Damian Hall Reviews Baselayers for Walking

By Damian Hall

We test the best baselayers for summer and autumn hiking.

Cotton kills! …Okay, that’s bit alarmist, in this country at least (not so in the Polar Regions), but cotton soaks up water – sweat, rain and tears – and holds onto it, cooling you down.

When it’s totally scorching that might be some help, but most of the time the experience could be slightly uncomfortable, or if you really get into trouble in a Lakeland storm, it could tip you over the edge into hypothermia. More realistically, for most hikers, it also increases the chances of chafes, blisters and other discomforts. So when it comes to base layers, i.e. any layer that will be next to your skin, cotton is best seen as kind of evil and should be avoided.ddwdwd CC Taken by Kimberly Vardeman

So what’s the alternative? When we hike, particularly if there are hills involved, there’s a likelihood of sweating and we’ll be more comfortable if a baselayer can ventilate well, wick sweat away and dry quickly. Odour-combatting properties are a bonus if we’re going to the pub for lunch, but above all, we simply want comfort.

What to look for:

Broadly speaking there are two main types of fabric: merino wool (such as the SmartWool example here) and synthetic fabrics (all the others), which are usually called something beginning with ‘poly’, such as polyester or Polygiene. Again broadly speaking, synthetics tend to be better at wicking sweat, ventilating and drying, but as a result are less resistant to odours – and are cheaper. Its natural rival – the merino wool – wicks less well but also honks less.

Personally, for all seasons except winter, I look for something that feels comfortable and light, and has ventilation panels (often quite subtle, but separate panels usually with holes in to aid breathability) and ideally looks half trendy for the inevitable post-hike pub stop.

Thankfully baselayers are largely jargon-free and the codes used are usually fairly easy to guess, such as SS (short sleeve) and HZ (half zip).

Here are five baselayers that I’ve been using for most of this year, all over the country; on the South West Coast Path, the Cotswolds and Brecon Beacons, the West Highland Way and the Lake District. I’m the perfect tester for these, because I’m a sweaty bugger.

Hadrian's Wall Path in Spring: Hadrian's WayRab Aeon Tee

Price: £28
Weight: 84g
Women’s version? Yes

Made with a combination of polyester and Polygiene, the Aeon’s material is silky to the touch, but feels even better when worn – in fact it makes you feel cool, in both senses of the word. Rab call it a “light-weight, performance-fit base layer”, meaning it’s better aesthetically suited to those who spend more time on the hills than in the pub. It’s designed for general outdoor use and indeed I’ve worn it for both running and hiking, where in both cases its wicking and quick-drying properties have been excellent. Like the best baselayers nowadays, it also looks perfectly acceptable in social scenarios too.
The only criticism is that it’s a fairly delicate material; a brief experiment by our boisterous kitten led to several threads hanging off it.

Pros: Feels silky, looks classy, works wonders.
Cons: Less robust than some.
Verdict: An excellent option that feels good and works well.
Star rating: 9/10

Hadrian's Wall Path in Spring: Hadrian's WayColumbia Titan Ice Short Sleeve Shirt

Price: £28-40
Weight: N/A (estimated 70g)
Women’s version? Yes

In truth, if we’re to nitpick, the Columbia’s Titan Ice doesn’t look as instantly desirable as Rab’s Aeon. But it feels lighter, airier and works even better at wicking away sweat and keeping the wearer cool. In fact, look closely and the whole thing is riddled with holes – in a good way, rather than like string vest Alf Garnet might have eyed – but then it also has some more breathable panels too. It works superbly. Again, it’s really good for running in as well.

Pros: Best in class for wicking and breathability.
Cons: Could be more stylish.
Verdict: A really effective, superb option for summer hiking.
Star rating: 9/10

Hadrian's Wall Path in Spring: Hadrian's WaySmartWool PhD Ultra Light S/S T-shirt

Price: £40
Weight: N/A (estimated 120g)
Women’s version? Yes

I was worried this merino wool top would be scratchy as some can be, but it’s anything but. Stretchy material makes it forget-you’re-wearing-it comfortable. There’s something reassuring and wholesome about wearing natural fibres too. Mesh panels aid breathability while flatlock seams reduce the chance of chafing. It does hold onto liquid a little longer than other non-natural fibres here, but it’s marginal and in summer that’ll help cool you down. Also, if you do get caught in a sudden downpour, wool will keep much of its warmth-making properties whereas all the others here won’t. These tops look great too. I find myself sticking this on at the weekend, whether I've any hiking planned or not.

Pros: Stylish, breathable, comfy.
Cons: Expensive compared to others here.
Verdict: Excellent comfy, breathable, natural-material option.
Star rating: 9/10

Hadrian's Wall Path in Spring: Hadrian's WayBerghaus Men’s Tech Tee Short Sleeve Crew Neck

Price: £20
Weight: 160g
Women’s version? Yes

When did T-shirt names get so long? Anyway, this is a more basic option, but still represents good value for money. I’ve worn a few Berghaus baselayers made from Argentium and Polygiene fabrics and this one is lovely and comfy on the skin, and it even has the mysterious ability to make the wearer feel cooled down. It’s great at wicking too and surprisingly good at not getting smelly, with subtle underarm ventilation panels no doubt helping there. It also works just as well for running; a top top overall.

Pros: Comfy cool material with great wicking.
Cons: Heavier and a loose fit for us skinnier types.
Verdict: A versatile, value-for-money option.
Star rating: 8/10

Hadrian's Wall Path in Spring: Hadrian's WaySalomon Agile NZ SS Tee

Price: £35
Weight: 135g
Women’s version? Yes

Salomon are renowned for their lightweight, breathable and very desirable clobber, and this item is no different. It’s designed primarily for running, but if you’re heading for a hearty yomp in the fells this tee will suit just fine, especially in warmer months. A half-zip allows superior temperature regulation and there’s a really neat, secret little key pocket, plus subtle reflective strips and bits for when walking on roadsides at dusk. It also wicks and dries excellently. The design is perhaps a little sporty for some, but it’s hard to find fault otherwise.

Pros: Half -zip, pocket, light and breathable.
Cons: Aimed more at runners than hikers.
Verdict: Excellent for fast packer, runner or peak bagger.
Star rating: 8/10

Damian Hall is an outdoor journalist who’s completed many of the world’s famous and not-so-famous long-distance walks, including Everest Base Camp trek for his honeymoon. The tea-loving hillbilly is the author of the official Pennine Way guide and his newest book, Long Distance Walking in Britain, is out soon. There’s plenty more self-aggrandising hogwash on Twitter (@damo_hall) and at www.damianhall.info.

Originally published 27/09/16

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