Cotton may be the fabric of your life, but in the great outdoors—the great cold outdoors—it’ll ruin you. When natural cotton gets wet, it stays wet; and you get a chill. If you remain in a cold environment with wet clothes, chances are you’ll get hypothermia. It’s that simple.
Prolonged exposure to cold isn’t fun. But if you have the right kind of base layer, namely merino wool and/or synthetic poly, you’ll not only enjoy the cold outdoors, but you’ll be safer. (And for the record, hypothermia can happen in above-freezing temperatures.)
When synthetic athletic base layers came out decades ago, they wicked moisture away from the body and kept you dry. But it came with a price. While the fabric pulled sweat away from your skin, it left a stinky trail. I myself used to put my base layers into the freezer after washing to kill any remaining microbial stench.
But a lot has changed since then, namely the proliferation of merino wool. This miracle fiber naturally prevents the buildup of microbial particles in the yarn fabric. And with the new treatments for synthetics—which prevent sweat particulates from attaching to the fibers—sweat has nothing to do but evaporate into the ether.
Personal preference is an important factor when choosing wool over synthetic, or vice versa. Many winter sports enthusiasts choose merino for the next-to-skin softness, and because it retains heat when wet and doesn’t stink after repeated use (within reason).
Synthetics, however, are also still popular because they can draw moisture away from the body. They also dry fast and can be very inexpensive compared to high-end Merino yarns.
That said, many companies are now blending wool and synthetics such that the dual fabric not only pulls moisture away from the skin, it also dries more quickly while keeping some of its inherent heat retention. This means you’ll stay dry—and thus warmer—throughout longer high-output winter activities.
Below are ten wool, synthetic and hybrid base layers that go the distance in the most arduous cold-weather climates. They also pass muster in stand-alone style for an afternoon at the library, coffee shop or bar.