Thick Skin: 12 Best Base Layers For Winter

It’s easy to get excited about things like winter-ready down jackets and stylish overcoats, but those things are hardly your best defense against the cold — at least not by themselves. If you’re serious about staying warm this winter, you should also make sure you have a complement of solid base layers for the chillier months of the year.

Once relegated to full-body long johns — like the red thermals you’ve seen in movies and cartoons — base layers have benefitted greatly from improved fabric technologies and construction techniques. Now, they’re far more than just thermal underwear; they’re an indispensable part of any well-put-together loadout of cold-weather apparel. Still, some are better than others. Which is why we’ve put together the following list of the 12 best base layers for winter adventuring.

The Importance Of Layering

A Quick Primer

It might seem logical to think that prepping for winter weather starts with outerwear, working inward. But allow us to tell you, especially for folks who haven’t lived anywhere truly cold, the opposite should definitely be your mindset. Your jacket and adventure pants are extremely important, don’t get us wrong, but they’re not going to do you much good if you don’t know how to properly layer your apparel from the inside out.

There are a number of reasons your base layer is going to make all the difference when it comes to any outdoor activity, from hiking to snowboarding/skiing and everything in-between. For starters, it’s the closest layer of clothing to your body, which means it can help you retain the most heat when you need it and offer up plenty of breathability when you don’t. Of course, that’s going to change depending on the type of baselayer you choose. For instance, a heavyweight layer is more apt to keep your warm, thanks to thicker fabrics, whereas something lightweight is better for brisk temperatures that don’t require as much warmth. And, of course, mid-weight varieties are a perfect in-between option.

Secondly, your base layers act kind of like a defense against whatever might happen to your outerwear. For instance, if you find yourself in the middle of a sudden downpour you weren’t expecting, your jacket might not readily keep the water out and can potentially soak through. Well, when you get to somewhere a bit drier, you can remove your jacket to dry, but your base layer will help keep you warm while you’re without it. If you don’t have an appropriate base layer, you’ll be far more susceptible to the elements if your outerwear isn’t holding up.

Finally, base layers are often more than just providers of warmth. This is especially true when it comes to more active adventures, like snowboarding or cycling. If you are to take a spill by accident, your base layer can help act like an abrasion-resistant layer between the ground and your skin, helping reduce the potential for injury. Of course, this is secondary to its primary purpose, but it’s still something to take into account. All of these factors and more should be in your mind when layering for winter, and the following options should keep you appropriately covered.

Patagonia Capilene Baselayer

There are actually several different categories of Patagonia’s Capilene Baselayer, ranging from lightweight, midweight, “thermal,” and finally, Air. The latter is our favorite overall for winter because it’s rated the best for warmth, but also has a remarkably lightweight construction — meaning you’ll stay warm without being weighed down unnecessarily. There’s also a variation in construction, as the Air is made from Merino wool — naturally heat-retentive and antibacterial — whereas the others are made from polyester. Still, the Capilene series is one of the best overall on the market because of its wide array of available styles.

Purchase: $39+

L.L. Bean Cresta Wool Base Layers

L.L. Bean has been around since 1912, so it’s fair to say they know a thing or two about making reliable outdoor gear. That definitely translates to their Cresta base layers, as well. Available in everything from simple boxer briefs to long johns and two different shirt styles, these wool-based undergarments are favorites amounts outdoorsmen everywhere and manage to be warm and durable without breaking the bank. Just make sure you opt for the midweight bottoms if you’re picking a pair up for winter, as they’ll be more apt to keep you warm when the weather takes a turn for the colder.

Purchase: $40+

The North Face Summit Series Baselayers

Few brands are as synonymous with outdoor adventure as The North Face — and that’s a reputation they’ve been steadily building and maintaining since they were founded in 1968. Since they started out as the brainchild of a pair of hiking enthusiasts, it also means extra attention should be paid to the verbiage used in product names. Such is the case with their Summit Series baselayers, which are ideal for keeping warm on-the-go during the winter months. Boasting styles that include 3/4 and full-length bottoms, and a quartet of shirts, these base layers are perfectly suited to cold weather wear. They also come with the brand’s lifetime guarantee.

Purchase: $45+

Helly Hansen Lifa Merino Base Layers

In case you’re not familiar, Helly Hansen specializes in some of the most impressive sailing gear available. And no, we don’t mean polos and boat shoes — their gear is used by professional racers in some of the worst conditions all over the globe. So, yes, they know a thing or two about staying warm, which is evidenced in their Lifa Merino base layers. As you might garner from the name, these garments are made from Merino wool which, on top of being warm and naturally antimicrobial, is also water-repellant. With a wide range of styles for both men and women, these are some of the best long johns out there.

Purchase: $64+

T.A.D. Alchemy Base Layers

We are huge fans of the backpacks, accessories, and outerwear made by the folks at Triple Aught Design, as they are experts of combining unique materials and tactical features into sleek and stylish designs. The same goes for their series of Alchemy base layers. Made to keep you warm without bogging you down, these lightweight Polartec Power Wool long johns are breathable, soft, and will even keep you warm if they get wet. And, as if that’s not enough to get you chomping at the bit for some of your own, they’re also made in the USA.

Purchase: $68+

Arc’teryx RHO LT Base Layers

The kings of technical apparel at Canada’s Arc’teryx certainly don’t disappoint when it comes to their base layers. With only two available styles of both tops and bottoms, there’s not a ton of options. But, honestly, you don’t really need any more. Pick either full-length or 3/4 bottoms, then pair them with your choice of a 3/4 zip long-sleeve shirt or one with a hood (in case you want to keep extra cozy) and then head out on your next adventure. The stretchy, thermally-efficient fabric will keep you comfortable and warm whilst remaining lightweight.

Purchase: $79+

Burton Expedition Base Layer

While we’re a bit disappointed in the limited nature of Burton’s Expedition base layer offerings, there’s no denying that they are some of the best available. And they should be, as the brand’s very existence hinges on winter sports. As such, these base layers are ultra-warm, crafted from a heavyweight fleece that’s both stretchy and quick-drying. On top of that they have an anti-stink finish, offer up quick-drying (in case you get a bit soggy), and come with a lifetime warranty.

Purchase: $80

Salomon Primo Warm Base Layer

Like Burton, Salomon also made a name for themselves in winter sports. Unlike Burton, however, their sport of choice was skiing, not snowboarding. As such, their Primo Warm base layer is a bit sleeker — like the bodysuits worn by Olympic downhill skiers. If you want your base layers to be a bit snugger and form-fitting, then these are probably one of your best bets. Of course, they’re more than just tight, as they also feature sweat-wicking and fast-drying properties, they’re antimicrobial (and, therefore, stink-free), and they’re plenty comfortable for all day wear and then some.

Purchase: $80

Under Armour UA Base 4.0

As you might guess from the name, this is the 4th generation of Under Armour’s base layer. And that means they’ve taken into account hundreds of suggestions and reviews from customers and professional athletes alike in order to make them as good as possible. They only come in one style of tops and bottoms, but — honestly — they’re so solid it hardly matters. Like a second skin, they’re breathable and flexible, warm while remaining breathable, they dry fast, and they even have anti-microbial properties, helping to keep you from getting smelly even through the most extreme of outdoor adventures.

Purchase: $85+

Columbia Titanium Baselayer

As you might expect from the ubiquitous outdoor brand, Columbia actually offers a number of different options when it comes to base layers. Our favorite, however, is their high-end Titanium line. Designed with some impressive tech, these winter-ready undergarments have a material construction that’s breathable for top-tier comfort but also heat-reflective, so you stay toasty warm even in the heart of a blizzard. It’s also moisture-wicking to keep you from getting bogged down during physical activity, stretchy to keep from constricting you during your adventures, and it looks good enough that we wouldn’t bat an eye if we saw someone going out for a winter jog wearing it.

Purchase: $90

Smartwool Merino 250 Base Layer

Smartwool is probably best known for their hiking socks, but their catalogue is far deeper than just the footwear essentials. In fact, their wide array of base layers are some of our favorite on the market, both for their material soundness and the versatility of options. In fact, when compared to others on this list, they’re the only ones who offer a one-piece bodysuit for anyone who wants to make sure their base layer is as snug as possible. And even if you don’t want that particular one, the whole collection is all made from Merino wool, so it’s super warm, water-resistant, odor-resistant, and all-around comfortable and durable.

Purchase: $95+

Icebreaker 260 Zone Base Layer

For some of the most hardcore adventurers, Icebreaker’s 260 Zone base layers are the one and only they’ll use. And that’s because, while they’re definitely warm enough for arctic adventures, they’re also specifically designed to allow for freedom of movement during high-octane activities, like mountain climbing and skiing or snowboarding. The combination of merino wool, spandex panels, and polyester ensure a snug fit that stretches with your body without sacrificing heat retention. And it certainly helps that the wool they use is responsibly sourced.

Purchase: $120+

30 Best Winter Coats For Men

Base layers are a good way to get started prepping for winter warmth, but they’re not gonna do you any good if you don’t pair them with a solid jacket. And you can find the perfect one on our list of the 30 best winter coats for men.