I’ve spent countless hours scouring forums and reviews for all the different types of base layers that are out there these days. A base layer is essentially a next-to-skin layer of clothing that regulates your body temperature while in hot or cold weather. It’s an essential part of working outside in the arctic and living in a desert back home. I’ve always had to use under shirts and base layers all the way back to when I was a little kid but never put too much thought into it. within the last couple years, I’ve gotten into researching all the different brands and types since I started coming up to Alaska. This is because I needed to find something that will wick moisture and can dry quickly since I work in a 90F degree kitchen and outside was consistently below -60F degrees. If I walked outside with a damp undershirt on in the wind, it would almost freeze to my chest. I’m reviewing the 5 best brands I’ve actually used in the past and their different products, listed in descending preferred order. Included is Under Armour, Icebreaker, Outdoor Research, Patagonia, and Ibex.
5. Under Armour
Under Armour is one of the premier performance apparel brands. It’s also one of the first to try and provide fitness apparel that wicks moisture, compresses your muscles so they stay warm enough not to strain or fatigue, and keeps you cool during a workout or practice. The company was started by a former college football player and coach that wanted a better material for himself while at games. He started it in his grandma’s basement and sold shirts out of his trunk for the first year. This led to the most branded performance apparel in the sports world, being the major sponsor of several events and superstar athletes. Under Armour has always been the most popular choice in the desert I grew up in for working out or hiking in extremely hot conditions. I’ve always saw several ads a day about them and dozens of people with their products on. This was probably due to the fact that the Utah Utes, Utah’s main nationally recognized college, was actually sponsored by them.
They have 3 main different types of base layer shirts you can choose from. The first one is the HeatGear shirts that they provide. It’s the lightest base layer I’ve worn that I’ve actually liked because the synthetic material it’s made out of really does compress your muscles. You’re not quite as sore the next day, making it an extremely valuable shirt to athletes. The second one is the ColdGear shirts. They’re the cold weather option for Under Armour. I prefer merino wool in cold conditions over this shirt but if you want a cheaper option, it’s still a great choice. The fabric it’s made of is a dual layered material with a hexagonal patterned thermo-conductive coating that acts as a heat generator that traps hot air while the fibers wick the moisture away. It’s a really interesting innovation and is completely safe. The last line of clothes is the all-season one. It’s the best of both lines mixed into one. A happy medium between the two makes it an ideal shirt. The wicking properties of the shirts are really good, being one of the more impressive materials in this category. The antimicrobial properties of Under Armour don’t really exist in this material, in my opinion. They say they have anti-odor systems built in but I’ve always smelled bad after a day or two of working out. If you’re training for sports or just using it to work out, this shouldn’t be a problem for you. You might want to think twice about this brand if you’re going on a week long hiking trip, though. The price is excellent compared to the other shirts. Expect to pay around $40-$60 for a good short sleeved shirt.
This is a New Zealand company that has as strict standards to it’s processing of wool and treatment of animals as Ibex. They sell high-grade base layers for all types of weather and have different thicknesses of fibers that make each one a different weight for every situation. They have 4 different thicknesses in the base layer alone, 2 more than the base layers of Ibex. They’re also Zque Certified through New Zealand’s strict business regulations. The Icebreaker company has made international headlines with their innovative tracking system of materials called Baacode. They track each sheep’s wool from sheering all the way to the sale of the wool. They put a tracking number on each piece that corresponds to each and every sheep and what area that sheep came from. It shows that the company is dedicated to conserving the identity of the wool while keeping incredibly high standards of excellence for their farmers in New Zealand.
The price of the clothes through this company is on the higher end of all the other companies, with a short sleeve base layer going for $80. The outdoor department site sierratradingpost.com usually has really good prices on this brand with prices as low as 35 percent off, making a good shirt around $50. Icebreaker is a company you should buy from if really high quality materials and mindful economical or business practices are important to you. I have a friend that swears by this company, making up a large majority of his closet and I don’t blame him. I own a pair of Icebreaker base layer bottoms and they’re just as good as any Ibex items I own. This company would’ve been my top choice if they weren’t slightly more expensive with regular prices than the rest of these companies, which is why it’s rated fourth. Either way, you’ll love anything you get from this place.
3. Outdoor Research
Outdoor Research is an American company that is deeply rooted in the innovation of mountaineering for the last 30 years. They’re the first ones to figure out a way to keep water thawed out on cold expeditions by developing an insulated parka canister for water bottles. They were also the first company that developed soft shell gloves in North America. The man that started it all, Ron Gregg, died in early 2003 testing new products for his company on a mountain side by an avalanche. The company is still on the cutting edge of the industry. Their Torque shirt line is the best synthetic I’ve used. The material and technology are from Polartec Power Dry fabrics. These fabrics are used in a lot of high grade synthetic brands and are made up of 2 layers. The layer closest to the skin are made up of thicker fibers that pull moisture away from the skin and the much thinner fibers on the outside spread the water over a larger surface area. This makes the moisture evaporate twice as fast.
It really does work just as well as wool and is actually a better choice in really wet conditions. While wool absorbs 35 percent of it’s weight in heat and water, this fabric disperses and sheds the water without retaining hardly any of it. Though the wicking properties do slightly exceed merino wool, the odor retention is much, much higher. I’ve found that these shirts can last a day or two camping or running without being washed before people start thinking you’re an unkept pig. Compare that to any merino wool that really just needs to be put in the sun. This effectively gets rid of any odor through it’s antimicrobial properties. You basically have to decide when going on your week long hiking trip if you wanna carry 4 of these shirts with the assurance that you’ll be dry quicker or 2 merino wool shirts with the assurance you won’t make yourself nauseated by your own stench. Synthetic material isn’t quite as nice of a feeling on your skin as merino wool is but with the Torque shirt line through Outdoor Research, they take great care with making the shirt feel as seem-less as possible so you don’t have too much irritation. You can pick up one of these shirts for $30 to $40 on sale.
2. Patagonia Capilene:
Patagonia is by far the most widely distributed and popular brands among the outdoor sports communities. Most everyone I know that rock climbs, alpine climbs, skis, or treks through Utah wears Patagonia equipment in the winter months. It’s also one of the most avid conservationist companies I know of. It’s unbelievable how much care they take in making sure certain aspects of the environment are looked after, even with them being a much larger business. The company was started by Tvon Chouinard, an American born in Maine that grew up in the Yosemite mountains of California. He’s been the leading expert in alpine climbing and mountain climbing for the last 40 years, revolutionizing the industry several times. He also started Black Diamond Equipment (formerly Chouinard Equipment, Ltd.), a company that manufactures skiing, climbing, and mountain sport equipment. He’s no longer involved with the company after bankruptcy in 1989. His employees bought up the assets and moved everything to Salt Lake City, Utah, making it the premier equipment manufacturer.
The dedication of Patagonia to quality has always astounded me. It’s no surprise its’ base layers are just as incredible. They have 2 main categories of base layers, the merino wool line and the Capilene line. The merino wool line is a blend of high quality merino wool from the grasslands of Patagonia and their patented blend of polyester called Capilene. With 3 different thickness variations, the wool content varies from 65% to 80%. They feel that by mixing the wool with their Capilene fibers, it helps bring both material’s best foot forward. It keeps odors at bay while wicking moisture and evaporating it before the wool can absorb too much. I’ve never actually used this shirt but it’s probably going to be the next line of shirts I end up buying for my trip to Antarctica. The shirts I have used from Patagonia’s base layer line is the full synthetic Capilene brand. It’s made from recycled polyester fabrics and blended into an incredible fabric that will shed sweat and keep you dry. The higher numbered Capilene shirts take advantage of 100% Polartec Power Dry material and Polartec Power Dry High Efficiency material to help with wicking. I have seen reviews of the thinnest shirt feeling clammy on your skin when completely drenched in sweat when in a humid environment but I haven’t had that issue, as I’m usually in drier climates. The odor control on this shirt is a lot better than most other synthetic shirts out there and the thinnest Capilene shirt gives you an incredible 50+UPF rating to block out the UV rays from the sun. The merino wool shirt prices are comparable to Ibex and Icebreaker shirts, running around $80-$100 retail and $60 on sale. The Capilene shirts will give you a much different price range, from $35-$120 depending on the thickness you’re looking for. You can get a really good deal on most of the Capilene categories on sale at around $40-$60.
1. Ibex Woolies
My aunt recently told me about a fantastic store in Ogden, Utah on 30th street. It’s called Alpine Sports and they carry these base layers along with knowledgeable staff that really do their homework on the gear they carry. When I was searching for higher-grade gloves to buy that could hold up for a couple years, I was also trying to keep an eye out for some really good base layers that would last more than a year. The lady that helped me raved about the Ibex brand and it’s natural wicking properties. Wicking moisture is a phenomenon where materials actually push water through their fibers away from your skin, keeping you dry. With wool, it’s technically not wicking the moisture away. It absorbs a large amount of it (up to 35 percent of it’s weight) and evaporates it. This helps with heat retention. Ibex is made from merino wool shorn from sheep in New Zealand, as is most high-grade merino wool products. The reason New Zealand merino wool is so prized is because the sheep in New Zealand encounter incredible extremes of weather all year round. This naturally conditions the wool to have antimicrobial properties (it doesn’t retain smells and kills bacteria), naturally wicks moisture away from your body by absorbing water and evaporating it, and the fibers are so thin that it doesn’t irritate your skin, giving it an incredibly soft feel on your skin. It also has natural sun protection abilities that are equivalent to 30SPF.
The difference with Ibex clothing is that they only buy Zque Certified wool, which ensures that every single piece that they sell is sustainable in every aspect of the environment and is 100 percent biodegradable, fire-retardant, and naturally regulates the temperature on your body. It does this by retaining heat and discharging it with water vapor if it’s hot or converting it back to your body. It’s one of the only natural fibers on earth that stays warm even if it’s wet. Because the wool is as sustainable as this, it takes quite a while to make after the wool is shorn from the animal. On average, it takes 9-12 months to make a garment from start to finish. With that being said, Ibex is also one of the more expensive brands you can get for your money. You can usually get them for 30-40 percent off if you’re willing to wait for them to go on sale with the new year’s stock coming in. I buy my undershirts from them at this time for pretty cheap, comparatively speaking. The full price of a base layer short sleeve shirt is usually around $75-$85 but I usually wait until they drop below $55 to even consider it. I own some glove liners that are Ibex, as well. These are nice when you’re driving or need an extra layer on when you have to take your gloves off for something.
5. Buy Under Armour if you’re looking for some really solid work out clothes or some cheaper base layers. Remember, they won’t hold up to stench very well but you get what you pay for, I guess.
4. Buy Icebreaker if you want high-grade merino wool products and you don’t mind the price. If you can find a good sale price on them, it’s a definite steal.
3. Buy the Outdoor Research base layers if you want a good balance of synthetic fibers to keep you dry in wet conditions for a reasonable price. Probably the best bargain for your buck and an amazing synthetic shirt.
2. Buy Patagonia’s Capilene brand if you are looking for a high quality synthetic layer that will last longer than most other synthetics. They give you the most variety of thicknesses and fabrics to choose from. Not my absolute favorite synthetic shirt but the variety and design of the shirt makes it a better choice for most.
1. Buy Ibex if you want one of the best merino wool products on the market. The attention to detail with the seams for backpacking is fantastic. Also, it feels much more natural on your skin than any synthetic product. The price is as competitive as the other companies mentioned and if you can get it on sale, it’s my top choice for any base layer you’re looking for.
If you want me to review a type of gear you think I know a lot about, post in the comments below. I’ll be in the Brooks Range in a few weeks, which I’m excited about. I’ll be hiking a lot if I can find people to go with so I’ll be having plenty of fun trying out new gear. I hope this helped in your search!