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How to choose the right base layer for winter, according to experts

Consider this your cozy guide to staying warm outdoors this winter.
Happy young female runner in knit hat running in snowy stree
Hugh Whitake / Getty Images

One thing about winter is that you have to oftentimes wear several pieces of clothing on top of each other to stay warm and cozy. Whether you're hitting the slopes in your best skiwear or heading into town for hot toddies, though, a quality base layer will keep your skin protected and moisture-free while battling the elements.

The base provides the foundation for any effective layering system, plus it provides thermoregulation to withstand below-freezing temperatures. Out of all your snow-ready gear, the base layer is an absolute must-have in your winter wardrobe.

Shop TODAY talked to a few experts to help you find the best base layers to match your go-to winter 'fit. We've also selected several top-notch options to keep you warm and cozy until springtime.

Base layer vs. thermals | Fabrics | Weights | Shopper-approved base layers | Meet the experts

What is the difference between a base layer and a thermal?

According to Kelly Hill Shuptrine, Stio's chief product officer, "base layers are designed to solve a number of problems including [balancing your] core temperature, heat regulation and sweat-wicking in addition to providing warmth based on fabric construction and weight."

Thermals, meanwhile, are focused primarily on heat generation and retention. "Oftentimes, thermal layers such as fleece can be worn as a mid-layer or, in some cases, a heavyweight base layer," she added.

Which fabrics are best for a base layer?

When choosing a base layer, you should prioritize finding a fabric that delivers an equal amount of comfort and performance.

"You want to choose a blend of wool and polyester, which are both great at moisture-wicking, breathability, warmth retention and [being] antimicrobial," mentioned Shuptrine.

According to Philip Pavkov, CEO of ALWRLD, the best kind of base layer is made from merino wool and synthetic fibers such as polyester or nylon to wick moisture away from the body.

"Polyester and nylon are synthetics that are excellent at wicking, lightweight and can be found at a good price. [It's] best to go for recycled synthetics, since they are cleaner and good for the planet," he said.

Pavkov also suggests finding a piece with a high loft fiber structure, since it features a "layer of air [that] actually insulates the body." For example, a fleece that is made of a thicker fabric or something that is brushed allows little pockets of air around the body to be able to hold the heat against you and provide an insulation layer. This process is called thermoregulation and "it allows your body to maintain a temperature of homeostasis," he added.

In terms of fabrics to steer clear from, Shuptrine said to "avoid cotton, a water-loving fiber that once wet stays wet and can cool your body temp and your muscles. You'll want to look for warmth in your mid-layer and waterproof/windproof in your outer layer."

How do I choose my base layer weight?

"The best weight garment depends on the total package," said Shuptrine. "When walking or standing, you may want to choose a heavier weight layer than if you are skiing and elevating your heart rate. If you are going to pair your base with a fleece and a shell jacket, choosing something lighter will likely be a solid choice."

In terms of identifying weight layers, Shuptrine suggests looking for these measurements in a product description: "Lightweight layers use fabrics around 200 g/m2 [grams per square meter], midweight around 250 g/m2 and heavyweight is 275 g/m2 or higher."

Best base layers for cold weather, according to shoppers

Women's Thermaskin Heat Base Layer Thermal Pants

These thermal pants are great at absorbing body moisture while generating heat. You can wear this pair indoors or outdoors with your activewear and features a lightweight structure for easy layering. The material is super soft and is designed to wick perspiration away from your skin.

Lands' End Base Layer Turtleneck Top

Match the slopes and your fave winter activities when you wear this turtleneck top from Lands' End. The fabric is lightweight and made with heat technology to keep your body dry. This top also features a turtleneck to help you keep warm while bracing for the cold weather.

Corbeaux Women's Silkyway Long Sleeve

With a next-to-skin construction, this long-sleeve top is perfect to layer underneath your activewear and coats. The shirt features thumbholes for added warmth and a banded hem to keep it in place. This option can also be worn during the summer for ultimate comfort since it's super lightweight.

Ski Jacquard Half Zip Ski Base Layer Top

Match your ski attire with this chic base layer top featuring a sweat-wicking and antibacterial knit fabric. The print will complement your aprés wardrobe, it's also a chic way to show off your passion for skiing. The top offers a tight fit with a half-zip for easy wear.

Spruces Merino Baselayer Crew

Whether you're going cross-country skiing or to the bar for some mulled wine, this base layer will keep you warm at all times. The top is made with merino wool and offers comfort for days you need to survive the cold. No need to worry about sweating since it's made with odor-fighting, moisture-wicking and temperature-regulating properties.

Athleta Ascent Seamless Turtleneck

You can never go wrong with an Athleta piece. This ultra-soft and lightweight turtleneck provides great breathability and warmth for outdoor activities. No matter how cold it is outside, you can layer your outerwear with this garment and keep it warm with the merino wool yarn.

Kari Traa Smekker Baselayer Pants

Elevate your undergarments with these base layer pants from Kari Traa. These are made from 100 percent merino wool and are super comfortable. Not only will you feel warm after taking your ski pants off, but you'll feel extra stylish for happy hour in the lodge.

Kari Traa Smekker Half Zip Baselayer

Feel like a pro skier with this base layer essential. You can wear it with the Kari Traa matching pants or elevate your favorite piece of denim with this wintery style. The top is made from 100 percent merino wool and features a half-zip to add some breathability when indoors.

Stio Women's Basis Power Wool Crew

If you're looking for ultimate performance and warmth, this shirt will help you achieve your cold weather fitness goals. The Stio crew neck offers unparalleled wicking performance so you stay dry in humid environments thanks to its knit poly/wool blend, which will help you to stay dry even after falling on the snow.

Women's Basis Power Wool Tight

Manage the cold with these tights from Stio. This soft and lightweight pair offers warmth while doing aerobic activities and bracing the cold. The innovative material consists of a blend of wool, polyester and knit grid jersey that provide a dry experience even during humid environments. Also, you'll feel warm even when you get wet.

Women's ColdGear Authentics Mock Neck

Stay focused on your activities with this mock neck. The base layer consists of a brushed interior and fast-drying exterior to keep you warm. Also, you get added ventilation with the neck construction. The moisture-wicking material will keep you focused even when the temperature drops.

Ibex Woolies Tech Long Sleeve

For those that love extra coverage for their hands, wear this long-sleeve top from Ibec. The base layer will give you all-day comfort thanks to the thumbholes, nylon construction and fatlock seams to reduce chafing. Also, it features a zip neck for body temperature regulation.

Threads 4 Thought Keva Quarter-Zip Mock-Neck Base Layer Top

With a stretchy and lightweight make, this top is perfect for outdoor activities. This partial-zip top will cover you during cold temperatures and keep you dry for hours. The thumbholes will give you extra coverage and will add extra layering when it gets super breezy.

Kari Traa Floke Base Layer Bottoms

Add a pop of color to your winter attire with this soft, durable Lenzing modal piece. It features four-way stretch and a fitted design for a smooth finish. The bottoms offer breathability and natural odor resistance for a comfortable feel during cold-weather activities.

Icebreaker 260 Tech Long-Sleeve Half-Zip Base Layer Top

This super cozy base layer boasts a merino wool construction, fatlock stitching to minimize chafing, and UPF 20 fabric to protect you from UV rays. This base layer will cover all the basics when it comes to stepping into the cold weather.

Seirus Women's Heatwave Mapped Full Length Bottom

These bottoms are engineered with Body-Map Heatwave to offer ultimate warmth and rapid moisture-wicking properties. Also, this pair is constructed with an ergonomically Placed Max Wick for increased breathability. What makes this pair ultra-durable is the mix of fabrics that allow flexibility, ventilation and comfort.

Meet the experts

  • Kelly Hill Shuptrine is the chief product officer of Stio, an outdoor apparel company based in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
  • Philip Pavkov is the CEO of sustainable activewear brand ALWRLD.