Thermals, long johns, base layers – whatever you want to call them, there’s nothing like a snuggly warm layer next to the skin to help keep the chill of winter at bay. It may sound like something your granny would advise but it really is worth investing in a great set of thermals for cold weather, and they’re especially useful for skiiers and snowboarders. Wear below salopettes and a ski jacket for warmth on the ski lifts and breathability when you’re tearing down the piste.
We’d recommend picking a set of base layers with full-length leggings and long sleeves. It’s definitely worth trying thermals on in person, especially if you’re on the tall or short side – they should hug your body without feeling tight and you shouldn’t feel any restriction around the waistband, ankles, neck or sleeves. You may find that differently sized or different branded tops and bottoms fit you best. Some base layers are stretchier than others – we reckoned the former offered more warmth on test as there’s no empty space between fabric and your skin for the pesky cold wind to creep in.
Most base layers are synthetic but some are made with either a blend or 100 per cent pure merino wool, a wise (if pricier) choice as merino is very warm but great at wicking away sweat and has naturally antibacterial properties, too. If you’re planning a week of backcountry ski touring far from the nearest shower, then merino layers are ideal.
1. Odlo Blackcomb Evolution Top and Bottoms: £65 (top), £65 (bottoms), Odlo
Odlo’s excellent Blackcomb range of tops and bottoms are warm, wickable and – magically – designed to stay in shape no matter how many times you use them and wash them. We love the stay-put yet comfortable waistband of the trousers and the flexible ribbed panels of the top. There’s also a version of the top with a built-in facemask that is ideal for skiers and snowboarders. These come in a range of colours.
2. Sweaty Betty Drift Top and Bottoms: £65 (top), £65 (bottoms), Sweaty Betty
These are so gorgeous that it’s almost a crime to cover them up with ski gear. Much-coveted Sweaty Betty base layers might be popular with fashionistas but that doesn’t mean these supremely comfortable and slim-fitting base layers don’t perform on the slopes. We love the longer-length, soft waistband, neck and cuffs. They’re a good fit for taller ladies and there are a number of slick designs to choose from for this season. We did find these catch more easily than some so take care if wearing jewellery when taking them on and off.
3. Montane Primino Merino 220 Long Sleeve T-shirt and Long Janes: £80 (top), Montane, £60 (bottoms), Montane
A pricey yet high-performing set, Montane’s velvety Primino range combines the softness and naturally odour-resistant properties of merino wool with PrimaLoft, the synthetic material you’ll usually find stuffed into Montane’s excellent down jackets. We like the simple, no-frills design with flatlock seams – you’ll hardly notice you’re wearing these layers. Plus, the “Long Janes”, as the grey marl trousers are charmingly called, are so luxe-looking you’ll want to wear them as normal leggings out on the town. Comes in black and berry and in dress sizes 8-16. We’ve gone for the 220g weight for colder weather but there is also a 140g option you can wear all-year-round.
4. Finisterre Merino Zephyr Top and Leggings: £50 (top), £40 (leggings), Finisterre
Finisterre’s versatile Zephyr set is good-looking enough to wear as normal clothing down the pub but doubles up to perform well on the slopes under ski gear or when worn as a cosy sleep set on a cold camping trip. The fabric feels light but is packed with 80 per cent merino, enough to keep you very snug. The bottoms are cut rather low – pick another pair if you like generous coverage.
5. Protest Christie Top and Becky Trousers: £32.99 (top), £32.99 (trousers), Protest
Take Protest’s soft and silky Becky and Christie duo along for a ski break and they’ll do you proud. They may be labelled as Fluor Pink but the set are actually an attractive, mellow light red in the flesh, designed using a technical yarn that feels light on the skin but traps body heat well. We like the well-cut mesh panels on both the top and bottom – this is our pick of the pack for flexibility and a great choice if you’re after a high-performing but mid-priced thermal set for sports.
6. Trespass Merino Stalk Top and Shot Trousers: £79.99 (top), £77.99 (trousers), Trespass
100 per cent merino wool means the Stalk and Shot (surely the name of a posh rural gastro pub?) will keep going for a week of winter hiking or dawn-to-dusk skiing without complaining. Our tester liked the looser cut bottoms, which are rather like pyjamas, the thick, comfy waistband and the top’s nifty zip, which is neatly covered so it doesn’t irritate your neck. These are the cream of Trespass’s base layer crop.
7. Decathlon B’Twin Cycling Base Layer: £12.99, Decathlon
It may be aimed at cyclists but Decathlon’s flattering B’Twin base layer is well suited to any active sport, as it’s brilliant at wicking-away sweat even after hours of activity. It might not be the warmest piece in our test but for a smidge over £10 you can’t really go wrong – it’s worth grabbing one or two if you’re packing for a busy week of winter sports, or popping one on for trail running and climbing.
8. Helly Hansen Lifa Active Graphic Crew: £50 (top), £45 (trousers)
This cheerful Scandi-inspired print stands out against the greys and blues of the inner layer market but there’s substance as well as style to Helly Hansen’s mid-priced Lifa range. A two-layer construction works to simultaneously to trap body heat while allowing sweat to wick away. The bottoms are made with 100 per cent merino for extra comfort and the top is cleverly cut to hug you in all the right places.
9. Icebreaker Vertex Merino Turtleneck: £77, Cotswold Outdoor
Not just for Steve Jobs – a cosy turtleneck saves the extra faff of pulling on a neckwarmer for snowsports, and Icebreaker’s popular Vertex well-cut high neck is warm but not restrictive. We loved the snuggly 100 per cent merino and the handy zipped pocket. This is one of the warmest tops on our list, and best saved for really nippy days. Comes in grey and red.
The Verdict: Women’s ski base layers
It was pretty tough to pick a clear winner in our test, as all the mid-priced base layers boasted very good performance in both warmth and breathability. The Odlo Blackcomb range really shines for its durability, though, and therefore gets our Best Buy. If you’d like to spend a bit less, we’d recommend Protest’s high-performing Becky and Christie set, and if you’re after some sumptuously warm merino thermals, Trespass’s Stalk and Shot are a great choice.
Sian Anna Lewis is a travel and outdoors writer and editor of The Girl Outdoors blog
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