What is Are Base Layers? Everything You Need to Know

Base layers are an essential piece of outdoor and sporting apparel that helps you stay comfortable during exercise or in challenging conditions. They regularly incorporate the latest textile technology, such as anti-odor protection from Polygiene StayFresh™, and come in an almost endless array of designs. With this in mind, we created a comprehensive guide to base layers that covers when to use them, types of materials, what technology to look out for, and why they are so effective.

People with base layers

What is a base layer?

A base layer refers to a layer of clothing that is designed to manage moisture, regulate body temperature, and provide comfort. Base layers are commonly used in outdoor activities, sports, and cold weather conditions. Often, the term refers to the piece of clothing you wear closest to the skin, but it can also sometimes refer to mid-layers.

When are base layers used?

We use base layers during sports or activities where moisture management and temperature regulation are crucial. This includes but is not limited to:

  • Cold-weather sports and activities, such as skiing, snowboarding, skating, ice hockey, and winter hiking.
  • Watersports, such as kayaking and canoeing.
  • Team sports like football, rugby and hockey.
  • Endurance sports and activities, including running and cycling. 
  • Fitness activities and gym work.
Arc’teryx Rho LT zip-neck performance base layer

Reasons to use a base layer 

Using a base layer serves several purposes, and it is a critical piece of equipment in all the sports listed above. The main reasons to use a base layer include:

  • Moisture management

Base layers usually wick moisture away from the skin and transfer sweat to the outer layers of clothing. This ensures the body stays dry and comfortable during physical activity. 

  • Temperature regulation

They are extremely effective thermoregulators. In cold weather, they provide necessary insulation by trapping and retaining body heat. In warm weather, they allow moisture to evaporate, which has a cooling effect.

  • Comfort

Base layers are made from carefully selected materials that are soft and comfortable on the skin. Usually, they are based on a tight fit and avoid protruding seams. This helps to prevent chafing and encourages complete freedom of movement. Anti-chafing qualities are particularly important for athletes competing in endurance sports.

  • Effective layering

Layering is arguably the most effective and efficient system when it comes to regulating your temperature. It involves wearing numerous thinner layers rather than one or two thick layers, allowing you to add or remove items to manage temperature more accurately. Air trapped between the layers also insulates, helping you stay warm. Base layers are the first layer in this multi-tiered approach. They are the foundation on top of which you add extra layers.

  • Anti-odor protection

The best base layers incorporate antimicrobial technologies that inhibit the growth of odor-causing bacteria. This keeps the base layer fresh for longer, reducing the amount you need to wash it and enhancing product longevity and sustainability. 

  • Improved performance

In many sports, managing your temperature has a significant impact on success. For instance, in cycling, higher temperatures result in lower sustained power output due to reduced muscle recruitment (ECU). Consequently, base layers that help athletes thermo-regulate effectively can help to maintain and improve performance in unfavorable conditions. By keeping the body comfortable, they also enable athletes to focus on their performance without distraction.

  • Versatility

Base layers are highly versatile and regularly worn in various sports and disciplines. While you can buy sport-specific layers that emphasize different performance qualities to match the intended activity, general base layers do a fantastic job of providing benefits in a diverse range of conditions and physical activities.

  • Quick-dry

Base layers are usually quick-drying, making them a practical choice if caught in sudden rain or wet conditions. This is mainly due to the materials used in base layers, which favor quick-drying synthetic fabrics or merino wool. It also means they do not require much time on the drying line after washing.

  • Wind chill protection

Finally, base layers take the edge off the wind and are an effective barrier. It is one of the main reasons we wear them during cold, windy, and wintry conditions. As they are thin, you can wear them under jerseys or kits without causing discomfort or bulking athletes out too much.

The GripGrab Ride Thermal Long Sleeve Base Layer

Types of base layer clothing

They come in a diverse array of designs, and selecting the right product can be challenging. On a basic level, users can purchase base layers for both the upper and lower body. They come in short and long-sleeved versions and are manufactured for use in different climates and environments. Some of the key distinctions include:

Thickness and weight

Base layers range from lightweight layers well-suited for summer use to thermal base layers that keep you warm in sub-zero temperatures. Generally, lightweight layers are suitable for high-intensity activities and warmer weather. They will prioritize moisture-wicking properties. Midweight mid-layers balance insulation and moisture management and occupy the middle ground. In other words, they are suitable for a range of temperate conditions. Finally, heavyweight thermal base layers are for cold conditions and activities where enjoyment or performance depends on extra insulation.

Body fit

There is also an essential distinction between form-fitting designs that hug the body closer and looser fits. While the former typically guarantees better insulation and moisture-wicking performance, the latter works well if you want to wear the base layer over other items or are uncomfortable in a tight-fitting design.

Specialized designs

If you want a base layer for a specific purpose, consider a specialized design. For instance, compression base layers feature an ultra-snug fit that supports muscles, improves circulation, and works to reduce fatigue during high-impact activities. Alternatively, heat-generating base layers are manufactured using advanced materials that help you retain as much heat as possible, making them ideally suited to extreme cold and winter sports.

The different base layer materials

Manufacturers utilize various materials for base layers. Each fabric has advantages and disadvantages. Generally, base layers fall into one of three fabric categories – synthetics, natural fibers, or blends.

Synthetic fabrics

This category includes polyester, nylon, and spandex, among others. Polyester is lightweight, quick-drying, and boasts good moisture-wicking properties. It is particularly popular for high-intensity activities and in warmer climates. Polyester is often less expensive than natural fiber alternatives. Nylon is usually more durable than polyester and other synthetics. It is also abrasion-resistant. You will often find nylon blended with other synthetics to make them a little tougher. Finally, spandex, often known as Lycra or elastane, has excellent stretch and is highly flexible. As a result, manufacturers integrate it into base layers intended for sports where freedom of movement is a priority.

Natural fibers

With natural fibers, merino wool is the undisputed king of base layer materials. It is popular for its natural moisture-wicking qualities, excellent temperature regulation, and naturally odor-resistant construction. It is soft, comfortable, and hard-wearing, too. Bamboo has become increasingly common in recent years, as it boasts brilliant moisture-wicking properties and some antibacterial qualities. Generally, athletes want to avoid cotton in base layers, as it absorbs moisture. This results in poor thermo-regulation and a heavy, clunky feel.

Synthetic/natural blends

You will also often find base layers made from synthetic/natural fiber blends. Coupling merino wool with spandex means you enjoy the natural benefits of wool and the elasticity of spandex. A merino-polyester blend makes for a quick-drying, moisture-wicking base layer that guarantees good performance in warm weather.

Merino wool vs synthetic fabrics – the great debate

Ask athletes or outdoors enthusiasts which is best, merino or synthetics, and you will likely get a 50/50 split. Some people prefer synthetics, while others swear by merino. The reality is that the materials excel in different ways. For instance, synthetics come out trumps when it comes to moisture-wicking, while merino provides more warmth, particularly if your base layer gets wet. Synthetics are typically more durable (though blends come very close), and comfort is entirely personal, with some preferring the feel of wool and others finding it irritates the skin. In other words, there is no clear winner. It all comes down to context and personal preference.

If you want to learn more about the merino vs synthetics debate and how they match up performance-wise, check out this excellent guide from Polygiene partners Stone Glacier.

The Pedroc Dry Long Sleeve Tee from Salewa

Polygiene StayFresh™ – innovative base layer technology 

As we become increasingly aware of the impact clothes manufacturing has on the environment, the need to develop more sustainable and environmentally friendly outdoor products and base layers has become more pressing. In this respect, Polygiene StayFresh™ has been a significant development. Utilizing silver ion technology, Polygiene StayFresh provides antimicrobial protection, preventing the growth of odor-causing bacteria and ensuring apparel stays fresher for longer. 

Fresher-for-longer base layers are beneficial for several reasons:

  • Sustainability – when clothes stay smell-free for longer, you can wash them less frequently. This reduces their environmental impact, saves energy and valuable natural resources, and extends the product’s expected lifespan.
  • Feel better and more confident – we often wear base layers during intense activity. This makes them sweaty and smelly and makes us feel self-conscious and uncomfortable. Odor-control technology prevents this by eliminating the smells at the source.
  • Improved performance – many people wear the same base layer over several days, particularly if participating in a multi-day activity. Odor-control technology makes this much easier and more comfortable.
Montane Dart baselayer with Polygiene StayFresh technology

Ten best base layer clothing products

If you are looking for an excellent base layer and need some inspiration, take a look at our top ten industry-leading base layers. 

A long-sleeve base layer that combines high-tech functionality with the natural comfort of merino wool. This is a high-performance garment that continues to deliver even in extremely cold weather.

A crew neck long-sleeve base layer made from merino wool and intended for technical use. It is an excellent option if you are looking for a base layer suitable for winter aerobic activities.

ARC’TERYX is known for manufacturing premium technical clothing, and this base layer is no exception – a fantastic option for skiing, snowboarding, and ski touring.

Another base layer manufactured for skiing and snowboarding activities, this is a protective design that doesn’t restrict movement.

A wonderfully versatile go-to option for all winter activities, including cycling, running, and even skiing. Featuring a two-layer blended fabric mix, it provides outstanding thermal regulation, a super soft feel, and fantastic wicking capabilities.

An effective shield that will protect you against ferocious winter winds. This is the ultimate long-sleeve base layer for challenging weather conditions.

La Sportiva makes several mid-layers that are ideal for skiing and mountaineering. You can find them at the above link.

The Montane Dart Lite is a lightweight, long-sleeved technical base layer made using recyclable materials. A warm insulation layer, it is also highly breathable and wicks moisture away from the skin efficiently. 

A long-sleeved technical base layer made from a hybrid blend of fabrics, this base layer was put through its paces in the Dolomites and boasts first-class moisture management.

Polygiene technology means better base layers

Polygiene partners with outdoor and sports manufacturers worldwide to ensure their products benefit from Polygiene StayFresh’s industry-leading antibacterial odor control. All of the base layers listed above feature Polygiene StayFresh technology, ensuring enhanced performance while being more sustainable and environmentally friendly.

To learn more about our groundbreaking textile technology, head to the Polygiene StayFresh solution page or reach out to the Polygiene team.