Base layers are a key piece of gear when exploring the world or hiking outdoors. They keep you comfortable by wicking moisture and regulating temperature.
Merino wool has spread like wild fire into the industry and is becoming the choice material for most adventurers. It’s comfortable, doesn’t smell, regulates, and there’s a litany of opinion comparing the natural material to synthetics. I’m a big fan of Merino Wool, but how does it compare to Patagonia’s prize winning Capilene? Here are two big players that you may want to consider on your next cold weather adventure.
I prefer the fit of Capilene; the Smartwool 250 is baggy and suffers from stretch (though rebounds in a wash). It’s a third of the weight, yet arguably just as warm. Patagonia engineered magic into this layer because it’s so paper thin how could this possibly keep me warm?! But it does. For perspective, the Capilene weighs around 4oz, the Smartwool 250, 11oz.
Both are durable. Even wearing them as an outer layer I foresee both enduring a beating. I have a Capilene Thermal weight from 10 years ago that’s still going strong – built like an old Volvo – time will tell if this new version holds up the same. That said the Capilene Air (Patagonia’s warmest base layer) is supposedly not that durable (susceptible to pilling and tears) but I haven’t tested that.
Merino wool has great durability in general. Both are great material for climbing, Alpining, and most rough activities.
Because it’s lighter, the Patagonia is better for minimalist hiking. It’s practical for climbing and cold weather sports, too. While the Smartwool 250 is capable its weight and girth could be considered a hinderance. Both have hooded and non-hooded versions so an ideal setup would be having one of each so you can layer them if necessary and the hooded versions come with thumb loops to keep the sleeves secure. Looks are personal taste but both can be worn around town as a normal shirt and look kühl.
Both are no doubt warm. The Merino 250 MUST be warmer than its Capilene counterpart based on thickness along, right? In practical application it doesn’t seem to be the case… perhaps in sub-zero. Considering you can wear 2 Patagonias and still have less weight than the Merino 250 – I think I’ll have to hand it to the Patagonia. Impressive is how thin the Patagonia is yet the warmth it retains. When doing a summit in sub-zero temps, layer up on the Capilene Thermal Weights (or Capilene Airs) and you’ll be snug as a bug.
Which Should I Buy?
I err to minimalism and don’t like having more clothes than I need. Patagonia Capilene seems the most balanced of all the base layers I tested including Kuhl, Smartwool, IBEX (but they’re gone), Patagonia. and these seemed as the best stand outs. Pricey yes, but you won’t be disappointed with the Capilene base layers from Patagonia.