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Over the last ten years, our teams of apparel experts have tested more than 45 of the best fleeces. After researching the top models available, we purchased 10 of the most popular models and rigorously tested them side-by-side. We assessed each model for warmth, comfort, breathability, layering ability, weather resistance, 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.
Our outdoor experts have tested all sorts of jackets and layering pieces. We have you covered – literally – with in-depth reviews of the best gear, ranging from down jackets to base layers. If you're on a tighter budget, check out our selection of wallet-friendly fleeces.
Editor's Note: In November 2022, we bought and retested the entire fleet of fleece. Some models had revisions and some models we retested to ensure consistent ratings and ranking across the entire selection.
Patagonia's R1 series topped the list of fleeces. Emulated by many, the grid fleece technology has become a staple in active cold-weather layering systems. Patagonia improved their line with the Patagonia R1 Air Full Zip Hoody. Built from a proprietary "hollow core" fabric from 100% recycled polyester, this piece brings a new level of comfort to performance fleece wear. The material looks and feels more cozy than technical, but it performs with the best. Whether heading to the crag or the coffee shop, our testers always grab this jacket first. The low weight and warmth make it ideal for high-intensity activities like cold-weather climbing and hiking. The highly breathable "zig-zagged" pattern helps shed moisture and keeps you from becoming sweaty and shivering.
In previous reviews, we tested the R1 Air Crew and loved it. In this review, we tested the hooded version and found it even better, thanks to the pockets and well-fitted hood. While this fleece is more wind-resistant than the original R1, it's still lightweight, so prepare accordingly if for poor weather. This highly comfortable and warm layer is ideal for anyone looking to upgrade their performance fleece wear.
The lightweight Outdoor Research Vigor Full Zip Hoodie layers easily, breathes well, offers incredible comfort, and comes at a fraction of the cost of comparable options. Reminiscent of Patagonia's original R1, this fleece features a scuba-style hood, thumb loops, and a performance aesthetic. However, our testers found the Vigor more comfortable than the R1 Hoody. The cut is athletic and accommodating to wide-set shoulders. This jacket offers a terrific range of motion, including overhead movements, making it an ideal choice for backpackers, hikers, or skiers. The thin fabric and minimal bulk made this an easy piece to layer over.
This fleece's lightweight and breathable nature come at the cost of warmth and wind resistance. For sustained athletics, the jacket worked great, but our testers needed to layer up while stationary in the cold. Similarly, the breathable nature of the material wets quickly, and you'll need a rain layer for anything more than light drizzles. All in all, this high-quality, high-value fleece is perfect for adventuring in the mountains.
Extra-long hem fits well under the waist belt strap
REASONS TO AVOID
Little weather resistance
An outdoor performance staple, the Patagonia R1 Hoody has been the top choice of dedicated outdoor athletes for years. It incorporates the most important aspects of a mid-layer with its breathable grid fabric, perfectly-fit balaclava hood, chest pockets, and thumb loops. Hundreds of raised squares on the fleece backing provide breathable venting channels. This jacket will keep you warm when it's cold, and cool when it is warm. Slide the long zipper down when moving, or pull the hood under a helmet. This long-time favorite receives high scores for its excellent functionality and performance.
The R1 has a few shortcomings. When it comes to fit, function, and performance, it's hard to beat. If worn daily, it shows wear. While it won't pick or pill and layers nicely, it may eventually get holes; the grid pattern creates thin, weak sections of fleece that eventually fail. It's a bit more fitted, with a longer hem than in previous years. Some will like this, but some may find their favorite fleece doesn't quite have the same fit. Aside from that, it's close to perfect and we'd highly recommend the reasonably priced hoody.
The Arc'teryx Kyanite AR Hoody scored exceptionally 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.
This piece 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 prevent the jacket from bunching up. Ideal for cold-weather pursuits, this jacket provides added warmth when thinner gridded fleece fail.
Testers loved the The Kuhl Interceptr 1/4 Zip for its clean silhouette and warmth. The jacket mixes fashion with function, making it easy to wear while at the campfire, out hiking, while running errands, or for apres ski. The jacket's ALFPACA GOLD™ fleece provides soft and comfortable warmth. The 1/4 zip allows for a bit more breathing room for users, and the thin thumb loops make layering with the jacket easier. The mountain chic vibes of this fleece helped push it forward.
The downside of this jacket? The heavy and slightly bulky Intercepter fails to pack down well, and the poor breathability makes it less than ideal for backpacking or heavy cardio workouts. The single chest pocket adds nice storage and style. For longer trips into the backcountry or backpacking where weight and performance matter, different models perform better but for casual around-town wear, this piece does great.
The athletic jacket, the Mountain Hardwear Stratus Range Full Zip comes with all the features needed to make it stand out and be highly functional. Its heat-trapping grid pattern ensures it breathes well, wicks away moisture, and retains warmth. When our testers climbed hard, they stayed warm without overheating, making the jacket perfect for heavy activity or as a single garment during intense hikes. Additionally, the raglan sleeves, three-piece fitted hood, and thumb holes allow this fleece to move well, adding to its ability to perform in intense situations.
While this fleece's functionality makes it great, its warmth falls behind the other models and we had a few issues with the jacket's durability. Aside from that, the versatile Stratus stands up to the difficult and variable conditions found in the mountains.
We started the search for the best fleece jackets by scouring the internet, talking to industry experts, and researching the market to see which performed best. We have tested more than 45 fleece jackets over the past 10 years, and considered over 65 different models from various manufacturers before carefully selecting and purchasing the top products to highlight in this review.
Testing 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. Due to the importance of a jacket's warmth and comfort, we made these metrics account for 20% of the fleece's score. Each fleece undergoes five specific warmth tests: we hike, run, climb, kayak, and bike in cool and cold weather to assess how these jackets retain heat in environments ranging from shady river beds to windy mountain tops. For this comprehensive review, our experts put these fleece jackets through 170 individual tests to find you the best option based on value and performance.
Our in-depth testing of men's fleece jackets breaks down into six rating metrics:
Warmth (20% of overall score weighting)
Comfort (20% weighting)
Breathability (20% weighting)
Layering Ability (15% weighting)
Weight (15% weighting)
Weather Resistance (10% weighting)
This review is crafted by OutdoorGearLab Review Editors James Lucas, Buck Yedor, and Adam Paashaus. James has been a long-time climber, writer, and photographer who spends every free moment he has in the mountains outside of his house in Boulder, Colorado. From early morning runs up the First Flatiron to late nights hiking out of Rocky Mountain National Park after running, James has put the 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.
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, depending on conditions, a good fleece jacket brings all-purpose warmth. While jackets differ in their levels of warmth, breathability, and weight, they're typically stretchy and built to move, making them ideal for climbing, hiking, skiing, or any activity that involves an unrestricted range of motion.
Purchasing a fleece jacket involves tradeoffs. The warmer jackets tend to be less breathable and packable. Additional weather resistance costs weight or coziness. While price doesn't always correlate to better performance, the more expensive models use lighter and more breathable materials that still provide warmth. Some higher-priced models will have a slimmer fit with articulated sleeves for a better range of motion and easier layering.
For those looking for a great price on a quality fleece, Mountain Hardwear Stratus Range Full Zip offers exceptional value and excels in active outdoor use. The reasonably priced Outdoor Research Vigor Full Zip also offers comfort and back-country performance.
When buying a fleece jacket, warmth becomes critical; fleeces need to trap and retain body heat in chilly conditions. To emphasize the importance of warmth for our test, the warmth rating accounts for 25 percent of the overall score.
The thickness of the material often determines the warmth of the jacket. Thicker jackets retain heat better than thinner ones but other features affect warmth. Fitted hoods, thumb loops, elastic cuffs, drawstring hems, and tighter weaves all
work to block wind and retain heat, warranting a higher score. While layering, a jacket can be too warm. In that case, warmth may not be your top priority.
The 300-weight The North Face Denali ranked as one of the review's warmest jackets, trapping and retaining body heat well. 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 perform poorly for active use.
The Kuhl Interceptr, which uses Kuhl's Alfpaca Gold fleece, kept our testers comfy and almost as warm as The North Face Denali. It's not quite as warm as the Denali but it feels softer, it's less boxy, and it has a stylish look. While it's a superb fleece for casual around-town wear, it's heavy and layers too poorly to earn a spot in our packs on backpacking trips or ski tours. The lightweight and breathable Patagonia R1 Air does well for active backcountry use, where heavy activity demands good ventilation, but the jackets lacks the warmth of the Interceptr and Denali.
Most of the lightweight fleeces in the review include hand-warmer pockets which kept them heavy but also added warmth and some function like being able to stash snacks or a small pair of our favorite binoculars. They also had hoods and varying degrees of adjustability, which all helped trap heat.
The natural plushy material of fleece typically makes for very comfortable jackets. While all the models in the review use comfortable materials, the soft and warm Arcteryx Kyanite excelled with its fur-like brush-lined fleece. While warm, The North Face Denali uses a "scratchier" and harsher fabric that feels less cozy against the skin. The importance of a jacket's comfort made it account for 25 percent of its overall score.
A jacket's fit affects its comfort as much as the materials used. The Patagonia R1 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.
The soft and well-fitting, Patagonia R1 Air features an athletic cut and innovative fabric, which allowed our testers to feel comfortable all day. 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 and Mountain Hardwear Stratus Range Full Zip also scored well in this metric because they feel comfortable on the skin but the addition of hoods increases their level of comfort.
Traditionally, fleece does poorly with water and wind resistance but unlike cotton, synthetic materials retain a significant amount of their insulating abilities when wet and tighter-weaved fleeces can block more wind. Wearing a fleece in a storm thus becomes a better proposition than wearing cotton. While none of the fleeces we reviewed are waterproof or windproof, some fight the elements better than others.
When deciding on an outer layer, weather resistance becomes essential as carrying multiple layers around town can quickly turn cumbersome. Often, the more weather-resistant fleeces breathed less and proved to be thicker and heavier. For precipitation protection, The North Face Denali proved to be one of the more water-resistant fleeces in our roundup. The thick fleece has a Durable Water Repellent (DWR) treatment, causing light rain to bead off, like water off a duck's back. However, even the Denali will eventually soak through and become a heavy mess in a massive rainstorm and DWR treatments stop working when the jacket becomes dirty.
For good weather resistance, the Patagonia R1 Air performed well. This fleece blocks more wind than the regular R1, and has a well-fitted hood that helps battle light rain. Pair a breathable fleece like the Patagonia R1 Hoody with a dedicated wind or rain shell for the best alpine setup. Unfortunately, without a shell, the breathable Patagonia R1 became a sponge, soaking up rain. If you plan to cruise around in the mountains or anywhere with poor weather with the R1, the R1 Air, or any fleece for that matter, then bringing a waterproof and windproof layer becomes vital. Even the best fleeces in this review will do poorly in a true storm.
In addition to weather resistance, weight becomes important for hiking long distances or heading for a "fast and light" alpine mission. A few ounces seems inconsequential at first but having all the lightest gear will save pounds. The lightest fleece in the review, the breathable Marmot Reactor weighed a mere 10.9 ounces, followed by the Patagonia R1 Hoody at 11.4 ounces. These light weights make the jackets great for stuffing into a pack.
On the heavier side, The North Face Denali weighs 17.1 ounces, making it too heavy and bulky to throw in your pack when heading 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 Arcteryx Kyanite comes in too heavy for long missions into the backcountry, but it is a perfect midweight choice for wearing around town and the occasional hike.
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 why we gave a fleece's breathability 15 percent of its overall score. Rigorous activity produces significant heat in the body, which then sweats to cool itself. If that sweat stays, it will soak everything. Fleece excels here because, unlike other options like cotton, the hydrophobic material dissipates sweat. However, the fleece's 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 made it one of the more breathable fleeces we tested. Its zig-zag weave offers more warmth retention and increased breathability. The nearly equally breathable R1 uses the tried and true Polartec Power Grid fleece which offers one of the best warmth-to-breathability ratios. These light layers work well for just about any aerobic activity in cold weather, from running and hiking to climbing and ski touring.
While these fleeces are made of a tighter, more weather-resistant weave, the thinness helps them vent well. On mild days, the grid-style pullover fleece jackets provided great airflow, keeping our testers from feeling uncomfortable or sweaty. When it warmed up, the belly length or full zippers, quickly came down and the breathability of the jackets became perfect.
The Outdoor Research Vigor and Mountain Hardwear Stratus Range Full Zip rank alongside the R1 as models that regulate temperatures without overheating. In addition to the weave and thickness of the material, other features can enhance a jacket's breathability. As mentioned, some pullover fleeces sport a super long zipper that comes down past the belly button, which can help vent excess heat. Most of the jackets we tested have full zippers that allowed for an increased level of breathability.
A fleece jacket makes up an essential part of a layering system, usually residing between a light base layer and a less breathable insulated jacket or down puffy. How well a fleece layers is an important decision in the purchasing process and why we gave this metric 15% of the product's score.
We tested each model with various other jackets and base layers and rated them on how easily they layered and their level of comfort. Thinner models, like the Patagonia R1 Hoody, and the Mountain Hardwear Stratus Range, layered easily under everything we tried them with. The thumb holes kept the sleeves from riding up when pulling on another layer and the thinness of the jackets allowed for increased mobility.
The heavier and bulkier models, like the Columbia Mountain Steens, REI Groundbreaker, and The North Face Denali fared poorly in comparison due to their thickness with their boxier cut and long arms that bunch around the cuffs. While 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 best layers in this review tended to be the thinner, higher-performing models. While made with active, standalone use in mind, they were thin enough to wear over or under other jackets. Be sure to consider what other layers you may need when purchasing a fleece.
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.
If wet weather is keeping you cooped up inside, get your...
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