Staying Warm and Looking Cool with Thermal Wear and Base Layers
Thermal base layers—or Long Johns as they were known in the good ol’ days—have come a long way since Granddaddy’s grey, wool one piece. Not only are the fabrics more comfortable and more form fitting, but they look great as well! For any hard-core winter outdoor sports gal or for those who just like to get out once in a while (even if it means to shovel the driveway), a great base layer can make all the difference!
Most of us wouldn’t be caught dead in logger’s Long Johns. They evoke images of careless patches, torn seams and saggy fabric that are as far from feminine as it gets. It’s about time you tossed them out.
It’s hard to know what to go for when picking out new-age thermal wear and base layers. With all the different shapes and fancy fabric technologies, how do you know you’re getting what the tag really says? The last thing you want when you’re hiking up in the backcountry, ripping it up on the slopes or just enjoying a cold one at an outdoor bonfire is to be freezing cold, boiling hot, or smelling like your old man’s socks. Careless zippers, misplaced seaming details and poor shape can also add to discomfort in the last places you want to be uncomfortable.
Feelin’ the Fabric
The fabric is the first thing you’ll likely notice when browsing shops for thermal wear – or any clothes for that matter. When it comes to clothes you wear under other clothes, a good quality fabric is key. Something too heavy or bunchy won’t fit nicely under your suit, leaving you feeling and looking heavier than you really are—not ideal when you’re chasing the boys across the mountain.
You’ll come across a few main fabrics in your hunt for the perfect thermal layer. The most popular is a soft, high quality wool from Merino sheep. Merino wool keeps you warm even when it’s wet and contains lanolin, a natural anti-microbial substance to help keep you from smelling like a moldy towel. Merino also whisks moisture away from the body. Because the fibers in Merino are smaller, they trap body heat like a sleeping bag, keeping you warmer even with just a thin layer of thermal. This is your top natural fiber to choose when looking for base layers.
You’ll probably come across cotton and bamboo blends as well. These natural fabrics are also soft to the touch but are better for warmer weather as they don’t retain heat and soak up sweat the way wool and even some man-made fibers do.
Polyester fabrics with added anti-microbial finishes make for a great, more economical option. Polyester fabrics are often blended with Lycra or Spandex for added stretch and fit. Being able to manipulate the fibers in polyester allows for a custom fabric that many companies tweak and rename. If you see some fancy gibberish name on a tag, it’s probably because the company has patented their own fabric. This is not a bad thing. Really smart people are paid good money to make wonderful fabric that conforms to everything on your thermal wear checklist: moisture wicking, comfortable, warm, breathable, form fitting… You can read the fabric specs on the tag or on the company’s website to learn more about what each fabric does.
Fancy Tech-Talk about Smelly Pits
One of the worst things about backcountry riding, skiing, snowshoeing or even shoveling the driveway is that awful, most unfeminine smell. We sweat ladies — the truth is out! No deodorant or antiperspirant can mask the smell of dried sweat roasting inside your sauna of a snow jacket. Hopefully, you’re not sharing a tent with anyone.
But there is another solution! Buy thermal wear or base layers that contain some kind of anti-microbial material or treatment. Some fibers like wool and bamboo have natural anti-microbial properties. This helps the sheep stay clean on the farm and can help you fend off the smell on the mountain. Another solution is silver. It’s usually called silver ion, or bio-silver. Silver has long been known as an anti-microbial in medicine but it also works on fabric to prevent bacteria buildup. You can’t see it, but it’s there!
Weigh the Odds
Considering how much gear you’ll probably be wearing when heading out for a day in cold weather, the last thing you want to add is unneeded weight in your undergarments. Look for base layers and thermal wear that have high warmth-to-weight ratios. That means you’re getting fabric that is light and warm at the same time. Merino wool is far superior in its warmth-to-weight ratio when compared to its synthetic counterparts.
Check out the specs on the price tag or on the web page while you’re shopping. Some will list the actual weight of the garment or you will be able to tell from the type of materials how heavy the garment will be if the weight itself is not listed. Light weight is key, especially when you’re adding snow pants, a winter jacket, backpack, helmet or whatever else it is that you need include for your day. Moisture wicking fabric is essential as it often stays light once it’s wet.
Enough of the Geek Talk—I want Clothes!
Just kidding, more geek talk is on the way. It’s all in the details…
Spend some time reading about your base layer or thermal clothing. Things such as stitching details and the couture of your item will make differences in how they fit, how they feel and how they survive.
Look for thermal wear that has flat seams. This prevents chafing, and actually reinforces the seams to make the item stand the test of time. If you want to be super picky, make sure the stitches are small and tight, you don’t want a hole in your armpit when you’re hundreds of feet up.
Zippers are good for ventilation purposes but make sure they have a cover, or “garage” so they don’t catch in your other clothing or your hair—ouch! Make sure the zippers are quality so they won’t break when you’re out in the cold. If you have armpit zippers or vents, be sure they are small and won’t rub skin raw or wear out your clothing.
Another thing to look at is where the stitching lays. One of the worst things you can encounter is chafing caused by backpack straps rubbing over stitching—definitely a way to ruin an otherwise great day of shredding or hiking. Many people choose tights or bottom base layers that have female-specific stitching at the crotch. Don’t buy men’s pants, even if they’re on sale—they’re made for men!
The Overall Feel of Things
We bet you’ve never thought so much about long johns in all your life. The most important thing when you get right down to it is how the items feel when you’re wearing them. Crazy designs and couture make them more appealing visually, but does the weight and cut of the fabric feel good, and are you able to move freely? There should be nothing between you and climbing to the top of that pillow field.
Some base layers and thermal wear actually help you get up the mountain. Skins is a brand that does this by using special construction and fabrics to help circulation and support musculature. It’s like having a bra for your legs. These kinds of base layers and thermal wear are optimal if you’re a serious backcountry babe or spend a lot of time on the mountain or doing long treks to sick lines. If you don’t know what any of that means, then you can probably choose a simpler thermal.
Thermal wear should feel great. If it turns your boyfriend on, it’s a bonus (we know about ski bums and their weird fetishes!) If you feel great, you look great. Thermal wear is great for long rides, quick runs at the local hill, for summer camping trips, backcountry treks, bonfire parties and all the other great outdoorsy things you love – and even those you don’t, like shoveling the driveway.
Stop freezing your buns off and avoid the agony of pulling off crusty, smelly gear after a day of activity. Invest in quality thermal wear and base layers and start your day in the cold off right.