Tuesday, 26 March 2013

On Brynje

There is no doubt that UK hillwalkers have responded with some scepticism to Brynje mesh base layers. When I was asked to test Brynje products, many months ago now, I was sceptical too. In an alpine setting, where I would often be staying in huts, wandering around in a mesh base layer would inevitably draw either disapproving, or even perhaps more disturbingly approving, looks from the other hut users. Of course, another layer resolves this problem. Yet, in any other wilderness outdoors setting, Brynje could compete with any other base layer - looks are simply irrelevant.

I also knew that, with the birth of my second child, I would not have a great deal of time until the end of the year and the start of 2013 to use it for anything other than cycling, running and the odd walk in the Surrey Hills - not exactly the sternest test. So I sent it up to Jamie Maddison who I knew was going to be expeditioning in Mongolia for 6 weeks. His thoughts are on Sidetracked but the short answer is, he was impressed.

Chris Townsend posted this comment when I got back from Norway having used Brynje for just under a week with ATE of Norway in -20˚C temperatures: "Brynje net underwear certainly works in Scottish winters too. I've worn it the last two winters. When I was leading ski tours in Norway back in the 90s I mostly wore Powerstretch tops next to the skin and found these very good. On the last few trips to places like Yellowstone (where we had temperatures down to -35C) I wore merino wool tops and these were fine. I will wear Brynje mesh wool under a merino wool zip T on the next trip."

Petter Thorsen and Bengt Rotmo of ATE of Norway - professional polar guides - also do not use anything other than Brynje mesh as their base layers. 

So why Brynje? Why mesh? Why do I like it so much? To explain, let's go back to basics. Base layers are all about thermoregulation. When outdoors, we are concerned with both comfort and safety. We regulate our temperatures both for our own comfort and to keep our bodies within our operating parameters. Human enzymes work best at 37˚C. We want to avoid over-heating or being too cold. And at the extreme ends of these scales we are concerned with dehydration as the body sweats to cool down, heat exhaustion and, worse, heat stroke as well as, at the other end, hypothermia. Both ends of the scale, if untreated, can result in serious consequences. So thermoregulation, for both comfort and safety, is perhaps the base aim of any clothing system.

For some years, a layering system has emerged as the best way to control temperature. It is the most versatile for people spending time outdoors as it tends to allow different layers to be used for different purposes. Those layers tend to be lighter, easier to pack and easier to deploy in a wider variety of circumstances than a single layer. I have, for some time, and will, for the foreseeable future operate with reference to what have become popularly known as "ultralight" principles. The fad is over and the bandwagon junkies have moved on to something else but, to me, the weight of individual pieces, a dual-use philosophy and selecting only those items I actually need to keep my pack weight to a minimum, will always be at the forefront of my mind.

So, when layering, we want a base layer, a mid- or insulating layer and a shell or windproof layer. That's layering at it's most basic. We can either add more layers if we need to - a gilet is a good example of this theory at work - or select layers more suited to our environment. Winter base layers are thicker than summer ones, for example and the insulating layer for -20˚C will be very different than that for 0˚C. The shell layer will very likely also be different.

The base layer is a crucial element in regulating our body temperatures. Put simply, we need to allow sweat to escape for perspiration to be effective at regulating our temperatures. We want, and need, to remain dry as much as possible otherwise we'll cool down too much - heat is transferred by evaporation. This all keep us comfortable both in terms of temperature and the feeling of our clothes against the skin. Thus, a base layer needs to "breathe" and needs to be able to dry quickly. What makes mesh so effective is that there is far less fabric to dry, making it dry much more quickly, and more of that fabric is in contact with air which means more efficient "breathing" and quicker drying. It's also lighter. Additionally, similar in principle to neoprene wetsuits, air is trapped against the skin between the mesh and the next later (when an insulating layer is used on top) in 'pockets'. The skin heats the air and, as a consequence the air remains the same temperature as that which it is in contact with (your skin) and thus we are kept warm more easily than if we need to heat the fabric itself. Of course the next layer will detract slightly from this effect as it will no doubt be itself a little colder, but that effect will be minimal if the next layer is a mid-layer and beneath a shell, for example. That's the theory.

The effectiveness of mesh has not yet been subjected to scientific scrutiny but the anecdotal evidence is significant. Polar adventurers, and people who operate in extreme cold, speak highly of Brynje mesh. Alan Hinkes has spoken positively of it, as has Ed Douglas, regular outdoor and mountaineering columnist for the Guardian. Sadly, much of the rest of its proponents are Europeans which potentially speaks more of our conservatism. Or does it? Part of the walking lives of many UK hillwalkers is spending time, after the walk, in a pub with friends or in a youth hostel en route. Not all are wild campers where looks matter little. Enjoyment is the principle aim for most hillwalkers and if a top doesn't tick every box then it fails to meet a need - if one of those boxes is 'looks', for whatever reason, then Brynje mesh is not for you. If however you want an efficient thermoregulation tool for serious use then you should try Brynje.

The mesh comes in different flavours too - a merino and synthetic blend; synthetic only; normal mesh, fine mesh and very fine mesh. They also do more traditional merino (the "Classic Wool" range) and synthetic (the "sprint" range) base layers. Each of the mesh has an interesting name and I'll briefly list the main players below for your ease of reference:

Classic Wool Mesh - merino/synthetic blend (80/20) mesh
Super Thermo - synthetic mesh
Super Micro - fine synthetic mesh
Classic Wool Micro - very fine merino/synthetic blend (80/20) mesh
Arctic Double - merino with mesh inner layer

The picture above has a Classic Wool Mesh (the black top) and a Super Micro (the white top - despite the label). Above that, the Red top is the Classic Wool Micro.

And there are rucksack-friendly shoulder-lined versions too as well as versions which provide windproofing protection for the male genital area, the thighs, the chest and so on. They do fleeces, softshell layers and hats as well. The principal retailer/distributor in the UK for Brynje is Rhodri Lewis at Nordic Life. He's a knowledgable guy, friendly and approachable. Call him and ask.

Sizing is problematic. There's no getting around it. I am a 34" waist, 6' (183cm), 13 stone (80kg), inside leg 33" and torso 21". I am, in most things, a medium or a large and, usually, the large is slightly too big. In Brynje, I find a large often too small, especially, as a cyclist, my posterior is a little on the muscly side (sorry). My suggestion, in all mesh layers, go up AT LEAST one size. Possibly two. It does not need to be skin-tight to work. As always, I'd suggest talking to Rhodri.

I like Brynje. It's now my base layer of choice in all but alpine conditions. In the Alps, I'll use a 125 or 150 merino top as I am too shy to wander round an alpine hut in mesh. But when wild camping, it's a perfect base layer. In really cold weather, I think the Arctic Double is better than the Icebreaker Quantum - it's gets the sweat away from my body better and dries more quickly. For athletic activity, the Super Micro does a great job below a windproof shell, but I'll deal with that in a specific post anon. Brynje requires some thinking out of the box, and perhaps a little bravery, but it opens up a world where the base layer is lighter, dries quicker and is more effective than ever before. It's worth trying the mesh.


  1. Interesting piece Maz. Lots of food for thought. Of course going back to the days before you were born we all wore string vests, for exactly the same reasons. No central heating then.

    The wheel is constantly turning.

    What’s the blue top? Does it have mesh? I like the look of it and the red one with the solid neck.

  2. The Mesh-iah! The Mesh-iah!

    You're preaching to the choir here. I know you have a deal with Brynje and I have one of their crews but the Aclima Woolnet range has a better fit and finish IMHO. I wish more people would just buy a LS crew and give it a go. If you've ever whined about damp base-layers you should try it. Så bra!

    Favourite combinations:

    under a windshirt in Spring/Autumn (try it running)

    under Vapour Rise in the depths of winter

    under a cycling specific soft-shell on my road bike from about October until April!

  3. The blue is the Classic Wool t-shirt and it does not have mesh. The mesh inner lining version, with long sleeves, is the Arctic Double which I like for winter. Yes, I think we have come full circle - but not everyone would agree.

  4. I really like it and in glad you do too. Another "UK" hiker willing to experiment and challenge perceptions - perhaps it's because you're now more of a Scandi! I don't really have a deal with Brynje - they send me kit to test and ask for honey opinions. I do in fact really like it and I encourage those who can get hold of Aclima to do so. My brother in law got some from DK and it's high quality stuff. It'll be interesting to get hold of some of their mesh and compare it to Brynje. Thanks for the comment as always Joe.

  5. Nice one Andrew. I'm using Aclima since last year, and find it fantastic. In deep cold (under -15°C) combined with a Woolpower 200 layer it is super comfy warm, but also with just a fleece-lined pants and a Midlayer (eg the Rab Hoody whose name I just can't recall right now) it's perfect for a host of activities.

    Regarding looks, maybe we Northerners are a bit more relaxed with that: At the STF Station in Abisko I saw a few people of our ice climbing group wear Aclima to breakfast, and nobody seemed to be bothered. Also in the After Climb Lounge a few people were sitting in mesh tops was no tabu.

  6. I liked your ice climbing post. Perhaps it's a cultural thing as you say. Either way, that's the world we live in - some people will value appearances over function and good luck to them.

  7. Hi Martin. Appreciate your healthy skepticism. As Andrew points out, wet, cold UK weather is perfect for the mesh. I can point you to any number of people who'll confirm this, including Andy Kirkpatick (who has no deal with Brynje) who is a Brynje user. However, there's nothing like the proof of the pudding, so I'm happy to offer you a top to try...free of charge. If you like it, keep it.....if not....you can make a fishing net with it! The only thing I'd ask in return is for you to write about your experience. If you're interested let me know.....email@nordiclife.co.uk

  8. Email sent. lets see how it works. Thanks.