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If you’re looking for advice on the best base layer for hiking, then you’ve come to the right place.
A base layer is a critical component of your hiking wardrobe. Why? Well, it’s your skin’s first layer of defence against the chilly outdoors. So, a good base layer needs to be soft and smooth against your skin – no itchy fabrics or rough seams. It also needs to be appropriate for the weather conditions that you’ll be hiking in. For the winter months, I have a range of long-sleeved tops to give full coverage, but in the warmer summertime, I’ll change to short-sleeved base layers.
I’ve been researching base layers recently and looked at all the different options available, so I thought I’d write this up as a handy guide to choosing the best one. I’ll go through the main features to look out for in a moment and before that I’ve got some recommendations for my all-time favourite base layers. Let’s dive in.
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What is a ‘layering system’?
It’s a term that’s used to describe the clothing that you’d normally wear when you go out for a hike. There are three components of the system: a waterproof top layer to keep the rain and wind out, a mid layer which gives the bulk of the warmth (without adding bulk, hopefully), and the base layer.
Base layers come in a range of different shapes and with different features. They also come in different fabrics (the most exciting of which is merino wool) and we’ll take a look at all these now.
What does a base layer do?
A base layer has two jobs to do when you’re out hiking and the first is to provide an initial layer of warmth. A base layer is generally a snug rather than looser fit and so it will hold a thin layer of body heat right next to the skin where it’s most needed.
The second job is to wick perspiration away from the body. For this reason cotton, such as a standard T-shirt would be made from, is not a suitable fabric for a hiking base layer as it hangs on to any body moisture, getting heavier and damper in the process. Not pleasant. I’ll talk more about suitable fabrics in a moment.
Short sleeves or long sleeves
Unfortunately, here’s where I tell you that you need more than one base layer…sorry!
As I mentioned earlier, I tend to go with short-sleeved base layers for summer and long-sleeved for winter. I find that that gives me the most comfortable temperature as I’m walking. Decide what’s right for you though. Some people are happy in short sleeves year-round and others wear long sleeves even on the warmest of days.
Fabric choice for base layers
The key thing is not to go with a base layer that is made from cotton, or another fabric that hangs on to moisture in a similar way. You’re looking for a fabric that wicks perspiration away from the body and lets it evaporate. This will feel much more comfortable to wear, particularly when you’re walking at a fast pace or climbing up steep hills.
Most base layers tend to be made from polyester type fabrics, which have a great warmth-to-weight ratio and wick moisture very well. Many of them also include some lycra which is great as it helps to give a really nice snugger fit and ensures that the garment retains its shape even after it’s been through the wash multiple times.
An exciting development in base layers is the use of merino wool. This is a wool that comes from the Merino breed of sheep who are native to New Zealand. It’s a great fabric for base layers as it has an even better warmth-to-weight ratio than manmade fibres, such as polyester. The really interesting (and, I think, magical) bit is that it helps you stay warm on cool days on keeps you cool on warmer days.
It’s worth looking out for base layers with some of the following optional extras as well. These can turn a great base layer into something you wouldn’t even consider leaving the house without.
Some base layers will have a neck zip and this can be very handy in regulating body temperature. Keep it zipped up to the top for maximum warmth and minimal neck chill (ideal at the start of a hike or the top of a breezy summit) and fully unzipped for that ‘last push for the summit’ or in the unlikely event of the sun coming out to play.
With always chilly hands, I’m a big fan of thumb holes. If you don’t know what these are, they’re the holes that you get the end of long-sleeve base layers and other tops. Pull the sleeve partway over your hands, slip your thumbs through the holes, and you’re ready. For extra warmth, pull on a pair of gloves over the top and you can guarantee that the wind won’t come whistling up your sleeves.
High neck, round neck, crew neck
There are plenty of different options in terms of the neck style on base layers. Some people like the neck protection given by a high-neck, others like a round or crew neck. I find that a crew/round neck gives the most versatility when I’m hiking. They’re cool enough to wear in the summer and then you can team them up with a buff or scarf to protect your neck when it’s cooler, or to protect the back of your neck from sunburn.
The base layer is the most important part of your layering system. On a dry day, you’ll have your top waterproof layer tucked away in your rucksack. On a warm day, you’ll have your mid layer in the same place, or possibly wrapped around your waist. But, unless you’re a fan of naturist hiking (as opposed to the more common, hiking in nature) then you’re unlikely to be going without your base layer.
Choose the right base layer for you and your hiking and go out and have some fun.