Best Base Layers of 2023
What’s new: We’ve added Inclusive Sizing to our What’s Most Important to You section; you can use this new sub-list to easily find which brands are leading the way in making the outdoors a more inclusive space for all. We also reconfirmed our top picks and added some new photos from our recent adventures.
Base layers are an essential part of an outdoor clothing system since temperature and moisture management are key in both blazing heat and a blizzard. Check out our rundown of the best next-to-skin layers to quickly find your perfect pair.
Check out this quick list of the best base layers if you’re in a hurry, or continue scrolling to see our full list of favorites with in-depth reviews.
- Best midweight wool base layer: Smartwool Classic Thermal Men’s / Women’s
- Best lightweight wool base layer: Smartwool Classic All-Season Men’s / Women’s
- Best synthetic base layer overall: Patagonia Capilene Midweight Men’s / Women’s
- Best budget base layer: REI Midweight Half Zip Men’s / Women’s
- Best sun shirt: Outdoor Research Echo Hoodie Men’s / Women’s
- Warmest base layer: Odlo Blackcomb Eco w/Face Mask Men’s / Women’s
- Most affordable base layer: Helly Hansen Lifa Stripe Men’s / Women’s
- Best warm-weather base layer: Patagonia Capilene Cool Trail Men’s / Women’s
- Comfy, sweater-like base layer: Patagonia Capilene Air Hoody Men’s / Women’s
What’s Most Important to You in a Base Layer?
PRICE – You don’t have to spend a ton of money to get a great base layer, but warmer layers and those made with natural fibers do tend to cost more. Ideally, you’d have multiple base layer tops to suit different seasons, so be sure to consider the combined cost when planning your budget.
- Best mid-range base layers
- Best budget base layers
- Best high-end base layers
WARMTH – One of the biggest factors you should consider when choosing the right base layers is what type of weather you typically recreate in. We keep an option from each of these categories in our clothing rotation, so that we’re always prepared for any type of weather.
- Warmest base layers
- Best base layers for temperatures above freezing
- Best base layers for sun protection/warm weather
WEIGHT – For most 3-season trips, we prefer lightweight base layers because they’re more comfortable to wear under other clothing. Lightweight layers also help keep weight low for backpacking trips, when you’ll be carrying them in your pack for most of the day to wear in camp at night
- Best ultralight base layers
- Best lightweight base layers
- Best heavy-duty base layers
MATERIAL – All of the base layers we recommend are breathable, moisture-wicking, and quick-drying, but each material has its forte. Wool is great for thermoregulation, breathability, and odor control. Synthetics aren’t as warm, but they dry quickly and tend to be a bit more durable and affordable. Silk base layers are super comfy but will absorb more moisture than others and are best used as sleep clothes or when you aren’t likely to sweat.
- Best wool base layers
- Best synthetic base layers
INCLUSIVE SIZING – Everyone should have high performance options that make them feel great and look great. After all, the outdoors is for everyone!
BASE LAYER BOTTOMS – This guide focuses on base layer tops, but don’t forget about your lower half! A pair of base layer bottoms is also an essential part of any outdoor clothing system.
Sortable Base Layer Comparison Table
|1. Smartwool Classic Thermal
|2. Smartwool Classic All-Season
|3. Patagonia Capilene Midweight
|4. REI Midweight Half Zip
|5. Outdoor Research Echo Hoody
|6. Odlo Performance Wool Warm
|7. Helly Hansen Lifa Stripe
|8. Patagonia Capilene Cool Trail
|9. Patagonia Capilene Air
|10. REI Silk
Best Base Layers of 2023
BEST WOOL BASE LAYER OVERALL
MSRP: $120 (Thermal) / $90 (All-Season)
WEIGHT (Men’s M): 10.3 oz. (Thermal) / 6.5 oz. (All-Season)
FABRIC/WEIGHT: Midweight merino wool (Thermal) & lightweight merino wool + nylon (All-Season)
PROS: Good value, excellent moisture wicking, warm when wet, breathable, odor-resistant, stylish enough to be worn on its own (250)
CONS: Can pill after washing, may hold onto lint & pet hair, not as durable as synthetics in the long run
BOTTOM LINE: Smartwool’s Classic Thermal Merino (men’s / women’s) and Classic All-Season Merino (men’s / women’s) base layers do an excellent job of wicking moisture. And since they’re wool, they don’t hold on to odors which is a real plus on multi-day trips.
The Thermal weight is just the right thickness to help you thermoregulate in chilly fall and winter conditions, while the All-Season weight is lighter and more ideal for use in milder temperatures throughout the year. The Thermal top is available in a variety of styles, but we like the quarter-zip version best for neck and chest ventilation.
Both the Classic Thermal and Classic All-Season base layers are high-quality and perform well, which has made them our go-tos for a long time.
BEST SYNTHETIC BASE LAYER OVERALL
WEIGHT (Men’s M): 6.2 oz.
FABRIC/WEIGHT: Midweight polyester
PROS: Affordable, durable, very comfortable, excellent moisture wicking, easy to layer
CONS: Not as warm or odor resistant as wool
BOTTOM LINE: The Patagonia Capilene Midweight (men’s / women’s) is a durable and comfortable base layer top that’s quite the steal at its price point. We’ve used this top for multiple thru-hikes, and it’s still going strong nearly a decade later.
Of all the synthetic materials we’ve used, Patagonia’s proprietary Capilene blend is the softest, stretchiest, and the best at wicking moisture. While it doesn’t trap heat quite as efficiently as some wool base layers, the Capilene Midweight top is still highly versatile and easy to layer.
During shoulder seasons, we often hike in this shirt by itself since it’s breathable and provides just the right amount of insulation for temperatures above freezing.
BEST BUDGET BASE LAYER
WEIGHT (Men’s M): 9.8 oz.
FABRIC/WEIGHT: Midweight polyester
PROS: Affordable, durable, warm, very comfortable, excellent moisture wicking, easy to layer, thumbholes
CONS: Not as odor resistant as wool, heavier than some
BOTTOM LINE: Sometimes you come across a budget option that performs just as well as higher end items, and that is certainly the case with REI’s Midweight Half Zip top (men’s / women’s). This base layer is warm, durable, and comfy against the skin, so it’s become a staple in our layering system.
The zipper allows you some control over your level of insulation, so it’s versatile for a good range of conditions. Since it’s on the heavy side compared to others, we tend to only take it out in colder temperatures when we know we’ll be wearing it for most of our time outside. That said, the weight is still reasonable for packing it as a just-in-case item if you’re the type that likes to have an extra layer for sleeping in on chilly nights.
This top is durable enough for many seasons of use, making the already small price tag even more appealing. If you’re in need of something warm and well built on a budget, this is your guy.
BEST SUN SHIRT
WEIGHT (Men’s M): 4 oz.
FABRIC/WEIGHT: Ultralight polyester
PROS: Ultralight, exceptionally comfortable, UPF 15 sun protection, highly breathable, thumb holes
CONS: Not as durable as some, holds odor
It provides great moisture wicking on warm-weather days and reliable sun protection for hikes in high alpine country. And we love that it has a hood and thumb holes for extra head, wrist, and hand coverage.
The fabric is thinner and a little more delicate than some others, but it should hold up for years if treated with care. Since the Echo Hoodie is ultralight, it’s perfect for protecting your skin on summer backpacking trips.
WARMEST BASE LAYER
WEIGHT (Men’s M): 9.5 oz.
PROS: Very warm, built-in face mask, durable, odor-resistant, easy to layer
CONS: Not as versatile, heavier than others, tight fit may not appeal to some
BOTTOM LINE: Odlo’s Blackcomb Eco w/Face Mask (men’s / women’s) is uniquely designed with a balaclava-style hood to keep you warm and protected in the coldest conditions. The slim fit and seamless design of this top make it easy to layer and especially comfortable when worn under a backpack. The polyester blend offers excellent breathability and odor control, so you can wear this layer for multiple days between washes. Because the Blackcomb is so warm, it’s not quite as versatile as many of the other shirts on our list, but when it’s cold out it’s pretty hard to beat.
MOST AFFORDABLE BASE LAYER
WEIGHT (Men’s M): 4.8 oz.
FABRIC/WEIGHT: Lightweight polypropylene
PROS: Affordable, quick-drying, excellent moisture wicking, easy to layer, breathable
CONS: Not as versatile as some others, not as warm as others
BOTTOM LINE: If you’re on a budget, the Helly Hansen Lifa Stripe Crew (men’s / women’s) is an affordable option that doesn’t skimp on performance. Helly Hansen’s proprietary Lifa Dry material excels at moisture wicking and dries very quickly, so it’s a great choice for high-output activities. This base layer isn’t as warm as some others on our list, but the fit and flatlock seams make it comfortable for layering under other clothing. It’s also designed with flat, fitted cuffs that work nicely under gloves. We love the Lifa Crew for snowsports and backpacking since it has just the right amount of insulation for active days.
BEST WARM-WEATHER BASE LAYER
WEIGHT (Men’s M): 5.5 oz.
FABRIC/WEIGHT: Ultralight polyester
PROS: Affordable, soft, highly breathable, quick-drying, excellent moisture wicking
CONS: Not as odor resistant as wool, not insulative
BOTTOM LINE: Base layers aren’t just for keeping you warm; thePatagonia Capilene Cool Trail (men’s / women’s) actively helps cool you down. The material is highly breathable and evaporates moisture fast, so it’s perfect for vigorous hikes and warm, sunny conditions. This shirt feels like cotton, so it’s excellent for those with sensitive skin. But it performs like polyester to meet the demands of high-output outdoor activities.
COMFY, SWEATER-LIKE BASE LAYER
WEIGHT (Men’s M): 7.2 oz.
FABRIC/WEIGHT: Lightweight wool/polyester blend
PROS: Good warmth-to-weight, breathable, comfortable, hooded, stylish enough to be worn as a standalone sweater, odor-resistant
CONS: Expensive, can pill after washing, holds onto lint and pet hair, hood/mock neck makes it slightly less easy to layer
BOTTOM LINE: The Patagonia Capilene Air Hoody (men’s / women’s) is one of the more stylish tops on our list, which makes it good for wearing as a standalone sweater. The material is a blend of merino wool and Patagonia’s synthetic Capilene for an outstanding balance of breathability, durability, and odor control. The hood fits nicely, and we love that the high collar keeps heat in and drafts out. Because it’s a little bulky, the Capilene Air Hoody isn’t our first choice for backpacking, but it’s great for everyday wear and casual adventures when you want a touch of style as well as performance.
The following base layers didn’t make our final list, but they’ve still got a lot of good things going for them. You never know, one of these base layers might be perfect for you:
- Icebreaker 200 Oasis Crewe (men’s / women’s) – This high-quality wool top is very similar to our top pick, Smartwool Classic Thermal, but it’s slightly less breathable which gave the edge to Smartwool. That said, the Oasis Crewe is a bit softer against the skin so we still think it’s a great choice for low-output activities when you’re not at risk of overheating.
- Ortovox 185 Rock N Wool (men’s / women’s) – This wool top features a stylish design and feels softer than other wool base layers, but we found the seam at the elbows to be irritating after prolonged wear.
Best Base Layer Bottoms
- Best base layer bottoms overall: Patagonia Capilene Midweight Men’s / Women’s – We’ve had the same pair of Patagonia’s Capilene Midweights for years, and they’re showing very few signs of wear. We find the level of warmth they provide to be appropriate for most of the year, and their athletic fit makes them easy to layer.
- Best warm base layer bottoms: Smartwool Classic Thermal Merino Men’s / Women’s – These bottoms are our go-tos for winter and high-alpine adventures when temperatures dip to freezing and below. They’re the most heat efficient bottoms on our list, and they’re the best at repelling odor after multiple days of wear on the trail.
- Very comfortable & warm base layer bottoms: Odlo Performance Wool Warm Men’s / Women’s – These are some of the best warm base layer bottoms for backpacking. They’re very form-fitting and the waistband lays super flat, so they’re very comfortable for layering and under backpack hip belts.
- Best budget base layer bottoms: REI Midweight Men’s / Women’s – If you’re on a budget, REI’s Midweight bottoms are a great choice. They have a flat waistband that lays comfortably under hiking pants and hip belts. These synthetic layers will keep you warm down to around freezing, so they’re good for backpacking in shoulder seasons.
Critical Base Layer Considerations
TIPS FOR LAYERING – Finding the perfect outdoor clothing layering system ultimately comes down to personal preference and the conditions you’re in. Check out our Hiking Clothing 101 post for some great tips to help find what works for you.
MATERIAL– The material a base layer is made from can be a good indicator of how it will perform in various conditions. Below we’ll detail some pros and cons of the most common base layer materials.
- Wool – Wool tends to be more expensive than synthetic base layers, but it also has the best balance of heat efficiency, odor control, and moisture wicking capability. Because wool is so breathable, it’s easier to regulate our body temperature during high-output activities. Wool layers may not last as long as synthetic ones and they tend to pill after washing and hold onto lint and pet hair. That said, if you use our technical fabric care tips below, you should still get plenty of use out of your wool clothing.
- Polyester – Polyester clothing is durable, quick-drying,, and typically lighter weight than wool. We love synthetic shirts for their excellent moisture wicking capabilities and the soft feel against the skin. Synthetic layers don’t insulate as well as wool and they can actually sap a lot of your heat if they get wet. Still, they’re much easier to care for and shouldn’t need to be replaced for many years. Patagonia’s Capilene layers are our favorite synthetic shirts.
- Silk – Silk is highly packable and has an excellent warmth-to-weight ratio. This ultralight material dries quickly and is very durable for the weight, but it does require extra special care to maintain. Because of the delicate nature of this material, we tend to use silk base layers for sleep clothes rather than on the trail. The soft texture is super comfy, and wearing a base layer inside our sleeping bag protects it from accumulating trail grime.
CARING FOR TECHNICAL FABRICS – Technical fabrics require a little special care to keep them performing their best. Always follow the washing directions on the tags carefully, but here are some general tips:
- Use a front loading washer – The agitator in a top loading washer can be hard on seams and can snag zippers or drawstrings. Make sure you zip all the zippers and tie the drawstrings before washing to prevent wear and tear.
- Use a technical fabric wash – We recommend Nikwax Tech Wash or Woolite for washing any technical fabrics because these solutions won’t leave fragrances or residue on your clothing.
- Only wash when you really need to – A lot of technical fabrics are designed to be antimicrobial and shouldn’t hold odors. Hiking clothing doesn’t necessarily need to be washed after every use.
- Don’t use fabric softener or dryer sheets – Fabric softener and dryer sheets can deposit residue on the fabric and affect the performance negatively.
- Hang dry when possible – Heat and agitation in the dryer can damage technical fabrics so it’s best to lay them flat or hang them on a line to dry naturally.
Need More Gear Advice?
If you liked this list, you’ll love the CleverHiker Gear Guide where we test and recommend tons of outdoor adventure gear from a variety of categories. here are some links to popular articles:
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