Gear Advisor: Trail Running Tops

March 13, 2015

by Billy Brown
Gear Advisor: Trail Running Tops

This isn’t the gym. Weather will always be a factor when planning for the trail. No matter hot or cold, windy or wet, the elements can be tamed by choosing the right top for the forecast. Here is our list to help you build a trail running wardrobe for any condition.  

Tested and Reviewed

Pearl iZumi Fly Jacket

Pearl iZumi Fly Jacket Starting at: $81.13

The age-old runner’s conundrum: a jacket that prevents you from getting wet, but fails to wick sweat properly. If not, then chances are you're rocking a jacket that is far from waterproof and breathes like fishnets. Either way -- clammy from sweat or sopping wet from rain – a jacket becomes a burden rather than a blessing. Pearl Izumi rides the thin line between external protection and internal breathability with the Fly Jacket. The jacket is fashioned from Pearl Izumi’s proprietary Barrier fabric, which is water and wind-resistant as well as highly breathable. The Fly jacket does away with vent zippers in the armpits, opting instead for open armpits for continuous airflow. We loved not having to open up the vents. You will too if you prefer venting hot, sweaty air out of your jacket instead of letting it fester and ferment. “I usually won’t wear a jacket on the run,” said one tester. “But this was perfect for cold and rainy runs. I went 8 miles before I noticed any internal moisture.” There’s more to this piece than keeping you cool, though. The Barrier repelled everything but heavy rain, and wind felt nearly nonexistent throughout months of winter trail runs. Testers saw the internal mitts as a nice detail, “It’s a great touch if you leave your gloves at home.”  Runners can tuck their hands inside a pocket within the cuff of each sleeve, shielding their hands from the elements. Bonus: There’s a zip pocket in the back if you don’t need your gloves or just need a place to stash a few small items.

Best For: Cold trail running days

Super Natural SS Tee

Super Natural SS Tee Starting at: $23.87

There’s an ongoing battle in the technical apparel industry between merino wool and synthetic fabrics like polyester. Wool is touted for its breathability and anti-stink properties, while synthetics are popular for their fast-drying and sweat-wicking capabilities. Gear companies are starting to recognize the merits of both camps, and blending the two in an effort to make a super fabric. No one is doing a better job with this difficult task than the company Super.Natural. Their SS Tee is a 50/50 split of wool and polyester that feels as soft as cotton, stretches like lycra, and regulates body temperature like wool. On 80-degree trail runs, we never overheated, and the shirt wicked and dried like a pure synthetic. It’s tough as well – we logged over 100 miles in the shirt, most of which with a pack – and the shirt hardly showed any piling. And anti-stink? We took the shirt out on a trail run every day for 10 days straight without any overwhelming odor buildup. The only signs of use were dried salt patterns on the chest and back, and a hint of deodorant in the armpits. “I’ve never had a shirt handle this kind of reek without absorbing it,” one tester said. This bodes well for tossing this tee into your travel wardrobe or your adventure race kit, since a shirt that doesn’t smell like a wet Yeti is less likely to make your travel companions and teammates hate you. 

Best For: Warm trail running days

Columbia Freeze Degree Short Sleeve Crew

Columbia Freeze Degree Short Sleeve Crew

Our tester took this shirt out in rain, sun, and windy conditions to see how all the technology really worked in the wild. During 85 degree runs the sweat activated Omni-Freeze™ substantially cooled the shirt, even with a hydration pack impeding airflow across the back. The trim fit was comfortable without binding up, and had no chaffing points or hot spots. During rain and wind, the material didn’t provide much insulation from the elements, but did maintain the comfortable fit even when wet. The Omni-Freeze™ treatment does have a slight texture on the inside of the shirt, which irritated sensitive nipples in colder weather. The antimicrobial treatment did help limit sweat odor, but the shirt still built up the standard locker-room stench within a few runs and had to be washed regularly.Technical wear on the trail has become common, adding technology to traditional clothes offer advantages that help chip away more miles with less effort, or at least more comfort.  Columbia’s Omni-Freeze™ Zero tee is packed full of technology for a great advantage when the sun really heats up. The technical tee has Omni-Wick™ to pull sweat away for a drier fit, shields from sun with Omni-Shade™ 30 UPF protection, and features sweat activated cooling with the Omni-Freeze™ treatment. The shirt holds the classic shape with a comfort stretch 100% polyester synthetic material, and the anti-microbial treatment works to cut down on trail smell during sweat-addled workouts.

Overall, the cooling technology within the shirt did help to lower skin temperature during hot runs, and maintained a comfortable fit that didn’t stretch out.  For warm weather running this shirt is a great piece of gear, but it didn’t impress during colder days, and the synthetic material requires consistent washing to keep smells at bay.  While the technology offers plenty of advantages, it still has some room to improve along the way.

Best For: Warm trail running days

Columbia Freeze Degree Tank Top

Columbia Freeze Degree Tank Top - Women's

The Columbia Freeze Degree Tank comes correct with the Omni-Freeze ZERO cooling system. The fabric is cool to the touch, keeping your core from getting as hot as the hell you may be running in. One tester took this tank out in the heat of the day on grueling hill climbs, working up a sweat. She noticed a significant difference in her body temperature fluctuation when wearing the Freeze Degree as compared to other wicking shirts. We’re not sure what scientists to thank for this, but we dig the small, blue cooling rings on the inside of the shirt that react to sweat. Omni-Wick Evap fabric is located on the sides and back, dispersing sweat to keep the skin as dry as possible. The Freeze Degree tank incorporates Columbia’s Omni-Shade technology as well, adding UPF 50 protection to shield you from those ultra violet rays. Impressed yet? You should be.

Best For: Warm trail running days

The North Face Better Than Naked Tee

The North Face Better Than Naked Tee $47.71 - $47.96

The North Face’s Better than Naked Tee lives up to its lofty name. We took the BTN out on hundreds of miles’ worth of trails while training for and eventually running the TNF Endurance Challenge 50k trail race. Our tester didn’t win, but the shirt in and of itself was a prize. The soft polyester is highly effective at wicking away sweat, but we found that the shirt’s open-backed design is what made it stand out from the rest of the competition. The shirt sports breathable mesh running up the center of the back, allowing the body to vent heat. The slim fit and soft material brought the shirt’s title to mind while our tester was running. “It really did feel great,” he said. “I usually take my shirt off as soon as I start to get warm, but I never took the TNF shirt off.” The North Face clearly believes in the Better than Naked line, as they’ve developed layers that complement this shirt – including a ¼ zip long sleeve with mesh that matches the Tee’s so you can wear both layers without obstructing the vents.

Best For: Warm trail running days


Arc'teryx Accelero SS Shirt

Arc'teryx Accelero SS Shirt

When the summer sun comes calling, the Arc’teryx Accelero is the runner’s answer. Super-thin polyester panels across the shoulders and back increase airflow. The fine fabric comes in handy while wearing a pack, drying sweat almost as quickly as it can accumulate, without forfeiting comfort. The flatlocked seams are also placed specifically to avoid chafing, while the reflective detailing will keep cars, night cyclists, and the occasional deer from running you down from behind.

Best For: Warm trail running days

Icebreaker Tech T Lite Short Sleeve

Icebreaker Tech Lite Short-Sleeve Shirt

When it comes to versatility, it’s hard to beat Icebreaker’s Tech T Lite. The merino wool dries quickly, regulates temperature on long runs, and doesn’t absorb odor, so you can wear it straight from the trail to the bar if you need to rehydrate. It’s worth mentioning that the Tech T looks pretty sharp, so even though it’s a smart piece to wear in the wild, you’re not going to look out of place when you head back to civilization. Our biggest complaint with the lightweight wool piece: its fragility. If you do run through overgrown areas, careful – snags become a hazard.

Best For: Trail running lifestyle

La Sportiva Peak T-Shirt

La Sportiva Peak T-Shirt Starting at: $47.71

When a company like La Sportiva makes a t-shirt that specializes in wicking moisture, trail runners everywhere stand at attention. The Peak T-shirt utilizes Cocona fabric (recycled coconut shells!) to make a running shirt that feels as soft as cotton, but wicks away sweat like a tech-heavy tee. Add the UPF 50+ sun protection factor and the coconut-based odor management, and you’ve got the recipe for a killer running shirt. Just remember: piña coladas make much better post-workout drinks than they do mid-run pick-me-ups. 

Best For: Warm trail running days

Outdoor Research Men’s Ignitor Tee

Outdoor Research Men’s Ignitor Tee

Outdoor Research’s Men’s Ignitor Tee is an example of the technological innovation that has left cotton archaic in the world of outdoor apparel. The shirt’s heathered polyester wicks moisture and provides excellent range of motion. The Ignitor is designed to keep moisture to a minimum, while bumping up the comfort with a “silky” polyester blend. The Polygiene® treatment keeps the stink at bay on multi-day trips. Bonus: An integrated hip pocket holds small items, and reflective trim keeps runners visible during low-light runs.

Best For: Multi-day trail running trips


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