Early Warming Systems

Base layers so cozy you'll think you've grown fur.

By Stephen Regenold
Photographs by John R. Fulton Jr.

Your grandpa called them “long johns.” Or maybe he wore one of those button-up outfits known as a union suit. Your dad referred to his thermal cotton skivvies as simply long underwear.

But today you—oh, 21st-century hiker—wear next-to-skin technical base layers. They wick sweat. They breathe. They serve as your second skin and your first layer of defense from the worst chill winter can blow your way.

And, no, your base layers don’t have a flap that buttons shut on the butt.

The base layer collection here, made from polyester, merino wool, and fibers laced with volcanic minerals, includes some of the outdoor industry’s most innovative pieces of apparel to date.

These tops and tights insulate against the cold. When you’re active, they move sweat and moisture away from the body to keep you dry.

One of the items, the Helly Hansen One top, features fibers made to mimic polar bear fur. It’s a mix of technology and nature even grandpa would admire.

New for fall 2009, the DriMove Baselayer (“BL”) line employs a cutting-edge fabric that embeds volcanic minerals in its thread fibers. Called Cocona Minerale, the natural additive is touted to increase everything from wicking and UV protection to odor control. Bonus: Because Minerale is embedded in the fabric, it won’t wash off or wear out. The GoLite DriMove BL line comes in three levels of warmth and has products like the BL-1 short-sleeve top that start at $38. The warmest top, the BL-3 (pictured), adds synthetic fleece on the inside to bolster heat retention for your core. The company’s corresponding BL tights feature the same volcanic-mineral fabric and cost $45.

Nature meets science lab at Helly Hansen, where HH One’s new base layers are touted to embody characteristics heretofore found only on polar bears. Sure enough, hollow fabric fibers inside these tops mimic bear fur to help retain heat, according to the company. But Helly Hansen, which sells the HH One line in multiple styles, suggests that its apparel is good for year-round use: Wear a piece like the Stripe Crew Graphic, $45, for an autumn hike or as a part of your arctic kit under a fleece top and shell jacket. The HH One base layers have an athletic cut, unique graphics, and a Scandinavian aesthetic the Norway-based Helly Hansen is known to promote.

REI’s MTS series is a quality budget buy. At $30, the Men’s MTS Long-Sleeve Crew is a lightweight top made of quick-drying polyester to insulate and wick sweat. The company says it can be worn alone or used as a performance layer for winter wear. Indeed, a looser fit keeps the MTS line looking like a regular crew top. But performance features, including a fabric that provides UPF 50+ sun protection, make it a valid choice for the wilderness or simply walking around town.

Intrigued by wool but don’t have the cash to dedicate toward a pricey pair from the likes of Icebreaker (below)? Duofold offers an affordable wool-based product in its Varitherm line, where the Mid Weight Dri-release Wool Crew costs just $39. To make the top and a matching pair of tights ($39), the company mixes merino wool fibers with polyester and spandex. A treatment called Dri-release is then added to the fabric, increasing wicking ability to move moisture off your body when in motion. Niceties with the top include thumbholes on the cuffs, flat-stitched seams to assuage irritation against the skin, and a longer back to help keep the shirt tucked in place.

You’ll love the utter coziness and warmth provided by the Bodyfit 260 line, which Icebreaker touts as “the warmest and most breathable performance base layer in the world.” Bodyfit 260 tops and tights are all made of fine merino wool—a material that doesn’t itch. In contrast, merino cradles and heats, and with pieces like the Tech Top ($99.99) the fabric ensconces your core from a tall zip-up neck to thumbholes on the cuffs that hold the wool down over the back of your hand. The line’s tights ($79.99) are made of a similarly luxe wool fabric, fitting tight to form but still letting your lower body breathe while on the go.

Stephen Regenold writes "The Gear Junkie," a column on outdoors equipment that can be seen at www.gearjunkie.com.

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November - December 2009 Table of Contents