One of the biggest things that people pay attention to with winter sports apparel is what’s on the outside. The waterproofness, breathability and insulation of outerwear is considered alongside the more cosmetic considerations of style and colour. But staying comfortable in the mountains depends so much more on what you have underneath all that Gore-Tex and down fill. In order to get through the coldest, wettest days without retreating into the lodge every couple of runs, Mountain Skills Academy & Adventures give you the guide to choose the best base layer for skiing (and snowboarding too).
Possibly the worst fabric one can take into the mountains is cotton. That includes that t-shirt or hoody you like to wear with your favourite ski/snowboard brand plastered on the front. Cotton actually has half decent insulating properties, if you’re standing still. Once you begin to work up a sweat or go for a roll in the powder, cotton gets wet and stays wet. That means an early retreat back to the parking lot on cold or wet powder days. The no-cotton base layer rule also applies to socks and underwear.
Polypropylene has been the mainstay of synthetic base layers for decades, though many brands now use a blend with polyester in order to give garments a softer feel and added warmth. Synthetic base layers are (usually) reasonably priced, have superior sweat-wicking properties and dry quickly. On the flipside, the smooth fibres of “polypro” are a breeding ground for odorous bacteria – hence the need to wash the garment after more or less every use. Apparel companies have come up with artificial treatment methods such as lacing the fabric with recycled silver to help combat synthetic stink, but it will never come close to the natural anti-odour properties of wool.
Merino wool has been touted as the second coming of winter base layers, largely due the global success of New Zealand company Icebreaker. Icebreaker’s clever marketing campaigns, with slogans such as “Think, don’t stink” have won over many a backcountry adventurer who no longer needed to suffer through their own body odour on long expeditions.
Besides a being a natural guard against odorous bacteria, Merino wool is incredibly warm for how much it weighs and breathes and wicks sweat pretty well, though the latter two qualities are outscored synthetics. Merino is also quite expensive and up until recently, had a quiet rumbling from consumers about how easily the fabric would tear and develop pick holes from normal use. After years of clinging to the “100% natural” philosophy, Icebreaker finally began to add nylon to the weave in order to increase durability of their garments. And rightly so – if you’re dropping $100 on a pair of long johns you want it to last without holes developing after the first couple months of wear. It’s also a good idea to investigate if the wool has been sourced ethically or not.
Merino fibres are much finer than that of regular wool and don’t itch nearly as much, but can still irritate the skin after long periods of wear for people with body hair. Those looking for a third option can try bamboo, which is natural, sustainable, odour-resistant and more durable than wool, with a softer feel. However, bamboo is still far from being widely available as a winter sport product.
The best formula I’ve found to choose the best base layer for skiing is this: have merino ready for the cold resort days where you need to guard against freezing temperatures in lift lines and on chair lifts. Quality synthetics are the way to go for aerobic activities like ski touring, climbing and Nordic skiing.
At the end of the day it’s all personal preference so experiment with what works best for you.