Base Layers – Merino or Synthetic?

If you search the web for information on base layers there are 100’s of articles out there to read.  Many giving good advice and highlighting the differences between the 2 main types:  Merino wool and synthetic fabrics (bamboo is also an option but not covered in this article).  However, you might struggle to find an article closely related to marathon or sprint paddling, where the requirements are quite different from hiking or skiing.  The paddlers’ base layer needs to be as non-restrictive as possible, wickable, breathable, keep you warm when you’re wet, dry out quickly between heats and finals, spend a considerable amount of time in a wet kit bag, get washed most days without falling apart and not stink to high heaven!  We don’t ask for much do we!

Before looking at the two main types of base layer, it is worth understanding what they’re designed to do.  As its name would suggest, the base layer is the first part of a layering system and is worn next to the skin.  Designed to trap a thin layer of warm air against the body and draw sweat away from it – ‘wicking’.

The base layer should be a close fit to the body, but still allow the paddler to move freely through the full range of movement without chaffing the skin.   This is a key consideration and challenge with all paddling layers.  Too tight and you’re restricted, too loose and you’re wearing a wind sock.

So which is the base layer for you?  Merino wool or a synthetic fabric?  Just make sure you avoid cotton as it soaks up and holds onto sweat like a sponge whilst drawing heat away from the body.

Merino wool and synthetic fabrics……….

Merino wool is a natural fabric.  Best known for its comfort, warmth and natural antibacterial properties.  Its smooth finish is ideal for people with sensitive skin.  It manages moisture by absorbing it away from the body, whereas synthetics draw the moister through its layer so it can evaporate away.  Although Merino layers are slightly more expensive, they are well tried and very popular in the snow sports and hiking world.  However, the Merino fabric may not wick as well, or dry as quickly as a synthetic one.  There is also a chance that it’s not machine washable (if 100% wool) as it may shrink.

Synthetic base layers are usually made using polyester, mixed with another material like polypropylene.  These layers are more durable and better at retaining their shape than the natural fiber options.  This means you can get a tighter fit that will result in better insulation and wicking.  The main issue with synthetic layers was always the smell, but the modern tops are much better than they used to be.  The really cheap ones are still terrible after a short bout of hard activity.  The more expensive ones use agents that inhibit the growth of bacteria and reduce those unpleasant smells.  Synthetic layers are also generally more lightweight, quicker dying and machine washable.  Possibly better suited for the everyday trials of sprint and marathon paddling.

Icon Microsense Base Layers – Could they work for you?

The Icon Microsense base layer is a synthetic polypropylene / polyester combination, that is quick drying and ‘wicks’ well.  The polyester component of the fabric is Microsense.  This is an innovative microfiber that is easy-care, lightweight and breathable.  It also gives the base layer its softness and maximum comfort to the skin.

The polypropylene is a specialised ‘Siltex Bodyfresh’ Prolen yarn.  It is modified by an antibacterial additive using silver ion technology.  The antimicrobial agent is applied to the core of the yarn and not to its surface.  This means it doesn’t migrate from the fabric, but permanently remains in it, even after multiple washing.  This technology inhibits the growth of bacteria, reduces those unpleasant smells and maintains a biological balance of your skin during sporting activities.  The antimicrobial effect of silver stems back to times of Ancient Rome and has been used over hundreds of years.

Website Base Layer Blog 1

Technical data is one form of information but ultimately ‘the proof is in the pudding’ as they say.  Customer feedback has been very positive from both paddlers and parents, who may be doing the washing!  The most frequently highlighted points are comfort, quick drying, lack of smell and ease of washing.  All key considerations when choosing a paddling baselayer.

GB Team Sprint Kayaker and World Championship Finalist Lani Belcher, has been training in Icon Microsense Base Layers since they were launched in January 2015.

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Two time DW Junior Men’s k2 Champion Dan Palmer is training hard and aiming for a third consecutive title.

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Ultimately there is no right or wrong answer as to the choice you make.  It is down to personal preference, past experience, the environment you’re playing in and value for money.

Whichever baselayer you choose……………

  • Wash after each use.
  • If possible, dry naturally to ensure any protective coatings are maintained.
  • Avoid using a fabric softener as it can reduce the garments wicking ability.
  • Avoid harsh detergents because they can strip the garments protective coatings.
  • Wash inside out to protect your garment from zips and velcro etc.
  • Follow the laundry advice on your garment.


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On 22nd January 2016
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