I am generally a natural-fibers kind of guy. So when polypropylene long underwear was first introduced way back when, no amount of marketing hype was going to get me to wear plastic long johns -- no matter how wondrous their sweat-wicking properties. Eventually I did try a polypropylene top, but its unfortunate ability to retain armpit odor, even after washing, drove me back to my beloved cotton, silk, and wool.
So imagine the surprise of my coworkers here at Skiing when I volunteered to test the latest high-tech underwear. Judging by the number of manufacturers in the business and the huge selection they now offer, it seemed that things had changed a lot. To hear the manufacturers tell it, long johns had become so good that outerwear was practically optional. So last spring, I put several different underlayers to the test in Vermont and Colorado. High-tech test method: skiing hard in all kinds of weather. Conclusion: In performance (keeping you warm and dry and fending off odor), the new underwear is light years ahead of that original polypro. Here are some of my findings:
SOFT COMFORT: DUOFOLD VENT-A-LAYER
Company Line: The fabric is 100 percent DuPont ThermaStat, a hollow-fiber fabric with superior insulating properties. There are stretch vents under the arms and in the crotch to help keep you cool. Flat-lock stitching increases seam strength and is more comfortable against the skin.
Products Tested: Lightweight Long Sleeve Crew ($26) and Pant ($26), both knit from a light ribbed fabric, with stretchy Lycra-and-ThermaStat cuffs.
The Skinny: Soft cottony feel next to the skin. Underarm and crotch vents do let the heat out. Only on the hottest, sweatiest spring day did the wicking properties succumb. (800-448-8240)
LIGHT AND SILKY: HOT CHILLYS MICRO FIBER ONE
Company Line: Two types of polyester create a double-faced fabric of micro mesh on one side and smooth jersey knit on the other. Polyester is naturally hydrophobic (water hating), which means it sheds moisture fast.
Products Tested: Crewneck ($30), Short Sleeve Top ($30), and Bottom ($30).
The Skinny: Extremely lightweight and thin, these Hot Chillys feel like silk and pack easily into small spaces. Quick drying. One quibble: not quite enough elasticity in the pant cuffs for guys with skinny ankles.(800-468-2445)
ALL-WEATHER UNDIES: MEDALIST TEK-1 PLUS OUTLAST
Company Line: The outer layer of this two-ply fabric contains Outlast temperature-regulating microcapsules, which absorb body heat then either store it, distribute it, or release it to maintain your comfort level. The fabric is also treated with a chemical process to help move moisture away from the skin.
Products Tested: Zip Top ($74), Crew ($61), and Pant ($61). The Zip Top has a lot of detail: chin guard with storm flap (to keep the zipper from touching your skin), long shirttail, and flat-seam stitching to prevent chafing.
The Skinny: A well-constructed, durable, relatively heavyweight garment. Feels like cotton on your skin. The Outlast actually impressed me: At Breckenridge, Colorado, I left my zipped-up parka on inside the lodge while eating lunch and didn't feel hot. Outside in the cold, I never felt toasty, just normal. (800-543-8952)
ANYTIME UNDERLAYER: TERRAMAR SMART SKINS
Company Line: The outer layer (polyester and wool) is knitted to an inner layer of acrylic with Outlast. The fabric is also treated to improve perspiration evaporation and provide anti-odor protection.
Product Tested: Body-Sensors 2-Layer Outlast Crew ($35), which has flat-stitched seams to minimize bulk and chafing.
The Skinny: Medium-weight fabric has a relatively soft, yet wool-like, feel. The sniff test revealed only slight odor after a sweaty spring day on the slopes. The Outlast temperature-regulating feature works well. Outside in a snowstorm or inside the lodge, I was nevver too hot or too cold. (800-468-7455)
HIGH-TECH SHEEP'S CLOTHING: SMARTWOOL NEXT TO SKINWEAR
Company Line: Made from long-fiber Australian merino wool that is guaranteed not to itch. A special process removes the microscopic ends of the fibers, eliminating shrinkage in the dryer. Unlike with synthetics, with wool there's no need for an antimicrobial treatment to control odor: The fibers naturally wick moisture away from the skin and allow it to evaporate.
Products Tested: Zip Mock Turtleneck ($74), Long Sleeve Crew ($60), and Bottom ($60). The neck and sleeve of the crew top are double stitched for durability.
The Skinny: Soft, luxurious, comfy feel. No matter how sweaty I got, odor retention was minimal. I experienced a trace of itchiness, but it could have been psychosomatic since I knew I was wearing wool. (800-550-WOOL)