How I Decide What Touches My Skin: 5 Features to Look For In a Hiking Base Layer
By Michael Lanza
What’s your body type when you’re hiking, backpacking, or otherwise active outdoors? Do you run hot or cold—or both? Over many years of dayhiking, backpacking, climbing, trail running, cycling, skiing in its various forms, and other activities, I’ve discovered this about myself: I run very warm when I’m moving, but I cool off in a flash when I stop. To some degree, many people are like that. And those that aren’t—who just plain run consistently hot or cold—still have to tackle the same question I do: How do you pick the best base layer top for you?
Reviewed in this article:
Base Layer Tops
Patagonia Capilene 2 Lightweight Zip-Neck
$55, 6 oz. (men’s medium) Crew $49
Sizes: men’s XS-XXL, women’s XS-XL
Sherpa Adventure Gear Tsepun Zip Tee (men’s) and Dikila Zip Tee (women’s)
$65, 9.5 oz. (men’s medium)
Sizes: men’s S-XXL, women’s XS-XL
Here are the five features I look for in a base-layer top:
1. Athletic fit—not the Spiderman look, but close to skin to expedite wicking sweat away and drying the top.
2. Midweight versatility—warm enough for moderate to high levels of exertion (hiking, trail running, etc.) in temperatures ranging from the 30s (under other layers) to around 60.
3. Quick-drying fabric—if I stay wet for too long, I’ll get cold.
4. Neck coverage—crew necks are fine in milder temps, but I want to cover my neck in chillier or windy conditions, and have a partial front zipper to ventilate when hot.
5. Sleeves that work—I want to pull them over my hands at times, and be able to push them up to my elbows to cool off.
I wore the Patagonia Capilene 2 Lightweight Zip-Neck on numerous occasions last summer, hiking, backpacking, trail running, and camping in Washington’s Glacier Peak Wilderness, New Hampshire’s White Mountains, and Idaho’s White Cloud Mountains, City of Rocks National Reserve, and Boise Foothills—including at the chilly, early-morning outset of a 28-mile dayhike through the White Clouds, when I needed a little extra warmth but wanted a top that’s light and low-bulk, because I’d carry it much more than I’d wear it that July day.
Most notably, this top dries very quickly. After getting it wet with sweat on a sustained, uphill stretch of trail running, it dried within minutes once I started a long downhill. The Polartec Power Dry fabric moves moisture as fast as any lightweight fabric I’ve worn. I like the thumb loops inside the cuffs for holding the sleeves in place over my hands (though not over fingers), but the cuffs also stretch enough to easily push the sleeves up to my elbows. The fabric slides smoothly under insulation layers like fleece, and offset shoulder seams avoid rubbing under pack straps.
The top is rated UPF 20, offering basic sun protection. This lightweight top is barely warm enough by itself for exerting hard in temps in the low 40s, and provides minimal insulation for sitting around in camp, for instance; it’s definitely a base layer for active pursuits. Feel good: Capilene is made from 100 percent post-consumer recycled yarn.
I also test drove the Sherpa Adventure Gear Tsepun Zip Tee on many days of backpacking, trail running, and Nordic skiing, mostly last fall and winter, in temps from the 20s (under a fleece jacket while ski touring) to the 40s, from the Boise Foothills to the Grand Canyon. Heavier and warmer than the Patagonia Capilene 2 top, it thus doesn’t dry quite as quickly. But Sherpa’s proprietary DryZone fabric (82 percent nylon, 18 percent polyester) still moves moisture out efficiently for its weight, making it arguably comfortable in a greater range of temps than the Capilene 2: In the Grand Canyon, I wore it hiking uphill with a heavy pack on cool mornings and sitting around in camp as the evening rapidly cooled off after early, November sunsets.
The front zipper delivers high neck coverage and opens enough to ventilate. A very smooth interior face on the fabric feels soft against skin. Flat seams minimize chafing under pack straps. I could fit an iPod or iPhone in the low-profile, bonded chest pocket and run the ear buds cord through its slightly opened zipper, so I didn’t have a long length of cord flopping around while running.
The cuffs don’t have as much stretch as other tops, but enough to push the sleeves up to my elbows; and the sleeves have plenty of length to pull them over my hands when needed. The tightly woven Tsepun carries the highest UPF rating, 50+.
NOTE: I’ve been testing gear for Backpacker Magazine for 20 years. At The Big Outside, I review only what I consider the best outdoor gear and apparel. See all of my reviews by clicking on the Gear Reviews category at left or in the main menu.