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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

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