Base Layer Basics for Winter Warmth
It’s going to be another cold winter, but you can easily brave the cold if you dress right. The key to dressing for the cold is proper layering and choosing the right base layer to start with. The fit, the fabric material, and the weight of the fabric are important factors to consider when selecting your base layer. Base layers do not need to be sport-specific. One of the beauties of base layers is the versatility: a base layer for cycling can also do duty as a base layer for running or even for skiing.
In the summer when you are worried about overheating on a run or ride, it is best to choose a loose fitting top to keep you cool. In cool to cold conditions, you’ll want the opposite type of fit: a snug, athletic fit to keep your body warmth in. But note that when you add the layers, the second layer should be a looser fit.
Also of note, don’t forget to choose your sports bra and any other underclothing with care. A cotton sports bra will soak up sweat and you’ll soon be chilled under your baselayer, which would defeat the purpose. Look for well-made technical sports bras which efficiently wick away moisture and manage body temperature. We just reviewed our favorite in a previous article.
Take into account the temperature and weather conditions when you choose your base layer. Factor in wind chill if the wind is blowing as well as the wind chill you’ll get when riding your bike at a certain speed. Choose a heavier weight fabric for the coldest conditions. As you layer, keep in mind that you can pair a midweight base layer with a heavyweight mid layer and a good insulating outer layer and you’ll be nice and toasty in spite of the weather. Merino wool fabrics are often given numbers that correspond to their warmth and the larger the number, the warmer you’ll be.
- Microweight: Mild to cool conditions
- Lightweight: Cool to moderately cool conditions
- Midweight: Moderately cold to cold conditions
- Heavyweight: Cold, frigid to blustery-cold conditions.
If you want to stay warm in the cold, avoid cotton base layers. Cotton may be inexpensive, but it holds in moisture (it can hold up 70% of its weight in moisture), has poor temperature regulation, and does a poor job of resisting odors. The main purpose of your base layer is to keep your skin warm and dry, so good wicking properties are a must in the fabric you choose. For the best base layers, choose a synthetic fabric or silk or merino wool. Each has their advantages and disadvantages.
Synthetic technical fabrics offer great wicking properties, meaning they don’t absorb moisture, but transfer it very well. This makes makes them the best of the three for humid or wet conditions. Many synthetic baselayers are polyester or microfiber based.
Choose a snug fit for cold conditions.
Pros: Lightweight, abrasion resistant, wrinkle resistant & relatively easy care.
Cons: Petroleum based, odors can build up (unless it has been treated to be antimicrobial), can be vulnerable to stains.
Wool is a great thermal conductor and merino wool insulates even better than regular wool. This natural fabric feels soft and warm to the touch. The merino wool fiber is so much finer than normal wool and most other textiles. For a given weight, merino contains more air spaces, and hence provides greater insulation.
Pros: Great all-season base layer, merino wool is lightweight, wrinkle and stain resistant. Good quality merino wool will feel super soft and smooth, which is important when it is next to your skin. Wool absorbs then gradually releases moisture, but even damp wool will keep you warm. Merino wool uses moisture absorbed from the environment to generate heat (the process is called “heat of sorption.”) Merino wool’s wavy fibers also contain millions of air pockets that lock in body heat for warmth.
Cons: Wool can be vulnerable to shrinkage and is typically available only in dark colors.
Silk has been used as a base layer by winter season athletes such as skiers, for decades. To make it a better base layer, silk can be treated to enhance wicking capabilities. It comes in various weights from lightweight to heavyweight to keep you comfortable and insulated in conditions from cool to very cold.
Pros: Silk has a soft, smooth texture against the skin. It’s a natural fiber and it won’t add bulk as it can be made extremely thin as it doesn’t take much to keep in warmth.
Cons: Silk is not easy care and usually needs to be hand washed. It is vulnerable to abrasion and will snag on things such as untrimmed fingernails or velcro. Silk is also vulnerable to sunlight and if exposed for long, the colors can fade.
Comparison Chart of Base Layer Materials:
|Drying Time||Good||Fair to Good||Excellent (Dries Fast)|
|Temp. Regulation||Very Good||Very Good||Fair to Good|
|Odor Resistance||Excellent (you can wear it the next day)||Fair (Wash after each use)||Poor to Fair (unless treated)|
|Stretch||Good||Very Good||Good (usually retains shape)|
|Price||Expensive for quality merino wool||Borderline Expensive||Good/Moderate price|
|Best Conditions||Cool/Cold||Cool weather||Best for wet, cool/cold|
Note: After a cold day’s ride, you may want to change into a fresh, lightweight base layer to avoid chilling, if you are not able to shower right away.
The Columbia Midweight Baselayer Long-Sleeve shirt
This well-designed shirt is a great winter baselayer for a variety of winter activities, including running, cycling and Nordic skiing. Columbia has used their Omni-Heat for warmth and their Omni-Wick technology in the design of this shirt. If you turn the shirt inside out, you’ll notice swaths of silver reflective dots placed in large key areas of the shirt: on the front, on most of the sleeve area and on much of the back. Think “space blanket.” That is the inspiration for these silver dots (Omni-Heat )which Columbia uses to help the body hold on to its own heat in cold temperatures. The Omni-Heat is not placed under the arms or on the sides of the body and is a little thinner on the shoulder blades where body heat is more intense and wicking is needed. The wicking (Omni-Wick) and the antimicrobial treatment is evident when after an hour-plus run, there was no stink and I was able to wear it twice before it needed washing. (After you’ve worn it, set it aside–or throw it on the floor, if that’s your way of doing things–and within a few hours, the anti-microbial tech will have taken effect and the stink will be gone.) The shirt doesn’t feel warm and cozy like a fleece-type top would when first put on, but within 5 minutes or so, it feels pleasantly warm without becoming overly warm, which makes it ideal for active wear. It is form-fitting (which is important for a base layer) and ergonomically designed to allow the body to freely move.
Columbia is just perfect in my eyes not matter how you look at it. I have always been a Columbia fan and probably always will be. Nothing overly “flashy” – just the basics in the basic colors!! Well, this base layer pattern may have stepped outside of the box a bit. I don’t mind … I LOVE it!!!
Omni Heat – Thermal Comfort … Omni-heat’s patent pending dot pattern lining wicks moisture to keep you dry & comfortable. Little silver dots reflect your heat back to you to make omni heat 20% warmer than ordinary linings. Beyond Columbia’s new technology which seems to be keeping my base dry & comfortable, this long sleeve mid-weight base layer has a form fit which in this particular garment, I love it. That is saying something asusually, I don’t like the feel of form fitting garments. It is comfortable, very stretching and has raglan sleeves for extended range of motion. Care has been taken by using the flat-lock stitching method to avoid any chafing because this base layer is laying against your active body. This shirt moves with me and doesn’t fight me with every move that I make. I am a tall woman and have been impressed with the generous sleeve length. I can’t tell you how many long-sleeve shirts don’t have long enough sleeves and leave my wrists exposed to the cold. Maximum warmth & minimum weight … I would agree with Columbia!
As far as the care of this piece, I usually wash it in cold and hang it to dry. I have worn it a lot in a year’s time & it still looks great. It doesn’t snag or pill and it’s soft and comfortable to the touch!! Thumbs Up!! I am ordering another one right now!!!
Columbia’s Baselayer Midweight Long Sleeve Top comes in solid colors ($55 MSRP) or the stripe as shown ($60 MSRP)