You might not have come across these before, but stick with this review and see what I made of them – you might well be surprised! My set is black, but the images from the Uniqlo website show the items in Dark Grey.
There comes a time in every gear reviewer’s life when he has to broach that most delicate of subjects: undergarments. A sensitive issue, indeed – in more ways than one – and one that stirs up plenty of passion and not a little debate amongst the outdoors fraternity.
Back in the day, such garments went by a variety of names – vest, pants, long johns, combs, to name just a few – but seem now to be categorised under the general heading of baselayers. Although such items can be worn year-round, to me a baselayer is essentially a winter requirement, worn primarily to boost warmth (and with the added advantage of making waterproof trousers more comfortable to wear) and usually consisting of a separate top and leggings.
An imminent trip to the Austrian Alps and the prospect of some serious sub-zero temperatures had me reaching for my old long johns. Besides being well used and very slightly dingy, these are made from less-than-technical materials which, when used for high intensity aerobic activity, tend to hold on to moisture and rapidly develop what is known in the trade as a whiff.
So I set about searching for alternatives. Broadly speaking, there appear to be 4 main fabric types to consider: wool, silk, bamboo and synthetic (or blends/versions thereof). Let’s briefly look at each of these in turn:
Wool: This is usually high quality Merino wool (or sometimes wool blend) famed for its qualities of softness, breathability and temperature regulation. The main features of this natural product are its wicking properties, good insulation, odour resistance and warmth when wet. A typical price range for such products is in the region of £100 to £125 per set. Example brands include Icebreaker, Chocolate Fish and Smartwool.
Silk: A hypoallergenic natural material (so good for sensitive skin) credited with great all-year-round temperature management properties, breathability, low bulk and a nice, smooth feel, that will wick moisture away from the skin. Not as widely used amongst walkers as by climbers and skiers. Price range £60 to £70 per set. Example brand: Patra.
Bamboo: A relatively new natural fabric, bamboo is breathable, hypoallergenic, soft on the skin, anti-static and comfortable to wear, with great wicking and anti-odour properties, temperature management and a silky feel. It also ticks a number of boxes as far as sustainability is concerned, too. Price range £50 to £75 per set. Example brands include Bamboo Clothing, Trekmates.
Synthetic: Made from a range of man-made fibres usually based around synthetic fibres such as Polyester, Polypropylene and Elastane. Characteristics include excellent wicking properties, non-pilling fabrics, good shape retention and easy-wash, rapid drying qualities. Criticism often includes a noticeable build-up of odours, hence the moniker “smelly Helly’s”. Price range £25 to £55 per set. Example brands include Helly Hansen, Quechua and Adidas.
Looking through these options provided much food for thought, so I set about narrowing the field down a bit. Wool I discounted fairly early on – although there are many who rave about the performance of Merino garments (and other natural fibre versions) because of their ability to retain warmth when wet and their inherent anti-odour properties. I am not fond of wool as it has a habit of irritating my skin, and I’m buggered if I’m paying a three-figure sum for a set of undies! Research had shown a broadly favourable opinion of silk and bamboo, and I was interested in exploring this avenue further, although the £60 - £70 price tag was again off-putting. As for synthetic options, I had hoped to avoid these if possible, mostly because of their smelly reputation – not good on a multi-day trek.
As I was pondering these options, Missyg came wandering home with a set she had found in Uniqlo featuring Heattech technology from Japan. Here’s what they said about them:
· Material: 40% Acrylic / 33% Polyester / 21% Viscose / 6% Elastane
· Heat Generation – When Heattech absorbs body moisture the movement of tiny droplets actually helps to generate heat to keep you warm.
· Heat Retention – Air pockets between the fibres retain body warmth and the warmth generated by Heattech’s moisture absorption.
· Anti-odour – Special fabric processing adsorbs and neutralizes the source of odours such as perspiration.
· Odour Control – A special antibacterial agent helps to minimize odours.
· Stretchable Comfort – Heattech stretches to give a perfect fit and maximise comfort.
· Quick Dry – Fabric wicks away and quickly dries moisture, perspiration dries instantly so the fabric remains dry and refreshing.
· Anti-static – Thanks to its moisture retention properties, the fibre reduces discomfort from static electricity especially when putting on or taking off the garment.
· Non-deforming – Highly resilient and durable, Heattech maintains its shape even after repeated washing.
At only £18 the set (reduced from about £25 full price) if they did only a fraction of what was claimed on the packaging they would be fine. If not? Well, it wasn’t too expensive a mistake. The proof of the pudding would be in the eating.
First time on, and they felt good straight away. The fabric is quite thin with a good degree of stretch (thanks to the elastane), but both items felt robust, well made and built to last. The top, a crew neck in this case, is not too tight round the neck (which personally I prefer) whilst a light cuff at the wrist means you can pull the sleeves up if you like safe in the knowledge they will stay put. The long johns have a similar cuff at the ankle, whilst the waistband is both substantial yet comfortable. They also have a fly for ease of use. Size large was perfect for my 35” waist / 42” chest / 5’10” frame.
In use these performed remarkably well, remaining comfortable under waterproof trousers and an assortment of fleeces and a shell jacket. Not once did I experience any discomfort due to rucking, riding up or static. Conditions were cold (down to -13°C at one stage) so plenty of layers were required. Yet prolonged uphill walking produced plenty of perspiration on occasion, which the Heattech baselayers handled effortlessly. Temperature management was excellent, too – never once did I feel any chills due to over-cooling or any overheating when entering a well-warmed room.
To fully test the odour control properties, I decided to wear them on consecutive days until the pong became too much for polite company. Remarkably, given the high intensity and sweaty nature of walking uphill through snow, I was able to wear these for an entire week (walking 5-6 hours every day for 7 days) and they were still reasonably fresh when pulled from the laundry bag on our return – and could even have been worn again in public!
In case the penny hasn’t dropped yet, I am seriously impressed with these and reckon they can give products three or four times the price a good run for their money. They have now been washed – gently, by hand and with no fancy treatments or wash-ins – and still look pretty good. All that remains now is to check this performance doesn’t deteriorate too rapidly. I’ll post an update after giving them a longer-term test, but for now these must rate as one of my best purchases ever. A brilliant bit of kit – I can’t find a single point on which to mark these down!