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Base Layer Tips and Tricks

They are not using the right weight base layer.

They obviously didn’t read this article on base layers.

Let’s demystify this base layer mystery shall we.  Not really very mysterious, but there is something to know here in order to stay warm and dry while skiing.

The 2 main jobs of the base layer is to provide insulation and to transfer moisture away from your skin. This layer should move moisture from your skin to outer layers where it can evaporate.  This is known as “wicking”.  This keeps your skin dry which reduces conductive heat loss in cold weather.

Say what?  Really, all that gobble-de-guk just means that if you wear the right base layer materials, you stay warm and dry. So what are the right materials?  Well, some of that depends on your preference and also on what the temperature is and what your activity level is going to be – but let’s break this down.

First we’ll take up the different weights of base layer materials that you’ll find out there.  These different weights are meant to correspond to the different conditions and levels of activity that you will be involved in.  Now to complicate this some, different companies have come up with different names for some of their weights, but the most common names you’ll find are: lightweight, mid-weight, and heavy or expedition weight.  These are typically defined in a nice generic manner that frankly I don’t find very useful in the real wintery world.  Everybody experiences cold differently and levels of activity are relative depending on age, physical shape, weight, etc. Therefore, I’ve come up with my own definitions to go along with the generic definitions – just to make it all crystal clear.

Lightweight is best for cool to cold temperatures with high levels of activity.  My definition: this weight is for when you, from your viewpoint, are working your behind off and it’s balmy out -like around 30 degrees and above – with little to no wind.

Mid-weight is best for cold weather with medium levels of activity. My definition: this weight is for when you spend half your time standing in the lift line or sitting on the lift and it’s around 20+ degrees with some wind.

Heavyweight or Expedition Weight is the choice in extreme cold and blustery conditions at any exertion level. My definition: this is for when it’s face ripping cold, the wind is tearing at you and you keep asking yourself “what the hell am I doing out here?”

Crystal clear – right?

A quick note about fit for your base layer: For cool or cold weather, your base layer should be somewhat snug. This will keep your body-generated warmth close to your skin and it also facilitates the wicking action of the fabric.

Base Layer Materials

Now let’s get into the material of your base layer.

Cotton

Cotton really sucks as a base layer for cold weather because rather than wick moisture, it absorbs it and it takes forever to dry.  It will lie on your skin like a wet rag and make you cold.  Don’t use it for a base layer.

Wool  – Wool/Synthetic blend

Wool is very efficient stuff.  It feels warm when you first put in on and many people like that.  It has natural odor fighting properties and does not retain odors like most synthetics do. A bad point about wool is that it tends to dry slowly when it gets wet.  Another problem is some people find wool itchy when it’s close to the skin.  However this is usually handled with merino wool which is a finer fiber wool and usually not itchy.  Also wool/synthetic blend fabrics, which have become more popular of late, usually handle this problem as well.  Other negatives about wool is  that it’s not as durable as the synthetics and does not hold its shape as well either.

That all being said, I personally like wool as a base layer.  One of my favorite mid-weight base layers is my Icebreaker 260.  It is warm and has a very nice feel to it.  Other good wool base layers come from Smartwool, who makes a number of weights, all of which are excellent.  Patagonia, though I think they are better known for their polyester materials, makes some really good wool and wool/synthetic blend base layers that are well worth checking out.

Polyester/Polyester Blends

This is a high-tech material that gets sold under a bunch of company specific names. I won’t get into all of them here, but you can look at the composition of your base layer and the tag will say “93% polyester, 7% spandex” or something like that.  These are relatively inexpensive, they are durable and they wick moisture very well.  They retain their shape better then wool, which means you can get a tighter fit, which results in better insulation and wicking.  A bad point is they tend to retain smell, which can be a problem if you’re on a long trip and don’t have access to laundry facilities.  (whew -wash ’em in the sink man – enough already!)  However, it’s hard to go wrong with a synthetic base layer when its cold out because they do so many things that you need well.

You will find many different manufacturers that make great base layers using polyester and polyester blends.  My brother swears by his Under Armour, which has it different weights designated by 1.0 for lightweight to 3.0 for heavyweight.  These are great – very durable and warm, though a bit pricey.  I personally like my Columbia stuff, which I have in the mid-weight.  It has a great feel on the skin and is very warm.  Other excellent stuff is Patgonia Capilene – which has weights 1 -4, with 1 being the lightest and 4 expedition weight.  Hot Chillys, Helly Hansen and North Face all make great base layers in various price ranges and you won’t go wrong with any of these.   Just make sure that you buy the correct weight for what you’re going to use them for and you’ll be all set.  I personally have at least one set in each of the weights – so I’m set up for anything I run into.

Polypropylene

This really is just a durable polyester-based material like that covered above.  It’s available in different weights and has been used by the military for years in their cold weather base layers as it’s very durable and efficient.  It’s soft to the touch and is comparable in comfort to cotton.

I found two main line manufacturers listing out polypropylene as the main component in their apparel but I have not worn polypropylene for years and never from these manufacturers – so I am not sure of the quality.  I will give them to you anyway – they are ColdPruf and Red Rock Thermals.  Check them out if you’re interested.  The reviews looked pretty good for each.

Silk

This is a comfortable lightweight fabric that is good at wicking away moisture, but does not wick moisture as effectively as the synthetics.  It’s a good insulating fabric, feels great next to the skin, but it’s not as durable as polyester-based fabrics.  It’s usually higher priced then polyester fabrics and often requires special care.

I personally do not have any silk apparel, but my wife has some Terramar long underwear that she swears by.  It does feel nice and it keeps her warm, so on her recommendation I would say it is good stuff.

*****

There you have it. Those are the main base layer materials that you’ll  find available.  It really is a personal choice of what you like and need for the conditions you’ll face, but this data should make your choice easier. Get out there and have some fun – but first choose the right base layer so that you stay warm and dry.

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