Base Layer Options for Today's Outdoor Adventurer

Which Base Layer Options are Right for You?

 By: Matt Wymer

There are many conversations and debates being had around the options that are out there regarding types of base layers for hunting, hiking, adventuring, and any outdoor adventure.  These debates talk about the pros and cons of each type, brand, and style of base layer, but the goal of this article is not to champion one type of base layer over another, but to provide information to help one design a customized, personalized base layer system. 

base layer options change in the mountains versus the low lands

Adventurers need to properly prepare for each activity.  Sitting in a tree stand requires different layers than climbing ridge-lines.  Trail running is a different beast than hiking, and backpacking adds yet another twist. Throw some seasonal differences in the mix and the need changes again, regardless of activity.  When dressing for strenuous activities, it is best practice to utilize a layered clothing system; the colder the weather, the more layers that are needed.  

Base layers have two important jobs; moisture and temperature management. Most base layers (when properly utilized) do a decent job of meeting these desires.  With that said, the base layer is not designed to be the primary source of protection from external factors (wind, rain, and cold). As conditions change, additional layers (and in some cases "shell" layers) should be added to match the conditions and activity.  

It has been my experience that managing moisture is the most crucial role of the base layer. The basic expectation of a base layer is for it to act as tool that allows one to be warm when it is cool, and cool when it is warm. Furthermore, in extreme weather, and remote pursuits, the base layer must dry quickly once saturated, to keep the wearer comfortable.  

To meet this challenge, one must tailor their base layer system to match activity and potential environmental conditions. This is best achieved utilizing a layered system.  The first, skin level, base layer should be a wicking layer that moves perspiration / moisture away from the skin. This is followed by a mid-layer that insulates and absorbs moisture, yet still holds in body heat. In some cases, an additional layer will provide another level of insulation to battle cold. The final outer layer should consist of a waterproof / windproof “shell” layer that protects the wearer from external moisture (aka rain) and/or wind. 

The torso base layer needs to take moisture and perspiration from your body and move it away from the skin to reduce chill during a reduction in activity. A well fit base layer has a snug fit so that its contact with the skin helps move moisture. My personal experience has shown that base layer performance varies between individuals, and thus should be personally tested for performance PRIOR to putting one’s self in a scenario where performance is critical to overall well-being.  

Note: The initial base layer is key to moisture management, and undergarments are a critical component of this system. For example: A $100 high end base layer shirt is not going to work well when paired with a cotton bra; and fancy hiking pants will feel pretty clammy when paired with cotton boxers. A well-developed system takes into consideration ALL layers of clothing. 

Individuals who produce a lot of sweat will typically find that a synthetic base layer is best at managing moisture. This type of moisture demands a base layer with porous weaves designed to dry quickly and rapidly transport perspiration / moisture away from the skin and out to the mid-layer. Heavy sweat can also produce odors during extended use. Technology like Polygiene helps to combat odors by fighting odor causing bacteria

How Polygiene Works

Someone who always seems to battle cold often finds that merino wool base layers will feel warmer against the skin.  Wool does absorb more moisture than its synthetic alternative, but it also dries slower. Another plus for merino is that is does a good job of naturally fighting stink and is often a go-to option for those planning an extended duration adventure. However, those with sensitive skin may find that even fine merino wool is itchy and favor synthetics.   

When analyzing synthetic layers and the various wool layers several "differentiators" arise.  Synthetics are lighter, dry faster, and typically cost less. The individual fibers found in synthetics do not absorb water. This allows synthetics to remain lighter than merino wool, especially when both are fully saturated. Another key point is that synthetics dry much faster. On the other hand, wool products naturally battle odor causing bacteria without the need for extra treatments or coatings.   

Complicating this analysis is the emergence of the mixed, or blended, base layers that seek to combine the best features of both synthetics and merino wool. Testing has resulted in mixed opinions on the performance of these new materials. Not that it did not perform well, but that is loses some of the key things that made one want a synthetic or a merino wool layer in the first place.  With that said, the hybrid creates a versatile tool that can help bridge the gap between how synthetics and merino wool performs, yet it still does not exceed the key performance variances between the two fabrics.  To summarize: synthetics move moisture the best and dry the quickest, merino insulates betters and naturally fights odor. The blends fall in the middle, with true performance being a personal experience. 

base layer options change during different seasons Glassing for Elk on Alaska's Raspberry Island

Despite these "differentiators" individual tests must be made to determine how specific fabrics feel against that individual’s skin. Felt warmth, moisture management, odor, comfort and other factors will vary per person and activity.   

This hunter has found that having only type of base layer does not provide the full spectrum of use demanded by varying levels of activity in varying conditions.  As such most hunters should utilize a mixture of both merino wool and synthetic base layers, switching between them depending on the activity and outside temperature. For some those new blends might be just the ticket. 

In conclusion: Determine what you'll use for your base-layering system by understanding the activity level and conditions you may face while in the field. Simulate the scenario after making an educated layer choice. Utilize the results to build a personalized base layer system.  You may not get it exactly right the first time, but slowly tweak your gear and you'll find what works over time.




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