Thermal underwear may not get a mention at the fashion parades, but warm long underwear is something that everyone should have in their wardrobe. Feeling cold may be uncomfortable in small doses, and extended exposure can lead to hypothermia or worse. So what is the best long underwear for cold weather, and why? Here is some basic info about the different types of fabrics, to help you decide what will work best for you.
Cotton thermal underwear is soft and comfortable, and as such is a good choice if you want a cheap solution. Cotton pyjamas and tracksuit pants are great for keeping warm in winter, but cotton is not perfect: it has a tendency to act like a sponge, and hold water – after all, cotton is the preferred material for towels and cleaning cloths. Cotton long johns may be the best long underwear for cold weather if you are going to stay dry at all times, but it is not recommended if you are venturing outdoors, say going skiing or camping. Once wet, cotton is hard to get dry, and until it is completely dry, it will actually draw heat away from your skin. So, it’s a great low cost choice for indoors or maybe the workplace, but a no-no for adventure sports. In winter long sleeve thermal shirts for men or women who work outdoors can discretely be worn under business shirts or uniforms.
Polyester is a synthetic fibre that is produced in many variants that come under different names like Polartec, Polypropylene and Capilene, many of which are actually the same stuff but under different trade marks. Polyester is fairly inexpensive (about the same price as cotton) and provides significantly better all weather performance. Wring it out when wet and put it back on, and although it won’t feel great, it can keep you from freezing. Some people swear that it is the best long underwear for cold weather, but it has a slight drawback – it smells after a while! Unlike natural fiber, synthetic fibers are not advanced to the point of being able to “breathe” as well as say wool or silk, and the combination of ammonia from sweat, constant moisture, and naturally occurring bacteria on skin can result in a strong BO smell that is hard to get rid of even with washing. Nevertheless, synthetic long underwear has a lot going for it, being hard wearing and nicely elastic, hence it being used in modern sports and running underwear for women and for men.
Sometimes the oldest things are the best, and wool is a case in point. Wool seemed to go out of fashion in the western world in the later part of the 20th century, as everyone embraced modern new synthetic materials. But ask any serious adventurer and they will tell you that super fine wool simply makes the best long underwear for cold weather hands down. Why? Natural oils and the structure of the fibres means that wool doesn’t hold water, and is resistant to bacteria and therefore bad odours. It doesn’t burn, and high quality fine wool is every bit as soft as cotton. The downside is the price – good long underwear made of merino wool (merino is a breed of sheep prized for their very fine wool) can easily cost twice as much as cotton or poly-cotton blends.
So, the choice really comes down to cost.
If you can afford it, buy wool. It is comfortable, versatile, and hygienic and makes great insulated underwear for men or women on the go. Equally good indoor and outdoor, from lounging in front of the television to canoeing in Alaska, wool is a tried and true solution.
For a cost effective indoor or fair-weather solution go with inexpensive cotton. For its reasonable price tag it is the best long underwear for cold weather to wear under your business attire or casual clothing when going out in winter.
If you need a low cost outdoor solution, a synthetic blend can tick all the boxes for you – just wash it often, and hand it out to air well to prevent it from starting to smell. You might be able to find a wool/polyester blend, and these can make a good compromise, although you will find that as the amount of wool in the garment increases so does the price tag.