I guess I'm dating myself, but back when I was wearing my GI Joe suit we called it underwear or thermal underwear, depending on the season. With the advent of "layering" in the military we now call the layer next to your skin the base layer and then you add each successive layer to combat the elements. This winter POLICE Magazine thought it would be a good idea to look at some options of base layers available for those who wear a uniform.
While researching the various types of base layers, I found there are numerous types of material, cuts, fits, and degrees of warmth offered. What this means to the end user is you must define what you want the clothing for; is it for moisture wicking, added warmth, or simply to prevent chafing? Yes, your underwear is getting technical and it takes more time to decide on the right type for you. But it has been my experience that these new base layers are far more comfy than the old white boxers or briefs and the pressed white T-shirt of my basic training days.
So what do these manufacturers offer to those who wear a uniform every day? How about clothing that helps keep you warm or cool depending on what you choose? Your base layer will prevent chafing and rubbing from your vest or duty belt. It can act as a barrier to prevent body odor. And if you choose compression fit clothing it will help reduce muscle fatigue. As you can see, your choices are fairly wide ranging when you look at your first layer of clothing.
One word of advice I did get from numerous people in the clothing industry is to choose this layer to fit your mission, particularly when the odds of encountering fire is part of your job. If you are on a tactical team or work fire/rescue avoid base layers that are high in polyester or Lycra because if you are in a fire they tend to burn. Since this is next to your skin the resultant burns could be deadly. Look for fire retardant treated clothing or natural fibers such as cotton or wool to protect you from burns.
I will give you a heads up: Flame retardant clothing is pricey but worth it. There have been numerous cases of GIs having their cling fit base layers melt from the heat of a fire. The only injuries they had were from the trauma centers literally peeling the clothing along with skin off their bodies. This is food for thought when you find yourself thinking flame resistant clothing costs too much.
For most of us, buying a base layer that will wick moisture away from your body is a good idea. This will reduce chafing and the chance of abrasion sores. Personally I like to wear a snug fitting layer with a cotton shirt over it. This provides wicking and a layer to absorb moisture. Remember, our vests trap sweat.
I would also consider a base layer with antimicrobial properties. This does two things for you. First, you will not smell like dead fish at the end of a long shift on a hot summer's day. Second, it will reduce the growth of bacteria, which can cause a myriad of issues.
So what did I find from the major vendors for base layers? There are base layers from cotton, various polyester/Lycra blends, wool blends, and layers for cold or hot weather. The choices seem to be endless.
For the last few years I have worn 5.11 Tactical's Loose Fit Crew. This all polyester shirt with antimicrobial properties fits well and washes well. I like the mesh in fabric for added air flow. The Loose Fit Crew works well as your base layer for duty, looks good worn alone, and makes a good PT shirt.
This year I also started wearing 5.11's Utili-T. It's a 100-percent cotton shirt with a long tail so it stays tucked. The Utili-T is smooth as silk because of how the material is finished. One thing I will caution you against is tossing the ACU tan shirt in with the whites; the bleach will turn the color to a funky beige. (Yes, I know from firsthand experience.)
I have worn these two shirts together in the winter. One gives you a moisture-wicking layer, the cotton absorbs the wicked moisture, and you get a dead air space in between to keep you warmer in the winter or chilly days. Worn in tandem or separately, 5.11's Loose Fit Crew and Utili-T will keep you comfortable on and off duty.
BlackHawk Products Group has grown from simply providing some of the best tactical nylon gear to a one-stop shop for duty and tactical use. The company's Engineered Fit line of base layers brings this heritage to duty clothing. While created from manmade products, the clothing feels like soft combed cotton.
BlackHawk's Engineered Fit Shirt Short Sleeve Mock is one of the most advanced shirts I have seen. Side panels are made of polyester and Lycra, while the body of the shirt is nylon and Spandex. This blending of different materials allows the shirt to fit and conform to the body without binding; even if you wear it as a compression fit shirt (generally simply wear one size smaller). More importantly for many of us, while wearing this shirt as a base layer your duty shirt doesn't catch or stick to the fabric, meaning you will be more comfortable on a long shift.
I am not a fan of snug fitting bottoms and since the Short Sleeve Mock was so comfy, I figured the Boxer Briefs might fit just as well. Like the Mock, the Boxers have dual panels and this truly did make a difference in how the Boxers fit. While snug, they do feel similar to traditional cotton boxers and are long enough to keep the thighs warm on cold fall days. If you prefer full-length bottoms for warmth, BlackHawk provides those, too.
The name Blauer has become synonymous with high-quality uniforms for police and other uniformed services. Blauer's Compression Shirt and Boxer Shorts with B.Dry are made from cotton and Lycra to ensure the pieces maintain their shape and comfortable fit.
What impressed me most about these two items was their extremely well finished and smooth stitched seams. They lay flat and are double stitched, so they will not fail when you are running, tussling, etc.
Both the Compression Shirt and Boxer Shorts feel like smooth silk, yet are tough cotton. This gives you a comfortable, breathable layer next to the skin. The weave of the material will not chafe or rub the end user. Using a mere 10 percent Lycra with 90 percent cotton, these pieces will also provide a degree of heat and flame protection.
Wearing the Blauer Compression Shirt and Boxer Brief combination kept my body warm on cold mornings. These items were as cozy outdoors as they were cool indoors.
I have been wearing Elbeco's Ufx Performance Shirts as my base layer for more than a year. These short-sleeve shirts have been worn in the winter here in southwest Pennsylvania and the heat of Little Rock's summer. In each situation, the shirt kept me appropriately cool or warm, depending on the climate.
This shirt looks like a standard navy blue T-shirt you would buy at your local big box discount store; but it is way more. Built with X-CEED technology, the material is moisture wicking, antimicrobial, offers you UV protection, and is fade resistant.
What I liked about the shirt is the fact it doesn't smell like death warmed over on a hot summer's day when you remove your body armor. These shirts have survived numerous washings and still look nearly new-but I'm careful to hang dry my T-shirts.
To prepare myself for winter I wanted to check out Propper's base layers. The company's Generation III Level I base layer is part of the military's new multi-layer harsh weather gear.
Propper's Carbon-Tech Performance Long-Sleeve Lightweight Baselayer Top will keep you warm, dry, and prevent you from smelling bad. To reduce friction hot spots these shirts use body mapping, which also allows the shirt to breathe and reduces weight while increasing comfort.
This base layer is built with Cocona fabric, which is infused with carbon from coconut shells. The fabric is soft and tough at the same time and the carbon absorbs the odors. Sounds like a win-win to me, tough and comfy without odor. If that isn't enough, the fiber also has silver-based anti-microbial X-static woven into it. No matter how much you sweat or how hard of a day you have Propper's Gen III LI will survive and keep you warm and dry.
Tru-Spec by Atlanco
Another manufacturer of Gen III level I base layers is Tru-Spec by Atlanco. I have found Tru-Spec to give the end user a good value for the money, and its winter layers are no exception.
Tru-Spec's Gen-III ECWCS Level-1 Top is built from 100-percent polyester plaited jersey, a tightly woven material that feels like silk. Having worn this long-sleeve shirt from the company's extended cold weather clothing system (ECWCS) out during the early archery season, I can tell you it feels soft and supple next to the skin.
One feature I found most useful was the thumbhole sewn into the sleeves. This might seem dumb to many, but it allows you to create a weather seal from your hands to your shirt, eliminating that open space at your wrist. Those of us who play and work out in cold climes can tell you this will chill you. Like I said, Tru-Spec looks out for the end user and this is just one example of the company's attention to detail.
Under Armour is known to most anyone who has visited a sporting goods store or logged onto an outdoor Website. UA makes some of the most innovative clothing on the market and is constantly adding to its product line. Its Tech T is Under Armour's answer to a basic T-shirt.
Built of polyester, the Tech T gives the wearer complete range of motion and comfort and it wicks moisture away and dries quickly. How quickly does it dry? I washed one by hand, set it out on a deck chair, and it was dry within an hour.
This shirt lies smoothly under body armor, and I have not noticed it "pilling" from Velcro or washing. I have been told this T makes an excellent shirt for yoga, but I can't verify that myself. UA also makes a similar shirt that is flame retardant, which I would suggest for tactical teams to protect them from burn injuries.
Woolrich is probably one of the oldest outdoor companies in America. A few years back, the company moved into the tactical end of the business and its Elite Series Tactical line has taken the industry by storm and then some.
The E.S.T. base layer is available as a long-sleeve shirt, short-sleeve shirt, and traditional longjohn-style pants. They are made from merino wool and feel as soft as cotton. The choice of merino means these base layers work well in a wide variety of weather conditions. Since these are made of wool they will keep you warm even if they get wet, something many of the synthetics won't do. You can even machine wash these garments, just line dry them.
I have worn Woolrich's commercial line and I have no doubt that the E.S.T. base layers are every bit as comfortable and long wearing. Based on experience with other items from the E.S.T. line, the base layers should be virtually indestructible.
Scott Smith is a former federal police officer for the Department of Veteran's Affairs and a contributing editor to POLICE.