With the multitude of fleece jackets out there it can be a challenge to find the perfect one for all activities. Most ladies who hike, camp, ski, or climb regularly will own several different fleeces in various thicknesses and designs, as the one that works well when moving fast on a cold day is not going to keep you warm when standing around at camp. In this article, we'll go more into the ins and outs of fleece construction and design and highlight the various elements that you'll want to consider for your next purchase.
You've probably already seen an advertisement at some point that your latest fleece jacket was made out of soda bottles and wondered how that could be. A soda bottle is hard and plastic, yet your fleece is so soft and cuddly. But in fact, they do come from the same source material, and one can be turned into the other. Fleece fabric has some unique properties when compared to natural cotton or wool. The pile has empty space between the threads, creating pockets of air on both sides of the fabric, which is what keeps you warm. It retains a lot of its warmth even when wet, and the material is naturally hydrophobic and repels water. This is good for when you are caught in an unexpected storm without a waterproof jacket, and when the material does get wet, it often dries reasonably quickly.
The downside to its hydrophobic properties is that it doesn't typically allow the moisture generated by your body (i.e., sweat) to escape through the fabric and evaporate. Anyone who has ever hiked in an old-school fleece jacket can attest to the rivulets of water that accumulate under the fleece itself! But manufacturers have been trying to correct this, and much of the innovation in the last decade has centered around increasing the material's breathability.
Recent years have also seen the growing popularity of raschel, or hi-loft, silky fleece. This type of material is distinctly different than the original pile. It is so smooth and silky that it makes the old school version feel like sandpaper. It's not for everyone, as it has a distinct Muppet-like look about it, and it is not as breathable as some of the more technical fabrics out there, but it does add a certain style and flair to some models.
There are several key material components that you'll want to look for when purchasing a fleece jacket, including the breathability, weight and also any external protective barriers to improve its weather resistance.
Manufacturers use various ways to increase the breathability of a normally unbreathable material. One way is to create a grid fabric, like on the Patagonia R1 Hoody. The channels between the squares allow moisture to evaporate faster, and it also reduces the overall weight of the product, resulting in a good warmth-to-weight ratio. Another means of enhancing breathability is by using an open mesh stitching, like on the lofted fleece material on the Patagonia R2 Jacket. The thousands of little holes allow vapor to escape, while the lofted fibers keep you warm. The R2 jacket has panels of R1 fabric on the sides and arms to increase breathability there even more.
The downside a highly breathable model is that it tends to do a poor job of blocking the wind because the channels that let your sweat out also let cool air back in. Look for a breathable fleece first if you are going to be doing any type of intense cardio activities in your jacket, be that running or hiking in cold weather, backcountry and cross-country skiing, or even rock climbing.
Fleece jackets come in several different weight options. The weight is what determines the thickness of the material, so a thicker and therefore heavier fleece will be warmer. The weights are determined by how much a 1-meter square block of the material weighs, and generally fall into the following categories:<100 g/m² = microweight
100 g/m² = lightweight
200 g/m² = midweight
300 g/m² = heavyweight
In general, we recommend the light and midweight categories of fleece, particularly if you're going to be active. A heavyweight fleece jacket will keep you warm and toasty, but maybe a little too warm. The North Face Denali 2 is a heavyweight option that works well as a warm outer layer. However, the material is bulkier, and it doesn't layer as well under a shell as a midweight layer or synthetic jacket would.
Choosing between a lightweight and midweight layer can be difficult. Base your decision primarily on the temperature of the environment where you are going to use it most, and how active you will be. Very active and somewhat cold? Go for lightweight, like the Outdoor Research Deviator Hoody. Not as high cardio but colder temps? Midweight is a better bet, like the Patagonia Re-Tool Snap-T Pullover.
Some manufacturers will attempt to make a fleece more wind or water resistant than it naturally is. Some might have a DWR (durable water repellent) treatment applied to the surface to increase its ability to repel water, while the Arc'teryx Fortrez Hoody has a "Hardshell Technology" construction that makes water bead up on the surface of the material and roll off. This is an important feature to consider if you think you will be wearing your fleece in poor weather conditions, because once the fabric is wet, it loses its breathability, even if it still retains warmth.
If you plan on using your jacket in a windy environment, you'll want to consider a model with some wind protection as well. The "Hardshell" on the Arc'teryx Fortrez is a flexible polymer that helps block the wind more than a porous fleece jacket. There are some other options as well, such as Polartec's Wind Pro, which has a tighter construction than other fleeces, and Gore-Tex's "Windstopper," which uses a wind-blocking membrane between layers of fleece. While these fabrics are helpful at blocking the wind, note that there is a trade-off; the more they protect from the wind, the less breathable they will be. Even when fleeces are wind and water resistant, they are not a replacement for a rain jacket or hardshell in steady or heavy precipitation. We often prefer to keep our fleeces as breathable as possible, and then layer over it with a windbreaker jacket on windy days.
There are lots of different features that can be added to your jacket, most of which will increase the cost but aren't always necessary. Here are some things to consider when examining the features of your next purchase.
Having a hood can be both a positive or negative, depending on what you will be wearing the layer for. If you are going to be using it as an outer layer when ice climbing, having a hood is key to keeping you warmer as well as preventing snow and ice chunks from falling down your neck. The Patagonia R1, Rab Nucleus, OR Deviator, and Arc'teryx Fortrez all have helmet-compatible hoods that are ideal for those situations. If you plan on wearing it under a ski jacket, then a hood is not always the best idea as they tend to bunch up at the base of your neck. This can obstruct your range of motion for your head and can impede your field of view, particularly if you are wearing a ski helmet. We prefer The North Face Osito 2 and Patagonia R2 when skiing and snowboarding for this reason.
Some people love this design element, and others can't stand them, so the first thing you should check out is if you even like the feel of thumb loops or not. If so, they are a nice feature to have as they increase the coverage of the jacket and prevent your wrist from getting exposed if, say, there is a gap between your gloves and your outer layer. They can prevent snow and ice from entering your jacket the wrong way and also prevent your sleeves from riding up when putting another layer on, or when swinging your arms overhead, as when ice climbing. The Outdoor Research Deviator is the only model that we tested with thumb loops.
Pockets are an important element. They provide a cozy spot to warm up your hands, a place to stash your keys or phone, and they can also help in ventilation. A jacket with cozy fleece-lined pockets will keep your hands warmer, but it will impede airflow more than a mesh-lined pocket. Some models have extra pockets on the upper chest or arm, but we can't say that these are a definite must-have. They are usually small we rarely put much in them other than a tube of lip balm. Having two zippered hand pockets is usually ideal, except for in cases where you solely plan to wear it under a climbing harness where you can't even access them.
Adjustable hems provide a nice way to seal in warmth. Being able to cinch down the lower hem can prevent the jacket from riding up, reduce heat loss and stop cool updrafts. It's particularly nice to have them on your outer layer, but if you are wearing the fleece under a shell, then it's probably not a crucial feature.
As with any piece of outdoor gear and clothing, you should carefully consider what type of activities you will be doing. If you plan on being very active, then choose a technical fleece jacket, but if you are only looking for a cozy layer to lounge around in, then an around-town model should do the trick. Also, keep in mind that there are other types of insulating layers out there. In general, fleeces are bulkier and not as warm as a synthetic or down jacket of a similar weight. So, if you are going to be more sedentary and won't need a very breathable layer, then you'll be better off with one of those layers instead. However, fleeces certainly have that coziness factor that you don't get with an insulated or down jacket.
We all have different body shapes, and no two gear companies use the same fit or measurements for their products. If you tend to have some measurements that are different from the "norm," try on as many different brands as possible until you find the one that fits you best. There are a few things to keep in mind when fitting a fleece jacket.
Women are not shaped like men, and outdoor gear designers seem to have finally realized that. Most technical models are cut with a certain amount of tapering at the waist and flaring at the hips. Having a form-fitting silhouette is key to getting a good fit under a harness or pack. Too much extra material at the waist will bunch up and be uncomfortable, so make sure that your technical fleeces are more form fitting.
This might not matter so much for an around-town fleece, but it is crucial if you will be wearing it under a pack or harness. The Arc'teryx Covert Cardigan and Outdoor Research Deviator Hoody are cut a little short on the torso, and they tend to ride up under a harness backpack waistbelt. Make sure the model that you choose extends at least three to four inches below your hip bones to avoid this.
The fit on a jacket's arms is the bane of many a lady out there. Shorter arms and you have to roll everything up to get it to fit; longer arms, and you have perpetually cold wrists. A lot of time this fit issue tends to be brand specific. For example, many of The North Face's models that we've tested over the years have shorter arms. When trying on different products, always remember to raise your arms out and then over your head several times to ensure that you have a good fit.
We hope this article helped you narrow down your options when making your next purchase so that you stay warm and dry on the trail, rock, snow, or wherever your adventures lead you. You can also read more about the pros and cons of each model that we tested in their individual reviews.