Baselayers Revisited: You know the drill, now reconsider

You’ve heard the term “baselayer” so many times your eyes glaze over just reading it. And you know the drill thoroughly: when pursuing your favorite activity in sketchy or potentially sketchy weather, wear multiple layers of clothing you can then peel off as you heat up.

But as more and more new technical fabrics come on the scene, things are a changing. You might not need all those layers after all. Despite what you may have heard or read, there is no one-size-fits-all way of “base” layering clothing and outwear. Your sport or activity dictates the degree of which you have to get this right, and also which fabrics you’ll want in those layers.

Know the Weather
If you’re traveling out of your area to ski, hike, run, kayak or backpack, drill down on weather conditions well before hand. What hasn’t changed is that for at least three seasons out of the year, no matter where you are, you have to be prepared to dress warm and then strip down as your effort increases along with rising body and outside temperatures.

The Outerwear
The key—we would argue from considerable experience—is the outerwear. Your jacket should be versatile and offer quick-change adaptation in the field as temperatures rise, not ones that are merely waterproof and breathable (sweat wicking). Traditional waterproof/breathable fabrics designed to provide protection from wind, snow or rain, just aren’t breathable enough to keep pace with highly aerobic efforts even with the right layers. You can still end up with a condensation-produced frost on the inside of your jacket and a chill in your bones you can’t run away from fast enough. Look for new technical fabrics and design elements: fused rather than sewn seams; underarms with breathable stretch fabric panels with micro-fleece backing; shoulders, front and back panels (and for ground-based sports—a hood) made of water-shedding shell fabric.

The Softshell Outerwear
Cyclists hammering rollercoaster roads at high elevations, or hikers and skiers in the backcountry, will want to consider the softshell side of the outerwear equation. Pushing vertical feet in a waterproof/breathable garment just won’t work, and layers can make you sweat even more. In all but the wettest conditions, wear a superthin baselayer and look for a softshell zip jacket with aerating ports (at a minimum zips, mesh panels or breathable fabric in the armpits).

The Intense Stuff
When the possibility for wind and rain, or snow is greater than the potential for increased heat and sunshine on a chilly day, go with one of the new technical hardshells from Sierra Designs, Patagonia, Columbia Sportswear, Mountain Hardwear and North Face. A softshell may offer better mobility and breathability, but they’re worthless when they get soaked, the wind picks up and temperatures fall.

For When it Rains
In cold temps with a chance of wind and water, manage moisture from the inside as needed. Wear a top made for warmth and breathability, like a midweight wool or fleece (something with stretch, water and resistance properties, ideally brushed on the inside for comfort) with a quarter-zip for added breathability. Look at Patagonia’s Men’s Better Sweater or Sugio’s Firewall 180 Zip. Then bring along a packable water/windproof jacket for the just-in-case scenario. With minimal increases in protection and breathability on each end of the spectrum, you can keep weight down and hypothermia at bay.

The Best of Both Worlds
Hikers, runners and backpackers will also want a jacket that combines softshell breathable “panels’ and hardshell waterproof panels on key areas. But skip the mid-weight fleece and go for a truly lightweight wool or synthetic baselayer. Some good examples of this include: Sugio’s Wallaroo 170 Cruiser or Patagonia’s Capilene® moisture wicking super lightweight baselayers.

Get the Good Stuff
Face it, sometimes when you’re out ice fishing or snowshoeing across lakes, in subzero temps and howling winds in the dead of winter, you’ll need to pile on the layers. This means either a synthetic- or a down-insulated jacket (when it’s snowing you’ll love Sierra Designs’ new DriDown) over a Merino Wool or heavyweight fleece half-zip pullover, over a superfine wool baselayer, along with a true sense of adventure.

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Jo Ostgarden

Jo Ostgarden is a freelance journalist who has traveled around the world by plane, train, thumb, bicycle and automobile. She bicycled across Canada, the Pacific Coast Highway from Oregon to British Columbia and throughout 14 countries abroad. Additionally, she's an enthusiastic longtime backpacker who calls the Grand Canyon her own personal energy spot. She's also expert on travel in the Pacific Northwest, Hawaii and Ireland. She edited and re-wrote the final edition of Best Places Northwest Travel Guide, and has written about travel, health, nutrition and endurance sports gear for dozens of magazines and newspapers, including Bicycling Magazine.

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