The Best Long Underwear Review

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Todd Offenbacher on the first pitch of It's Better With Bacon.
Credit: Chris McNamara
We tested the long underwear that can handle the rugged stuff, keeping you warm and cozy while performing from the tops of mountains to the depths of caves. Sure, you can wear them for a run or to a Yoga class, but you can also take them around the world – skiing, climbing, biking, and just plain curling up by the campfire. We tested these tops on six of the major attributes we think base layers should have, from layering ability, to warmth, to breathability. We rated their fit, their durability, their coziness, and their value. While all the tops have stellar features, there are some standouts. Read on to find out which base layer top is the best for your next adventure, be it Big Mountain skiing, sailing the Pacific, or cruising around town.

Read the full review below >

Review by: and Emily Zell

Top Ranked Long Underwear - Men's Displaying 1 - 5 of 5 << Previous | View All | Next >>
Our Ranking #1 #2 #3 #4 #5
Product Name
Smartwool Midweight Crew
Smartwool Midweight Crew
Read the Review
Arc'teryx RHO LT Zip
Arc'teryx RHO LT Zip
Read the Review
Patagonia Capilene 3 Crew
Patagonia Capilene 3 Crew
Read the Review
Under Armour Base 2.0
Under Armour Base 2.0
Read the Review
Icebreaker Bodyfit 200 Oasis
Icebreaker Bodyfit 200 Oasis
Read the Review
Editors' Awards  Editors' Choice Award  Top Pick Award  Best Buy Award     
Street Price Varies $79 - $95
Compare at 6 sellers
$119
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Varies $38 - $55
Compare at 7 sellers
Varies $49 - $55
Compare at 4 sellers
Varies $80 - $90
Compare at 2 sellers
Overall Score 
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100% recommend it (2/2)
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Pros Natural wool fiber VERY soft and cozy, breathable, durable, fitted, stylish designExcellent quality stitching and material, excellent breathability, fit is long enough and lean enough, super cozy and soft material, good temp. regulation – fast drying, doesn’t shrink or pill in washVersatile, high quality and dependable, great temperature regulationVery light, quick-drying, soft, waffle fabric is very cozy, feminine details with contrast stitching and ribbon on the hem.Natural fiber, warm, good breathability, track the sheep it came from!
Cons Expensive, limited color optionsZip mock neck makes it more limited with layering, too heavy for highly aerobic activity, expensiveSynthetic material is not soft, can shrink in length when washed, very tight around the neck, nothing special about the design, very basicRides up at the waist, not as versatile.Loose fit, tight neckline, expensive.
Best Uses Camping, climbing, bouldering, hiking, skiing, winter sports, walking backpacking, horseback riding, kayaking, rowing, trail running, gym workouts, sailingCamping, climbing, bouldering, hiking, skiing, winter sports, walking Pre/Post exercise, backpacking, horseback ridingCamping, climbing, bouldering, hiking, skiing, winter sports, backpacking, horseback riding, kayaking, rowing, sailing, trail runningCamping, hiking, skiing, winter sports, walking Backpacking, horseback riding, yoga, pilates, gym workouts.Hiking, climbing, camping, backpacking, horseback riding, sailing, kayaking, mountain biking, skiing, winter sports.
Date Reviewed Jun 17, 2011Jun 19, 2014Jun 19, 2011Jun 17, 2011Jun 16, 2011
Weighted Scores Smartwool Midweight Crew Arc'teryx RHO LT Zip Patagonia Capilene 3 Crew Under Armour Base 2.0 Icebreaker Bodyfit 200 Oasis
STYLE And FIT - 10%
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WARMTH And TEMP REGULATION - 10%
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LAYERING ABILITY - 10%
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Softness And Cozyness - 10%
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DURABILITY - 10%
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BREATHABILITY - 10%
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DRYING SPEED - 10%
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VERSATILITY - 10%
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EASE OF MOVEMENT - 10%
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VALUE - 10%
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OutdoorGearLab Editors' Hands-on Review


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Warm and Temperature Regulation
It could be argued that the principle point for wearing a base layer is for added warmth. True in many cases, but also important is some versatility in case the mercury rises. And believe it or not, there are some tops capable of keeping you warm, but also staying surprisingly cool. The best one to accomplish such a feat was the Arc'teryx RHO LT Zip. In fact, I was floored at how warm this top was when I needed it to be, but also never feel heavy or stifling. I was able to keep it on long after I was panting and sweaty. A close second to the Arc'teryx in this department is the Smartwool Midweight Crew, also the most versatile of the five tops tested.

All of the tops kept me warm to some degree, but the others felt more limited in their range of temperature vs. comfort, and therefore more specifically suited to certain climates. For instance, the Patagonia Capilene 3 breathes well, but was limited in temperature regulation versatility and is really best for cooler temperatures.

Breathability and Drying Speed
Of course, temperature regulation is achieved through a garment's breathability and aided by its drying speed. In both cases, the Patagonia and Smartwool base layers performed the best, with the Patagonia's "Polartec Powerdry" material giving it the slight advantage.

The Icebreaker Nature 200 top is also Merino Wool (like the Smartwool top), and dried faster than the Arc'teryx, but for some reason did not seem to breathe quite as well as either the Arc'teryx or the Smartwool. On par with the Nature 200 in this category is the Under Armour Base 2.0, which dries in a flash, breathes well, and is lightweight, but all at the expense of less warmth.

Durability
All the tops performed relatively well in this category. As far as washing and drying went, there was little to no shrinking, twisting or pilling. As far as outside the laundry mat, the Patagonia Capilene 3 and the Smartwool Midweight Crew scored equally on the durability tests. Both of these tops were the ones I chose for the dirtier, rougher stuff, especially when I wasn't layering anything on top of them. Climbing, hiking, and horseback riding are all well served by these two tops.

Layering Ability
While these base layers will presumably be the "next-to-skin" layer, it is an added bonus when you can wear a tank or tee underneath if you expect conditions to warm up.

While the Arc'teryx has a great fit and looks sweet, it is limited in the layering department. It is almost impossible to fit anything underneath it because of the tight fit, and the zipper at the neck and arm pocket accessibility discourage layering over it, unless with your outermost shell or jacket. Limited in the other direction is the Icebreaker Nature 200, due to its loose fit. I would rather wear this top as an outer layer instead of trying to stuff it under anything.

The winner here again (and no, they aren't paying me) is the Smartwool Midweight Crew. It is fitted enough to easily slip layers over it, and has enough stretch to fit a tee or tank under. The seams add a nice contour to the fit, and the wider cuffs add style points and comfort. This is a top I easily chose to wear out to dinner or to a museum, as well as one I didn't hesitate to get dirty.

Softness and Cozyness
It turns out that two of the lightest tops are also the softest – the Under Armour Base 2.0 and the Arc'teryx RHO. The Base 2.0 scores a solid 10 for softness, and is definitely reminiscent of long underwear or even pajamas. This is the perfect top for camping or not-too-cold snowy adventures (the kind that end with warm drinks in the lodge).

The top that was the least soft and cozy was the Capilene 3. I found the material to be quite stiff and restrictive.

Style/Fit and Versatility
We scored these categories separately, but really they are somewhat related. We wanted to score these base layers on two types of versatility, both within outdoor adventures and in the sport-to-street crossover. In the former, a base layer's look might not be at the top of your list, and in the latter, style points play a big role. Hence the grouping here.

While the Under Armour Base 2.0 - Women's has a cool, almost vintage style and can be worn as an everyday top, it's lightweight and femine looks limit it in the sports world. And while the Patagonia Capilene 3 can be used for almost any adventure, it isn't anything special to look at.

The Smartwool Midweight Crew is a great option for different sports and for everyday. The seams add a nice contour to the fit, and the wider cuffs add style points and comfort. This is a top I easily chose to wear out to dinner or to a museum, as well as one I didn't hesitate to get dirty. It is flattering and feminine while also tough and totally practical.

Accessories
Keeping your legs warm is also important. Long underwear bottoms are the perfect article of clothing to slip on under your regular pants. The Smartwool Midweight Bottom and the Arc'teryx Rho AR Bottom are both very warm options as well as soft and cozy. For a less expensive option, check out the Patagonia Capilene 3 Midweight Bottoms.

History of Long Underwear

The history of Men's long underwear is a surprisingly entertaining journey that takes us from the earliest forms of underwear (the loin cloth), to the evolution of the 'Union Suit' (aka the Onesie), to fancy body temperature regulating technologies used today. Find out where the name 'Long John's' unofficial comes from, and how our long underwear evolved into what it is today.

The clothing industry has come quite a long way since ancient times where we would see our ancestors donning just a loin cloth - the first form of underwear known to man. Moving on from the loin cloth, we saw underwear getting a little looser. By the Middle Ages, the loincloth was replaced by trouser-type of clothing called braies, which was a loose fitting pant that one would step into and tie at the waist. Starting as a longer form of clothing, shorter braies were developed to accommodate men wearing chausses (a form of chain mail that would extend past the knee and cover the whole leg). Not only that, but a front flap with a button was usually added to accommodate urination. Following the middle ages, braies and chausses were replaced by simple cotton, lace, and linen shorts.

At the end of the 18th century, the spinning jenny machine and the cotton gin machines revolutionized the undergarment industry. Underwear was able finally be massed produced, and cotton was a favorite fiber of choice. By 1868, the first Union Suit was patented in Utica, New York. It was a one piece suit made from knitted material like cotton or polyester that had long sleeves and legs. It also had a flap in the back, and a slot in the front so you didn't have to take them off going to the bathroom. When we think of these today, we think of the bright red 'Onesie' with the butt flap and built in socks. Take away the built in socks, and you've got the Union Suit - a precursor to what we know as long-johns or long underwear.

By the early 20th century, mass underwear production was booming and union suits were being pumped out. The time to make one unit dropped from days to minutes, and Hanes was ruling the union suit world. In 1910, the Chalmers Knitting company split up the Union Suit into two parts - a top and bottom - the first real undershirt and boxers. In 1915, a Canadian named Frank Stanfield came up with Stanfield's Unshrinkable Underwear - the first pre-shrunk long underwear. In 1920, manufacturers made a sweeping shift to making comfort versus durability a priority. A new woven stiff cotton fabric called nainsook gained popularity and new designs were toyed with, incorporating different slots and buttons to make the garment more accessible.

During WWII, polyester and wool blend long underwear were developed for soldiers. As happy as they were for warmth, they complained deeply about how itchy these garments felt on their skin. Being made of a course, heavy polyester fiber, they weren't only itchy, but ridiculously warm and unbreathable. The addition warmth causes perspiration which made the 'itchy' problem worse. These types of long underwear were just way too hot, itchy, and unbreathable.

This super itchy and uncomfortable long underwear inspired a search to use a finer wool fiber to make the underwear both warm and comfortable. Jumping ahead to where we are today, we see that long underwear has come quite a long way. Instead of being itchy, unbreathable, and way too hot, we have pieces that are breathable, use your sweat as an insulator, and feel good on your skin.

Technologies like Smartwool, Capilene, Under Armour, and Ice Breaker all utilize different technologies but have similar intents. Wool blends, like those used in SmartWool differ from historical models in that the wool's fiber is much more fine. This makes it softer, thinner, and incorporates a level of warmth that is necessary, and not overbearing. Technologies like Capilene are synthetics that incorporate plastics and other textiles that make it more versatile and great temperature regulators.

Over the last years, we have come quite a long way. Evolving from just a piece of cloth to fancy materials with fun colors and added comfort features, long underwear sure does have a long history.

Fun Fact: Where did the term 'Long Johns' come from?
John Lawrence Sullivan was a heavyweight boxing champion from 1882 to 1892. He was known as the Boston Strong Boy and made quite an impact in both the boxing world and the fashion industry. During each match, he would wear one-piece thermals (aka the Union Suit) in the ring. He would even tuck these bad boys into his socks. As he got more popular, the thermals become known as 'long johns'. As the unofficial history tells it, this is how these cozy undergarments got their name.

The Bottom Line
Probably no surprise here: our Editor's Choice Award goes to the Smartwool Midweight Crew. In all honesty, it was difficult to find anything we didn't like about this baselayer. It is durable, provides excellent breathability and temperature regulation, looks good, and is totally versatile. While more expensive than some of the other tops, it proved to be well worth its cost. This is the baselayer to buy if you can only have one in your life, and if you can have more, it needs to be in the arsenal.

A close second is the Arc'teryx RHO LT Zip, which is a top performer, but is a bit more expensive. If money is not an issue, and you can add this top to your base layer collection, we recommend doing so.

The Best Buy Award goes to the Patagonia Capilene 3 Crew because it is a durable, versatile base layer that will withstand the test of time and not empty your pocketbook. Backed by the brand name and company reputation, it is a safe bet that will perform well.

The Coolest Original Feature Award, Non-Performance-Related, goes to the Icebreaker Bodyfit 200 Oasis for its traceable sheep donor project. What can we say besides: cool.

Chris McNamara and Emily Zell
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