Base Layer Primer
Spending extended amounts of time on an expedition really makes one think about their clothing choices and how best to satisfy the need for comfort and cleanliness with the need to pack in a minimalistic fashion. One of the best ways to do this is with smart layering choices. Specifically for base layers. Today’s modern base layers come in three typical choices, synthetics, wool, and silk.
Underwear Comparison Chart
Here’s how the primary fabrics used in most moisture-managing underwear stack up:
Some additional details about your primary fiber options:
This refers principally to polyester and polyester blends. Some underwear blends use high percentages of nylon (as a means of increasing abrasion resistance), or they add small amounts of spandex or elastin (to enhance stretch). Polyester, though, is the dominant synthetic fiber used in wicking first layers. It’s a soft, easy-care fabric with reliable moisture-management attributes.
- Lightest in this group.
- Easy care.
- Odors may build if worn repeatedly on multiday outings.
- Potentially vulnerable to staining.
- Petroleum-based fiber.
This almost always refers to merino wool, which is popular due to its soft “ultrafine” fibers. Many people are surprised to learn that lightweight (even “microweight”) merino wool creates a terrific all-season base layer.
- Lightweight merino wool is soft on skin.
- Usually machine-washable.
- Stain- and wrinkle-resistant.
- Natural fiber.
- Typically available only in darker colors.
- Potentially vulnerable to shrinkage.
Silk (Treated Silk)
Silk underwear is largely a specialty fabric, intended primarily for cool- and cold-weather usage. “Treated” indicates the silk has been chemically modified to enhance wicking (a fabric’s capacity for moving perspiration off skin to speed its evaporation). Fans of silk are strongly attracted to its smooth texture.
- Soft, luxurious texture.
- Thin; adds no bulk and layers well.
- Natural fiber.
- Some styles require hand-washing; machine washing sometimes causes shrinkage.
- Potentially vulnerable to abrasion and sunlight.
Though classified as “underwear,” every top in this category is appropriate for use as a stand-alone garment. Microweight and lightweight T-shirts are standard summertime attire for active outdoor types—when hiking, riding, climbing, taking training runs, you name it—and they’re excellent for gym workouts.
When selecting tops and bottoms for use as base layers (actual underwear), anticipate the conditions you’ll face when choosing the heft of the fabric. Here are our general guidelines:
- Microweight: For mild to cool conditions.
- Lightweight: Cool to moderately cold conditions.
- Midweight: Moderately cold to cold conditions.
- Heavyweight: Cold, frigid or blustery conditions.
Some people get cold easily. If so, consider choosing a heavier fabric. Just avoid overdoing it. If conditions become unexpectedly mild, a mid-weight or heavyweight first layer could feel a touch too toasty during vigorous activity.
Tip: Personally, I always carry a spare micro or lightweight top on my outings. They weight very little and dry very fast. At the end of a sweaty day I can change out of my “motion” shirt and into my “resting” shirt. This allows me to hand-rinse or air-day my motion shirt in preparation the next day. It’s a nice little luxury.
A few words on fit: The warmer the conditions, the looser you want your base layer to be. Snug-fitting base layers keep body-generated warmth close to your skin, boosting comfort in cool conditions. When temperatures heat up, it’s best to let your next-to-skin layers hang loose to accommodate lots of air circulation. If a garment’s advertising promotes an “athletic fit,” figure its fit will be on the snug side.
What Is Wicking?
People understandably find it odd to hear “wick” used as a verb. A “wicking” T-shirt? Sounds strange at first. Here’s an explanation of this phenomenon for nonscientific minds:
Think of a candle wick—usually a braided, wax-coated cord of cotton. When lit, the wax coating melts away. Melted wax becomes the fuel source for the flame, and the wick draws (“wicks”) melted wax to the flame, where it vaporizes. The flame continues to burn because the wick steadily draws more liquefied fuel to it. An oil lamp works on the same principle, drawing (wicking) fuel to the flame. This act of wicking a liquid along a fibrous path is known as capillary action.
Wicking: Synthetic Fabrics
Capillary action also occurs with synthetic performance underwear. Here’s how:
- An active person wearing a polyester T-shirt begins to sweat.
- A high-humidity “microclimate” is created between the person’s sweating skin and the shirt covering the skin.
- Perspiration vapor and moisture condense on the garment’s interior (its underside).
- Because everything in nature moves toward equilibrium, the high-humidity air mass between skin and garment will seek a path to a lower-humidity environment. The difference (gradient) between temperature and humidity on both sides of the garment becomes the driving force that moves the warmer, wetter air beneath the garment toward the cooler, dryer air on the outside.
- Wicking takes place when perspiration moisture travels along the surface of the fiber but is not absorbed into the fiber. (Synthetic fibers are, essentially, plastic—and virtually nonabsorbent). Moisture escapes to the outside through the interstitial spaces (the miniscule holes) between the knitted yarns.
- Moisture is dispersed across the fabric’s exterior, where it evaporates after contacting the lower-humidity environment outside the shirt.
Wicking is enhanced by:
- Fibers with an altered texture (roughened or grooved) can transport moisture more quickly.
- Fabrics such as Polartec PowerDry use a 2-sided “bi-component” construction. Such fabrics typically position thinner yarns closer to the skin (sometimes dotted with moisture-collecting “touch spots”) and place larger yarns on the garment’s exterior, providing more surface area for moisture dispersal and evaporation
- Some type of chemical finish is applied to nearly every synthetic fabric in order to boost wicking performance. The finish usually convey some degree of hydrophilic (water-attracting) attributes to polyester, allowing it to more speedily draw moisture along its nonabsorbent fibers and transport it to the garment’s exterior.
Note: Polyester, while synthetic, does have a very small absorption rate, roughly 0.4% of its weight. (In contrast, cotton can absorb 7% of its weight.) Polyester’s absorption rate is so minimal that it is generally regarded as nonabsorbent.
Technically, it can be argued that wool does not wick moisture. The end result, however—fibers moving perspiration away from skin and dispersing it through evaporation—is the same.
Rather than straining perspiration moisture and vapor through the tiny, tiny gaps in a nonabsorbent synthetic knit, wool’s inner core (cortex) absorbs moisture—between 27% and 36% of its weight.
This absorbed moisture is then impacted by the lower humidity, air movement and (potentially) sunlight on the outside of the garment. The result: evaporation.
With so much moisture being absorbed, will a wool garment feel soggy? If it becomes saturated and is confined to a damp or high-humidity environment, it could. (Synthetics are often a better choice for excursions where persistent rain is likely.)
Yet wool has the capacity to both absorb moisture (in a vaporous state such as perspiration) while also resisting water (in a liquid state such as light rain). This is one of the almost-too-good-to-be-true marvels of wool.
Wool fibers have a scaly exterior layer called the cuticle, and that is overlaid with the epicuticle, itself coated with lanolin, a waxy, water-shedding film. It is the epicuticle and its waxy coating that makes wool resistant to mist and light rain (hydrophobic). It is this hydrophobic layer that touches your skin, minimizing (or eliminating) any sensation of dampness.
A very sweaty person can overwhelm any fabric. During those moments a wool garment will likely feel less damp and clammy on your skin than a synthetic garment, but it may feel weightier. A synthetic garment will dry out and feel lighter more quickly.
As a total sweat machine myself, I have to laugh at enthusiastic promotional claims (“Keeps you dry!”) sometimes linked to wicking garments. If a T-shirt shut down my ability to sweat, I’d be worried. What wicking fabrics do is allow you to feel drier faster than if you were wearing cotton or some other nontechnical fabric—and that’s a huge positive that, in my mind, makes them worth the money.
Wool Texture and Temperature Regulation
Some people may be hesitant to consider wearing wool as a next-to-skin fabric.
Realize that performance underwear designed with wool uses merino wool, which consists of “ultrafine” fibers just 17.5 microns in width, fine enough that people will not experience the scratchy sensation often associated with traditional wool. The average human hair, just for comparison, measures 60 microns.
A property unique to wool is its ability to release small amounts of heat as it absorbs water. This effect is known by the arcane term “heat of sorption.” Energy, in the form of small amounts of heat, is produced through the work of moisture-absorption by wool fibers. Thus, in damp conditions, a wearer could potentially collect a small amount of comfort from this phenomenon. This is in addition to the countless warmth-trapping air pockets created by all the crimps inherent merino wool fibers.
Could that make wool too warm in hot conditions? Not necessarily. Evaporating moisture within the cortex can cool the air between the wool fabric and your skin, promoting a stable body temperature. Also, breathable wool fibers can buffer skin from air heated by the sun the same way they can trap warmed air and keep it close to skin in cool conditions.
Admittedly, these nuances can be tough to detect in the field, and when conditions turn seriously cold, you will obviously need more than a lightweight wool tee to maintain a comfortable body temperature.
Some Subjective Opinions
A lot of my colleagues are fans of wool base layers. I use both wool and synthetics but have never used silk. Wool continues to impress me with the consistency of comfort that it provides, from very warm to quite cool conditions. I’m also a huge fan of its ability to resist odors. If I’m planning on a multiday adventure where I may be wearing the same shirt for many of those days, I’m reaching in my drawer for wool base layers. Wool’s chief downside: its high price.
I own lots of synthetics, wear them often and still like them all. I just need to launder them faithfully. I’m particularly a fan of bi-component designs. They really seem to dry in a flash.
My practical side chooses synthetics. My indulgent side prefers wool. And my don’t-be-an-idiot side says never wear cotton on a serious outdoor excursion.