Old Favourite: Helly Hansen Lifa Stripe Crew

, July 3, 2011

Helly Hansen LifaThis review is the third of a short series of blogs covering ‘old favourites,’ the sort of gear that not only works superbly, but is durable and reliable for any adventure. These reviews aim to select non-specialist, but in my opinion, superb pieces of equipment that will work for most people, in most conditions.

I’m moving towards the core with this review, away from the shell garments discussed in the earlier ‘old favourites’ blogs. The Helly Hansen Lifa Stripe Crew is my favourite baselayer and in twenty years of running, mountaineering, climbing and cycling I’ve tried many alternatives, but none do everything a baselayer needs to do as well as the humble Lifa.

It makes me feel a little old to recall that when I first joined a running club in my early teens everyone wore one because there weren’t many baselayer alternatives available. Times have changed and the choice in baselayer material alone is baffling before you start on colour, style, zip length, arm length, mesh areas, grid fabrics etc. So what makes a good baselayer?

To me a baselayer is a no compromise garment, staying warmish and dryish for many outdoor activities is a prerequisite for survival. A baselayer has to help me stay alive when I’m pushing it. Many baselayers are designed for moderate activity only or act as ‘thermals’ for cold conditions. For example, despite the deserved popularity of merino baselayers (I’ve worn nothing but merino underpants for five years!) they soon saturate with sweat under high intensity aerobic activity. Also for those who have worn merino for long periods they will testify it falls apart pretty rapidly under abrasion and sweat with holes quickly appearing.

My love for the Lifa is that it is a no compromise garment. Try this on in a shop and you’ll find it is skin tight, slightly plastic feeling, too long in the body to be remotely stylish and bizarrely a bit uncomfortable! I often note this when I’m getting geared up for a trip and think, ‘why do I always choose this?’ I choose it because when I’m at 180bpm on my heart rate monitor, hotter than hell and sweating buckets, it is the very best.

In particular I love lifas ability to move sweat away from the body, yet dry almost instantly once you stop sweating. This is because unlike most baselayers Lifa uses polypropylene. At a mountain marathon last year I chose to wear a different more typical polyester baselayer. I was wet when we finished the first day and stayed wet around the hem and sleeve cuffs until I put it on in the morning 12 hours after taking it off. Some cite the super fast-wicking of the Lifa as a negative, claiming that it can make you very cold if it is windy, or if you stop for a few minutes and it evaporatively chills you. This criticism misses a key point – it is ONLY a baselayer. To be comfortable in wind, or in stop-start activities, it is best teamed up with a windshirt and I could not recommend more highly the pertex windshirts produced by Montane.

I am not an environmental scientist, but one of the other factors that I love about Lifa is that it is astonishingly durable, this has to be a good thing in a world short of resources. I have had my current Lifa which I wear and wash about 4 times a week for five years. My previous Lifa lasted 10 years of daily running in the army and countless military exercises and two operational tours. By comparison a merino baselayer lasts me about 6 months before it disintegrates. On balance the overall environmental impact of 1 Lifa for ten years against the energy required for the production, transport, packaging, and dyeing of twenty merino tops, is very close indeed.

In brief, the Lifa is inexpensive, very durable, wicks brilliantly, is cut with extra long sleeves and body to keep

Helly Hansen Lifa
My current Lifa top worn to a podium position in the OMM

you covered when you’re thrashing around exercising and the modern ones don’t even merit the tag ‘smelly helly’. As a final point they might look like they haven’t changed since the 1980s, but to my knowledge they are now on the third major fabric revision. They are an outdoor classic for a reason. Next time you’re about to drop £80 on a funky high fashion alternative baselayer consider instead buying three lifas and not having to buy another baselayer till 2041!

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