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Review: The Best Base Layers and Shorts For Hiking, Trail Running, and Training

Posted On February 11, 2017 at 4:05 am by / Comments Off on Review: The Best Base Layers and Shorts For Hiking, Trail Running, and Training

Arc’teryx Satoro AR Zip Neck LS

Arc’teryx Satoro AR Zip Neck LS, at Mount Whitney, California.

By Michael Lanza

Let’s admit it: We don’t always take our base layers as seriously and we do our outerwear and insulation—or boots and other gear, for that matter. But this under-appreciated first stage in a layering system for the outdoors really sets the table for how comfortable you’ll be. Base layers that don’t perform well probably won’t kill you, but misery isn’t a good companion. This is what we wear against our skin. It matters.

Light- and medium-weight T-shirts and long-sleeve tops are the most versatile because you can layer them in a wider range of temperatures to keep you drier and cooler, but fabrics and design features of tops and shorts affect their temperature range and the activities for which they’re comfortable.

 

A Word About Synthetic Versus Wool

We all know that synthetic fabrics wick moisture and dry quickly, while wool keeps you warm even once it’s wet. My experience with dozens of base layers is that both types keep getting better. Modern synthetics are getting lighter and more efficient at moving moisture; I prefer lightweight synthetic base layers for high-intensity activities in warm temperatures, and midweight synthetics for moderate-intensity activities in cool temps. But synthetics can get sweat-soaked (leaving you cold on cool days) and stinky. Wool—which today basically means Merino wool—keeps getting softer and more comfortable, and I find myself wearing it more often, for virtually any activity, in a wider range of conditions than I ever did before. It breathes as well as any fabric; doesn’t dry as quickly as synthetics, but keeps you warm, anyway; and won’t develop odors. But the lightest Merino wool tops aren’t always as durable as synthetics.

After much testing from the trails to the gym and the mountains in winter, the long-sleeve tops, T-shirts, and shorts reviewed here are the best I’ve found for hiking with a pack on, trail running, and training. And you’ll find many of them at sale prices right now.

 

Most Versatile

Smartwool PhD Ultra Light Short Sleeve

Smartwool PhD Ultra Light Short Sleeve

Smartwool PhD Ultra Light Short Sleeve
$70, 4 oz. (men’s medium)
Sizes: men’s S-XXL
backcountry.com
Smartwool PhD Light Long Sleeve
$85, 7 oz. (men’s medium)
Sizes: men’s S-XL, women’s XS-XL
backcountry.com

This pair proved to be the most temperature-versatile tops of this field, and the ones I pulled on most often for everything from hiking, backpacking, biking, and trail running to hanging out at home. On several occasions, I wore the short sleeve version on consecutive days of sweaty hiking, cycling, and gym workouts because it dries so fast and is stink resistant. Dayhiking and backpacking in May in the Panamint Range of Death Valley National Park, I wore it alone in temps ranging from the 60s to the low 80s, and under the long-sleeve version on a dayhike of 11,049-foot Telescope Peak, highest in DVNP, when the temp ranged from 29° F to the low 40s. Even wet with perspiration, these tops trapped warmth on windy afternoons.

Smartwool PhD Light Long Sleeve

Smartwool PhD Light Long Sleeve

Made with a lightweight Merino wool and polyester blend, both tops feel soft against skin. Mesh panels located under the arms and across the back in the short sleeve and on the sides in the long sleeve enhance breathability—the short sleeve didn’t feel hot on long uphill rides in warm sunshine. The short sleeve’s lighter fabric dried before I got home from some bike rides. The semi-form fit of both is athletic enough to help wick moisture, but not super-hero tight, allowing complete freedom of motion. The long sleeve has the warmth for cool, shoulder-season hikes or trail runs, but it receives one demerit: The crew collar leaves your neck exposed to cold temps and wind.

BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking either of these links to purchase a Smartwool PhD Ultra Light Short Sleeve at backcountry.com or a Smartwool PhD Light Long Sleeve at backcountry.com.

Arc’teryx Satoro AR Zip Neck LS

Arc’teryx Satoro AR Zip Neck LS

Arc’teryx Satoro AR Zip Neck LS
$139, 8 oz. (men’s medium)
Sizes: men’s S-XXL, women’s XS-XL
backcountry.com

I wore this midweight, 180g Merino wool long-sleeve (often over a close-fitting, short-sleeve T-shirt) for most of a four-day, April climb of the Mountaineers Route on California’s Mount Whitney, where we had sunshine every day mixed at times with strong, cold wind. On springtime trail runs of up to 12 miles in the Boise Foothills, wearing it alone or over a lightweight, long-sleeve base layer in temps ranging from the low 40s to the 50s, it kept me warm even in cold wind and when damp with sweat. It shines for high-exertion activities in cool to cold conditions and highly variable weather.

The Satoro AR is made with Nucliex STR 180 wool, whose production involves wrapping 18.3-micron Merino fibers around a nylon filament, marrying the properties of wool (soft, warm when wet, odor resistant) with the strength and durability of the nylon core—particularly important with lightweight wool, which tends to tear more easily. Arc’teryx claims that manufacturing process makes the fabric 20 percent stronger in burst strength and 50 percent more abrasion resistant. The fit is trim and close, which helps with wicking and makes it not quite as warm as a looser-fitting top because there’s fewer air pockets. The tall collar kept cold wind off my neck, and the deep front zipper let me ventilate under a hot, alpine sun reflecting off snow. Seams are low profile for comfort, and the gusseted armpits and articulated sleeves all full freedom of movement. There’s also an AR Crew ($119), AR Bottom ($109), and AR Boxer ($59).

BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking either of these links to purchase a men’s Arc’teryx Satoro AR Zip Neck LS at backcountry.com or a women’s Satoro AR Zip Neck LS at moosejaw.com.

 

The North Face Men’s Warm Long-Sleeve Zip Neck

The North Face Men’s Warm Long-Sleeve Zip Neck

Best Value

The North Face Men’s Warm Long-Sleeve Zip Neck
$60, 8 oz. (men’s medium)
Sizes: men’s S-XXL, women’s XS-XL
backcountry.com

Wearing this long-sleeve top for three straight days of backcountry skiing in the mountains above Lake Tahoe in early February, I found it warm for its weight, while still moving moisture and drying as fast as the best midweight synthetic tops. While skinning uphill, I wore only a soft-shell jacket or light insulation layer over it in strong wind or falling snow, and this top alone in calmer conditions. Despite hours of sweating into it day after day, the top never got very smelly or so sweat-soaked that I wouldn’t wear it again the next day.

I found it comfortable and highly functional as a base layer or worn over a very lightweight, long-sleeve wool base layer. TNF’s HyActive fabric, with hollow-core, air-brushed fibers, traps heat efficiently and dries so quickly from body heat that I finished full days of backcountry skiing with a dry shirt against my torso. The high collar kept chilly air off my neck, and the front zipper opens deeply enough for venting excess heat. It’s ideal for almost any moderate- or high-intensity activity—hiking, running, skiing—in cool to cold temps.

BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking either of these links to purchase a men’s The North Face Men’s Warm Long-Sleeve Zip Neck at backcountry.com, or a women’s The North Face Men’s Warm Long-Sleeve Zip Neck at backcountry.com.

Patagonia Merino Air Crew

Patagonia Merino Air Crew

Warmest

Patagonia Merino Air Crew
$129, 6.5 oz. (men’s medium)
Sizes: men’s XS-XXL, women’s XXS-XL
patagonia.com

Compress this long-sleeve jersey in your hands and then release it, and it lofts visibly, almost like a down jacket—though it’s much lighter, of course. This seamless base layer is made with Merino Air, a fabric blend of chlorine-free Merino wool blasted with air as it’s spun, and Patagonia’s Capilene recycled polyester. The result is a base layer with the benefits of both fabrics: stretchy, fast-wicking, supremely breathable, very quick to dry, and odor-free.

In temps from below freezing to the 40s Fahrenheit on backpacking trips from Kootenay National Park in the Canadian Rockies in August and Idaho’s White Cloud Mountains in October to Utah’s Dirty Devil River Canyon in March, and a 12-hour, roughly 14-mile and 5,000-foot peak climb and mostly off-trail hike in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains, I found the Merino Air Crew has the warmth of midweight tops that weigh half again as much as it does—and don’t look half as good. The fit is right for wearing it alone or like a light sweater over a lightweight T-shirt or long-sleeve top.

BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to purchase a men’s or women’s Patagonia Merino Air Crew at patagonia.com.

REI Screeline Half-Zip Long-Sleeve

REI Screeline Half-Zip

REI Screeline Half-Zip Long-Sleeve
$60, 7 oz. (men’s medium)
Sizes: men’s S-XXL
rei.com

Functional, basic, and all you really need at a good price—those often seem to be the goals of REI brand products, and this top embodies those objectives. On late-March dayhikes in the desert Southwest, from Utah’s San Rafael Swell to Arizona’s Canyon de Chelly National Monument, this half-zip top delivered the right balance of warmth and wicking ability for temps in the 50s and 60s Fahrenheit and conditions that toggled between warm sunshine and breezy to cool shade. There’s nothing cutting-edge about the fabric, just a workhorse, lightweight polyester, but it moves moisture off skin and dries reasonably quickly, and is rated UPF 30 for sun protection. Shoulders are reinforced for durability under pack straps, for dayhiking or backpacking. The long cut stays put under a pack hipbelt, the high collar covers your neck, and thumbholes in the cuffs add a little warmth for hands.

BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to purchase an REI Screeline Half-Zip Long-Sleeve at rei.com.

 

Patagonia Men’s Lightweight Capilene Crew

Patagonia Men’s Lightweight Capilene Crew

Patagonia Lightweight Capilene Crew
$49, 3.5 oz. (men’s medium)
Sizes: men’s XS-XXL, women’s XXS-XL
backcountry.com

On numerous, long trail runs in wide-ranging temperatures and weather in the Boise Foothills, this wafer-thin long-sleeve was stellar either alone in mild conditions or as a base layer under an ultralight shell or warmer long-sleeve top in wind or cooler temps. Even on runs where I perspired heavily, the Capilene’s wicking ability was never overwhelmed—it kept moving moisture as long as my body was producing heat, so it was never more than damp.

Thumb loops kept my hands partly covered when needed, or I could easily push the sleeves up over my elbows when temps rose. With UPF 35 sun protection, treated for odor control, and Fair Trade Certified, this crew top is better for training and aerobic activities like trail running than for wearing with a pack, which might wear out this light fabric quickly.

BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to purchase a men’s or women’s Patagonia Lightweight Capilene Crew at backcountry.com.

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Ibex Woolies 1 S/S

Ibex Woolies 1 S/S

Top Pick T-shirt

Ibex Woolies 1 S/S
$70, 4 oz. (men’s medium)
Sizes: men’s S-XL
backcountry.com

Made from very light and soft, 18.5-micron, 165g Merino wool, with flatlock seams and no-tag labels for no compromise on comfort, this form-fitting T-shirt stretches to move with you and feels like you’ve grown a thin layer of wool rather than put on an article of clothing. It’s ideal alone or as a bottom layer for virtually any activity in all seasons—except, I find, for highly aerobic pursuits in hot temps.

I never took it off, day or night, throughout an overnight backpacking trip in late March in Utah’s Dirty Devil River Canyon, and on a four-day, April climb of the Mountaineers Route on California’s 14,505-foot Mount Whitney: I was comfortable whether in warm sunshine or wearing it under other layers in cold, strong winds, hail, and rain. I also basically lived in it, day and night, on an 80-mile, five-day backpacking trip in the North Cascades National Park Complex in the last week of September, carrying over 35 pounds at times, in mostly dry weather. And trail running in the Boise Foothills in temperatures in the 40s Fahrenheit, I sweated enough to normally soak through my T-shirt; but the Woolies 1 s/s, while damp, kept me warm under a light hoody. The long hem doesn’t ride up out of pants or from under a pack hipbelt when you bend over or lift your arms. Ibex says the ribbed construction makes it more durable than some comparably light tops; it has held up well for me after numerous days of use, including wearing it at home day after day. There’s also a men’s and women’s Woolies 1 Crew long-sleeve ($80, 5.5 oz.).

BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to purchase an Ibex Woolies 1 S/S at backcountry.com or a men’s or women’s Ibex Woolies 1 Crew long-sleeve at backcountry.com.

 

Never get cold again (well, almost never). See my “10 Smarter Ways to Think About Your Layering System

 

Outdoor Research Men's Octane S/S Tee

Outdoor Research Men’s Octane S/S Tee

Outdoor Research Octane S/S Tee
$49, 4 oz. (men’s small)
Sizes: men’s S-XL, women’s XS-L
rei.com

Our bodies don’t release heat uniformly from all parts; otherwise, we’d roll on deodorant over the entire surface of our skin (and never get to work on time). So OR’s Octane Tee has hybrid mapping, with polyester mesh vents under the arms and at the upper back, to let heat and perspiration rise off those primary body vents. Elsewhere, a very light, odor-fighting, plaited fabric blend of polyester and polypropylene breathes and wicks moisture very effectively for highly aerobic activities.

This T-shirt kept me cool and dried remarkably quickly on numerous trail runs of up to 20 miles in temps from the 60s to the 80s, during many gym workouts, and while hiking on hot days. The length extends well below the waist to stay put under a pack belt. Flat-seam construction helps prevent chafing. I’d recommend wearing it with only a hydration/light daypack, not a heavy backpack, which could wear rapidly through the fabric, especially the back mesh. Sizing seems to run slightly large: I normally wear medium, but the men’s small fits me.

BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to purchase a men’s Outdoor Research Octane S/S Tee at rei.com or a women’s Octane S/S Tee at moosejaw.com.

 

Do you like The Big Outside? I’m Michael Lanza, the creator of The Big Outside, recognized as a top outdoors blog by a USA Today Readers Choice poll and others. Get email updates about new stories and free gear giveaways by entering your email address in the box at the bottom of this story, in the left sidebar, or on my About page, and follow my adventures on Facebook and Twitter.

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The North Face Better Than Naked Short-Sleeve

The North Face Better Than Naked Short-Sleeve

The North Face Better Than Naked Short-Sleeve
$50, 3 oz. (men’s medium)
Sizes: men’s S-XXL, women’s XS-XL
backcountry.com

When you need the lightest, fastest-drying T-shirt for hot days, especially for long trail runs or ultra-hikes, this wispy T is the one. On sun-baked trail runs, through the sweatiest gym workouts—and on a dayhike of the 32-mile, 10,000-vertical-foot, nine-summit Pemi Loop in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, in weather ranging from the 60s and light rain to the 80s with sunshine and high humidity—the Better Than Naked Short-Sleeve’s FlashDry polyester-knit fabric dumped dampness faster than any other T-shirt, and almost as fast as I could produce it. The lightest top reviewed here, it uses a fine, polyester mesh on the back for freakish drying speeds. Seams are minimal and placed to avoid chafing. There’s really not much to this T-shirt, which is why it does what it does so well. Save it strictly for training and carrying nothing more than a hydration pack—a heavier pack will wear through this featherweight fabric quickly.

BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to purchase The North Face Better Than Naked T at backcountry.com.

 

WoolPRO Juno

WoolPRO Juno

WoolPRO Juno
$60, 4 oz. (men’s medium)
Sizes: men’s S-XL, women’s XS-XL
woolpro.cc

While dayhiking in the western North Carolina mountains and in Idaho’s Boise National Forest, on sunny and partly cloudy days ranging from the low 50s to around 70 Fahrenheit, this T-shirt gave me a shot of warmth in cool temps—even when damp with sweat—and helped cool me down in hot sun. The lightest wool layer reviewed here, its 135g Merino disperses sweat over a larger area of fabric more efficiently than thicker wool fabrics, causing evaporative cooling while helping the top dry faster; I’d even wear it for gym workouts. And it feels remarkably soft against bare skin.

The athletic fit enhances its wicking and cooling performance without feeling or looking superhero tight. WoolPRO knits and dyes its own anti-bacterial (read: odor-proof), 100 percent Australian Merino wool, which is only used on WoolPRO garments. All WoolPRO base layers feature a low-profile, proprietary stitch called Activeseam. I wear this T-shirt for days on end at home, because of its comfort, and it doesn’t get stinky. Given how light the fabric is, I’d reserve it for running, training, or hiking only with a hydration pack. Two demerits: The short hem sometimes rises up from under a pack belt, and the fabric shows tiny holes from wear and tear (but after several months of frequent use).

 

Minus 33 Chocorua Men’s Midweight Crew

Minus 33 Chocorua Men’s Midweight Crew

Minus 33 Algonquin Men’s Lightweight S/S Crew
$56, 6 oz. (men’s small)
Sizes: men’s XS-6XL, women’s XS-XXL
backcountry.com
Minus 33 Chocorua Men’s Midweight Crew
$66-$76, 9 oz. (men’s small)
Sizes: men’s XS-6XL, women’s XS-XXL
backcountry.com

From a mid-September, 20-mile, trail run-hike and third-class scramble up 10,651-foot Snowyside Peak in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains, in temperatures from the low 40s to around 50 (wearing the Algonquin T-shirt), to summer days of whitewater kayaking on Idaho’s Payette River and cool October mornings hiking in the western North Carolina mountains (wearing the Chocorua long-sleeve), these two wool tops demonstrated their cool-conditions mettle.

Minus 33 Algonquin Men’s Lightweight S/S Crew

Minus 33 Algonquin Men’s Lightweight S/S Crew

The Algonquin’s 170g, 17.5-micron Merino wool kept me warm even when damp, and dried out from body heat as I hiked. And it has a UPF (UV protection) rating of 25. Made with warmer, 230g, 18.5-micron Merino wool, with a UPF rating of 50, the Chocorua doubles as a base or middle layer. Flatlock seams enhance comfort, and antimicrobial properties tamp down stink even after a few days of sweating in these tops. This denser wool isn’t quite as soft as the lighter Merino tops reviewed here, but is more durable. Like me, anyone who’s hiked thousands of miles all over the Northeast will connect with the Minus 33 product names, drawn from the region’s rugged and beloved peaks.

BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking either of these links to buy a Minus 33 Algonquin Men’s Lightweight S/S Crew at backcountry.com, or a Minus 33 Chocorua Men’s Midweight Crew at backcountry.com.

Patagonia Men's Nine Trails Shorts

Patagonia Men’s Nine Trails Shorts

Patagonia Nine Trails Shorts
$65, 7 oz. (men’s small)
Sizes: men’s XS-XL, women’s XS-XL
backcountry.com

These shorts, with an eight-inch inseam, became another favorite for trail runs and warm-weather dayhikes (as well as gym sessions) because the lightweight, 75-denier recycled polyester-spandex fabric breathes well, but is also durable enough for rugged trail use, and has a DWR treatment to repel light rain.

The stretchy, odor-resistant, built-in boxer-brief liner, made with a microdenier polyester, dries quickly, but anyone with big thighs or glutes will find the liner’s fit snug or want to size up. The two zippered hand pockets are mesh lined for ventilation and as large as my open hand; the one zippered rear pocket is big enough for a phone. A drawstring helps secure the waist, but I rarely needed it thanks to the good elasticity in the waistband. Grab these when you need shorts that are cool and dry fast, but also have the convenience of pockets and some durability and water resistance for longer trail runs or hikes.

BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to purchase the Patagonia Nine Trails Shorts at backcountry.com.

 

Smartwool PhD 7” Shorts

Smartwool PhD 7” Shorts

Smartwool PhD 7” Shorts
$65, 4 oz. (men’s small)
Sizes: men’s S-XL, women’s XS-XL
moosejaw.com

This Merino-polyester blend inner brief with a stretch-woven outer short is the lightest short reviewed here and ideal for hot runs and gym workouts. After a stairs machine workout that left me pouring with sweat, the shorts were merely damp. The fabric has not gotten stinky after multiple, sweaty workouts and launderings, either. With a minimalist design—one zippered rear pocket, one side pocket (no closure) about the size of an iPod, a drawcord waist, and a seven-inch inseam in the men’s shorts (three inches in the women’s), these shorts are best for running and training.

BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to purchase the Smartwool PhD 7” Shorts at moosejaw.com.

See all of my reviews of outdoor apparel and trail-running apparel and gear and my stories:

Cranking Out Big Days: How to Ramp Up Your Hikes and Trail Runs
Training For a Big Hike or Mountain Climb
10 Tips For Getting Outside More
What Should I Wear? How to Dress For Outdoor Adventures

NOTE: I tested gear for Backpacker Magazine for 20 years. At The Big Outside, I review only what I consider the best outdoor gear and apparel. See categorized menus of all of my gear reviews at The Big Outside.

 

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