After extensive research, we selected 10 of the best fleece jackets from the top manufacturers, then tested them in the wilds of the Eastern Sierra, the crags of the Rock Mountains, the desert southwest, and a cold, damp New England fall.
Each model went through the wringer, getting worn in everyday environments as well as in extreme conditions. Our testers hiked to Colorado's Chasm View Lake at 12,000 feet and climbed multi-pitch overhanging 5.12 routes. Then they went to backyard BBQs wearing the same fleece. From skiing to backpacking to walking the dog, our testers wore and evaluated each jacket from the Rockies to the Sierra to find the best models. We wore each one on the same adventures and while around town. We also had multiple testers and recruited friends to try each one.
We ranked each jacket against the others, testing them side-by-side. Then we compared the performance of each. After our testing phase, we rated each model in six different categories: warmth, comfort, versatility, breathability, and layering ability. Some of the ratings were determined solely through field tests, and for others, we performed extra product-specific testing. For example, for wind protection, we stood in front of a fan in one jacket after another to compare how much air was getting through, and for water resistance, we sprayed each fleece with a water bottle to see how quickly it soaked through.
We gauged our warmth scores by hiking, running, scrambling, and climbing in a variety of weather in Colorado. From the sandstone of the Flatirons to the granite of Boulder Canyon, from warm, sunny days, to cold, rainy nights, we wore the fleeces fair during early morning scrambles up the First Flatiron, late evenings hikes out from the River Wall in Lyons, and afternoons heading to the gym. We hiked hard uphill and then made casual downhill strolls during windy evenings, foggy afternoons, and rainy mornings. We measured each jacket's level of warmth.
To evaluate the fit and comfort of each model, we noted how the fleeces felt on the user's body. We compared the fit and feel out of the package and after a reasonable break-in period. We noted if we sensed any oddness in the material, the patterning, or the features like the zippers, hoods, and pockets and how they felt against the skin and while used. We also checked to find any distinctive tightness while moving and any areas where the fabric felt too loose and bunchy. We also looked for features that might be impacted by different body types.
Wearing a fleece jacket often means there's slightly inclement weather. To score a jacket's versatility, we looked at how well it performed against water and wind while still being light. We studied how each fleece held out in outdoor pursuits from hiking to bouldering, to trad routes, to hanging out in the evenings for summer BBQs during a variety of weather conditions. Early morning fog, afternoon thundershowers, and evening hail storms regularly hit the alpine of the Rocky Mountains. We took the jackets to the highest peaks to note how well each fleece performed in the rain, how quickly it dried out, and how much water it absorbed when wet. Then we gathered the actual ounces provided by the manufacturers and then we weighed the jackets ourselves. Each tester delineated how heavy each fleece felt throughout the testing. We looked at how packable the fleece is, how well it can fit into a pack, and how well it can be brought along on a hike or climb.
For our breathability scores, we noted how much airflow and sweat-wicking power each piece had. We ran up hills, skinned up mountains, climbed long routes, bouldered with friends, and tested how much breathability each piece had. We paid close attention to the moisture-wicking ability of the material and the fleece's design for how well the piece breathed while still keeping harsh wind out. We even took a high-powered fan and tested each fleece's ability to withstand harsh wind.
How well a fleece works with different jackets became a crucial part of the testing. Layering involves the ability of the individual piece to work both with lighter garments underneath and heavier pieces on top. We tried each fleece over a light shirt, by itself, and under a heavier shell. We tested how well it moved while running, skiing, and climbing with other pieces determining if each garment bunched or caught with other pieces. We ranked how well each garment functioned individually and paired with other pieces.