How to Choose a Base Layer for Sailing
If you have ever been sailing in cold and wet conditions and noticed your crewmembers are all smiles while you are cold and miserable, you may have missed the memo. Your comfort starts at the base – base layers.
Staying warm and dry onboard, even in extreme weather, requires a simple, but thoughtful approach to your layers. It all starts with your base layer. This is the layer in direct contact with your skin and the one that drives the performance of all of your other layers in terms of keeping you dry and warm.
These layers will all be made of performance materials. Remember that cotton is absolutely the worst fabric for base layers (or any layer). It does not wick moisture but retains it, making you cold. No cotton, please. Ever.
Now we’re going to show you how to be truly comfortable onboard when the weather is not so inviting.
Three Layer System
The best system on the water for keeping dry and warm is the use of three layers.
- Base Layers: Worn directly against the skin. Pulls moisture away from your body to keep skin dry while adding some insulation.
- Mid-layers: These fleece or soft shell layers are worn on top of the base layer to provide a layer of insulation and also wick moisture away from your body.
- Outer Shell: This keeps you dry and blocks the wind, generally a sailor’s foul weather gear, but could be a windproof jacket on a dry day. It should also be breathable so that moisture from your body is transported out of the gear.
How should a base layer fit?
In order for a base layer to efficient at accomplishing its primary task, keeping you dry, it must lay directly against your skin and not be baggy or loose – a ‘second skin’ fit. Being in direct contact with your skin allows the materials to immediately wick perspiration away from your skin as it is generated.
Be aware that different brands are cut and fit differently. Try items on before using them on the boat to be sure you have a proper fit. Additionally, those fabrics with just a bit of spandex blended into the material offer more stretch and fit snugly without feeling constrictive.
Base Layer Fabrics
For sailing, there are two types of fabrics used – Synthetic and Merino wool. Each has unique benefits. Generally speaking, synthetics will be the best value over time.
Synthetic base layers are made from polyester (and sometimes nylon, polypropylene or rayon). Synthetics are:
- Very Dry – They do the best job of moving moisture away from your skin and leave you the driest.
- Durable – The fabrics will hold up to use and abrasion better than any other.
- Odor – Synthetics collect body oils and are not antibacterial by nature. If you will be wearing them for multiple days between washings, they will start to stink. Some synthetics do have finishes to reduce odor, but they are not foolproof and can eventually wear away.
Merino wool is not itchy or scratchy at all due to its ultrafine fibers, so don’t be put off. Merino fabrics with a spandex blend offer comfortable stretch and fit snugly without feeling constriction. Merino fabrics are:
- Wicks well – Moves moisture, but some is retained in the wool, but will not chill you (a unique wool trait). It will though take longer to dry than a synthetic.
- Somewhat Durable – Worn as a base layer under other layers, Merino fabrics will last long. If worn as a stand-alone garment, chafing on harnesses, PDF’s the deck and rigging can wear through the fabric.
- Odor Free – Wool is highly and naturally resistant to odor-causing bacteria. It can be worn for days on end with no stink.
Remember, cotton is absolutely the worst fabric for base layers (or any layer). It will not wick and holds water making you cold.
What does a ‘wicking’ material mean?
All base layers should be made from wicking materials. These fabrics efficiently pull moisture away from your skin, and draw it through the material by capillary action. Then, from the outside surface of the base layer, it can be transported further away from your body by more wicking layers or evaporate into the air if no further layers are worn.
Because water absorbs heat 25 times faster than air of the same temperature, it is critical to remain dry in order to stay warm. Moving moisture off of and away from your skin will allow your insulating layers to provide the warmth you desire.
Base layer weights
Typically there are three weights: light, medium and heavy.
Lightweight layers are always deemed the best first layer to wear, no matter the temperature outside. As a rule, the thinner the fabric, the better it wicks and the faster it dries. For cold to extremely cold days, wear a lightweight layer against your skin with a medium weight (or heavyweight over top). Mid layers can then be added for additional warmth.
Medium weight: These are dual purpose, and can be used as a standalone base layer when you do not anticipate excessive amounts of perspiration. Otherwise, they would be worn over a lightweight base layer. Mid layers can then be added for additional warmth.
Heavyweight: Due to their thickness, they are not great first layers unless you anticipate low perspiration. Generally, these are worn on top of a lightweight base layer for cold conditions. Mid layers can then be added for additional warmth.
Layer for Your Activity Level
The key to layering for different levels of physical activity is in the number of layers you wear. More thin layers are better than one or two thick layers. Your ability to add and remove layers as your activity level increases and decreases, and as the temperature and wind increase and decrease, will determine how well you can maintain warmth and comfort.
The following scenarios are the general approach to layering for different temperatures. If you will be perspiring a lot in cold or frigid conditions, remember to add a lightweight base layer first to best move moisture from the surface of your skin.
Cool – lightweight base layer with a medium or heavy base layer over top
Cold – medium base layer and light or medium mid layers
Frigid – Heavy base layer and medium or heavy mid layers
What about Underwear?
Our staff agrees that wearing underwear under base layers is best for performance and comfort. For men this would be wicking briefs; and for women, this would be wicking panties/briefs and a support top.
Underwear effectively becomes your base layer, so keep to thin, wicking, lightweight, next to skin fitting pieces. Men, stay away from loose fitting boxer cut underwear. These are better used on hot days under technical sailing shorts.
Using household laundry detergents can and fabric conditioners will impair the wicking properties of base layer fabrics (and any wicking material). Standard household detergents do not stop odors from building up in the fabric when in use. Conventional fabric conditioners leave water-hating (hydrophobic) residues that will reduce the performance of the fabric, preventing it from spreading moisture and working to its maximum potential.
Synthetic fabrics have no odor resistance and require regular washing. Some have special treatments and coatings to aid in controlling odor, but these will wear and wash away over time. Use a non-detergent wash like Pro Cleaner which will not leave any residue on the fibers and is washing machine safe. To remove odor, add a few caps to the washing machine of MiraZyme Odor Eliminator which is a blend of natural microbes that removes the bacteria causing the odor from the fibers of the fabric. Hang garments to dry. Clothes dryers are not recommended.
Merino wool requires special care when washing. First, use a wool washing agent that has no softeners or perfumes such as Wool Wash from Nikwax. Generally, wash in cool or warm water either by hand or in a washing machine (not crowded – extra water space) on the regular cycle to ensure a complete rinse. Clothes dryers are not recommended – hot or cool. Laying wet garments out on flat surface to dry is the best. Using a drying rack is good too, but items may come away a bit misshapen.