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.
Top Pick T-Shirt
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 newer 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 Todra L1 SS Crew
$32, 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, and trekking hut to hut on Iceland’s Laugavegur Trail, on a section of the John Muir Trail, and a six-day April backpacking trip in the Grand Canyon (lead photo at top of story).
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. 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 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.
Most Versatile T-Shirt
The North Face Hyperlayer FD Short-Sleeve Crew
$35, 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 and six days backpacking in variable temps and weather in Utah’s High Uintas Wilderness—plus innumerable dayhikes, trail runs, and gym workouts—the durable Hyperlayer FD Short-Sleeve Crew T-shirt almost never left my back. The polyester with FlashDry technology in this T-shirt 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, at no cost to you, by clicking this affiliate link to purchase a men’s or women’s The North Face Hyperlayer FD Short-Sleeve Crew moosejaw.com.
Make your hikes better. See “The 5 Best Rain Jackets for Hiking and Backpacking”
and “The 10 Best Hiking Daypacks.”
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
$79, 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
$79, 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; and 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—I found the ActiveIce Hoodie comfortable enough to keep 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.”
Softest Wool Top
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 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, 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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Three Versatile, Cold-Weather Tops
Beyond Celeris Midweight L2 Pullover
$80, 11 oz. (men’s medium)
Sizes: men’s S-XXL
From winter trail runs on days in the 30s and 40s to numerous days of backcountry skiing in temps from the single digits to the 20s Fahrenheit, I’ve placed high demands on this hoody to keep me warm and dry in the most challenging conditions: cool to very cold with my body cycling between hot and rapid cooling. And the Celeris did just that.
Its good warmth derives from the circular grid pattern in the double-knit fleece, creating tiny air pockets that trap body heat while channeling moisture to the fabric’s smooth exterior surface, where it evaporates. This top consistently dried quickly as my exertion dropped—critical on cool days. Plus, the more breathable fabric in the underarms and sides and ¾-front zipper vent effectively. Its fit and stretch allow adding a light base layer (as I almost always did) or nothing underneath. While sized for men, the size range may accommodate all but small women.
I frequently flipped the hood up for an ideal boost of warmth without overheating. Although it lacks the snug fit of a balaclava-style hood, the grid fabric readily clings to a beanie or hair, so wind never yanked it off my head. Cuff thumbholes enable pulling the sleeve inside gloves or mittens to keep hands warm. It lacks a chest pocket—a minor omission—but substitutes a small, zippered pocket on one sleeve, useful for a map or a car key (though nothing like a phone). Antimicrobial treatment has kept the top from developing a stink (so far).
It’s not the lightest midweight layer you can find—some down jackets are lighter—partly explained by the hood and long, durable front zipper. But few 11-ounce mid layers offer this much versatility for a range of cool- to cold-weather activities and exertion levels—a list that only begins with hiking, running, and all forms of skiing. And many of its competitors cost upwards of twice as much.
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 Beyond Celeris Midweight L2 Pullover at beyondclothing.com or a Celeris Midweight L2 Long John at beyondclothing.com .
Planning your next big adventure? See “America’s Top 10 Best Backpacking Trips”
and “The 25 Best National Park Dayhikes.”
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
$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, 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, a women’s R1 Pullover at backcountry.com or patagonia.com, or a women’s R1 Crew at backcountry.com or patagonia.com.
Which puffy should you buy? See “The 10 Best Down Jackets”
and “How You Can Tell How Warm a Down Jacket Is.”
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.
Got an all-time favorite campsite?
See “Tent Flap With a View: 25 Favorite Backcountry Campsites.”
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.
Accessorize wisely. See “24 Essential Backpacking Gear Accessories.”
Outdoor Research Ferrosi Shorts 10-inch Inseam
$75, 7 oz. (men’s 30)
Sizes: men’s 28-42, women’s 0-18 (7-inch inseam)
From a sunny and hot, six-day backpacking trip in the Grand Canyon in early April (lead photo at top of story) to backpacking 50 miles through the Pasayten Wilderness in September weather ranging from warm, dry, and calm to windy, 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.
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.
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 the men’s or women’s Patagonia Nine Trails Shorts at backcountry.com or patagonia.com.
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 ($22, 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 ($24, 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.
The men’s Darn Tough Hiker Boot Sock Full Cushion at backcountry.com or darntough.com, or the women’s Hiker Boot Sock Full Cushion at backcountry.com or darntough.com, or the men’s or women’s at 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 ($22, 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
MyPakage Pro Series Boxer-Brief
$30, 3 oz. (men’s small)
Saxx Quest 2.0 Boxer
$32, 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 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.”
Ibex Men’s Natural Boxer Brief
$55, 2 oz. (men’s small)
Sizes: men’s XS-XXL
Full disclosure: I sometimes don’t change my underwear. With the Ibex Men’s Natural Boxer Brief, I don’t feel the need to. I wore these skivvies 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; also 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 days—yes, you read “five days”—of hiking, rock climbing, and camping at Idaho’s City of Rocks National Reserve, in weather that ranged from warm sunshine to chilly wind and passing rain showers, with temps from the 50s to the 70s. And never even thought about my underwear.
Composed 83 percent of anti-bacterial, naturally odor-resistant, breathable, moisture-wicking, soft Merino wool, these skivs feel good in a huge range of temperatures throughout a full, active day (and day after day while backpacking or at a backcountry yurt) without getting stretched-out, bunched up, or clammy or stinking up your sleeping bag at night. Other materials include 12 percent nylon for durability and five percent elastane with a soft, elastic waistband to maintain a comfortable, close-to-skin for that keeps everything in place. Guess I need another pair.
Ibex also makes the Women’s Natural Brief ($35).
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 the Ibex Men’s Boxer Brief at ibex.com or the Ibex Women’s Natural Brief at ibex.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 Compression Short ($80, 6 oz.)
CW-X Stabilyx ¾ Tights ($95, 7 oz.)
CW-X Speed Calf Sleeve ($40, 3 oz.)
CEP Active+ Base Compression Shorts ($80, 3.5 oz.)
CEP Compression Run Shorts 3.0 ($100, 5 oz.)
CEP Compression Tall Sock 3.0 ($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.