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Review: The Best T-shirts, Tops, and Shorts For Hiking, Trail Running, and Training

Posted On April 14, 2016 at 10:15 am by / Comments Off on Review: The Best T-shirts, Tops, and Shorts For Hiking, Trail Running, and Training

Patagonia Merino Air Crew

Patagonia Merino Air Crew

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. And in warm weather, your base layers are all there is between you and nature’s whim. This is what we wear against our skin. It matters.

Light to medium-weight layers are often the most versatile because they 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. After much testing from the trails to the gym, 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.


Patagonia Merino Air Crew

Patagonia Merino Air Crew

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

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 Patagonia Merino Air Crew at

REI Screenline Half-Zip Long-Sleeve

REI Screenline Half-Zip

REI Screenline Half-Zip Long-Sleeve
$70, 7 oz. (men’s medium)
Sizes: men’s S-XXL

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 Screenline Half-Zip Long-Sleeve at

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Ibex Woolies 1 S/S

Ibex Woolies 1 S/S

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

Made from very light and soft, 18.5-micron 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: I was comfortable whether in warm sunshine or wearing it under a shell in high winds, hail, and rain. 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. Ibex says the ribbed construction makes it more durable than some comparably light tops. 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

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

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 in temps from the 60s up, during 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 an Outdoor Research Octane S/S Tee at

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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

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 and through the sweatiest gym workouts, I found 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

The North Face NSR Dual Short

The North Face NSR Dual Short

The North Face NSR Dual Short
$55, 5 oz. (men’s small)
Sizes: men’s S-XXL

These super light, stretchy, polyester shorts with mesh fabric in the side panels and the gusseted crotch, a liner-brief, and a seven-inch inseam became my number-one pick for trail runs and gym workouts, because they’re so light and comfortable and amazingly quick to wick perspiration and dry out. I finished hilly, sweaty trail runs of up to 10 miles with the shorts almost as dry as when I put them on: Often, the only dampness was on the back of the waistband (a focal point for perspiration), and the liner-brief was basically dry. The elasticized, drawstring waistband remains comfortable under a hydration pack waistbelt or bottle belt. They’re best for trail runs, gym workouts, and ultralight dayhikes or backpacking—although they will be less durable than traditional hiking shorts, and I wish there was at least one zippered pocket in front; there’s just one small, zippered pocket in back. The liner-brief has some compression effect but not like true compression shorts.

BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to purchase The North Face NSR Dual Short at

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

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

See all of my reviews of outdoor apparel and trail-running apparel and gear and my stories:
10 Smarter Ways to Think About Your Layering System
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 all of my reviews by clicking on the Gear Reviews category at left or in the main menu.


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