If you are looking to upgrade your layering system with a new fleece, you've come to the right place. The following article will help you understand the buying process, assuring that you ask the necessary questions to find the fleece that best suits your specific needs.
Fleece has been a staple in the outdoor industry for decades. Manufacturers keep reinventing the fabrics and features in these jackets, bringing forth new ideas and concepts that expand the versatility of these fleeces. Fleece jackets are now highly specialized technical layers, some sleek and optimized for breathability, while others are thick and heavy to maximize warmth. Some have decent water and wind resistance allowing you to keep that rain or wind shell in the depths of your backpack longer, and some have strategically placed abrasion-resistant nylon reinforcement panels.
Now that fleece jackets come in so many styles with specific uses built into each one; it's not easy to pick just one in the right color that fits. In this summary, we offer tips for buying your next fleece jacket layer. We cover everything from the different versions of the fleece material itself to the features you should look for or avoid. For an in-depth look at how the different jackets we tested fared in our head-to-head comparison process, check out our Full Review.
Material and Construction
Quality materials and construction are important when it comes to making a great fleece jacket. Gone are the itchy/scratchy fleeces of the 1980s (or least, they should be). If the fabric isn't soft or fluffy against the skin, then everything else about the jacket is obsolete. Synthetic fleece was first created by a parent company of Polartec in the late 1970s. Since then, Polartec has remained one of the leading manufacturers of synthetic fleece, selling their fabrics to the top manufacturers such as Patagonia, The North Face, and the ever classic L.L. Bean. Polartec currently produces a large number of variations of the stuff, ranging from soft and stretchy to thick and fluffy. Most of the jackets that we put through the paces in this review were made with a Polartec produced material.
Nowadays, much of the fleece out there is made with recycled materials. It's hard to believe that a hard plastic soda bottle can be manipulated into the soft and cozy "fur" that feels so good against the skin. Like many other synthetic fabrics, this fabric is manufactured through a process that involves petroleum derivatives. A malleable compound called PET is created that can be formed into many different materials depending on the desired outcome. It can be shaped and allowed to harden into such finished products as plastic milk crates or soda bottles, or it can be extruded into fine fibers that are then knit to form the revolutionary material.
Fleece keeps you warm by trapping your warmth in the tiny little pockets of air that are formed between the threads throughout the fabric. Since it is derived from petroleum, it is naturally hydrophobic, and the fibers themselves won't absorb water, but they can hold some water in the voids created. If fleece gets saturated, just let it hang or give it a shake, and the water will work its way out. This is a huge benefit over other fabrics and materials, such as down and cotton, which lose their insulative properties when they get saturated. This trait makes it an incredibly versatile material in that it is great for all sorts of outdoor activities in both wet and dry conditions. While the hydrophobic nature of fleece has lots of benefits, it also creates one drawback: shedding sweat and moisture can be difficult and leave you feeling wet and gross.
Originally, fleece jackets were warm, heavy, and bulky. This made them a great alternative to down, especially compared to the heavy synthetic insulated jackets at the time. Fast forward 30 years and the synthetic insulated jackets have become the primary alternative to down, while fleece jackets are worn for their superior breathability, style, or soft touch. Below, we'll discuss the attributes we think are the most important when deciding on a new fleece jacket.
When you are shopping for a new fleece, you're going to want something that will keep you warm, but don't make the mistake of grabbing the warmest model on the shelf. Before you reach for that thick, cozy fleece, ask yourself, "How do I want to use this layer?" If you plan to mostly use it for sitting around the campfire on cold nights or watching your son's football game from the bleachers, then, by all means, grab the warmest, coziest thing you can find, like The North Face Denali 2 or Campshire Hoody. But, if you plan to use it for active pursuits, then consider a lighter, more breathable option that will work as part of a larger layering system. If you use multiple layers, you can remove or add layers based on exertion levels or changes in the weather. If you only have one, toasty fleece, you're going to find yourself in a situation where you will get too hot wearing it, but too cold without it. For more information on this topic, check out our How to Layer Clothing to Keep Warm article. In general, the weight and thickness of the material largely determine its warmth, which brings us to our next metric, Weight.
As a general guideline, fleece material is categorized into the following weight classes:<100 g/m² = ultralight
100 g/m² = lightweight, usually referred to as a 100 weight fleece
200 g/m² = midweight, usually referred to as a 200 weight fleece
300 g/m² and up = heavyweight, usually referred to as a 300 weight fleece
While weight tends to go hand in hand with warmth, the loft or fluffiness of the fabric will also make a garment warmer as fluffy fibers have more air pockets to trap more heat. Heavier, tightly woven models did not provide the same amount of warmth as a lighter high-loft model like The North Face Campshire, though they would make a jacket more wind resistant and less breathable. You can see, it's all about tradeoffs and what works best for your intended use.
We like using lightweight models when we need a light layer for active days or as a mid-layer under another fleece or shell jacket in colder conditions. Lightweight models breathe better, fit under outer layers easier, and provide adequate warmth for physical activities. When the mercury drops, however, a light fleece won't cut it, and you'll need to layer up.
Midweight fleeces are some of the most popular fleece weights out there. They work well as outer layers during a wide range of cool temperatures, but can also be incorporated into a larger layering system. Some are highly breathable intended for high energy activities, while others use a denser knit and are best used as a stand-alone piece. Heavyweight models are the least versatile of all the fleeces. They are less breathable and bulkier than the thinner options and have limited use. However, they work well as stand-alone layers in colder temperatures, and the thicker fabric helps to block the wind better than their thinner cousins.
Breathability was once the Achilles heel of the fleece jacket. Now many fleece jackets are specifically designed to be as breathability as possible. Hike up even a short steep hill in a thick fleece, and you'll find yourself a sweaty mess, only to shiver as soon as you take the fleece off and are exposed to the cold air. Fortunately, most technical fleece available today maximizes breathability, employing a wide array of design tricks so that you can put your fleece on and leave it on without ending up in a puddle of your cold sweat.
The primary method of adding breathability to a quality fleece jacket is to incorporate a variety of fabrics of different thicknesses or loft to create certain key areas of higher breathability while retaining a higher degree of warmth in others. This method could be referred to as mapping and is used in hybrid models like the Patagonia R1 and OR Vigor, which have side and underarm panels made of thinner stretchy fabric that is very different from the loftier fleece that makes up the chest, shoulders, and arms. This effectively increases the breathability, allowing sweat and vapor to escape from the most critical areas — under the armpits and on the back — while keeping the rest of the areas warm and toasty.
Another way manufacturers maximize breathability is to use variability in fabric thickness, which comes on a more micro (and less obvious) level. This style fleece is commonly referred to as "gridded" fleece. The gridded fleece appears smooth from the outside, but if you look at the backing material, it looks like a checkerboard on the inside, where you will see many thin "channels" in between the thicker soft fleece grid squares. Each of these channels provides a small air channel between the material and your skin, which allows your sweat to evaporate naturally. It is then transported through the thin fabric of the channel and vented to the outside. Grid fleece jackets, like the Patagonia R1 Hoody, is an excellent option for aerobic activities in cold conditions. Since they do breathe so well, you'll want a shell nearby for when the breeze picks up. Without a shell, the wind will rip that warmth right away from your body.
The downside to increasing a material's breathability is that it can make it less resistant to wind and water. This is a problem if you plan on wearing it as an outer layer in iffy weather. Some models, like the Patagonia R1 Techface Hoody, are made with a "hardface technology" that does a worthy job of blocking the wind. The "hardface" is a special polymer that is fused to the outside of the fabric, making it smooth but still stretchy. This shell provides a barrier against wind and light rain (more on that below). Other "windproof" jackets utilize "Windstopper" fabric in their construction. This is a three-layer bonded material that includes an outer microfleece, middle "Windstopper" (basically a layer of Gore-Tex) membrane, and an inner knit.
While these technologies are getting better at blocking the wind while remaining breathable, our testing confirmed that these jackets inevitably end up far less breathable than their non-wind-resistant counterparts. We believe the combination of a highly breathable fleece jacket and a wind jacket or hardshell jacket is a significantly more versatile and efficient system than simply trying to force a fleece to be windproof. Wind jackets are incredibly light and are all you need to get a lot more warmth out of your lightweight fleece, without compromising its breathability. If you intend on wearing a fleece solely as an outer layer for around town, then a wind-resistant model is a fine choice and worth looking into, but if you want to be able to use your fleece for physical activity, you will want it to breathe well.
Some models might also be coated with a water-shedding treatment to increase performance in wet conditions. (Generally, this is seen on sheer, wind-resistant products, as it wouldn't make sense to spray a water-beading treatment onto a furry high-loft model.) The thick The North Face Denali 2 has a durable water repellent (DWR) treatment, causing light rain to bead up on the surface of the fleece where it can easily be shaken off. The Patagonia R1 Techface Hoody is sized to be layered on top of a more insulating mid-layer and even has a stiff brimmed hood reminiscent of a rain jacket. These treatments can be somewhat effective when the jacket is new, but if the rain is going to be significant, fleece is not the ideal layer. No matter how extensively treated, this type of fleece jacket should never be thought of as a replacement for a hardshell or rain jacket.
Gear manufacturers are constantly redesigning and modifying jackets by adding and changing features. In our experience, the "more the merrier" does not apply when concerning features on a fleece jacket. Cinch cords can stretch out, and the cord locks can feel super uncomfortable under other layers, your backpack hip-belt, or if you're sleeping in your fleece. Ditto for heavy zippers and superfluous pockets. Again, when considering features, think about what activities you'll be doing and choose accordingly. With fleece, many times, less is more.
Pockets are the most basic of all jacket features. Nearly every fleece on the market has some configuration of handwarmer and/or chest pockets. The ideal arrangement of pockets depends on the intended use. For activities like rock climbing, it is typically better not to have handwarmer pockets as they feel weird and obtrusive under a harness. However, they are nice to have for around-town, as they provide a convenient location to place your hands and are a welcomed feature on frigid days when you aren't wearing gloves. Chest pockets are beneficial features, as they allow easy access to essential items when wearing a pack or outer layer. Some models even have arm pockets, which aren't great for carrying too much but are the perfect place to put a music player or ID.
Hoods are the icing on the cake of our favorite fleece jackets, and whenever possible, we review the hooded version of any given fleece. We can't count the times we've crawled into our sleeping bags on a cold night, pulled on the hood of the R1 Hoody, zipped it all the way up and fallen asleep, knowing that even if we wriggled out of the bag a little bit during the night, our ears and neck would stay warm under the snug, well-fitting balaclava style hood. Conversely, we've felt the frustration of bulky hoods layered uncomfortably on top of each other. Thinner hoods are generally better, but if you aren't going to use your fleece as part of a layering system, a thick heavy hood can go a long way towards keeping your head, neck, and ears warm and toasty. Sleek, fitted hoods like the ones on the R1 Hoody do a great job of staying out of the way, even when used as a mid-layer.
Some models like The North Face Denali II come with a cinch cord at the waist to help you seal in warmth and block out wind or snow. This is great for certain applications, like snow sports, but consider that you're likely to be wearing a hard shell or insulated jacket over your fleece in the snow, and one of these jackets may also have a cinch cord. We prefer a snugger fit fitting elastic hem instead of a cinch cord on the hem of our fleece. The hard plastic cord locks can create pressure points under your other layers or in a sleeping bag, and the drawcord can make the hem ride up, causing an uncomfortable drafty situation.
Thumb loops provide a little extra warmth on your hands and wrists and eliminate any gaps in coverage between your sleeves and gloves. They're also helpful for layering up, allowing you to slide your arms into the sleeves of another jacket without the sleeves of your fleece riding up. If you like a jacket and don't like that it has thumb loops, just don't put your thumbs through the loops, and you'll never know they're there. Keep in mind, if you use thumb loops at all times, they will start to wear out before the rest of the jacket.
Here's wear shopping around really helps. There's no way to know how a fleece jacket will fit without going to the store and trying it on, or ordering and returning (ugh) multiple jackets from a website. To give you a leg up and save you some time and shipping fees, we make as many observations about the general cut of a garment.
Length of Sleeves
The length of the sleeves is an important factor that affects overall usefulness and comfort, especially for those with a large ape-index. Short sleeves can be unsightly at best and sacrifice much of your warmth at worst. As we mentioned before, models with thumb loops have slightly longer sleeves to accommodate half-palm coverage when the loops are in use. Wrist elastic is also an essential feature for active models to have. An active jacket is more versatile if the sleeves can be rolled up to the elbow. As a general rule, we find that wide wrist elastic tends to be more effective and comfortable than narrow. If you want a functional climbing or active layer, look for a long slim model with wide wrist elastic and long sleeves.
Length of Torso
The length of a jacket's torso is vital to look at not only because it determines whether it will fit tall people, but also because it determines whether it will work under a backpack or climbing harness. It is quite annoying to go climbing in a poor fitting jacket that comes untucked as you climb. There is a constant urge to tug the layer down, which is made worse when you reach down to grab a piece of gear, only to find that the jacket has come completely untucked and fallen over your gear loop. Not a great situation. Luckily, most manufacturers have figured this out, and unless you are exceedingly tall, there is surely a model of adequate length on the market.
Some outdoor manufacturers, like The North Face, Marmot, and Patagonia, use recycled soda bottles to produce "new material." In addition, Patagonia takes in old garments through their recycling program and turns them into new fluffy offerings. They've even gone so far as to say "Don't Buy This Jacket" and instead are encouraging their customers to have their old stuff repaired first instead of buying new stuff. As outdoor enthusiasts, it is constantly tempting to purchase the newest and greatest gear as things continue to evolve and improve. But we also want to minimize our impact on the planet and help keep those places we love to recreate in pristine. In our years of testing clothing, we've never noticed a difference in quality between garments made of new materials and recycled materials. Your best bet is to buy a quality product in the first place, treat it well, stitch and patch up those holes, and when it truly can't be worn any longer, send it off for recycling.
Types of Fleece Jackets
The different options when it comes to fleece jackets are as follows:Heavyweight — this type is ideal for casual, around-town or camp use. Often they will weigh quite a bit more and are expensive, heavy, and bulky. Products in this category tend to be too bulky to be layered effectively, which limits their usefulness. However, they are many times, beyond comfortable and can be the perfect stand-alone option for cold nights around the campfire or as a fall/spring jacket in the city.
Midweight — this type is ideal for use as a mid-layer on cold winter days or as a stand-alone jacket in milder temps or around town. Products in this category provide a great blend of performance and style for technical and general use. Some might have a hood, and others might not, but if you plan to use it under a ski jacket, then it's preferable not to have a hood, particularly if you use a helmet. This style, while better than heavyweight fleeces, are not the best choice for active pursuits due to less breathability and more warmth than a lighter layer.
Lightweight — this type is the most versatile for technical outdoor pursuits. While they might not offer as much when it comes to warmth, they will be exponentially more breathable and work as part of a layering system for use in a wide range of weather conditions and activities. Ideally, products in this category are slim-fitting, so you can layer with them easily. Our testers prefer hoods on this type of jacket or pullover.
Hybrid-- Manufacturers are scrambling to build the jacket that you'll never have to take off. Jackets like the Patagonia R1 Techface barely qualify to be in the fleece category. Instead, they almost resemble more of a softshell. The Hybrid fleece designs use weather-resistant shell fabrics, DWR treatments, and even synthetic insulation panels to expand the range of what a fleece can do.