The outdoor industry continues to design and redesign the fleece jacket. What started out as a jacket made from polyester toilet seat covers is now one of the most ubiquitous pieces of winter clothing, proliferating into the closets of outdoor enthusiasts and urbanites alike. Fleece or now specialized technical layers, some sleek and optimized for breathability, while others are thick and heavy to maximize warmth. With so many options out there, it's hard to own just one. Here we will offer detailed advice for buying your next fleece jacket layer, from what the different materials they are comprised of, to the features you should look for, or avoid. For an in-depth look at how the different models we tested fared in our head-to-head comparison process, check out our Full Review.
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 If the fabric isn't soft or fluffy against the skin then everything else about the jacket is obsolete. 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.In the past, 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 breathability. Below, we'll discuss the attributes we think are the most important when selecting a fleece jacket, including breathability.
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 2. 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 determine its 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 The North Face FuseForm Progressor Hoodie did not provide the same amount of warmth as a lighter high-loft model like the Mountain Hardwear Monkey Man Grid II.
We like using lightweight models, like the Arc'teryx Adahy, 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, 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.
Breathability was once the Achilles heel of the fleece jacket, but now fleece are often selected for their breathable qualities. Hike up a steep hill in a thick heavy fleece and you'll find yourself dripping in sweat, only to shiver as soon as you take the fleece off and are exposed to the cold air. Fortunately, most technical fleece available today are fine-tuned for breathability, employing a wide array of designs and tricks so you can put your fleece on and leave it one, without ending up in a puddle of your own cold sweat.
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 Performance Better Sweater Hoody, which has side and underarm panels made of thinner stretchy fabric that is very different from the tight-knit fleece that makes up the front and back of the jacket. This effectively increases the breathability by allowing sweat to escape from the most critical area — under the armpits — while the rest remains cozy and warm.
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 looks 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 Editor's Choice Award winner, are the best options for aerobic activities on chilly days.
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 and the Patagonia R1 Techface Hoody, are made with a "hardface technology" fleece that does a decent 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 flexible. 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" 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 fleece, without compromising its breathability. 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.) 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 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 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. In our experience, the "more the merrier" does not apply when concerning features on a fleece jacket. Cinch cords can break, and the cord locks can feel uncomfortable under other layers or if you're sleeping in your fleece, ditto for zippers on superfluous pockets. Again, when considering features, think about what activities you'll be doing in a fleece.
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. The Outdoor Research Deviator keeps its handwarmer pockets low profile by omitting the zippers. Chest pockets are nearly essential, as they allow easy access to important items like lighters and topo maps 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.
Hoods are the icing on the cake of our favorite fleece jackets. 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, comfy 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 you warm and toasty. The Arc'teryx Fortrez has a unique hood system, with a fold out balaclava that is warm when deployed but craftily tucks away into the hood when not in use. Sleek, fitted hoods like the ones on the R1 hoody and the Arc'teryx Adahy do a good job of staying out of the way, even when used as a mid layer.
Some models like the 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.
Thumb loops provide a little extra warmth on your hands and wrists and can eliminate any gaps in coverage between your sleeves and gloves. They're also helpful for layering. 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.
Fit and Style
Here's wear shopping around really helps. There's no way to really 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 fit of a jacket that we can.
Length of Sleeves
The length of the sleeves is an important factor that affects 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.
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. The Marmot Preon features a long torso, while the fleece from Arc'teryx are a touch short in the eyes of our testers.
There's no way around it, looking good it a major consideration when buying a fleece, even if we're just going to use it to trudge up a mountain, go on a multi-day ski tour, or climb El Cap. Fashion is fluid, and styles come and go and come back again, but generally, a fleece that fits well instead of hanging off you like a blanket will keep you looking and feeling good around town.
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 year's of testing clothing, we've never noticed a difference i 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:
Hybrid-- Manufacturers are scrambling to build the jacket that you'll never have to take off. Jackets like the Outdoor Research Deviator and the Patagonia R1 Techface barely make it in the fleece category. They are almost more closely related to the active insulation jackets like Patagonia's Nano-Air series or the Arc'teryx Proton LT. These types of jackets are a direct competition to fleece jackets, as many are warmer, lighter, and almost as breathable as our favorite fleece. The Hybrid fleece designs us weather resistant shell fabrics, DWR treatments, and even synthetic insulation panels to expand the range of what a fleece can do.