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What Is a Wicking Base Layer?

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  • Written By: Dan Cavallari
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 21 August 2014
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When it comes to outdoor activities, especially in inclement weather, dressing to keep warm and dry is of the utmost importance. The first step to ensuring dryness and comfort is choosing a good wicking base layer, which is a thin layer of clothing — both shirt and pants — that sits closest to the body underneath other layers of clothing. The wicking base layer is designed to keep moisture away from the skin, and work in conjunction with other layers of clothing to provide warmth and comfort during all types of weather.

When choosing a wicking base layer, it is important to consider the different types of material from which these types of clothing can be made. While a material such as cotton can contain some wicking properties, it is slow to dry and can therefore cause discomfort and irritation. Wool is a natural material and a common choice for a wicking base layer, but older versions of wool layers can be somewhat uncomfortable and bulky. Newer wool materials have counteracted such disadvantages quite well, but synthetic materials are still the most common choice for a wicking base layer.

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The most common synthetic material used for a wicking base layer is polyester. It is lightweight, soft, and easy to care for. It wicks moisture away from the body — that is, it transports the moisture from the skin to the other side of the material so it can be evaporated. The base layer can be worn on its own in warmer conditions or underneath thicker layers in cold conditions, making it a versatile fabric. One downside to synthetic wicking layers is odor absorption; during physical activity, polyester can absorb body odor and hold it there, and if the material is being worn on more than one occasion without being washed in between, the odor can be a problem. It is also petroleum-based, so shoppers looking for an eco-friendly choice may want to avoid this material.

Wool base layers have become a popular choice for all-season layering. Newer wool materials use finer strands, making the material softer against the skin. It is a natural fiber, so the choice is more eco-friendly than synthetics, and like synthetics, wool layers come in different weights, or thicknesses, that provide different levels of warmth or cooling. Wool base layers, like most other wool clothing choices, are prone to shrinking, however, and must be cared for carefully. Furthermore, wool layers can be cost-prohibitive.

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