As the closest layer to the skin, base layers—also known as thermal shirts—don't always get the fanfare that outerwear gets. But thermal shirts provide multiple important functions: They're engineered for comfort, durability, and maintaining core body temperature, all while soaking up sweat so it doesn't pool on the skin.
Prior to the explosion of technical synthetic fabrics and wool/wool blends, I made do with waffle-knit, cotton thermal undershirts. Unfortunately, those things wick moisture about as well as a tray full of ice cubes. That's because cotton doesn't draw sweat away from the skin—it soaks it up and holds it in, leaving you feeling damp and cold. Many hunting trips, mountain climbs, and biologist jobs later, I've come to appreciate the importance of a quality thermal shirt made from materials that wick sweat, and dry quickly.
Whether it's a half-zip, long-sleeve top, v-neck, or crew neck, a well-chosen base layer can make the difference between a memorable outing or a near-hypothermic one. It's not just about staying warm; it's about safety and maintaining optimal body temperature without compromising on mobility or comfort. Over the last 27 years, I've put all kinds of gear through the wringer while conducting fieldwork, climbing mountains, and chasing game with my bow. Straight from the field, here are my top men's thermal shirt picks.
The 8 Best Men's Thermal Shirts
- Best Overall: Ibex Woolies Pro Tech 1/4 Zip
- Best Budget: TSLA Men's Thermal
- Best Tactical: Vertx Full Guard Performance Long Sleeve
- Best For Extreme Cold Weather: Smartwool Classic Thermal Merino
- Best For Running: Patagonia Capilene Midweight Crew
- Best For Hunting: Sitka Core Lightweight Crew LS
- Best for Backpacking: Mountain Hardwear Crater Lake Hoody
- Best for Work: Carhartt Force Classic
Best Men's Thermal Shirt Overall
Top Pick: Ibex Woolies Pro Tech 1/4 Zip
Sizes: XS - XXL | Material: Merino Wool Blend | Temps: Cold to Very Cold | Category: Lightweight, Quarter-zip | Colors: Three
The Ibex Woolies Pro Tech 1/4 Zip is the gold standard for men's thermal shirts, combining functionality with sophisticated design. This long-sleeve thermal served me well on a frosty, 21-degree youth turkey hunt this last April. Coupled with my camo shell and alternating use of an Under Armour mid-layer hoodie, I kept perfectly regulated, periodically zipping and unzipping the collar and neck as needed.
The Ibex Woolies shirt offers exceptional temperature regulation and natural odor resistance from its Merino wool blend, essential for extended use. Turkey hunts, by the way, are the epitome of safe hunts to test an odor metric on—I lived in the Ibex for a week and the odor was very minimal. Not only that, but the fabric feels like butter on your skin and it doesn't itch. The long-sleeve top feels ultra-light and features raglan sleeves for freedom of movement.
The quarter-zip feature is particularly useful, providing easy ventilation and style. If you're someone like me who tends to overheat at the mere thought of working my legs on a trail, the zip matters. The fit is smart and snug, offering comfort without compromising on mobility. For those who seek the best in terms of quality, versatility, and performance, the Ibex Woolies Pro Tech 1/4 Zip is what you seek.
- Wool blend offers optimal warmth and sweat-wicking
- Quarter-zip neckline for easy temperature adjustment
- Raglan sleeves offer unrestricted movement
- Odor-resistant material for extended wear and less laundering
- Stylish and functional for versatile use
- Premium price
- Must wash in cold water and air-dry; heat shrinks wool
Best Budget Men's Thermal Shirt
Top Pick: TSLA Men's Thermal
Sizes: XS - XXXL | Material: Polyester/Spandex Blend | Temps: Cold | Category: Lightweight, Compressive, Mock Neck | Colors: Over a dozen
When every dollar counts as much as every ounce in your pack, the TSLA Men's Thermal Compression Shirts are a godsend. These aren't just affordable thermal shirts; they're a testament to the fact that high-quality gear doesn't have to drain your wallet.
The TSLA shirt is designed with the active sports enthusiast in mind, offering a balance of warmth, support, and moisture management. The high-neck design and thermal fabric make it ideal for cold-weather activities, while the slim cut and compression fabric, a blend of polyester and spandex, makes it fit like a glove and feel supportive without restricting your movement.
Don't let that compression fit intimidate you; sure, it's snug, it's supposed to be. It's like a firm handshake from an old friend—supportive but not suffocating—though it may take some getting used to if you're not accustomed to it.
- Well-priced and available in two-packs for an even greater value
- Excellent thermal insulation for cold-weather sports
- Compression fit supports muscles and improves performance
- High-neck design is warm and protective
- Moisture-wicking and quick-drying for enhanced comfort
- May require careful size selection for the best fit
- Compression fit may not be for everyone
Best Tactical Men's Thermal Shirt
Top Pick: Vertx Full Guard Performance Long Sleeve
Sizes: XS - XXXL | Material: Polyester Blend | Temps: Variable | Category: Lightweight, Crewneck | Colors: 6
Designed for the tactical professional, the Full Guard Performance thermal shirt just feels different from the moment you slip it on. Whether you're law enforcement, military, or a concealed carrier, the Vertx Full Guard Performance is a cut above the rest. The flatlock seams, the semi-compression fit, raglan sleeves, and gusseted underarms allow for seamless layering under a uniform or other tactical clothing without feeling constricted. The proprietary polyester fabric offers temperature regulation, keeping you cool by wicking sweat when you're active and providing insulation when you're not.
That said, for a lightweight top, it feels thick. If you run hot like I do, I wouldn't recommend wearing it in moderate temps—I started sweating pretty quickly in it when I was running around in mid-50s, blustery Washington weather a few weeks back. Then again, I'm a human furnace—your experience may vary. My only other complaint is that the sleeves are a little too floppy around the wrists for my taste. Still, overall the Full Guard Performance is an exceedingly durable, great-looking thermal shirt that's ready for anything.
- Semi-compressive cut and design fits well under uniforms
- Comfortable polyester blend offers temperature regulation
- Claims to dry up to 10 times faster than other fabrics
- Looks great as a stand-alone shirt
- Lightweight but feels thick; may be too warm for moderate weather
- Sleeves are loose-fitting, especially at the cuffs
Best Men's Thermal Shirt for Extreme Cold Weather
Top Pick: Smartwool Classic Thermal Merino
Sizes: S - XXL | Material: 100% Merino Wool | Temps: Very Cold | Category: Midweight, Crewneck | Colors: 10
When the mercury drops, the Smartwool Classic Thermal Merino is your trusty ally. Crafted from 100% merino wool, this shirt doesn't just insulate; it redefines warmth. Picture yourself in the coldest, snow-laden landscape—this thermal is your invisible armor against the biting cold. Its natural insulation is a game-changer, and the moisture-wicking capability ensures you stay dry, no matter how intense your activity.
It's not thick, yet it delivers (and then some) in the warmth department. That's because Smartwool employs a number of proprietary processes that claim to make its merino 35% more thermally efficient, 85% more elastic, and nearly nine times more durable than its ring-spun counterparts. Wear as a stand-alone, long-sleeve T-shirt or a base layer in your cold-weather system. The fit is snug but not restrictive, allowing for layering without the bulk. It's an investment that pays off every time you step out into the extreme cold.
- Superior warmth in extreme cold
- Natural, breathable, and anti-odor
- Moisture-wicking for dry comfort
- Ideal for layering
- Higher price than some
- Must air-dry or tumble on low to prevent shrinkage
Best Men's Thermal Shirt for Running
Top Pick: Patagonia Capilene Midweight Crew
Sizes: XS - XXL | Material: Recycled Polyester | Temps: Mild to Cold | Category: Midweight, Crewneck | Colors: Seven
Enduring a ton of Seattle-weather runs and climbs during my peak-bagging days, the Patagonia Capilene is near and dear to my heart. It's also a runner's dream for hitting the trails or the pavement on a brisk morning.
Capilene's recycled polyester fabric is not only environmentally conscious but also masters the balance of warmth, quick-drying, and wicking thanks to the hollow-core yarns and a diamond-grid back. Soft and smooth, Capilene feels great against your skin, while allowing for easy layering. The lightweight design means you hardly notice it's there, but you'll appreciate its warmth.
Since my days testing and peddling it as an REI sales guy, I've been a fan of Patagonia's low-profile and highly packable apparel. And for those who care about the planet as much as their running time, this is a no-brainer.
- Eco-friendly material
- Midweight and breathable
- Quick-drying for comfort during high-intensity workouts
- May need additional layers in colder temps
Best Men's Thermal Shirt for Hunting
Top Pick: Sitka Core Lightweight Crew LS
Sizes: S - 3XL | Material: Polyester | Temps: Variable | Category: Lightweight, Crewneck | Colors: TK# Camo Options
For hunters, the Sitka Core Lightweight Crew LS is like a silent partner in the wilderness. It's not just a thermal shirt; it's a part of your hunting strategy. The polyester blend offers both warmth and quick-drying properties—crucial when you're quickly moving between spots, breaking a sweat, and then sitting for long hours. Made from the same material as the Core Lightweight Hoody, the Lightweight Crew is a great standalone camo shirt in warmer temps, while acting as a wicking base layer when you need to add outer layers.
Core's odor control technology is a standout feature that helps keep you undetected by your quarry. The performance fit is designed with the hunter in mind—snug enough for layering, yet flexible for unrestricted movement. When it's you against the elements and a mature buck's senses, the Sitka Core Lightweight Crew LS is the edge you need.
- Functional for various hunting conditions
- Odor control keeps you stealthy
- Quick-drying and warm
- Sitka's digitized camo options offer concealment
- Pricier than some
- Limited color options
Sitka Core Lightweight Crew LS - $79
Best Men's Thermal Shirt for Backpacking
Top Pick: Mountain Hardwear Crater Lake Hoody
Sizes: S - XXL | Material: Polyester/Elastane | Temps: Mild to Moderate | Category: Lightweight, Hoodie | Colors: 12
Suitable for all-day wear, the Mountain Hardwear Crater Lake Hoody is a backpacker's best friend. When you're hiking up the trail, backpack snug on your shoulders, and the sun beating down, this is where the Crater Lake Hoody shines. Made from a blend of 88% polyester and 12% elastane, the lightweight fabric offers UV protection, including a hood for neck coverage, and quick-dry functionality. These are essential attributes for long days in the high country where you're working up a sweat and mountain weather is subject to change.
The Crater Lake Hoody offers a close fit with dropped shoulders and plenty of stretch to move freely. For backpackers or climbers who value sun protection and comfort, this base layer is a must-have—just plan to layer up if the weather calls for chillier temps.
- UV protection for long sun exposure
- Quick-dry fabric keeps you comfortable
- Durable for rugged use
- Ideal for long hikes and backpacking trips
- Not for extreme cold without layers
Best Men's Thermal Shirt for Work
Top Pick: Carhartt Force Classic
Sizes: S - 4XL, regular and tall lengths | Material: Polyester | Temps: Mild to Cold | Category: Midweight, Crewneck | Colors: Four
For those who work hard and need gear that keeps up, the Carhartt Force Classic is the answer. As you'd expect with any Carhartt, this thermal shirt is a workhorse. With its Stain Breaker technology, the Force Classic is ready to face the dirt and grime of any job site.
The polyester waffle-knit fabric ensures both comfort and durability, wicking away sweat to keep you dry as you power through your day. The fit is roomy enough for movement but snug enough to keep the warmth in. In fact, some may find the waffle-knit fabric feels heavier than other thermal shirts. For the worker braving the elements, the Carhartt Force Classic is the go-to choice.
- Durable for tough work environments
- Quick-drying and stain-resistant
- Comfortable fit for all-day wear
- Inclusive size range
- Heavier feel than other thermal shirts
- Limited colors
What to Look for When Buying Men's Thermal Shirts
When selecting the ideal thermal shirt, several factors come into play. Considering the following attributes will help you find a garment that not only keeps you warm but also suits your specific needs and activities.
Material type is paramount in thermal shirts, especially if you're spending extended time in the backcountry or in foul weather. Options range from synthetic materials like polyester, which are great for moisture-wicking and quick-drying, to natural fibers like wool, known for exceptional warmth and odor resistance. Consider synthetic blends for affordability and ease of maintenance or merino wool for a blend of warmth, breathability, and odor control. Both offer breathability and moisture-wicking capabilities, which are essential, especially for active use. These features keep you dry and comfortable by allowing sweat to evaporate quickly. Avoid cotton, which isn't as warm as other materials and doesn't dry quickly if it gets wet, leaving you feeling damp and cold.
Weight and insulation are about finding the right balance. Heavier shirts offer more warmth, which is great for low-activity situations. However, if you plan to be more active, look for lighter options that provide insulation without the bulk.
Fit and comfort play an important role in your overall experience. Depending on personal preference, you can opt for second-skin-like compression-fit, a slim-fit, or a relaxed-fit thermal. What you don't want is anything too tight or too baggy: A good thermal top should fit snugly to hold heat in and allow for layering without restricting movement or blood flow. Look for features like flat seams and tag-free designs to prevent chafing, especially if you'll be engaging in high-intensity activities.
Durability is key for all outdoor gear. When it comes to thermal shirts, check for signs of quality construction such as reinforced stitching. A durable thermal shirt will withstand frequent use and washing, making it a long-term investment for your outdoor wardrobe.
Price is always a consideration. While it's tempting to go for cheaper options, investing in a high-quality thermal shirt can be more cost-effective in the long run, offering better materials, greater comfort, and longer-term durability. A word of warning: If you go cheap, you're gonna know it—most likely at the worst possible moment.
Your Questions, Answered
Thermal shirts are typically made from a variety of materials, including natural fibers like merino wool and synthetic fibers like polyester, polyamide, and elastane. Merino wool is favored for its thermoregulatory properties and odor control, while synthetic materials are known for being quick drying, lightweight, and durable. Some men's thermal tops combine both types of materials to leverage the benefits of each????. Thermal wear functions by trapping body heat and providing insulation. It also wicks moisture away from the skin, which is crucial in maintaining warmth. By keeping the skin dry, thermal clothing helps to prevent the loss of body heat in cold conditions, which can quickly lead to hypothermia????. While thermal wear is designed to keep the body warm in cold weather, its suitability for extreme conditions depends on the fabric's thickness and material quality. For extremely harsh environments, like Arctic expeditions, specialized thermal clothing with higher levels of insulation is recommended. Often, several layers of clothing, including thermal wear, are used in such conditions. A thermal base layer is an essential piece of non-cotton gear for anyone engaging in outdoor activities. It offers warmth even when wet, moisture management, comfort, and overall safety. A thermal shirt is a fundamental component of a well-planned outdoor outfit, especially in environments where temperatures can fluctuate. While primarily intended for cold weather, lightweight or ultra-lightweight thermal underwear or base layers can be useful in fluctuating temperatures or for intense sports in cooler weather due to its moisture-wicking and breathable properties. Short-sleeve base layer tops will further assist with thermoregulation in warmer temps.
Editor's Note: Products featured on Wide Open Spaces are independently selected by our editors. However, when you buy something through our links, we may earn a commission.
Thermal shirts are typically made from a variety of materials, including natural fibers like merino wool and synthetic fibers like polyester, polyamide, and elastane. Merino wool is favored for its thermoregulatory properties and odor control, while synthetic materials are known for being quick drying, lightweight, and durable. Some men's thermal tops combine both types of materials to leverage the benefits of each????.
Thermal wear functions by trapping body heat and providing insulation. It also wicks moisture away from the skin, which is crucial in maintaining warmth. By keeping the skin dry, thermal clothing helps to prevent the loss of body heat in cold conditions, which can quickly lead to hypothermia????.
While thermal wear is designed to keep the body warm in cold weather, its suitability for extreme conditions depends on the fabric's thickness and material quality. For extremely harsh environments, like Arctic expeditions, specialized thermal clothing with higher levels of insulation is recommended. Often, several layers of clothing, including thermal wear, are used in such conditions.
A thermal base layer is an essential piece of non-cotton gear for anyone engaging in outdoor activities. It offers warmth even when wet, moisture management, comfort, and overall safety. A thermal shirt is a fundamental component of a well-planned outdoor outfit, especially in environments where temperatures can fluctuate.
While primarily intended for cold weather, lightweight or ultra-lightweight thermal underwear or base layers can be useful in fluctuating temperatures or for intense sports in cooler weather due to its moisture-wicking and breathable properties. Short-sleeve base layer tops will further assist with thermoregulation in warmer temps.
Enjoy the outdoors?
Sign up for daily stories delivered straight to your inbox.