Patagonia Capilene Midweight Zip-Neck.

Review: The Best Base Layers For Hiking, Running, and Training

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By Michael Lanza

Let’s admit it: We don’t always take our base layers as seriously and we do our outerwear and insulation—or packs, tents, boots and other gear, for that matter. But this under-appreciated first stage in a layering system for the outdoors really sets the table for how comfortable you’ll be. Base layers that don’t perform well probably won’t kill you, but misery isn’t a good companion. This is what we wear against our skin. It matters.

After much testing from the trails to the mountains and the gym year-round, the long-sleeve tops, T-shirts, shorts, underwear, and sun cap reviewed here are the best I’ve found for dayhiking, backpacking, trail running, climbing, skiing, cycling, and training.

Light- and medium-weight T-shirts and long-sleeve tops are the most versatile because you can layer them in a wider range of temperatures to keep you drier and cooler, but fabrics and design features of tops and shorts affect their temperature range and the activities for which they’re comfortable.

 

A Word About Synthetic Versus Wool

We all know that synthetic fabrics wick moisture and dry quickly, while wool keeps you warm even once it’s wet. My experience with dozens of base layers is that both types keep getting better. Modern synthetics are getting lighter and more efficient at moving moisture. I wear lightweight synthetic base layers for high-intensity activities in warm temperatures, and midweight synthetics for moderate-intensity activities in cool temps. But synthetics can get sweat-soaked (leaving you cold on cool days) and stinky after many days of wearing and multiple washings.

Wool—which today basically means Merino wool—keeps getting softer and more comfortable, and I find myself wearing it more often, for virtually any activity, in a wider range of conditions than I ever did before. It breathes as well as any fabric; doesn’t dry as quickly as synthetics, but keeps you warm, anyway; and won’t develop odors. But the lightest Merino wool tops aren’t always as durable as synthetics.

 

Most Versatile Synthetic Top

Patagonia Capilene Midweight Zip-Neck.

Patagonia Capilene Midweight Zip-Neck.

Patagonia Capilene Midweight Zip-Neck
$69, 7.5 oz. (men’s medium)
Sizes: men’s XS-XXL, women’s XXS-XL
moosejaw.com

If the ultimate proof of any garment’s value is how often and in what range of conditions you wear it, the Patagonia Capilene Midweight Zip-Neck has more than covered its price. I’ve worn it on cool evenings and mornings in campsites from the Grand Canyon’s North Rim and Esplanade (lead photo at top of story) during a four-day backpacking trip, to Idaho’s City of Rocks National Reserve. Whether hiking, climbing, on a winter trail run, or resort skiing, I increasingly find myself grabbing it from a drawer full of tops for a variety of activities in all seasons.

Why? The Polartec Power Grid fabric’s brushed-grid delivers a lot of warmth for its low weight, breathes very well, and wicks moisture very efficiently. A deep front zipper opens down to the pecs for good venting, while the collar reaches high enough to keep my neck covered when zipped up. Comfort is excellent thanks to flatlock seams and shoulder construction that allows full mobility without causing the top to hike up. The fabric’s smooth face slips easily into fleece jacket sleeves. Thumb loops hold the sleeves over your hands. The Polygiene odor control has prevented it from getting stinky through many sweaty outings and launderings. All in all, you get a four-season, midweight top with Patagonia quality at an REI price.

BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking any of these links to purchase a men’s Patagonia Capilene Midweight Zip-Neck at moosejaw.com, patagonia.com, or rei.com, or a women’s Patagonia Capilene Midweight Zip-Neck at moosejaw.com, patagonia.com, or rei.com.

 

Most Versatile Wool Tops

Smartwool PhD Ultra Light Short Sleeve

Smartwool PhD Ultra Light Short Sleeve

Smartwool PhD Ultra Light Short Sleeve
$70, 4 oz. (men’s medium)
Sizes: men’s S-XXL
moosejaw.com

Smartwool PhD Light Long Sleeve
$85, 7 oz. (men’s medium)
Sizes: men’s S-XL, women’s XS-XL
moosejaw.com

This pair were among the most versatile tops in this field, and I pulled them on for everything from hiking, backpacking, biking, and trail running to hanging out at home. Numerous times, I wore the short sleeve version on consecutive days of sweaty hiking, cycling, and gym workouts (without washing it) because it dries so fast and is stink resistant. Dayhiking and backpacking in May in the Panamint Range of Death Valley National Park, I wore it alone in temps ranging from the 60s to the low 80s, and under the long-sleeve version on a dayhike of 11,049-foot Telescope Peak, highest in DVNP, when the temp ranged from 29° F to the low 40s. Even wet with perspiration, these tops trapped warmth on windy afternoons.

Smartwool PhD Light Long Sleeve

Smartwool PhD Light Long Sleeve

Made with a lightweight Merino wool and polyester blend, both tops feel soft against skin. Mesh panels located under the arms and across the back in the short sleeve and on the sides in the long sleeve enhance breathability—the short sleeve didn’t feel hot on long uphill rides in warm sunshine. The short sleeve’s lighter fabric dried before I got home from some bike rides. The semi-form fit of both is athletic enough to help wick moisture, but not super-hero tight, allowing complete freedom of motion. The long sleeve has the warmth for cool, shoulder-season hikes or trail runs, but it receives one demerit: The crew collar leaves your neck exposed to cold temps and wind.

BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking any of these links to purchase a men’s Smartwool PhD Ultra Light Short Sleeve at moosejaw.com, a men’s Smartwool PhD Light Long Sleeve at moosejaw.com, a women’s PhD Ultra Light Short Sleeve at moosejaw.com, or a women’s Smartwool PhD Light Long Sleeve at moosejaw.com.

 

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The North Face Men’s Warm Long-Sleeve Zip Neck.

The North Face Warm Long-Sleeve Zip Neck.

Best Value Long-Sleeve

The North Face Warm Long-Sleeve Zip Neck
$60, 8 oz. (men’s medium)
Sizes: men’s S-XXL, women’s XS-XL
moosejaw.com

On backpacking and dayhiking trips from Glacier National Park to Idaho’s Sawtooths and three straight days of backcountry skiing in the mountains above Lake Tahoe in early February, I found it warm for its weight, while still moving moisture and drying as fast as some of the best midweight synthetic tops. While skinning uphill, I wore only a soft-shell jacket or light insulation layer over it in strong wind or falling snow, and this top alone in calmer conditions. I could sweat into it day after day on a trip and the top never got very smelly or so sweat-soaked that I wouldn’t wear it again the next day.

I found it comfortable and highly functional as a base layer or worn over a very lightweight, long-sleeve wool base layer in all seasons, for everything from backpacking to climbing and trail running. TNF’s HyActive fabric, with hollow-core, air-brushed fibers, traps heat efficiently and dries so quickly from body heat that I finished full days of backcountry skiing with a dry shirt against my torso. The high collar kept chilly air off my neck, and the front zipper opens deeply enough for venting excess heat. It’s ideal for almost any moderate- or high-intensity activity—hiking, running, skiing—in cool to cold temps.

BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking any of these links to purchase The North Face Men’s Warm Long-Sleeve Zip Neck at moosejaw.com, or The North Face Women’s Warm Long-Sleeve Zip Neck at moosejaw.com.

 


Hi, I’m Michael Lanza, creator of The Big Outside, which has made several top outdoors blog lists. Click here to sign up for my FREE email newsletter, or enter your email address in the box in the left sidebar or at the bottom of this story. Click here to get full access to all of my blog’s stories. Follow my adventures on Facebook, TwitterInstagram, and Youtube.


 

Arc’teryx Satoro AR Zip Neck LS

Arc’teryx Satoro AR Zip Neck LS

Most Durable

Arc’teryx Satoro AR Zip Neck LS
$139, 8 oz. (men’s medium)
Sizes: men’s S-XXL, women’s XS-XL
moosejaw.com

I’ve logged many days in this midweight, 180g Merino wool long-sleeve, including most of a four-day, April climb of the Mountaineers Route on California’s Mount Whitney, where we had sunshine every day mixed at times with strong, cold wind. On springtime trail runs of up to 12 miles in the Boise Foothills, wearing it alone or over a lightweight, long-sleeve base layer in temps ranging from the low 40s to the 50s, it kept me warm even in cold wind and when damp with sweat. It shines for high-exertion activities in cool to cold conditions and highly variable weather.

The Satoro AR is made with Nucliex STR 180 wool, whose production involves wrapping 18.3-micron Merino fibers around a nylon filament, marrying the properties of wool (soft, warm when wet, odor resistant) with the strength and durability of the nylon core—particularly important with lightweight wool, which tends to tear more easily. Arc’teryx claims that manufacturing process makes the fabric 20 percent stronger in burst strength and 50 percent more abrasion resistant. It shows no signs of wear after many months of use. The fit is trim and close, which helps with wicking and makes it not quite as warm as a looser-fitting top because there’s fewer air pockets. The tall collar kept cold wind off my neck, and the deep front zipper let me ventilate under a hot, alpine sun reflecting off snow. Seams are low profile for comfort, and the gusseted armpits and articulated sleeves all full freedom of movement. As for odor control: I accidentally left it in a pack for months after wearing it for days, and when I discovered it again, it actually didn’t stink—truthfully. (I washed it, anyway.) There’s also an AR Crew ($119), AR Bottom ($109), and AR Boxer ($59).

BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking any of these links to purchase a men’s Arc’teryx Satoro AR Zip Neck LS at moosejaw.com, or a women’s Satoro AR Zip Neck LS at moosejaw.com, or either the men’s or women’s at arcteryx.com.

 

For high-speed workouts in damp weather, get a breathable, ultralight wind shell. See my reviews of the best ones.

 

Ibex Woolies 1 S/S

Ibex Woolies 1 S/S

Top Pick T-shirt

Ibex Woolies 1 S/S
$70, 4 oz. (men’s medium)
Sizes: men’s S-XL
moosejaw.com

Made from very light and soft, 18.5-micron, 165g Merino wool, with flatlock seams and no-tag labels for no compromise on comfort, this form-fitting T-shirt stretches to move with you and feels like you’ve grown a thin layer of wool rather than put on an article of clothing. It’s ideal alone or as a bottom layer for virtually any activity in all seasons—except, I find, for highly aerobic pursuits in hot temps.

I never took it off, day or night, throughout an overnight backpacking trip in late March in Utah’s Dirty Devil River Canyon, and on a four-day, April climb of the Mountaineers Route on California’s 14,505-foot Mount Whitney: I was comfortable whether in warm sunshine or wearing it under other layers in cold, strong winds, hail, and rain. I also basically lived in it, day and night, on an 80-mile, five-day backpacking trip in the North Cascades National Park Complex in the last week of September, carrying over 35 pounds at times, in mostly dry weather. And trail running in the Boise Foothills in temperatures in the 40s Fahrenheit, I sweated enough to normally soak through my T-shirt; but the Woolies 1 s/s, while damp, kept me warm under a light hoody. The long hem doesn’t ride up out of pants or from under a pack hipbelt when you bend over or lift your arms. Ibex says the ribbed construction makes it more durable than some comparably light tops; it has held up well for me after numerous days of use, including wearing it at home day after day. There’s also a men’s and women’s Woolies 1 Crew long-sleeve ($85, 5.5 oz.).

BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking any of these links to purchase an Ibex Woolies 1 S/S at moosejaw.com, or a men’s Ibex Woolies 1 Crew long-sleeve at moosejaw.com, or a women’s Ibex Woolies 1 Crew long-sleeve at moosejaw.com.

 

Got an all-time favorite campsite? See “Tent Flap With a View: 25 Favorite Backcountry Campsites.”

 

Smartwool Merino 150 Baselayer Long Sleeve

Smartwool Merino 150 Baselayer Long Sleeve

Softest, Most-Durable Light Merino Wool

Smartwool Merino 150 Baselayer Long Sleeve
$80, 7 oz. (men’s medium)
Sizes: men’s S-XXL, women’s XS-XL
moosejaw.com

Merino wool is soft, very breathable, warm even when wet, and doesn’t get smelly. But the lightest Merino shirts can wear thin and suffer small tears sooner than synthetic fabrics of comparable weight. With the Merino 150, Smartwool wrapped Merino fibers around a nylon core to make the fabric more durable, without compromising the soft-against-skin feel of Merino. The result is a top you can wear as a base or second layer in moderate temperatures, or layer over it in cold temps, without worrying about pack straps shredding it prematurely.

The flatlock, offset shoulder and side seams mean no bothersome seams directly under pack straps. And the super-soft Merino 150 not only feels wonderful against skin, it’s light enough to dry quickly: On one three-hour, mountain bike ride on a mostly sunny day in the 50s Fahrenheit with light winds, I wore this top while pedaling two hours up more than 2,000 vertical feet—getting quite wet with perspiration. I pulled on an ultralight, breathable wind shell over it for the long ride downhill, and this base layer was almost completely dry when I got home.

BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking any of these links to purchase a men’s Smartwool Merino 150 Baselayer Long Sleeve at moosejaw.com or rei.com, or a women’s Smartwool Merino 150 Baselayer Long Sleeve at moosejaw.com or rei.com.

 

Take it to the next level. See my stories “Cranking Out Big Days: How to Ramp Up Your Hikes and Trail Runs” and “Training For a Big Hike or Mountain Climb.”

 

Kora Shola 230 Crew Base Layer

Kora Shola 230 Crew Base Layer

Soft, Warm, Breathable Yak Wool

Kora Shola 230 Crew Base Layer
$145, 8.5 oz. (men’s medium)
Sizes: men’s S-XXL, women’s XS-XL
kora.net

The soft yak wool of the Shola 230 will redraw your mental image of what wool feels like, while expanding your expectations of this natural fabric’s wide temperature-comfort range. I wore this top—both alone and over a light, short-sleeve base layer—during chilly mornings on back-to-back, 21-mile and 23.5-mile, rim-to-rim dayhikes across the Grand Canyon in mid-October, in temps from the high 30s to the low 50s (before I pulled it off); on cool October mornings dayhiking the Observation Point Trail and The Narrows in Zion National Park; and while Nordic skate-skiing in temps in the 20s in Idaho.

It’s warm for its weight, possibly partly due to the weave’s density. Kora says this fabric—made from Hima-Layer Original 230 fabric, using yak wool harvested by nomad families on the Qinghai Tibet plateau in the Himalayan Mountains—is 40 percent warmer and 66 percent more breathable than Merino wool. Flat-locked seams are positioned off the shoulder to avoid pack straps, and the close fit helps move moisture off skin without inhibiting freedom of movement. This midweight top is worth its price for its versatility from the mountains in summer to any activity from fall through spring.

BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog when you click either of these links to purchase the men’s Kora Shola 230 Crew Base Layer at kora.net, or the women’s Kora Shola 230 Crew Base Layer at kora.net.

Patagonia Men’s Lightweight Capilene Crew

Patagonia Men’s Lightweight Capilene Crew

Best Wicking Long-Sleeve

Patagonia Lightweight Capilene Crew
$49, 3.5 oz. (men’s medium)
Sizes: men’s XS-XXL, women’s XXS-XL
moosejaw.com

On numerous, long trail runs in wide-ranging temperatures and weather in the Boise Foothills, this wafer-thin long-sleeve was stellar either alone in mild conditions or as a base layer under an ultralight shell or warmer long-sleeve top in wind or cooler temps. Even on runs where I perspired heavily, the Capilene’s wicking ability was never overwhelmed—it kept moving moisture as long as my body was producing heat, so it was never more than damp.

Thumb loops kept my hands partly covered when needed, or I could easily push the sleeves up over my elbows when temps rose. With UPF 35 sun protection, treated for odor control, and Fair Trade Certified, this crew top is better for training and aerobic activities like trail running than for wearing with a pack, which might wear out this light fabric quickly.

BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking any of these links to purchase a men’s or women’s Patagonia Lightweight Capilene Crew at moosejaw.comrei.com, or patagonia.com.

 

Plan your next great backpacking adventure in Yosemite and other flagship parks using my expert e-guides.

 

Outdoor Research Gauge SS Tee

Outdoor Research Gauge SS Tee

Coolest T-Shirt

Outdoor Research Gauge S/S Tee
$59, 4 oz. (men’s medium)
Sizes: men’s S-XXL, women’s XS-XL
moosejaw.com

From warm-weather trail runs and rides to numerous intense gym workouts, this lightweight T-shirt kept me cool when my body was maximizing its production of heat and perspiration. The Polartec Delta fabric’s honeycombed structure efficiently moves moisture from the skin to the shirt’s exterior, where it employs evaporative cooling to help prevent you from overheating. The effect mimics cotton—with the significant difference that the Gauge Tee dries faster, rather than simply holding all that sweat like cotton does. In the 10 minutes I’d spend stretching after a hard workout, the tee would nearly dry out.

The lightweight fabric feels light and airy against skin, though not as soft as Merino, and the fit is loose but not baggy. On the downside, it has suffered some pulls and gotten a bit smelly from multiple wearings and washings. It’s best for hot temps and carrying nothing heavier than a small hydration pack.

BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking either of these links to purchase a men’s or women’s Outdoor Research Gauge SS Tee at moosejaw.com or outdoorresearch.com, a men’s at ems.com or a women’s Outdoor Research Gauge SS Tee at ems.com.

 

La Sportiva Motion T-shirt

La Sportiva Motion T-shirt.

Best Value T-Shirt

La Sportiva Motion T-Shirt
$39, 4 oz. (men’s medium)
Sizes: men’s S-XL
moosejaw.com

I’ve worn Sportiva’s Motion T for up to three consecutive days of sweaty gym workouts and cycling, hanging it to dry after each workout, and it remained remarkably odor-free each time. After one four-day streak, my wife told me that it had begun to stink, so I gave in and washed it. Still, that’s highly unusual for synthetics. Perhaps most impressively, after countless gym workouts, bike rides, and trail runs (and launderings), unlike other synthetic tops with comparable use, this one still doesn’t smell.

Using Polygiene, an odor-fighting, antimicrobial silver treatment made from 100 percent recycled silver sourced from photographic and industrial applications, the fabric inhibits the growth of odor-causing bacteria, so you can wear more and wash less—thus prolonging the useful lifetime of the garment because bacteria and laundering both break down fibers and eventually wear out the shirt. With stretchy, quick-drying synthetic fabric, including mesh panels under the arms for enhanced breathability and more-durable nylon throughout the torso, plus chafe-free flatlock seams—and carrying Bluesign approval for sustainable textile production—the Motion T is a good choice for everything from trail running and gym workouts to hiking with a light daypack and climbing, at a really good price. Sportiva’s women’s Calypso Tank ($55) is also made with Polygiene technology and flatlock seams.

BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking any of these links to purchase a men’s La Sportiva Motion T-shirt at moosejaw.com, or a women’s La Sportiva Calypso Tank at moosejaw.com or campsaver.com.

 

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Westcomb Delta Crew

Westcomb Delta Crew

Versatile, Cool Tops

Westcomb Delta Crew
$70, 4 oz. (men’s medium)
Sizes: men’s S-XL
westcomb.com

Westcomb Bravo Top
$80, 5 oz. (men’s medium)
Sizes: men’s S-XL
westcomb.com

I’ve worn the short-sleeve Delta Crew T-shirt for everything from trail runs of more than an hour to mountain biking and rock climbing on mild to hot days, and the long-sleeve Bravo Top as a base layer or my only top layer trail running in cooler temperatures. The Polartec Delta fabric used throughout most of the torso and under the arms of both tops employs a honeycomb structure to wick sweat off your skin extremely quickly and dry within minutes post-workout.

Westcomb Bravo Top

Westcomb Bravo Top

But while damp, the fabric also holds the moisture close enough to your skin to get an evaporative cooling effect—a benefit on hot days. The nylon used in the front and shoulders of both tops feels softer against skin than some synthetics—no chafing of nipples in these tops. Both are solid all-around tops for moderate to hot temps and a range of activities, including carrying a light pack.

BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking any of these links to purchase a men’s Delta Crew at westcomb.com, or a Bravo Top at westcomb.com.

 

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The North Face Better Than Naked Short-Sleeve

The North Face Better Than Naked Short-Sleeve

Lightest T-Shirt

The North Face Better Than Naked Short-Sleeve
$50, 3 oz. (men’s medium)
Sizes: men’s S-XXL, women’s XS-XL
moosejaw.com

When you need the lightest, fastest-drying T-shirt for hot days, especially for trail runs or rides or dayhikes, this wispy T is the one. On sun-baked trail runs, through the sweatiest gym workouts—and on a dayhike of the 32-mile, 10,000-vertical-foot, nine-summit Pemi Loop in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, in weather ranging from the 60s and light rain to the 80s with sunshine and high humidity—the Better Than Naked Short-Sleeve’s FlashDry polyester-knit fabric dumped dampness faster than any other T-shirt, and almost as fast as I could produce it. The lightest top reviewed here, it uses a fine, polyester mesh on the back for freakish drying speeds. Seams are minimal and placed to avoid chafing. There’s really not much to this T-shirt, which is why it does what it does so well. On the downside, this fabric isn’t as soft as some others reviewed here, and it irritated my nipples a little on longer trail runs (over 10 miles). Save it strictly for training and carrying nothing more than a hydration pack—a heavier pack will wear through this featherweight fabric quickly.

BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking either  of these links to purchase a men’s or women’s The North Face Better Than Naked T at moosejaw.com or rei.com.

 

Got a trip coming up? See my reviews of the best gear duffles and luggage and the 7 best daypacks.

 

Kuhl Airspeed SS shirt.

Kuhl Airspeed SS shirt.

Best Travel Shirt

Kuhl Airspeed SS
$75, 7 oz. (men’s medium)
Sizes: men’s S-XL
moosejaw.com

This button-down, short-sleeve shirt was my one non-hiking travel shirt throughout a nine-day trek on the 105-mile Tour du Mont Blanc in July and on the international flights from the U.S. to France and back, and I’ve worn it innumerable times around town. Kuhl’s AirVolution fabric, a woven, nylon/poly blend rated UPF 30 for UV protection, feels soft against skin and never looked or smelled like it had gone through two weeks of unwashed travel. Underarm mesh panels and lighter fabric across the back, which has a vent flap, kept me cool on warm afternoons—while blending in with the shirt’s styling, so I didn’t look like the unwashed hiker geek. Three chest pockets, two button-down and one zippered, hold small valuables, and a swatch of fabric for cleaning sunglasses is sewn inside the bottom left placket.

BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to purchase a Kuhl Airspeed SS at moosejaw.com or kuhl.com.

 

Flylow Nash Shirt

Flylow Nash Shirt

Cotton Feel

Flylow Nash Shirt
$55, 6 oz. (men’s medium)
Sizes: men’s XS-XXL
campsaver.com

Not the lightest, most breathable, warmest, or fastest-drying top reviewed here, the Nash instead nails it for comfort and all-purpose durability while remaining light enough for fair-weather hiking, riding, running, or climbing. Tough enough for backpacking in the Grand Canyon, the cotton-soft, stretch polyester fabric wicks and dries not as quickly as the lighter tops, but reasonably well for its weight. The four-panel body and shoulder construction designed for mobility and a loose fit make it suitable for any activity—and pack straps won’t wear holes through this shirt. Plus, the fabric carries the highest UPF rating of 50+.

BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to purchase a Flylow Nash Shirt at campsaver.com.

 

REI Screeline Half-Zip Long-Sleeve

REI Screeline Half-Zip

REI Screeline Half-Zip Long-Sleeve
$65, 7 oz. (men’s medium)
Sizes: men’s S-XXL
rei.com

Functional, basic, and all you really need at a good price—those often seem to be the goals of REI brand products, and this top embodies those objectives. On late-March dayhikes in the desert Southwest, from Utah’s San Rafael Swell to Arizona’s Canyon de Chelly National Monument, this half-zip top delivered the right balance of warmth and wicking ability for temps in the 50s and 60s Fahrenheit and conditions that toggled between warm sunshine and breezy to cool shade. There’s nothing cutting-edge about the fabric, just a workhorse, lightweight polyester, but it moves moisture off skin and dries reasonably quickly, and is rated UPF 30 for sun protection. Shoulders are reinforced for durability under pack straps, for dayhiking or backpacking. The long cut stays put under a pack hipbelt, the high collar covers your neck, and thumbholes in the cuffs add a little warmth for hands. But the fabric isn’t quite as soft against skin as the Merino wool tops.

BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to purchase an REI Screeline Half-Zip Long-Sleeve at rei.com.

 

Patagonia Men's Nine Trails Shorts

Patagonia Men’s Nine Trails Shorts

Most Versatile Shorts

Patagonia Nine Trails Shorts
$65, 7 oz. (men’s small)
Sizes: men’s XS-XL, women’s XS-XL
moosejaw.com

These shorts, with an eight-inch inseam, became another favorite for trail runs and warm-weather dayhikes (as well as gym sessions) because the lightweight, 75-denier recycled polyester-spandex fabric breathes well, but is also durable enough for rugged trail use, and has a DWR treatment to repel light rain.

The stretchy, odor-resistant, built-in boxer-brief liner, made with a microdenier polyester, dries quickly, but anyone with big thighs or glutes will find the liner’s fit snug or want to size up. The two zippered hand pockets are mesh lined for ventilation and as large as my open hand; the one zippered rear pocket is big enough for a small phone. A drawstring helps secure the waist, but I rarely needed it thanks to the good elasticity in the waistband. Grab these when you need shorts that are cool and dry fast, but also have the convenience of pockets and some durability and water resistance for longer trail runs or hikes.

BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to purchase the men’s or women’s Patagonia Nine Trails Shorts at moosejaw.com, patagonia.com, or rei.com.

 

Flylow Hardcastle Short

Flylow Hardcastle Short

Tough and Comfortable

Flylow Hardcastle Short
$60, 7 oz. (men’s small)
Sizes: men’s XS-XXL
campsaver.com

When you need cool, comfortable shorts that can handle hard use in hot-weather activities, the Hardcastle Short shines like the sun. They stayed dry as I sweated through hot days backpacking in the Grand Canyon in mid-May, and looked no worse for the wear afterward—they’ll hold up better than many lighter shorts.

The stretchy, 89% polyester, 11% spandex Intuitive IQ fabric is tough but dries quickly enough to never feel wet—partly thanks to the loose, airy fit—and the no-fuss elasticized waistband feels good under a pack’s hipbelt and holds its shape no matter how wet. Unlike lighter shorts, the Hardcastle has four mesh pockets; only one rear pocket is zippered (the other rear pocket has a snap), but the two in front are deep enough to not easily lose anything small inside them. The 40+ UPF rating and 10-inch inseam deliver good sun protection. These shorts are a solid, comfortable choice for everything from trail running and SUP-ing to backpacking and ultra-hiking. Unlike most of the shorts reviewed here, though, this pair does not have an internal liner brief.

BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to purchase the Flylow Hardcastle Shorts at campsaver.com.

 

La Sportiva Rapid Short

La Sportiva Rapid Short

Softest, Least-Stinky Shorts

La Sportiva Rapid Short/Vibe Short
$129, 5 oz. (men’s small)
Sizes: men’s S-XL, women’s XS-XL
moosejaw.com

Like Sportiva’s Motion T, the men’s Rapid Short and women’s Vibe Short for running have Polygiene treatment to stop the growth of odor-causing bacteria on fabric; I’d wear these shorts for two or three straight days of running and gym workouts between washings, which greatly prolongs a garment’s life. On trail runs of over an hour, in warm temperatures, the liner got only slightly damp and dried very quickly.

La Sportiva Vibe Short

La Sportiva Vibe Short

The stretchy, seamless liner feels softer than many shorts liners, staying comfortable against thighs and privates; and the liner plus the flatlock stitching prevent chafing even on multi-hour outings, as well as pressure points under a hydration-pack waistbelt. I’d continue wearing these shorts for an hour or more post-run (until showering) because they’d dry out and just feel good. The small, zippered back pocket has space for a car key and a few gel packets. The low-profile, integrated drawcord at the waist is comfortable with or without a pack waistbelt over it. Plus, the shorts have a UPF 50 rating, the highest UV protection.

BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking any of these links to purchase the La Sportiva men’s Rapid Short at moosejaw.com or campsaver.com, or the women’s Vibe Short at moosejaw.com.

 

The North Face Better Than Naked Long Haul 7-inch Short

The North Face Better Than Naked Long Haul 7-inch Short

Running Shorts With Pockets

The North Face Better Than Naked Long Haul 7-inch Short
$65, 5.5 oz. (men’s small regular)
Sizes: men’s S-XXL, women’s XS-XL
moosejaw.com

Shorts made for hiking are often a little too heavy, bulky, and warm, while shorts made for trail running are almost devoid of pockets. I’ve long wanted shorts that bridge that divide—lightweight, cool, and quick-drying, but with a couple of secure (i.e., zippered) pockets, making them useful for long dayhikes and backpacking in hot temperatures, as well as trail running. TNF’s Better Than Naked shorts take an admirable stab at that. The light, stretchy, woven ripstop nylon fabric and wicking, soft FlashDry knit liner dry very quickly, no matter how hard you’re sweating; and the diamond-woven, ripstop polyester outer fabric has a DWR treatment that repelled light rain during a 27-mile, 16-hour dayhike through western Maine’s Mahoosuc Range.

But besides a zippered back pocket for a car key or small electronic device—like found on many running shorts—these also feature six two-inch-deep, stretch-mesh pockets of various lengths wrapping around the waistband perimeter. For small items like gel packets and bars (that won’t melt), the Better Than Naked shorts offer more convenience than most running shorts.

BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to purchase The North Face Better Than Naked Long Haul 7-inch Men’s Short at moosejaw.com.

 

Smartwool PhD 7” Shorts

Smartwool PhD 7” Shorts

Lightest Shorts

Smartwool PhD 7” Shorts
$65, 4 oz. (men’s small)
Sizes: men’s S-XL, women’s XS-XL
moosejaw.com

This Merino-polyester blend inner brief with a stretch-woven outer short is the lightest short reviewed here and ideal for hot runs and gym workouts. After a stairs machine workout that left me pouring with sweat, the shorts were merely damp. The fabric has not gotten stinky after multiple, sweaty workouts and launderings, either. With a minimalist design—one zippered rear pocket, one side pocket (no closure) about the size of an iPod, a drawcord waist, and a seven-inch inseam in the men’s shorts (three inches in the women’s), these shorts are best for running and training.

BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to purchase the Smartwool PhD 7” Shorts at moosejaw.com.

 

Stio Downwater Board Shorts

Stio Downwater Board Shorts

Best Water Shorts

Stio Downwater Board Short
$79, 6 oz. (men’s 30)
Sizes: men’s 30-40, women’s 2-12
stio.com

My pick for water sports like kayaking, fishing, and SUP-ing are Stio’s Downwater Board Short. The quick-drying nylon fabric, treated with a DWR to shed water, is light enough for hot days and tough enough for hard use and many launderings. A drawstring waist keeps the waistband flat and free of a belt or loops, and the fit is loose enough for comfort when moving around, without being so baggy that the shorts are impractical for being highly active. The two hand pockets have mesh linings to speed drying, and the one thigh pocket has hook-and-loop patches to keep it shut. Unlike most of the shorts reviewed here, though, this pair does not have an internal liner brief.

 

MyPakage Pro Series Boxer-Brief.

MyPakage Pro Series Boxer-Brief.

Most Comfortable Underwear

MyPakage Pro Series Boxer-Brief
$30, 3 oz. (small)
Sizes: XXS-XXL
moosejaw.com

Saxx Quest 2.0 Boxer
$30, 2.5 oz. (small)
Sizes: S-XXL
moosejaw.com

From dayhikes in the mountains of western North Carolina to an 80-mile, five-day backpacking trip in the North Cascades National Park Complex in Washington state—and innumerable days at home—both of these boxer-briefs kept me wondering, “Why hasn’t anyone thought of this before?” Best-ever brand names aside, they are the two most comfortable models of underwear that I’ve ever worn. Through long days hiking—and sweating—for 15 or more miles, the MyPakage and Saxx boxer-briefs remained so dry and comfortable that I could wear the same pair in my sleeping bag that night and get a second day of use out of them (or more, if desperate).

Saxx Quest 2.0 Boxer

Saxx Quest 2.0 Boxer

The distinguishing feature of both is a three-dimensional pouch that cradles and supports a dude’s package, which is not only vastly more comfortable than standard briefs, but prevents chafing and sweaty contact against thighs, no matter how many miles you’re going. Both have lightweight, wicking fabric that breathes very well, dries fast, and is anti-microbial, so you really can wear them more than one day between washings; and both have comparably sturdy waistbands that don’t roll over, slip down, or bunch up. The Saxx inseam is an inch longer than the MyPakage; otherwise, the primary difference is in styles.

I expect this will mark the beginning of the end of the phrase “going commando.”

BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking either of these links to purchase the MyPakage Pro Series Boxer-Brief at moosejaw.com or the Saxx Quest 2.0 Boxer at moosejaw.com or rei.com.

 

Smartwool Merino 150 Pattern Boxer Brief

Smartwool Merino 150 Pattern Boxer Brief

Softest Skivvies

Smartwool Merino 150 Pattern Boxer Brief/Women’s Bikini
$45/$30, 3 oz. (men’s small)
Sizes: men’s S-XXL, women’s XS-XL
moosejaw.com

Smartwool’s Merino 150 wool feels just as soft and remarkably cool against your most-sensitive skin as it does against your torso and arms. Wool’s property of trapping heat when damp delivers welcome benefits in your anatomy’s deep south, too—which is why the Meino 150 Pattern Boxer Brief for men ($45) and Merino 150 Pattern Bikini for women ($30) are so comfortable for hours or even a couple of backcountry days. A wide, stay-put elastic waistband with a Merino lining in the men’s boxer brief, flatlock seams, and odor-killing properties completes this, um, package.

BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking any of these links to purchase the Smartwool Merino 150 Pattern Boxer Brief at moosejaw.com or rei.com, or the women’s Smartwool Merino 150 Pattern Bikini at moosejaw.com or rei.com.

 

Outdoor Research Echo Cap

Outdoor Research Echo Cap

Lightest Sun Hat

Outdoor Research Echo Cap
$28, 1 oz. One size, stretches
moosejaw.com

I can’t imagine a lighter, more breathable or packable cap for running, hiking, or climbing (it’ll fit under a helmet) than the Echo Cap, period. Made from very lightweight, UPF 50+ Airvent fabric, the Echo Cap wicks and dries quickly even on sweaty runs and folds up to the size of an energy gel packet. There’s also an Outdoor Research Echo Visor ($24).

BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking either of these links to purchase an Outdoor Research Echo Cap at moosejaw.com or outdoorresearch.com, or an Outdoor Research Echo Visor at outdoorresearch.com.

 

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See all of my reviews of outdoor apparel and trail-running apparel and gear.

NOTE: I tested gear for Backpacker Magazine for 20 years. At The Big Outside, I review only what I consider the best outdoor gear and apparel. See categorized menus of all of my gear reviews at The Big Outside.

 

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4 Responses to Review: The Best Base Layers For Hiking, Running, and Training

  1. david   |  June 30, 2017 at 10:11 am

    You should have asked me. I’m a pretty dashing fellow and have lots of modeling experience 🙂

    • MichaelALanza   |  June 30, 2017 at 10:35 am

      David, you are at the top of the list of outdoor models.

  2. Kris   |  April 14, 2016 at 12:37 pm

    Nice shirt! You could use a less surly-looking model, though…;-)

    Keep up the great work!

    • michaellanza   |  April 19, 2016 at 11:12 am

      Thanks, Kris. Yes, it’s hard to get good models who work for free!

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