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BLOG | TIPS | 04 October 2016

How to Choose Your Base Layer for the Winter

In this article we will describe what you should consider when choosing a base layer for winter activities, as well as show you our range for this season.

The base layer, a fundamental piece of your winter wardrobe... and the rest of the year as well
Any mountaineer or outdoorsman, who finds themselves in unfavourable weather conditions, needs sufficient protection against the elements, such as freezing temperatures, wind, rain and snow.

For the first line of protection, and maybe most important, your body needs to be dry. Not only from the rain, but from your own perspiration as well.

Looking for a solution to this problem, the three layer system was created. This consists of:

  • A first, base layer, worn against the skin, in order to wick moisture away from the body, and in some cases, assist the second layer in retaining heat.
  • A second, intermediate layer that provides heat
  • An exterior, third layer that is waterproof (preventing rain, wind and snow from getting inside) and breathable (allowing the humidity produced from sweat to escape)

The three layer system also offers a versatile combination. You can wear the base layer with the second layer, or the base with the third layer, depending on the weather conditions. This already tells us a lot about the base layer’s properties which is that, no matter which style (thin or thick, short or long sleeved), we will always need one, which is not the case with the other two layers.

If the goal of the system is to keep the body dry and warm, it is just as important to not allow rain to enter, as it is for perspiration to not remain in contact with your skin. That is why the base layer is fundamental. It won’t do you any good to spend a lot of money on a jacket, if the clothing in contact with your body is soaked from your own perspiration.

The base layer is just as important as the other two layers, if not more important. On a day with clear skies and no rain in site, the third layer will be dispensable. On hotter days, you can do without the second, third, or even both layers. However, the base layer will always be needed and worn, no matter what the conditions are.

During an activity, you lose a lot of liquids. If you use hydrophilic fibres (ones that retain water such as cotton), then perspiration will remain in the garment that is in contact with your skin. Despite this, you can often still see people in the mountains with clothing that is composed of a jacket and second layer, complemented by a cotton shirt base layer, which won’t keep them dry. In this instance, the system won’t work because:

  • Your body will stay wet - While you may be comfortable, you will be putting yourself at serious risk of hypothermia. During activity, you overheat but when you stop, perspiration is cooled down by the temperature and the wind, which can be severe and sudden.
  • The base layer will gain a lot of weight - It may be surprising, but if you were to weigh a long sleeved, cotton shirt, soaked with sweat, you can find instances where the weight gained, exceeds the actual weight of the shirt.

Therefore, in most cases, it is useless to purchase a second or third layer if you are going to wear cotton shirts.

LIFA fabric from Helly Hansen. Modification of the original from 1970, fully hydrophobic
Three Fundamental Characteristics of Base Layers:

  • Quick drying (hydrophobic fabrics).
  • Comfortable in both touch to skin and woven pattern leading to total freedom of movement – No friction in seams or in sensitive areas caused by spinning or heavy weaving.
  • If more thermal properties are necessary, neither the weight nor the two other characteristics will be sacrificed.

Choosing the right material is key. It should be light, hydrophobic (minimal or no moisture absorption), soft, comfortable and decently elastic.

The very first technical base layers were created by Helly Hansen in the 1970s. A decisive step forward came with the discovery of LIFA, which replaced traditional base layers. Considered a magic fibre at the time which allowed the skin to be dry and warm by quickly wicking moisture to the outside. Since then, most of the top brands have used synthetic materials for their interior garments.

However, in this case, carefully chosen and worked natural fibres are just as effective, if not more so than synthetic. This might be why that the best selling brand of base layers at Barrabes is the New Zealand company Icebreaker, which uses pure merino wool in the manufacturing of all their garments.

That might sound strange because you identify wool with coarse and prickly material, right? If you do, you are mistaken. In fact, for someone who is not familiar with the manufactured material, it would be impossible for them to recognize the soft touch, smoothness, and lightness of merino wool.

Later on, when we present the selection that you can find in our online store, we will further discuss Icebreaker, Arc'teryx (the two brands that use this material), and the great properties that high quality merino wool can offer.

Flatlock seam in the shoulder and armpit area
“Normal” garments are not designed for activity and movements. This is evident when you sweat because the garments might restrict movement and cause friction and irritations with your skin.

  • The pattern of a base layer has to allow you freedom of movement, without impeding the activity, and in many cases, has to exercise restraint.
  • It must also avoid areas that can irritate your skin the way traditional, non-flatlock seams of non-technical garments do.

The seams of technical garments are flat to minimize rubbing and chafing, and with clothing/equipment designed for the mountains, they are repositioned off center, which is a completely new way of thinking for something as common as a tee-shirt. Why you ask? Mainly because while wearing a backpack for example, the seams can be very annoying in combination with the straps of the backpack and cause severe chafing. Being flat and repositioned, this awkward problem is avoided.

Arc'teryx Phase SL Women’s boxer
It is becoming rarer to see someone on the mountain using non-technical shirts. The same can be said for people who participate in indoor sports or who work out in the gym or on the street. However, the use of slips, boxers and underwear made of non-technical materials such as cotton is still widespread.

Due to excess moisture, this won’t cause as many problems as with a cotton shirt, but staying dry will avoid friction and irritation of the skin, no matter the activity you are participating in. For people who typically suffer from friction on the inner thighs or groin, this can be avoided by wearing technical, lower-body garments.

Men’s boxers from Icebreaker. You can see how they avoid chafing in the thighs.

  • Less moisture and less irritation in sensitive areas
  • The reduction of seams and their repositioning, support and comfort, avoids chafing, especially in the groin and inner thighs.

Icebreaker winter leggings for under or outer wear.

Although the definition of a base layer makes more sense if you consider that it is accompanied by a second or third layer, it can also be considered as the first layer of garment in contact with the body.

During the winter months, first layers for the upper body are typically tighter, even though there are ones that are more athletic and offer slimmer fits for variance. In addition to keeping you dry, they provide different grammages that give you greater or lesser thermal protection. The design, fabrics and materials are made to be worn with other layers over it.

In the summer and hotter weather, you will probably wear a tee-shirt that fulfills the double function of the first layer and outer layer. In this case, the majority of athletes, not just mountain athletes, have turned to technical garments. It is now hard to find someone in a gym, or running in the city, wearing a cotton tee-shirt. It is safe to say that technical garments have become the norm amongst all types of athletes.

For the mountains, these types of shirts are essential in the summer. They are necessary for their comfort, lightness and quick drying capabilities. Even during the heat of the summer, the mountain can undergo meteorological changes in a heartbeat so it is imperative that you have a good foundation of protection. Should you find yourself in a torrential downpour for instance, the sudden cooling of your body can have dire consequences, often leading to hypothermia.

Link to the full range of Barrabes women’s outer technical shirts

Link to the full range of Barrabes men’s outer technical shirts

Perspiration is a body defense against overheating. The most amount of heat is released when it passes from a liquid to solid state. A drenched cotton shirt will prevent the skin from getting dry, therefore overheating you during the activity. Additionally, if it is important to reduce the friction and seams for the interior layers, it is even more important to do so with the exterior layers because they can come in contact with your backpack or gear.



To give you a better idea of these technical base layers, we will now break them down based on the popular brand options (Icebreaker, Arc'teryx and Helly Hansen) for this season. As a reminder, you can find all these base layer products and more at our online store

In each brand description, you will find a link to all the models at the beginning and then we will briefly present you with the most popular products.

Icebreaker Long Sleeve Crew.

Link to all of our Icebreaker products - 2017 Season

Our role is not to create the latest 'technical' fibre. Nature has already done that, and without an oil rig in sight. Merino wool was born not in a lab, but in the mountains of New Zealand. The Icebreaker fibre factory works 24 hours a day, on the back of a sheep. Sustainability is at the heart of Icebreaker, and we aim for profitable sustainability — a business model that balances ecology with economy. It’s possible because nature is an astonishing designer. Everything it creates is simple, efficient and beautiful. We believe nature is a powerful force that is within us and around us. We have harnessed this force to become the passionate world leader in merino.

- Icebreaker Mission Statement

The New Zealand brand manufactures all its materials with merino wool from local shepherds and sheep farms. All of their products are labelled with a code and the website can trace the wool that corresponds with the code. Traceable information could include:where the sheep has specifically grazed and which shepherds took care of it as well.

It was in 1994 when a close encounter with a sheep, changed Jeremy Moon’s (founder of Icebreaker) life. He was introduced to Brian Brackenridge, a merino sheep farmer in New Zealand. In this meeting, Brian threw Jeremy a prototype thermal tee-shirt made from 100% merino wool. His first reaction was “Merino wool? Isn’t this the heavy and scratchy material that was used to make clothes when we were kids?” But his second reaction was one of wonderment: “This is really wool? It feels soft and sensual, looks lustrous and is totally natural. This is nothing like the wool we had growing up. And you could throw this stuff in the washing machine too.”

Working from his bedroom, Jeremy wrote up a business plan with the ambitious goal of developing the world’s first merino layering system for the outdoors, in a world where synthetics dominated the outdoor clothing market.

The threads of merino wool are almost microscopic.

Up close detail of merino wool.
Icebreaker has a wide selection of base layers ranging from all types of styles and weight for men and women, in addition to outer technical shirts and socks for trail running.

The biggest advantages of this natural fabric are:

  • It keeps its properties intact even after absorbing 30% of its weight in water - It dries a little slower than synthetic fibres, but even when wet, unlike cotton, it keeps us just as warm as if it were dry.
  • Much more breathable than synthetic fibres – Merino wool garments can transport moisture through the materials while synthetics cannot.
  • Odour Resistance – A great advantage for certain situations. Because of wool’s ability to effectively manage moisture, odour causing bacteria don’t have the moist environment they need to thrive. You can wear merino wool during intense activity and over extended periods of time without having to worry about odour.
  • Fire Resistant - It is the least flammable of both natural and synthetic fibres, making it the safest to wear directly on the skin. Unlike with synthetics, it will not melt on your skin either and will put itself out as soon as it does not receive a source of ignition.
  • Sun Protection – Resistant to UV rays with a rating of 50+. This is much higher protection than cotton and most synthetics.
  • Naturally Static Resistant - Avoid the annoying discharges caused by synthetic fibres.
  • Natural Heating and Cooling – In the summer, outer shirts for mountain races will keep your temperature balanced up to 35ÂşC. In the winter, base layers will keep you warm while avoiding overheating.


Link to all of our Arc’teryx products – Winter 2017
In our opinion, the Canadian brand is the best existing manufacturer of synthetic materials. Their garments hardly smell, similar to merino wool, and are extremely soft. Therefore we here at Barrabes think that they are one of the top three brands that make up our range of products for the 2017 season. Another reason is that this year, they have added merino wool to their collection, and it is interlaced with a synthetic material that gives it greater strength, according to the brand. In this diagram, you can see how the wool is wrapped around the nylon thread.

Due to its combination of both worlds (quick drying and durability along with merino wool properties) it is considered to be the most evolved product in the outdoor market, in regards to base layers.

The Satoro models are those made with this new system. You can find all kinds of clothing (long sleeved shirts, short sleeved shirts, underwear, zips, tights and leggings, and of different weights) for both men and women.

Arc'teryx Satoro AR crew

Link to all of our Helly Hansen products – Winter 2017

The Norwegian brand invented LIFA fabric in 1970, revolutionizing the world of outdoor clothing. Using this fabric, the first interior garments were constructed that did not retain moisture, and also allowed for Helly Hansen to develop the layering system. This is in fact true as Helly Hansen invented the layering system and not to mention, they have been making outdoor clothing since 1877 so they know a thing or two about what they are doing.

Since then, they have continued to evolve the LIFA fabric which complements our catalogue quite well since we have not yet found a better value for your money on the market. They have put their products through rigorous testing in the mountains over the course of decades. The Norwegians continue to make these products with their characteristic image: stripes on the sleeves.

Here at Barrabes, we have a number of Helly Hansen long and short sleeved base layers, and tights and leggings for both men and women.

Helly Hansen HH Original Dry for women. These stripes have travelled all the mountain ranges of the world since 1970.

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