Exclusive Online Content: Layer Up

Ward off the chill of cooler temps with these Backpacker-tested base layers and shells

Last winter and spring, our crew tested over 100 garments for our annual Apparel Guide (October '07). We couldn't squeeze all the winners into the pages of the magazine, but we've got plenty of room here! Read on for more top performing layering pieces…

BASE LAYERS

Comfort range: 60-80° F

Women's Pick

ARCTERYX RHO SL CROSS NECK

Out of nearly a dozen women-specific tops tested, this was our hands-down favorite. "It is stylish enough for bar-hopping yet durable and technical enough for long backpacking trips,” enthused one tester. The featherweight polyester has a silky feel, and it dries almost instantly, even after serious sweat-fests. One tester wore it on a three-day primitive living skills trip, where she bushwhacked through dense forest and carried armloads of thorny deadwood to make brush shelters; the Rho survived without a snag. Testers also liked the neck design; two fabric panels overlap to form a V, which provides coverage without the bulk of a zipper, plus a welcome feminine flare. $59; XS-XL (w's); 3.5 oz. (w's medium). (866) 458-2471; arcteryx.com.

Comfort range: 50-70° F

Wicking Champ


CLOUDVEIL HIGHLINE HALF ZIP

"I felt dry even while climbing 5,000 feet out of the Grand Canyon in 65°F heat,” said one tester of this long sleeve shirt. The polyester is slightly brushed inside for softness, and it has an antimicrobial finish that effectively squelches stink. We appreciated the venting 8-inch front zipper; the pull tucks into a fabric "garage” so it doesn't chafe when closed. Several testers took the Highline as their only top on late spring backpacking trips in Arizona and Montana, and were impressed at its comfort range. They happily wore it in temps from freezing (with a wind shell) to 70°F (alone). A couple concerns: The light knit fabric is prone to snagging and the price tag might make you faint. Also comes in a short sleeve crew ($60). $80; XS-XXL (m's), XS-XL (w's); 7 oz. (m's medium). (888) 763-5969; cloudveil.com.

Comfort range: 45-60°F

Best Cross Trainer


EXOFFICIO MICROSTRETCH ZIP

Even in the low 50s with winds gusting up to 40 mph, testers stayed comfortable wearing this versatile polyester top solo. "The super tight weave of the fabric was fantastic for sealing out chilly breezes, especially while biking,” said one. After a climbing trip in Nevada, another applauded the mobility provided by the stretchy fabric, as well as its wicking power. And we appreciated the details: a neck zipper for venting, thumb loops to keep the sleeves from riding up; and an unobtrusive security pocket welded to the sleeve. Only hesitation: Compared to other midweights we tested, the fabric is only average in breathability and drying time. It's best suited for cool to cold temperatures. $55; M-XXL (m's); XS-XL (w's); 7 oz. (w's small). (800) 833-0831; exofficio.com.

Comfort range: 70-90°F

Best for desert


ROYAL ROBBINS COOLMAX CREW (m's) and COOLMAX VILAS CREW (w's)

For backpackers who long to hike in a no-frills cotton t-shirt but know they're safer in synthetic, this Royal Robbins crews provides the best of both worlds. Made from Coolmax fabric—60 percent polyester and 40 percent cotton—this soft, breathable tee feels like cotton but wicks and dries more like polyester. Both men and women praised the styling: a fitted torso cut, ribbed neck trim, and (for the women) capped sleeves. The shirt is highly durable; one tester has an older version of the RR tee that she's used for nearly a decade and taken on dozens of extended backpacking trips and it still looks like new. The only caveat: because of the cotton content, the shirt dries a bit more slowly than 100 percent polyester shirts—making it a good choice for hot hikes and desert climates. $35; S-XXL (m's); XS-XL (w's); 3 oz. (w's medium). (800) 344-7277; royalrobbins.com.

Comfort range: 55-73° F

Stylish


SMARTWOOL THRESHOLD BENT CREW (M'S) AND V (W'S) "Date worthy” is not usually a term used to describe technical long underwear, but the Threshold--with its fashionable contrasting stitching—is not your typical undershirt. "I wore it out on the town all the time,” said one tester. The top proved its mettle at Flagstaff Brewery as well as on a rainy spring hike in Arizona's Walnut Canyon. In addition to drying in a flash, testers said this 100 percent merino long sleeve was extremely comfortable, wicked moisture under another layer, and fended off odor for days. It insulated in cool, breezy conditions, but was also comfortable when temperatures rose into the 70s. $75/$65; S-XXL (m's); XS-XL (w's); 6 oz. (w's medium). (800) 550-9665; smartwool.com.

INSULATION

Temp: 45-65 F
Best vest

ISIS WHISPER HOODIE VEST (women's only)

When a full-on puffy jacket was overkill, this 650-fill vest was our testers' panacea. "It kept me warm around camp on 45-degree nights with just a base layer underneath,” said one tester after a 7-day trip in the Grand Canyon. The snug-fitting insulated hood—an unusual feature for a vest—and the tall, fleece-lined collar boosted warmth, and the waist drawcord sealed out sneaky drafts. Testers found the fit—which is trim around the torso and long enough to cover the hips—ideal for wearing under a shell jacket or as an outer layer. And it stuffs down to about the size of an orange. $139; 4-16 (w's); 11 oz. (w's medium). (866) 875-8689; isisforwomen.com.

SHELLS

Affordable Technology


OUTDOOR RESEARCH FURIO/ENIGMA

If the idea of shelling out 500 bucks for a rain jacket gives you sticker shock, but you still covet the latest in waterproof/breathable technology, the men's Furio/women's Enigma may solve your dilemma. It has Gore-Tex Pro Shell in the shoulders, upper back, and arms—where durability and weather-resistance are needed most—and Gore-Tex Paclite in the torso. To improve airflow, zippered side vents extend from the armpit to the bottom hem of the jacket. "The venting options are limitless,” said one tester. "I could just open it up an inch or unzip all the way like a poncho.” The jacket easily shed heavy wind and rain and thorny brush on a weeklong San Juan River kayaking trip. The adjustable sculpted hood earned praise: "It moved easily with my head, allowing good visibility but still plenty of protection against blowing rain and snow,” reported one tester. However, testers who used the jacket on aerobic hikes up the snowy slopes of the San Francisco Peaks on the Weatherford Trail said that, although the Furio and Enigma are as weatherproof as the pricier 100 percent Gore Pro Shell jackets tested, they were not as breathable $280; S-XL (m's); XS-XL (w's); 18 oz. (m's medium). (800) 421-2421; orgear.com.

Best Female Fit

ISIS SHASTINA

Don't be fooled by this shell's good looks and soft feel. Our testers climbed to the top of Mount Humphreys and hiked to the bottom of the Grand Canyon wearing this jacket, encountering wind, rain, and snow along the way. It's tough, versatile, absolutely weatherproof, and the proprietary nylon stretches for maximum comfort. We appreciated the helmet-compatible, rollaway hood, the long, zippered side vents, and the articulated elbows, as well as the princess seams and sporty contrasting stripes. Testers unanimously praised the Shastina's "just right” fit, which is slim and contoured enough to be flattering but still roomy enough to layer a sweater underneath. One minor complaint: The narrow Velcro strips on the cuffs easily come undone. $219; 4-16 (w's); 16 oz. (medium). (866) 875-8689; isisforwomen.com.

Pennypincher's Choice

L.L. BEAN TRAIL MODEL

For fair-weather hikers who need just-in-case rain protection, this no-frills jacket is a viable option that costs less than a movie and a steak dinner. Made from a proprietary coated nylon, it proved waterproof in sudden downpours and steady, light rain, but one tester reported getting wet after an extended thunderstorm in the San Francisco Peaks. The Trail Model has a beefy front storm flap and a smooth running two-way zipper. Mesh hand pocket vents allow moderate airflow in the absence of pit zips, but our testers noted that when the vents were zipped shut against rain, the jacket felt clammy. The hood adjusts via a Velcro strip on the back and two side cinch cords, but testers complained that the cords lack a locking mechanism and gradually came loose. The Trail Model proved durable and didn't tear when testers bushwhacked through dense brush and slid down jagged boulders in northern Arizona's Sycamore Canyon. The roomy cut favors the big and tall set, or people who like to pile on the insulating layers. $59; S-XXL (m's); S-XL (w's); 15 oz. (w's large). (800) 441-5713; llbean.com.

Rugged and Affordable

WHITE SIERRA TEK RAINWEAR

Given the price, testers were surprised at how bombproof this jacket is. The proprietary fabric was impenetrable in pounding rain and snow in northern Arizona mountains and southern Utah deserts; one tester even stood under a 70-foot tall waterfall in the Grand Canyon for 15 minutes and no moisture seeped through. Wide storm flaps protect the front zipper and the pit zips. And the outer shell is made from super brawny 70 denier ripstop nylon inter-woven with a crosshatch of reinforcement threads that's warmer and more durable than similarly priced shells. The shaped hood has three elastic cords for precise cinching, and drawcords at the waist and hemline seal out drafts. Spacious fit in the arms and torso accommodated extra layers when it was cold and blowing, and the hem is long for extra butt coverage. While the Sierra Tek has a free-hanging mesh liner that is supposed to boost breathability, testers thought it only added extra weight and felt clammy in warmer temperatures.$100; M-XXL (m's); S-XL (w's); 19 oz. (w's large). (800) 980-8688; whitesierra.com.