REI's New Groundbreaker Fleece
REI no longer makes the exact fleece that we tested here, instead offering the Groundbreaker Fleece. The Groundbreaker is a similar and inexpensive fleece jacket in REI's lineup, and though we haven't tested it, we expect it to perform fairly similarly to the model tested here. Compare the two versions below, with the Groundbreaker shown first followed up by the model we tested.
Please be aware that we are now linking to the Groundbreaker, but the review to follow tells our account of the REI Co-op Fleece we tested previously.
Hands-On Review of the REI Fleece
The REI Co-op Fleece is made with a flat pile with no grids or loft. It comes in XS to XXL size options. We tested the small size, and it weighs 14 ounces. Note that this a bulkier fleece jacket that takes up a lot of room in a pack. If you are looking for a summit layer that will pack down small into your daypack, check out our synthetic jacket review.
We hiked this one up to the top of a peak, but it took up most of the room in our day pack. It's a warm layer for the summit, but not breathable enough to wear while hiking even in cold weather.
This fleece is one of the warmer models that we tested, and it felt similar to the Patagonia Re-Tool Snap-T Pullover. Only The North Face Denali 2 and Osito 2 models felt warmer to us.
The thick pile does what a fleece jacket is supposed to do, trap your warmth against your body. It's not quite as thick as the Denali jacket, but it came close and is a toasty layer. This is a great option to wear on cool nights when walking the dog or for hanging out around camp.
Hiking around Bryce Canyon on a blustery and cold day. We appreciated the warmth we got from this fleece that day.
Unfortunately, this isn't the most comfortable option, and we only gave it a 5/10 for this category.
While the fleece on this jacket is on the soft side, it isn't nearly as cozy as the hi-loft fleece on The North Face Osito 2 jacket. It also isn't as comfortable as the Outdoor Research Deviator Hoody, which we loved to wear all day long. The pockets on the REI Co-op are thick on the outside and bulky, and they didn't feel comfortable when sitting down or when wearing it under a backpack.
The pockets on this jacket are on the bulky side and weren't our favorite feature.
This is one of the least breathable models that we tested. The thick fleece doesn't have any venting to it, and as such, we overheated quickly when trying to hike or do other active things in this jacket.
Part of why this jacket is so inexpensive is because it uses a basic fleece pile fabric. Polartec engineers a lot of "fancy" fleece fabrics these days with grids patterns for ventilation, like on the Outdoor Research Deviator and Patagonia R1. Another option is to have lots of micro holes like on the Patagonia R2. The REI Co-op Jacket has no such venting options, which makes it hotter and less breathable (though more wind resistant — see below).
This jacket doesn't have the best layering ability, either. There is plenty of room under the jacket for layers, but it doesn't work so well as a mid-layer because of the boxy cut and thick material.
When we tried to wear this jacket under a rain jacket or wind shell, we felt constricted. A lot of women's outer layers have tapered silhouettes, but this one doesn't, so when you try to wear it under a tapered jacket, it feels very constricting. Some fleece jackets are designed to be outer layers, while others work well as part of your layering system. This one is more of an outer layer than a mid-layer.
This jacket is a little too boxy and bulky to wear comfortably under a day pack.
Ease of Movement
We didn't have outstanding ease of movement in this model. As we mentioned above, the bulky fit is constricting under another layer, and it isn't comfortable to wear it under a backpack's hip belt.
REI says that the shoulder seams are moved forward so as not chafe under pack straps, but the straps still go over the seams, so we are not sure that design is very effective. It's also not the kind of performance layer that you would wear while hiking anyways, as you'd quickly overheat due to the lack of breathability. The whole jacket moved with us when raising our arms, and there isn't great mobility in the shoulders. If you need something for really active pursuits that use your upper body, like when rock climbing or paddling on cold days, look to the Rab Nucleus Hoody or Patagonia R1.
We felt rather constricted in the shoulders, and the arms rode up on us.
Because it is so thick, the REI Co-op Fleece has decent wind resistance for a fleece jacket. Many of the more breathable models also let the wind rip right through, but this one offers some protection from gusts. There isn't much happening in the way of water resistance, though, and water-soaked right into the fleece pile. Look to The North Face Denali 2 for a more water resistance jacket layer (the shoulders have a nylon shell that offers some protection from a light rain).
Most fleece jackets have little to no water resistance, so keep in mind that the above scores are their water-resistance relative to each other, and not, say, compared to a dedicated rain jacket.
Water didn't even bead up on this jacket, though because it is so thick it'll take a bit longer to soak through than a thinner layer.
This jacket is our testers' least favorite model when it comes to style. Style is a very subjective metric, though, and some people prefer a plain look over something that is flashier or with a strong outdoor esthetic to it.
The boxy cut is not very flattering, and the flat pile is plain and comes in only basic colors like black, charcoal heather, and blue. If you are looking for an outer jacket with a little more flair, check out The North Face Osito 2. It has a more tapered silhouette and comes in a variety of colors.
This fleece is fairly plain and cut on the boxy side.
Did we mention that this jacket retails for only $50? That's a pretty impressive price point, all things considered. We appreciate how affordable it is, and it doesn't get much cheaper than this. You won't be able to use it for the same variety of activities as you would the Patagonia R1 Hoody, but it's still a great choice for times when you want a warm outer layer.
The REI Co-op Fleece is anything but fancy and hi-tech. However, sometimes all you want is a basic option for cold days or nights. We think this is a great option, particularly if you are looking for a "workhorse" model that may see some hard use, like outdoor chores or when camping.