This post may contain affiliate links.

Best Synthetic Baselayer for Winter Hiking and Backpacking

Winter Hiking is hot work and it's not uncommon for hikers to strip down to their baselayer to avoid overheating and perspiring
Winter Hiking is hot work and it’s not uncommon for hikers to strip down to their baselayer to avoid overheating and perspiring

The function of a baselayer is to keep your skin dry and to wick perspiration up to an insulating mid-layer garment that will keep you warm even though it’s damp. While some people prefer a wool baselayer over a synthetic one because it feels warmer and traps less body odor, wool absorbs water when it gets wet and takes longer to dry.

For highly aerobic activities like winter hiking and backpacking, where you’re on the move most of the time, synthetic baselayers are the way to go because they’re very effective at transferring water away from your skin up into your insulating mid-layer. After years of trying different baselayers, my all-time favorite synthetic baselayer remains Patagonia Capilene, made using Polartec Power Dry.

Polartec Power Dry is made using two different synthetic yarns that are knitted together to form what they call a bi-component knit or dual layer garment. The inner yarn absorbs perspiration from your skin, which is in turn absorbed by the second outer yarn, pulling the moisture through the garment. The overall effect is like adding a thin absorbent layer between your baselayer and your mid-layer to better facilitate the transfer of moisture between them. It works real well!

Here are 2 Patagonia baselayer garments that I highly recommend for winter hiking and backpacking that use Polartec Power Dry. While you can usually find Patagonia base layers on sale if you shop around (which is how I buy them), other manufacturers have adopted the fabric including REI, Marmot, Outdoor Research, Mammut, Millet, LL Bean, Cabela’s,and Black Diamond. Make sure you check that they’re made with Polartec Power Dry though, because some brands only make a subset of their garments with it.

Note: Patagonia renamed the Capilene baselayer product line in 2015 to bring it in line with the warmth ratings used by other manufacturers. The garments themeselves have not changed though. Items named Capilene 1 or Capilene Silkweight are now called Capilene Daily, Capilene 2 has been renamed Capilene Lightweight, Capilene 3 is called Capilene Midweight, and Capilene 4 is called Capilene Thermal-Weight.
Patagonia Capilene Lightweight
Patagonia Capilene Lightweight

Patagonia Capilene Lightweight Crew

Patagonia’s Capilene Lightweight Long Sleeve Crew (formerly Capilene 2) is my go-to base layer for all of my winter hikes down to about 10 degrees, layered under a 100 weight fleece midlayer 1/4 zip pullover and a hard shell jacket. I’ve been known to strip down to it when we’re climbing high angle trails up to treeline with all of our mountaineering gear in our packs. It keeps me cool and dries rapidly in the cold winter air. I like the long sleeve crew cut the best, although Patagonia makes a zip-neck version as well.

Patagonia Capilene 3 Midweight. jpg
Patagonia Capilene 3 Midweight. jpg

Patagonia Capilene Midweight Crew

When it gets really cold out and the temperature drops under 10 degrees, I switch to the heavier Patagonia Capilene Midweight Crew because it’s much warmer. This is for seriously cold hikes, although we usually draw the line at 20 below zero and stay home on those days. I still use a 100 weight fleece pullover as a mid-layer on cold winter hikes, but I will layer up with an insulated vest under my shell layer if I get chilled. These temperatures are pretty brutal to hike in, but you can stay safe if you have the right hats, gloves, insulated boots and bring plenty of hot drinking water along.


Proven Track Record

I’ve been using Patagonia baselayer garments for over 10 years (see Patagonia Capilene Baselayers, a post I wrote about them in 2008) and can’t recommend them highly enough.They’re super durable, easy to wash and dry, and I still use every Capilene shirt and long john I’ve ever bought to this day.

Disclosure: Philip Werner has purchased all of his Patagonia Capilene baselayers with his own funds. 


  1. I love merino wool base layers.

  2. Love Capilene! Wicks great. Use it for hiking and trail running in winter.

  3. I’m gonna look for Capilene as my next base. I’ve been using plain old 100% nylon/synthetic gym shirts like Champion and other sport brands like Adidas.

  4. My favorite layering is the Daily long sleeve T over a medium weight Merino blend. The Patagonia Daily Tee has just enough “bagginess” to slide on the merino to discourage binding but still trap the warmth. I top it all off with a down sweater. I live in SoCal so I am talking no temperatures much below freezing.

  5. I am a big fan of cap 4 / thermal. The grid pattern is very air permeable. So without a wind shirt I can be as squarely comfortable with zipper open and sleeves pushed up into the 60s at moderate activity or high 40s trail running. Put on a wind shirt and I am comfortable backpacking down into the 20s while active. Huge comfort range without layer on and off.

    • Mark – Great to hear from you!

      I’ve been lusting after the Cap 4 thermal for a while, so I think I’ll go ahead and get one. I’ve been thinking it would be a good analog to a soft-shell without the weight.

  6. Re: Capilene baselayer
    LL Bean claimed in a past catalog their review of base layers was a complete review. After my communications with them, I learned that they did not include polypropylene. Did you? I recently noted a large number of base layers provided in a running magazine. None indicated the use of polypropylene. Polypropylene has the best price/performance of any of the materials used. Yes, you can add the stink factor, but you cannot ignore the price of about $12.00 for a crew neck long sleeve shirt versus $50 and over for both wool and polyester based products. Are we talking about the glamour of wearing a manufacturer’s logo or spiffy design? In most cases you don’t see the base layer. Absurd the pricing of most of the products. It’s not just the price. In my decades of use of polypropylene, it is lighter than the others for moisture wicking and sense of warmth. It drys as quickly or quicker than the others. You might also note that moisture on a base layer is added weight and friction. The moisture adds a frictional bonding to the body limiting motion and thus limiting speed and comfort performance. It’s available in fishnet form although at substantially higher cost. Wool is an excellent second layer, trusting the weight of the product and weave supports sufficient dead air space. The material weight, dead air space, wicking and insulating properties of a material determine performance for a base layer in my opinion as well the opinion that polypropylene is the best base layer and has always been so.

  7. I dont think there is any difference between poly-pro polyester as far as insulating properties. Plastic fiber is plastic fiber. There are other reasons why poly-pro fell out of favor. It really stinks. It doesnt last as long, it wears faster. There isnt any compelling reason to pick poly-pro over polyester fiber.

    • I’ll weigh in here. The material is less important than the fabric. Capilene works the way it does because there are two different yarns woven together with surface characteristics designed to wick and dry. Some blended wool/synthetic garments have similar wicking and evaporation characteristics. Thats my 2 cents.

  8. My reference to polypro was not related to insulating property, but to the efficient properties described. It’s price/performance is undeniable. I noted the stink factor and polyester is roughly equal in that department. The French have a saying: “To each his own.” Dismiss polypro as you wish, but decades of usage and comparing it to Capilene, a polyester and various polyester hybrids tells me its’ the best.;

  9. The pricey Patagonia Capilene garment is about design too. Patagonia has sleeve to thumb loops that keep the garment sleeve down over the wrist/back of hand. Patagonia has a hooded version in level 4. The hood and neck coverage is like having a balaclava sewn in.
    Capalene wants to fit smug so it’s air cells exchange ( hold & release ) body heat. I wear a polypropylene UV dingy sailing long sleeve shirt.

  10. A small correction re Patagonia’s Capilene line. While the Silkweight has indeed been superseded by the Capilene Daily (which adds more stretch), the Capilene Lightweight does not replace Capilene 2; it’s a new product altogether – in fact much lighter than the Silkweight/Daily fabric (2.3 oz vs. 4 oz fabric weight). The old Capilene 1-2-3-4 are now Capilene Lightweight-Daily-Midweight-Thermal weight.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *