Updated on May 3, 2021

As the temperature begins to drop, some people opt to retreat indoors to the comfort of a climate controlled environment. For those that dare to brave the cold and wind that often accompany activities like skiing and snowboarding, snowshoeing, and winter hiking and climbing, layering is essential. Selecting the right base layer can be as important as choosing the right sock for those brand new boots. A base layer will be the first line of defense that your body will have in regulating your core temperature and helping to transfer moisture away from the body during active pursuits. With so many manufacturers and fabric options to choose from, the task of selecting the best base layer can feel like an overwhelming endeavor.

Don’t sweat it! Here at The Adventure Junkies, we pride ourselves in helping you choose the best gear for your upcoming cooler weather adventure. In this guide, we’ll help you pick the best base layer so you can stay warm and insulated on your next foray into the great outdoors.

For more of our top hiking apparel recommendations, check out these popular articles:

Base Layers for Women | Wool Base Layers

 

Quick Answer - The Best Base Layers for Hiking

  1. SmartWool Merino 250
  2. Patagonia Capilene Midweight
  3. MeriWool Midweight
  4. Woolx Glacier Merino
  5. Smartwool Merino 150 Crew Top
  6. Patagonia Capilene Bottoms
  7. REI Midweight Bottoms
  8. Smartwool Merino 150 Bottoms
  9. REI Lightweights
  10. Smartwool Merino 250 Bottoms

 

Comparison Table - Best Base Layers for Cold Weather Hiking

PictureNameStyleInsulationMaterialPriceRating
SmartWool Merino 250SmartWool Merino 250Long Sleeve Crew TopMidweightMerino wool$$4.9
Patagonia Capilene MidweightPatagonia Capilene MidweightLong Sleeve Crew TopMidweightRecycled polyester$4.8
MeriWool MidweightLong Sleeve Crew TopMidweightMerino Wool$4.4
Woolx Glacier MerinoWoolx Glacier MerinoLong Sleeve Crew TopHeavyweightMerino Wool$$4.3
Smartwool Merino 150 Crew TopLong Sleeve Crew TopLightweight87% Merino Wool/13% Nylon$$4.8
Patagonia Capilene BottomsPatagonia Capilene BottomsBottoms With Fly OpeningMidweightPolyester$4.8
REI’s Midweight BottomsREI Midweight BottomsBottoms With Fly OpeningMidweightPolyester$4.6
Smartwool Merino 150 BottomsBottoms With Fly OpeningLightweight87% Merino Wool / 13% Nylon$$4.8
REI LightweightsREI LightweightsBottoms With Fly OpeningLightweight92% polyester/8% spandex$4.5
Smartwool Merino 250 BottomsSmartwool Merino 250 BottomsBottoms With Fly OpeningMidweightMerino wool$$$4.5
PictureNameStyleInsulationMaterialPriceRating
Want to learn more about a technical term? Check out our Features Explained section below.

Need buying advice? Take a look at these Things to Consider.

Reviews - Best Cold Weather Hiking Base Layers

SmartWool Merino 250

Specs
  • Material: Merino wool
  • Insulation: Midweight
  • Style: Long Sleeve Crew Top
  • Moisture Wicking: Yes
Features
  • Fit updated with shoulder panels to eliminate shoulder seams for improved functionality
  • Flatlock seam construction minimizes rubbing and chafing
  • Ribbed elbows enhance flex and durability
SmartWool Merino 250

BEST OVERALL BASELAYER TOP

If you’re looking for a base layer that performs well in every category, consider the Merino 250. Made from 100% Merino wool, this base layer excels at regulating temperature, wicking moisture, and providing for microbial resistance. It’s definitely an all-in-one package. For such lightweight material, this base layer is impressively warm.

What we like most about the SmartWool Merino 250 is due to the ultra thin nature of the fibers, they flex against the skin, making for a super soft, comfy fit.

Patagonia Capilene Midweight

Specs
  • Material: Recycled polyester
  • Insulation: Midweight
  • Style: Long Sleeve Crew Top
  • Moisture Wicking: Yes
Features
  • Hollow-core yarn construction increases wicking performance and speeds dry times
  • HeiQ Fresh durable odor control
  • Droptail hem extends coverage
Patagonia Capilene Midweight

BEST SYNTHETIC BASELAYER TOP

This synthetic alternative serves as a high-quality all-around base layer than costs half as much as Merino wool alternatives. The top is constructed from 100% recycled polyester material — making for an appreciated eco-friendly option. The layer provides for top-notch warmth and moisture-wicking capacities. Patagonia applies an anti-odor treatment to this top, as well, allowing you more wear time in between washes.

What we like most about this base layer top is how affordable it is compared to Merino alternatives in conjunction with its comparable quality.

MeriWool Midweight

Specs
  • Material: Merino Wool
  • Insulation: Midweight
  • Style: Long Sleeve Crew Top
  • Moisture Wicking: Yes
Features
  • Acts as a base layer or mid-layer
  • Natural odor-resistant properties
  • Lightweight

BEST FOR: BUDGET

If you are looking for an affordable base layer that offers the same performance as Merino Wool options without the hefty price tag, you’ve likely met your match. The company integrated ultra fine Merino wool fibers into its construction. Despite being made of wool, this mid weight top is surprisingly breathable, too, making for a great choice for high intensity activities. It’s important to note this extra breathability does reduce the warmth of the top, making it an ideal choice for wearing in spring and fall.

What we like most about this base layer is that its made from 100% Merino Wool yet costs only $60.

Woolx Glacier Merino

Specs
  • Material: Merino Wool
  • Insulation: Heavyweight
  • Style: Long Sleeve Crew Top
  • Moisture Wicking: Yes
Features
  • Providing insulation to keep you warm without overheating during cold weather activities
  • Quick drying
  • 100% machine washable
Woolx Glacier Merino

BEST FOR: WEARING IN COLD WEATHER

If you’re looking for something ultra warm designed for low intensity winter activities like snow shoeing or winter hiking, keep this product in mind. This heavyweight top is constructed from 100% Merino wool and is available for an affordable $120 price — given the layer boasts about twice as much wool as comparable alternatives. Although it is breathable, it isn’t best suited for high intensity activities.

What we like most about the Woolx Glacier is its impressive value for such a warm winter base layer.

Smartwool Merino 150 Crew Top

Specs
  • Material: 87% Merino Wool/13% Nylon
  • Insulation: Lightweight
  • Style: Long Sleeve Crew Top
  • Moisture Wicking: Yes
Features
  • Raglan Sleeves (No Shoulder Seam And Extra Space For Movement In The Underarms)
  • Flatlock Seam Minimizes Chafing
  • Nylon Increases Durability Of The Merino Wool

BEST FOR: DURABILITY

Paired with the bottoms by the same name, the pair will blanket you in extreme comfort and protection from neck to ankle. And just like bottoms, the top is created by spinning the merino wool around a nylon core to create a durable and lightweight layer that places the soft wool next to your skin where it prevails at keeping you insulated while wicking moisture away from the body. The raglan sleeves ensure that there’s no seam along the shoulder and that extra room exists in the underarms for freedom of movement. The lack of a seam along the shoulder is ideal when wearing a pack, so you won’t have uncomfortable stitching digging into your neck and shoulders while you hike.

Patagonia Capilene Bottoms

Specs
  • Material: Polyester
  • Insulation: Midweight
  • Style: Bottoms With Fly Opening
  • Moisture Wicking: Yes
Features
  • HeiQ® Fresh antimicrobial treatment
  • Soft, brushed, fast-drying elastic waistband
  • Flatlock seams minimize chafing
  • Fair trade certification
Patagonia Capilene Bottoms

BEST OVERALL BASE LAYER BOTTOMS

Patagonia’s synthetic Capilene series is changing how we envision synthetic base layers — if you’re looking for an alternative to wool that keeps you just as warm and performs just as well, look no further. Patagonia crafted these bottoms from 100% recycled polyester in a diamond grid knit pattern that provides for superior warmth for its weight. These base layers also give wool a run for its money in terms of comfort thanks to the fleece-like interior feel. These are also coated with Patagonia’s proprietary odor control treatment to keep you feeling fresher longer.

What we like about the Patagonia Capilenes is how affordable they are for a synthetic product that rivals premium wool alternatives currently on the market.

REI Midweight Bottoms

Specs
  • Material: Polyester
  • Insulation: Midweight
  • Style: Bottoms With Fly Opening
  • Moisture Wicking: Yes
Features
  • 4-way stretch delivers a flexible range of motion
  • Flatseam construction
  • Soft elastic waistband
REI’s Midweight Bottoms

BEST BUDGET BASE LAYER BOTTOMS

This synthetic alternative serves as a high-quality all-around base layer that costs half as much as Merino wool alternatives. REI uses sustainable polyester and labels these as Fair Trade certified, which should leave you feeling good about minimizing your impact on the planet. The 4 way stretch and a flat seam construction ensure for a full range of motion when you’re on the go.

What we like most about REI’s base layer bottoms is the built-in sun protection, providing for a UPF rating of 50.

Smartwool Merino 150 Bottoms

Specs
  • Material: 87% Merino Wool / 13% Nylon
  • Insulation: Lightweight
  • Style: Bottoms With Fly Opening
  • Moisture Wicking: Yes
Features
  • Smooth Seams Minimize Chafing
  • Slim Fit
  • Fully Functional Fly

BEST FOR: ACTIVE PURSUITS

For over twenty-five years, Smartwool has been creating high quality products utilizing merino wool. The American based company was founded in Steamboat Springs, Colorado and was acquired by the VF Corporation (the same parent company that owns The North Face as well as other notable brands) in 2011. 

This lightweight, merino wool bottom layer is ideal for active pursuits in which breathability and the regulation of body temperature are paramount to the activities ahead. The wool’s natural properties help it to resist odors even when worn day after day. The wool is combined with nylon to create a more durable product while maintaining all of the superb properties of merino wool.

REI Lightweights

Specs
  • Material: 92% polyester/8% spandex
  • Insulation: Lightweight
  • Style: Bottoms With Fly Opening
  • Moisture Wicking: Yes
Features
  • UPF 50+ sun protection
  • Ankle-length inseam
  • Flatseam construction and low-profile waistband
REI Lightweights

BEST FOR: SUMMER BACKPACKING TRIPS

If you’re looking for a base layer that’s more affordable than wool but performs well during high-intensity activities, these are a great option to consider. These polyester blended bottoms are perfect for sleeping in the backcountry and staving off the early morning chills before hitting the trail again. They provide for a level of odor resistance and are very quick-drying. When combined with their affordability, this makes them ideal for backcountry adventures in mild weather conditions.

What we like most about these bottoms is how well the semi-fitted design layers with other pieces of clothing.

Smartwool Merino 250 Bottoms

Specs
  • Material: Merino wool
  • Insulation: Midweight
  • Style: Bottoms With Fly Opening
  • Moisture Wicking: Yes
Features
  • Merino wool–covered elasticized waistband
  • Interlock-knit merino wool enhances comfort, breathability, thermoregulation and odor-resistance
Smartwool Merino 250 Bottoms

BEST FOR: WEARING IN COLD TEMPERATURES

If you’re looking for a great balance of comfort, warmth, and performance, give these a look. These are Smartwool’s warmest base layer bottom offering thanks to a combination of thick-cut wool and an interlocking knit design. The waistband features flat lock seams and wool in just the right places to provide for extra comfort and reduce the potential for chafing. Despite how warm these base layer bottoms are, their breathability and moisture wicking capabilities are on par with similar alternatives.

What we like most about these bottoms is how the redesigned gusset in the crotch improves the fit and flexibility.

 

 

THINGS TO CONSIDER BEFORE BUYING A BASE LAYER

MATERIALS

There are a multitude of options to choose from in the baselayer market. For this particular guide, we’re only going to concentrate on the top three: Merino Wool, Synthetic, and Hybrid (blend of merino and synthetic). Choosing the best base layer can be a matter of preference as well as preferred choice of material.

Merino Wool

This is not the itchy wool your parents and grandparents wore. Merino wool is the only natural fiber in this guide and its natural properties make it ideal for warmth, odor control, and wicking properties. The fibers are thinner and softer than traditional wool. Wool tends to keep you warm even when it gets wet and naturally repels odors so you don’t have to worry about stinking up a wool base layer even if you wear it for weeks on-end during a thru-hike or multi-day ski trip.

Polyester

Until Merino came on the scene, synthetic base layers ruled the roost. Polyester is still preferred by many and with exception to odor control, it excels in the areas of durability, warmth and breathability.

Hybrid

Hybrid base layers possess the best of both worlds. Blended products incorporate the best properties of Merino wool and polyester. However, this option can also be one of the more expensive options.

 

INSULATION

There are 3 main categories of insulation: lightweight, midweight, and heavyweight. Some manufacturers may label the insulation levels differently, but they typically fall into one of those categories.

Lightweight

This is the thinnest and perhaps the most ideal for active pursuits on moderately cold days. Lightweight layers made from Merino wool can be less durable than polyester products as the thinner wool products tend to wear faster and may only last a few seasons while their synthetic counterparts can last substantially longer.

Midweight

As the name implies, this insulation weight is middle of the road. It’s a perfect base layer for active endeavors on cold days. It can also be worn as a standalone layer on cooler days.

Heavyweight

This is the paramount choice for relatively sedentary activities. The extra thick base layer can be overkill for activities like cross-country skiing, hiking, and even downhill skiing except on perhaps the coldest days.

 

FIT

To perform optimally, base layers should fit relatively snugly and perform like a second skin. The closer the material is to your skin, the better it can perform its intended purposes of moving moisture away from your body. Though, at the end of the day, it’s important to choose a product based on your particular needs and preferences for fit.

 

COST

Premium products often carry a premium price. While relatively moderately priced, base layers can be as essential as mid and outer layers. This will be the first layer of defense against the elements and it will be next to your skin. Therefore, it’s important to choose a layer based on its properties, fit, and comfort. Saving money won’t pay dividends if you end up shivering and cold sitting on a chair lift.

 

LAYERING

Layering is the key to thriving in active pursuits during cooler weather. Choosing a quality base layer is as essential to your overall comfort as building a proper foundation before building a house. This sets the stage for the performance of all subsequent layers.

 

 

FEATURES EXPLAINED

BLUESIGN

Consumers seeking textile products that meet stringent environmental standards can rest assured when finding the “bluesign” designation label on a product. To receive this designation, a product must conform to these standards from the beginning to the end of the production process. Patagonia was the first brand member of Bluesign Technologies.

WICKING

Wicking is a fabric’s ability to draw moisture away from the body. Unlike cotton which absorbs moisture and makes it less than ideal for an insulating layer, natural fibers like Merino wool and synthetic fabrics like polyester are excellent moisture-wicking fabrics.

CREW NECK

Tops with a crew neck have a round neckline with no collar.

ZIP-NECK

As the name implies, tops featuring a half-zip (sometimes only feature a quarter-zip) allows the user the option to unzip to allow for further ventilation and it makes removing over a helmet or other gear easier than a crew neck. Also, the higher neckline provides more warmth as the neck can often be an exposed area.

RAGLAN SLEEVE

A raglan sleeve consists of one continuous piece of fabric that extends from the collar to the underarm. There is no shoulder seam in this style of shirt or jacket, which makes it more comfortable while wearing a pack because you won’t have uncomfortable seams digging into your shoulders while you hike.

FLATLOCK SEAM

Seams are butted together and joined with stitching to provide a nearly seamless design to avoid overlapping of layers.

DROPTAIL

When the back of the shirt or top is longer in the back than the front. This assists in helping to keep the shirt tucked in during active pursuits when regular hemmed products might come untucked.

GUSSET

In apparel design, a gusset is typically a triangular piece of fabric (can also be other shapes as well) that when sewn into a seam can increase mobility. These are often added to regions like the underarm, crotch, and other areas that might benefit from extra area in the product.

 

 

READ MORE

For more of our top hiking & backpacking gear recommendations, check out these popular articles:

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