Wool baselayer garments are warmer than synthetic baselayers, but synthetic baselayers dry more quickly than wool. What are the pros and cons of each and which should you buy for winter hiking, snowshoeing, or skiing?
The Role of a Baselayer in Layered Clothing Systems
When dressing for vigorous winter activities, it’s best to use a layered clothing system consisting of a wicking baselayer than moves perspiration away from your skin, an insulating mid-layer that absorbs the perspiration but still holds in your body heat, and a waterproof/windproof shell layer that keeps external moisture or wind from cooling you.
The purpose of a baselayer top is to move perspiration generated while you’re active away from your skin so it won’t chill you when you take a break and rest. A good baselayer should have a close fit so it can effectively capture moisture, without any seams to chafe or irritate your skin.
If you sweat a lot when you’re active, go with a synthetic baselayer like Patagonia’s Capilene Lightweight Crew Jersey which has a fast-drying porous weave designed to rapidly transport perspiration from your skin up to your mid-layer. While this tops is cooler than wool, they’re quite durable and affordable, and you can wash and dry it a gazillion times without any special care.
If you run cold in winter, try a wool baselayer, since wool feels warmer against your skin. While wool absorbs more moisture than synthetic baselayers and dries more slowly, it is less stinky making it a good choice if you plan on using it for a multi-day hike or tour. Merino Wool baselayers are the softest, and we recommend the Minus33 Ticonderoga Lightweight Crew or the Smartwool Merino 150 if you need a bit more warmth. Wool can be a bit harder to care for however (tumble dry on low) and is less durable over the long haul.
Mix and Match
Can’t decide? Many people buy both wool and synthetic baselayers and switch between them depending on the activity and outside temperature. Others mix and match, going with a wicking synthetic baselayer and a wool mid-layer that doesn’t have to stay dry, because its function is to stay warm when it absorbs perspiration passed to it from your baselayer.
Wool and Synthetic Blends
Still another option is to look at garments that blend wool and synthetic yarns. For instance, we’ve had good luck with the LS Top 175 Baselayer Jersey from a company called Super.natural which blends wool and synthetic materials to create a hybrid form of Merino wool that is comfortable to wear and odor-resistant, while being easier to care for and more durable than wool.
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