The basics of base layers
On a Ryder-Walker hiking tour, you’ll spend the majority of your waking hours outside, whether you’re exploring picturesque villages in the Austrian Alps, passing ancient monasteries in the lofty mountains of Ladakh, or over high passes in the Colorado Rockies.
All this time in the outdoors means breathtaking views, the serenity of nature and healthy active days on the trail. It also means that it’s time to learn the art of layering.
Layering is the best way to ensure your thermostat is set at a comfortable level, no matter the weather conditions or exertion level. It’s an ancient art, and it goes something like this: pack a variety of layers that you can layer on top of each other or slip off depending on the temperature, conditions or how hard you are working. Done right, it’ll keep you dry and comfortable, all while keeping your pack light.
When we talk layering, we’re referring to everything from underwear to jackets, and there are dozens of options for each. But in this post, we’ll focus on the basics with an exploration of base layers.
What is a base layer?
Base layers are the items of clothing that are closest to your skin — such as long-underwear bottoms, T-shirts and lightweight long-sleeve tops. They are hugely important, as they can make or break a day on the trail. That’s because they represent the layer that wicks moisture from your skin — essentially transferring sweat, rain or other forms of water from your body into the ether.
The wicking capability of your layers is crucial; it’s the factor that will most determine how cool you stay on a hot day, how dry you stay after a storm passes or how comfortable you are through hours spent on the trail.
Other qualities you’ll want to consider in a good base layer are breathability, durability, odor resistance, sun protection and softness. You want base layers that will withstand the elements, be rugged enough to handle a walk through some brambles and that won’t smell terrible after several uses.
Materials & Weight
In recent years, manufacturers have come up with smart technologies to ensure that base layers perform better than ever, resulting in many good options. But still, not all fabrics are created equal. So let’s run through some materials commonly found in base layers with these considerations in mind.
This natural fiber, made primarily of lamb’s fleece but also that of goats or camels, was the original performance material. Humans have long been cloaking themselves in wool as a fast-drying and warm material, and it shed its reputation for thick itchiness years ago when new technologies came along for making it softer, thinner and more stretchy. The inherent qualities of wool still make it one of the reigning materials for insulation, wicking, odor management and performance. Merino wool in particular, which is named after the sheep from which it derives, makes an excellent light-weight base layer. Its one drawback is that it can be prone to holes through wear and tear.
Polyester is one of the most common materials for long underwear. That’s due to its exceptional wicking capabilities, super-fast wicking and sturdiness in the elements. Other synthetics include nylon, rayon or blends — all good options as well. Some synthetics come with odor protecting finish, but with multiple use synthetics can get a little stinky.
While lightweight and very comfortable, silk — another natural protein fiber — isn’t known for its ruggedness in the elements. It often requires special care when laundering, and in its pure form, only comes with moderate wicking abilities and it not naturally odor resistant. Treated silk performs better, but in general, other materials are preferable for long treks.
Capilene is Patagonia’s proprietary synthetic material. It is soft, comfortable and performs great as a next-to-skin layer, offering great breathability and fast drying.
Cotton is a classic and popular material for T-shirts, but when it comes to wicking, it earns an F. That’s because cotton absorbs moisture and holds on to it. This means sticky sports bras, rain sodden shirts and significant loss of heat when you are trying to stay warm. Not recommended for base layers.
Weighing Your Options
When it comes to choosing the weight of your base layers, think about your level and preferred types of activity, the climate where you do these activities and your personal body engine. Are you one of those people who runs hot? Or are you always the one complaining about being cold? These factors can help you decide to choose a light-weight or heavier layer.
A note on fit:
Base layers are meant to go under other clothing, so find layers that are snug. This will help when you need to layer other garments over them to stay warm.
Base and mid layers: a sample packing list
Here is a sample packing list of base and mid-layers you can use as a reference when planning your trek.
- Wicking underwear.This includes sports bras, boxers and briefs. Polyester is a good option, but any wicking material works — it’s a personal preference. Again, no cotton.
- Trail T-Shirt. Try a synthetic fabric or merino wool for comfort even on hot days.
- Long underwear bottoms. Capilene or merino wool are great for this layer, which comes in handy on under your pants on cool days.
- Long-sleeve long underwear top. Again, synthetic or wool are recommended for this versatile layer.
- Nylon convertible pants. These become shorts or long pants, depending on the weather.
- Nylon or sun-protecting hiking shirt. This can either be a nylon long-sleeve button-up, or a long sleeve made with sun-protecting fabric (ultraviolet protection.) Look for fabrics with a UPF of 50 for high-elevation hiking.
A final question
Should you wear underwear with long underwear? Again, this one is a personal preference. Some like the added support, others dislike the bulkiness. Whatever is most comfortable for you.
This post covered base layers. For more in-depth examination of your trekking equipment, check out the rest of our series on choosing the right gear, which features posts about finding the right footwear and trekking essentials. Feel free to shoot us an email if you have any questions.