Choosing baselayers has become a tricky process with the increasing availability of high quality wool and an increasing range of synthetics.  Both choices have pros and cons.  Here is what I’ve found personally.

Synthetic

Synthetic baselayers are incredibly efficient at moisture transport.  They don’t absorb the moisture which means they dry rapidly, although, they can dry too rapidly, inducing a chilly feeling in windy conditions.

Synthetic baselayers retain their shape, no matter how wet and abused they get.  No amount of rough handling or days of wear seem to change a synthetic baselayer.

Synthetic baselayers (well, most all synthetics really) can trap odors and get really smelly after a few days of use.  On solo trips, this really doesn’t matter, but when sharing a tent with a partner. . .

Wool

Despite the itchy association I have due to cheap woolen garments from my childhood, wool baselayers are very comfortable.  The wool used in baselayers is high quality, and much like a quality business suit, the wool is soft and luxurious feeling, rather than rough and scratchy.

However, wool, like most natural fibers, holds moisture.  It gets heavy when wet, and can be very slow to dry.  However, I often find wool still feels comfortable even when wet.

Wool stretches and loses shape.  When wool gets wet, this happens quite quickly, in my experience.  The areas I notice it first are in the knees and elbows, where lots of motion tends to stretch out the garments.  I prefer a snug fit to my baselayers so that they wick the moisture off of my skin rapidly.  As wool loses shape, it becomes less efficient at wicking moisture.  However, washing and dry the wool seems to restore the original shape.

Wool doesn’t absorb odors as easily as synthetics.  This is a huge positive when you want to smell somewhat presentable.

What do I use and when?

For single day outings, such as a hike or a day of climbing, I prefer the comfort and odor free properties of wool.  I prefer something like Icebreaker Bodyfit 200.  This is a good general weight for cold weather activities, and is quite comfortable.

If I’ll be out more than one day, for backpacking, mountaineering, etc, I switch to synthetics.  I like to go lightweight, and wet wool is not light.  I don’t carry spare baselayers to change into when one set gets wet, so synthetics rule on long trips.

For my legs, I really like Patagonia Capilene 2.  For my torso, I like a light baselayer with a zipneck so that I can adjust according to the conditions, like the Marmot Lightweight Zip Neck.

Final thought

For climbing use, I strongly recommend choosing lighter colors for baselayers.  It can be brutally sunny at altitude, or on a glacier, and having a light color to reflect that sunlight can help keep you cooler.  Dark colors can feel very hot very fast under those conditions.  Grey is a good color as it is light enough to feel cool, yet dark enough to not easily show how dirty it really is.

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