Best base layer 2021: Layer up with this essential bit of kit

Whether you're cycling, hiking or stargazing, one of the best base layers will keep you cosy

best base layer
(Image credit: Rapha)

One of the best base layers is a vital piece of clothing for any outdoor activity – especially when the weather is colder. Using a layering system with your outfit is the only way to ensure you stay warm and dry, but can also cool down when you need to. It's essential knowledge for outdoor types. The base layer is designed to be worn next to the skin, and is the first of many thin layers that any sensible system rests upon. If you're hiking, for example, you might add a fleece and one of the best waterproof jackets on top. You can add and remove layers as needed, to keep you at the right temperature whatever the weather throws at you. 

The best base layers are comfortable, and will wick away sweat when you get active as well as providing you insulating warmth in cold conditions. How the best base layers achieve that tricky balance is complicated. Read on for some top buying tips, including what fabric to look for. 

How to choose the best base layer for your needs

There are many (many) ingenious hybrid fabrics used in base layers, from carbon fibre to silver, but they can broadly be split into two camps: those made from merino wool and those created using synthetic fibres. 

The famous (and expensive) merino wool is warmer by weight, more comfortable and absorbs less body odour. Merino wool retains heat, it's breathable so it allows sweat to escape, and as a bonus, it's naturally antibacterial so can be worn for days on end without needing to be washed. For general travel, it's unbeatable. However, it doesn't last long. 

Though there are many hybrids that use a mix of both, the other end of the spectrum is the wholly synthetic base layer. They tend to use various polyester blends that are also breathable, but perhaps not quite as warm as merino. Artificial materials tend to be hard-wearing and easier to engineer and body map. That means they're generally lighter and longer-lasting. 

Something else to think about when looking for the best base layer for you is ventilation and how it's designed-in. Although you're preparing for the cold, if you're likely to sweat (i.e. you're exercising), it's very likely that even the finest merino wool won't be able to wick away every last bead of sweat. So whatever the material it's made from, a base layer that can be unzipped at the front can allow you to cool down quickly with a burst of cold air. Simple, but effective. 

Here's our guide to buying the best base layer no matter what activity you're undertaking, and whatever the weather.

The best layers, ranked

best base layer: Icebreaker Tech Lite Short Sleeve Crewe

(Image credit: Icebreaker)

1. Icebreaker Tech Lite Short Sleeve Crewe

A does-it-all layer ideal for hiking, climbing and travel in humidity

Fit: Relaxed
Material: 87% corespun merino wool, 13% Nylon
Reasons to buy
Reasons to avoid
-Longevity: it will last about two years

You know all about merino wool, of course you do, but you should also know that most base layers and t-shirts that claim to use it do so only sparingly. Icebreaker's Tech Lite is virtually all merino, which makes a big difference. As a base layer it's soft, warm and wicks away moisture really well, and at 146g it's in Icebreaker's ‘150 Ultralight' range. A capsule-wardrobe classic, the Tech Lite is a classic among frequent travellers and ‘flashpackers' because it works great as a regular t-shirt (it's not as figure-hugging as most base layers) that's very odour-resistant even in humidity, and can be rung-out in a sink and dried in hours. Whisper it, but you can wear an Icebreaker Tech Lite for days on end without getting wiffy. The only drawback is that merino does lack longevity, which is why most brands don't get much beyond 50%; expect it to thin-out and get holes after about a year or two of heavy use (top tip: keep it for hikes and holidays only). 

best base layer: Le Col Thermal Long Sleeve Base Layer

(Image credit: Le Col)

2. Le Col Thermal Long Sleeve Base Layer

Sublime comfort and fit

Fit: Ergonomic
Material: 100% polyester
Features: quick-drying, moisture management
Reasons to buy
+Amazing quality+Ergonomic fit truly is ergonomic+Sweat wicking action

The Le Col Thermal Long Sleeve Base Layer is a good example of why you shouldn't judge a book by its cover. Not like the Le Col Thermal Long Sleeve Base Layer is ugly; on the contrary, it looks pretty neutral yet – due to the ergonomic outline – well fitted and sleek. The branded collar adds just enough detail to a piece of clothing that otherwise sits under many other layers of tops, jumpers, jackets and the likes.

No, what I meant about not judging the Le Col Thermal Long Sleeve Base Layer is because it is in fact 100% synthetic, but it doesn't feel like a synthetic at all. I don't think I ever wore anything that felt as soft as the Le Col base layer, and that includes my beloved satin underwear.

Also, don't let the fact that Le Col is a cycling brand fool you. The Le Col Thermal Long Sleeve Base Layer is equally as good for running, hiking or just walking as it is for cycling and the Coolmax fabric will wick moisture away from the body effectively, regardless of the type of exercise you do.

best base layer: LIFA Merino Lightweight 1/2 zip

(Image credit: Helly Hansen)

3. Helly Hansen LIFA Merino Lightweight 1/2 zip

A warm baselayer for cold days in the mountains

Fit: Active
Material: 70% Merino Wool, 30% Polypropylene
Reasons to buy
+1/2 zip+Two baselayers in one
Reasons to avoid
-Too warm for intensive exercise

Dress for the bottom of the mountain and you're going to get a cold shock 10 minutes later when a cable car dumps you on the peak. Skiing off the tops of icy, freezing mountains on super-cold days requires careful layering, which is why Helly Hansen make this two-in-one. On the outside is an all-merino wool layer, while next to your skin is a grid-style layer of LIFA Stay Warm Technology fabric. Thankfully the latter is just as softer against the skin as the former. Keeping merino's moisture-wicking properties and adding an extra-warm layer, this is one of Helly Hansen's warmest base layers that's perfect for any type of activity in cold weather. This one comes with flat lock seams for comfort and a 1/2 zip construction for letting-off a bit of steam. This is the ‘lightweight' version; a ‘heavyweight' version is also available for super-cold adventures. 

best base layer: Colombia Omni-Heat 3D Knit Crew II

(Image credit: Colombia)

4. Columbia Omni-Heat 3D Knit Crew II

This 'Omni-Heat 3D' tech-layer is perfect for cold days

Fit: Active
Material: 85% polyester/15% elastane stretch jersey
Reasons to buy
+Omni-Heat 3D+Optional thumb loops+Super-warm and dry+Unique high-tech look
Reasons to avoid
-Feels slightly odd at first

All brands have their own technical fibres, but Columbia's Omni-Heat 3D does look a bit … weird. Its thermal technology is now a decade old and works by reflecting body heat while also wicking away sweat, but it's latest ‘3D' update sees a new three-pointed star pattern that keeps the heat in.

However, that pattern is presented in a very shiny, reflective silver, so it looks like the inside of this base layer – aside from strips of breathable polyester/elastane mix fabric on the flanks and spine – is covered in tin foil. It also has a bit of grip, so putting on feels as odd as the interior looks.

Reservations disappear when worn because this base layer's performance is excellent; toasty warm and dry. We loved the optional thumb loops on the sleeves, and after first-wear, we also loved it's unique high-tech look. 

best base layer: Patagonia Men's Capilene Air Hoody

(Image credit: Patagonia)

5. Patagonia Men's Capilene Air Hoody

A lightweight all-in-one with a built-in neck warmer and hood

Fit: Anatomical
Material: 51% superfine Merino / 49% recycled polyester
Reasons to buy
+Wicks moisture, resists odor+Dries quickly+Hoody is useful when wearing a helmet
Reasons to avoid
-Could also be considered a mid-layer

If you're going to be outside in the cold, you're going to need a warm base layer for sure, but you're also going to want a scarf and hat. Cue the Capilene Air Hoody, a super-light hybrid that doubles-up as a simple . It's got significant stretch, feels soft and fleece-like on the skin, and that thin hood comes in really useful when you're wearing a ski/cycle/climbing helmet on a cold and/or windy day. When you've not got the hood on it feels like you're wearing a neck warmer. It's also a hybrid of fabrics, featuring an almost 50/50 mix of merino and polyester, and weighs just 196g. Either way, it works a little harder than your average base layer.

best base layer: Runderwear Long Sleeve Baselayer Top

(Image credit: Runderwear)

6. Runderwear Long Sleeve Baselayer Top

An excellent base layer for runners

Fit: Active
Material: 92% Polyamide, 8% Elastane
Features: Chafe-free, breathable, removable mitts
Reasons to buy
+Integrated mitts+Chafe-free warmth+Moisture wicking technology

• Buy the Runderwear Long Sleeve Baselayer Top directly from Runderwear

You'd be surprised to hear that Runderwear does other things than just chafe-free underwear for runners. They also manufacture chafe-free tri-suits, chafe-free headbands and neck warmers and also, chafe-free base layer tops. And not just any chafe-free base layers, but comfortable ones that actually work well for runners.

I guess this last bit is not surprising, given that Runderwear knows exactly how to create fabrics that feels good on the skin and stitching that doesn't rub against the sensitive areas of your body. The Runderwear Long Sleeve Baselayer Top encompasses all the good qualities Runderwear has to offer, as well as adding some really cool features, like the removable mitts, so you don't have to carry running gloves around.

I tested the Runderwear Long Sleeve Baselayer Top running the Vitality Big Half in early March, the weather still being cold and the running top passed the test with flying colours. It kept me warm in the pit at the beginning and thanks to the moisture wicking and the dynamic heat control technologies, it wasn't too warm later in the race either. The best base layer choice for runners.

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Best base layer: Finisterre Eddy

(Image credit: Finisterre)
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Best base layer: Finisterre Eddy

(Image credit: Finisterre)

7. Finisterre Eddy base layer

A true generalist base layer in beautiful Merino wool

Fit: Active
Material: 80% superfine Merino / 20% polyamide
Features: Odour-resistant, lightweight
Reasons to buy
+80% merino wool+Lightweight
Reasons to avoid
-Old school, looser fit

A simple classic Merino wool layer for all occasions, the Finisterre Eddy is an understated baselayer champion. Finisterre’s dedication to materials gives you full supply-chain traceability as well as mulesing-free Merino, both best for peace of mind. 

Long sleeves add warmth in the cooler months, and protection in hotter climes, while the forward-facing shoulder seams increase comfort. Merino is naturally odour-combating, as well as temperature regulating and comfortable next to the skin to boot. Designed in the UK and manufactured in Portugal, the Eddy is a homespun winner. The only thing that might put some people off is the looser fit. 

best base layers: The North Face Men's Sport Long Sleeve Zip Top

(Image credit: The North Face)

8. The North Face Men's Sport Long Sleeve Zip Top

Fully synthetic, all comfortable

Fit: Compression
Material: 49% Polyamide, 48% Polypropylene, 3% Elastane
Features: Body mapped ventilation ridges, holes and patterns, medium compression fabric
Reasons to buy
+Doubles up a compression top+Keeps your muscles warm as you exercise
Reasons to avoid
-Won't find any merino wool yarns here

The North Face Men's Sport Long Sleeve Zip Top has a seamless design to reduce unnecessary chafing and discomfort during exercising. The special body mapped ventilation ridges, holes and patterns create an effective moisture management technology that wicks away sweat but keeps your muscles warm.

This base layer is fully synthetic which might put some people off, since you won't get the benefits of natural merino wool yarns. In the same time, the mix of synthetic fabrics used for the The North Face Men's Sport Long Sleeve Zip Top makes it an excellent compression top for people who don't like compression tops.

In a true The North Face fashion, the materials used in the base layer are sourced responsibly; not sure where you'd source synthetic fabrics though? Regardless off this, The North Face Men's Sport Long Sleeve Zip Top will keep you energised fresher for longer, whether you run or hike this winter.

Best base layer: Megmeister

(Image credit: Megmeister)

9. Megmeister DRYNAMO Warm Long Sleeve Base Layer

A great all-rounder and the original Merino base layer

Fit: Compression
Material: 44% polypropylene Dryarn, 44% nylon 6.6, 12% elastane
Features: 4-way stretch, seamless, compression fit
Reasons to buy
Reasons to avoid
-Multi-day use can get pongy

At the top end of the technology scale, the Megmeister DRYNAMO Warm Long Sleeve Base Layer is all artificial cunning and ingenuity. A polypro/elastane mix gives four-way stretch and completely seamless finish for a snug compression fit – ideal for preventing chafing. That’s also why there are no labels inside, a move other high-end base layers could learn from too. 

Polypro base layers offer excellent wicking and a certain amount of water repellency, as well as a robust build quality, but on the downside they can absorb body odors over prolonged use. The Megmeister has both Anti-odour and antibacterial functions baked in to combat this, however. For high-energy activities such as running or cycling, this is a strong contender. 

Best base layers: Canterbury Men's Thermoreg Long Sleeve Base Layer Top

(Image credit: Canterbury)

10. Canterbury Men's Thermoreg Long Sleeve Base Layer

Not just for rugby players

Fit: Skinny
Material: 95% Polyester, 5% Elastane
Features: Thermoreg heat control, moisture wicking fabric, quick drying
Reasons to buy
+Sizing all the way up to 4XL+Good thermal properties 
Reasons to avoid
-People might think you are a lad when wearing it

The brand Canterbury might be synonymous with rugby but their products can be used outside the field, too. Thermoreg base layers use specially-designed fabric technology that regulates temperature and wick moisture to the surface to keep you dry – a feature that comes in handy when hiking or hitting the gym too

An antibacterial finish makes it tough for odour to cling, while the quick drying fabric means they’re ready faster after a wash. Offset side seams allow full range of movement and the underarm gusset provides additional comfort.

Since it was designed for rugby players, the sizing-range is quite generous: it goes from extra small all the way to 4XL, so even people with larger frames can enjoy the benefits of the Canterbury Thermoreg Long Sleeve Base Layer.

Best base layers: Aclima Warmwool Hoodie

(Image credit: Aclima)

11. Aclima Warmwool Hoodie

A built-in balaclava and 100% merino wool makes this perfect for sub-zero adventures

Fit: Close-fitting
Material: 100% Wool (Merino)
Features: 100% recyclable, fast wicking material, Total Easy Care (TEC) treated
Reasons to buy
+100% Merino wool+Balaclava / neck scarf
Reasons to avoid
-Built-in head mask might be a bit too much for some

The trouble with base layers is they’re only one part of the layering system that’s so important when out in the cold. The next garments you need to think about, of course, is a buff or scarf, and a hat, which close any gaps around your neck. Cue the Aclima WarmWool Men's Hooded Sweater from Norway, which includes a clever balaclava hood that can also be worn as a buff. Or you can simply stow it, using a zip for extra ventilation. Fashioned from an extra-soft 100% merino wool, this base layer is longer than most, too, so easy to tuck-in to trousers. That’s crucial for skiing and climbing.