I have some strange nostalgia for the cotton long underwear of my youth. I remember the soft feeling of it against my skin and how it left waffle-print indentations on my shins where the boot tops rubbed against them. But I also recall shivering uncontrollably in the New England winters, when it was 33 degrees and raining and my long underwear absorbed liquid like a college student at a frat party.
Thank goodness long underwear has grown up. It even sports a new mature name: baselayer. Whether made from synthetic or natural fibers, wicking properties are the top priority these days. As a bonus, over the past few seasons, manufacturers have realized that many of us hang out in our ski and snowboard clothes off the hill. Now many baselayers—though utilitarian in nature—come in hip prints and colors and even with hoods and thumbholes. Kids can now choose whimsical prints like flowers, snowflakes and pirate ships—this is a far cry from my choice of either white or blue long johns of yesterday.
Natural fibers, of course, have had an illustrious history of keeping people warm in mountain environments. But ironically, old-world folks claimed wool kept them cool in the summers too. Humans have been wearing wool clothing for thousands of years but my guess is it was probably pretty itchy back then. Current weaving techniques and a refinement in the manufacturing process adds a soft hand and makes wool comfortable next-to-skin. Wool has a high insulation-to-weight value, which means it’s very lightweight considering the level of insulation it provides. It dries quickly and does not hold odor the way some synthetic fibers were known to do.
I also recall shivering uncontrollably in the New England winters, when it was 33 degrees and raining and my long underwear absorbed liquid like a college student at a frat party.
Synthetic fibers, such as polyester, dry extremely quickly and have a soft, silky feel on the skin. These days, companies are mixing natural and synthetic fibers together to get the best properties of both. Companies such as Icebreaker, Smartwool, Helly Hansen and Patagonia incorporate Merino wool into their baselayers while also combining nylon to create extra wind resistance and warmth. Companies like Polartec, Burton and Obermeyer use Cocona yarns, from coconuts, for odor management, wicking properties and UV protection. NILS uses Tencel, derived from wood, which has a silky hand and anti-microbial properties. Even the much-maligned Cotton gets a facelift and companies like Mountain Hardwear and Polarmax add other fibers to make a highly-wicking technical cotton.
It’s best to try before you buy with baselayers so that you can make sure you like the feel next-to-skin. If you’re backcountry skiing, focus on mobility and high wicking properties. If you’re hanging out inbounds, shoot for insulation. And consider buying a whole system—manufacturers often design baselayers to work in concert with specific midlayers and fleeces. No matter where you are skiing or riding this winter, here are four baselayers created to keep you warm and dry.
H/H has come a long way from its inception in 1877 when Norwegian ship captain Helly Juell Hansen sold oilskin jackets made from linen soaked in linseed oil. Over the years, H/H has created fibers, such as LIFA, which wick moisture from the body. The après-ski friendly Multi Graphic baselayer has a silky feel, with LIFA hollow fibers that move moisture away from the skin to the exterior layer. Low bulk cuffs and flatlock stitching streamline this modern-looking baselayer.
In the early nineties when synthetics were dominating the outdoor clothing world, a 24-year-old marketing graduate partnered with a merino sheep farmer in New Zealand and created soft, washable garments made from a renewable resource. The Icebreaker Oasis Crewe Heli adds construction features such as flatlock stitching and gussets for mobility to naturally breathable, moisture-wicking (and biodegradable) merino wool. And the Oasis Crewe Heli’s cool design was inspired by alpine skiing.
Polarmax made waves in the outdoor industry 25 years ago by creating technical base layers made from synthetic fleece. Perhaps more poignant today, all Polarmax products are made in the USA. The Comp 4 Tech Fleece combines 90 percent Acclimate Dry polyester for moisture wicking and 10 percent Spandex for mobility, making the fabric 4-way stretch and conducive to high-aerobic winter activities. Added anti-microbial properties help combat the stink factor.
There’s something about hoodies in the winter. Not only do they feel warmer, they’re functional and stylish. The Smartwool TML (Thermal Midair) Mid Full-Zip Hoody offers the benefits of sustainably-raised wool in a stylish insulating layer, plus the addition of nylon for wind protection. Skiing or riding in harsh conditions? The hood is thin enough to fit under a helmet and the offset zipper is designed to prevent chin chaffing.