Unlike a flashy jacket or a sweet pair of skis, your baselayers won’t usually earn you any style points. But just because they’re hidden beneath layers of Gore-Tex and down doesn’t mean you can just throw on a pair of running tights and a cotton longsleeve and call it good. There’s a lot to be said for a good baselayer, and the best ones can carry you comfortably through wet, frigid ski days, sunny winter hikes, even cold summer nights spent in the high alpine.
Baselayers are, um, basics, which means all you really need to look for in terms of technical performance is material, fit, and whether it’s up for the abuse you’re going to put it through. As a rule, look for wool or wool-blend baselayers. Synthetics can do a great job in place of real down or real leather, but there’s no substitute for wool next-to-skin, IMO. Your baselayer is the most critical part of your layering system, and it needs to keep you warm even when you’re sweating or soaked to the bone in a storm.
Fit, like style, is subjective—some people love a snug shirt, others can’t stand clingy clothing—but your baselayer should fit as snugly as you’re comfortable with, making layering easier and ensuring no warmth escapes through baggy cuffs or stretched out shoulders. Finally, durability—it’s tough to tell what’s going to serve you for years when you pick something up in store, but that’s what we’re here for. Some of the base layers reviewed below have been “tested” (read: worn, loved, and worked to death) for up to five years.
Patagonia’s Thermal Weight Capilene boot-length leggings ($85) stop mid-shin, making them well-suited to wearing with ski boots and high socks. The fit is flattering, with a wide waistband reminiscent of yoga pants that’s comfortable and easy to negotiate when layering. They hold their shape well after a couple days of wear, an awesome bonus for the cash- or time-strapped ski bum, or on long trips with minimal space for storage—or the everyday skier who’d like to get away with wearing their comfy pants at aprés or around the hut without looking rumpled. The corresponding crewneck ($89) has a classic cut and fit. The downside? After two seasons, they’ve started to rip along the weave lines in multiple places. So, points docked for durability—but I did put them through the ringer.
These are the only all-synthetic baselayers we’ve reviewed—they’re made of PolarTec Powergrid fabric, which is a polyester blend. At the ski resort, the difference between these and a merino layer is negligible, and for days when you’ll be spending 90 percent of your time on the uphill, these will dry quicker than a full merino layer. But for multi-day trips or deep backcountry missions with wide weather variables, I’d recommend a layer like the Smartwool 250 base layers, below. Major bonus: these are the cheapest baselayers we reviewed.
If you’re looking for a base layer to wear on long, cold-weather backcountry trips or stormy hikes that don’t involve ski boots, you’ll want to skip the cropped leggings—they’re less versatile than an ankle-length legging that you can roll up above your ski boot when you need to, but pull all the way down to your hiking boots, too. Smartwool is a classic for a reason. Their basic merino 250 base layer bottoms and crewneck (both $95) have been doing me proud for half a decade. They’re made of 100% merino wool, and they’re basically bulletproof—after years of wear and tear, the only damage is a moth-hole (clearly a moth with good taste). Style-wise, they’re basic as it gets (nothing wrong with that!) They’re Smartwool’s warmest base layer offering, and they’ve been great on everything from a 35-degree hike to a below-zero ski day. The major downside is that the bottoms lose their shape after a day of wear, leaving me with baggy knees and an odd silhouette when I’m tromping around after a day on the hill. As soon as they’re washed and dried, they’re right back to their good ol’ selves.
My all-time favorite fit for base layers comes from Helly Hansen, with their HH Lifa Merino pant ($90) and half-zip ($100). The pants have a boxer-like elastic band and diagonal stitching that lend a bit of style, and they hold their shape well after a day or two on the slopes. The top has a similarly sports design, and both pieces are made with a unique two-layer construction: the outer is 100 percent merino wool, and the inner uses fabric with Helly Hansen’s Lifa Stay Dry technology to pull moisture away from the skin. The half-zip offers a bit more flexibility for those who tend to “run hot”—dumping heat from your core can be tough when you’re wrestling with multiple layers, a beacon, and a backpack. With just a couple quick unzips, you can bare your chest—a key place to heat-dump, especially when taking a helmet or gloves off might be inconvenient—to the cool air. They aren’t the softest next-to-skin layers I’ve ever worn—so if you’re keen on buttery-soft baselayers, check out Wild Rye, below.
I’ve told you all about Wild Rye before, but their uber-soft, style-conscious base layers deserve a second shoutout. They’re hands-down the best-looking baselayers out there, with polka-dot elastics, thoughtful contrast stitching, and a flattering, feminine cut. They’re happiest at home in the resort or on a day-long tour, and they’d love to be seen at the coffee shop in the morning and the bar at night, too. The KT Legging ($99) features a crop length perfect for ski boots and socks, and the penny raglan’s ($109) wide neck offers the same chest ventilation a half-zip offers. Made of a merino wool blend, both layers are stink-resistant and durable. The pants do the same baggy-butt stretch after their second day of hiking and skiing, and the crop length of the pants might be just a little too short for long-legged ladies, but they earn props for offering slightly more diverse sizing—zero through 12—than other baselayers.
Icebreaker’s Vertex leggings ($110) and Tech Top Crewneck ($110) fall into the same category as Smartwool’s 250 baselayers. The cut—full-length pants, basic crewneck—make them perfect for high-output, multi-day trips in the mountains. They’re well-made and pleasantly sturdy, though I can’t speak to durability—I’ve had these puppies the least amount of time of any of the reviewed products above. That said, they’re cozy and made of a 96% merino blend (with a bit of stretch for fit) that should serve you well during any cold-weather outing. The fit, however, is a bit finicky—the torso of the shirt is very long, while the sleeves and the leggings are actually somewhat short. I’m 5’6″ and wear a medium, which has the pants falling just above my ankles and the sleeves just above my wrists—a fine length for me, but shorter than other medium baselayers I’ve tried. They’re also oddly snug through the knees and calves and loose in the hips and butt (though the waistband is tight enough to keep them in place.) But, all that said, fit is subjective.
Photo courtesy of Wild Rye