If you look through old guide books there’s a good chance you’ll see the folks in the photos wearing button-up shirts along with their hobnail boots and canvas rucksacks. Times changed, we all went over to “proper” baselayers and shirts just seemed to be something that was embroidered with an outdoor shop’s logo and worn by staff.
A few years back I rediscovered shirts after a getting a test sample which I wore on hill days and backpacking trips. It was a bit of a revelation for warm weather use as it has great ventilation, you can open it to the waist if you like, long sleeves which rolled up to keep the sun off or cool me down, a collar which could be flipped up to keep my neck from turning an angry sunburn red and the fabric was a brilliant mixture of performance elements. Moisture management was excellent, wicking was instant and drying was fast but there was a little wind resistance with the tight weave so when a cool breeze whips up near the tops the shirt kept on doing its job. I was instantly sold and shirts are now a first choice on warm or hot hill days, cooler days are fine but shirt collars aren’t the best at layering under other outdoor tops and jackets.
Things to look for are fit first of all, only a few of the featured shirts are in a stretch fabric which can help but ease of arm lift and shoulder width are things to check and fit is something I’ll comment on below. Pockets are something to look for and here there are some great storage options. Some shirts have buttoned tabs to hold up your rolled-up sleeves which I like, it might look a bit too fancy in the shop but clambering uphill under a hot sun, it suddenly removes a small element of potential faff which can only make your day better.
The fabrics here all performed well, a sweaty back under a close fitting rucksack was a universal constant but drying times have been good enough for me not to mark it down as a major issue. They’ve all washed well, the check patterns hide a multitude of sins and dirty marks on a backpacking trip when you can’t get to a washing machine and in general the shirts have been good items to live in with odour control being okay enough for a few days wear. I have no scientific explanation for it, but the shirts don’t stink up as fast as other baselayers for me.
All weights are for the size large samples I had on test and any size comments are regarding how the shirts fit my average size large frame.
Women’s version available
Features – Two flapped chest pockets – one also zipped, sleeves have roll-up tabs, front and cuffs are buttoned, collar is stiffened to stand up.
The Explorer has a shaped fit with good arm articulation which makes it good for being active in. The arm and body length are good and the nylon fabric is soft but has been hard wearing. The shoulders are double thickness fabric so take a rucksack well and the packets are a decent size for keeping bits and pieces handy. Great shirt for the hills but the looks could make it every-day wear too to get your money’s worth.
Women’s version available
Features – Two flapped chest pockets, one concealed zipped chest pocket, one sleeve pocket, sleeves have roll-up tabs, front and cuffs are buttoned, collar is stiffened to stand up, mesh lined vent on the back and shoulders.
The nylon fabric feels a bit rustly but it’s soft against the skin and hard wearing. The features are well thought out and the concealed chest pocket is huge, bigger than a folded paper map. The fit is average, not too big or too trim and the length of the body and arms is in the middle too. The collar is clever with an extra flap that folds up to really shield your neck from the sun and the front closure buttons are sewn into a strong fabric take to make it very hard to lose one even if the stitching gets worn. Well thought out, great to wear in the hills.
Features – Two zipped chest pockets, front and cuffs are poppered, collar is stiffened to stand up.
The Keb blurs the line between a shirt and a softshell jacket with its hybrid construction of tough poly-cotton on the shoulders, elbows and other high wear and a stretchy nylon fabric on the bulk of the body. This makes the Keb excellent for mobility and it’s also the only shirt here I could layer over a light baselayer making it an excellent alternative midlayer for spring and autumn. It’s got quite a neat fit and has a long body and arms making it very outdoor-specific in feel and looks, with those big mountain-jacket styled chest pockets being excellent for on-the-move accessibility of your kit.
Women’s version available
Features – Two chest pockets -one zipped, one buttoned, front and cuffs are buttoned.
The Saba is a very light shirt and it excels on the hottest days, the polyester/nylon fabric manages sweat very well and feels great against the skin. The pockets have angled entrances which work very well and the fit is excellent with great arm movement, a slim cut and average arm and body length. The collar is soft and tends to fold itself down and it lacks sleeve tabs. A good shirt to wear but better for days out or general wear than wearing into the hills where the missing features make a difference.
Features – Single zipped chest pocket, poppered front and cuffs.
The Meadow is a very simple shirt made from a pleasant to wear polyester. The cut is long in the body, with good arm length and is slimmer across the shoulder than most shirts in the review. The collar has some stiffness to it and will stay up for a while and the slimmer cut arms means they don’t slip down so readily without the tabs if you rill them up. The single pocket is a little awkward to use because of its position, a tweak there would make a big difference to the usability. A great fabric and fit on a shirt best suited for days out and general use.
Features – Single chest pocket, buttoned front.
The Onsight has a polycotton fabric which feels pleasant to wear and the fit is quite slim which gives the shirt a good look with jeans which is what I’ve been wearing with it most of the time. It’s a casual shirt with outdoor performance from the fabric with a single pocket to drop your sunglasses into.
Great shirt for days out and general use but the lack of features and lack of flexibility with the sort sleeves isn’t the best for the hills.
Features – Four chest pockets, sleeves have roll-up tabs, front and cuffs are buttoned, mesh lined vent on the back.
My first thoughts on the Expedition Stretch was that it looked like it should be on David Attenborough as he whispered into the camera from a jungle somewhere but while it has those classic safari shirt looks there’s a lot going on in the design.
The chest has two huge mesh lined pockets with velcro closures and two additional pockets with Velcro flaps, one zipped and one divided into a phone and pen or knife slots. The sleeves roll up nice and high, the body and sleeves are a good length and the fit is roomy, it’s by far the biggest fitting shirt in the review which along with the stretch polyester fabric makes freedom of movement excellent. The extra fabric of the larger sizing makes using the shirt under a pack less than ideal for me, the collar is quite soft and creeps back down if folded up, but this would be a minor niggle if the fuller cut and well thought out features are just right for your frame.
Features – Two zipped chest pockets, sleeves have roll-up tabs, front and cuffs are buttoned.
The Tansen feels as much like a lightweight softshell as it does a shirt and it feels very much at home in the hills with an uncluttered, simple design. The pockets are good although the left chest pocket entry is a bit too small leading to fishing with two fingers to get stuff back out. The cut is neat but not too much with a long body and arms. The stretchy polyester is comfortable and gives excellent freedom of movement. The sleeves roll up nice and high but the soft collar rolls back down quite quickly on the move. The Tansen is very light and layers under other clothes better than most in the test so feels the most like regular hill wear.
Women’s version available
Features – Two chest pockets, one concealed chest pocket, sleeves have roll-up tabs, back vents, front and cuffs are buttoned.
The Colorado has a comfortable poly-cotton fabric and hides some very good hillwalker friendly features. The fit is not too neat or loose with a good body and sleeve length. The chest pockets have double-buttoned flaps and are a good size, hidden behind the left pocket is a big internal zipped pocket which is very handy on the hill. The back has mesh lined vents which here are placed vertically so aren’t covered when you wear a rucksack; in fact body movement helps create air movement around your back if your pack isn’t fastened up tight making the Colorado the least sweaty shirt on the move here.
The shirts separated themselves into categories as I used them, while all have good fabrics which are usable on the hill, the designs made all the difference to where they worked best.
The Sprayway Colorado was a real surprise, the vents and pockets gave it a better shot at being picked for a hill day while the Sherpa Tansen is really a lightweight softshell with buttons instead of a zip making it perfectly hill-ready. Craghoppers experience with travelwear shows with the detailing in their NosiLife shirt and it’s also been a regular pick when heading out. The Keb shirt has been my first choice on woodland ranger duties and it’ll come into its own more in the autumn I think as it’s a bit heavy for the hottest weather.
The others seem to see more into duty on days out in the Trossachs or local hill jaunts, but that’s not a criticism because you get top fabric performance but look like a normal punter instead of a mountaineer which is not a bad thing sometimes.