I'm not sure exactly when humble "long underwear" became "next-to-skin technical base layers," but somewhere over the past decade designers in the outdoors industry switched up the nomenclature and cut words like "skivvies" and "long johns" out of the conversation.
It was an apt decision, however, and not just a marketing ploy. Indeed, the tight-fitting tops and tights outdoors people wear against their skin have seen serious innovation in recent years. Here are three new and impressive base-layer tops I have been testing as of late.
GoLite DriMove BL-2 Longsleeve Zip: It may sound improbable, but this top employs a fabric that has volcanic minerals embedded in its threads. Called Cocona Minerale, the natural lava rock ingredient is touted to increase wicking, protect from UV sunrays, and add odor control. In my tests, the Longsleeve Zip worked alone as a top for hiking and trail running on cool days, breathing well for hours at a time outside. The fabric, which has a heavy, textured weave, dries relatively fast once soaked with sweat. Layered under a fleece top and a shell jacket, the Longsleeve Zip has functioned for me as a great foundational piece to aid in comfort, warmth, and breathability. Bonus: Because Minerale is embedded in the fabric, it won’t wash off or wear out like other treatments might. $55, golite.com
Helly Hansen One: Mother Nature and engineering labs both had a hand in the creation of the Helly Hansen HH One base layers, which are touted to embody characteristics heretofore found only on polar bears. The company cites its fabric as having hollow fibers that mimic bear fur and help retain heat as well as move moisture when you sweat. In my test, the Stripe Crew Graphic top proved to be breathable and warm enough to be worn alone on a cool autumn hike. The polypropylene-based top can also be a part of a cold-weather kit when worn under an insulating top and a jacket. It comes in several funky styles, including a camouflage motif. According to the company, the modified "bear fur" technology maintains optimum body temperature for "all-day comfort." Indeed, in my tests across a spectrum of temperatures, the Stripe Crew did not disappoint. $45, hellyhansen.com
Mammut Alpine Underwear: The Zip Longsleeve, a piece from Mammut's "alpine underwear" line, employs polyester and merino wool in a body-mapped pattern that insulates in critical areas and breathes and wicks moisture in other spots. The back is a thin fabric made to better handle sweat. A turtleneck zips high and provides a double-thick fabric for warmth. The top's arms are a crisscrossing pattern of seams and swaths that mimic anatomical movement. The fabric has antimicrobial features to avoid odor buildup, letting you go several days between washings. As a bonus, the svelte lines and cuts on this top double for style points--Mammut's alpine underwear can be worn alone with no issue in public for an edgy, technical look. $80, mammut.ch
--Stephen Regenold is the founder and editor of GearJunkie.com.