are loads of own brand versions available from retailers everywhere. The better gear tends to have smoother, flatlock seams and a nicer fit and more comfortable collars. If you want to save money try the generic stuff. The basic wicking performance will still be there, you just have to accept that you won’t get the quality or the nice finishing touches.
Note that I have headlined this as Merino wool specifically. Other wool varieties have been used in baselayer but I have never used anything that works quite as comfortably as Merino and the growth in availability means that the range of garments available has increased hugely in just the last few years.
The wool used in Merino garments is extremely fine; usually below twenty microns thick for better garments. This means that the fibres are very soft to the touch and have virtually no scratch. Sometimes a new garment needs an initial wash to get the best feel but his means that for most people bar the extremely sensitive it produces a non-itch fibre that works very well in a host of outdoor activities. Wool works well for cold people. If you can raise a sweat while standing at the bus stop in zero degree weather then you would probably be better giving it a miss in favour of one of the synthetic alternatives. For the rest of us shivery folks it is very hard to beat. Wool is warm, even when damp and moves moisture from perspiration without needing a kickstart from body heat. In the event of an increase in activity it can store excess moisture in the fibres until the level of effort drops and it can release the stored moisture and dry out again.
One of the huge plus points for backpackers and travellers is the ability of woollen garments to deal with bacteria and prevent smells building up quickly on your clothing. On one long trip on the Vatnajokull icecap in Iceland some years ago I used the same merino baselayer set for almost the entire seven weeks of camping, skiing and walking on the snow. Not to say that I smelled of roses by the time we got back to civilisation but certainly much less offensive to the nose than my companions and way nicer than I had been on a similar trip the previous year. Many synthetic garments now come impregnated with silver ions or some other treatment to combat smells but I have always found these pretty ineffective and short lived.
Merino wool is expensive. There are no cheap, low budget options available that are currently worth buying. Some cheap wool mix garments are available but the quantity of quality merino included is pretty minimal. Often the cheap garments are a small quantity of merino wool of fine grade, some cheaper wool and lots of acrylic or polyester. The label and tags may scream MERINO but the reality will be hidden in the small print.
Merino comes in Fine grade, Super Fine grade and Extra Fine grades. The finer the fabric, the softer the fibre, the higher the price. Extra fine is ridiculously expensive and tends to be used in tailoring for high end suits and bespoke clothing. The two lower grades are more robust and durable and are what we tend to see in outdoor clothing.
The last word in this article is about the bit that we might easily overlook but which can be of absolutely critical importance. There is no point in getting all togged up in high end baselayer clothes which sit on top of your low performance everyday underwear. Finding that the merino is working well is little consolation if your cotton boxers are being sucked up between your cheeks, your bra is saturated and the underwiring has been scraping across your chest for the last six miles.
To see this at first hand stand near the finish of any big city marathon race and watch those suffering from “Jogger’s nipple” cross the line. Not fun.
The world is full of good sports bras and all of them work to a greater or lesser degree for any given human female. The only way to choose is to try them and see what works for you. All the fibres mentioned above are used and personal preference is the only guide.
For men and women alike there are lots of briefs to choose from and again, all are available in a range of fibres, all of which are better than your basic tighty whities.
A special word goes here for SAXX underwear. These are a nine panel design with a built in pouch to make sure that all your dangly bits are properly supported and don’t dangle too much. Available in merino, polyester and a semi compression style. I have used them for the last three years and they have been excellent in a range of activities and come highly recommended. No womens version is available for obvious reasons.
As always if you have any queries then get in touch by email ( firstname.lastname@example.org ) or call the shop in Blessington on 045865351. If you have any feedback or would like to see a particular area covered then send me your suggestions.