Updated November 2017
Are your base layers radiating stench? As we turn into the coldest season, it's a good time to grab a new one. Always on the search for a great product at a better price, we added the Helly Hansen Lifa Stripe Crew top to this review. It's a light synthetic top that dries super fast and wicks away moisture in a hurry. Couple that with its price, and you get our new Best Buy winner for tight budgets. Head to the individual review for a full rundown. As for the Editors' Choice-winning SmartWool Merino 250, we still haven't found a superior long underwear top overall.
Best Overall Long Underwear Top
SmartWool Merino 250 Base Layer
Warm for the weight
Dries relatively slowly
Throughout our many tests, a clear winner became obvious. Merino wool and more specifically the SmartWool Merino 250 Base Layer
, had significant advantages over competitors, making it a favorite and our Editors' Choice. Combining a stylish construction with craftsmanship that added comfort, it was a piece we could quickly forget we were wearing (in a good way). The slim-fit waist helped it stay in place during activity, and the wool's gentle stretch added to our ability to move unencumbered. In cold temps, it was our first layer, and it worked well on its own in warmer conditions. While some contenders were better suited for a particular use, if we could only have one base layer, the Merino 250
would be it.
Read review: SmartWool Merino 250 Base Layer
Best Bang for the Buck
The North Face Warm
Solid all around
Not very warm
Average drying speed
Looking at some of the prices in the base layer marketplace, you might be wondering if it's possible to purchase an effective base layer that doesn't break the bank. The answer lies in The North Face Warm
. From the moment we slipped into this smooth operator, we were impressed by its comfort. It doesn't itch but rather caresses your torso. It's capable when layering over and under this model, and it breathes sufficiently, too. We were psyched on this product's durability, with bomber seams and solid synthetic fabric. It didn't regulate temperature as well as some of the merino wool and blended fabric products, but we found it suitable to a range of activities and temperatures. For exceptional value in a base layer that is built to last several seasons, we recommend our Best Buy award winner, the Warm from The North Face.
Read review: The North Face Warm
Best on a Tight Budget
Helly Hansen Lifa Stripe Crew
Sleeves stay in place
Not very versatile
Bottom hem rides up torso when not tucked into pants
The Helly Hansen Lifa Stripe Crew
costs a low $40, but when used in the right situations, it's simply amazing. This synthetic top is thin, making it lightweight but also lacking in insulation. It's not a warm top for low-level activity in cold weather, like long ice-climb belays. But, for moderate to high-intensity activities in winter, this top exceeds expectations. It wicks away moisture better and dries out faster than any other model reviewed. The snug yet comfortable fit allows it to fit under nearly any second layer, and you can bet the sleeves won't bunch up when you pull a fleece on over top. All these characteristics have made this top a popular one among backcountry, cross-country, and even hard-charging resort skiers, and rightfully so. We also like it for cold morning runs, end-of-season mountain bike rides, and chilly hikes. If you're producing your own body heat in cold weather but want to keep the moisture off your body, get the Lifa Stripe Crew
Read review: Helly Hansen Lifa Stripe Crew
Top Pick for Lightweight
Rab Merino+ 160
Fastest drying model
Not very warm
In our field of competitors, there wasn't a lightweight model that performed all-around like the Rab Merino+ 160
, which only weighs 7.5 oz. This product of blended merino wool and polyester rocked the boat in several categories, giving new inspiration to what thinner, lighter base layers are capable of. It has an excellent fit, feels great, layers well, and breathes like a mechanical lung. This top also dries out quicker than almost all others. Being so thin, it didn't provide much durability or warmth. Our reviewers and friends also agreed that this model is good to go for social environments as well. However, if you're looking for the best combination of performance and low weight for use in mostly cool temperatures, or cold weather as a first layer, our Top Pick for Lightweight award winner offers just that.
Read review: Rab Merino+ 160
Analysis and Test Results
After extensive research and consideration of our own experience wearing base layers, we selected and purchased every model discussed in this review for a vigorous round of testing. This review combines scores of hours of field use with specifically designed tests to fully understand each product's strengths and weaknesses. We created six separate metrics for scoring each product — warmth, breathability, comfort and fit, drying speed, durability, and layering ability. We also assigned different scoring weights to each metric based on their importance for this type of product. When deciding which base layer to get, consider your own intended uses, as well as your body type.
Layering up with the Base 4.0 from Under Armour. The mid-layer pictured here is the Patagonia R1 Hoody, which won the Top Pick in our review of fleece jackets.
Warmth is an important consideration when selecting long underwear, but it should not be the only factor. After all, if warmth were all that mattered, we would all be sweltering in down filled, one-piece jumpsuits. Rather, warmth must be combined with breathability to create an effective layer that can be worn comfortably when active or at rest. The fit of the product can also have a large influence the insulation it provides, with baggy or short fits being less effective than more snug, longer cuts. Consider these variables when selecting the best shirt for your intended use. High exertion activities or warmer temperatures may be better enjoyed in a lower warmth scoring product. Just like Goldilocks' porridge, long underwear should not be too hot, or too cold, but just right.
For our purposes, warmth was measured without consideration for weight. Each piece was rated according to the insulation they provide relative to the other products in this review. Generally, wool layers were warmer for their weight than their synthetic counterparts. Wool also regulated our body temperature the best when actively used in a wider variety of temperatures, keeping us from overheating or freezing in warm and very cold environments, respectively. The Editors' Choice award winner SmartWool Merino 250
was especially impressive when active in high and low temperatures. As none of these products contain any cotton, they will maintain their insulating properties when wet.
Ross Robinson in the Rho AR from Arc'teryx, heading up the iconic El Misti shield volcano in Arequipa, Peru. The below-freezing temperatures required a warm top like this one, but we were somewhat disappointed in its breathability when we began to sweat.
Other factors affected the scoring in this metric, too. The tasc Base Layer
features a very long torso, extending down 13 inches past the top of our main reviewer's hips. This model, as well as the Arc'teryx Rho AR
, also had extra long sleeves which kept our wrist from exposure to cold air at all times. Several base layers in this review were also designed with an extended length on the backside of the shirt (often referred to in the industry as a drop tail). Who doesn't appreciate some extra warmth and care for their derrière?
In the zip-neck models, we liked the products that included an extra strip of material behind the zipper to block chilling winds from entering through here, as seen on the Rab Merino+ 160
. We also liked the thumb holes and loops, found on the tasc
, Patagonia Capilene
, and Under Armour Base 4.0
, which increased the material coverage of the tops up to our knuckles, without the dexterity loss that comes with gloves.
A behind the "seams" look at various designs. From left to right and from most to least protection against air passage through the porous zipper area, the Merino+ 160, Merino 250, Merino Midweight, and Rho AR.
Breathability is the yin to warmth's yang. While lying on the couch, warm and cozy clothing is the bomb. But when on the move, your body starts to warm up, and that heat needs to escape, or you will be trapped in a nightmare of sweat. Enter breathability and the 2nd law of thermodynamics! Breathability is the ability of a material (in this case, fabric) to allow moisture to pass through it, made possible by the natural movement of hot and moist air between your skin and the inside of your shirt to an area of cooler, dryer air outside your shirt.
Thus, a breathable shirt will allow the moist air produced from perspiration to escape through the material and into the outside environment without saturating the fabric. A non-breathable shirt will prevent the moisture from escaping, causing it to condense on the inside of the garment. A non-breathable base layer would be miserably sweaty, and therefore dangerous in cold conditions.
A highly breathable base layer, like the tasc model, is enough to make our reviewers dance and shout. Even the best base layer won't improve your moves, though. Sorry.
It should be noted that during periods of high physical activity, the rate of transmission of moisture through any fabric is often too slow to prevent condensation on the inside of a garment. Yet, upon reducing or ceasing this activity, the moisture should quickly escape through the fabric of products with good breathability.
The products we tested all breathe well, especially when compared to the laminated fabrics of waterproof shells, where this property is much more important and variable. Additionally, keep in mind that because these tops are so breathable, they will not offer any protection from wind. For blustery conditions, they will have to be paired with a hardshell
or one of the ultra-light, nylon, wind breakers
that are beginning to gain popularity.
After removing the pack from his back on a hike along the coast of California, moisture poured out of the Capilene Midweight, which is so breathable, we could sometimes see it!
In addition to our breathability assessment throughout months of use hiking, skiing, climbing, and more in the backcountry, we also designed a test to learn more about each top's capability in this category. One at a time and in a temperature-controlled, indoor environment, we worked up a sweat with the same short but rigorous exercise routine, consisting of pull-ups, push-ups, mountain climbers, burpees and jump squats, while wearing each base layer. We then timed how long it took for our skin and the inside of our shirts to dry after stopping. Performing the worst in this test were, unsurprisingly, the three heaviest models we tested, the Minus33
, Arc'teryx Rho
, and Mountain Hardwear Microchill
Working up a sweat with an indoor workout to test breathability in the Base 4.0.
The tasc Base Layer
and Under Armour 4.0
both scored the high in this category, and the Lifa Stripe Crew
breathed and wicked away moisture the best. Tight, thin products stretch the fabric out against the skin, increasing the air space between fibers and allowing more water vapor to pass through. The merino wool options also performed well and took longer to absorb moisture or feel wet than the synthetics of comparable thickness.
Comfort and Fit
A base layer's comfort and fit should probably be the most important selection factor, as it can affect the top's performance in nearly every other metric. However, this is also the most subjective category to evaluate. For this review, we tried to consult with testers from a range of body types and interests to fairly assess what is often a personal opinion.
If possible, we recommend heading to the fitting room of an outdoor retailer in your neck of the woods. Different body shapes and personal preferences can affect a product's comfort and fit.
We took several factors into consideration to determine the comfort and fit score for each product. We noted each material's softness and comfort next to skin, and judged areas of the top that were too loose, too tight, or just right. We checked for mobility, performing calisthenics like jumping jacks and windmills to look for any limitations. We really paid attention to the potential for the sleeves to slide up the arm when moving around, which we found to be an annoyance. We liked even less the models that exposed our vulnerable bellies when our arms were raised. Other details, such as the type of sewing technique on the seams and the potential to build up static electricity weighed in on the scoring.
This year's Editors' Choice award winner is the most comfortable and best fitting model we reviewed, and sufficiently breathable as well.
The types of fabrics play a significant role in each product's comfort. While merino wool is very soft, it can also be itchy. Everyone seems to have a different tolerance for the itchiness of wool, but for those allergic to this material, it can be an awful wearing experience. Shirts with blended fabrics can make you scratch and adjust, too; the tasc Base Layer
was the itchiest, despite consisting of only 30% merino wool. The SmartWool
model was the least itchy of the merinos, and the softest. Stealing the show with next to skin comfort was the Best Buy award winner, The North Face Warm
Regarding fit, we like shirts that had slim-fitting waists, which prevented the bottom of the shirt from raising up and baring our stomachs when reaching overhead. Similarly, products like the Arc'teryx Rho AR
had extra long and snug sleeves, which resisted sliding up our forearms. The Icebreaker Oasis
was very comfortable, but we were frequently annoyed with our stomachs and wrists constantly being exposure when moving around, especially when climbing. The tight wrists of the Helly Hansen
model, on the other hand, kept the cuffs from rising up when our arms were overhead. Our favorite-fitting shirts were ones that didn't squeeze too tight in the chest and neck, nor fit too baggy over our torso and arms. The right snugness allowed some models to move and flex with our bodies, without needing constant re-adjustment.
Monkeying around the Santa Monica beach in the very flexible tasc model. This product was great at staying in place during dynamic body movements.
Inspecting the seams, we were pleased that almost all models featured flatlock seams, with the exception of some seams on the Mountain Hardwear Microchill 2.0
. Flatlock seams, as their name implies, lie flat, which we found to minimize/eliminate chaffing, especially when layering or actively wearing these products. Also to our delight, almost every product was void of seams top and center on the shoulders, which would have been uncomfortable under backpack straps. The Microchill 2.0
and Lifa Stripe Crew
were the only exceptions, but resulting discomfort was minimal in the Mountain Hardwear
model and unnoticed in the Helly Hansen
top. Several models did have underarm gussets implemented in the sewing design. These increase mobility and create less strain on the materials at high flex-points. The North Face Warm
was the only model to also include gussets on the side /and/ bottom of the shirt.
In the end, we were able to sort out some winners and losers. We deemed the overall softness, mobility, and fit of the SmartWool Merino 250
enough to qualify it as top dog in this category. The Arc'teryx Rho
was the comfiest synthetic model, and the Rab Merino+ 160
top was our favorite blended fabric in terms of comfort. Scoring the worst in this category was the Under Armour Base 4.0
, which squeezed way too much for our liking. It felt like someone had a choker hold on our neck while pinching our armpits at the same time. The Mountain Hardwear Microchill 2.0
also failed to impress in this category, with a scratchy logo on the inside, stiff neck, and very loose fit.
The discreet inner flatlock seam of the SmartWool on the left, compared to the more irritating overlock seam of the Mountain Hardwear on the right.
Getting wet in the outdoors is unavoidable. Whether it is from precipitation outside or sweat from within, your long underwear will eventually get wet, and when it does, the time that it takes to dry can have a significant impact on your comfort and warmth. Many of these products advertise proprietary technologies that speed drying, like the waffled Polartec® Power Dry® fabric of the Patagonia Capilene Midweight
, or the Moisture Transport System on Under Armor Base 4.0
. To cut through the baloney, we conducted an air dry test to measure each shirt's time to dry in a controlled setting.
This experiment was straightforward: we got all the tops completely soaked, hung them up, and timed how long it took them to dry. It was as boring as it sounds. The times we measured were not important in absolute terms. Your shirts will not be drying at the same temperature or humidity and probably will have a warm body to assist the process. Rather, it was the performance of each shirt relative to the others that was significant.
The waffled cells of these two products (Patagonia on the left, Under Armour on the right) helped increase their breathability and drying speed simultaneously.
For this reason, in our reviews, we changed the time from the hours we recorded to a percentage comparable to the best finisher. We think this is more fair and useful. Keep in mind, though, that some of the tight fitting tops, like the Under Armour 4.0
and tasc Base Layer
, might have performed even better with the fabric stretched over a body, creating more space for air to pass between fibers, instead of simply being hung on a hanger.
From that experiment, we came to one conclusion that now seems logical and obvious; thin fabrics dry faster than thicker fabrics. The Helly Hansen Lifa Stripe Crew
was the winner of this test. Consisting of the thinnest material, this isn't too surprising. Across all of the layers tested, the thickness was a better predictor of performance than material or advertised features. This should be an important (and common sense) consideration for retail shoppers, heavy sweaters and go-getters, and outdoor enthusiasts who seem plagued by rain clouds overhead.
Soaking the tops for our drying speed test. Some of the models were resistant to becoming saturated until we agitated them under a constant stream of water.
Our air dry test also corroborated merino wool manufacturers' claims that wool can absorb up to 30% of its own weight in moisture before feeling wet to the touch. Before starting the test, each of the shirts had to get soaked. The merino wool layers resisted and had to be physically agitated underwater before they would become fully saturated. The synthetic Arc'teryx Rho
and Mountain Hardwear Microchill 2.0
also did a fair job in resisting water absorption. The North Face Warm
and Patagonia Capilene Midweight
models slurped up the water like a thirsty dog. We took these factors into consideration as well when scoring for this metric.
The high cost of some of these pieces makes durability an important consideration. We inspected the strength of the fabrics and quality of seams and stitching to come up with the score in this metric. We also looked for signs of damage at the end of our testing period and detracted points in this metric for obvious pilling of the fabric. Overall, a higher durability rating for some of these tops generally coincided with a greater thickness.
All these products are made with quality in mind. When examined from a long-term view, however, it becomes likely that the synthetic options will outlast their wool counterparts. One of the testers liked to joke that merino wool layers make great golf shirts because pretty soon they all have 18 holes. This is an exaggeration, but we did find some truth at the heart of this statement. The explanation for this is that the greater warmth of wool for the weight allows it to be sewn into a thinner garment than a comparably warm synthetic; predictably, durability suffers.
A close-up of some differences in seam construction. From left to right, the Capilene Midweight, Merino 250, Merino+ 160, Merino Midweight, and Base 4.0.
Another drawback of wool is the potential for shrinkage if laundered incorrectly, but if you don't toss it in the dryer on high, then this is not a concern. Conversely, wool is more durable in the sense that it doesn't absorb unpleasant odors. Therefore, it shouldn't have to be washed as often. The synthetic options all scored well on durability; so you can wash the stench they attract off without fear of wearing through the fabric. This longevity adds to their already superior value.
Some wool products claim to be safe for the dryer on the low tumble dry setting. However, we find flat-drying these products to be the best practice to increase longevity.
The Mountain Hardwear Microchill 2.0
model struck us as the most durable product in this review. After months of extensive use, it didn't let lose a single thread or show any signs of wear at all. Its thick material should hold up for seasons to come, too. The REI Merino Midweight
impressed us with its quality, compact seam design.
Somewhat to our surprise, the blended fabric models in this review fared the worst in this metric. The base layer from tasc
had the most battle scars at the end of our testing period, with holes on one sleeve, a tear in its thumb loop, and several areas of the stitching coming loose. The hemming on the Rab Merino+ 160's
sleeves and shirt bottom was coming undone in multiple areas, and its thin fabric looked susceptible to damage in the near future.
The Mountain Hardwear product is probably the most durable model we reviewed this year. Its seams are strong, as well as its fabric, making it ready for rugged backcountry use. The footwear in this photo are the Arc'teryx Bora2 Mid boots, featured in our latest hiking boots review.
All of these tops can function well as a next-to-skin layer in the right conditions, and some can also be worn over other garments should the situation warrant this. We tested each model for its layering ability by trying each one on over a tight-fitting t-shirt, as well as a tight-fitting long sleeve base layer. Then, we tested each model's fit and mobility under moderately tight-fitting jackets and mid-layers to discover the total range in layering ability. While performing these tests, we were on the look-out for fabric bunching up (especially in the armpits), the product's ability to stay in place under another layer, and any restrictions on mobility.
The thick, snug, and very stretchy Arc'teryx Rho AR
was the best in this category. It stretched easily over other layers, but also hugged our bodies underneath mid-layers without affecting mobility. The Mountain Hardwear Microchill 2.0
was loose enough to fit over t-shirts and other base layers, but was too baggy to fit nicely under mid-layers. Our chief reviewer preferred to use this product as a mid-layer with another shirt next-to-skin. Almost all these models perform acceptably over another layer. The Under Armour Base 4.0
and Lifa Stripe Crew
were the exceptions. Their form fit prevents them from being comfortable on top of anything else. This category did not impact the overall review too much because it is not a true requirement for a base layer. Therefore, it only accounted for 10% of the overall score.
Ross Robinson utilizing a three layer system while skiing in the Sierras. As a base is the Under Armour model, with the SmartWool playing the part of mid-layer, and a Basin and Range hardshell as the outer.
Quality long underwear products should score well across most, if not all, of these metrics. They need to keep you warm and dry, wicking away the sweat of fear, be compatible with other layers, and remain cozy and comfy while engaging in physical activity or lazing about the house - all while looking good. As usual with recreational gear and equipment, we highly recommend you consider your intended uses and environments before snatching up your first/next base layer. We hope we've been able to help you narrow down your choices to a few best matches. If you're still unsure about which of the many market options will be most appropriate for your needs, read over our Buying Advice
for some guidelines and tips to narrow it down even further.
Our Best Buy award winner from The North Face proved its value with its great comfort, durability, and all-around solid performance.