Our next to skin experts have tested 26 different women's base layer tops over the last 5 years. To stay current in 2020, we chose the best 12 to pit against each other in a side-by-side comparison in this review. Put to the test, each has been worn while sailing on the North Sea, ski touring in the Rocky Mountains, running across the USA, and climbing up huge big walls in the desert. In addition to our intensive field testing, we compare performance metrics, which we use to score each product. Since we purchase each product to test at retail prices, we can offer unbiased recommendations to help you find the best performing next-to-skin layer, whatever your adventure.Related: The Best Long Underwear Bottoms for Women
The Best Base Layers for Women of 2020
Smartwool Merino 250 1/4 Zip - Women's
Wear this super comfy midweight top from the trail to your bed. The Smartwool Merino 250 ¼ Zip has fantastic comfort and versatility. Loaded with 100% natural Merino wool fibers, it provides one of the most extensive ranges of thermoregulation tested. It functions well as a long underwear top and a wear-alone top in temperatures ranging from the double negative digits to highs of 70 degrees Fahrenheit. It outperforms every other shirt in this review because of its ability to keep us dry and comfortable when conditions went from warm to cold and wet to dry. The fabric wicks away moisture, dries quickly when on, and doesn't stink.
While the fabric is soft and cozy, the only thing that it truly lacks is durability against abrasive activities (we're yet to find a merino wool top that does). Also, when it gets wet, it absorbs quite a bit of water due to its thicker fabric. Then again, it can still insulate your body when soaked. Aside from these minor caveats, it performs wonderfully in all conditions and will keep you warm and comfortable out in the wild.
Read review: Smartwool Merino 250 1/4 Zip - Women's
Best Bang for Your Buck
Patagonia Capilene Midweight Crew - Women's
If the price is your biggest concern, focus your attention on this beautiful 100% polyester base layer top. Designed to wick away moisture and dry quickly, it offers great thermoregulation for even your sweatiest days. It offers a relaxed fit that flares out around the hips, accommodating all types of shapes. The smooth face fabric and nifty thumb loops also making layering underneath a fleece or any other layer super easy. Whether you're planning to wear it on its own or underneath another jacket, it offers many different patterns and colors to choose from, and the synthetic fibers offer more durability than merino options. Beauty and function all wrapped into one inexpensive package.
The downside? While there aren't many to this classic workhorse, the major difference we noticed between it and other merino base layers is its general feeling. When on, it feels comfortable, even when you sweat, it feels comfortable. However, because it integrates hollow fibers, cold air gets caught in them. So when you pull it on for the first time, it feels colder than other layers. However, once you start moving, it warms up with you. It's a relatively low-priced top that effectively moves moisture away from your body as you get after it out there. Nice.
Read review: Patagonia Capilene Midweight Crew - Women's
Best Value for Merino Wool
Roman Trail Outfitters Merino Long Sleeve - Women's
The Roman Trail Outfitter Merino Long Sleeve is a merino wool top that comes at a retail price almost 50% less than other contenders. Its a super light base layer with superior wicking and breathability. It feels soft against the skin for all-day use. It kept us bone dry while running through both warm and cold temperatures. If you're a woman that loves a great deal and lightweight base layers, this is one you've gotta try. Not only does it perform well in the winter, but it can provide a little extra in the summer. The brand might not be familiar, but it's GearLab tested and approved.
Given its uber lightweight design, it doesn't offer much stand-alone warmth. While it advertises 160-g of merino wool, we have tested other tops with this level of merino wool that are warmer. It also pilled after just a few washes, which didn't affect performance but made the top look worn after just a month of use. We also don't like that the beige color we tested is translucent. This had us wearing a tank top underneath when we wanted to wear it on its own. If you decide to purchase this lightweight award winner, be sure to order a darker color if it's available, and enjoy the benefits of merino wool at a digestible price.
Read review: Roman Trail Outfitters Merino Long Sleeve - Women's
Best Synthetic Base Layer
Arc'teryx Rho LT Zip - Women's
After testing this piece for the last six years, it stands out as our go-to for all technical missions. The interior is fleece lined with wicking power that does a good job moving moisture. We love the fitted design that is stretchy and incredibly easy to layer, with a zip-neck fit for optional venting purposes. It's one of the most versatile base layer tops we've tested, performing well from ski tours in Colorado to mega rafting missions in the Grand Canyon. As is true with most synthetics, even after six years of hard wear, it shows minimal signs of durable. Tried, tested, and truly awesome.
This base layer doesn't offer the same level of breathability since the interior fleece layer that sits next to the skin can hold a little moisture when layered. Its high price isn't a huge plus either. However, given that this is one of the most time-tested pieces that we've had the opportunity of using, the value of performance you get out of it is definitely worth the price.
Read review: Arc'teryx Rho LT Zip - Women's
Why You Should Trust Us
Our testing team is led by Amber King. As a seasoned gear reviewer, she has worked with OutdoorGearLab for over six years, reviewing many different categories that reflect her tenacity and experience in the outdoors. She is a contracted outdoor education teacher that works with several school districts like Ridgway Schools to offer exceptional outdoor programming. She spends her time backpacking into remote places, canyoneering through slots deep in the earth, and finding cool trails to run around the world. Badass women she meets along her adventures become additional testers to provide unbiased, diverse, and genuine feedback on all base layer tops tested.
All of the base layers tested have been used for at least three months up to six or more years. When we go to make our selection, we take hours researching the best options on the market, then select the best ones to test against our award winners. Our testing involves wearing them everywhere we go. We've tested across the world, from the high glaciers of Alaska to the rainy and cool landscapes of Iceland. Trailrunning, backpacking, rafting, climbing, backcountry splitboarding, and hiking are just a few ways we've tested them. We take each layer on some bushwhacking hikes just to see how the fabric holds up when worn on its own. We also conduct objective tests to see how the fabric breathes and thermoregulates.
Related: How We Tested Base Layer for Women
Analysis and Test Results
A base layer top is an integral part of any women's outdoor wardrobe. This piece sits closest to the skin, wicks away moisture, and ultimately keeps you warm and comfortable while tackling summits and lounging around the chalet. The base layer tops we chose are composed of either synthetic materials, merino wool, or a blend. No tops in this review contain cotton. Throughout testing, we rated each product using five key metrics: warmth, breathability, comfort & fit, layering ability, and durability. Our award winners either perform well in all or have a specialty for different uses.
Wondering which top offers the best performance relative to its price? While the MSRP doesn't factor into our scoring metrics, we know just how important the performance received per dollar spent is. Typically, the largest trade-off in this category lies in the materials used. Merino wool tends to cost manufacturers more money than synthetic fabrics, and this higher price is passed on to the consumer. The Roman Trails Outfitters top is a merino top that retails for almost 50% less of our top award winners. However, its thin materials make it less durable. While the upfront cost is lower, the longevity of the top doesn't compare to higher-priced options that have already lasted us several years. That said, it's the cheapest merino wool we've found on the market and a Best Buy Award winner.
Two of the lowest-priced models in this review are synthetic tops, which present impeccable value. This includes our Patagonia Capilene Midweight, our Best buy winner and REI Midweight, which is also worthy of consideration. The REI option costs a little less than the Capilene, but it is at the price of performance and warmth. Both being crew tops, they cost less than zipping and hooded tops, so if you don't need those features, you can save some cash. Lastly, base layer tops often get color updates at least once a year. When that happens, it's a great time to snag the older colors at a friendly discount, making those pricey merino wool models more affordable.
How many times have you started hiking, gotten your sweat on, then stopped only to shiver into movement once again? The tops that can keep you the warmest are those that will keep you warm while in action and while standing still. Different tops offer different weights of fabric and are rated based on this. High weight can be interpreted as thicker with more insulation. A heavy or expeditionary weight equates to more warmth while standing still and sitting around. The downside, however, is thicker fabrics typically hold more moisture than thinner ones, so they're not the best for activities where you might find yourself sweating. In general, if you know you're going to be sitting around in cold weather, choose a thicker option. If you think you're going to be moving a lot more with periodic breaks in cold weather, choose a thinner option.
When comparing fabrics, Merino wool stands out as the best thermoregulator. When looking at comparative weights, it offers more insulating warmth and breathability, which equates to better thermoregulation overall. For example, the Smartwool Merino 250 1/4 Zip is the warmest and most insulating base layer in this review, packing in 250-grams of merino wool. The WoolX Hannah is just a little lighter (230-g), but on the trail feels like it delivers the same amount of warmth. Both kept us warm while running in the snow and skiing up mountains as an underlayer.
Some tops that are marketed as 'lightweight' actually feel more like a midweight and earned a high score as well. For example, the Icebreaker Oasis (200-g) and Ortovox Rock n' Wool (185-g) are both rated to a certain merino wool density. However, even the Rock n' Wool advertises a lower warmth rating, it feels warmer than the Oasis, which feels more like a lightweight base-layer given its thinner feeling design. Both offer great thermoregulation while testing on snowy trail runs and climbs in Red Rocks, Nevada.
All shirts did an excellent job at wicking away moisture for quick evaporation, except for the 240g Kari Traa Rose because of it's super tight-knit construction. Unlike the Arc'teryx Rho LT, which is constructed with a fleece layer to increase wicking capabilities (to keep moisture off the skin), the Traa Rose is too tight-knit. While its a very warm top (240 g, merino wool), it loses points simply because moisture would stay in the fabric. As soon as we slowed down after sweating, we would immediately feel cold.
The only merino-synthetic blend top that earns high points in this category is the Patagonia Capilene Air (147-g). Constructed of 51% merino wool and 49% recycled polyester, it provides a warmth that is almost as good as the Smartwool Merino 250 ¼ Zip. Whether you're sitting or running around, the fabrics wick amazingly well while the unique knit of the fabric holds warmth when it needs to. The Smartwool Merino 150 is another super lightweight (150-gram) top with a synthetic construction. It, like the Roman Outfitters merino wool top, doesn't insulate but does an excellent job wicking away moisture. Both are great if you add a little extra insulation to your layered system, with the Smartwool 150 providing more warmth than the Roman Outfitters model.
Through our testing, most of the polyester tops we've tested don't offer the same 'sitting around' warmth as merino wool. Many are constructed with hollow-polyester fibers. When it's cold in the morning, and you pull the top on, it won't feel as cozy as a merino wool option simply because all the cold air is locked inside the fibers, cooling you down as well. However, when you start to move around, the top heats up with you. When moving from warm to cold, these tops typically adapt to their environment more readily than Merino wool. If you're wearing a polyester layer alone, while running or hiking, going from hot to cold, you'll also notice a drop in body temperature as well.
While this trend is true for most synthetic tops, some keep warm better than others. The Arc'teryx Rho LT is our favorite synthetic because it integrates a fleece lining, which increases wicking power and provides a thermal barrier between the skin and the shirt. No other base layer top provides this level of warmth and comfort in the realm of synthetic construction.
The Patagonia Capilene Midweight Crew offers more warmth than the REI Co-op Midweight simply because of the thickness and construction of the fabric. While the Co-op provides ample airflow, the fabric feels cooler on the skin than the Capilene. Both offer great drying speeds, though, so if you find yourself in a warm environment, you can take off your top, and it'll be dry in seconds, ultimately keeping you warmer and more comfortable.
The yang to warmth's ying. Without great breathability, you're not going to have great warmth while playing in cool weather. A key metric for thermoregulation, this defines how well the fabric allows heat to escape in addition to its venting capabilities. When worn in a layered system, breathability enables fabrics to move moisture from the skin and through the fabric to the next layer.
The best breathers are those constructed with thinner materials and fabric knit that isn't too tight to allow moisture to escape. The two that stand out in this metric include the Roman Trail Outfitters Merino Wool Crew and the REI Co-op Silk V-Neck. The REI Silk V-neck actually wicks and breathes a little better than the Roman Trail Outfitter because it's ridiculously light (only 2.4 oz) and has plenty of holes for ventilation through the fabric. Silk is also known for its superior wicking qualities. The Roman Outfitters is a little warmer, providing a wider range of thermoregulation, but because of its loosely woven fabrics, it also vents well. We'd use both for summer wear but would leave the REI Co-op Silk at home in the winter. With a nicely layered system, the Roman Trail Outfitters also does good work under a fleece or jacket.
The Smartwool Merino 150 crew is a favorite for its lightweight construction that is far more durable than the Roman Trail Outfitters because of the integration of Nylon into its construction. The weave, while breathable, isn't as loose as the Roman Outfitters, meaning there aren't as many holes in the fabric for ventilation. Both wick about equally. If you want more durable construction, we'd recommend the Smartwool Merino 150 crew, but you won't be able to use this lightweight base layer when temperatures really start to heat up in the summer. The construction is too tightly woven and you'll find yourself taking it off.
The Patagonia Capilene Air Crew features a loose weave that does an impeccable job wicking and offloading moisture. This top is thicker than the above lightweight contenders, but the fibers are full of air. This will keep you cool, but it's not really suitable for full summer use because of its level of insulation. Through the shoulder seasons and winter, it's hard to beat because of its massive range of thermoregulation.
The 100% synthetic construction of the Patagonia Midweight Capilene is also quite breathable. Its diamond-grid architecture promotes great airflow with a face fabric that cuts the win when worn on its own. The REI Midweight (synthetic as well) also offers great airflow, but while hiking and skiing, we noticed that it helped more moisture in its fabric than the Capilene. Another reason why the Capilene wins our Best Buy Award, even though Co-op is more affordable.
The Smartwool Merino 250 ¼ Zip, Icebreaker Oasis, and Ortovox Rock n' Wool all offer the same level of performance here. The Smartwool Merino 250 has a loosely knit fabric design but thicker fabrics than either the Ortovox Oasis or Rock n' Wool. The Oasis feels thinner than the Rock n' Wool but has a tighter knit construction. All three of these options breathe well, but when put underneath a non-breathable layer, they all absorb a little moisture, unlike the REI Silk V-neck and Roman Outfitters Merino Wool.
Comfort & Fit
Ah, comfort…it's the little things that count. What's better than wrapping yourself in fabrics that are as soft and smooth as Cashmere for everything from on the trail to at-home comfort? When testing this metric, we assessed each top to determine which had the coziest fabrics and the most versatile fit. In most cases, this testing was the easiest - lazing about watching movies, hanging out around the campfire, going out with friends, and seeing how fabrics feel after day four of constant wear with no wash. In general, we love Merino wool tops with a fitted, stretchy design simply because they offer comfort both while playing and sitting at home. These, you can truly go from the hills to your bed without taking it off.
The truly cozy and cuddle-worthy Smartwool 250 Zip is the most comfortable fabric in this review. It features 250g of natural 100% New Zealand merino wool, a bit of stretch, and thicker cuffs and hemlines. It feels glorious against the skin with no itch and simply sheer comfort. We also love the Patagonia Capilene Air that hosts a gauntlet of comforts, but the neckline is a little high, and the fabrics aren't quite as cozy on the skin.
The Ortovox Rock n' Wool is another top with a lighter construction. It offers a fitted yet comfortable shape with fabrics that feel thin and insulate well. We commonly wore this while running snowy roads in late Fall. Upon coming home, there was no need to take it off as the fabric doesn't retain smells, and the fabric feels so good on the skin.
The Icebreaker Oasis 200 and Arc'teryx Rho LT are also seriously cozy. While the Oasis 200 is a little thinner than the Rock n' Wool with a tighter knit fabric, it is not as cozy on the skin. However, we do love that the Arc'teryx Rho LT has a fleece liner on the inside of the shift that feels amazing. Unfortunately, while you can wear the Oasis from the trail into the house, we found ourselves wanting to peel off the Rho simply because the synthetic fabrics can feel a little cold after cooling down.Fit
When looking at fit, we handed these shirts to a group of women that varied in height, weight, and body shape. Some were tall while others were short, some had lots of curves, while others had none. In our evaluations, tops that had a stretchier and more voluminous fit proved to be the most versatile. We also looked at the relative lengths of the arms and torso to see which provided the best overall coverage. Our lead tester (5'7", 145 lbs) prefers size Small in most of these tops, but found the Kari Traa Rose, Ortovox 185 Rock 'N' Wool, and Icebreaker Oasis to fit better in size Medium.
Need a shirt with long arms and torso? Luckily we have a host of options. Of synthetic tops, the Arc'teryx Rho LT has super stretchy fabrics that provide a next to the skin fit. The length of both the torso and arms are of some of the longest tested, working for both short and tall ladies, with and without a bust.
A good base-layer can easily be worn next to the skin while layering a mid-layer or jacket overtop. While most long-underwear tops are presumably the "next-to-skin" layer, it is a bonus when you can wear a tank or tee underneath if you expect conditions to warm up. Not only that, but you want to make sure that you can throw layers on top and remove them without too much effort or static electricity that might cause your shirt to ride up. Here, we evaluated the knit of the fabric and spent time trying them on with different layers. Long underwear tops that did best in this category feature slippery face fabrics, a thinner construction, and thumb loops.
Synthetic layers typically have more rigid fibers that, in combination, make for easy layering. The Arc'teryx RHO LT proves to be the easiest to layer. The frictionless face fabric slides smoothly against even the fleeciest mid-layers like the Patagonia R1. The arms are long and can be held when layering to avoid frustrating layering situations like those experienced with more friction competitors like the WoolX Hannah that get stuck and roll up the arms.
The Patagonia Capilene Midweight is another great layering option with built-in thumb loops that keeps the arms in place while the REI Co-op Midweight has frictionless face fabric and super stretchy design that hugs the body. All are great options in this category.
Of the merino wool competitors, thinner options like the Roman Trail Outfitters, Smartwool 150, Icebreaker Oasis 200, and Ortovox Rock n' Wool are much easier to layer than thicker options like the Smartwool 250. The Kari Traa Rose works well because of its super tight-knit weave and skin-tight fit that makes sliding layers overtop easy. For all the layers mentioned above, look for ones with longer arms so you can grab the cuff of the fabric while pulling on a mid-layer that might be more grabby.
The best base layers out there should last you, although this category is notorious for not doing so. It shouldn't shrink, stretch out, pill, or fall apart after just a few months of use. Most importantly, a durable top shouldn't see holes after just a few times out on the trail. During our testing period, we shimmied through canyons and bushwhacked through forests to see if the fabric snagged or tore. We wore each with loaded backpacks. After all of this, we inspect each product to evaluate the craftsmanship. We inspect for holes, look for fly-away threads, and observe whether fabrics retain a sour stench over time. In general, we notice that synthetic competitors are far more durable, but struggle with retaining sticky smells and stains. Merino wool tops might not last as long, but they also don't let body odor linger in their fabric.
It's been seven years since we started testing the Arc'teryx Rho LT Zip, and it's still going strong. Arc'teryx is known for its bomber craftsmanship, and this product is no different. We have used and abused it while climbing, hiking, split-boarding, and canyoneering. After many long years of use, there are still no signs of fly-aways or significant areas of wear and tear. Our only caveat is that the fabric retains a little smell with some pit stains in sweaty areas. However, this is easily abolished by a tech-fabric cleaner every month or so.
The Patagonia Capilene Midweight is a workhorse. The synthetic fibers are strong and retain shape, even after a few years of testing. It's no wonder it offers the best value of tops tested. The REI Co-op Midweight is also fairly durable, but the fabric is thin and pills easily after just a few washes. However, after two years of testing, it is still functional, minus some undone stitches here and there.
Merino Wool contenders are less durable than synthetic options, but they don't hold onto odor at all. Of these, the Kari Traa Rose H/Z proves to be the most durable. Unlike the Smartwool, Roman Outfitters and Capilene Air tops that have the least durable construction in this review, it offers a tightly-knit face fabric that doesn't snag. The fibers are seemingly shorter and have proven to be more durable and a better option for those needing a top for high-friction sports like canyoneering, bushwacking, or rock climbing.
The most durable lightweight contender is the Smartwool 150. This top integrates nylon into its construction which helps resist pilling and abrasion, unlike the Roman Outfitters top that has pilled and lost its "new" look in just one month. While this top still performs very well, it's one that offers less durability.
In all our tests, the silk and synthetic shirts constructed of polyester smell more over time than merino wool tops. Merino wool can be worn for multiple excursions without washing before odor becomes an issue. Despite a company's efforts to develop odor-resistant fabrics with polyester fabrics, most inevitably smell over time, even after washing. The long and short. If stench is a problem for you, choose merino wool.
The layer that lays next to your skin is integral for keeping you warm and comfortable while exploring the great outdoors. Whether you're snuggling up next to the fire or shredding on a double black at the ski hill, you must find one of high value and function for your purpose. With many options on the market, make sure you choose one without cotton in its architecture and use our review to help point you in the right direction.
— Amber King