The Best Men's Fleece Jackets for Hiking and Layering
With a seemingly endless slew of options, how do you find the best fleece jacket on the market? Our expert testers gathered eight of the top-rated models out there in a variety of weights and styles and put them through the wringer. We assessed technical mid-layers to heavyweight outer layers, and sleek smooth piles to hi-loft Muppet-like fur wannabes. Whether you are looking for something to hit the trails in or something stylish to stroll down the street, we have you covered here at OutdoorGearLab. We hiked, climbed and played in the snow, and then evaluated them based on their Warmth, Comfort, Breathability, Layering Ability, Ease of Movement, Wind and Water Resistance, and finally their Weight. Keep reading to see which of these different styles were our favorites!
Read the full review below >
Test Results and Ratings
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Analysis and Award Winners
We updated this review in early 2017 and found that both the R1 Hoody and the R3 Hoody are available in new colors for the winter season.
Best Overall Fleece Jacket
Patagonia R3 Hoody
Our testers loved the Patagonia R3 Hoody and it was a high scorer in almost every category that we tested. This was by far the most comfortable jacket that we tested and almost the warmest. As an added bonus, it's also reversible! It's made of a high-loft fleece material in a gridded design, making it warm and breathable at the same time. While it doesn't provide much wind or rain protection, it does dry quickly after a light drizzle. It also has a cozy hood with an elastic rim, which is a welcome addition to helping us stay warm on cold days. We used this fleece for everything from outdoor activities like climbing and hiking, to strolling around town or heading to a local pub. If you're looking for a cozy, warm, breathable and comfortable jacket to wear as an outer layer or as part of your layering system, the R3 is a great way to go. As of fall 2016, the R3 is offered in new colors! Check them out in the full review of the R3 Hoody.
Features a hood
Elastic hem and cuffs
Easy to layer
A bit heavy
Best for the Budget-Minded
The $95 Marmot Reactor was the best bang for the buck out of the eight fleeces that we tested. While this is a basic model without too many extras, like gridded fleece or a hood, it still did a great job keeping us warm when we needed it. This was also the lightest fleece that we tested and it was hardly noticeable while wearing it or when stuffed into our packs. We used it for many different activities, such as bouldering, hiking, climbing and some fun in the snow. During these excursions, this jacket was breathable and also dried fast even after getting pummeled with snowballs. If you are looking for a basic and inexpensive fleece, then look no further than the Marmot Reactor.
Easy to layer
Not very warm
Top Pick for Breathability
Patagonia R1 Hoody
The Patagonia R1 Hoody is a classic layering piece, and if you don't yet own one you should. This technical masterpiece was by far the best model we tested for use as a mid-layer or while climbing, hiking, or running in cold weather. Sometimes we even forgot we were wearing a jacket, as it feels more like a warm long sleeve t-shirt. What this model does best is vent your perspiration. The Polartec Power Grid fleece has hundreds of venting channels to help keep you at the right temperature no matter how hard you're working, and for this we've given it our Top Pick for Breathability award. It also comes with some great features, like thumb holes to keep our hands warm and your sleeves in place while layering, and a balaclava-style hood that fits perfectly under a bike or climbing helmet. If it's good enough for Tommy Caldwell to wear on the Dawn Wall of El Capitan, it's good enough for us! For Fall 2016, Patagonia released new colors for the famous hoody. Check them out in the full review of the R1 Hoody.
Perfect fit for most active uses
Ideal weight for many conditions
Great hood design
Not very stylish
Not warm for its weight
Analysis and Test Results
Staying warm and comfortable is the name of the game when it comes to shopping for a fleece jacket. But, you'll also want to consider how breathable the layer is and if it offers any wind or water protection, depending on the environment you plan to use it in. And if you're planning a "fast and light" mission or a long thru-hike, then weight is also an important factor. So, before you make a random purchase based on whatever color or design catches your eye, you should first carefully consider why you are buying a fleece jacket, what activities you'll most likely use it for, and what type of weather environments you'll be using it in. If this seems like a lot of thought to take for a simple layer, you should know that many of today's options are technical masterpieces and cost up to $200 — not the kind of money we want to shell out lightly or without significant thought.
There are many different outdoor activities where a fleece jacket comes in handy: hiking, climbing, skiing, snowshoeing and running, not to mention simply lounging around the house or camp, or running errands around town. But the fleece jacket you wear on a winter run is not the same layer that's going to keep you warm around the campfire. We've broken the different categories down below to help you better understand what different types are out there and what their best uses are.
Types of Fleece Jackets
The different options when it comes to fleece jackets are as follows:
You can check out our Buying Advice Guide for more information on the different types available, as well as tips on what features to look for in your next purchase.
Criteria for Evaluation
The following chart shows where each of the 8 fleece contenders (pictured below) ranked in Overall Performance. We ranked each fleece on its warmth, comfort, breathability, layering ability, ease of movement, wind protection, water resistance, and weight, all of which we discuss in detail in the remainder of this article and in each individual review.
Warmth is one of the key things to consider when buying a fleece jacket. The purpose of this layer is to help trap and retain our body heat on cold days, and the warmth rating that we've given each model counts as 25 percent of their overall score. The warmth is determined by the thickness of the material (thicker is usually warmer) but there are many other features that can add or detract from it. Hoods, elastic cuffs, drawstring hems and tighter weaves that help block the wind all add up to additional warmth points. We should add though that sometimes a model can be too warm, particularly if you are using your fleece jacket as an active layer. What we are mostly looking for is something that keeps us warm while hiking, climbing, or cross-country skiing, without being too stifling.
Consider what activity you are most likely to use your fleece jacket for before you purchase it. Lightweight models are for higher energy and aerobic activities, and heavier ones are for times when you are more sedentary but still outside. This way you can ensure your body will be kept at a warm and comfortable temperature regardless of what you are doing.
The warmest model that we tested was The North Face Denali Jacket. This is a heavyweight layer, and its 300 g/mē material did a great job of trapping and retaining our body heat. The model that we tested did not have a hood (which detracted from the warmth score for some other models) but in the Denali's case did not make much of a difference. If you need a warm and toasty outer jacket and prefer fleece to a synthetic or down jacket, then this is the one for you. However, it was also the heaviest and bulkiest model we tested, and did not perform well during periods of active use.
Our Editors' Choice winner, the Patagonia R3 Hoody, is made of a thinner material than the Denali, but the addition of a hood left us feeling almost as warm, and certainly more protected from the elements on windy days. The Patagonia R1 Hoody also sports a hood, and while it is made of a much thinner fleece, that feature helped bump it up in the warmth ratings over a similarly thin fleece like the Marmot Reactor. Overall, thinner and lightweight fleece jackets may not be very warm when they are used as an outer layer, but when used as a mid-layer they add just the right amount of warmth to your layering system.
In addition to hoods, being able to cinch the hem can make a big difference for warmth. The Arc'teryx Fortrez Hoody had a unique hood with a built-in neck warmer that helped keep us warm up top, but the loose bottom hem with no cinch cord let cold winds rip right up the jacket. Elastic cuffs, like those on the Mountain Hardwear Monkey Man 200, also help trap in the warmth. Finally, hand warmer pockets are another addition that help keep you warm when your hands start to freeze over. The lining of these pockets also make a big difference. Some, like the Monkey Man 200, are lined with fleece for extra warmth, while others, like those on the Patagonia R2 Jacket, are lined with mesh to provide extra breathability. Either way, pockets will help keep your hands warm at a moment's notice, and every model that we tested except the Patagonia R1 Hoody had them.
Fleece is by nature a soft material, and it typically makes very comfortable jackets. While all eight of the different models that we tested were made with materials that were quite comfortable, some stood out from the rest. The high loft of the Mountain Hardwear Monkey Man 200 was the softest one in the mix, and it felt like fluffy little fingers against our bare skin. Many people we met while out testing this fleece couldn't help but want to touch this jacket and ran their hands up and down our arms, which is good or bad, depending on how you feel about that sort of thing. The high-loft fleece on the Patagonia R2 Jacket also had a cozy and soft texture, particularly compared to The North Face models which are made with a scratchier and harsher fabric that was quite noticeable and much less cozy. However, comfort is not only differentiated by texture but also by fit. Finding the right model for your body type is part of the solution, but where the manufacturers choose to place seams, cuffs and zippers also plays a part.
In terms of fit, The North Face Khumbu 2 and Denali jackets were too short in the arms as well as the torso for our testers. They also had boxier cuts which did not fit well under a backpack or climbing harness. All of the Patagonia R-Series models had a great cut, with long enough lengths in the arms and torso. However, the R2 Jacket had a seam that ran right over our elbows, which was a little annoying. The R3 and R1 options scored highest in the category: the R3 because it is soft and tailored, but not constricting, and the R1 thanks to the three-quarter length zipper, which lets you wear it under a backpack or harness with no pressure points. The Arc'teryx Fortrez Hoody was mostly comfortable, but the torso was cut a little short for us and it tended to ride up underneath our harness. We also really like the Marmot Reactor — the fleece was soft and the basic and slim-fit design suited us well.
Whether you are using your fleece jacket as an outer layer or a mid-layer, its ability to breathe, or vent your perspiration to the outside, is also an important aspect to consider. Rigorous activity produces heat within the body which then sweats to cool itself, but that sweat has to go somewhere or else you end up a soaking mess. In general, fleece material is superior to some other options, like cotton, in that the material is hydrophobic and won't absorb your sweat. But the thickness of the fleece and the tightness of the weave will affect how much air and moisture can move in and out of it. As we tested a variety of weights and types of jackets, it was no surprise that some were more breathable than others and better suited to aerobic activities, while others worked better for more sedentary pursuits.
The most breathable models that we tested came from Patagonia's R-Series line. They use Polartec's Power Grid fabric, which is made of hundreds of cubes of fleece separated by thin channels. The cubes keep you warm, while the channels offer a virtually non-existent barrier for your moisture to vent through. This technology is used in both their R1 and R3 models. The R1 is a light enough layer to wear for just about any aerobic activity in cold weather, from running and hiking to climbing and ski touring. Climbers are notorious for climbing without a shirt even in the most frigid conditions, as many can't stand to feel the slightest bit hot or sweaty when trying to "send." But we kept the R1 on even on mild days and its breathability was so effective that we never felt uncomfortable or sweaty. For this we've given it our Top Pick for Breathability award.
The R3 was also highly breathable, but a heavier weight than the R1 and not as suited to aerobic activities. The R2 has a slightly different construction, with tiny holes throughout the material, which helped make it more breathable, not to mention that the sides and armpits are actually made with the R1's fabric. We also found the Marmot Reactor breathable, mostly due to the thin nature of the material (100 g/mē) as opposed to any fancy construction. The same goes for the Arc'teryx Fortrez Hoody. While that jacket is made of a tighter weave, it is so thin that it still vented well.
In addition to the weave and thickness of the material, there are some other features that can help a jacket breathe better. The heavyweight North Face Denali is equipped with armpit zips to allow extra airflow into the jacket, but unfortunately even that feature can't overcome the ultra-thick material that keeps you toasty warm and doesn't vent well. Other jackets have pockets lined with a thin mesh, as opposed to fleece, which can be unzipped for added airflow.
As your fleece jacket typically is worn both over and under other clothing, its ability to pair well with other layers is another key consideration. You don't want it so tight that your under layers are bunching up, but you want it slim fitting enough so you can slide a wind, rain, or puffy layer on top of it. You can learn more about layering systems with our Introduction to Layered Clothing Systems article.
We tested each model with a variety of other jackets and baselayers and rated them on how easily they layered and their level of comfort. Thinner models, like the Patagonia R1 Hoody, layered easily under everything we tried it with, including most of the other models in this review. The thumb holes were also a bonus, as we didn't have to worry about the sleeves riding up when putting on another layer. However, you can't wear more than a thin baselayer underneath it. The Marmot Reactor, Patagonia R2 Jacket, and Arc'teryx Fortrez Hoody were all easy to layer as well, as was our Editor's Choice winner, the Patagonia R3 Hoody. Even though it is a midweight fleece, it is still thin and slim fitting enough to go under a puffy or rain jacket without leaving you feeling constricted or too stuffy.
The models that didn't fare so well were the heavier and bulkier ones, like The North Face Khumbu 2 and The North Face Denali Jacket. They have a boxier cut and are made with a thicker material, and while we had no trouble putting it over another fleece, they were not so comfortable to wear under another jacket like a shell or winter jacket. But, they do have the unique ability to zip into other TNF compatible layers, and also come with snaps at the sleeves to stay in place.
Ease of Movement
Think about the first thing you do when you try on a new jacket. Do you twist, turn and raise your arms around to see how the jacket fits and moves with your body? We all look for layers that are comfortable while doing a multitude of activities. Some jackets, like the Mountain Hardwear Monkey Man 200 or TNF Denali, are best for hanging out in with friends around a campfire. Others have specific cuts with more room in the shoulders or armpit gussets that allow you to move your arms any which way.
When it comes to Ease of Movement, the Patagonia R1 and R3 Hoodies and the Marmot Reactor were the best-rated models that we tested. They were hardly noticeable when climbing or bouldering in chilly weather. On the flip side, the shorter torso of TNF Khumbu 2 and Denali jackets rode up in the back and their boxier fits did not allow for flowing movements.
Fleece jackets have never been known for amazing wind protection. They are more wind resistant if a windproof membrane is added to the jacket, such as with "Windstopper" models, or if a more densely woven and thicker material is used. This, however, reduces the breathability of the jacket and thus makes it a bit less versatile. The thicker and heavier models, like TNF Denali and Khumu 2, were better at blocking the wind than others, and the "Hardface Technology" on Arc'teryx Fortrez Hoody also helped block the wind. Higher wind resistance makes those fleeces a better choice when looking for a standalone fleece jacket. For the most part though, this is not as big a concern for us when buying a fleece, as we value warmth and breathability in this layer more than wind protection. Pair a breathable fleece with a dedicated wind layer, and you have the ultimate alpine setup. You can check out our Wind Breaker Jacket Review for more information on that type of layer.
Like wind, rain easily penetrates most fleece material. The good news is that the fibers themselves are hydrophic and don't absorb water. So when it does get wet, you can wring it out and it dries pretty fast. The chart shown here details which jackets came out on top in the Water Resistance metric.
If you want a fleece jacket that can repel a light rain, look for a thicker model or one with a smooth surface, like the Arc'teryx Fortrez Hoody. When water gets on the Fortrez, it beads up and rolls off similar to something with a DWR (Durable Water Repellent) coating. The downside to the breathable Patagonia R-Series layers is that they allow any moisture to pass right through, and you'll want to keep a rain jacket around when heading out in questionable weather with those jackets. You can find a great option over in our Rain Jacket Review.
As a final consideration we looked at the weight of the models. This is something to consider if you are hiking long distances, or heading for a "fast and light" mission in the alpine. While a few ounces here or there might not seem like much, when you shave ounces off of all of your gear those weight savings start to add up. The Marmot Reactor and Patagonia R1 Hoody were the two lightest models that we tested, at just under 13 ounces. The Patagonia R3 Hoody is a bit heavier (around 18 ounces) but significantly warmer than those lighter weight options, providing an optimal weight-to-warmth ratio. On the heavier side, TNF Denali weighs over 25 ounces, or twice as much as the lighter models, making it too heavy and bulky to throw in your pack when heading for a long hike. If you just need a layer for car camping though, then weight is not an issue and you'll appreciate having a warm layer like the Denali when hanging around the campfire at night.
The plethora of jackets in the "fleece" category on the market today can make one dizzy for sure. In general, we buy these jackets for their primary function, warmth. However, as technology grows and designs improve, the added features modeled in most fleeces today can be what seal the deal. Like almost all gear, it depends how and where you're planning on using it. We hope our review of these products will positively assist you in your search for your new fleece. If you need further help in your search, be sure to check out the tips we provide in our Buying Advice article.
— Kenny Barker
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