Choosing the Right Base Layer

MountaineerBase layers have a big say in how comfortable you are, and comfort is key in outdoor recreation. Being warm in the winter and cool in the summer can have a direct influence on how enjoyable your outing is. But there’s more to choosing the right base layer than just being warm or cool. Here are some things to think about when buying your next base layer.

Base layers aren’t just meant to insulate, or regulate body temperature. That’s certainly important, but the main purpose of a base layer is to provide comfort. This includes regulating temperature, moisture management, sun protection, weight, feeling of the garment, etc.

There are 3 main materials that most outdoor companies use for making base layers: wool, synthetic textiles, and cotton. You can find bamboo base layers and base layers made from silk, but these are typically not as common as wool, cotton, and synthetic layers.

Pros and cons of different base layer materials.


There are those who swear that cotton should be banned from all technical outdoor apparel. You can make a case that cotton shouldn’t be worn in the winter, but it’s a fine material in hot and humid conditions. Some people like to wear cotton during the summer because it is breathable and because it retains moisture for such a long time. It should be avoided in cold weather, however, because it does not dry and can actually pull heat away from the body. Cotton is typically going to be the cheapest option, but it’s also the least insulating. It’s not great for your main base layer if you’re doing more than spending a single day in the heat.


Merino wool is a specific type of wool that is much softer and more comfortable than that coarse wool sweater your dad wore. The hollow core fibers of merino wool make it a champ at regulating body temperature in both cold and warm weather. It’s flame retardant, anti-microbial natural fiber, that insulates dry or wet. It does, however, require more care and attention than synthetic base layers, and tends to be more expensive.


It’s risky to speak about synthetic base layers as a whole since synthetic textiles can vary so greatly. Nearly every company has their own special blend that they tout as the best there ever was. They combine polyester, polypropylene, elastane, spandex, and other materials in different proportions to create unique textiles. There are, however, some general traits that apply to most synthetic base layers.

Synthetic base layers will help insulate in cold weather, and will even insulate when wet. They wick away moisture and dry quickly. Synthetic textiles do, however, tend to hang on to odors, and some people are concerned about potential health risks of chemicals used to make synthetic fibers, and the impact on the environment. Some synthetic blends will melt if exposed to flame.


More and more companies are making base layers that blend these different fibers together. There are cotton and wool blends, cotton and synthetic blends, wool and synthetic blends, and even blends that combine all three. This gives a base layer a unique feel and unique characteristics.

Once you’ve settled on your material, you have to think about the weight of your base layer. Heavier weight fabrics will typically be warmer and less breathable than lightweight fabrics. Choosing the right weight to suit the season and the activity is key.

We have a great selection of base layers here at the shop. Stop by and we what we’ve got!

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