As temperatures start to sink like Notre Dame’s odds of making the College Football Playoffs, many begin to reexamine their layering system for the fall and winter. That starts with the base layer.
The base layer is your most important layer. If you screw it up, you’ll be fighting an uphill battle to regulate temperatures. Get it right, and you can wear it all day trying to put meat in the freezer.
What do we need to consider when choosing the best base layer for hunting?
Best Qualities of a Good Base Layer for Hunting
- Temperature Regulating- Your base layer is your first line of defense against the harsh temperatures nature can throw at you. We need it to keep us warm when it is cool out and wick the sweat away as the day warms up. It should be able to keep you warm even when it is wet.
- Breathable- To my previous point, as your body starts to warm up through physical exertion or an increase in temperature, you need your base layer to allow you to get that sweat away from your body. The pores on a base layer should be open so that the sweat can get to the outer part of the garment and evaporate.
- Comfortable- Your base layer is right up against your skin. The last thing you need is something that is itchy or too tight. You want to be able to focus on your hunt, not how soon you can get out of your clothes.
- Durable- If you are hunting all day, you may strip it down to just your base layer (at least up top) in the afternoon. You need that base layer to hold up to the rigors of your hunt. And don’t even get me started on base layers that can’t hold up to the rigors of your washing machine.
- Odor Resistant– Elk, deer, bear, and many others have an excellent sense of smell. There is no need to give them any more advantage in this arena by wearing clothes that stink. That’s why an odor-resistant base layer is a must for hunting. Your hunting partner will be grateful too.
Best Base Layer Material
For years, cotton was the go-to for base layers. Pick up a pair of waffled, long-johns at your local K-Mart and you were ready to spend your morning shaking more than a dancer in a Cardi B video.
No longer! Base layers are now made from synthetic and natural options that will keep you warm even when wet…unlike cotton.
Let’s go over the most popular options on the market.
If you’ve never worn merino wool, you probably start to itch just thinking about wool touching your skin.
Unlike traditional wool, merino wool is extremely soft against the skin. It also has a very high warmth-to-weight ratio, which means you won’t have to wear a super thick, bulky base layer to stay warm.
Other benefits of merino wool include its natural odor resistance. I have personally worn my merino wool base layer hunting for weeks at a time. While I wouldn’t have taken my wife out to dinner in it, it didn’t offend my hunting buddies (or at least they were too nice to tell me if it did).
If you’re looking for a significant drawback to merino wool it is its durability. I don’t recommend it as an outer layer because it is more prone to rips, tears, and picks than synthetic materials.
Because of this, many manufacturers blend merino with some synthetic materials to help it retain its shape and improve its durability. Most merino garments can be machine washed which is important because who really has the time to handwash anything?
Another con with merino can be the price. Quality merino wool base layers can be expensive. Keep reading though, because I have some more economical merino options below.
Synthetic (Polyester or Nylon)
Synthetic materials are another great option for a hunting base layer. First off, they are much more durable than merino which is great for when you need to strip it down on a warm day.
While technically lighter than merino wool, synthetics do not have the warmth-to-weight ratio of merino. However, that doesn’t mean that you can’t stay plenty warm wearing them.
Polyester and nylon do not have natural odor resistance like merino wool. For this reason, many manufacturers are starting to make synthetic base layers with zinc or some other odor-resisting material.
You can wash synthetics frequently which will help with the odors. If you find that you just can’t get rid of the stench in a synthetic garment, try washing in white vinegar and baking soda before you throw it out. This usually works for me when I think I’ve reached the point of no return with one of my base layers.
Synthetics are breathable. They allow your sweat to escape from your skin. This is an important quality in a base layer. Like merino, synthetic base layers will keep you warm even when wet.
Synthetic base layers are usually a little less expensive than comparable merino products.
Silk shares many of the same qualities as merino wool…including a little bit higher price tag. However, modern silk has come a long way and is becoming more of an option for a hunting base layer.
Like merino, silk is a lightweight, but warm material. It is also naturally breathable and odor resistant.
In the past, you could never clean silk at home. Nowadays, silk base layers are more durable and many can be washed in a machine.
There are not nearly as many silk options as merino wool and synthetic material base layers. However, silk has enough good qualities that we may see it grow as an option in the future.
Who Makes the Best Base Layer for Hunting?
When it comes to choosing a base layer for hunting, you have many options. Let’s break it down into manufacturers who make hunting-specific clothing and non-hunting brands.
Base Layers Made by Hunting Brands
Sitka has become synonymous with high-end hunting apparel. Its gear is quality and generally on the cutting edge technologically.
Sitka offers both polyester and merino wool blend garments. They are designated “Lightweight,” “Midweight,” and “Heavyweight” based on the level of warmth you need from your base layer.
While you will rarely hear anyone complain about the quality and functionality of Sitka apparel, these clothes do come with a high price tag.
If you haven’t heard of Black Ovis, I’ll forgive you. However, you owe me for turning you onto it.
Black Ovis is an online hunting gear store. They sell premium products at some of the best prices.
They also have their own brand of base layers. These merino and merino blend bottoms and tops come in lightweight, midweight, and heavyweight models.
If you are looking for a quality hunting base layer at a fair price, check out Black Ovis.
First Lite is known for making really quality merino (technically merino blend) gear. Their base layers are no exception.
First Lite makes its base layers for hunting in three different levels for all-season comfort. One really cool feature on some models is the ability to zip off your base layers as it warms up.
For quality merino wool base layers, First Lite should be a leading contender. If it’s good enough for the Meat Eater, it oughtta be good enough for you.
Kuiu’s Peloton baselayers are famous for their warmth, comfort, versatility, and quality. Made from polyester and reinforced with odor-blocking technology, these base layers do everything you need them to.
If you’re looking for a merino base, Kuiu has those too. These base layers are made in two different thicknesses. You can buy them in camo or solid colors.
Base Layers Made by Non-Hunting Brands That You Can Use for Hunting
Under Armour is a long-time player in the base layer game. While I considered them a non-hunting brand, they do have a hunting-specific line of clothing.
The ColdGear line has been a go-to synthetic layer for many years. There are now several options for fit. They also have odor-resistant models as well.
While not cheap by any means, Under Armour base layers are reasonably priced compared to some of the other brands we’ve discussed. There’s certainly no shame in using a product that has stood the test of time.
Like Under Armour, Icebreaker has been making quality clothing for a long time.
While a bit on the pricey side, Icebreaker’s lineup is just good. Nothing too flashy or trendy, it is designed to be functional and keep you warm.
If you can find it on sale, it’s hard to go wrong with Icebreaker base layers for hunting.
If you’re looking for a bargain on merino wool base layers, check out Sierra (formerly Sierra Trading Post). Sierra regularly sells high-end outdoor clothing (think TJ Maxx) from previous years’ stock. Therefore, you can get a pretty good bargain. Sierra regularly carries Smartwool products.
As you might have gathered from the name, Smartwood produces base layers made from merino wool. They have a TON of options when it comes to colors and fits. Whether you want a hood, buttons, or just a regular crewneck, Smartwool probably makes something that will work for you.
While not a hunting-specific brand, Meriwool provides high-quality merino base layers at a fairly affordable price. While it doesn’t have nearly as many options as Smartwool, if you’re just looking for a basic baselayer that gets it done, Meriwool is a good choice.
What base layer I would choose for hunting…
…on a budget
The real value when looking for a base layer for hunting is Meriwool. 100 to 150 bucks will get you a set of merino wool base layers that you can count on whether you are elk hunting in the Rockies or turkey hunting in the midwest.
…for extreme cold
If I was hunting in extremely cold conditions, I would pick Sitka’s Heavyweight base layers. These are especially nice for deer hunts where you might have to hike way in but then sit still in the bitter cold for hours.
…in the backcountry for a week
I would choose the First Lite zip-off base layers for a backcountry hunt where I was limited in what I could pack. Knowing I would be living in these same clothes for many days, the versatility that the zip-off base layers offer would be invaluable.
If you enjoyed this article, you may also enjoy my article on the best turkey hunting gifts.