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 to the gym year-round, the long-sleeve tops, T-shirts, shorts, underwear, socks, and compression socks, shorts, and tights reviewed here are the best I’ve found for dayhiking, backpacking, trail running, climbing, and training. And over the course of a quarter-century of testing and reviewing gear, including the 10 years I spent as the lead gear reviewer for Backpacker magazine and even longer running this blog, I’ve learned how to distinguish the mediocre from the excellent.
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 also affect their temperature range and the activities for which they’re comfortable.
Please leave any comments or questions about my picks for best base layers in the comments section at the bottom of this story. I try to respond to all comments. And you can support my work on this blog, at no cost to you, by making purchases through the affiliate links below—where you’ll also often find the best prices. Thank you for doing that.
What You Need to Know 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 often 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.
Today you can also find base layers that combine synthetic fabrics with wool—often Merino for its softness—to combine the strengths of both materials.
Most Versatile T-Shirts
From local trail runs of up to 20 miles in temps from 60 to 80 degrees and cool, wet days of camping and rock climbing, to a five-day, 78-mile backpacking trip on the Wonderland Trail around Mount Rainier, four days of variable weather on Nevada’s Ruby Crest Trail and five cool, sometimes very windy and snowy days trekking in June through Spain’s Picos de Europa Mountains, Patagonia’s Capilene Cool Trail Shirt has become my go-to for countless days and virtually any kind of activity.
I lived in this T-shirt—waking and sleeping hours—under other layers and sometimes alone for three straight days in the Picos. It has the soft, comfortable feel and fit of your favorite cotton tee. And the Polygiene permanent odor control treatment has prevented it from getting a perma-stink after many workouts, hikes, runs, and launderings.
Its polyester fabric wicks moisture and dries remarkably quickly: Wearing it alone or under other layers, I’d sweat through it while hiking or running uphill, feel an icy chill of the wind blowing through wet fabric against my skin; and next thing I knew, within minutes after reducing my exertion level, I’d notice the T-shirt was dry again. It happened several times a day.
The Capilene Cool Merino Shirt has become another staple base layer for me because it marries the benefits of the Capilene Cool daily Shirt with those of soft Merino wool—the ability to retain warmth once wet plus odor-resistance—as I’ve confirmed while trekking hut to hut on Iceland’s Laugavegur Trail in cool, often windy and wet days in July; on hilly dayhikes up to 12 miles in warm to hot August temps and little shade; on a 10-mile, 3,600-foot dayhike of 4,700-foot Mount Carrigain in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, on a dry October day with temps in the 50s and 60s with light wind; and on numerous local hikes and workouts.
Made from 65 percent Merino wool and 35 percent recycled polyester, it kept me cool—especially once damp with sweat—until the temp climbed into the 80s Fahrenheit, when it started getting too warm. I also like it for gym workouts.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog, at no cost to you, by clicking any of these affiliate links to purchase a men’s or women’s Patagonia Capilene Cool Trail Shirt or other Capilene Cool Trail tops at backcountry.com or patagonia.com, or a men’s or women’s Patagonia Capilene Cool Merino Shirt or other Capilene Cool Merino tops at patagonia.com.
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Most Comfortable T-Shirt
Beyond Clothing Todra L1 SS Crew
$40, 4 oz. (men’s medium)
Sizes: men’s S-XXL
What are the things we don’t like about some base layers? The fabric feels rough or itchy against skin or the fit’s too tight or too loose—or it just costs too much. Then there’s the Todra, which feels like your favorite cotton T-shirt that you’ll pull on day after day at home but performs like a technical tee, as I’ve discovered wearing it on dayhikes in New Hampshire’s White Mountains and elsewhere, trail runs, gym workouts, trekking hut to hut on Iceland’s Laugavegur Trail, and backpacking a section of the John Muir Trail, four days in the Wind River Range, a six-day hike in the Grand Canyon (lead photo at top of story), and a seven-day, nearly 70-mile trip in Glacier National Park.
The standard fit feels neither silly-tight nor bulky—it drapes over your torso as if made for you. The lightweight, stretchy, 88 percent polyester and 12 percent Tencel knit fabric wicks moisture off your skin and dries fast while antibacterial treatment keeps it from getting stinky—I’ve worn it on consecutive days of hiking, running, and gym workouts without it getting funky. On a dayhike of the 13-mile Burgess Pass Loop in the Canadian Rockies, it got soaked with sweat on the 3,500-foot ascent in 4.5 miles to Burgess Pass, but dried out within about 15 minutes under my rain shell once we got above treeline—on a cool, overcast day with intermittent rain showers.
The low-bulk, wrinkle-resistant fabric packs small for stuffing inside a pack. It also meets textile standards for ecological safety and not containing harmful levels of more than 100 substances. And you can buy two of them for the cost of some technical tees.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog, at no cost to you, by clicking this affiliate link to purchase a Beyond Clothing Todra L1 SS Crew at beyondclothing.com.
For high-speed workouts in damp weather, get a breathable, ultralight wind shell.
See my reviews of the best ones.
Best Wool-Blend T-Shirt
Ibex Merino Tencel Short Sleeve Tee
$85, 4.5 oz. (men’s medium)
Sizes: men’s S-XXL, women’s XS-XL
Working up a sweat on dayhikes of up to 11 miles in my local foothills—including up and down one trail that rises 2,000 vertical feet in 2.2 miles—in August temps ranging from the 50s into the 80s Fahrenheit, the Ibex Merino Tencel Short Sleeve Tee got damp but never felt too hot and dried more quickly than an all-wool T-shirt of the same, low weight would. I also lived in it, day and night, for five straight days backpacking almost 50 miles through Washington’s Pasayten Wilderness, in September temps ranging from the 40s to around 60° F, alone as well as under one or two layers—and it remained comfortable. I’ve also worn it through sweaty gym workouts and mountain biking.
It blends two natural performance fibers—Tencel, derived from sustainably grown eucalyptus, and Merino wool—imbuing the lightweight, 19.5-micron fabric with exceptional moisture wicking, temperature regulating, and antimicrobial properties. That means you stay cool and dry and the shirt resists getting stinky after two or three days of use—although it did get a little funky after five days of backpacking. Ibex reports that its manufacturing partners produce the fiber in a closed-loop system, recycling over 99 percent of water and solvents that extract cellulosic fibers from wood pulp.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog, at no cost to you, by clicking any of these affiliate links to purchase a men’s Ibex Merino Tencel Short Sleeve Tee at ibex.com, or a women’s Ibex Merino Tencel Short Sleeve Tee at ibex.com.
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Most Versatile Long-Sleeve
Patagonia Capilene Midweight Zip-Neck
$89, 7.5 oz. (men’s medium)
Sizes: men’s XS-XXL, women’s XXS-XL
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 innumerable days in a wide variety of conditions, from trekking through strong, cold wind in rain and falling snow in northern Spain’s Picos de Europa Mountains, to cool evenings and mornings while backpacking a section of the John Muir Trail , in late summer in the Wind River Range, and in the Grand Canyon, as well as rock climbing and camping at Idaho’s City of Rocks National Reserve. Whether hiking, climbing, on a winter trail run, or backcountry or resort skiing, I increasingly find myself grabbing it from a drawer full of tops for a variety of activities in all seasons.
Comfort is excellent thanks to flatlock seams and shoulder construction that allows full mobility without causing the top to hike up. The 100 percent recycled polyester 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.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog, at no cost to you, when you click either of these affiliate links to purchase the men’s or women’s Patagonia Capilene Midweight Zip-Neck at backcountry.com or patagonia.com.
Plan your next great backpacking adventure in Yosemite and other flagship parks using my expert e-guides.
Favorite Sun Shirt
Outdoor Research ActiveIce Spectrum Sun Hoodie
$89, 7.2 oz. (men’s medium)
Sizes: men’s S-XXL, women’s XS-XL
Picking a best overall sun hoody admittedly seems dubious, given how similar many are. But living in this sun hoodie for most of nine straight August days on a section of the John Muir Trail, in mostly dry conditions with temps from the 40s to high 60s and one rainstorm; six sunny and hot days backpacking in the Grand Canyon in early April—including carrying a backpack uphill under a blazing sun, in temps in the 80s, with virtually no shade; and backpacking under a hot sun on the three-day, 22-mile Boulder Mail Trail-Death Hollow Loop in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in early October, I found the ActiveIce Hoodie consistently comfortable with the hood up.
Although heavier than most, it’s one of the coolest and most comfortable. The natural performance of the breathable, wicking, fast-drying, and stretchy 94 percent polyester fabric is amplified by the ActiveIce treatment, a USDA-certified biobased, vegetable oil-derived polymer that absorbs heat energy, producing a noticeable cooling sensation. OR reports the fabric cools by up to 5.4° F/3° C.
It’s rated UPF 50+—but just as critically, the shirt provides great coverage, with its deep hood that shades your face and long sleeves that don’t ride up when reaching overhead, plus thumb holes. Plus, the heavier weight will likely prove more durable—especially for abusive activities like climbing.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog, at no cost to you, by clicking any of these affiliate links to purchase a men’s or women’s Outdoor Research ActiveIce Spectrum Sun Hoodie at moosejaw.com, backcountry.com, or outdoorresearch.com and other ActiveIce apparel pieces at outdoorresearch.com.
Protect yourself smartly and comfortably with one of “The Best Sun Shirts.”
Two Versatile, Soft, Three-Season Wool Tops
Ibex Woolies Tech Long Sleeve Crew
$115, 7 oz. (men’s medium)
Sizes: men’s S-XXL, women’s XS-XL
The “in between” weather days, with moderate temperatures and perhaps some wind, can be hard to dress for when active outside: You’re too warm one minute, too cool the next. Wearing the Ibex Woolies Tech Long Sleeve Crew over a lightweight, short- or long-sleeve base layer and sometimes under a wind shell on winter and spring trail runs up to 11 miles in a wide range of conditions—sun and clouds, windy and calm, and temps from the 30s to the 50s—I stayed warm even after both base layers became moderately wet with sweat.
A midweight top comprised of 81 percent Merino wool with a nylon core for durability, it feels soft against skin and functions well as a bottom layer or over a lighter T-shirt or long-sleeve. At only 180gsm, this relatively light wool provides pretty good warmth for its weight and moved moisture well compared to warmer wool and synthetic layers, even as I sweated while running. But it’s generally too light and close-fitting for freezing temps and it lacks neck coverage. Consider it best for moderately to highly aerobic activities in cool temps.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog, at no cost to you, by clicking either of these links to purchase a men’s Ibex Woolies Tech Long Sleeve Crew at ibex.com or a women’s Ibex Woolies Tech Long Sleeve Crew at ibex.com.
Make your hikes better. See “The 5 Best Rain Jackets for Hiking and Backpacking”
and “The 10 Best Hiking Daypacks.”
Smartwool Classic All-Season Merino Base Layer Long Sleeve
$85, 7 oz. (men’s medium)
Sizes: men’s S-XXL, women’s XS-XL
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 Classic All-Season Merino Base Layer Long Sleeve, 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 Classic not only feels soft 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. It’s also too light and close-fitting and lacks neck coverage for freezing temps.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog, at no cost to you, by clicking either of these affiliate links to purchase a men’s or women’s Smartwool Classic All-Season Merino Base Layer Long Sleeve at moosejaw.com or backcountry.com.
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Two Versatile, Cold-Weather Tops
Outdoor Research Vigor Quarter Zip
$89, 11 oz. (men’s medium)
Sizes: men’s S-XXL, women’s XS-XL
On many days skiing the backcountry, resorts, and very hilly Nordic trails from Idaho’s Boise Mountains to Utah’s Wasatch Range, in temperatures from single digits through the teens and 20s Fahrenheit, sometimes in dumping snow with a below-zero wind chill, OR’s Vigor Quarter Zip always struck a sweet balance between providing enough warmth for the chilly moments without causing me to get too wet on long ascents. When I sweated hard, the Vigor moved moisture so well that it never became more than damp and would dry within minutes of my exertion level dropping.
Similar to other tops, the Vigor consists of a light, soft, grid-back polyester fleece that moves moisture exceptionally well, its mechanical performance enhanced by ActiveTemp thermo-regulating treatment. You can wear it as a base layer—the flat-seam construction aids comfort—or as I frequently do, over a light, wool-poly T-shirt or long-sleeve base layer, with or without a jacket.
The 10-inch front zipper reaches to your sternum for good venting and zips up to your chin. The stretch fabric with thumbholes in the cuffs allow you to slip the sleeves up inside gloves or push sleeves up to the elbows. The zippered chest pocket fits a light hat or phone and breathes well enough to quickly dry something damp stuffed in there (like a light hat for skinning uphill when ski touring). The UPF 30 sun-protection rating protects skin year-round—just as useful in March as August in the mountains. Plus, the length extends to cover your entire butt, providing that much more warmth.
The Vigor Quarter Zip doesn’t have the mapped warmer and lighter fabrics of the Patagonia R1 and Beyond Celerus L2 or a hood—possibly appealing to users who already have an insulation and shell layers with a hood. Still, it offers fall-winter-spring versatility—at a good price.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog, at no cost to you, clicking any of these affiliate links to purchase a men’s or women’s Outdoor Research Vigor Quarter Zip at moosejaw.com, backcountry.com, or outdoorresearch.com, or other models in OR’s Vigor series, including the full-zip hooded jacket, at moosejaw.com, backcountry.com, or outdoorresearch.com.
Get serious about the cold with “The Best Clothing Layers for Winter in the Backcountry.”
Patagonia Men’s R1 Pullover Hoody
$169, 10 oz. (men’s medium)
Sizes: men’s XXS-XXL
Patagonia touts this pullover for climbing and skiing—for which it’s certainly ideal—but I find myself constantly wearing it year-round, in a range of temps. Besides days of backcountry skiing, I lived in this pullover—waking and sleeping hours—for three cool, wet days of camping and rock climbing at Idaho’s City of Rocks National Reserve, and it was the only insulation piece I needed for a six-day backpacking trip in May in the Grand Canyon.
The versatility lies in the Polartec Power Grid fabrics, used exclusively by Patagonia. They have outstanding stretch and breathability and excellent warmth for their weight, making this top versatile as a layering or stand-alone piece in temps ranging from the 50s Fahrenheit to as far below freezing as you can bear. A midweight fabric is used on the front, back, and sleeves, while a slightly lighter, more breathable grid fabric comprises the hood, sides, armpits, and girding the waist. The pullover’s close fit has space for layering a lightweight T-shirt or long-sleeve underneath, or wearing alone and under other layers, and the extended length stays tucked inside a pack belt or climbing harness.
I frequently pulled the close-fitting hood over my head and felt an immediate and noticeable difference in warmth; but I also found it easy to tuck the hood under the collar, out of the way (with little bulk, it doesn’t interfere with another hood in a layering system); it also fits smoothly under any helmet. The front zipper plunges nearly to the belly button for superior venting and zips up to let the balaclava-style hood cover your nose when desired. The elasticized cuffs, with thumbholes for wearing the sleeves up to your fingers, have good stretch to both seal out cold air and slide the sleeves up to the elbows. The zippered chest pocket has enough space for a wool hat or light gloves, and is mesh-lined, so you can put a damp hat or gloves in there to quickly dry from body heat. Polygiene treatment controls odors.
The range of men’s sizes will fit many women. There’s also a women’s R1 Pullover ($139).
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog, at no cost to you, by clicking any of these affiliate links to purchase a Patagonia Men’s R1 Pullover Hoody at backcountry.com or patagonia.com, or a women’s R1 Pullover at backcountry.com or patagonia.com.
Check out a lightweight, super breathable hooded jacket that performs like a warm top that has a hood and full front zipper, the Himali Limitless Grid Fleece Hoodie.
Which puffy should you buy? See “The 10 Best Down Jackets”
and “How You Can Tell How Warm a Down Jacket Is.”
Lightest, Best Wicking Long-Sleeve
Patagonia Long-Sleeved Capilene Cool Lightweight Shirt
$55, 3.5 oz. (men’s medium)
Sizes: men’s XS-XXL, women’s XXS-XL
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. Treated for odor control, this top hasn’t gotten stinky after countless days on the trail. With UPF 35 sun protection 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, at no cost to you, by clicking any of these affiliate links to purchase a men’s or women’s Patagonia Long-Sleeved Capilene Cool Lightweight Shirt at backcountry.com or patagonia.com, or a men’s or women’s Patagonia short-sleeve Cool Lightweight Shirt ($45) at backcountry.com or patagonia.com.
Planning your next big adventure? See “America’s Top 10 Best Backpacking Trips”
and “The 25 Best National Park Dayhikes.”
Two Favorite Hiking Shorts
Outdoor Research Ferrosi Shorts 10-inch Inseam
$85, 7 oz. (men’s 30)
Sizes: men’s 28-42, women’s 0-18 (7-inch inseam)
On trips ranging widely from a sunny and hot six days backpacking in the Grand Canyon in early April (lead photo at top of story), plus September hikes of 50 miles through the Pasayten Wilderness and nearly 70 miles in Glacier National Park; dayhikes and backpacking the Nigel, Cataract, and Cline Passes Route in the White Goat Wilderness of the Canadian Rockies in August; backpacking the three-day, 22-mile Boulder Mail Trail-Death Hollow Loop in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in early October; and a 10-mile, 3,600-foot dayhike of Mount Carrigain in New Hampshire’s White Mountains on a breezy October day in the 50s and 60s, OR’s Ferrosi Shorts kept me comfortable and dry and never felt too warm.
The 86 percent nylon ripstop stretch-woven fabric, consisting of 46 percent recycled material, is very breathable, quick to dry, abrasion- and water-resistant, and rated UPF 50+ for maximum protection from UV sunlight—plus, the 10-inch inseam provides good coverage. The internal drawcord waist keeps them from slipping down and eliminates the need for wearing a belt under a pack hipbelt or climbing harness (although the shorts have belt loops). The two mesh-lined hand pockets have good depth to hold small items and the zippered right thigh pocket secures a smartphone and small map.
Other Ferrosi Shorts models include a men’s 7-inch inseam short, a women’s 5-inch inseam short and a skort, men’s and women’s 12-inch inseam Over Short, and women’s plus-size 9-inch inseam shorts.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog, at no cost to you, by clicking any of these affiliate links to purchase the Outdoor Research men’s Ferrosi Shorts 10-inch Inseam at moosejaw.com, backcountry.com, or ourdoorresearch.com, the Outdoor Research women’s Ferrosi Shorts 7-inch Inseam at moosejaw.com or ourdoorresearch.com, or other Ferrosi models at moosejaw.com, backcountry.com, or ourdoorresearch.com.
Need all-conditions, 3-season pants?
See my review of the Outdoor Research Ferrosi Convertible Pants.
Beyond Clothing Eryx Ultralight K4 Short
$85, 7 oz. (size 30)
One solid test of the day-after-day wearability of any base layer is a hut trip where you’ll sweat into your clothes all day—and then wear them in the hut, sitting next to other people in the dining room. The Eryx passed that test on a two-day, 21-mile hut trek in New Hampshire’s Presidential Range with about 6,000 cumulative feet of elevation gain and loss each day in no-punches-pulled New England June humidity. I also wore them on dayhikes and backpacking the Skyline Trail in Jasper National Park in the Canadian Rockies in August.
The lightweight, four-way stretch, nylon and spandex fabric dried quickly on my body after I sweated heavily hiking uphill and remained perfectly comfortable to wear in the hut throughout the evening and next morning. They feel so good that I routinely wear them at home.
The 9.5-inch inseam makes them best suited for hiking and backpacking, with above-the-knee coverage for protection from sun and brush, while the low-bulk waist band, lined with brushed tricot, feels good under a pack belt. I think the durable front snap will last longer than I will. And there are five pockets: two hand pockets and three zippered, two spacious ones on the thighs and one rear.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog, at no cost to you, by clicking this link to purchase the Beyond Clothing Eryx Ultralight K4 Short at beyondclothing.com.
Accessorize wisely. See “25 Essential Backpacking Gear Accessories.”
Most Versatile Shorts
For everything from dayhiking or ultralight backpacking to trail running and gym climbing or bouldering, nothing beats a very light pair of shorts. But the Terrebonne stand out for marrying the light, cool feel of running shorts with the desirable style and features of hiking shorts. The 100 percent recycled polyester ripstop fabric has kept me cool on trail runs up to 10 miles in my local foothills on sunny days from the 60s to near 80° F and on a four-day backpacking trip in the Wind River Range in mid-August, in temps in the 50s and 60s F.
With barely more than half the weight and bulk of many hiking shorts, the Terrebonne’s 10-inch inseam provides the same coverage from sun while the loose fit provides a much cooler on-the-trail feel. And nothing beats the comfort of the very low-profile, drawcord waistband. Plus, unlike many running shorts, these have two mesh-lined hand pockets deep enough that items won’t pop out and a zippered rear pocket for essentials like a key. Tough enough for hiking, they even have a DWR (durable, water-repellent treatment) to shed light rain, like heavier hiking shorts, and no brief liner.
The comparable women’s Multi-Trails Shorts (3.8 oz.) have a 5.5-inch inseam, two zippered front pockets and one rear snap pocket, and a brief liner.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog, at no cost to you, by clicking any of these affiliate links to purchase the Patagonia men’s Terrebonne Shorts at backcountry.com or patagonia.com, or the women’s Multi-Trails Shorts at backcountry.com or patagonia.com.
Got an all-time favorite campsite?
See “Tent Flap With a View: 25 Favorite Backcountry Campsites.”
Choosing the best hiking socks can, admittedly, sometimes feel like choosing between ping-pong balls—they all kind of look alike. But I’ve hiked and backpacked in numerous models from just about every brand out there, and I’ve found a few that stand out for the qualities I like in socks: comfort against my skin; fast-wicking and quick-drying, to help my feet stay dry in footwear, even after many hours; a bit of padding at the heel and toes; and fabric that holds its shape and doesn’t get stinky, so I can wear them on consecutive days without washing.
A few models from Darn Tough stood out for all of those reasons—plus, as the name implies, these are durable socks. The Light Hiker Micro Crew Light Cushion ($24, 2 oz.) proved ideal for much of the dayhiking and backpacking I do, because they’re comfortable in the normal range of temps encountered in the mountains from late spring through mid-autumn or in milder climes like the Southwest in spring and fall, and are tall enough for any boots without being higher (and warmer) than I prefer.
The Hiker Micro Crew Midweight Sock ($25, 2.5 oz.) is similar but slightly taller and warmer, so it works nicely for me on backpacking trips when temps are getting cooler, like September in the mountains.
When I’m heading out backpacking in chillier temps and possibly wetter or even snowy weather, wearing sturdier boots, I’m all in with the Darn Tough Hiker Boot Sock Full Cushion ($27, 3.5 oz.)—which has held up well in hard use and keeps my feet warm without them getting too sweaty (although it’s too warm for relatively mild trips).
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog, at no cost to you, by clicking any of these affiliate links to purchase these socks:
The men’s Darn Tough Light Hiker Micro Crew Light Cushion Sock at darntough.com, or the women’s Light Hiker Micro Crew Light Cushion Sock at darntough.com, or the men’s, women’s, or junior at backcountry.com or moosejaw.com.
Swiftwick socks kept my feet comfortable and dry for two to three straight days on each of three summer trips: trekking hut to hut on Iceland’s Laugavegur Trail in July, with temps from the 40s to 50s, hiking for miles through snow and wet, muddy trails, and far more wind and rain than sunshine; plus nine days in August backpacking a section of the John Muir Trail and five days right before Labor Day backpacking in the Wind River Range, both in mostly dry conditions with cool mornings and sometimes hot afternoons.
The Swiftwick Pursuit Hike Six Crew Mediumweight ($24, 3 oz.), Pursuit Hike Six Crew Lightweight ($24, 2.5 oz.), and Flite XT Trail Five Crew socks ($27, 2 oz.) are all made with Merino wool and moisture-wicking Olefin fiber and feature medium cushion and moderate compression—which translates to what feels like custom fitted socks and efficient moisture movement that kept my feet dry through about as wide a range of cool and wet to hot and sweaty as most three-season hikers, backpackers, climbers, runners, and others will encounter.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog, at no cost to you, by clicking any of these affiliate links to purchase the Swiftwick Pursuit Hike Six Crew Mediumweight socks at swiftwick.com, the Pursuit Hike Six Crew Lightweight socks at swiftwick.com, or the Flite XT Trail Five Crew socks at swiftwick.com.
Most Comfortable Underwear
Ibex Men’s Natural Boxer Brief
$55, 2 oz. (men’s small)
Ibex Women’s Natural Brief
$35, 1.5 oz. (women’s medium)
Ibex Men’s Woolies Tech Boxer Brief
$79, 4 oz. (men’s small)
Sizes: men’s XS-XXL, women’s XS-XL
Full disclosure: I sometimes don’t change my underwear. With these Ibex boxer briefs, I don’t need to. Example: I wore the Men’s Natural Boxer Brief under soft-shell pants for three straight days trekking hut to hut on Iceland’s Laugavegur Trail in July, with temps from the 40s to 50s and far more wind and rain than sunshine; for three straight days in August on a section of the John Muir Trail and two days backpacking in the Wind River Range in early September, both trips in mostly dry conditions with temps from the 40s to 60s; and for five straight days of hiking, rock climbing, and camping at Idaho’s City of Rocks National Reserve, in warm sunshine, sometimes chilly wind and passing rain showers, and temps from the 50s to the 70s. And never even thought about my underwear.
I’ve worn the warmer but equally soft Woolies Tech Boxer Brief on numerous days of Nordic, backcountry, and resort skiing and trail running in temps from the single digits to the 30s and 40s Fahrenheit, at a range of exertion levels—and they constantly felt comfortable and remained dry. I even did this: Purely for testing purposes, after wearing them for a rigorous workout skate-skiing, I took a shower… and these boxer briefs were so dry and non-smelly, I wore them for the rest of the day. Seriously, they felt great.
The breathable, moisture-wicking, anti-bacterial Merino wool in all three men’s and women’s skivvies destroys odors and is very soft against skin, with comfort enhanced by elastic waistbands that don’t slip and flatlock seams.
The 18.9-micron, 140gsm Pro-Tech Lite fabric used in the men’s and women’s Natural Briefs, Ibex’s lightest, stays cool in warm to hot temps—even day after day—without getting stretched-out or clammy or stinking up your sleeping bag. The Woolies Tech Boxer Brief uses ultra-fine 18.5-micron wool and holds its shape exceptionally well. At 180gsm (grams/square meter), this lightweight Pro Tech fabric is ideal on cool to cold days.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog, at no cost to you, by clicking any of these affiliate links to purchase the Ibex Men’s Natural Boxer Brief at ibex.com, the Ibex Men’s Woolies Tech Boxer Brief at ibex.com, or the Ibex Women’s Natural Brief at ibex.com.
More Breathable Briefs
Patagonia Essential Boxer Briefs
$35, 3 oz. (men’s small)
I’ve worn the Patagonia Essential Boxer Briefs on countless days on the trail—in all three-season conditions, hot to cool—including backpacking for three days on a section of the Arizona Trail along the Gila River in the first days of April, with virtually no respite from the intense sunshine and daytime temps from the 50s, which felt quite cool, to mid-70s Fahrenheit, which felt quite hot under the April Arizona sun—a range of temps that demands base layers that dry out fast and these underwear delivered.
Made with moisture-wicking, 95 percent Tencel fabric (and five percent Spandex for stretch), these briefs are very breathable, often drying on my body when my activity level dropped while wearing them—enabling two or three (or more) consecutive days of comfortable use. They have chafe-free seams, a contoured fly pouch, an anti-roll waistband and a leg design that’s pretty good at preventing them from hiking and bunching up. They’re available in both a three-inch and six-inch inseam.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog, at no cost to you, by clicking any of these affiliate links to purchase the 3-inch Patagonia Essential Boxer Briefs at backcountry.com or patagonia.com, or the 6-inch inseam version at backcountry.com or patagonia.com.
Best for Dudes
BN3TH Pro XT2 Boxer-Brief
$35, 3 oz. (men’s small)
Saxx Quest 2.0 Boxer
$34, 2.5 oz. (men’s small)
On numerous days of hiking and backpacking from Iceland’s Laugavegur Trail, the John Muir Trail, and the mountains of western North Carolina to an 80-mile, five-day backpacking trip in the North Cascades National Park Complex in Washington state—plus climbing, backcountry and Nordic skiing, 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 BN3TH 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).
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 BN3TH; 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, at no cost to you, by clicking any of these affiliate links to purchase the BN3TH Pro XT2 Boxer-Brief at moosejaw.com or the Saxx Quest 2.0 Boxer at moosejaw.com or rei.com.
Favorite Compression Clothing
Compression socks, calf and arm sleeves, shorts, and tights changed how I dress for dayhikes and trail runs, especially longer outings. I noticed the boost in my endurance and dramatic decrease in stiffness and soreness both during and after my first run wearing compression clothing. Now, I virtually never take a long run or hike today without wearing compression socks and shorts.
I’ll also often wear the socks and shorts for an hour or more post-hike or run—or change into clean, dry compressions socks and shorts after a shower—for the noticeable, long-term recovery benefits that wearing them post-workout provides and how much better I feel the next day.
Compression clothing fits more tightly than standard socks or shorts, squeezing the legs (or arms) to improve blood and oxygen circulation—beneficial during and after exercise. In fact, compression socks and other clothing are so effective they are used to treat a variety of medical ailments related to blood circulation.
Some favorites are:
CW-X Endurance Generator Joint & Muscle Support Compression Short ($105, 6 oz.)
CW-X Stabilyx ¾ Tights ($100, 7 oz.)
CW-X Speed Calf Sleeve ($40, 3 oz.)
CEP Tall Compression Socks ($55-$60, 2 oz.)
Vim&Vigr Knee-High 15-20 mmHg Compression Sock ($36-$54, 2.5 oz.)
Tell me what you think.
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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 the Gear Reviews page at The Big Outside for categorized menus of all reviews and my expert buying tips.