Best Winter Base Layers
A dozen top winter baselayers reviewed and rated to help you choose your ideal winter next to skin companion.
Welcome to our mass review of a round dozen of the best winter baselayer tops out there. They're a varied bunch with a mix of features and fabrics, but the chances are that one of them will be right for you, from the super-technical Mountain Equipment Eclipse Hoodie at one end of the spectrum through to the light, but reflectively shiny Columbia OmniHeat at the other.
Here are a few general pointers: we like long sleeves, collars and zip-necks which allow for some venting. Hoods and thumb-loops come on some tops and you take or leave them based on your personal tastes, all we ask of thumb-loops is that they're unobtrusive when not in use. A snug cut not only feels warmer, but is more efficient for wicking and layering.
Fabrics is the big question. There's now a big choice from traditional high-wicking polyester at one end to 100% merino wool at the other. They all have pros and cons, but we've tried to help by rating each top out of five for wicking, next to skin comfort, warmth and drying time.
The hotter and sweatier you run, the less warmth you'll want in most conditions, but the faster wicking and drying you'll need. If you run slower and cooler, look for warmth and comfort first and don't fret over wicking so much. The good news is that there are now fabrics out there that mix different fibres and pretty much do it all. But you get the idea.
We tested the tops simply by using them lots in cold weather for walking, biking, running, scrambling, trekking and general mountaineering. There are no lab figures because ultimately what matters is how they work in real life.
Check out the base layers by scrolling down the page or jumping to your favourite brand following the links below.
Arc'teryx Phase AR Zip Neck LS - £52 / 192g
Arc'teryx is cagy about what exactly makes its Phase fabrics wick and dry quite so well, but our guess would be a carefully thought out structure. The Phase AR ZN is a great 'just warm enough' all-round option that wicks brilliant, dries fast and has a close, efficient fit. It's one of the best Polyester base layers we've used, has lasted well with regular hammer and, we reckon, is worth the premium over most other Polyester base layers we've tried.
Magic - Super fast wicking and drying, just enough warmth for fast movers.
Tragic - Fabric can build up an aroma after extensive use.
Brand website: www.arcteryx.com.
Brynje Super Thermo Long Sleeve Shirt - 144g / £40
Get over the string vest looks and the Brynje of Norway Super Thermo range is just superb. The holes in the mesh trap warm air making it deceptively warm and if you do vent it, you cool down fast as more skin is exposed. Add in super fast drying thanks to the hydrophobic Polypropylene fabric and you're onto a winner. The only downside is the mesh construction which means it's not really suitable for non-layering use - Brynje makes a more closely woven version for warmer weather. Brilliant alternative all-rounder that's also very light.
Magic - Fantastic fast drying, deceptively warm, dumps heat fast when vented.
Tragic - Looks are an acquired taste.
Brand website: www.nordiclife.co.uk
Columbia Omni-Heat LS HZip - £55 / 190g
Columbia's Omni-Heat baselayers use reflective metallic dots on the inner surface of the fabric which work like a space blanket to help keep heat where it's needed. It does seem to work too, the Omni-Heat top is warmer than we'd expect, but we found the initial feel a little clammy, though that was less of an issue on the move. Other testers didn't mind this, which suggests we're being a little Princess and the Pea about it.
Magic - Warmer than you'd expect for the weight, reasonable wicking and drying.
Tragic - Not everyone likes the feel of the fabric.
Brand website: www.columbiasportswear.co.uk.
Haglöfs Active Warm Zip-Top - £70 / 235g
Haglöfs has mixed Polyester with merino wool and elastane with a gridded inner face to produce another winter weight baselayer come lightweight mid-layer option. The merino seems to add a little comfort and the Active Warm has an instant 'nice' factor that combined with good all-round moisture handling and drying plus decent anti-odour properties makes it quietly brilliant to the point where it's one of the first things we reach for when temperatures fall below zero.
Magic - Warmth, wicking and drying all decent along with nice cut. Super comfortable.
Tragic - Slightly spendy.
Brand website www.haglofs.com.
Icebreaker Zip-Neck LS GT Top - £90 / 200g
The Icebreaker top pictured is an old but loved GT200 zip neck, the current equivalent would be the Drive Long Sleeve Half Zip. The top has all the good merino stuff like comfort and anti-odour properties but adds a little stretch and some vented pin-hole panels for better cooling when working hard. It's top notch stuff, sort of medium warm and great for all-round mountain and trekking use.
Magic - Comfort, multi-day anti-odour performance, good with moderate sweat output.
Tragic - Slow drying, not as durable as synthetics, slightly expensive.
Brand website: uk.icebreaker.com.
Lowe Alpine Dryflo Zip Top 150 - £36 / 193g
DryFlo is back but with a twist. Other brands have caught up on the fabric front, so Lowe Alpine has added the magic ingredient of coconut-based Cocona which really does speed wicking and drying and makes it an excellent all-round baselayer that lives up to the DryFlo legend.
Magic - Wicks and dries very quickly, good price.
Tragic - More medium than full winter weight.
Brand website www.lowealpine.com.
Marmot Thermo 1/2 Zip - £85 / 192g
Polartec's standard PowerDry fabric is a fast-wicking base-layer fabric, but the High Efficiency version used here is more like a lightweight stretch fleece with tiny micro-gridded blocks increasing warmth without adding much weight or bulk. It works brilliantly making this a really good call for hot, fast movers. It also doubles as a very light mid-layer worn over a thin wicking base-tee or as a cold and still single layer in its own right. A really nice cold weather all-rounder.
Magic - Brilliant light fast-wicking, fast-drying and warm fabric, nice fit, can be used as a light mid layer.
Tragic - Not cheap.
Brand website www.marmot.com.
Mountain Equipment Eclipse Hooded Zip Tee: £90 / 320g
Mountain Equipment's super technical winter baselayer come lightweight mid-layer uses a brilliant, stretchy, micro-gridded Italian fleece for a close fit and great insulation for the weight then plays a killer trump card with a versatile hood that'll sit over or under a helmet, cover the lower face completely in a Buff style and double as a night-time warmer too. Not cheap, but a superbly versatile bit of winter kit that can do the mid-layer gig all year round. Works well over a thin, high-wicking tee. Also available without a hood.
Magic - Great fabric, ingenious versatile hood, doubles as lightweight mid-layer.
Tragic - Hood can get in the way when not being used.
Brand website www.mountain-equipment.co.uk.
Paramo Grid Technic Top - £60 / 230g
Classically while everyone else uses micro-gridded polyester with the blocks inwards, Paramo does the opposite. It actually works a treat, more fabric surface in contact with the skin wicks more efficiently while with an outer layer up top, it traps warmth too, but like the Brynje top, dumps heat faster as well, though not as dramatically. We found the fit a little loose compared to some which reduced efficiency, but it's a good supplement to Paramo's own shell clothing.
Magic - Good all-round warmth, wicking and drying with cooling under venting.
Tragic - Slightly loose in fit, chest pocket seems superfluous.
Brand website www.paramo.co.uk.
Patagonia Men's Capilene® 4 Expedition Weight Zip Neck - £85 / 177g
Patagonia calls it Capilene 4 but essentially it's the same fabric used for the Marmot Thermo, but with more restrained styling. The latest versions are even more laid back. In short the fabric wicks and dries fast and is much warmer than you'd expect for such a light garment thanks to the inner gridded face which traps warming air. And as with the Marmot, you can also wear is as a very light mid-layer. Patagonia's thumb-loops are tiny elastic bands which you can simply cut out if you you choose. Nice touch.
Magic - Great wicking, drying and decent warmth with close fitting, stretchy fabric.
Tragic - Price.
Wicking - 5
Drying - 5
Warmth - 5
Brand website www.patagonia.com.
Rab MeCo 165 Long Sleeve Zip Tee - £60 / 206g
Rab kind of managed to find the Holy Grail with MeCo. It has most of the best qualities of merino like comfort and anti-odour properties, but dries a whole last faster and wicks well too making it a great half-way house between the two fabrics. Add in merino-like anti-odour properties and it's a cracking multi-day option for folk who run on the sweaty side of things. We wore our first one, but while that suggests it's not as durable as pure synthetics, it has a lot of hammer and pure merino would have died a lot faster, trust us. Not super warm, so best if you run hot. new this winter is a hooded version.
Magic - Good wicking and drying with merino type anti-odour properties.
Tragic - Expensive, wears out with serious abuse.
Wicking - 4
Drying - 4
Warmth - 3
Brand website www.rab.uk.com.
Smartwool NTS MID 250 Hoody - £90 / 291g
Smartwool's hooded winter-weight baselayer has all the great pluses of merino wool. It's super comfortable, reassuringly warm and anti-odour properties mean you can wear it for days on end making it a cracking choice for multi-day trips. It also deals well with low to medium moisture output, but gets overwhelmed if you're really sweaty and then takes longer than average time to dry. The women's version has twin pony-tail outlets.
Magic - Super comfortable, deals well with moderate moisture output, handy hood and thumb-loops. Anti-pong.
Tragic - Expensive, not ultimately high wicking, slow drying times. Not super durable.
Brand website: www.smartwool.com.
Our Top Winter Baselayer Picks
All the baselayer tops we've tried have done a decent job but if were forced to choose from all twelve for different uses our final preferences would be as follows:
Pure Technical Use For full-on mountain use we can't see past the Mountain Equipment Eclipse Hoody - the Italian made stretch fleece is brilliant, the fit is good and close and the hood is a little bit of genius that gives the whole top added function compared to simply zip-necks. It's the best of its kind that we've used.
All-round Winter Stuff Plenty of the tops here will cope just fine but there's something about the Haglöfs Warm Active that gets out vote. It's warm, comfortable, a nice fit, and wicks and dries well with it. And it feels more substantial than the Power Dr Hugh Efficiency tops we've used, though that's also brilliant fabric. Our other pick would be Arc'teryx Phase, which just works in a quiet, unobtrusive way.
Multi-Day Use Were going to cheat hear and multi-pick. If you don't sweat too much, both Icebreaker andSmartwool make fantastic merino wool tops that shrug off multi-day odours. If on the other hand, you're a sweaty git, Rab's MeCo has a lot of merino-like qualities but adds better wicking and drying at the expense of a little warmth and softness and would be our pick.
Special Award The Brynje of Norway Super Thermo mesh top is just all-round ace. If you can cope with the looks, you won't be disappointed and it's ideal with systems like Paramo and pile-Pertex.