Ace of base: The best thermal layers

Nothing shows the evolution of the human race like the development of thermal underwear. Since the first caveperson donned a bearskin gilet and headed out into the cold, our ability to maintain core temperature through clothing has come on in leaps and bounds. But now dilemmas abound - should you swathe yourself in polypropylene or merino wool? Insulation or wicking? Zips or thumb loops? We set out to sweat and shiver our way through a range of base layers in search of thermal perfection.

Eddy Merino Base Layer, £40, by Finisterre

Lightweight merino with a scoop neck, this quickly become our favourite option for layering under smarter clothes. It also performed well during sportier activities, with the best wicking properties of any garment we tested. No clammy armpits with this number. To score top marks, though, we'd like to see a little more length in both the sleeves and torso for keeping out drafts.

Interestingly, Finisterre source their merino wool not from New Zealand but from Devon, from a rare breed of sheep called the Bowmont. Visit the Finisterre website to see video evidence of these sheep surfing. Baaarmy.

Best for: Eco credentials and a right-on surfer vibe
Score: 9/10

Arc'teryx Phase AR, £44.99, at Ellis Brigham

This is one hi-tech layer, eschewing wool in favour of 'encapsulated silver-ions' (no, us neither) for odour reduction. The man-made fabric just doesn't feel as nice as wool though, and the odour control measures aren't entirely effective, though maybe that's just us. Nonetheless, the fit is nice and snug, it looks sporty, and makes a good insulating layer when worn over a thin merino top for a cold weather run. Definitely not one for the office, though.

Best for: Outdoor activities at the weekend
Score: 5/10

Ice crew, £40, by Helly Hansen

Featuring those classic go-faster stripes on the sleeves, this is a good sporty option with a nice fit, combining merino wool with an inner hollow fibre layer. We're not sure why the lining is man-made though, given merino's natural wicking properties - we would have preferred an all-merino style. Good basic base layer though.

Best for: A retro sporty vibe
Score: 6/10

Long sleeve merino top, €110 by Mover

Oh, how we wish we had never pulled these base layers over our heads. They are the sartorial equivalent of flying first class - and now we are back to slumming it in economy. Projecting thermal tops into a whole new realm, these are stylish, seriously warm and reassuringly, if not prohibitively, expensive. Mover scores style points for being the preferred skiwear brand of Carla Bruni-Sarkozy (or so we hear) and the company has a reputation for clever sporty design; Mover HQ is in Lausanne (possibly in an icy cave), which just smacks of chilly genius. If you're lucky enough to live in Zermatt or Verbier you can pick up a Mover base layer in your local upmarket skiwear shop; otherwise, visit their website.

Best for: Staying warm in serious style
Score: 9/10

Women's 200 Chakra Zip Horizon, £59.99, by Icebreaker

Icebreaker is the New Zealand-based pioneer of the merino market, and produces a vast range of garments in different weights and cuts, allowing you to get really geeky and technical with your layering. This zip top in their lightweight merino is a versatile choice, but go for heavier 260/320 weight pieces if you really feel the cold or are planning an Arctic expedition. All of their pieces are cleverly cut and attractive in a sporty kind of way, and achieve a kind of snuggly softness no other manufacturer does. What is their secret? We're not sure, but each garment has a 'baacode' that allows you to trace its origins, which may shed some light. It is just possible, however, that Icebreaker have taken sheep worship a step too far with this striking advert ...

Best for: All-round performance and snuggly softness
Score: 9/10

Merino 2 Zip-Neck, £69, by Patagonia

Made from recycled polyester and merino wool, this top is really soft with excellent attention to detail in the design - there are no shoulder seams to rub and the top of the zip has been covered up too. Seasoned mountaineers will appreciate the warmth to weight ratio as it is incredibly light, while we can personally attest to its performance on the sofa, and even in bed on a chilly night.

Best for: Mountain climbers who demand light weight and good design features.
Score: 7.5/10

NBC Classic, £45, by Howies

Howie's classic base layers (they have some more fashion-forward cotton/merino mixes too) seem at first rather long in the torso. This, however, is actually a stroke of genius, keeping cold drafts away from your kidneys where others fail. While perhaps not quite as soft as other pure merino brands, they are a great, simple style which wash brilliantly.

Best for: Eco shoppers
Score: 8/10

Roxy thermal top, £39.99, by Surfdome

A blast from the thermal past - this 100% polyester top crackles with static and is not the best fabric for combating odours. However, some people do find merino wool a bit itchy, so this would be an option if you prefer something man-made.

Best for: Label lovers
Score: 4/10

DHB merino round neck base layer, £36.99, by Wiggle

In ubiquitous slate grey (can anyone explain why this is the default colour for the merino base layer? Last time we looked, the sheep themselves were a sort of off-white colour), this is a great basic base layer in 100% merino wool at a very affordable price. This is quite a light layer, so good for year-round layering and sports.

Best for: Budget shoppers
Score: 7.5/10

First layer femme fraises, €59, by Pull-in

Base layers generally go for simple, straightforward colours, presumably on the basis that what you can't see isn't worth splashing patterns on. Not so these strawberry-print thermals, which remind us strangely of childhood pyjamas. Printed using a special technique that ensures the print doesn't stretch or fade. Even if you want it to.

Best for: Extroverts
Score: 5/10

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