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Is Polyester a Good Base Layer?

Most of the time, when you hear the word “Polyester”, it’s not in the most positive light. Commonly, people deride polyester because it’s a synthetic fabric. Hikers, backpackers, and people who love the National Parks, though, know that polyester clothing has a lot to offer. Is polyester a good base layer, or just another cheap fabric to ignore? This brief article has the answer!

What is a Base Layer?

man running on a trail wearing polyester

Base layers are, well, exactly what they sound like. They’re the thinnest, most comfortable piece of clothing you wear while backpacking. Your base layer should keep you from overheating during intense parts of the hike, and keep you warm if it’s not yet cold enough for a jacket. More importantly, your base layer needs to keep you dry. Sweat and water make you uncomfortable and can ruin a hike like no other. The base layer you choose has got to be breathable, dry, and comfortable.

Best Material for Base Layers

Merino Wool

There isn’t anything quite like merino wool. Made from the hair of merino sheep, this fabric can come in all sorts of configurations, including base layers. Smartwool makes incredibly comfortable, breathable base layers. Wool is also excellent at keeping you dry. The only downside? True merino wool is expensive. Very expensive.


Polyester is a synthetic fiber made from polyethylene. It’s lightweight, hydrophobic, and very inexpensive to produce. You can find polyester in virtually every type of clothing, but it’s most commonly used in athletic and performance wear.

Polyester base layers perform just as well as merino wool, but at a fraction of the cost. Choosing polyester isn’t difficult for most people; wool simply isn’t as affordable. Polyester offers pretty much everything that merino wool does (although it is slightly less comfortable).

What Makes Polyester a Good Base Layer?

Moisture Wicking

Whether it’s sweat, rain, or clumsily falling into a creek while trying to get a picture for Instagram, water is only your friend if it’s in you, not on you. When your clothes get wet, they need to dry out quickly. This is especially true when it’s cold- the last thing you need to be when it’s 22 degrees out is soaking wet!

Polyester does a fantastic job of wicking away moisture. With a solid polyester base layer, you can stay dry all day- and dry quickly if you happen to encounter water.


This is one of the reasons polyester is so popular in athletic wear. Though it resists moisture, it is still quite breathable. If you’re looking for a fabric that feels breezy, this is it. Cotton, on the other hand, can be very stuffy. That’s great when you need to stay warm, but a hassle otherwise.

Odor Resistance

Because polyester wicks away sweat and is very breathable, it doesn’t develop odors easily. Compare that to cotton, which gets stinky after just a few intense uses, and you’ll see why polyester is such a good choice for base layers!


Finally, polyester is light. You can stuff it into small places in your pack, letting you bring more clothing on your backpacking trip. You can pack 5 or 6 polyester shirts with the same amount of space that’s required to fit 3 cotton shirts. If you’re going on a multi-day backpacking trip, you need all the space you can get in your pack. So, leave the cotton at home and stick to merino wool and polyester!

person backpacking on a mountain trail


Polyester is cheap, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth using. For base layers, the best materials are polyester and merino wool! Whatever material you choose, just make sure you avoid cotton base layers. Polyester is an ideal combination of breathability, moisture and odor control, and affordability! Thanks for reading!

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