Since no one loves you like we do here at FasterSkier, we went out and made ourselves uncomfortable so you won’t have to. What’s up next in our ongoing series of selflessness and giving? Base layer review.
Base layers are really where the rubber hits the road. While puffies are nice — who doesn’t love a good puffy? — under all but the most unusual circumstances, you should be wearing your puffy TO ski, not DURING the ski. Base layers, however, are your first and sometimes only defense against the elements. Goof up this step and you’re pretty much guaranteed to be miserable. Well, more miserable, since skiing is always miserable.
After careful consideration (beers), my crackerjack team (to be clear, this is comprised of actual people, not CrackerJacks) and I decided that the most effective strategy to communicate the results of our extensive, painstaking research would be to group the base layers by usage category. This should allow you, the faithful reader, to simply jump to your preferred area(s) of interest and, boom, you have the perfect product recommendation for your next ski/adventure/date/dog walk.
This is where “home field advantage” became quite apparent, as it was obvious which companies specialize in nordic gear. Each of the six reviewers had their own evaluation matrix, each of which were kept private and confidential until our final meeting, at which point everyone shared their findings and scores. We followed this process for a variety of reasons, but in particular to avoid “group think.” So even with keeping the scores and comments of all reviewers confidential until the very end, there was overwhelming consensus on a few brands and I’m sure it is no accident that the brands that scored the highest across the board are the ones that focus on nordic skiing.
One of the marquee names in the sport for a reason — both the tops and the bottoms are probably the best all-around garments for racing. Craft only sent one weight, their “Active Extreme” model, so obviously this was the only weight tested. Both the men’s and women’s tops and bottoms all fit well under race suits, training jackets or alone for free-ballin’ on sunny spring days.
Strengths: Soft, comfortable wicking fabric scored highly with every single reviewer. Tops are long so they stay in place well in races, double-pole marathon sessions and crashes (I’m looking at you, Taylor Fletcher).
Weaknesses: Tended to hold odor more than the merino options from other brands
Buy it if: You want to win races, you don’t care if you smell on long trips or have any desire to have sex within 72 hours of workouts.
Another one of the big names and they also did not disappoint. BD provided two weights, the heavier of which strategically incorporates merino wool into its design.
Strengths: Thicker top is warm, though some (but not all) found it a bit itchy. The thinner one was a an all-around home run, with our female reviewers voting the male version the “sexiest training outfit.” (This may be due to the fact that I was wearing it, but I digress…) It also wicked perspiration very well and simply seemed to move with you. And you look good — always a plus.
Weaknesses: The girls also loved the women’s version of the thin top, but thought the thicker one “fit like a dude’s shirt.” There was also the aforementioned “itchy problem” for some testers who weren’t born with the FBDesque shark-like skin. Logo looks like you could be advertising “BJs,” which I suppose can be either a plus or a minus.
Buy it if: You want to win races, like bright colors, and/or have a good business plan involving BJs.
The last of the big nordic names also brought it strong. They only sent us tops, so factor this in accordingly.
Strengths: The thick version was by far everyone’s favorite heavyweight top. While most of the test team generally prefers crew necks, the mock neck on this “felt like a soft, perfectly sized buff,” said one staffer. Another noted, “It almost feels more like a fleece than a base layer, but it a good way: the thickness was perfect for cold skis.” And perhaps the most poignant comment of all, “The was my favorite piece hands down. You can sleep in in, ski in it, then wear it to the bar, looking good and being comfortable every step of the way.”
Weaknesses: Thin top felt a little too sheer for many and several noted that this model wasn’t all that warm, even for a lightweight top, and in particular when compared to some of the other top brands.
Buy it if: You’re on a budget and can only afford one piece that needs to play lots of roles, including sleepwear.
The only non-nordic specific brand to grace the upper echelon of this review. “The Bird” made the cut because of, well, the cut. All of their products fit flawlessly. The seams lay nicely, don’t rub and the entire piece is very well engineered, with one notable exception: these crazy Canadians add a pocket to a few of the garments, which in itself is weird and to add insult to injury, they placed it in some very strange locations. Furthermore, even if this wacky pocket could fit something of value, we’re all convinced that having something bounce around during intervals or a race would pretty much drive us all insane. Not to mention that the zipper pulls and snags on race tops. Thankfully, not all of the pieces had a zipper and to be blunt, none of us would buy the ones that do.
Strengths: Merino wool is “da bomb.” (Some of the kids on the team say this — I personally have no idea what it means and please don’t put me on a Watch List if anyone from the NSA is reading this). Their other top secret fabric was also one of our favorites. Seams are perfect. Fit a wide range of body types perfectly.
Weakness: That stupid pocket. A bit spendy.
Buy it if: You believe deodorant was sent to earth by the devil, you are rolling in dough or you moonlight as a seamstress and can remove superfluous chest/arm pockets without wrecking your pricey base layer.
It almost goes without saying that all of the products good for racing are also good for training. So for the purposes of this analysis, consider all of the race recommendations also perfect for training. The distinction that is being made with this category is some of these products are either a little bulkier, less breathable, don’t fit under race suits or are more multi-purpose.
This was a toughie. In general we all liked these tops a lot (especially the merino ones), but fit was an issue, particularly for the female reviewers. More on this shortly. Thusly, these observations landed Big P squarely in the “training category.”
Strengths: Merino tops are warm, excellent at wicking, and comfortable in a wide temperature range. Also by far the best on smell, which is a huge issue for traveling racers, dirty college kids, or near-homeless athletes. Style and quality index was also the best of the bunch. One of the best comments from the reviewer notes was, “The nordic ski world is full of plain, solid block coloring, so the stripes are a breath of fresh air.” “Feels like it would last forever,” noted another coach. The women’s top was the most highly rated piece and deemed capable for essentially every activity (more on this shortly as well).
Weaknesses: Fit, fit, fit. The bottoms were laughably large, to the point that we thought we were sent the wrong size (we were not). The female coaches in particular really had issues: “They fit like yoga pants that are six sizes too big,” “They look like men’s pants,” “Sizing is just plain weird,” “It feels like I’m wearing fishing waders,” or the real killer, “perfect if you have given up on life.” Wow. Note to self, never cross a female nordic coach.
Buy if it: You don’t own a race suit, you have an incredible aversion to washing machines or you want versatile, well-made clothing that can be worn for a wide variety of winter activities. Or in the case of the bottoms, you have given up on life. (Again, I’m looking at you, Taylor Fletcher.)
This was another tricky one, as the fine folks from Freeport, Maine, also provide two versions: one of which we loved and one of which we hated. To be fair, the good one deserves to be in the “race ready” category, but attempting to split a brand into two categories was making this process even more confusing, so just like that one idiot friend who ruins your chances in the bar with the pretty girl by saying something stupid, the one wonderful piece was brought down by it’s stupid friend with the creepy thousand-yard stare.
Strengths: The tops and bottoms of the Men’s Polypro Base Layer, Long-Sleeve Crew were very popular with both the men and the women. Every piece seemed to provide just the right amount of compression, warmth, breathability and movement. Huge win. “If you haven’t thought of L.L. Bean as a high-performance ski brand before, this is going to change all of that,” said one coach. “Closest thing to being naked without breaking the law,” claimed another. “L.L. Bean has really upped their game to performance gear,” said one of the most critical reviewers on the team. In short, we all loved it. This model can easily be worn while racing, training and in other winter adventures.
Weaknesses: The Polartec Power Dry Lightweight model was the complete opposite. Just when the women thought they couldn’t dislike any base layer more than the Patagonia bottoms, this model came along. Everything was wrong: fit, style, sizing, color, it was a train wreck. This photo pretty much says it all:
Buy it if: You buy the good one.
It should be noted that most of these negative reviews centered around a fit problem, a problem that in all reality is easily rectified by simply buying the correct size. Having said that, we requested the same size from all of the manufacturers and the point here is that different companies have a very different idea of what constitutes a “Large” bottom (nah, too easy).
We also fully recognize that the larger, more mainstream brands aren’t just selling to fit, svelte nordic skiers, which surely is at the heart of this problem. Our two oldest reviewers are each an “unspecified” number of years past 50, but each of them still to this day have body fat percentages well south of 10 percent and are undoubtedly in the top 1 percent of fitness in this age range, so it makes sense that gear designed for the “average American” may not fit them as well as it does “commoners”. So take all of these comments with a grain of salt, size down accordingly, and most importantly, don’t sue me, as none of the mean stuff came from me.
3. STRENGTH TRAINING
This brand has been around for a while, but is making a big push into aerobic sports. Competition improves the breed, so we wanted to like this stuff, we really did, and some of it was good, but remember the junior-high gym teacher? Yeah, the weird, heavy dude with the whistle who wore the shorts with the funny painted snaps in the front? Well, this is probably what he’s wearing these days (if he’s not dead from a heart attack or in prison). We’re going to give them a solid B for their first foray into nordic, with the hope that the hire a few starving skiers for product testing and feedback. Overall, not a bad start, but plenty of work left to do.
Strengths: None of the base layer bottoms were really base layers, rather more like traditional tights that you’d wear as an outer layer. Now, having said that, the compression ones are quite nice and would be perfect for falls runs or bounding workouts. The women often wore the tights around for casual wear as leggings and said they were great. Would you wear any of this stuff nordic skiing though? Probably not.
Weaknesses: Poor breathability, mobility and cut. Clearly not designed for skiers. “I feel like I should be going for max bench when I wear this,” said one coach. Like some of the other non-nordic brands, UA also struggled with sizing, as illustrated by this biting comment from the review matrix: “Fit is OK if worn over jeans.” And not everyone loved the styling: one of our more critical female reviews (fishing wader girl) noted, “The tights look like something that Tad Elliott would wear to a rave.”
Buy it if: You’ve sold your skis and now live in the weight room, you want decent running/sport-casual apparel, you have little formal education, a fondness for whistles and are applying for a position as an assistant football and/or strength and conditioning coach at the local junior college.
4. BEING A HIPSTER
One of the many perks of being the “Big Swingin’ D” at FasterSkier is start-ups hit me up all of the time to review their products. Some are good, some are not, but I always love giving the little guy a shot at knocking Goliath down a peg or two. Underwear start-up company (is that even a thing?) Tani sent us two pairs of their attempt at a base layer and the results were, well, mixed.
Strengths: The hand of the fabric is very nice, perhaps one of the best in the entire review. The bottoms are too short for the massive, towering FBD at 6-foot-3, but this aside, they are quite comfortable and would work well for little people, elementary-school children or people with pant inseams less than 24 inches.
Weaknesses: Of all of the products we reviewed, this was the one CLEARLY not designed with nordic skiing in mind (Don’t believe me, check out their website, which looks like a combination of an ’80s Calvin Klein ad and a soft-core porno). The V-neck top is nothing short of bizarre. The plunging neckline would put even the trashiest Vegas cocktail waitress to shame and it not only looks strange, it functions poorly. Unzip your training jacket and it feels like you’re wearing nothing but a pair of suspenders (which I do occasionally for reasons I’d rather not go into at this time). While modeling this for a group of fellow nordic nerds, I received comparisons to both Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Mikhail Baryshnikov, neither of which were the look I was going for:
Buy it if: You want to ride your fixie around Brooklyn to faux dive bars in your pretend lumberjack outfit and not catch cold.
Since gear is expensive and it’s always wise to multipurpose equipment whenever possible, let’s talk about the applicability of these base layers for alpine skiing. While hanging with USSA CEO Tiger Shaw (name drop) in Switzerland (place drop), he commented, “FBD, How DO you do it? You are so cool, so fast, and you tear it up on nordic and alpine. I want to model my life after yours (I am paraphrasing here slightly, but you get the point). He then went on to comment on the difficulties of racing alpine as you get older, in particular compared to nordic, which truly is one of the best “lifetime sports”. All true. The point here is that many nordies crossover or even cross-train with alpine, AT, backcountry, etc., so in particular for the more aerobic side of these adventures, much of this gear is perfect.
- Craft: Again, one of the best. Everything about it just works. Just please do us all a favor and wash it from time to time, OK? (I’m looking at you, Josh Smullin and your goofy, anti-deodorant stance)
- Thick Swix: Ditto, provided it is very cold or you’re not “earning your turns,” in which case it is too hot and you will boil (which I hate).
- Good L.L. Bean: Essentially same weight as Craft, so all of the same terms and conditions apply
- Patagonia tops: Probably the activity for which they were originally designed, as this is where they really shine: good fit, great warmth, superior style. Merino options seem magically repel smell, which is key, if you lifestyle involves interacting with other humans at some level.
Yes, nordic skiers do après. Is it is the Gong Show Jerryfest blowout that you see at any alpine resort every day? Hardly. It usually involves a cup of coffee, a locally sourced, organic, whole grain quinoa muffin consumed within the requisite post-workout glycogen window, followed by a nap, but I suppose this is better than nothing and since it is after skiing and my high school French is still going strong, it is technically “après-ski.”
- Patagonia: In Patagonia CEO Yves Chouinard’s excellent book, Let My People Go Surfing, he writes about how Patagonia lost its way as a company in the ’80s, mainly by losing sight of their mission (high-quality outdoor gear) and caved to the pressures of Wall Street and the fickle fashion industry. In that time period, they earned the nickname Patagucci, for their emphasis of fashion over function. From time to time we throw around this moniker, lovingly now, as the quality is back and we find that oftentimes Patagonia brings the style and steez factor more than any other company. A perfect case in point, the women’s striped top. ALL of the female reviewers loved it, not only for training, but also apres. Or even for every-day. “So comfortable and pretty it feels like you’re dressed up for dinner at a fancy restaurant,” claimed one. Another summarized this thought nicely, “It’s your work day and your apres.”
As for the fellas, well, just try to wear something that doesn’t smell and do your best to not say anything stupid.
7. SNOW SHOVELING
Who are you kidding? You are a nordic skier, you don’t shovel show. You are too worried that you’ll hurt your back, that you won’t be recovered in time for your epic DP “sesh” tomorrow and you’ve been gone for four hours, skiing and eating muffins, so the wife has probably done it anyway. If she hasn’t, call someone — you need your rest.
8. SKI DATE
Do nordic skiers actually get dates? Of course they do, now granted, it is usually with OTHER nordic skiers, but that’s OK, too, in fact, it’s probably a good idea, as so much of what we do is just so weird, it takes another skier to understand the madness.
- Dudes: Craft if you want to look hardcore, BD if you actually want to get laid. Bean if you’re crafting that woodsman look, Tani if you’re going full-on “fakerjack”
- Chicks: Patagucci top for all of the reasons noted above, Arc’teryx top if you’re battling a pesky BO problem yet still want to look hot, Bean if you need help squeezing some stuff in.
9. BREAKING UP WITH YOUR BOYFRIEND/GIRLFRIEND
We’ve got this dialed, as there are two perfect options here:
- Patagonia bottoms: Mix and match these with any top, it won’t matter, splitsville will only be seconds away.
- L.L. Bean bad outfit: Wear this getup and this deed will be accomplished with no effort on your part whatsoever. No one will ever want to be seen in public with someone wearing this, so he or she will do all of the dirty work for you before you even have time to sit down, allowing you to leave the coffee shop with a clear conscious, free to search for greener pastures.