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Over the last 13 years, our teams of apparel experts have tested more than 70 of the best fleeces available. For this review, we purchased 11 of the most promising and rigorously tested them side-by-side. We assessed each model for warmth, comfort, breathability, layering ability, and weight. We took the jackets on backpacking trips and up granite walls. We also chopped wood, hung out around campfires, and wore them on the town. Whether you need a cozy stand-alone piece for cold mornings or a technical fleece to layer with, our expert recommendations will help you choose the right jacket for your needs and budget.
The Patagonia R1 Air Full-Zip Hoody brings a new level of comfort to performance fleece wear. Built from a proprietary "hollow core" fabric made from 100% recycled polyester, it is an exceptionally lightweight and breathable fleece that performs best in mild to cool weather. The zig-zag fabric pattern is unique to this model and facilitates a high degree of breathability. The material looks and feels more cozy than technical, but it stands up well. Whether heading to the mountains or the coffee shop, our testers always grabbed this jacket first. Its light weight and warmth make it ideal for high-intensity activities like climbing and hiking.
Though this fleece is warm for its weight, it is by no means a heavy-duty winter layer. When not on the move, you will cool down quickly if the temperature is low. In addition, even though the fleece is soft, it is somewhat static and not as stretchy as other hoody models. However, this highly comfortable and warm layer is ideal for anyone looking to upgrade their performance fleece wear.
The Outdoor Research Vigor Full Zip Hoodie breathes well, layers easily, and its stretch fabric offers incredible comfort, all at a fraction of the cost of comparable options. This fleece features a scuba-style hood, no-show thumb loops in the wrists, and a technical performance aesthetic. The cut is athletic and accommodates wide-set shoulders. This jacket offers a terrific range of motion, including overhead reaching, making it an ideal choice for backpackers, hikers, or skiers. The thin fabric and minimal bulk also make this an easy piece to layer over.
This hoody's lightweight breathability comes at the cost of warmth and wind resistance. It's great for sustained action, but our testers needed to layer up while stationary. The shape of the hood and neck coverage also don't protect as well against the wind as other models. Having said that, this high-quality, high-value fleece is perfect for adventuring in the mountains if the weather isn't planning to get too serious or as part of a layering system.
The Cotopaxi Teca Full-Zip is a simple, super soft, and downright warm fleece jacket. Made from recycled fleece and repurposed polyester, there's nothing fancy about its functionality (other than the fun colors!), but it kept us warm on cold winter days. It works well as a mid-layer underneath a larger winter jacket or on its own over the top of a base layer. It plays just as well in town as it does on the trail. It is also comparatively less expensive than its most similar peers in the category.
The simplicity of the jacket also comes with some drawbacks. The handwarmer pockets do not have any zippers, and this limits their practicality for stashing high-importance items like keys or cash. It is also a pretty bulky garment. Though this adds to its warmth, it is not a jacket that is meant for lightweight, low-volume backpacking trips. But all in all, we are thrilled to have this warm, soft, and cozy addition to our collection.
The Arc'teryx Kyanite AR Hoody scored high marks in every metric. It has a great weight-to-warmth ratio and, most importantly, feels incredibly comfortable. The brushed fleece lining makes it one of the most comfortable fleeces on the market. The slim cut still accommodates wide-set shoulders without creating any hotspots in the armpits or shoulders, partially because of the stretchy nature of the fleece. Our testers loved climbing, skiing, and hiking in this piece. The scuba-style hood fits underneath climbing helmets and keeps cold air out while trapping hard-won body heat inside.
The Kyanite AR really only has a few downsides. For high output activity in the spring and summer, this fleece offers less-than-perfect breathability when early morning and evening temps are rising. The fleece also lacks thumb loops built into the cuffs. While inconsequential as a stand-alone piece when layering, thumb loops can help prevent the jacket from bunching up. Ideal for cold-weather pursuits, this fleece provides added warmth where thinner gridded fleece fails.
The REI Co-op Hyperaxis 2.0 is a super stretchy, super warm fleece hoody. We love this jacket for how well it maintains wearer mobility on the move. With spandex incorporated into the fabric, reaching overhead and stretching is no problem. The neck is robust and makes a nice nest to burrow into if the weather gets blustery, and the hood fits snugly overhead and stays securely in place, even with a stiff wind. The inside fleece is also super soft to the touch and retains body heat quite well.
This is one of our review's heavier and bulkier models, so it's not ideal for lightweight backpacking trips. In addition, this jacket is very warm, but it isn't especially breathable. One of the other very minor issues we had with this one is that the thumbholes have no closure when not in use and remain open at the wrist. However, if warmth, mobility, and comfort are top priorities, this fleece is a must-try.
We started the search for the best fleece jackets by scouring the internet, talking to industry experts, and researching the market to see which models were potential top contenders. We have tested over 70 unique fleece jackets in the past 13 years and considered dozens more models from a wide array of manufacturers before carefully selecting and purchasing the top products to highlight in this review. Testing is primarily comprised of field use during late fall, winter, and spring in the Eastern Sierra, the mountains of New England, the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, and the deserts of the Southwest, as well as controlled indoor experiments. Due to the importance of a jacket's warmth and comfort, these metrics each account for more of each model's overall score.
Our in-depth testing of men's fleece jackets breaks down into five rating metrics:
Warmth (25% of overall score weighting)
Comfort (25% weighting)
Breathability (20% weighting)
Layering Ability (15% weighting)
Weight (15% weighting)
The testing and review team for these jackets is James Lucas, Buck Yedor, Adam Paashaus, and Ben Applebaum-Bauch. James has been a long-time climber, writer, and photographer who spends every free moment in the mountains outside his house in Boulder, Colorado. From early morning runs up the First Flatiron to late nights hiking out of Rocky Mountain National Park, James has put these fleeces to the test. Buck has been playing outside for most of his life and has been working in the outdoor industry for just about half of it. From long cold days spent ski touring in the alpine to frigid belays on El Capitan, Buck knows what to look for in quality fleece wear. Adam loves being a member of the outdoor community and appreciates having the ability to help others find the best gear for their next adventure. And Ben has a decade of experience in the outdoor industry, guiding backpacking, cycling, and canoeing trips and thru-hiking some of America's most iconic long trails.
Analysis and Test Results
A fleece jacket is a versatile part of any outdoor layering system. Worn as a stand-alone piece in moderately cold and dry weather or layered under a puffy, rain shell, or both, a good fleece jacket is essential in your outdoor arsenal. Though jackets differ in their levels of warmth, breathability, and weight, they're typically stretchy and built to move, making them ideal for climbing, hiking, and skiing.
At GearLab, when we talk about value, we compare price to a product's overall score. Ideally, we find some diamonds in the rough — models with a high score relative to their price. Having said that, purchasing a fleece involves tradeoffs. Thicker, warmer jackets tend to be less breathable and bulkier (i.e., they don't pack down as small). Though a higher price doesn't always directly translate to higher performance, more expensive models use lighter and more breathable materials that still provide insulation and warmth. Some higher-priced models will also have a slimmer fit with articulated sleeves for a better range of motion and easier layering.
For those looking for great value, the Cotopaxi Teca Full Zip is a soft and warm fleece at a good price. The Outdoor Research Vigor Full Zip also offers comfort and notable backcountry performance. If your number one priority is price and you don't need any technical considerations, the Columbia Steens Mountain 2.0 Full Zip is a mega bargain worth looking at.
Warmth is critical for a fleece. These jackets are largely designed to capture and retain body heat in chilly conditions. To emphasize the importance of warmth for our test, this metric accounts for 25% of each model's overall score. Thickness and density are the two main fabric qualities that impact warmth. Features like fitted hoods, thumb loops, elastic cuffs (to create a tight seal), and drawstring hems all work to block wind and retain heat as well.
The heavyweight The North Face Denali ranks as the review's warmest jacket, expertly trapping and retaining body heat. If you need a warm and toasty outer jacket and prefer fleece to a synthetic or down jacket, then this model provides plenty of warmth. However, the weight and bulk make it less than ideal for active use. The Cotopaxi Teca is another top contender in this metric. It is a high-volume, dense-weave fleece that creates a nice bubble of body heat underneath.
The Kuhl Interceptr 1/4 Zip, which uses Kuhl's Alfpaca Gold fleece, kept our testers comfy and almost as warm as The North Face Denali with an even softer fleece. The warmest hoodies that we tested are the Arc'teryx Kyanite AR Hoody and the REI Hyperaxis 2.0. Both can go toe-to-toe with the others mentioned above.
There are several lightweight contenders as well. The Patagonia R1 Air Hoody, Outdoor Research Vigor, and Flylow Pierogi Hoody are not intended to thaw the deep cold but are instead fabulous options for active backcountry use, where heavy activity demands good ventilation. The hoods, of course, also add a unique degree of warmth, and all of them fit snugly around the head.
The natural plushy material of fleece typically makes for a very comfortable jacket. While all the models in this review use comfortable materials, the soft and warm Arc'teryx Kyanite excelled with its fur-like brush-lined fleece. The importance of a jacket's comfort meant that it accounted for another 25% of the overall score.
A jacket's fit affects its comfort as much as the materials used. The Patagonia R1 Air Hoody has a longer hem and uses a snug, lightweight fleece to keep it from riding up while reducing bulk in areas where layers overlap. The Polartec Power Stretch Pro of the Arc'teryx Kyanite Hoody feels incredibly comfortable on the skin and has a wonderfully athletic fit that still allows for a wide range of motion.
Other top scorers for this metric include the REI Hyperaxis 2.0 and Cotopaxi Teca. The Hyperaxis has an incredibly soft liner, and the super stretchy material means that moving in any direction and at any speed is hassle-free. The high-cut neck and snug hood were also tester favorites. The Teca is a noticeably less technically-minded fleece, but it is warm and thick and a great layer to cuddle into and layer under a winter jacket.
A well-fitting fleece adds significantly to the jacket's level of comfort by providing full coverage with overhead arms. The sleeves should stay in place, but some stretch in the cuffs allows the sleeves to be pulled up. The Outdoor Research Vigor Zip also scores well in this metric because it feels comfortable on the skin, and the addition of a hood increases its comfort level.
Whether used as an outer layer or a mid-layer, a fleece's ability to breathe or vent perspiration becomes vital to its performance, and is why we allocate 20% of the overall score to this metric. Fleece thickness and the tightness of the weave affect how much air and moisture can move in and out of it. It's also worth mentioning that sweating in a fleece can feel gross against your skin, especially as it starts to cool, creating a damp, cold, and clammy feel.
The proprietary hollow-core fabric of the Patagonia R1 Air Hoody makes it one of the more breathable fleeces we tested. Its zig-zag weave creates a ton of porous surface area that increases breathability. It's lightweight and works well for just about any aerobic activity in cold weather, from running and hiking to climbing and ski touring.
Similarly, the Outdoor Research Vigor and Flylow Pierogi Hoody use a grid pattern that allows perspiration to escape easily. On mild days, the grid provides great airflow and kept our testers from feeling uncomfortable or sweaty. When it warmed up, the full zippers on both of these layers quickly came down, and the breathability of the jackets became perfect. The Pierogi even has very loose mesh-lined pockets, so those can open up for additional ventilation.
A fleece jacket makes up an essential part of a layering system, usually sandwiched between a light base layer and a less breathable insulated jacket or down puffy. How well a fleece layers is important for a couple of reasons: 1.) It can be frustrating to have to wrestle with a mid-layer that either bunches up itself or causes other layers to bunch and 2.) A jacket that layers appropriately is key to creating an air pocket around the body that is responsible for keeping you warm.
We tested each model with various other jackets and base layers and rated them on how easily they layer with both. Thinner models, like the Patagonia R1 Air Hoody, Outdoor Research Vigor, and Flylow Pierogi, layer easily underneath everything we tried them with. The thumb holes keep the sleeves from riding up when pulling on another layer, and the thinness of the jackets allows for increased mobility. However, they all have a more athletic fit, so they have a little more resistance when it comes to getting them on over a base layer.
The heavier and bulkier models, like the Columbia Mountain Steens, Cotopaxi Teca Full Zip, and The North Face Denali fare poorly in comparison due to their thickness and boxier cut that is often a bunching liability. Though we had no trouble putting them on over another light fleece layer, they were not very comfortable to wear under another jacket like a shell or winter puffy jacket. The Patagonia Better Sweater is an exception. It is loose enough to easily accommodate a layer underneath but not so loose that it bunches when layering a jacket over the top.
Weight becomes important for hiking long distances or heading for a "fast and light" alpine mission. A few ounces may seem inconsequential initially, but optimizing light gear will save pounds. The lightest fleece in the review, the breathable Patagonia R1 Air Hoody weighs just 12.8 ounces, making it great for stuffing into a pack. Surprisingly, the much bulkier Cotopaxi Teca Full Zip is just a fraction of an ounce more than the R1 Air, making it a lightweight (though not low-volume) contender.
On the heavier side, the Patagonia Better Sweater tips the scales at over 20 ounces, and the Arc'teryx Covert Cardigan and The North Face Denali are both over a pound, making them less than ideal to throw in your pack for a long hike. The warm and comfortable Kuhl Interceptr came in at just over 15 ounces. For car camping, hanging around the campfire, or errands around town where weight matters less, the warmth of the Denali or the Interceptr makes up for the additional ounces. Similarly, the Arc'teryx Kyanite AR Hoody comes in too heavy for serious missions into the backcountry , but it is a perfect midweight choice for wearing around town and for the occasional hike.
The head-spinning variety and number of jackets on the market can be overwhelming, and without the actual jacket in hand, deciding by looking online can be difficult. In general, we buy these jackets for their primary function — warmth. However, as technology grows and designs improve, the added features modeled into a fleece can be what seal the deal. Like almost all gear, it depends on your intended use.
Ben Applebaum-Bauch, James Lucas, Adam Paashaus, Buck Yedor
GearLab is founded on the principle of honest, objective, reviews. Our experts test thousands of products each year using thoughtful test plans that bring out key performance differences between competing products. And, to assure complete independence, we buy all the products we test ourselves. No cherry-picked units sent by manufacturers. No sponsored content. No ads. Just real, honest, side-by-side testing and comparison.