The Highs: Great moisture-wicking & warmth; dries quickly

The Lows: Polymer-esque; not inexpensive

The Verdict: Very good base layer for a variety of activities

Imagine for a moment those poor souls who hiked, skied, or climbed mountains 40  or 50 years ago. Their “base layers” were made of cotton or wool. Cotton absorbed moisture and felt clammy; wool – 4 or 5 decades ago – was scratchy and heavy.

What a difference a few decades makes!

Today we have multiple options for base layers, with the primary contenders being: a) synthetics, and b) Merino wool.

Capilene is Patagonia’s synthetic base layer material and brand; made with recycled polyester (minimum 50% recycled content), Capilene is surprisingly soft, durable, and wicks away moisture quite effectively.

I’ve owned a couple of Capilene shirts – a tee and a long sleeve ¼ zip – for a couple of years, and have worn them dozens and dozens of times, mostly while playing golf in cool weather, running, or working out. After a couple of years, both look brand new.

The tee shirt, shown in the adjacent images,  is a perfect lightweight layer for cool weather.  It weighs 130 grams (about 4½ oz); by comparison, a standard weight Gildan cotton tee in the same size weighs 205 g, or 7.2 oz.

Weight is only part of the story; despite its origins, Capilene is silky and soft to the touch, and surprisingly warm. When exercising strenuously, it really does wick moisture away from your skin, although I should note that some users feel that synthetics do in fact feel clammy when wet.  That hasn’t been my experience, but YMMV.

Another significant benefit of Capilene is that it dries extremely quickly. If it becomes wet during a run, for instance, it dries fast and still feels reasonably warm. Also of note is the fact that Capilene is machine washable, which makes care easy.

On the downside, last time I checked, “polyester” was classified as a polymer, which is, if you’ve been paying attention, plastic. This is a synthetic material, and as is the case with virtually anything, there are some negatives that tiptoe into the room right behind the positives. You may prefer to opt for wool, should wearing a synthetic shirt be a show stopper for you.

Patagonia has expanded the Capilene line-up over the last several years, and now offers the material in 4 different weights; the following information is from the Patagonia website:

Capilene performance characteristics:

  • Quick to wick, quick to dry
  • Designed for fast-forward, aerobic activities
  • Features Gladiodor natural odor control
  • Made with recycled polyester (50% recycled content or more)
  • 100% recyclable
  • Machine washable

Patagonia offers four Capilene fabrics:

  • Capilene® 1 Silkweight is the silkiest and can be worn alone or as a baselayer
  • Capilene® 2 Lightweight is a great weight for aerobic use in mild to cool conditions
  • Capilene® 3 Midweight is a versatile, do it all baselayer for active use in cool to cold conditions
  • Capilene® 4 Expedition Weight is our warmest Capilene fabric

The other contemporary choice for base layers is Merino wool. Not to be confused with the stuff some of us grew up with, today’s woolen base layers are utterly fantastic. These new wool fabrics are soft against your skin, hold in warmth, and are remarkably odor resistant.  Versus synthetics like Capilene however, they don’t dry as quickly, and hand washing / drying flat is generally recommended. Depending upon brand, Merino wool can also be considerably more expensive than synthetic alternatives; it definitely pays to shop around. In another few weeks I’ll do a quick review of a Merino ¼ zip LS top from Icebreakers.

Head to Head:  Wool vs. Synthetic

The editors at Backpacking Light have written an extensive comparison test with synthetics and wool base layers, entitled Comfort and Moisture Transport in Lightweight Wool and Synthetic Base Layers. If you’re interested in learning more – much, much more – about the differences between these two base layer options, check it out.

They went so far as to have a couple of test subjects use specially constructed shirts which combined wool and synthetics, side by side (image on left).

The article is fascinating, and I encourage you to give it a look. Overall, the differences were not as significant as you might imagine:

Differences between wool and synthetics for both water absorption and drying times were not as earth shattering as we initially thought.

Choices we make for base layers should be based on conditions we hike in, and properties of fabrics. But even under similar conditions personal preference plays a big role. Each of us has different comfort levels for each fabric. Some people can’t wear even the softest wool fabrics without breaking out in a rash, while others cannot tolerate the stench of wearing a synthetic garment for a week, and still others hate the clammy feeling of synthetics. Whatever your personal preferences, we hope the information provided here will help you make more informed choices about your base layer.

Wrapping up

Whichever base layer you opt for, be thankful you’re able to benefit from the advances in technology which have occurred over the last several decades.

Patagonia’s Capilene base layer shirts are certainly a solid option.  Prices for tee shirts range from $29 (Capilene 1) to $39 (Capilene 2); LS shirts range from $45 (1 & 2) to $49 (3) to ~$99 (Capilene 4), in a variety of colors.

Consistent with its green philosophy and a nice touch, Patagonia accepts used Capilene garments as part of its recycling program.

See the Patagonia Capilene base layer options hereMen’s Capilene & Women’s Capilene

The Fine Print: I have no connection to Patagonia

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8 Comments on Quick review: Patagonia Capilene base layer tee shirt

  1. Andy says:

    I’m one of those people that were too sensitive to wool, but now I wear nothing but Icebreaker. It just took some time for my body and the shirts to warm up to each other. There’s more to it than just wicking; wool has a ton of benefits over synthetics. Until we start making shirts out of proteins nothing is going to compete with wool.

    It’s the same thing with goose down and synthetic insulation. You just can’t get anything synthetic that is as light, compressible, or warm. Try as we might, we simply can’t improve upon nature.

    [Reply]

    Andy Reply:

    It’s worth noting that all three members in the article ultimately preferred wool.

    [Reply]

    Kevin Reply:

    Absolutely. I thought it was a hell of an article! …talk about thorough! Thanks for your comments, Andy.

    [Reply]

  2. Maria says:

    Very interesting and highly detailed article. Fascinating what they went through for the research too.

    I too vote for wool. (Note – I do not have any of the high-end synthetics to compare.) I have Icebreaker winter layers, and am thrilled with them. Wash well, comfortable, and they do not hold odors, and yes it did take a while for my skin to decide to accept them…but I was determined. (Granted, there are days when my neck and wrists don’t like it!) Also, when active, the wool didn’t make me feel overheated compared to the plastic stuff.

    Looking forward to buying some of the Icebreaker summer weight items soon. I find the synthetic materials too “close” (can claustrophobic to the skins’ pores be termed for such?) and noticed that the man made materials seemed to pick up body odor rather quickly, especially after you’ve had the item for a while / used it over and over. Even after machine washing – it’s like the fibres had an an olfactory memory that kicked in a little too soon for social comfort. Like stains on polyester – almost impossible to remove compared to a natural fibre.

    If the manufacturing process / washing can remove any sheep odor from the wool – it should work for me!

    [Reply]

  3. Miguel Marcos says:

    I’ve tried synthetics and wool with various garments. The synthetics included Patagonia’s Capilene, some Mountain Hardwear, can’t remember what else. I’ve tried wool from SmartWool, Icebreaker, Chocolate Fish.

    I won’t buy synthetic anymore. The stink factor for me is too much. The wool dries almost as quickly. It’s a done deal.

    Where I do continue to buy synthetics is things like shorts and pants. I have 3 pair of pants from Outlier with Schoeller fabric which are outstanding in many ways. I like Patagonia’s Nine Trails shorts. They have 3 zipper pockets to carry small items when I go running.

    I do prefer buying from smaller outfits like Chocolate Fish than Icebreaker, if I can.

    [Reply]

    Kevin Reply:

    Miguel,

    Thank you for a terrific comment.

    I’ve been wearing a lightweight Icebreaker 1/4 zip LS shirt quite a bit recently (we are having a cold spring), purposely NOT washing it, and I have to say, the Merino is remarkable from an odor control standpoint.

    Thanks for the Chocolate Fish recommendation; I’ll definitely check them out.

    [Reply]

    Kevin Reply:

    Ouch – Chocolate Fish doesn’t ship to the U.S.

    [Reply]

    Miguel Marcos Reply:

    Shoot, I should’ve pointed out they were in the UK. They’re a small outfit so it doesn’t surprise me that they can’t yet handle US shipping. If they do at some point I’ll come back and post.

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