Layer up. You’ve probably heard the phrase before. For those in the know, layering is the way to go when exerting yourself in cold weather. Even moderate weather can bring unexpected havoc to your outing if you aren’t dressed appropriately. There are three essential layers when it comes to layering: base layer, mid layer, and outer layer. This article will focus on base layers. Stay tuned for articles on other layers to be posted in the near future.
The primary considerations when considering base layers are wicking performance, drying time, odor control, durability, comfort, and cost. The most popular fabric groups for base layers are Merino wool, synthetics and wool hybrids. Below are notable characteristics of each of these three fabric groups.
Let’s Talk Wool
Wool fiber has been around a long time – about 10,000 years. There are many types of wool, distinguishable either by its source (i.e., animal breed) or its production (i.e., fiber preparation & garment construction). Wool is a natural fiber that has good wicking performance and odor control. However, wool costs more than synthetics and it has a tendency to hold onto moisture once it is wet. Wetness might be welcome in warm weather when there is a desire to stay cool, but not good at all in cold temperatures. In addition to moisture retention and price, durability can be an issue. Wool tends to sag and pill over time. Generally, wool with 200+ weights are sturdier than the lighter weights. Wool can also be too itchy for most people. Wool coming from Merino sheep is much softer and has become a very popular choice for the outdoor-bound. Merino wool was first utilized by fashion designers in the 1920’s and was later adopted by the outdoor apparel industry in the mid-1990’s. Merino wool has the same issues with durability but if you prefer having natural fiber against your skin, this might be the way to go. Wool blends can offer better durability and are discussed in the next session.
Wool hybrids (blends) can offer the best of both wool and synthetics. A hybrid that has had rave reviews is the Merino wool – Cocona blend. Cocona is a natural fiber using activated carbon made from coconut shells to improve dry times, UV protection and odor management. With a blend of 65/35%, you can enjoy the best of both worlds most effectively. Benefits are questionable with less balanced blends such as 90/10%. Are there other blends worth considering? Well, yes. Blending wool with elastics such as lycra improves durability and can help to keep the garment’s shape intact especially in the sleeves and waist hem. Blending with nylon can increase durability and softness while decreasing cost and shrinkage.
Nylon, polypropylene, polyester and spandex are popular materials you will see in outdoors clothing. These along with the many other synthetic fibers and the chemicals that are added to them offer waterproofing, elasticity, softness, durability, wrinkle-resistance, water-resistance, flame-resistance, weight reduction, color-variation, and design variability (more button, zipper and pocket options, for example). The cost to produce and use synthetics is usually lower than natural products and many times, that cost savings is passed on to the consumer. The disadvantages of synthetics are poor odor control (synthetics retain the bacteria, even after washing) and the harmful effects on the environment, wildlife and people’s health. Synthetic fabrics are often non-biodegradable. To help reduce adverse effects on the environment, some companies are beginning to use recycled synthetic materials in their products and that list is growing.
If you are going to wear layers on top of your base layer, it is important that all layers are breathable and can easily wick moisture to the outside atmosphere. You don’t want moisture to get trapped inside the outer layer. The base layer, especially if it’s made of wool (or cotton) will get soaked. You will really notice this wet-blanket effect when you stop for a rest. This situation shouldn’t be taken lightly as it can lead to hypothermia which can occur in temperatures as high as 60-degrees. Ideally, the outer layer you choose will be form fitting and have wicking properties to reduce the possibility of creating air pockets where moisture can linger.
What to wear? In addition to clothing, many closets are filled with indecision, information overload, and forgotten favorites. There is a lot to consider. Although this article only touches the tip of a very big iceberg, hopefully, it will help you feel less crowded in there.