The Best Long Underwear and Base Layer for Men Review

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Soaking in the view but not a sunburn with the UPF 50+, Editors' Choice, Smartwool NTS Mid 250 Crew. Zion N.P., UT
Credit: Drew Smith
There is an overwhelming array of options in the base layer marketplace. It seems as if every company has their own proprietary technology that they proclaim is the best ever created; all the while prices creep upwards. To make sense of this bewildering situation, we took eight of the most popular men's long underwear tops through a battery of tests. They've endured a lot this winter; from the gentle groomers of the bunny slope to literal alpine first ascents on 13,000 ft peaks. Throughout the process we explored the differences between options using a variety of metrics including warmth, breathability, comfort, layering, and durability. We put them through a geeky drying speed experiment and did our best to objectively evaluate their styling. Despite fierce competition, a best overall base layer was awarded along with selections for best value and most versatile. Read on to learn which bottom layer came out on top.

Read the full review below >

Review by: ⋅ Review Editor, OutdoorGearLab

Top Ranked Long Underwear - Men's

Displaying 1 - 5 of 8 << Previous | View All | Next >>
Our Ranking #1 #2 #3 #4 #5
Product Name
Smartwool NTS Mid 250 Crew
Smartwool NTS Mid 250 Crew
Read the Review
Patagonia Capilene 4 Expedition Weight 1/4 Zip Hoody
Patagonia Capilene 4 Expedition Weight 1/4 Zip Hoody
Read the Review
Icebreaker Oasis
Icebreaker Oasis
Read the Review
Patagonia Merino 2 Lightweight Henley
Patagonia Merino 2 Lightweight Henley
Read the Review
Patagonia Capilene 3 Crew
Patagonia Capilene 3 Crew
Read the Review
Editors' Awards  Editors' Choice Award  Top Pick Award      Best Buy Award 
Street Price Varies $70 - $105
Compare at 4 sellers
Varies $83 - $84
Compare at 3 sellers
Varies $41 - $90
Compare at 8 sellers
Varies $58 - $90
Compare at 5 sellers
Varies $38 - $59
Compare at 6 sellers
Overall Score 
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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 Extremely comfortable, warm for the weight, stylish, dries quickly, odor resistantVery comfortable, excellent warmth for the weight, highly breathable, long zipper, attached hood, hidden thumb loopsComfortable, good warmth for the weight, resists odors, dries quickly, breathes well, attractive stylingLight, fast-drying, hidden thumb loops, very breathable, comfortable, resists odors, hipster stylingModerately priced, very durable, well rounded performance
Cons Expensive, limited durabilityBulky when packed, expensive, susceptible to abrasionExpensive, limited durabilityLess warm, limited durability, wash with care, hipster stylingLower performance than merino wool, can get stinky
Best Uses Looking good and working hardWinter base layer, thin insulating layer, high output winter activitiesWinter base layer, vegging around the houseA winter base layer for camping, skiing, mountaineering, ski-mountaineering, yoga, walking, mustaches, and everything in betweenRugged manly activities like mountaineering, or gentler manly stuff like yoga class
Date Reviewed Mar 30, 2015Mar 30, 2015Mar 30, 2015Mar 30, 2015Mar 30, 2015
Weighted Scores Smartwool NTS Mid 250 Crew Patagonia Capilene 4 Expedition Weight 1/4 Zip Hoody Icebreaker Oasis Patagonia Merino 2 Lightweight Henley Patagonia Capilene 3 Crew
Warmth - 20%
10
0
8
10
0
10
10
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7
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6
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7
Breathability - 20%
10
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8
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8
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9
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9
10
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7
Drying Speed - 20%
10
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9
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7
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9
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10
10
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8
Layering Ability - 10%
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7
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9
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7
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8
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7
Comfort And Fit - 15%
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10
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8
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9
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8
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8
Durability - 15%
10
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7
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7
10
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7
10
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7
10
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9
Product Specs Smartwool NTS Mid 250 Crew Patagonia Capilene 4 Expedition Weight 1/4 Zip Hoody Icebreaker Oasis Patagonia Merino 2 Lightweight Henley Patagonia Capilene 3 Crew
Material 100% wool 91% polyester / 9% spandex 100% wool 80% merino / 20% capilene 100% polyester
Weight 8.7 oz 8.9 oz 8.2 oz 7.1 oz 8.1 oz
Zip Neck Option? Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Thumb Loops? No Yes No Yes Yes
Air Dry Test (hours) 8.5 12 9 7.5 10.5
UPF? Yes, 50+ No Yes, 50+ No No


OutdoorGearLab Editors' Hands-on Review



Selecting the Right Product


A good layering system is required to be safe and comfortable in the outdoors. The foundation of the modern layering system is next-to-skin long underwear. This appropriately named 'base layer' has arguably the greatest impact on your comfort during active pursuits. It is the only piece that comes in close contact with your skin. Small defects in design, like chafing stitches or an improper fit, can become frustrating agonies during extended use.

Maintain some perspective, however, if a fabric is itchy you will be annoyed, but if it collects moisture and doesn't keep you warm when wet, you could be dead. It is for this reason that cotton has almost disappeared from technical outdoor apparel. But one of the shirts tested is marketed for outdoor winter use, yet still contains 60% of the stuff. We find this irresponsible. From this you should see that the selection of appropriate long underwear is more important than it may initially seem; both for your happiness and health.

To learn more about proper layering systems for outdoor activities, reference our three part layering systems article.

This review examines midweight layers, ideal for the three seasons outside summer. For lighter shirts that will work for running and other warm activities see The Best Performance Shirt Review. Thicker insulating options are examined in The Best Fleece Jacket for Men Review. See also The Best Women's Long Underwear Review.

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Gear testers discussing their next move during the first winter ascent of the north face of Peak 13,134 outside Ridgway, CO. Jack Cramer (orange) was impressed with the Cap 4 Hoody throughout their ordeal.
Credit: Drew Smith

Types of Base Layers


Wool vs. Synthetic


The most popular base layers today largely fall into two categories: wool or synthetic. Each offers their own set of advantages and disadvantages. Typically, wool in the premium long underwear marketplace means merino wool, which is made from a special breed of sheep with finer fibers that make it softer than the scratchy sweaters of old. It is warmer for the weight than synthetic, dries quickly, and will not absorb odors. It is, however, expensive, delicate, and an allergy to some.

The synthetic garments currently available are primarily composed of polyester, which is sometimes combined with a secondary material (spandex, elastane, etc.) to add specific design properties, like elasticity or warmth. Synthetics, although cheaper and more durable, offer lower performance in warmth and breathability, and can get stinky after awhile.

The world's most popular fabric, cotton, will not insulate when wet and can actually draw heat away from the body. This is what makes it so nice to wear in hot and humid climates, but also means it is inappropriate for use in the variable conditions found away from central heating. The prices are usually tempting, but taking cotton into an active outdoor setting is ill advised and potentially dangerous.

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Drew Smith traversing snow in the Smartwool NTS Mid 250 Crew on the north face of Peak 13,134 outside Ridgway, CO.
Credit: Jack Cramer

Thick vs. Thin


Selecting the right base layer is a balancing act because no piece can be all things at once. While testing this gear we came to the conclusion that the best way to predict a top's performance in many of our evaluation criteria was to feel whether it was thick or thin. This is, of course, a relative term: thick or thin compared to what? Well, compared to the other shirts reviewed. Overall we saw the thinner layers doing better in breathability and drying speed while generally costing less. But they predictably did worse in warmth and durability. The reverse was true for thicker tops.

So what does this mean for the discerning shopper? Match your selection to the expected conditions and exertion levels. If you like getting out a lot or doing different things, this may mean multiple purchases. Merino wool companies have made the decision making process easier by standardizing the way they sell their clothing. The descriptions typically include a measure of density for the fabric, usually in g/m˛. This practically translates to thickness. The lightest shirts come in at 100 g/m˛ while the thickest could be as high as 400 g/m˛ (the tops reviewed range from 165 to 250 g/m˛). This allows shoppers to more easily compare across brands or to pieces they already own.

The marketers of synthetics have also tried to do this, although not as precisely. Their tops are usually classified as light, mid, or expedition weight from thinnest to thickest. Comparison, however, is not always well calibrated between brands. Patagonia uses their own system for the Capilene line that ranges from 1 to 4 that can provide some guidance if you have one of their shirts on hand.

Whatever way you choose to measure it, you will still eventually have to decide which thickness you need. We suggest the thinnest tops for the heat of summer and vigorous activities. The usefulness of expedition weight layers may not extend far outside winter or low exertion stuff like ice fishing. For this review we selected mostly midweight shirts that should function in a broader range of situations.

Criteria for Evaluation


We did our best to compare each product using objective and measurable criteria. However, in some areas, like styling and comfort, this can be difficult. When deciding which base layer to get, your personal preferences should be more important than our opinions. Consider your own body type and intended uses as well. For more guidance on how to go about this process, please see our article How To Choose the Best Long Underwear and Base Layer Tops.

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Sometimes winter climbing involves gymnastic stretches. In this instance the Under Armour Base 2.0 performed well.
Credit: Drew Smith

Warmth


Warmth is an important consideration when selecting long underwear, but it should not be the only consideration. After all, if warmth were all that mattered, we would all be sweltering in down, one-piece, jumpsuits. Rather, warmth must be combined with breathability to create an effective layer that can be worn comfortably when active or at rest. Consider these two variables when selecting the best shirt for your intended use. High exertion activities or warmer temperatures may be better enjoyed in a lower warmth scoring product. Just like Goldilocks' porridge, long underwear should not be too hot, or too cold, but just right.

For our purposes, warmth was measured without consideration for weight. Each piece was rated according to the insulation they provide relative to the other products in this review. Generally wool layers were warmer for their weight than the synthetic counterparts. Apart from the 60% cotton Duofold Midweight Crew, all the other shirts will insulate when wet.

Complicating this evaluation criterion are tops with hoods, high collars, and thumb loops. Each of these features increases warmth and versatility, effectively making the garment wearable in a wider range of temps. These features, however, also add weight and bulk, and do affect the styling. They may not be desirable for everyone in a next-to-skin layer or for those with insulating or shell layers that also include these designs. Activities with lots of stop and go energy output, like backpacking or climbing, are ideal uses for tops with more of these temperature regulation options. Many of the crew neck tops tested are also available in versions with some or all of these features. See the 'Other Versions or Accessories' section of each individual review to find out.

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The hood closure on the Patagonia Capilene 4 Expedition Weight 1/4 Zip Hoody covers to just below the mouth. This lets you stay warm without getting a moist or frozen shirt.
Credit: Drew Smith

Breathability


Breathability is the yin to warmth's yang. While lying on the couch, who doesn't love warm, cozy clothing? But when on the move, your body starts to warm up, and that heat needs to escape, or you will be trapped in a nightmare of sweat. This is where breathability becomes important. Defined as the ability of a fabric to allow moisture vapor to pass through it; a breathable shirt will allow the moist air produced from perspiration to escape through the material and into the environment without saturating the fabric.

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The simple design of the Patagonia Cap 3 Crew (Red) was ok at keeping you warm during a break as long as the sun was out. Notice the tester in the more breathable Icebreaker Oasis (black) doesn't need to take breaks (or organize his pack...).
Credit: Drew Smith

The products we tested would all be considered breathable when compared to the laminated fabrics of waterproof shells, where this property is much more important and variable. If your intended use requires you to frequently wear one of those shells, such as cold weather kayaking or fishing, then the performance of your long underwear in this area is not very significant. Additionally, keep in mind that because these tops are so breathable they will not offer any protection from wind. For blustery conditions they will have to be paired with a hard/softshell or one of the ultra-light, nylon, wind shirts that are beginning to gain popularity.

Among the shirts reviewed, however, there were notable differences. The highest scoring in breathability was the Under Armor Base 2.0, whose thin, checkerboard fabric released moist air better than any others. The merino wool options also performed well and took longer to absorb moisture or feel wet than the synthetics of comparable thickness. On The North Face Expedition Long Sleeve Zip Neck the combination of thick synthetic fabric and tight fit resulted in the worst breathability.

Drying Speed


Getting wet in the outdoors is unavoidable. Whether it is from precipitation outside or sweat from within, your long underwear will eventually get wet, and when it does, the time that it takes to dry can have a significant impact on your comfort and warmth. Many of these products advertise proprietary technologies that speed drying, like the waffled Polartec® Power Dry® fabric of the Patagonia Capilene 4 Expedition Weight 1/4 Zip Hoody or the Moisture Transport System on Under Armor's Base 2.0. To cut through the baloney, we conducted an air dry test to measure each shirt's time to dry in a controlled setting.

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The air dry test. From left to right: Duofold Midweight Crew, Icebreaker Oasis, Under Armour Base 2.0, Patagonia Merino 2 Lightweight Henley, Patagonia Capilene 3 Crew, Patagonia Capilene 4 Expedition Weight 1/4 Zip Hoody, The North Face Expedition Long Sleeve Zip Neck, and the Smartwool NTS Mid 250 Crew.
Credit: Jack Cramer

This experiment was straightforward: we got all the tops completely soaked, hung them up, and watched how long it took them to dry. It was as boring as it sounds. The times we measured were not important in absolute terms. Your shirts will not be drying at the same temperature or humidity and probably will have a warm body to assist the process. Rather, it was the performance of each shirt relative to the others that was significant. For this reason, in our reviews we have changed the time in hours we recorded to a percentage comparable to the best or worse finisher. We think this is more fair and useful. Keep in mind, though, that some of the tight fitting tops, like the Under Armor Base 2.0, might have performed even better with the fabric stretched over a body, creating more space for air to pass between fibers, instead of simply being hung on a hanger.

From that experiment we came to one conclusion that now seems logical and obvious; thin fabrics dry faster than thicker fabrics. The Patagonia Merino 2 Lightweight Henley was the winner in this test and also happened to be the thinnest layer. It dried in less than half the time of the worst performers. Across all of the layers tested, thickness was a better predictor of performance than material or advertised features. This should be an important (and common sense) consideration for retail shoppers and heavy sweaters.

Our air dry test also corroborated merino wool manufacturers' claims that wool can absorb up to 30% of its own weight in moisture before feeling wet to the touch. Before starting the test, each of the shirts had to get soaked. The merino wool layers resisted, and had to be physically agitated underwater before they would become fully saturated.

Layering Ability


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The contrasting zippers of The North Face Expedition Long Sleeve Zip Neck (grey) and the Patagonia Capilene 4 Expedition Weight 1/4 Zip Hoody (blue). The Patagonia zipper is much more burly.
Credit: Jack Cramer
All of these tops can function well as a next-to-skin layer in the right conditions, some can also be worn over other garments should the situation warrants. The Patagonia Cap 4 Hoody and the TNF Expedition Long Sleeve stand out as the best over-the-top layering choices in this review. In fact, one tester preferred to use these thick shirts in this way. They both have a zipper, which we like for ventilation, but they make them a little less comfortable on the skin.

Besides the Merino 2 Henley's button neck, the rest of the field is crew necks that work best either next to the skin over just a thin t-shirt or tank. The Under Armor Base 2.0 was the exception. Its form fit prevents it from being comfortable on top of anything else. This category did not impact the overall review too much because it is not a true requirement for a base layer. Therefore, it only accounted for 10% of the overall score

Durability


The high cost of some of these pieces makes durability an important consideration. All are quality made and performed well in this category. There were no obvious failures in fabric or stitching. When examined from a long term view, however, it becomes likely that the synthetic options will outlast their wool counterparts. One of the testers liked to joke that merino wool layers make great golf shirts because pretty soon they all have 18 holes. This is certainly an exaggeration, but we did find the fabric more susceptible to scrapes and abrasion. The explanation for this is that the greater warmth of wool for the weight allows it to be sewn into a thinner garment then a comparably warm synthetic; predictably, durability suffers.

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Surface pilling starting on the sleeves of the Under Armour Base 2.0.
Credit: Jack Cramer
Another drawback of wool is the potential for shrinkage if laundered incorrectly, but if you don't toss it in the dryer on high, then this is not a concern. Conversely, wool is more durable in the sense that it doesn't absorb unpleasant odors; therefore, it shouldn't have to be washed as often.

The synthetic options all scored well on durability; so you can wash the stench they attract off without fear of wearing through the fabric. This longevity adds to their already superior value. A higher durability rating for some of these tops generally coincided with a greater thickness.

Comfort and Fit


A base layer's comfort and fit should probably be the most important selection factor, but, unfortunately, it is also the most subjective to evaluate. For this review we tried to consult with testers from a range of body types and interests to fairly assess what is often a personal opinion. Small details, like the pattern of stitching or a piece's tendency to hold a static charge, became important considerations. The amount a top rose at the waist with arms overhead, which untucked the shirt and exposed the stomach to cold, was another objective measure we explored.

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Subtle difference in the shoulder stitching of the Smartwool NTS Mid 250 Crew (tan) and the Icebreaker Oasis (blue). The more comfortable curved stitching on the Smartwool was the deciding difference between these two great layers.
Credit: Jack Cramer
In the end, most of the tested products performed quite well. They all are sewn with flatlock seams which don't overlap and are far less likely to chafe than the coverstitch of a regular t-shirt. This may not help you differentiate between any of the layers in this review, but it is important to consider should you do some shopping outside our selections. The fabrics used were all soft and cozy, although more of our testers preferred merino wool to synthetics. However, the unique fleece lining of TNF Long Sleeve was the exception and was universally recognized as the comfiest.

Subtle differences in the pattern of the shoulder stitching on the Smartwool NTS Mid 250 Crew made it more comfortable to wear with a pack than the Icebreaker Oasis. This became an important factor in the close competition between these two excellent tops for best overall base layer and illustrates the level of detail we sometimes have to go into to make decisions. The only real loser in the comfort and fit metric was the Base 2.0. Several testers felt it unpleasantly constricted their armpits, causing chafing and irritation.

Editors' Choice Award: Smartwool NTS 250 Crew


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Jack Cramer in the casual occasion appropriate Smartwool NTS Mid 250 Crew on the South rim of the Grand Canyon.
Credit: Dave Cramer
After all the blood, sweat, and testing, we were able to choose one clear winner, merino wool, and specifically, the Smartwool NTS Mid 250 Crew. Merino wool's advantages over synthetics in warmth and breathability make it our favorite long underwear fabric, and the NTS 250 Crew's stylish construction and attention to detail bring it out on top. We particularly like the slim-fit waist (which helps it stay down when active), the gentle stretch of its 250 g/m˛ wool, and the design of the shoulder (no stitching where a pack might rub). These details place it slightly ahead of the Icebreaker Oasis, another great top that deserves mention for finishing #1B, rather than second. Some of the others are more versatile or better suited for a particular use, but if we could only have one base layer, the NTS 250 Crew would be it.

Best Buy Award: Patagonia Capilene 3 Midweight Crew


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Coiling the rope in the Patagonia Capilene 3 Crew, Zion N.P., UT. We liked this multi-functional top as much for winter as for the mild days of spring and fall.
Credit: Drew Smith
Taking home the prize for best value in our base layer review is Patagonia's Capilene 3 Midweight Crew. This top includes many of the qualities we like about the higher scoring merino wool pieces but at nearly half the price. Additionally, it fits well and received the second highest score in durability. The polyester-based Capilene fabric is soft against the skin and will not irritate those with wool allergies. The hidden thumb loops it includes give the wearer the option of greater warmth without any aesthetic issues. Although its score was only good enough for 5th overall, the absolute difference between it and the highest performers was marginal. That, along with its position as an outlier on our Price-Value Chart, are the reasons it ultimately takes home the Best Buy Award.

Top Pick Award for Versatility: Patagonia Capilene 4 Expedition Weight Hoody


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Patagonia's R1 hoody has long been popular with serious climbers. Now with the Capilene 4 Expedition Weight 1/4 Zip Hoody they have made the same beloved design features available in a lighter weight, more casual piece (that still climbs well).
Credit: Drew Smith
When the snow started to fall or the winds picked up, we consistently reached for the Patagonia Capilene 4 Expedition Weight 1/4 Zip Hoody, which is why it took home our Top Pick award for versatility. The built-in hood, thumb loops, and quarter length zipper have long been appreciated in Patagonia's insulation level R1 Hoody. The inclusion of these features in a base layer allowed our testers to regulate their body temperatures by adjusting their primary layer instead, which is often all you're wearing.

Additionally, the well-designed fit allowed it to be worn comfortably on the skin or over another top. This piece is what we would choose for start and stop activities, like backcountry skiing or alpine climbing. The chest pocket it includes is the only one found on any base layer in our review. We like it for keeping a music player or camera battery warm and working on really cold days. All of these things combined into one quality shirt really separated it from the field in versatility.

Best for Specific Applications


Wool Allergy: Anyone who is physically bothered by the itchiness of merino wool should first consider Patagonia's Cap 3 Crew and Cap 4 Hoody.
Team Sports: Traditional sports athletes competing in cold weather will probably appreciate the breathability of Under Armor's form fitting Base 2.0.
Casual around town/aesthetic We think Smartwool's NTS Mid 250 Crew is the most stylish of all the tops and makes the best gift for the fashion conscious because it lacks the company logo on the left sleeve that the Icebreaker Oasis has.

Jack Cramer