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Helly Hansen developed the first “wicking” synthetic base layer back in the early 1970s, and according to Helly’s Kristoffer Ulrickson, the basic concept has remained pretty much the same ever since. Helly Hansen’s Dry Revolution (Top $60/Bottom $55), for example, still uses the same basic synthetic materials to create a fabric that absorbs only a fraction of the moisture that cotton does.
This is not to say that Helly and other base layer manufacturers have been resting on their laurels. Today’s top-end wicking layers don’t just provide the necessary insulation to keep you warm, they provides different levels of insulation to different parts of your body depending on physiological needs.
Helly’s Dry Revolution, for example, features different weaves around the torso, under the arms and in the crotch area to provide the optimal combination of warmth and wicking performance. It’s the same thing with Musto’s new Active Base Layer line ($81). The tops and bottoms are comprised of a patchwork of different thicknesses and weaves to ensure you get the right combination of warmth and wicking where you need it.
Another major advance over base layers in the past is comfort. On the one hand, today’s fibers—like Helly’s latest Lifa configuration and the Nilit yarns used in the Musto line—are softer than ever. On the other, today’s top-end tops and bottoms are woven, like a pair of socks, as opposed to being assembled from cut parts like most garments, which means a minimum of seams, thereby reducing the risk of chafe.
Bear in mind that a number of different thicknesses are available to keep you warm in a range of different conditions, no matter what your activity level. For those planning on sailing through colder climes, there are products like Musto’s Extreme Base Layer($120) made from expedition weight Polartec 100 mico stretch fleece.