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.
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 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.
Top Pick T-Shirt
Patagonia Capilene Cool Trail Shirt
$39, 4.5 oz. (men’s medium)
Sizes: men’s and women’s XS-XXL
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 five cool, sometimes very windy and snowy days trekking in June through Spain’s Picos de Europa Mountains, I noticed how remarkably quickly this T-shirt’s polyester fabric wicks moisture and dries: 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.
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.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking any of these links to purchase a men’s Patagonia Capilene Cool Trail Shirt at rei.com or patagonia.com, or a women’s Patagonia Capilene Cool Trail Shirt at rei.com or patagonia.com.
Most Versatile T-Shirt
The North Face Hyperlayer FD Short-Sleeve Crew and Hyperlayer FD Short-Sleeve V-Neck
$32, 6 oz. (men’s medium)
Sizes: men’s S-XXL, women’s XS-XXL
For five days of backpacking through hot spring days in the Grand Canyon (lead photo at top of story), the rugged Hyperlayer FD Short-Sleeve Crew T-shirt almost never left my back. The Polyester with FlashDry technology in this T-shirt and the women’s Hyperlayer FD Short-SleeveV-Neck dries fairly quickly while wearing it—especially for a T-shirt that’s a little beefier and more durable than lighter tees, making it better suited than others to wearing under pack straps day after day. After a full day of hiking in it, I could rinse it in a creek or the Colorado River to get the sweat stains and much of the stink out of it, pull it back on damp for the cooling effect, and it would be dry and almost fresh minutes later.
Seams are positioned forward of the shoulders and bonded for added durability and comfort under backpack straps. While the fabric feels more slickly synthetic than cottony soft, it’s comfortable enough against the skin, and has a loose, standard fit, that I regularly wear it for gym workouts, too. The UPF 30 sun protection kept my skin from getting baked in the Grand Canyon.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking any of these links to purchase a men’s The North Face Hyperlayer FD Short-Sleeve Crew moosejaw.com or ems.com, or a women’s Hyperlayer FD Short-Sleeve V-Neck at moosejaw.com or ems.com.
Adidas Agravic Parley Tee
$35, 3 oz. (men’s medium)
Sizes: men’s S-XXL, women’s M-XL
When you need the lightest, fastest-drying T-shirt for hot days, especially for trail runs or rides or dayhikes, this featherweight is the one. From sun-baked trail runs to the sweatiest gym workouts, the Adidas Agravic Parley Tee kept me cooler than a heavier t-shirt would and dried really fast, thanks to Adidas Climalite treatment for superior moisture management.
The Agravic Parley Tee’s production minimized environmental impact before it begins minimizing how wet you are in it. Recycled polyester, made using yarn manufactured from recycled plastic waste retrieved from beaches and coastal communities before it washes into the ocean, comprises 80 percent of the Parley. The lightweight material isn’t as soft as some others reviewed here; that and the loose fit make it best suited to aerobic activities like running and gym workouts, rather than activities that involve wearing a pack.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking either of these links to purchase the men’s Adidas Agravic Parley Tee at Moosejaw.com, or the women’s Adidas Agravic Parley Tee at Moosejaw.com.
Find your next adventure in your Inbox. Sign up for my FREE email newsletter now.
Most Versatile Long-Sleeve
Patagonia Capilene Midweight Zip-Neck
$69, 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 in the Grand Canyon and 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.
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 rei.com or patagonia.com, or a women’s Patagonia Capilene Midweight Zip-Neck at rei.com or patagonia.com.
For high-speed workouts in damp weather, get a breathable, ultralight wind shell. See my reviews of the best ones.
Lightest Sun Shirt
Outdoor Research Echo Hoody
$65, 4.5 oz. (men’s medium)
Sizes: men’s XS-XXL, women’s XXS-XL
There’s no better sun protection than covering your skin, and more dayhikers, backpackers, climbers, trail runners and others are discovering the benefits of a good sun shirt. But some get too warm when you’re exerting in hot sunshine. Enter OR’s Echo Hoody. I’ve worn it without overheating—sweating, yes, but without the top ever feeling like overkill—from backpacking in sweltering heat in the Grand Canyon and warm sunshine dayhiking in Zion National Park, to rock climbing in hot sunshine in Idaho’s City of Rocks and runs on very sunny local trails—and on a 21-mile, 11,000-vertical-foot, one-day run-hike of the Grand Canyon from the South Rim to the North Rim.
It’s the coolest and fastest-drying sun shirt I’ve used, thanks to the super light, fast-wicking AirVent fabric. The hoody conveniently tightens with drawstrings to fit snugly around your head (and under a helmet). The flat-seam construction feels smooth under pack shoulder straps, the cuffs fold over to convert to mitts—of dubious value for a hot-weather piece, but perhaps occasionally useful—and the fabric is treated to prevent odors. The UPF 15 rating isn’t as protective as some thicker sun shirts, both those other sun shirts are also warmer and less comfortable for high exertion in hot sunshine and temps.
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 Outdoor Research Echo Hoody at backcountry.com, moosejaw.com, ems.com, outdoorresearch.com, or rei.com.
The Big Outside helps you find the best adventures. Join now to read ALL stories and get a free e-guide!
Softest Sun Shirt
Patagonia Capilene Cool Daily Hoody
$55, 6 oz. (men’s medium)
Sizes: men’s XS-XXL
On back-to-back, 21-mile and 23.5-mile, rim-to-rim dayhikes across the Grand Canyon in October, first going south-to-north and then north-to-south the next day, and on a six-day backpacking trip in the Grand Canyon, the Patagonia Capilene Cool Daily Hoody protected me from the relentlessly oppressive sun and kept me cool in temps well into the 70s Fahrenheit.
The 100 percent recycled polyester fabric moved with my body and got damp but never wet with sweat, and stayed cool with the hood up when I hiked under a hot sun in the Grand Canyon. The hood isn’t adjustable and has a loose fit, but largely stays put on your head (except in strong winds), and is deep to help shade your face. The minimal seams reduces rubbing and chafing, and the shirt has Polygiene odor control and is rated UPF 50 for sun protection. While it got a bit too warm when I was hiking uphill in temps in the 70s, especially with the hood up, and would be too warm for trail running in mild temps, it’s good for hiking in mild temps, and certainly for climbing, fishing, and paddling.
There’s also a women’s Long-Sleeved Capilene Cool Daily Shirt ($45).
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking any of these links to purchase a Patagonia men’s Capilene Cool Daily Hoody at backcountry.com, rei.com, or patagonia.com, or a Patagonia women’s Long-Sleeved Capilene Cool Daily Shirt at backcountry.com or patagonia.com.
Most Protective Sun Shirt
Black Diamond Long Sleeve Alpenglow Hoody
$85, 7.5 oz. (men’s medium)
Sizes: men’s S-XL, women’s XS-XL
From three long-ish days backpacking a 36-mile traverse of the Teton Crest Trail in late August, to a 21-mile, 11,000-vertical-foot, one-day run-hike of the Grand Canyon from the North Rim to the South Rim, this sun shirt surprised me with how cool it feels for its density and weight, in temps as warm as the 60s backpacking and the 70s hiking (though mostly downhill) in the canyon. I wore it alone in warm temps and over a T-shirt in cool temps.
While heavy enough to earn a UPF 50+ rating for sun protection, the fabric proved impressively cool enough that I wore it comfortably for hours in the Grand Canyon and for three straight days on the Teton Crest Trail. BD says the fabric reflects 71 percent of near-infrared rays and actually helps cool your skin. The loose-fitting hood (as on other hoodies) fits under a helmet comfortably, the sleeves allow for excellent range of motion for climbing, and Polygiene treatment minimizes odors.
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
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.
Plan your next great backpacking adventure in Yosemite and other flagship parks using my expert e-guides.
Arc’teryx Satoro AR Zip Neck LS
$139, 8 oz. (men’s medium)
Sizes: men’s S-XXL, women’s XS-XL
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. (Yes, I washed it, anyway.) There’s also a Satoro AR Crew ($119), Satoro AR Bottom ($109), and Satoro 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.
Got an all-time favorite campsite? See “Tent Flap With a View: 25 Favorite Backcountry Campsites.”
Softest Wool Top
Smartwool Merino 150 Baselayer Long Sleeve
$80, 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 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.
I can help you plan the best backpacking, hiking, or family adventure of your life. Click here now to learn more.
Versatile, Four-Season Top
Patagonia Men’s R1 Pullover Hoody
$159, 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.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking any of these links to purchase a Patagonia Men’s R1 Pullover Hoody at rei.com or patagonia.com, a women’s R1 Pullover at patagonia.com, or a women’s R1 Crew at rei.com or patagonia.com.
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
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.
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 by clicking this link to purchase a men’s Patagonia Long-Sleeved Capilene Cool Lightweight Shirt at rei.com or patagonia.com, or women’s Patagonia Long-Sleeved Capilene Cool Lightweight Shirt at rei.com or patagonia.com. Or purchase a men’s short-sleeve Patagonia Cool Lightweight Shirt ($45) at rei.com or patagonia.com, or women’s short-sleeve Patagonia Cool Lightweight Shirt at rei.com or patagonia.com.
You live for the outdoors. The Big Outside helps you get out there. Join now and a get free e-guide!
Best Travel Shirt
Kuhl Airspeed SS
$75, 7 oz. (men’s medium)
Sizes: men’s S-XL
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 kuhl.com.
Got a trip coming up? See my reviews of the best gear duffles and luggage and the 8 best daypacks.
Flylow Hardcastle Short
$60, 7 oz. (men’s small)
Sizes: men’s XS-XXL
When you need cool, comfortable shorts that can handle hard use in hot-weather activities, the Hardcastle Short shines like the sun. These shorts have become a favorite of mine for dayhiking and backpacking because they strike a nice balance between having pockets and durability without feeling too heavy or warm. They stayed dry, gave me complete freedom of motion, and never felt too warm as I sweated through hot days on two spring backpacking trips of four days and six days in the Grand Canyon (lead photo at top of story). They also look no worse for the wear, holding 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. Unlike most of the shorts reviewed here, though, this pair does not have an internal liner brief. These shorts are a solid, comfortable choice for everything from trail running and SUP-ing to backpacking and ultra-hiking.
Most Versatile Shorts
Patagonia Nine Trails Shorts
$65, 7 oz. (men’s small)
Sizes: men’s and women’s XS-XXL
These shorts, with an eight-inch inseam (four inches in the women’s shorts), 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.
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 in 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 ($21, 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 Cushion Sock ($23, 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 ($26, 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 by clicking any of these 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 or women’s at moosejaw.com or rei.com.
For similar reasons, I’ve become a fan of socks from Farm to Feet. The Farm to Feet Damascus Lightweight Technical ¼ Crew ($20, 2 oz.) has become a staple sock I wear for dayhikes of any length and lightweight backpacking in relatively light boots or low-cut shoes. These light, airy socks reach just above the ankle—high enough for mid-cut boots—and kept my feet dry and hold up to multiple days of use.
The Farm to Feet Max Patch Lightweight Technical ¾ Crew ($22.50, 2 oz.) is essentially the Lightweight Technical ¼ Crew extended to reach the calf, for wearing with sturdier boots, but they’re still light and breathable enough that feet don’t easily overheat on warm days. The Farm to Feet Damascus Lightweight Technical Low ($18, 1.5 oz.) are simply a no-show version of the others that I find ideal for trail running.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking any of these links to purchase the Farm to Feet Max Patch Lightweight Technical ¾ Crew at rei.com. You can also find various Farm to Feet socks at moosejaw.com or rei.com.
See all Farm to Feet socks at farmtofeet.com.
Most Comfortable Underwear
MyPakage Pro Series Boxer-Brief
$30, 3 oz. (small)
Saxx Quest 2.0 Boxer
$30, 2.5 oz. (small)
On numerous days of hiking and backpacking from 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 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).
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.”
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
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 rei.com.
Lightest Sun Hat
Outdoor Research Echo Cap
$28, 1 oz. One size
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 outdoorresearch.com, or an Outdoor Research Echo Visor at outdoorresearch.com.
Tell me what you think.
I spent a lot of time writing this story, so if you enjoyed it, please consider giving it a share using one of the buttons at right, and leave a comment or question at the bottom of this story. I’d really appreciate it.
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 my Gear Reviews page at The Big Outside for categorized menus of all of my reviews and my expert buying tips.