Base Layers and Activewear

Introduction:
Base layers are one of the most overlooked pieces of clothing. I think some of this has to due with how it's often hidden under another layer and that there really hasn't been any significant leaps in the performance of base layers. Ultimately though, whether you're hiking, climbing, or skiing, almost everyone's first piece of clothing starts with a base layer. I also believe that there is a lot of confusion with the amount of base layer options available to the consumer. The main topics I want to discuss are what exactly is a baselayer, the pros and cons of different baselayer materials, and which baselayers I think deserve praise. For the purpose of this article, a baselayer and activewear are pretty much the same thing as they serve the same purpose. 

First and foremost, what is the purpose of a baselayer? For those who don't know, a baselayer should wick sweat away from the skin, offer UV protection, and depending on the thickness of the baselayer, provide active insulation. What I mean by active insulation is insulation that predominately provides warmth while moving in a dynamic aerobic environment compared to a static non aerobic environment.

Materials:
Baselayers are primarily constructed with either polyester, polypropylene or merino wool. Baselayers constructed out of polyester are the cheapest of three, more durable, but hold onto odor (even if the threads are treated with silver). Polypropylene is lighter than polyester and is the most hydrophobic of the three but is also very susceptible to odor.  Merino wool is generally more expensive, not as durable, but is excellent at managing odor and is easily offered with different fabric weights depending on temperature and application. 
Each fiber has it's own inherit benefits and drawbacks for using as a baselayer, the best baselayers use characteristics of each.

I find that the outdoor industry wants the consumers to believe that the only baselayer one can use for outdoor activities are ones made by outdoor clothing companies. Its easy to find baselayers from major outdoor companies costing a lot of money when reality they aren't anything special.

Budget Short Sleeve (Under $20):

For my top budget picks for short sleeve baselayers are from Everlast and Norditrack. You can find either brand of t-shirts from many big brand department store like Sears or K-mart and costs little more than 10$. They are quick drying, cheap, fit great, decent colors, and are very durable. I used these on almost all my backpacking trips last year. I see little reason to pay three times more for a standard polyester product from any of the big outdoor companies. 

Norditrack NT Dri Athletic T-Shirt


Everlast polyester  shirt with mesh under-arms
 Budget Long Sleeve top (Under $20):

Once again Norditrack makes some spectacular clothing for really cheap. Half-zip polyester long sleeve hoody with a velour inside that makes one question even Arc'teryx for the price. Hard to find during the spring and summer months because it is a seasonal item. For 20$ it can be yours during the winter but can be often had at less than 10$ if you time it right. Sizing is a little funny, small fits great around the waist but short on the arms for someone who is 165lb and 5'10". Medium is a bit large everywhere but for the price one either sizes down or is happy with a relaxed fit. One of my favorite pieces to ski in or take out for a hike.
NordicTrack Men's Half-Zip Jacket

 Budget Long underwear (Under $20)

As you can tell I really like Norditrack's clothing because not only are the cheap, they are durable, and the perform well. These are Midweight long underwear made out of polyester but are only seasonally carried at the department stores so stock up in fall and winter! Sizing is spot on for the mediums. These baselayer bottoms are so good and comfortable for the price that they are my primary long underwear for skiing. End of season pricing can mean that these are found under $10.
NordicTrack Men's Quik-Dri Thermal Base Layer Pants Bottoms
Another top pick are baselayers from Paradox. Not really a advertised brand but they are often found at Costco during the winter season for really cheap. I really like their bottoms but their tops are also good. Paradox's Merino blend comprises 84% Polyester, 11% Merino Wool and 5% Spandex. Which makes them both durable and odor resistant 
Paradox Merino Blend Bottom

Mid-price Long Sleeve top (Under $60):

Great piece by a smaller company called Sherpa. The Tsepun Quarter-Zip Top uses Nylon and polyester blend making it more wind resistant than the other baselayers but still very breathable. Sherpa also uses silver ions in the fabric making is more odor resistant than your standard budget price piece. The silky interior is very comfortable against the skin. The fit is it true for a  medium except in the underarms where it is a tad tight. Availability is an issue with Sherpa brand, but if you can get your hands on any of Sherpa's baselayers you won't be disappointed. 
Tsepun Quarter-Zip Top
High End Long Sleeve top (Over $60):

If I'm going to be ski touring in the spring or summer months where lots of UV is going to be an issue and temperature regulation fluctuates: Exofficio's Sol Cool Ultimate Hoody is my go to piece. Monkey thumbs for complete coverage of arms, scuba hoody to keep the sun off the back of the neck and side of face, and polyester fabric treated with xylitol to lower skin surface temperature. The updated version of the Sol Cool hoody this year includes mesh under the arms and neck for added ventilation, security zip pocket for small necessities like chap stick, and an offset chest zipper. Without a doubt one of the most versatile pieces I own and is fantastic for belaying because the hood covers the entire back of your neck.

SOL COOL™ ULTIMATE HOODY 
From the Back

Last Thoughts:
You will notice that the majority of what I listed are clothing pieces primarily made of out polyester. The majority of the time the climate is pretty mild in the PNW and I don't need any additional insulation that merino wool provides. My favorite mid-winter ski base layer is a 150 weight merino top from Stoic that I found on clearance; just the right amount of additional warmth! That said, I feel merino wool is best woven with polyester or polypropylene for hybrid 50/50 blends that are both durable and odor resistant. 

The clothing above is just a sample of the great baselayers out of the plethora of ones available, but really do check to see what you are buying by looking at the inside tags. Each material has their strengths and weaknesses.  The mark up on most baselayers are ridiculous and it's amazing how good budget baselayers perform these days. Give them an opportunity and see if your name brand baselayers really are worth the price! 

Comments

  1. Great no-nonsense piece on base layers. I share the same opinion, that most expensive "brand" base layers are ridiculously overpriced for what they are. As you say base layers are not rocket science, and if you shop around you can find stuff that works just as well for a fraction of the price. At least for the polyester stuff.
    Merino is always going to be a bit more expensive, but even then you can find bargains.
    Often the wool/polyester blends are cheaper than 100% merino stuff, and I agree that it often gives you the best of both worlds.

    I don't know what H&M stocks in North America, but here in Scandinavia they have started selling both a sports and an outdoor line since a few years back. They seem to get better at it for every year, and while their stuff from a few years ago was pretty mediocre, some of their recent stuff is pretty solid while still being very reasonably priced. Especially the athletic wear is getting pretty good.
    I'm a runner and some of their stuff is at least as good as what Nike and others are making. They also seem to be experimenting more with the aesthetics than the more traditional brands. Which I think is great, as most sports and outdoor clothing tend to look the same.
    Their outdoors line isn't as good as their sports line yet I would say. Some things, like their hard shells I probably wouldn't touch, but simple things like their base layers (and mid-layers) look very good and are very affordable.
    When you add to the fact that they seem to have a lot of items on clearance at all times, you can make some very good deals. I've picked up my share of stuff in the 5$ category.

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  2. Nice find with H&M. There are a few stores in the Seattle area. What I did find from their US website is that they do offer some 100% polyester shirts for 15$ which makes it very affordable at full retail. Thanks for your comments!

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  3. They only have a fraction of their products on their website if I recall correctly. They seem to be pumping out new models at a pretty high rate. I guess they are still in learning process when it comes to outdoors and sports stuff, and the strategy is to try a lot of different things and see what sticks.

    Great blog by the way! I found it while googling the the new Marmot WPB stuff, Nanopro.
    Liked your very technical rundown on the fabric. Ordered the Artemis jacket yesterday.
    Great to have someone with real industry knowledge on the technologies making posts like this.

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