Outside magazine, February 1998
Today's fabric alternatives include polyester, which is soft and quick drying, and nylon, which feels smooth and lasts longer. There's also wool, which depending on your skin sensitivity may or may not convince you to leave behind your cherished flannel boxers on your next outing. All high-tech underwear moves moisture in one of two ways: electrostatically or mechanically. But since both work with equal fervor, look for what fits — and feels — best.
Mechanical moisture movement — what the rest of us know as wicking — is based on the simple idea that water evaporates faster when it spreads to a greater surface area. Sweat exists as droplets on your skin, but when your body heat helps push it through these fabrics, the threads disperse it in all directions.
Patagonia planted the seeds for all this with its 1985 introduction of polyester Capilene, the closest a petrochemical had come to emulating flannel. And this year's knit wicks even better. The Midweight Capilene Bottoms ($38) do the job in stormy conditions, yet are thin enough to slip under a pair of jeans. The Tortoise Top ($49), with a new passel of colors and a slightly looser cut, easily serves as outerwear.
Nike's Dri-F.I.T. Long Sleeve Base Layer Crew ($34) works as hard as you do during steamy activities like skate skiing. Made of shimmery, quick-drying polyester that feels breezy against the skin, this jersey will serve you well into summer. Duofold's Performance Lightweight Zip T ($30) and Pant ($23) employ DuPont's Thermastat, a polyester spun of hollow fibers that trap the warm air next to your body, adding insulation without weight. For a slightly denser option, The North Face's Micronamics Alpine Tight ($42) and Zip T Neck ($46) wick and dry exceedingly fast thanks to a bi-component polyester knit: Greater surface area on the outside helps siphon away moisture aggressively. In the same vein, Lowe Alpine's polyester Dryflo Zip Neck ($59) wicks well and insulates more than any garment we tried; it easily doubles as an outer layer on slushy spring days.
If the thought of wearing petrochemicals makes your skin crawl, try wool. Ortovox's Cascade Zip Neck ($89), woven of 100 percent au naturel merino wool yarn, wicks superbly. A tall neck holds falling snow at bay, and the fabric keeps you plenty warm, although it becomes heavy when wet. But hey, if you get it a size too big, you can always shrink it in the dryer.
Electrostatic fabric uses the pull of electricity rather than the push of body heat to purge moisture. The fabric is treated with a chemical or dye that gives it a negative charge, attracting the positive-charge end of water molecules and drawing them off your skin.
The almost slinky Transport EC2 lightweight mesh Crew and Tight ($40 each) from Terramar won't be mistaken for outerwear. Mesh panels placed in strategic hot spots regulate temperature well, and tags sewn on the outside prevent chafing, making these thin nylons hard to do without. First Light takes the opposite approach with its Elements Zip Mock and Not So Tight tights ($59 each), which are meant more as sportif outerwear than underwear. Still, a thick, tough-but-silky weave of nylon with a skosh of spandex drapes reassuringly on your limbs and keeps you dry.
Forcing so much "moisture" through your base layer can have malodorous side effects, so Mountain Hardwear contrived ZeO2 fabric. The polyester weave of the Zip T ($44) and Tight ($38) contains a thread that borrows a tidbit of water filter technology to kill odor-causing bacteria. Really. It may sound like voodoo, and it's impossible to say whether such antimicrobial fabric will last, but my tentmates assure me it works.
Photographs by Clay Ellis