Up until a few years ago I didn’t know what base layers were. I layered up in winter with vest tops and t-shirts and wondered why the layers weren’t keeping me warm. When I did finally discover that base layers existed, I became duly obsessed. I’ve been a bit of a merino convert recently, so when I was sent a free SubZero base layer to test out that wasn’t merino, I was intrigued. [Read more…] about Review | SubZero Factor 1+ Base Layer
* I bought all these snazzy base layers myself except for those from Burnt Custard, they sent me a free sample to try out. Nevertheless, my opinion of them is mine alone.*
Base layers, oh Base layers
Base layers play a disproportionately important role in my clothing choices these days and have done for a few years. From sailing in northern latitudes to spending winter months in the Alps, base layers are, in the words of Mons Royale, ‘first on, last off.’
When I was a child, base layers were called thermals and always, always had a terrible cut to them. My first skiing holiday when I was 15 saw me wearing a black pair of Marks and Spencer long johns that I could’ve almost pulled up to my chest. I hated them.
Childhood forays around the mountains of Scotland and the rainy peaks of the Lake District left me associating thermals with foul weather – zero exception.
Thankfully, both me and companies producing base layers have started looking at things different. Base layers all-round have got a little…jazzier.
Base layers on a ski season
I’m currently living out in the Austrian alps. Being a freelance writer means I can work from anywhere in the world that has an internet connection (harder to find than you’d think) and after over two years bobbing about at sea, I felt it was time for some mountain living.
However, going from the sub-tropical 26C of the Azores to North West Scotland for an assignment and then out to the sub-zero Alps had my body freaking out a little. From the moment I landed in 12C England, the coldest I’d felt in almost 3 years, I adopted base layers with zeal.
Base layer Brands I Have:
Well that’s an interesting mix…
I get numb hands if I open the fridge and so I didn’t want to take any chances; I brought a lot of base layers along for the 4 month ride that was going to be my snow season.
I’ve now had the time to thoroughly test each and every one of my base layers on -15 glaciers, regular skiing, hot valley runs, winter hiking, pub nights in the resort town and, actually, Scottish sailing just before I headed out to the mountains.
So how did they do?
Mons Royale are a New Zealand brand that make all their clothing out of merino and have what seems to be a physical aversion to boring clothes.
I found their base layers in the sale online and ordered a pair of merino leggings, saving myself a pretty hefty whack of money in the process.
To give some context, I’ve worn these a lot out here in the alps. For at least 20 days of skiing and many other days of just walking around.
- Bright colours, mine are turquoise fabric with a purple and pink waistband. Unlike thermals from the 90s, these don’t make me look like an old lady.
- They’re merino. This means they never smell. Never (Trust me, I’ve tried to make them).
- They’re surprisingly resilient. Merino can be fragile but mine have no signs of holes which is not something I can say about some other merino clothes I wear less often. And I wear these relentlessly.
- Soft and warm. I wear these under my ski trousers often but when the temperature really plummets I stick an extra base layer underneath because…
- They’re a little on the baggy side. And I have a Small, which is their smallest size. This is slightly annoying because I would expect them to have another size below this. For women, the Small has a 35-37 inch hip size and the fabric on the legs is not tight fitting on me at all. This creates air gaps where I don’t want air gaps. To solve this problem I wear thermal tights underneath…which I’ll get to.
- They’re not cheap. Primarily because they’re made of 100% merino which is not a cheap wool to come by. A full price pair of Mons Royale merino leggings are around £70.
If you’ve been looking into skiing base layers, chances are you’ve come across Icebreaker, they do kind of dominate the merino market.
I have two 100% merino Icebreaker tops, which I tend to wear one on top of the other as one is a strap top and one is a long sleeve top with thumb-loops. And if you’re in the snow, thumb-loops are magical.
- Being 100% merino, these tops dry very fast and despite sweating on tough runs and warm days, the sweat is gone in time to get on the lift. I.e. super fast. I’ve never experienced dampness or that horrible clammy feeling with these base layers and I’ve put them through a lot.
- They’re warm when you want them to be. Another amazing thing about good quality merino is that it keeps you warm when you want to be and let keeps you cool when you’re starting to overheat. As far as I can tell, it’s magic.
- Never smells. Like Mons Royale, these Icebreaker base layers don’t smell and I put them through pretty rigorous testing….I didn’t have a washing facility for the first month…and a half. Don’t judge me.
- Not cheap. Not cheap at all. Again, most of Icebreaker’s base layer are pure merino (although certainly not all of them) and they’re very comfortable, warm and totally breathable. But full price, a long sleeved base layer is between £80 and £110 depending on merino weight and a pair of leggings is around £75. The sale rail is the best place to buy Icebreaker and where I’ve always found mine.
- Quick to hole. Now there’s an odd sentence. My mid-weight long sleeved top is a little fuzzy around the edges through some serious wear since I bought it 5 months ago but my lightweight t-shirt (not a base layer) has two holes in it and I’ve worn in much less and it’s the same age. Mid-weight merino will wear much better than lightweight, not to mention keep you warmer; it’s more expensive, but bear in mind that it will live longer.
Who doesn’t love Decathlon? It’s a warehouse full of affordable outdoor toys and clothes that sucks you in and makes you wonder why you don’t own a packable kayak, an archery set and those stretchy resistance band things. And then, when you walk out to the car, you discover that you do.
I have a pair of Quechua merino leggings that I bought in Decathlon back in October.
- They were £19.99 which is a total bargain for pure merino.
- They’re warm and close-fitting which is good for skiing when you don’t want any possibility of an icy gust.
- They suffer from the old 90s base layer plague of Bad Cut. They’re not particularly form fitting and have a chunky, insert-constructed waistband.
- They don’t have the deliciously soft feeling of more expensive merinos. Merino wool comes in different types, from Strong all the way down to Extra Ultrafine. Generally speaking, the finer the wool, the more expensive (and softer) it is.
Burnt Custard were launched a few years ago but recently re-launched. Although they didn’t go on sale until I was already on my merry way to the Alps, they did rather nicely send me a free sample of their brand new line of base layers. And I’m actually wearing the leggings as I’m writing this.
All the base layers I’ve talked about so far are woollen, specifically merino. And the ones after this are also the same theme, soft, fluffy-ish and comforting. Burnt Custard’s are not. In fact, when I first opened the parcel I was like, ‘err….hang on a minute.’
Burnt Custard base layers are much more silky and along the lines of a rash vest material (They’re made of Meryl, a nylon microfibre that is stretchy). My instant feeling was negative because when I’m cold I want something that feels cosy, not something that feels as though I should be doing step-aerobics. But I tried them out.
- Supremely form-fitting. More so than any of my other big-brand base layers, Burnt Custard base layers hug every curve and angle without feeling constrictive at all. Because they’re so close-fitting, I’ve actually taken to wearing them under skinny jeans when I’m walking about in the snow-covered town.
- It doesn’t really smell. It’s not as odour-resistant as merino but it certainly doesn’t make you wrinkle your nose after a day on the slopes.
- It’s surprisingly warm. From the feel of it, I wouldn’t have said it would do much to keep the cold out, but actually it was perfectly warm, even in sub-zero temperatures under lightly insulated ski trousers.
- It comes in funky colours. I’m not a huge fan of Burnt Custard’s harlequin-like design but I like the idea and you can also choose your own colours if you’d prefer.
- It’s also UV-proof. I know, why do you need UV-proof base layers if they’re already under other clothes? Because you can also use them as rashies for surfing, swimming and, in my case, tropical sailing. Which is genius.
- Not cheap. With leggings at £59.99 and a long-sleeved top at £64.99, these are only just shy of Mons Royale prices. But, the point is that you can wear them for almost any sport.
- Stretchy fabric but not stretchy stitching? I have Burnt Custard base layers in a size small and yet when I first put on the leggings, the waistband stretched but the stitching didn’t….and snapped. So now I have to resew where the waistband attaches to the rest. Not being a fabric technician, I couldn’t tell you why this happened as the leggings fit perfectly, it’s just a case of the stitching needing to get around my hips (so is it me?). That being said, I have a sample. As these are very form-fitting clothes, you might want to try a size up from usual.
*Incidentally, burnt custard is also something you can eat…and it looks amazing. So here’s a recipe.
I know, I know, H&M? Since when were they an outdoor brand?! And they’re not. But in the interests of experimentation I thought I’d invest (£7.99) in a pair of fleece leggings from H&M.
And you know what? I wear them a lot. Because they’re so close-fitting (I mean, they’re basically tights), they fit easily under my looser base layers (like Mons Royale, admittedly almost entirely negating the benefits of merino) and the light fuzz inside does wonders for warmth.
- Cheap as chips. Possibly cheaper given today’s Fish and Chips prices and something about Iceland’s fishing strike in the news this week.
- Very comfortable and surprisingly warm.
- Can also be worn as actual leggings/tights which is nice when you brought one dress along on your ski season and are determined to wear it despite it snowing heavily.
- Are horrendous if you’re too hot. These are not designed to wick moisture away and certainly won’t be good for sweaty sports like hiking or skiing tough runs on sunny days. Merino can hold a third of its weight in water before it feels damp, Burnt Custard’s Meryl fabric can hold 4.5% of its weight and these tights? Probably nil.
Similar to H&M’s fleece tights, Heat Holders are essentially just black tights or leggings with a soft, warm, fluffy layer inside. They’re awesome.
I bought mine from TKMaxx who seemed to have a never-ending supply.
- Cheap at around £14 a pair.
- Very warm and very comfortable.
- Easy to wear under tight fitting trousers.
- Like the tights above, these aren’t going to do anything for you if you’re too warm or sweating. In fact, they’ll be unpleasant. These make excellent base layers when there is zero chance of you overheating. Like walking from pub to pub on a snowy evening.
- Their sizing goes down to 4 foot 9. So be careful you don’t buy a pair that is too short, especially if you want the tights option over the leggings.
So what do you need?
If money were no object, I’d live in merino wool. It can hold a huge amount of liquid before it gets damp and dries really fast. This makes it perfect for sports where one minute you’ll be sweating and the next you need to keep warm; just like skiing.
Burnt Custard leggings are by far the most comfortable under tight fitting trousers and are also capable of decent temperature control and coping with unwanted moisture.
Cheap high street thermal leggings keep you warm but they definitely won’t cool you down or take away any unwelcome sweat. I love them but only when I know I won’t be getting hot. I would never wear them hiking for instance.
Both merino and Meryl are fast-drying fabrics that don’t smell easily and have anti-bacterial properties. This means you don’t need to wash them as much as fabrics like cotton and when you do wash them, you can air-dry them overnight.
In all honesty, I could happily live out here with just two sets of base layers, tops and bottoms. If you look at it like that, suddenly a high quality base-layered ski season doesn’t cost so much.
Let me know your favourites (or least favourites)
There seem to be base layer companies cropping up left, right and centre and I’d love to know about your experiences.
Comment below and tell me what you like or hate, when it comes to base layers!
When I was at university I was a regular in H&M. After all, not only was it one of the few places I could afford to buy clothes, but its ever-changing array meant that it was always an interesting place to wander around.
But my lectures didn’t require any physical exertion. The only sweating I’d be doing was in the light sheen of a hangover.
Since 2014, the quality of clothing has become a major consideration for me. When I left the UK to sail across the Atlantic, suddenly it mattered very much what I wore and what exactly it was designed for.
Waterproof or weatherproof?
I talked to a lot of people who were experienced sailors because sailing isn’t a run-of-the-mill sport, clothes have to survive extreme weather for months at a time. For instance, a waterproof jacket is often just designed to be worn for a few weekends hiking a year, not for daily deluges of saltwater. Even sailing jackets are only designed to be worn a few times a year because most people only sail on summer weekends, not every day.
I was barraged with advertising from the major companies but were their clothes actually going to do the job? A jacket guaranteed for 10 years is guaranteed for 10 years of ‘reasonable use’. Sailing around the Atlantic for 2 years almost definitely didn’t qualify for reasonable use.
My partner skipped out on the sailing brands altogether, instead going for a Guy Coton jacket that’s designed for offshore fisherman, reasoning that if it withstands the harsh environment of a fishing trawler, it’ll withstand two years cruising.
I was also sailing in the tropics where the UV level was off the charts and clothes had to be light and yet resilient. My beloved cheap tank tops had gaping holes within weeks.
Now I’m living in the Austrian alps and skiing everyday, it’s just as difficult to find clothing that suits my lifestyle. It’s often minus-10 on the mountain and staying warm is key to a good day. But a tricky black run makes me so hot I need to open all my vents. Even baselayers aren’t just for keeping you toasty though, they also need to be able to carry sweat away from your skin otherwise you’ll be freezing cold on the next lift.
I used to think that clothes were clothes. That shoes were shoes. I couldn’t have been more wrong. But it’s wading through the advertising to the truth that I find so difficult.
Merino is a true super fabric and almost all my skiing baselayers are merino, as are my ski socks. But it’s so easy to spot the word ‘merino’ on packaging and settle for it. What happens when you read the fabric list on the back? Merino 15%.
Buying clothing for outdoor adventures is now the same as buying processed food – it’s a case of studying the back of the packet, holding two ‘ingredients’ lists up against each other and working out which one is better. These biscuits are made with butter, great, those ones, palm oil, not great. These socks are 15% merino, ugh, these ones are 58% merino, yay!
Branding is one of the most essential parts of running any successful business but for the consumer, it’s a time-consuming hobby to work out what brands are all show and no quality and which ones actually live up to their massive prices.
Want to do the sport or look like you do the sport?
So many t-shirts have the names of major surf and outdoor brands scrawled across the chest but are only the same as Fruit of the Loom. Sure they may have fancy branding and come at £50 a pop but they’re the last thing you want to wear up a mountain, despite their outdoor aesthetic.
It’s easy with some brands to disregard them for outdoor use. With shops like H&M, Primark and even the more expensive brands knowing that their clothes will be bought, worn once and then relegated to the back of the wardrobe, what’s the point in using good fabrics? Their gymwear ranges might look funky, but they’re designed to be worn in the Starbucks next door to the gym.
But what about brands that market themselves as outdoor? Many are no better, they just cost more and have a picture of a mountain embroidered on. And as more and more people start adventuring, climbing, hiking and generally enjoying being out in the wild, more brands are starting up with emphasis on decoration not on technical quality.
Fast fashion, as Esquire put it late last year, is ‘destroying the planet’. For lovers of outdoor adventure, it’s not only ruining the world we love so much but it’s also a vast waste of money. If you’re wearing cheap polyester t-shirts for a ten day hike, you’ll have to take ten of them or do your laundry every night. But invest in one or two pure merino t-shirts and you’ll have a fabric that pulls dirt and sweat from your skin and never smells.
I can’t tell you how much of a revelation it was to me that good quality clothing made sense. Not only did I no longer have a wardrobe with overflowing cheap clothes, but I had clothing that still felt good whether I’d walked up Squamish’s Chief or skied down an icy black mid-afternoon.
It’s becoming harder to find clothes that do what they say they’ll do. Every new outdoor brand seems to be ‘born out of’ someone’s walk in the woods, combining meaningless phrase after meaningless phrase. I found one pair of trousers in a hiking shop that ‘challenge the status quo’…really? The status quo of awful copywriting? I don’t want trousers that challenge the status quo, I want trousers that allow a full range of movement and dry quickly.
We need to stop indulging these outrageously expensive brands who promise the earth in flowery language but are actually just fast fashion with a higher price tag. A lot of inspiring copy on the label is often just hiding the fact that these clothes are made from cheap fabrics too, they just have better publicists.
Eco or What?
Searching out ethical and eco-friendly brands can be difficult, especially as they’re still a fairly niche market. But we can still be more ecologically sensible on an individual level. By buying only great quality clothing that will last us for years. Yup, that’s right people, years.
If everyone had a modest wardrobe of clothing that lasts and that works, we might start seeing a trickle down affect. The clothes from lifestyle companies aren’t that cheap and yet the quality is questionable. Buying a t-shirt from Patagonia at £60 takes a bit of thought but it’s only twice the price of a lifestyle surf brand t-shirt that has zero technology but a big hibiscus flower on it. And Patagonia create clothing that lasts, works and even excels in the harsh environments of life.
Owning a small quantity of excellent quality clothes will make all our lives easier than owning one hundred items of fast fashion that would fall apart if we wore them more than once.
If nothing else, it makes deciding what to wear easier.