Every year when the new clothes come in for winter, folks ooh and aah over the jackets and they can’t wait to take a look at the new tights and pants. But any of us who spend time exercising outdoors in the winter know that the real superstar is your baselayer. We’re not talking those red union suits that unbutton in the rear or those waffle long johns that we wore as children (those can even be dangerous, but I’ll get to that), these are cutting-edge, super-techie underwear that look great and function even better. The question is…wool or synthetic.
First of all, why is baselayer so important? When skiing, or doing anything active outdoors—especially in colder weather—layering your clothing is the key to staying comfortable. Thin layers allow you to add and remove clothing as your temperature and environmental conditions change. The baselayer is the layer closest to your skin, so you want it to be comfortable, moisture-wicking, and durable. Something else to note: in order for baselayer to do its job, it must be contacting your skin. A tighter but non-restrictive fit will allow the fabric to do it’s job moving moisture away from your skin.
Synthetic and wool baselayers each have their merits and their flaws, but both can be useful parts of a functional ski wardrobe.
Synthetic baselayer has been the go-to choice for XC skiing for years. Typical names you might recognize include polyester, polyamide, polypropylene, elastane, lycra, and spandex. These fabrics are created using petroleum, crops, or even waste products such as a newer fabric called SeaQual that is created from recycled ocean plastics. Synthetic baselayers are ideal for a bit warmer conditions or high-intensity activities.
The most important “pro” to synthetic baselayers is their ability to move moisture through the fabric. Getting the sweat (or water vapor) away from your body and evaporated cools you down and prevents overheating, but also stops you from getting clammy and cold when you start to cool down. Synthetic garments are also lightweight, stretchy, and comfortable against the skin. They are durable and easy-to-care-for. And, in general, a comparable synthetic baselayer is less expensive than a wool or wool blend layer.
There are some “cons,” however, to synthetic base layer. Overall, although synthetics run lighter than wool pieces, they aren’t as warm per ounce. For colder or less-aerobic adventures, that might not be ideal. Another real downside is their tendency to hold onto smells, even after washing(s). And, of course, they are often created with petroleum-based fibers which are often non-recyclable or biodegradable.
The lightest synthetic in New Moon’s line-up is Craft’s Active Extreme X which has super-charged wicking ability. The RaceX pieces from Swix have a softer feel and are still stretchy and functional. And the Craft Baselayer Sets are great for newbies, kids, budget shoppers, and touring skiers.
Wool, of course, has been around forever and has now come back into prominence due to the popularity of natural fiber. Wool can be lightweight or heavy, it resists stains and wrinkles, and for most folks is fairly comfortable to wear.
Wool has exceptional moisture management properties. Instead of keeping you warm by evaporating moisture away, wool stays warm even when it gets wet! In fact, wool fibers can absorb up to 35% of their weight in water before feeling damp. The moisture stays trapped in the fabric and not right against your skin. Once the fabric can no longer absorb any moisture, its fibers will wick the same as a synthetic.
Wool fibers are also naturally wavy, creating pockets of insulating air when they are layered together, making the warmth-to-weight ratio much higher than synthetic fabric. And, due to the shape and texture of the wool, the garments don’t lose the pockets even when they get damp.
Another great feature of wool is its odor resistance. The outer surface of wool fibers is slightly rough and not a hospitable place for smelly bacteria to colonize. No bacterial build-up means no odor. Wearers can get many days of use out of wool garments before they get stinky.
Wool does take longer to dry than most synthetics and requires a bit of care when cleaning and wearing. Pieces sometimes can tear easily, get stretched out, and can shrink if not properly washed. And, due to that warmth-to-weight ratio, merino wool layers are not a budget choice.
Personally, my pick is yet another option, a wool/synthetic blend. This is the best of both! These garments use wool for the feel and warmth and layer in some synthetic fibers in order to allow for movement and stretch. Adding that synthetic component also keeps the price down. Pieces like the Swix Aspire or the Training Wool from Bjorn Daehlie are great examples of how wool and synthetics can work together to create a very functional garment for aerobic activity. And if you’re looking for something a bit warmer, the Craft Adv Nordic Wool is 80% wool/20% polyamide—so a heavier piece for touring or even staying warm by the fire.
If you are concerned about the environmental impact of any of these fabrics, make sure the wool comes from a cruelty-free facility and the synthetic fabric is either recycled, recyclable, sustainable or some combination of the three.
Back to the cotton option. Do Not Do It—at least not for active endeavors. When cotton absorbs moisture from your perspiration, the air pockets in the fabric become saturated quickly. Your base layer then is no longer insulating and takes forever to dry. This could lead to an uncomfortable outing or even a disastrous one depending on the weather.
Whether you choose 100% Merino Wool, a Polypro classic, a blended baselayer or one of each, remember to layer up for maximum comfort and protection. Give us a call if you have any questions.