By Jeff Burke
The Active Times

Cotton may be the fabric of your life, but in the great outdoors -- the great cold outdoors -- it'll ruin you. When natural cotton gets wet, it stays wet; and you get a chill. If you remain in a cold environment with wet clothes, chances are you'll get hypothermia. It's that simple.

Prolonged exposure to cold isn't fun. But if you have the right kind of base layer, namely merino wool and/or synthetic poly, you’ll not only enjoy the cold outdoors, but you'll be safer. (And for the record, hypothermia can happen in above-freezing temperatures.)

When synthetic athletic base layers came out decades ago, they wicked moisture away from the body and kept you dry. But it came with a price. While the fabric pulled sweat away from your skin, it left a stinky trail. I myself used to put my base layers into the freezer after washing to kill any remaining microbial stench.

But a lot has changed since then, namely the proliferation of merino wool. This miracle fiber naturally prevents the buildup of microbial particles in the yarn fabric. And with the new treatments for synthetics -- which prevent sweat particulates from attaching to the fibers -- sweat has nothing to do but evaporate into the ether.

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Personal preference is an important factor when choosing wool over synthetic, or vice versa. Many winter sports enthusiasts choose merino for the next-to-skin softness, and because it retains heat when wet and doesn’t stink after repeated use (within reason).

Synthetics, however, are also still popular because they can draw moisture away from the body. They also dry fast and can be very inexpensive compared to high-end Merino yarns.

That said, many companies are now blending wool and synthetics such that the dual fabric not only pulls moisture away from the skin, it also dries more quickly while keeping some of its inherent heat retention. This means you'll stay dry -- and thus warmer -- throughout longer high-output winter activities.

Below are 10 wool, synthetic and hybrid base layers that go the distance in the most arduous cold-weather climates. They also pass muster in stand-alone style for an afternoon at the library, coffee shop or bar.

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Marmot ThermalClime Pro Crew

Marmot's ThermalClime Pro Crew has a cool bi-component knit construction that aligns larger yarn fibers to draw sweat off the skin, passing moisture onto smaller fibers that quickly spread out for fast drying. The augmented evaporation process makes it a solid choice for extended days in backcountry huts. $50


Ibex Woolies Zip T

Ibex's signature wool base layer has been around for a long time for a reason. The cozy merino Zip T use a super-fine spun yarn that’s comfy next to skin and naturally odor-resistant, and the rib construction is air permeable for superior active mobility and temperature regulation. $90


Mammut Go Warm Zip Long Sleeve

Mammut's Symbitech hybrid Go Warm combines poly microfibers and merino wool by body-mapping them to specific locations that conduct or lose the most heat. The trim athletic cut looks good as a stand-alone, or it'll layer -- your choice. And the angulated back hem eliminates plumber’s crack. $85


Outdoor Research Sequence & Essence Crews

OR's simple synthetic/merino blended crew -- Sequence for men and Essence for women -- is just something to have in your quiver. The fiber blend pulls sweat away from the body and pushes it into the air. A no-brainer for chilly fall runs, it’ll also moonlight as a light-duty base layer for skiing and can make friends at happy hour.


Icebreaker Oasis Crewe

The pride of New Zealand, Icebreaker's lightweight, sustainably sourced 100-percent merino has been the darling of many a wool aficionado. Super cozy next to skin, the Oasis Crewe is a savvy stand-alone winter shirt or a dependable base layer for any demanding winter adventure. The offset shoulder seams work well under a pack's straps, and the angulated hem gives added coverage to the lower back. $90


Mountain Hardwear Integral Pro Long Sleeve T

MH's proprietary Wick Q merino/poly blend is a multi-tasker, combining the warmth of wool with the wicking and fast-drying virtues of synthetics, for a durable, odor-resistant base layer worthy of a hard-earned Everest ascent. $80/$78 (M/W)


Arc'teryx Phase AR Zip Neck

The AR stands for "all-round." Arc'teryx's synthetic Phase base layer is designed for maximum mobility and performance in the mountains. The next-to-skin fit removes unnecessary bulk, and the mechanical poly stretch provides unrestricted movement while transferring moisture for efficient evaporation. The smart outer-face fabric is smooth for ergonomic layering. $79

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For the complete list of the Best Base Layers, go to

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