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Gear Reviews

Sweet Layers: Stay Warm, Stay Cool, Stay Outside

Behold, the year's best new base layers.

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Sorry, this edible version of Mountain Hardwear’s Thermostatic Jacket is not for sale. [photo by Andrew Bydlon. Styling by Megan Hillman. Cake by Cake Crumbs of Denver.]

best base layers - cake jacket
Sorry, this edible version of Mountain Hardwear’s Thermostatic Jacket is not for sale. [photo by Andrew Bydlon. Styling by Megan Hillman. Cake by Cake Crumbs of Denver.]

Someday, we’ll all wear a single layer that insulates in subfreezing temps, repels driving rain and wind, cools us in the heat, wears like iron, and never stinks. But that day is not today. Until then, we recommend the winners of our 2015 apparel test. We selected these standouts from 100-plus candidates that saw eight months of abuse from Washington’s Cascades to New Hampshire’s White Mountains. For now, consider this your new suit of armor—dessert not included.

[wool tee]

Super.NaturalStriped Sport Tee 175
If you could only have one tee in your drawer, this midweight should be it. It blends the best of both worlds, in equal parts: Merino wool foils stink through four-day trips, while polyester speeds dry times, increases durability, and decreases itch. Wearing it while chugging up 5,000 feet to California’s Palisade Glacier, our editor-in-chief felt only faintly damp (and completely dry after five minutes). $65; 5 oz. (m’s M);

Ladies: Try the lightweight, breathable, and itch-free Super.Natural Cap Sleeve Tee 140, $50; 3 oz. (w’s S);

Bargain: Eddie Bauer’s Resolution Short-Sleeve T-Shirt feels like cotton, but uses 100-percent polyester that wicks sweat and dries within 10 minutes. Cut is baggy; size down for a trimmer fit. $30; 4.1 oz. (w’s M);

Warmest: Dynafit’s Transalper Hoodie uses Pontetorto fleece that’s smooth outside and gridded inside, delivering midlayer warmth in a fabric so soft it can be worn next to skin. $129; 9 oz. (m’s M); men’s and women’s;

[lightweight puffy]

photo: Andrew Bydlon
photo: Andrew Bydlon

Mountain Hardwear Thermostatic Jacket
Thin and packable (the size of a grapefruit once it’s stuffed into its own pocket), this puffy delivers surprising warmth. It kept us toasty during winter hikes in Vermont’s Green Mountains. Credit the proprietary Thermal Q synthetic insulation, which imitates goose down by combining stiff, quill-like fibers with softer, air-trapping “plumes.” The tailored fit layers easily beneath a shell, and the high, standup collar seals in core warmth. $200; 8.3 oz. (w’s M);


ExOfficio Give-N-Go Sport Mesh 3” Boxer Brief 
The supremely comfortable, meshy nylon/spandex fabric weave dissipates sweat during hot hikes, and the flat waistband feels smooth beneath a hipbelt. The fabric holds up to months-long use. $28; 2 oz. (m’s M);

Ladies: The Moving Comfort Workout Bikini minimized clamminess, thanks to a ventilating mesh panel at the lower back and fast-wicking nylon fabric. Even better: It doesn’t creep, no matter how we moved. $16; 1 oz. (w’s S);

[bargain fleece]

L.L.Bean Mountain Hoodie

photo by Andrew Bydlon
photo by Andrew Bydlon

This smooth-faced fleece proved every bit as capable as spendier versions: The soft face inside feels cozy and wicked sweat fast enough to keep us comfy through a 3-mile, 45°F climb to Colorado’s Montgomery Pass Yurt. The stretchy blend of polyester and elastane (7 percent) let us reach and twist freely. The close-fitting hood stayed put in 20-mph winds. $59; 14 oz. (m’s L);

Splurge: Fjällräven’s Abisko Fleece Hoodie is warmer (and better looking) than other fleeces we tested, thanks to the plush fabric, deep pockets, and snug hood. “Holy comfort!” says a tester. $250; 1 lb. (m’s M);

best base layers - outdoor research astroman
photo by Andrew Bydlon

[sun shirt]

Outdoor Research Astroman Longsleeve Shirt
“The most comfortable button-down I’ve ever worn,” our tester says of this silky, stretchy collared shirt, which blends spandex (15 percent) with nylon. The drapey fabric doesn’t bind or cling, so it gave him full freedom of movement whether he was backpacking, bike-commuting, or fishing. The upper back is lined with a gridded fabric that wicks sweat fast—testers only felt drippy hiking in 95° temps. UPF 50 sun protection and a stand-up collar (it snaps together at the front to stay in place) shield intense rays. Bonus: Seven months of wear resulted in only scant pilling under the arms. $85; 7 oz. (L);

Ladies: The UPF 40 Columbia Women’s PFG Tamiami II Long Sleeve Shirt cooled us on 90°F hikes in Dinosaur National Monument, thanks to mesh panels on the upper back that let body heat out—and breezes in. $45; 5 oz. (S);

[photo : Andrew Bydlon]

best base layers 2015 - opener
[photo: Andrew Bydlon]

[softshell pants]

Black Diamond Alpine Start Hoody
This jacket is so light we even wore it as sun protection in mid-70°F temps in California’s Desolation Wilderness. During high-output climbs on windy days in Colorado’s Indian Peaks, the stretch-woven softshell repelled gusts without causing overheating. And the Schoeller fabric withstood 20-minute cloudbursts. The hood adjusts with two drawcords and affords excellent peripheral vision. And because the Alpine Start shrinks to sandwich size when stowed into its own chest pocket, we brought it everywhere. $149; 5 oz.;

[softshell pants]

Arc’teryx Psiphon SL Pant
We used these pants for a season of alpine backpacking, desert scrambling, and Fourteener peakbagging. The Psiphon’s nylon fabric (with 11 percent elastane) resisted rain and hail, held its shape though weeklong wear, and stayed scuff-free through it all. The waistband and integrated belt lay flat under a pack’s hipbelt for all-day comfort. $139; 11 oz. (m’s M);

Ladies: The softshell prAna Halle Pant proved stretchy enough for high-step scrambling. Articulated knees facilitate range of motion, and capri-conversion kept us cool in temps above 70°F. We also loved it for its style (snap-flapped back pockets and a jeans-like fit). $70; 12.6 oz. (6);

Prefer shorts? The lightweight, breathable Helly Hansen Jotun QuickDry Cargo Short kept us comfortable on steamy, 90°F hikes on Virginia’s Appalachian Trail. Durability of the ripstop nylon is tops, and mesh-lined pockets provide extra ventilation. $50; 8 oz. (m’s M);

Complete the system with the Editors’ Choice Award-winning La Sportiva Synthesis Mid GTX.

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