Best Wicking Base Layers for Bike Commuting


One of the badges of honor of bike commuters is sweat. You can be proud of it deep down, but it’s not always pleasant to be around a colleague who is completely covered in it. If your commute is anything longer than 3 miles your body will perspire (unless you go at a really slow pace) and if you do 10 miles at a moderate or vigorous pace, it can be quite intense. Initially, I didn’t realize that my clothing, especially my base layer influenced a great deal how much I was covered in sweat. In the Summer I wore a simple white t-shirt, and it was my base layer in the early days of fall too until I heard about a wicking layer.

A wicking layer or a wicking shirt helps to move sweat away from your body. In the winter, when wearing several layers they move it to the middle and outer layers so sweat can evaporate more quickly. A wicking base layer achieves this by offering a snug contact with the skin and a larger outer surface area than other materials, such as cotton for example. By drawing moisture away from your body and keeping your skin dry it offers you the comfort of feeling warmer. 

Is cotton a wicking material?

Cotton is not a wicking material and shouldn’t be used as a base layer when cycling or doing other types of intense physical activity. Instead of drawing sweat away from your body, it absorbs and retains it, which can leave you feeling cold. Also, it is one of the slowest materials to dry.

What type of materials are used as wicking layers?

The two most common wicking materials are polyester and wool, although silk is also used occasionally, but it’s quite rare. Each of these types has some characteristics that make them stand out from the others and certain weaknesses too.

Polyester wicking layers are mostly made from polyester or some sort of a polyester blend. They can offer a snug fit and a high level of comfort to the wearer, which makes them ideal for riding. They are easy to keep clean and crease-free. They are the most affordable type of wicking layer available. Their main disadvantage is that they offer little odor protection. If you’re susceptible to body odor and have no way of taking a shower at your workplace, this is not the best type of base layer for you. 

Merino wool shines in the comfort department. Is exceptionally soft fibers are very lightweight and they are very soft to touch and to the skin. Although it’s more of a moisture absorber than polyester, it is capable of absorbing quite a bit of sweat and yet retain its breathability. It has good temperature regulating capabilities. It is extremely resistant to odors. Its main disadvantages are that it doesn’t dry as quickly as synthetic materials, and can shrink during washing if not washed and dried properly. It’s more expensive than polyester, but it is quite durable if cared for.

Silk undergoes chemical treatment in order to enhance its wicking properties. It’s a very soft textured natural material that’s very gentle on the skin. It’s the least common type of wicking layer. While it’s a very fine material, it has a few disadvantages that make it less than ideal for most riders. When it comes to washing, hand washing is often required. Not only that, but it can also shrink if not washed properly. It can also get damaged quite easily, especially coming in contact with rough surfaces. It isn’t great at withstanding sunlight and isn’t as durable as polyester.

How much do wicking base layers cost?

Wicking shirts usually range between 10 and 100 dollars, depending on the material used. Generally speaking, wicking shirts of polyester are cheaper than the ones made of merino wool or silk. 

Are wicking layers only for winter?

Wicking layers can be used both in winter and in summer. It is a widespread misbelief that wicking shirts are only for the winter rides. 

On summer days a wicking shirt keeps you dry and cool, because it allows for ventilation while wicking away your sweat. On winter days a wicking base layer keeps you dry and warm as well, because it wicks away your sweat and it acts as an air trap between your body and outer layers.

How to wash wicking layers?

Wicking layers made of wool and silk need gentle treatment, while those made of polyester withstand rough treatment.

Most silk items cannot be washed or dried in a machine. Silk should be hand washed and hung out to dry. It doesn’t need to be washed as often as polyester because it has a much better odor resistance, though not as good as merino wool.  

Merino wool also needs to be dealt with gently, though it is a bit more durable than silk. It can be washed with gentle detergents and low temperatures but it cannot be dried in a machine either, because it shrinks easily.

Polyester has bad odor resistance, so shirts made of polyester need to be washed often. They are very durable so washing and drying them in a machine is no problem at all. 

How long does it take for wicking layers to dry?

Polyester wicking shirts need very little time to dry because they retain very little moisture: they can absorb less than 1 % of their own weight. They wick away and evaporate the sweat and moist really quickly, which makes them very easy to dry.

Merino wool shirts can absorb more moisture, about one-third of their own weight. They retain more water and need more time to dry. The thickness of the material also comes into play when drying. The thinner the fabric the quicker it dries, but even a completely sweaty merino wool shirt will dry during an 8-hour long workday.

Even though merino wool absorbs and retains moisture, it doesn’t feel clammy as water is absorbed by the inner part of its fibers. The outer parts of the fibers that come in direct contact with the skin are water repellant. 

Silk retains one-third of its own weight just like merino wool, but it dries faster.

Are wicking layers warm?

The primary purpose of a wicking base layer in bike commuting is to keep the skin dry and not to keep the body warm. 

Polyester wicking layers are not the most efficient at keeping you warm, but when used with outer layers, they do offer some insulation. They are available in sleeveless or long sleeve versions.

Merino wool shirts have excellent insulating qualities on top of their wicking capability. Some are thinner and better suited for summer rides, while others are thicker and offer more insulation. When buying a merino wool shirt, pay attention to its density, often referred to as thickness, which varies between 150g/m2 and 400g/m2.

For a commute in the summer look for thinner, 150g/m2 wool. You can find them long sleeve and sleeveless as well. 

The colder it gets the thicker merino wool layer you need. So for a ride in the late autumn or early winter, one that is around 250g/m2 thick shirt can be used and for really cold temperatures in a rough winter 400g/m2 thick shirt is recommended. 

How to dress in layers properly?

The quality of the outer layers is as important as your base layer.

When bike commuting in the winter the base layer should be a wicking shirt. All the other layers that you put on top should be breathable so they don’t retain all the sweat, but rather they pass it further out. This way the sweat that your body builds up freely evaporates.

For instance, if you have a proper wicking base layer for your winter commute and you wear a cotton jersey on top of it, it will capture the sweat and you will end up just as wet as you would if you wore a cotton base layer. 

Do wicking materials smell bad?

Polyester wicking shirts can smell bad even after a few short rides depending on your body type and how much you sweat.

Merino wool shirts are very odor resistant. Even if you wear them on your bike commute every day and sweat a lot, you don’t need to wash them too often. They have excellent odor resistance and need little care in this respect.

Recommended wicking layers for your commute:

Men’s wicking layers:

For Summer:
Polyester
: A4 Men’s Cooling Performance Crew (link to Amazon)
Merino wool: MERIWOOL Mens Base Layer (link to Amazon)

For Winter:
Polyester
: EXIO Mens Mock Compression Baselayer (link to Amazon)
Merino wool: MERIWOOL Mens Base Layer (link to Amazon)

Extreme Cold:
Polyester
: Carhartt Thermal Base Layer (link to Amazon)
Merino Wool: WoolX Glacier (link to Amazon)

Women’s wicking layers:

For Summer:
Polyester: Opna Women’s Short Sleeve Moisture Wicking Athletic Shirts (link to Amazon)
Merino Wool: Woolly Clothing Co. Women’s Merino Wool Flex Crew Neck Tee Shirt (link to Amazon)

For Winter:
Polyester: Neleus Athletic Dry Fit (link to Amazon)
Merino Wool: Smartwool Women’s Base Layer Top (link to Amazon)

Extreme Cold:
Polyester: BALEAF Women’s Fleece (link to Amazon)
Merino Wool: MERIWOOL Women Heavyweight Base Layer (link to Amazon)

Conclusion

I hope that you have found the answer to your questions about wicking layers for bike commuting. Based on the qualities of the different fabrics you can decide which one to choose. For short commutes, where you commute in your work clothes and don’t sweat too much or don’t sweat at all, you don’t need a wicking layer.

If you don’t sweat and develop body odor easily, a polyester layer is sufficient. 

If you sweat a lot and you develop body odor easily, merino wool is a better option. Merino wool is also better if you want a warm base layer for your winter rides. 

Happy riding!

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