The Best Base Layer Review

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Windy morning conditions on Lost Arrow Spire Direct. The Icebreaker GT and R1 hoody were all we needed to stay cozy in these spring conditions.
Credit: Ryan Jenks
The baselayer is the most fundamental component of cold-weather comfort. With the advent of new fabrics, technologies and manufacturing processes, the world of baselayers has become as complex and varied as the environments they are used in. We took some of the most popular and high-performing performance shirts and put them through a brutal series of tests to determine which is worthy of your adventures. Whether you are big wall climbing in Yosemite or eating caviar on a bearskin rug, our award winners will keep you warm and comfortable.

Read the full review below >

Review by: ⋅ Review Editor, OutdoorGearLab

Top Ranked Displaying 1 - 5 of 6 << Previous | View All | Next >>
Our Ranking #1 #2 #3 #4 #5
Product Name
Icebreaker Sprint Crew
Icebreaker Sprint Crew
Read the Review
Ibex Zepher
Ibex Zepher
Read the Review
Patagonia Capilene 3
Patagonia Capilene 3
Read the Review
Smartwool Midweight Crew
Smartwool Midweight Crew
Read the Review
Smartwool Microweight Crew
Smartwool Microweight Crew
Read the Review
Editors' Awards  Editors' Choice Award    Best Buy Award  Top Pick Award   
Street Price Varies $80 - $100
Compare at 3 sellers
Varies $94 - $125
Compare at 3 sellers
Varies $39 - $55
Compare at 7 sellers
Varies $71 - $95
Compare at 7 sellers
Varies $60 - $85
Compare at 3 sellers
Overall Score 
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83
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80
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74
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73
Editors' Rating
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User Rating Be the first to rate itBe the first to rate itBe the first to rate itBe the first to rate itBe the first to rate it
Pros Fits well, breathes, has thumb-holes, very warm.Comfortable, warm.Breathes, comfortable fit.Warm, burly.Light, breathable.
Cons Expensive.Expensive.Smells, not as warm as wool.Sleeves short, expensive.Narrow range of usable temperatures.
Best Uses Everything. Anything.Kayaking, winter, dandy lounging.Hiking, skiing, surfing, climbing, backpacking.Climbing, slot canyons, burlfests.Cool-weather running and hiking.
Date Reviewed Aug 19, 2013Jun 01, 2013Aug 16, 2013Aug 20, 2014Aug 21, 2013
Weighted Scores Icebreaker Sprint Crew Ibex Zepher Patagonia Capilene 3 Smartwool Midweight Crew Smartwool Microweight Crew
Warmth - 25%
10
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9
10
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9
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6
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8
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6
Breathability - 25%
10
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8
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6
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9
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6
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8
Comfort - 25%
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7
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7
Fit - 25%
10
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8
Product Specs Icebreaker Sprint Crew Ibex Zepher Patagonia Capilene 3 Smartwool Midweight Crew Smartwool Microweight Crew
Does it fit my arms? Yes Yes Just short No No
Scratchy A bit Not Not Not A bit
Overall fit Nearly perfect Loose A bit loose Tight under the arms Good, except arms
Thumb holes Yes No No No No

OutdoorGearLab Editors' Hands-on Review


  • Review Photos
  • Editors' Choice Winners
  • All Reviewed Products
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Icebreaker Sprint Crew
$100
100
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88
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Patagonia Capilene 3
$49
100
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80
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Smartwool Midweight Crew
$95
100
0
74
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Ibex Zepher
$115
100
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83
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Icebreaker Oasis
$80
100
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70
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Smartwool Microweight Crew
$80
100
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73
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A Baselayer Poem:
Maybe last winter, with the snow in your hair,
You thought to yourself "I need more to wear,
This cold dreary weather is making me sick,
A baselayer'd do nicely, but which one do I pick?"
There are layers for hiking and layers for rocks,
Layers for kayaks and layers for socks!
When the layers down deep are keeping you warm,
It matters how tightly they fit to your form.
But with names like Merino and Capilene 2,
It sometimes must feel like touring a zoo.
There are baselayers with hoods, tiny checkers and stripes,
But which layer smells best when one's armpits are ripe?
We'll show you the latest in baselayer design,
While keeping your padded wallet in mind.
We'll take you through zippers, synthetics and thumb-holes,
Which shirts are done best, and which have been bungled.
In this wide world of baselayers, you'll stay in the loop,
So sit back, relax, 'cause OGL has the scoop.

Types of Baselayers
Layering
Layering is the basis for any outdoor travel. Layers allow for a quick, versatile response for any change in weather or activity level.

The ideal layering setup involves a warm, wicking baselayer, an insulating middle layer (or two), and a waterproof exterior. This is weather dependent, of course - you needn't wear two fleece jackets and a waterproof hardshell on a July dayhike, but it's an important concept to consider when arranging an outdoor wardrobe.
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Earning turns near Keystone, Colorado. Layered with the smartwool Micro, NTS, and a Mountain Hardwear shell.
Credit: Sebastian Bailey
Of these layers, arguably the most important is the baselayer (for the purpose of this review, it most certainly is). A proper baselayer will keep you warm at rest, wick away sweat when working and be comfortable enough to encourage movement, rather than restrict it. It should fit like a second skin and not some scaly, reptilian, floppy one. Being easy to put on and take off is an added bonus. We'll break down some of the key features that contribute to these goals.

Materials
One of the biggest choices to confront when deciding which baselayer is best for your purposes is Wool or Synthetic. There are a few objective differences to look out for, and a few opinions that we'd like to share. An article published by BackpackingLight.com is a great reference for this:
Comfort and Moisture Transport in Lightweight Wool and Synthetic Base Layers

Drying
Synthetic fabrics dry faster than comparable wool fabric. About 50 percent faster, according to BackpackingLight's tests.

However, this is not as significant as you may seem. Wool can absorb a considerable amount of moisture before it begins to feel damp, whereas synthetic fabrics feel clammy almost immediately. This can make quite a difference in comfort. The sleek, sheer feeling of capilene fabrics can become unpleasant quite quickly when it gets wet. This is all a matter of personal preference, of course.

Texture
For many with sensitive skin, wool fabrics are just not an option. Though Merino Wool (a very fine-stranded type of wool) tends to be gentle on even the most sensitive skin, many still react with rashes or worse to natural fabrics. If this is the case, synthetic fabrics offer a soothing alternative.

Others, including some of us at OGL, far prefer the texture of wool. Wool production methods have come a long way from the scratchy sweaters of yesteryear, and now most wool garments offer a soft and cozy next-to-skin layer.

Warm When Wet
This is a major consideration for reasons beyond simple comfort. Warmth is safety in the mountains, and a wet baselayer can save your life if made from the right material. This is the primary reason that cotton is no longer a widely-used fabric for outdoor retailers. Cotton loses all insulating properties when wet.

Fortunately, this is not the case with synthetic and wool fabrics. Both insulate when wet, though wool fares better than synthetic. In addition, wool can absorb quite a bit of water before it feels damp to the touch, which goes a long way for warmth and comfort.

Smell
Wool withstands stink better than synthetic fabrics. Unquestionably. After months of testing our synthetic baselayers smelled rank, while the wool baselayers smelled nearly as good as new. This wasn't our primary grading metric, of course, but little considerations start to matter on two and three-month wilderness trips.

Fire
Will you be working around fire? If so, go for a wool garment. If embers get onto a synthetic fabric, at best they'll melt a hole - at worst, they'll melt to your body.

Weight - How Heavy?
Every baselayer provides a certain thickness. As a general rule, the thicker the material, the warmer it will be. Deciding which thickness (or weight) is best for your purposes is an inexact process, but begin by looking for the thinnest possible fabric that you could imagine being active in. The ideal baselayer will keep you warm in these conditions, but should feel inadequate if worn alone in the same climate. (There is a logic behind layering.)
Also consider if you intend this layer to be worn next-to-skin, over a thinner layer, or both. A shirt that you intend to play double duty should be a little thicker, because it will also be functioning as an insulating layer.

Thumbs vs. No
Two of our baselayers had thumb loops built into the sleeves. These two baselayers were our Editors' Choices. Does correlation imply causation? Not strictly speaking, although the thumb loops certainly didn't hurt their chances. Thumb loops prevent the shirt from creeping up one's arm and keep the hands warm, not to mention the lovely sensation of wool or fleece on the palm of a hand rubbed raw.

They can be a hazard, though. We got one of the thumb loops of our R1 Hoody stuck in our rappel device while descending Washington Column.

Zips
A few of the baselayers we tested had zippers in the front. This feature is great when climbing, because it makes it possible to take a looser-fitting baselayer off without removing one's helmet. It also helps with venting heat if the baselayer is buried beneath many other layers of clothing. Overall, it's a nice addition, but not one that swayed our favor very much.

Fitting
As a consumer of outdoor products and a pretty gangly dude, I have long struggled to find baselayers that fit properly. Most will be too short in the sleeves or too baggy in the chest. Fit is difficult to determine over the internet, so we have done our best to show which are compatible with long-armed folk, and which could use a bit more room in the sleeves.

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The Icebreaker Gt, with thumbholes
Credit: Brandon Guyton

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Credit: Brandon Guyton

Now that we've got that all covered, here are our test results:

Product Metrics

Warmth
Our judgement was a bit split on this metric. A few equally matched competitors excelled in this category, namely the Icebreaker GT and the Patagonia R1. With the two of these combined, our tester stayed nice and cozy on a bivy on Lost Arrow Spire in conditions that left his partner, down jacket and all, downright chilly.

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Windy morning conditions on Lost Arrow Spire Direct. The Icebreaker GT and R1 hoody were all we needed to stay cozy in these spring conditions.
Credit: Ryan Jenks

Comfort
While the "most comfortable" base layer may not be the highest performing, we believe that it's important enough category to warrant scrutiny. By far the most comfortable layer we tested was the Ibex Zepher. It feels like wearing sea foam or bathing in cream. The weave is thick, the seams are flat, and the 1/2 length zipper doesn't chafe.

We were a bit miffed that they spelled "Zephyr" incorrectly.

Fit:
Fit is a difficult category to cover universally, so our opinions may not reflect yours. Here are our findings for the shirts we tested.

Icebreaker Sprint Perfect, Sleeves fit.
Icebreaker Oasis A bit tight overall, sleeves fit.
Smartwool Micro Good around chest, sleeves not long enough.
Ibex Zepher Loose overall, sleeves fit.
Patagonia Capilene 3 A bit loose, sleeves a tiny bit short.
Smartwool Midweight Crew Tight around the chest, sleeves not long enough.

Wicking
Wicking refers to moisture management and the process by which baselayer fabrics draw moisture (namely sweat) from the body and into the outer layers of clothing.

Overall, the synthetic layers wicked best. They kept us drier, distributed sweat more evenly and were overall more comfortable in hot weather than the wool shirts. Most notably, the Patagonia Capilene 3 shirt was our preferred shirt for cool to hot weather transitions. The GT Icebreaker did quite well in this category for a wool shirt and felt more comfortable while drying than the Capilene.

Award Winners
Editors' Choice
While this was a characteristically fierce competition, the ultimate winner of our Editors' Choice award is the Icebreaker Sprint. The GT was the warmest and best-fitting of the shirts tested. It was one of the few shirts we tested with thumbholes, which appealed to us enormously. With a price tag around $100, it's an investment, but a worthy one. Base layers last a long time, and this one will serve you well.

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The Icebreaker GT Sprint Crew

Best Buy
The entire Capilene line from Patagonia comes well made and highly recommended, but the Patagonia Capilene 3 was our favorite. This baselayer was heavy enough to function solo, while still allowing enough room to fit additional layers beneath. Lightweight, breathable and wicking, the Capilene did best in warmer climates where wool baselayers were too stifling. And at a price tag under $50, we gladly award the Capilene 3 our Best Buy.

Top Pick
For burly, abrasive and abusive activities, no layer compares to the Smartwool Midweight. With a thick weave and athletic fit, the NTS was our preferred layer for climbing offwidths and crashing through brambles. It's cheaper than most comparable wool baselayers, so we felt as though we could justify the mistreatment. If you are looking for a layer that will stand up to the worst conditions an environment can offer, than the NTS is for you.
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Climbing in the Smartwool Micro in Boulder Canyon, Colorado.
Credit: Max Heidt

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