Best Base Layers for Skiing
Base layers are a critical piece of ski gear, or gear for any outdoor activity in colder weather. While you ski, your body burns loads of calories and you generate a lot of moisture, even though you might assume you won’t sweat because of how cold it will be when you ski.
Skiers sweat because of exertion — even if it is below freezing. Skiers also develop condensation inside their clothing because of the temperature difference between cold air and warm bodies. Therefore, base layers serve an important purpose for being the mediator between your 98.6 degree body and the shell layers protecting you from the elements.
Another thing that makes staying comfortable difficult for skiers is the variance in temps from minute-to-minute. If you are going down a hard black run, there is a good chance you are getting an aerobic workout and sweating. Then, you sit on a chairlift for 8 minutes and quickly cool off, maybe even get cold. A base layer can be your defense against overheating or chilling.
Good base layers are made up of wool or synthetic material that helps to draw moisture away from your body during skiing so it can evaporate. Moisture-wicking fabric is very important for skiers (or any athlete, for that matter) because the loss of heat can increase by 5x when a wet garment is against your skin. It is important that any base layer fits snugly against your skin but doesn’t make you feel constricted or that it’s too tight. The reason why you need the layers snug is if your base layers are too lose, they will develops pockets of moist air, and you’ll feel cold.
An ideal base layer is both breathable and makes you feel comfortable. A good base layer should be one that you forget you are wearing during your activity — a great-fitting garment with flat, smooth seams.
Keep in mind that base layers and thermal underwear are not always the same thing. A base layer is meant to feel great against your skin and keep moisture at bay. A thermal layer is meant to keep body heat from escaping. They can be the same thing, but not always. The colder it is, the more you may actually want to consider two layers — base and thermal.
In our experience, here are the best base layers you can buy for your nordic or downhill skiing (or running, cycling, etc. in cooler weather), based on our understanding of the market.
Everyone has one base layer that they reach for again and again, and for us, this is the one. It’s safe to say that with the introduction of SmartWool in 1994, the base layer industry was revolutionized and they are known worldwide for their exceptional Merino wool clothing products. With 20 years of manufacturing experience you can easily count on their products and they will never let you down. Another quality that separates SmartWool from its competitors is that their products snug perfectly without feeling like a tight fit. This base layer is a one-time investment and will last you more than five years. The NTS Mid 250 gets rave reviews from users, with its heavy construction and shoulder pads that prevent the need for as much stitching. We love that it is warm enough to serve as your only base layer in many settings. If you only buy one base layer, consider making it this one.
The focus of Under Armor is entirely on synthetic fibers, and they don’t plan to shift to Merino wool anytime soon. Like most of the Under Armor products, these base layers fit perfectly tight and are meant to be worn snug. Having this base layer that is just a little extra tight will keep you warm during skiing while the material absorbs sweat. The bottom line is that Under Armor makes one of the warmest base layers around that are designed especially for skiing. We like that the extended neck give you a bit more protection on an area that is often exposed when skiing, and we have also had very good luck with the fast-drying and anti-microbial properties that keep this layer from getting too stinky.
Unlike Under Armor and SmartWool, ColdPruf is a less well-known brand, but still provide excellent ski clothing. We have great admiration for a company that does one thing, and does it really well. ColdPruf’s motto is “We Own Cold”, and they don’t charge an arm and a leg for it. This tight fitting base layer comes in two colors: black and gray. The shirt fits perfectly providing good support and compression. The pants fit snugly around the ankle, ensuring that they stay in place and prevent snow from getting in while you ski. The pants also feature an elastic waist band that keeps a firm hold. The material used in the making of ColdPruf base layers use different fibers, a mixture of polyester and merino wool.
HellyHensen takes pride in being one of the oldest manufacturers of outdoor sports apparel and is quite popular among skiers. This base layer is not a compression base layer so it suitable for those who have a problem with the tightness of compression base layers or those who find those kinds of base layers become uncomfortable over time. For people who need something that can dry out instantly after getting little sweaty, this base layer, made from synthetic fibers, is a great choice. They are made from propylene, so is very comfortable and soft for extended days on the mountain or cross-country skiing adventures. We especially like how flat it is — everything from the neck to the stitching to the wrist cuffs are low-profile, meaning it will fit nicely under whatever else you layer over it.
Another wool base layer that seems to perform well. Like we mentioned with the Smartwool review, merino wool is beneficial because of its anti-microbial and anti-odor properties. Since this base layer is created from natural material, it is very soft and comfortable and provides the warmth you expect from wool. In addition, by the virtue of being both extremely thin and lightweight this base layer won’t impede your movement or flexibility and it will keep you free from sweat due to its superior wicking properties. Because of all these features, it is a good choice for a base layer as well as adding to your comfort.
Wool or Synthetic Base Layer – Which is Better?
One of the more common questions we receive from readers is if they should center their cold weather wardrobe around wool (particularly merino) or synthetic fabric. If you are counting, our list of 5 recommended base layers includes 2 wool and 3 synthetics, so we like both. We think that if ease of care and low-profile is important to you, consider the synthetics. They tend to be a bit flatter to the skin and are typically able to be washed in any way. If your priority is heat regulation and you prefer to wear something natural, you can’t go wrong with wool. It is one of nature’s best gifts to those of us who spend lots of time in the elements. The beauty of wool is that because of the way nature made it, between 60% – 80% of it is air. That means that moisture can seep into it without making it feel wet against the skin, or compromising its insulating abilities.
Cotton feels great against bare skin, but that is where the positives end. Anyone who has ever gotten a cotton base layer even the least bit wet or sweaty knows that it is immediately compromised as a thermal layer. Cotton retains water and then holds it against your skin. A wet cotton layer can actually become a liability underneath your snow pants for someone who is attempting to stay warm or regulate their body temp. We do not recommend cotton as a skiing base layer. Instead, save the cotton for the apres-ski night out on the town.
Whether you are looking for your alpine ski gear or all-important cross-country skiing staples, a good base layer is a vital requirement. It will keep you warm in the cold as well as being antimicrobial and have wicking properties so that you can be free from the discomfort of sweat. If you are looking for the best features you can find on the market, these 5 base layers are ideal. We would venture out to a day of skiing with any of them. If they made our list, we think they will perform for you.
Paul Miller is the Founder of Family Skier. He is an advanced skier and has extensive experience with family travel and ski schools. An accomplished skier, he has skied in 15 states and provinces and 6 countries. In addition to FamilySkier, his writing can be found on many ski-related websites, and as curriculum for many ski clubs in North America.