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Best Base Layers

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This is a gear review of the best base layers for backpacking that are on the market in 2022.

I don’t know what’s worse. A base layer that doesn’t keep you warm, one that isn’t breathable, or one that doesn’t dry out quickly after a shower of rain. A quality base layer is the solution.

Below are the best base layers on the market right now with a handy buyers guide at the end help you learn more about base layers.

Best Base Layers for Backpacking 2022

The Best Base Layers for Backpacking 2022 are:


Best Base Layer – Overall 2022

Smartwool Merino 150 Base Layer

Pros:
> Made from 87% merino wool
> Merino wool is thermo-regulating
> Merino wool is moisture wicking
> Most customers have made repeat purchases, because as much as they love them so much
Cons:
> Not much, they are great

The Smartwool Merino 150 base layer is made from 87% merino wool, and 13% nylon. And this gives it some great properties that are just what you need when you are backpacking.

Merino is thermo-regulating, which means that it will retain a nice, comfortable temperature, without becoming too hot.  It is also moisture wicking, which is great because this means that it will disperse any sweat that may start to form on your skin. It also performs well in warm weather such as a hot dry desert as it can regulate body heat.

The Smartwool Merino lightweight base layer is ultra-smooth to the touch and has a luxuriously soft feel great against the skin. They also breathe well, and naturally resist any body odors. 

Overall, the Smartwool Merino 150 is one of my personal favorite gear items and are the Best Lightweight Baselayer for Men and Women and best light fabric weight baselayer.

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Best Mid Weight Base Layer

Smartwool Merino 250 Base Layer

Pros:
> Made with 100% Merino wool
> Breathable & they lock in heat
> Soft feel against the skin
Cons:
> Some people say it isn’t as heavy a weight as they were expecting

Now, these Smartwool Merino 250 base layers for Men and Women are made with 100% Merino fabric, and that makes them perfect for hiking and backpacking.

They work to lock in heat but are also breathable and work to wick sweat away so are a great insulating layer for hiking and backpacking.

The Smartwool Merino 250 are comfortable enough to wear all day long. They come as a slim fit, and offer plenty of stretch, so it really serves to enhance your body shape.

They are available in a choice of several different color options, too. All of which are quite dark and very unassuming and understated.

Amazingly, the size that you buy does not affect the price, and neither does the color.

Overall, the Smartwool Merino 250 are one of the best merino baselayers for backpacking. The hard decision is whether you choose the Merino 150 version mentioned above or the heavier fabric weight of the Merino 250 version mentioned here!

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Best Synthetic / Wool Blend Base Layer

Patagonia Capilene Air Crew

Pros:
> Made with 51% RWS-certified merino wool
> Together with 49% recycled polyester
> It stretches to allow ease of movement
Cons:
> Premium product at a premium price

If you’re passionate about the environment, then this is the base layer top for you!

It’s made of 51% RWS-certified merino wool to assist in being odor resistant and 49% recycled polyester synthetic fabric for warmth.

RWS-certified means that it meets the Responsible Wool Standard from farm to fabric which is there to ensure protection for both the animals that supply the wool, and the land that they graze.

The fabric feels really soft against your skin and it stretches to allow movement, eliminating any chafe points. And it’s really nice and warm too.

It’s called an “air crew” because it’s an airy blend of fabrics, made with a special 18.5 micron-gauge yarn.

It’s also really durable and is designed to last. And it provides moisture wicking for when you start to sweat, and it dries out quite quickly too.

It’s available in a choice of 4 different colors and there is also the option of Patagonia Capilene air hoody for those that like a hoody base layer.

Overall, these are a great environmentally responsible baselayer for backpacking and a good blend of natural fibers and synthetic fibers to help with temperature regulation.

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Best Budget Base Layer

REI Co-op Lightweight Base Layer Long-Sleeve Crew Top

Pros:
> Bargain, affordable price
> Keeps you cool in the sun
> Keeps you warm in winter
Cons:
> Not made with Merino wool

If you’ve found the base layers we’ve shown you so far are a little expensive for you, then the REI Co Op Lightweight Crew may be the better option for you – available for a bargain price.

It’s a slightly looser fit than most other base layers on our shortlist and it stretches for easy movement.

It’s available in several colors this is one of the best budget base layer on the market.

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REI

Best Base Layer for Australia and New Zealand

Macpac Prothermals

Pros:
> It offers excellent warmth
> It wicks away your sweat
> There’s an elastic waistband
> Best warmth to weight ratio of all the baselayers in this review
Cons:
> Only available in Australia and New Zealand.

The Macpac Prothermals are made with Polartec Powergrid which offers exceptional warmth to weight. In fact one of the warmest synthetic base layer in this review. It also uses Polygiene to help reduce body odors and the half zip can be used to regulate temperature when needed.

If you don’t like wool in your base layer, then these are for you.

It’s nice and smooth and the athletic fit matched with increased stretch allows you to really move around as much as you please.

It is my current base layer of choice in Australia and I wear it all winter as my base layer when on early morning runs. All I need is an outer layer like a wind breaker or rain jacket and I am well protected from the cold weather and quite warm.

The construction of the Polartec powergrid makes it very breathable base layer and one of the best materials for wicking moisture away from the skin.

There is not much in the way of color choice but overall, this is the best non merino base layer in this review and the warmest base layer for winter in this review. Unfortunately, it is only available in Australia and New Zealand.

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More of the Best Hiking Base Layer

Norrona Wool Round Neck Base Layer

Pros:
> Excellent customer reviews
> Primary fabric is Merino wool
> Thermo-regulating for warmth
Cons:
> Very few sizes and color options available

Now, this is a base layer that’s had some awesome customer reviews everywhere on the net. And looking into it we could certainly see why.

Its primary fabric is Merino wool, which is known for its thermo-regulating and moisture wicking properties, so not only will it keep you warm, if you do start to sweat, your sweat will be wicked away from your skin and out through the fabric.

It’s available in only a couple of color option and full size ranges.

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Icebreaker Merino Oasis Long Sleeve Crew Top

Pros:
> There ares 38 different color options
> It’s made from 100% Merino wool
> Thermo-regulating and moisture-wicking
Cons:
> There’s no size chart available for a precision fit
> Premium product at a premium price

Now, if you want to really change up your look for your backpacking, this is the way to do it, since this base layer is available in a whopping 38 different color options.

Most of these colors are quite understated and subdued, but there are also some bright eye-popping colors in there too. There are some which are one color all over, and others with different colored sleeves or with graphics on the front.

It’s made from 100% Merino wool, which means that it’s both thermo-regulating and moisture-wicking, which means that you will be toasty warm but won’t feel sweaty at all.  This is the only product that is made from 100% New Zealand Merino, which adds to the higher price tag.

We also love that it features a drop tail hem to keep you better covered.

And better yet, it’s suitable for a machine wash, and does not have to be washed by hand, or taken to the dry cleaners.

Overall, these are the highest quality merino base layer for backpacking.

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Backcountry
REI

REI Co-op Midweight Base Layer Crew Top

Pros:
> Its very reasonably priced
> It’s midweight not lightweight
> Wicks away all your sweat
Cons:
> Not made with Merino wool

The REI Co Op midweight base layer is very reasonably priced. You may even argue that it’s a bargain.

As a midweight base layer it’s a little thicker, and hence warmer than its lightweight counterparts. But you don’t have to worry about getting sweaty while wearing it because the fabric is designed to wick sweat away.

It has a nice smooth outer, and a cosy brushed interior. And there’s a 4-way stretch to it, so you can really move around comfortably.

There’s flat seam construction to reduce bulk and chafing. But better yet, there are also rolled-forward shoulder seams to prevent your backpack straps from chafing you.

It’s available in a nice choice of color options and the REO Co Op thermals one of the best budget options in this review of base layers.

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REI

Patagonia Capilene Midweight Crew Top

Pros:
> Loose fitting women’s base layer top
> Durable and designed to really last
> Strategically placed underarm panels
Cons:
> Limited number of colors and sizes.

If you’re looking for a loose fitting base layer top, this could well be the very one for you.

It features a double-weave construction, and is a midweight garment, so it’s far more durable than its lightweight alternatives, and is designed to really last.

I love the raglan sleeves and the strategically placed underarm panels, since these help provide a full range of motion.

The inside is brushed for softness and warmth, while the outer is nice and smooth, which is perfect for adding other layers on top.

It has a nice stretch to it and it wicks sweat away really well.

Overall, this is a great mid weight base layer for backpacking and traveling. They will be a good option for your layering system.

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Macpac Merino 220 Top Mens

Pros:
> Made from 100% Merino wool
> It’s thermo-regulating
> It also wicks away sweat
Cons:
> Only available in Australia and New Zealand.

What I like about this base layer is that it’s made from 100% Merino wool.

It’s thermo-regulating, which means that it will keep you cool in the heat, and cosy and warm when you’re out in the cold. It also wicks away sweat, and is naturally anti-odor. And the fabric feels really soft against your skin. And it is machine washable.

What makes it so great for wearing backpacking is the displaced shoulder seams, which won’t dig in from wearing a backpack.

It’s available in limited color options.

Overall, this is the best merino base layer in Australia and New Zealand.

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Other Base Layers

The following items are still being reviewed and will be added soon.


best hiking base layers
The best merino hiking base layers are great in cold dry deserts when it is warm and cold

Buyers Guide

As promised, here’s your buying guide. This will walk you through all the key points to think about before you buy. 


Size and Fit

It is important that you get the right size base layer for your frame. Base layers that are too tight will be particularly uncomfortable, and base layers that are too baggy will allow the breeze to get to your skin and make you too cold.

As a general rule the next to skin layer should be a snug fit. As they are incredibly stretchy it should not restrict movement too much. Some also have thumb holes or thumb loops to ensure the sleeve will stay all the way down to the cuff when needed.

If you are buying online rather than in store, I would strongly recommend that you check out the size charts, and whether the garments are true to size.


Fabric Properties

What fabric you use should be your second consideration after size and fit. You need fabrics that will keep you comfortable during your backpacking trip, whatever the weather happens to be doing. I have both Merino and Synthetic as my thermal underwear and each has advantages and disadvantages.


Merino Wool

Merino is a natural wool fabric that is well known for it’s anti bacterial qualities and ability to reduce odor. It also has a natural ability to regulate body temperature. I love hiking in this fabric in warm weather such as a hot dry desert. It can keep me warm when needed and cool me down when needed. But in tropical humid heat that are horrible.

I also like using this fabric as a the hiking base layer for many days before I start to offend others with my body smell.

But it does have some downsides. It tends to be heavier than synthetics for the same level of warmth and it is not as durable. They can also stick to your skin when you get sweaty and leave wet patches that stay there until they dry. They do not wick as good as most synthetics.

I love to usea Merino Wool Base Layer for sleeping. They make a great alternative to a sleeping bag liner and do a great job of keeping your sleeping bag or ultralight backpacking quilt clean and free of body oils, sweat and dirt.


Synthetics

Synthetic Base Layers are improving year on year. One of my favorite materials for a synthetic layer is the Polartec Grid fabric and the newer styles of blends that mix synthetics and wool.

This means that the base layer should help to maintain a comfortable temperature by locking in heat. At the same time however, they also have to be breathable, and if necessary, and offers excellent moisture wicking of sweat and moisture. And if it can also resist body odor, that’s a great plus, too.

Synthetic material does not make good warm weather base layers. They are best suited to cold weather.

There are other materials such as a silk base layer or bamboo. Silk is great for sleeping in but not much else.


Odor Resistance

Merino Wool baselayers have an amazing natural resistance to body odor control. The natural anti bacterial properties lend it well to being used on hiking and backpacking trips which tend to make most people stinky. For that reason, merino wool has no equal for odor resistance.

Synthetics tend to hold in bad body smells and don’t do well for odor resistance. But in recent years some fabrics have added polygiene which reduces the growth of smelly bacterial that causes body odor. Having used many items with polygiene I can advise that it works well, but not quite as well as Merino Wool.

Most high end fabrics used in this review will do a good job in reducing the chances of making your body smell offensive to other.


Wicking

Wicking is the ability of the fabric to take moisture present on the skin and transfer that moisture to the outside of the fabric so it can evaporate and ensure the body does not cool down in cold weather. It is the moisture wicking ability of the fabric that makes it best for use close to your skin.

Wicking and breathability work together to allow the sweat to move from the skin to ensure you do not cool down too quickly. But in mild weather it also serves to allow the moisture to move to the outer fabric to let the wind evaporate and therefore cool you down.


Breathability

A lightweight layer on your skin serves the purpose of keeping you warm and wicking moisture from sweat away from your skin to allow it to evaporate.

The base layer is the item of clothing next to your skin and it is required to allow the skin to breath. Therefore, the base layer material should be weaved in such a way to have a moisture wicking capability which allows moisture to move from the skin to the outer fabric. The more open the weave the better.

In practice wool layers are not as breathable as most synthetic layers.

When you want to prevent the fabric from becoming too breathable you should use a layering system.


Base Layers and the Layering System

A lightweight base layer is the first item to be considered when talking about layering. As it is the layer touching the skin it should be comfortable, have good breathability, good temperature regulation and ability to wick moisture. They can also be used as a warm weather base layer.

Mid Layers

After the base layer a hiker needs a good Mid Layer for cooler temperatures. Synthetic materials in Mid Layers and Fleece Jackets make good use of fabrics to keep you warm. In very cold weather a warm Down Jackets will be better. All serve the purpose of keeping you warm in cold weather and all come in varying degree of warmth.

Outer Layers

The outer shell layer should be windproof and protect against the weather. A good waterproof rain jacket is the best option. It will protect against the cold wind and like most backpackers I often use the rain jacket over the top of a base layer to protect against the cold winds.

The quality outer layer will also be very breathable to allow any build up of sweat, heat and moisture to transfer through the fabric to the atmosphere. The outer layer also protects against rain and snow.


Aesthetic

Even when you’re out in the backcountry, it’s nice to be color coordinated. It’s always a good idea to choose new clothing against how well it goes with what’s already in your wardrobe. Most people, myself included, spend a lot of time in base layers either at home, or while in town. So having something that looks a little but presentable is a good thing.


Women’s Baselayers

All of the items in the gear review above are available as mens base layers or Women’s Base Layers. Women’s thermals usually have a slightly different cut than men’s to suit the body shape a little better.

They usually have a much better color selection so your women’s base layer will match up with your favorite color.


Value for Money 

I would argue that “more affordable” does not always translate to better value for money. Better quality clothing tends to cost more money than lower quality items.

But if you do have to be budget conscious, by all means check prices as you go along. The REI Co Op options represent great value for the budget backpacker.

A good set of Base Layers will last a very long time, for most people years. I still have a heavy weight base layer I bought in Canada in 1996! And I still wear it!


Care of Base Layers

Base layers are a little more delicate and less durable than a lot of other outdoor clothing. They require a little more thought when washing and drying the clothing.

I once destroyed an expensive set of merino tops and bottoms by washing them with a pair of jeans. The zipper on the jeans managed to rip a series of small holes all of the thermals. These lightweight base layers need a little extra care when washing.

If possible wash them in a fabric bag or bra bag. This will prevent damage when washing with other items of clothing. Also consider using a special fabric wash such as wool wash. I don’t bother with this but I know many people do.

A front loading washing machine will be more gentle than a top loading machine and try to avoid using a dryer, specially on a high heat which may cause the fabric to shrink to an unusable level.


Conclusion

Overall, here are the best hiking base layers of 2022:

Smartwool Merino 150 Base Layer
Smartwool Merino 250 Base Layer
Patagonia Men’s Capilene Air Crew
Norrona Men’s Wool Round Neck Base Layer
Icebreaker Merino Oasis Long Sleeve CreweTop
REI Co-op Lightweight Base Layer Long-Sleeve Crew Top
REI Co-op Midweight Base Layer Crew Top
Macpac Prothermals
Patagonia Capilene Midweight Crew Top
Macpac Merino 220 Top


Frequently Asked Questions

What are base layers?

Base layers are the items of clothing you use next to your skin. They should be comfortable, keep you warm and have the ability to wick any moisture away from your skin. Because they are breathable they are often used as part of a layering system when hiking or backpacking.

What are the best fabrics to use as base layers?

The best fabrics to use as base layers are synthetics and merino wool but silk and bamboo is also used. Merino wool is a great natural fabric with the great ability to regulate your body temperature and reduce bad body smells because they are naturally odor resistant. Synthetics have a great ability to keep you warm, wick moisture away from the skin and they breath very well.

Are base layers worth it?

A good quality base layer will be money well spent. They will last a very long time and serve as the layer next to your skin that will keep you warm, dry and comfortable. A good base layer is one of the cheapest ways to stay warm when it gets cold.

Another one of the Best Hiking Gear Reviews from BikeHikeSafari.

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About the Author:
Brad is an Australian who has completed the hiking Triple Crown after he hiked the Pacific Crest Trail, Continental Divide Trail and Appalachian Trail. He has hiked on every continent (except Antarctica) and has cycled from Alaska to Ecuador. He is an expert on outdoor gear currently living in Chile.

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