Material and Construction
Quality materials and construction are important facets 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 If the fabric isn't soft or fluffy against the skin then everything else about the jacket is obsolete. Since Patagonia first came out with the Snap T Pullover in the 1980s, materials have improved immensely, allowing manufacturers to design comfortable high performance layers. 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 material to such manufacturers as Patagonia, The North Face and the ever classic L.L. Bean. They currently produce dozens of different kinds ranging from sheer and shiny to furry and bearlike, and almost every model that we tested in this review was made with a Polartec produced material.
These days, it's increasingly common to see these synthetic materials advertised as being made with mostly recycled materials. It's quite amazing that a hard soda bottle can be somehow manipulated into the soft and cozy "fur" that we love to wear. 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 end products as plastic to-go boxes or soda bottles, or it can be extruded into fine fibers which are knitted to form the material that we know and love.
This material keeps you warm by trapping warm air in the tiny little pockets that are formed between the threads throughout the fabric. Since fleece is derived from petroleum, it is naturally hydrophobic, and the threads do not absorb water. This is a huge advantage over other material, such as down, which loses its insulative properties when wet. This advantage makes it a versatile material that is suitable for all sorts of outdoor pursuits in both wet and dry conditions. However, its hydrophobic qualities have historically resulted in one significant downside: it has trouble allowing sweat to escape. Early models felt stifling when worn for high exertion activities and were unsuitable for any activity that caused significant sweating. Anyone who has gone on a hike in one of these early models will attest to this sweltering feeling. In recent years, manufacturers have made huge strides in producing fabric that is both highly warm and seriously breathable. Improvements in fabric patterns and design have made fleeces not only a viable option for high exertion activities, but often the preferred choice. In fact, even lower end modern models are significantly more breathable than the top products of past generations.
We'll discuss below all the different attributes, including breathability, that you'll want to look for in a fleece jacket.
When buying a fleece jacket, one of the main objectives it must fulfill is keeping you warm. However, a lot of people make the mistake of reaching for the warmest possible model on the rack. If you only plan to use it for sitting around the campfire on cold nights, then by all means pick the warmest one you can find, like The North Face Denali Jacket. If, like most of us, you plan on using it for active pursuits, then consider something that is not quite as warm but works as part of a layering system. When you wear several layers of clothing in the outdoors, you have options to remove or add layers based on exertion levels or changes in the weather. If you only have one extra warm fleece jacket, you may find yourself in a situation where wearing it is too much, but not wearing it is too little. For more information on this topic, check out our Introduction to Layered Clothing Systems article. In general, the weight and thickness of the material largely determines it's warmth, which brings us to our next section.
As a general guideline, fleece material is categorized into the following weight classes:
<100 g/m² = ultralight
100 g/m² = lightweight
200 g/m² = midweight
300 g/m² and up = heavyweight
While weight does go hand in hand with warmth, the loft or fluffiness of the fabric will also make a difference as fluffy fibers have more air pockets to trap more heat. A heavy, tightly woven model like 275 g/m² The North Face Khumbu 2 Jacket did not provide the same amount of warmth as a lighter high-loft model like the Mountain Hardwear Monkey Man 200.
We like using lightweight models, like the Marmot Reactor, when we need a light layer for active days or as a mid-layer under another fleece or shell jacket in frigid conditions. Lightweight models are more breathable, and provide adequate warmth for active pursuits, but not enough warmth for colder weather.
Midweight fleeces are some of the most versatile layers out there. They work well as outer layers during a wide range of cool temperatures, but can also be incorporated into your layering system. Some, like our Editors' Choice Patagonia R3 Hoody, are highly breathable and can still be worn during active, high energy activities. These fleeces are beneficial in just about every temperature range that you'd want a warm layer in. Heavyweight models are the least versatile of all the thicknesses. They are less breathable and bulkier than the thinner options and have limited use. However, they do work well as stand alone layers in much cooler temperatures. They also do well in a light rain, and the thicker fabric helps to block the wind more than do thinner models.
This is an important consideration when buying any piece of outdoor clothing that you plan on being active in. We all generate sweat, but no one wants to hang out in their own puddle of it everyday. In fleece jackets of old, the sweat would bead up on the inside of the material and then start to trickle down your arms or back – not the best feeling. Today's options are much improved though, and manufacturers have gone out of their way to try and make this material more breathable.
The primary method of adding breathability to a fleece jacket is to utilize a variation in the thickness or loft of the fabric to create certain key areas of high breathability while retaining a high degree of high warmth in others. This method is used in hybrid models like the Patagonia R2 Jacket, which has side and underarm panels made of thinner R1 fabric that is very different from the high-loft fur that makes up the front and back panels. This effectively increases the breathability by allowing sweat to escape from the most critical area – under the armpits – while the rest remains cozy and bear-like.
Another method that maximizes breathability is variability in fabric thickness, which comes on a more micro (and less obvious) level. This method is commonly found in "grid" style models that appear smooth from the outside but look like a checkerboard from the inside with many thin "channels" in between the thicker squares. Each of these channels provides a small gap between the material and your skin which allows 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, our Top Pick for Breathability, are the best options for aerobic activities on chilly days.
Wind and Water Resistance
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 inclement weather. Some models, like the Arc'teryx Fortrez Hoody, are made with a "hardshell technology" fleece that do a decent job of blocking the wind. The "hardshell" is a special polymer that is fused to the outside of the fabric, making it smooth but still flexible. This shell provides a barrier against wind and a 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" 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. If you intend on wearing a fleece solely as a top layer for around-town use and do not require a high level of breathability, then a wind resistant model is a good choice and worth looking into.
Some models might also be sprayed with a protective coating to increase water resistance. (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.) These treatments can be somewhat effective when the jacket is new and you only plan on being outside for a short period in a light rain. But, if the rain is going to be at all heavy, a fleece is not a suitably impermeable 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. It can sometimes make your head spin to try to understand whether certain features are legitimately useful or simply marketing tricks aimed at attracting attention. There are, however, a few key features that can seriously elevate the performance of a fleece when properly designed and constructed.
Hoods add a lot of versatility to any jacket. They give you the option of increasing warmth without any decrease in breathability. While it's not true that you lose "70 percent of your body heat from your head," keeping your head warm does add a lot to your overall feeling of warmth. Some models on the market today have innovative combination hood/balaclavas. As there are few things in life as miserable as a cold face and numb ears, it is easy to appreciate this innovation when the mercury really drops. The Arc'teryx Fortrez has the most advanced hood system available, with a fold out balaclava that is warm when deployed, but craftily tucks away into the hood when not in use. There are certainly situations where a hood is more of a nuisance than an advantage, though. If you're looking for something to wear under a rain or ski jacket, it's annoying to have the extra fabric of a hood bunching up at the back of your neck. For these situations, a hoodless model is more comfortable and less cumbersome. Overall, we think that hooded models, specifically those with fitted hoods, offer the highest level of versatility and usefulness for everyday users.
Pockets are the most basic of all features. Nearly every fleece on the market has some configuration of handwarmer and/or chest pockets. The ideal arrangement of pockets really 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 around town, as they provide a convenient location to place your hands and are a welcomed feature on freezing days when you aren't wearing gloves. Chest pockets are nearly essential, as they allow easy access to important items when wearing a pack or outer layer. Some models even have arm pockets, which aren't great for carrying too much weight but are the perfect place to put a music player or ID.
Thumb loops are a somewhat divisive feature. Some people love the feeling of sleeves extending down to mid-palm, while others hate the look and don't understand the appeal. Most testers found this feature comfortable and useful on lightweight models that are used for aerobic activity. It's a nice way to keep sleeves from riding up while jogging without having to add excessively tight elastic to the cuffs. They are also great to have for activities like ice climbing, where you swing tools above your head and would likely prefer to keep snow from falling down your sleeves. Otherwise, they are mostly a matter of personal preference as opposed to a performance must-have.
Some models 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 might create pressure points when worn under a climbing harness or backpack's waistbelt. Best to consider first what you intend to use it for before committing to this specific feature.
Fit and Style
As we all have different shapes and sizes, it is impossible to recommend any one piece as the best fitting model on the market. The best way to find a properly fitting layer is by trying on numerous models and comparing them side-by-side. However, our individual reviews will give you a good idea of the general fit of each model in our test. In the following paragraphs, we will take you through a few of the key criteria to keep in mind when searching for an optimally fitting fleece jacket.
Length of Torso
The length of a jacket's torso is important 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 harness. It is unbelievably annoying to go climbing in an ill-fitting jacket that slowly 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.
Length of Sleeves
The length of the sleeves is also an important factor to overall usefulness and comfort. 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 important 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.
One final important feature of every fleece jacket is its aesthetic appeal. No one wants to purchase something that looks drabby or fits like an ill-fitting poncho. Early models were generally baggy fitting with unflattering cuts. Luckily, manufacturers have caught on to the trend of stylish fleeces and now many models on the market are at least somewhat stylish, though some still retain their "technical" look. For many people, their primary use will be for around-town casual wear. If this is the intended use, style should be a large part of your decision-making process. In reality, if you only plan on wearing your fleece jacket around town, all the technical features in the world will prove much less important than a proper fit and flattering cut.
Some outdoor manufacturers, like The North Face 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. 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.