With a wide variety of insulated jackets on the market, the classic fleece still is the most comfortable and affordable. These polyester jackets have been providing cozy warmth for years from campsites and ski resorts to the streets and restaurants of mountain towns. Fleeces run the gamut from casual to breathable performance pieces for serious adventures. Below are our picks for the best fleece jackets of 2021, with options from leading outdoor brands across a range of price points. For more background, see our fleece jacket comparison table and buying advice below the picks. To read about other types of insulation, we’ve also written about down jackets and synthetic jackets.
Weight: 1 lb. 2.9 oz.
Fleece weight: Midweight
What we like: A very versatile fleece with a super clean design.
What we don’t: Pricey and no chest pocket.
For the top all-around fleece on the market, we give the nod to the sleek Covert Cardigan from Arc’teryx. This full-zip jacket is comfortable, well-built, and super versatile. Modern styling and a wool-like appearance make the Covert ideal for casual days around town, but it can easily pull double duty for cool weather hiking or as a midlayer for resort skiing in mild temperatures. And while many fleeces are prone to piling, the Covert features a durable face fabric that maintains a premium feel even after dozens of washings. It’s true that the Covert Cardigan isn’t nearly as stretchy as more technical fleeces like the Patagonia R1 TechFace below, but it has a nice hip-length cut and still moves reasonably well on the go.
What are the downsides of the Covert Cardigan? At around $180, it’s one of the most expensive fleece jackets on this list. Second, the fit may be a bit trim for some people. Due to its casual slant, the Covert Cardigan isn’t as slim as some of Arc’teryx’s true performance pieces, but it’s not as baggy as alternatives like Patagonia’s Synchilla Snap-T or The North Face’s Denali below. And finally, you don’t get a chest pocket, which can be a handy spot to store a phone or other valuables while skiing. Minor nitpicks aside, you won’t find a better-looking or feeling fleece jacket, and we think it’s a step up in build quality from the popular Patagonia Better Sweater below. And if the cardigan style isn’t for you, Arc’teryx also offers the Covert as a hooded jacket and half-zip pullover... Read in-depth review
See the Men's Arc'teryx Covert Cardigan See the Women's Arc'teryx Covert Cardigan
Best Pullover Fleece Jacket
Weight: 14.3 oz.
Fleece weight: Midweight
What we like: Very cozy and warm.
What we don’t: No features: this is fleece and nothing more.
It’s hard to move very far down this list without including the Synchilla Snap-T. This pullover is pretty much synonymous with the word “fleece,” and despite its simple appearance, can be a pretty versatile piece of gear. The Synchilla is easy to throw on before heading out for a walk or bike ride, and perfect for wearing out on the town after a day of skiing. It’s definitely not performance-oriented in any way, but the masses have had no problem embracing its casual slant.
Don’t expect a whole lot of features on the Patagonia Synchilla. The lack of pockets is one potential issue—aside from the famous snap chest pocket, of course—and you don’t get panels of fancy stretch fabrics or adjustments like some of the technical pieces. But it’s the fleece that matters here: soft, two-sided, extremely cozy fleece. Of the two available Synchilla versions, we like the lightweight best, which is about 4 ounces less than the regular but surprisingly thick and warm (for an even lighter option, check out Patagonia’s Micro D Snap-T Fleece Pullover). And keep in mind that the Synchilla Snap-T has a fairly roomy fit, much more so than the Patagonia Better Sweater.
See the Men's Patagonia Synchilla See the Women's Patagonia Synchilla
Best Budget Fleece Jacket
Fleece weight: Lightweight
What we like: Comfortable and inexpensive.
What we don’t: Thin and slightly inferior build quality.
Let’s face it: many people want a fleece as a basic layering piece to stay cozy around the cabin or out by the campfire, and they don’t want to spend $200 to get it. If this sounds like you, the REI Groundbreaker is a quality option that truly outperforms its budget-friendly $50 price tag. It’s lightweight and relatively easy to squeeze into a pack on a day hike or bike ride yet built well enough to last through a few seasons of wear. And with upgraded styling that includes a trimmer fit, slightly thinner fleece, and zippered handwarmer pockets, the Groundbreaker strikes us as a serviceable layer for year-round use in a range of conditions and temperatures.
What do you sacrifice by going with a fleece like the REI Groundbreaker? The jacket is built reasonably well but is a notable step down in quality compared to competitors from Patagonia and Arc’teryx, and the fleece is relatively thin (don’t expect serious insulation from the cold). In addition, overall fit and finish fall short of the more premium brands mentioned above, and the feature set is fairly basic (you don't get a chest pocket or thumb loops). But the Groundbreaker nevertheless is an excellent value and can be worn for everything from outdoor use to travel, which is why it's ranked here.
See the Men's REI Groundbreaker 2.0 See the Women's REI Groundbreaker 2.0
Best Heavyweight Fleece Jacket
Fleece weight: Heavyweight
What we like: Warm and tough.
What we don’t: Fit is a little baggy for our taste.
The Denali line from The North Face has been on the market for years and is right up there with the Patagonia Synchilla in terms of its iconic status (it’s particularly popular for urban use in cold climates like the East Coast of the United States). The most recent version, which features a slightly thicker fabric than previous models, provides the most warmth and wind protection of any jacket on this list. The fleece is thick and made to last, and the shoulders, hood, and chest feature nylon panels that resist light wind and moisture. For moderate fall and early winter days, the Denali 2 can be your only outer layer.
Keep in mind The North Face Denali 2 is one of the heaviest and bulkiest fleeces on this list. Additionally, the jacket is lacking in any real compression abilities, meaning that it is not easily stowed away in a pack. But most people don’t buy the Denali 2 for the backcountry, and it makes a really nice fleece for walking around the city, blocking wind, and providing warmth where others on this list will not. If you’re looking for a substantial and tough fleece jacket from a respected brand, this is it.
See the Men's The North Face Denali 2 See the Women's The North Face Denali 2
Best Performance Fleece for Hiking and Skiing
Weight: 13.8 oz.
Fleece weight: Lightweight
What we like: Cozy yet still tough and weather-protective.
What we don’t: Design is on the technical side for daily wear.
We often prefer a softshell or synthetic-insulated jacket for aerobic activities in cool weather, but there’s still a loyal following out there for performance fleeces. In this category, the Patagonia R1 TechFace Hoody is a phenomenal piece of gear for activities like climbing, hiking, and as a midlayer for backcountry skiing. Like most fleeces, this jacket breathes well, but it tacks on a tough and weather-resistant face fabric (with DWR finish) and 3-way adjustable hood with laminated brim for standalone use in inclement conditions. If you plan on really getting after it during the winter and shoulder seasons, the R1 TechFace can be your Swiss Army Knife fleece jacket.
With a soft and pliable fleece liner, the R1 TechFace Hoody offers great next-to-skin comfort, especially relative to the slippery nylon of many synthetic insulated jackets. But with respect to other fleeces here it has a noticeably technical feel, and you give up some breathability with the durable shell. If you only plan on wearing your fleece around town, the R1 TechFace is probably too much jacket—but for the right user, it’s the complete package. Those looking for a more casual design should consider a piece like the Arc’teryx Covert Cardigan above, and keep in mind that Patagonia also offers both their R1 fleece without the “TechFace” shell... Read in-depth review
See the Men's Patagonia R1 TechFace See the Women's Patagonia R1 TechFace
Best of the Rest
Weight: 1 lb. 6.5 oz.
Fleece weight: Midweight
What we like: Classy looks and versatile performance.
What we don’t: Lets a lot of wind through and more restrictive than the Covert above.
Patagonia has more fleece options than just about any other gear company, ranging from the casual Synchilla Snap-T to the performance Regulator (R) series. Sitting conveniently in the middle is the popular Better Sweater, which can be used for anything from daily wear to light outdoor activities (it’s a great midlayer choice for resort skiing). Moreover, the Better Sweater is stylish and comes in a multitude of colorways that will make just about everyone happy. At around $140, it’s not even all that expensive for Patagonia.
Why isn’t the Patagonia Better Sweater ranked higher? Our top pick, the Arc’teryx Covert Cardigan, has a softer feel and a more consistent fit overall (the Better Sweater is a bit tight in the arms), which is great for both comfort and mobility. Further, the Better Sweater has a tendency to let even the slightest gusts of wind through, while the Covert adds a liner to the front side for extra wind resistance. But we do love the versatility: the Patagonia layers well underneath a shell, has a large chest pocket that easily fits our smartphone, and looks equally at home on your morning commute and the ski hill. As an added bonus, the latest model is made with 100-percent-recycled fabric (environmental consciousness has become a Patagonia trademark)... Read in-depth review
See the Men's Patagonia Better Sweater See the Women's Patagonia Better Sweater
Fleece weight: Midweight
What we like: A great value for a quality full-zip fleece.
What we don’t: Build quality can’t quite match the Arc’teryx or Patagonia models above.
We were immediately impressed when trying on the Kuhl Interceptr, which feels like a more economical sibling of the Arc’teryx Covert Cardigan above (it has more technical features too). For a very reasonable $129, you get an athletic-fitting fleece jacket with tons of storage (four pockets in total) and handy features like articulated five-panel sleeves with thumbholes at the end to keep your hands warm and the sleeves in place.
The Interceptr does great in mild fall and spring conditions, but don’t expect much in the way of wind resistance or warmth when the temperature really drops. For just $10 more, the Patagonia Better Sweater offers more warmth in a similar style. Plus, we don’t love the dual chest pockets of the Interceptr, especially for a casual layer. But if you’ve tried Kuhl products in the past and like the brand and styling, the Interceptr is a solid value.
See the Men's Kuhl Interceptr Fleece Jacket
Weight: 9.3 oz.
Fleece weight: Lightweight
What we like: Great mix of performance and casual features.
What we don’t: Pricey for not a lot of warmth.
Most all-around daily wear and performance fleeces favor the casual user, but the Arc’teryx Delta LT flips those priorities as a lightweight alpine midlayer that still looks good around town. With a gridded finish on the exterior, soft-touch interior, and premium 100-weight fleece, the Delta LT wicks moisture and breathes exceptionally well. The jacket’s performance slant is evident in its feathery 9.3-ounce weight—the lightest on our list—but you still get features like two hand pockets and a small pocket on the left sleeve. Further, the jacket received a longer hem and a more relaxed fit in its most recent update, making it even better for crossover use. For lightweight, cozy, and efficient warmth, the Delta LT is the whole package.
As a performance midlayer or if you like a semi-trim cut, the Delta LT is a nice alternative to some of the more casual-leaning options above. It's easy to add a shell over the top of the Arc’teryx, and the jacket is fantastic for activities like shoulder-season climbing or backcountry skiing. But we pushed it down our rankings because of price: it's simply a lot to pay for a classic 100-weight Polartec fleece (many alternatives cost at least $50 less). It's hard to knock the Arc'teryx from a quality standpoint, but it's a big pill to swallow for a relatively pedestrian (albeit nice-looking) design.
See the Men's Arc'teryx Delta LT See the Women's Arc'teryx Delta LT
Fleece weight: Midweight
What we like: Durable, warmth without bulk, and premium fit and finish.
What we don’t: Expensive.
Norrøna might fly a little under the radar this side of the Atlantic, but the Norwegian outdoor clothing brand gives names like Patagonia and Arc’teryx a run for their money. From their Falketind mountaineering collection, the Warmwool2 is a high-quality midweight fleece hoody built with a stretchy blend of wool and polyester. Unlike many jackets here, you get a smooth, abrasion-resistant face fabric that makes for a durable outer layer, but the fleecy inside is still cozy and soft next-to-skin. And we particularly love the fit of the Warmwool2, which features a long cut that sits securely at the hip and a high, snug collar for a nice seal around the neck.
With 18-percent wool in the construction, the Warmwool2 gets a boost in warmth and temperature regulation without adding on the extra bulk typical of fully synthetic fleeces. You’ll likely overheat in mild temperatures or during high-output activities, but the Falketind is ideal for cold-weather resort skiing or casual use around town. And in truly wintery conditions, we really appreciate the added security of the scuba hood. It’s a big investment at $199, but the Warmwool’s premium fit and finish and performance both on and off the mountain will be well worth it for many.
See the Men's Norrøna Falketind Warmwool2 See the Women's Norrøna Falketind Warmwool2
Weight: 1 lb. 2 oz.
Fleece weight: Heavyweight
What we like: Good value and classy two-tone colorways.
What we don’t: The Better Sweater above is more versatile and well-made.
It’s not a stretch to say that The North Face popularized the modern fleece with their Denali, but the retro Gordon Lyons is a nod to the subtler styles that came before. Similar to the Patagonia Better Sweater above and L.L. Bean Sweater Fleece below, the Gordon Lyons Full-Zip features a sweater-knit fleece, two handwarmer pockets and a zip chest pocket, and a nice array of classy colorways. Like many casual options, fit is on the relaxed side for layering, and the 300-gram weight makes the Gordon Lyons slightly warmer than both the Patagonia (283g) and L.L. Bean (275g). For chilly fall days, we really appreciate the added coziness.
At only $99, the Gordon Lyons certainly gives the Better Sweater a run for its money in terms of value, but the overall quality and craftsmanship fall well short of Patagonia’s premium fit and finish. That said, we do love the option for a two-tone colorway, which provides a nice, stylish alternative to Patagonia and L.L. Bean’s mostly monochromatic sweaters. If you don’t like the full-zip style, the Gordon Lyons collection also includes a quarter-zip pullover and vest, as well as a hooded option for those who prefer the added coverage and protection (although none in the lineup are offered in women's-specific models).
See the Men's The North Face Gordon Lyons
Fleece weight: Light/midweight
What we like: Retro styling and fun pullover design.
What we don’t: Not warm enough for most winter uses.
Performance fleeces can offer serious midlayer warmth for skiing and hiking, but sometimes you just want to throw on a casual fleece and feel cozy. In this category, we really like the Dorado Half-Zip, which combines 100-percent recycled fleece with Cotopaxi’s hallmark retro style. Available in six colorways for men and five for women, there’s something here for everyone, as long as you don’t mind making a bit of a statement. To round out the build, two handwarmer pockets and a chest pocket give you functional storage for daily tasks or outdoor pursuits, and the pullover styling is both simple and functional for dumping heat.
At just $100, the Cotopaxi Dorado is a nice alternative to the Patagonia Lightweight Synchilla Snap-T above. With a fairly lightweight fleece you don’t get quite as much warmth, and you won’t find subtle colorways here, but the Dorado is a great option for mild-weather days or even stuffing in a corner of your daypack. And although Cotopaxi doesn’t quite measure up to brands like Arc’teryx and Patagonia, we’ve been impressed with the quality and craftsmanship of their products. Finally, the Salt Lake City-based company recently announced that they’re 100-percent carbon neutral, which is big news that sets a high standard for the outdoor industry.
See the Men's Cotopaxi Dorado See the Women's Cotopaxi Dorado
Weight: 1 lb. 2 oz.
Fleece weight: Midweight
What we like: Quality materials and good looks.
What we don’t: Pricey and no hand pockets.
If you’ve worn Fjallraven apparel in the past, you may be drooling over the Keb Fleece. In typical fashion, this jacket has a high-end look and feel that few brands are able to emulate. For the build, Fjallraven uses a unique polyester and wool blend that does a nice job at keeping you warm while still retaining a decent amount of moisture-wicking ability and stretch. The end result is a very comfortable and functional fleece that also looks the part.
Like many Fjallraven products, the Keb Fleece toes the line between casual and performance use. The fleece blend, reinforced G-1000 shoulder panels (it wouldn’t be Fjallraven without some G-1000 in the mix), and aggressive hood are built for the outdoors, but the clean design and attractive colorways wear well in the city too. This fleece isn’t for everyone—and particularly at a steep $190—but it’s another classy piece of gear from the Swedish company.
See the Men's Fjallraven Keb Fleece See the Women's Fjallraven Keb Fleece
Fleece weight: Light/midweight
What we like: Nice looks and great price.
What we don’t: Not as well-made or versatile as the Patagonia Better Sweater.
It doesn’t get much more classic than the L.L. Bean Sweater Fleece Full-Zip. From the throwback logo on the chest to the knit exterior and wide range of muted colorways, the jacket is an everyday staple. The middle-of-the-road fit (L.L. Bean calls it “slightly fitted”) slides easily over a long-sleeve baselayer or dress shirt, although it is a bit bulky for wearing under a rain shell. And you don’t get a waist cinch for truly sealing out the cold, but the light-to-midweight insulation, drop hem, and lined hand pockets make the Sweater Fleece a nice match for many spring and fall days.
In many ways, this L. L. Bean is a budget alternative to Patagonia’s Better Sweater above. Both have a timeless look, similar pocket layouts, and a lot of around-town appeal with their moderate levels of warmth. Where the Patagonia gets the edge is its very cozy interior, which uses higher-quality fleece, plus it’s longer-lasting and less prone to pilling excessively over time (this is especially valuable if you’ll be wearing the jacket for activities like downhill skiing). But for a substantial $50 savings, it’s hard to argue with the simple L.L. Bean for daily use.
See the Men's L.L. Bean Sweater Fleece See the Women's L.L. Bean Sweater Fleece
Weight: 13.4 oz.
Fleece weight: Midweight
What we like: Super soft and cozy.
What we don’t: Fleece sheds over time.
The Polartec High Loft (formerly known as the Monkey Man) is one of our favorite pieces of gear that Mountain Hardwear makes. First, it’s one the softest fleeces on this list, made with the signature Polartec High Loft that actually feels somewhat like real fur (you may find people reaching over to touch it). Second, it’s warm enough to resist a shoulder-season chill without being overly bulky (a tough balance to achieve). Finally, stretchy panels along the sides help the latest version move well with you during high-output activities like climbing and biking.
What are the downsides of the Polartec High Loft? As with most fleece jackets, wind cuts through it easily, meaning you’ll likely need to add another layer overtop even in mildly gusty conditions (you can always throw on a lightweight windbreaker). Further, the sleeves are slightly longer than normal, although this didn’t bother our testers as they fit nicely over the top of the hands. Finally, you should expect some fleece to shed as something this fuzzy tends to rub off on occasion, and not everyone loves the styling (the thick fur, along with the stretchy patches near the chest pocket and neck, can be a bit polarizing). But in terms of coziness, this fleece is right near the top.
See the Men's MH Polartec High Loft See the Women's MH Polartec High Loft
Fleece weight: Lightweight
What we like: Stretchy fabric and articulated patterning offers great freedom of movement.
What we don’t: Not as breathable as the Delta LT above.
Arc’teryx’s Covert and Delta are fairly traditional fleeces for casual and performance use (respectively), but it’s also worth taking a look at their Kyanite series. Trim-fitting and stretchy, the Kyanite AR and LT are minimalist layering pieces with articulated patterning that places a premium on mobility. The LT here (short for “lightweight”) offers just enough warmth for mild spring and fall weather, all while keeping weight to a minimum (9.9 oz. for the men’s version). We love the Kyanite LT as a baselayer or midlayer, but the brushed exterior adds ample durability and light wind resistance for use as an outer layer in dry conditions.
If you’re choosing between the Delta LT and Kyanite LT, there are a number of differences to keep in mind. The style of fleece is the primary distinction: while the Delta has just a little give thanks to its gridded fabric, the Kyanite LT is much stretchier with 16-percent-elastane jersey knit. As a result, it’s a bit warmer and offers better protection in wind, but the Delta is the more breathable design. Next-to-skin feel differs as well, with the Kyanite getting the edge in terms of softness and freedom of movement. But the Delta is the more versatile choice, with a relaxed fit that looks good in both the mountains and around town. It's worth considering your priorities, but both are well-made, high-performance options for those looking for a lightweight fleece.
See the Men's Arc'teryx Kyanite LT See the Women's Arc'teryx Kyanite LT
Weight: 12 oz.
Fleece weight: Lightweight
What we like: Stretchy and breathable for high-output use.
What we don’t: Not very warm or versatile for wearing around town.
Lightweight performance fleeces are a growing trend, and we like what Outdoor Research has come up with in the Vigor Full Zip. This trim-fitting midlayer slips nicely over a thin merino long-sleeve and provides a great combination of stretch, breathability, and modest warmth. In terms of construction, OR uses a hybrid concept with a thicker polyester/spandex mix along the arms and upper chest, while the lower body and back have a thin, grid-style fleece that is soft, wicks moisture, and helps keep you cool. For anything from running in frigid temps to backcountry skiing, the Vigor is a great layer to have in your quiver.
Where the Vigor comes up short is versatility. The jacket isn’t all that warm for low-output pursuits and isn’t as viable for wearing around town in the cold. Further, the trim fit is more reminiscent of a souped-up baselayer than an outer layer, although it’s better-equipped to handle the elements than the Patagonia R1 Air below. Finally, the Vigor is known to hold a stink, and many users report premature pilling. But if you want a thoughtfully made performance option—complete with thumb holes and a useful chest pocket—put the Vigor Full Zip on your short list. For a bump in warmth and weather protection, check out OR’s new Vigor Plus, which uses a thicker fleece and tacks on a wind- and water-resistant panel at the chest.
See the Men's OR Vigor Full Zip Hoodie See the Women's OR Vigor Full Zip Hoodie
Fleece weight: Midweight
What we like: A performance Polartec fleece at a reasonable price.
What we don’t: Overkill for casual use.
Seattle-based REI knows a thing or two about the importance of a good fleece—they’re useful in the Pacific Northwest about 9 months a year. But breaking in tradition from more basic fleeces like the Groundbreaker above, the Co-op has put together a surprisingly modern and performance-oriented design in the Hyperaxis 2.0. It’s true that $129 is expensive for an REI in-house product, but with this fleece you get premium Polartec Power Stretch Pro fabric, low-profile seams, and even features like thumb loops. The result is a good-looking, well-built, and versatile jacket.
In many ways, the REI Co-op Hyperaxis 2.0 does a pretty darn good impersonation of pricier jackets like the Patagonia R1 TechFace above. All three performance fleeces use a stretchy and moisture-wicking shell fabric and are built to breathe during high-intensity movement. But with the Patagonia, you get a bit more weather protection by way of a robust shell with a DWR finish. All in all, it’s tough to beat the looks and quality of these premium brands, but the more affordable Hyperaxis 2.0 isn’t far behind.
See the Men's REI Hyperaxis 2.0 See the Women's REI Hyperaxis 2.0
Weight: 12.9 oz.
Fleece weight: Lightweight
What we like: Trim-fitting and very breathable.
What we don’t: Compromised durability and limited versatility.
It’s hard to beat Patagonia’s competitive collection of fleece jackets, which ranges from casual offerings like the Better Sweater and Lightweight Synchilla Snap-T above to the performance-oriented R series. This past winter, the R1 Air joined their lineup of technical fleeces as a lighter and even more breathable alternative to the classic R1. Using hollow-fiber yarns and zig-zag patterning, you get a thin, baselayer-like feel that both traps warmth and dumps heat, which makes it an excellent match for high-intensity activities like backcountry skiing and winter climbing. And with three streamlined zip pockets, off-shoulder seams for comfort while carrying a pack, and a low-profile hood, it’s fully functional as a standalone piece too.
The R1 Air is softer and more breathable than a jacket like the R1 TechFace above, but with nothing in the way of shell fabric, you do give up a noticeable amount of protection and durability. As a result, it’s less versatile as an outer layer, and you’ll want to be particularly careful around sharp items like crampons, poles, and even rough rock. We haven’t had any issues to date despite haphazard packing around pointy equipment, but it’s best to exercise caution. And despite the air-permeable construction, we did overheat while running in moderate temperatures (in the low 40s Fahrenheit), which relegates it to strictly cold-weather use. All that said, the R1 Air is an intriguing addition to the collection and a nice, specialized alternative to Patagonia’s more traditional offerings above.
See the Men's Patagonia R1 Air See the Women's Patagonia R1 Air
Weight: 1 lb. 0.6 oz.
Fleece weight: Lightweight
What we like: Tons of colors and sizes.
What we don’t: Durability is questionable.
Soft, inexpensive, and offered in a ton of sizes and colors, the Steens Mountain is a very popular budget fleece. First and foremost, this is a very simple jacket: the fabric is basic and you don’t get any features to speak of. But it provides decent warmth and styling and a hefty portion of coziness, especially for the price of only $40 (prices do vary on retailers like Amazon depending on the color).
It’s a good idea to set reasonable expectations for a fleece in this price range. For its weight and bulk, the Steens Mountain does very little to trap warmth or keep out wind, nor is it super breathable. It’s also not trim-fitting and layers poorly under a hardshell. To put it simply, the Steens Mountain won’t be your workhorse for any kind of serious outdoor use. But if you’re looking for an inexpensive layering piece to wear around town, Columbia’s bottom-shelf offering should get the job done.
See the Men's Columbia Steens Mountain See the Women's Columbia Benton Springs
|Arc'teryx Covert Cardigan||$179||Casual/performance||1 lb. 2.9 oz.||Midweight||2 hand, 1 sleeve|
|Patagonia Lightweight Synchilla||$119||Casual||14.3 oz.||Midweight||1 chest|
|REI Co-op Groundbreaker 2.0||$50||Casual||Unavail.||Lightweight||2 hand|
|The North Face Denali 2||$179||Casual||Unavail.||Heavyweight||2 hand, 2 chest|
|Patagonia R1 TechFace Hoody||$179||Performance||13.8 oz.||Lightweight||2 hand, 1 chest|
|Patagonia Better Sweater||$139||Casual||1 lb. 6.5 oz.||Midweight||2 hand, 1 chest|
|Kuhl Interceptr Fleece Jacket||$129||Casual/performance||Unavail.||Midweight||2 hand, 2 chest|
|Arc'teryx Delta LT||$149||Performance/casual||9.3 oz.||Lightweight||2 hand, 1 sleeve|
|Norrøna Falketind Warmwool2 Hood||$200||Casual/performance||1 lb. 3.8 oz.||Midweight||2 hand, 1 chest|
|The North Face Gordon Lyons||$99||Casual||1 lb. 2 oz.||Heavyweight||2 hand, 1 chest|
|Cotopaxi Dorado Half-Zip||$100||Casual||Unavail.||Light/mid||2 hand, 1 chest|
|Fjallraven Keb Fleece Jacket||$190||Casual/performance||1 lb. 2 oz.||Midweight||2 hand, 1 chest|
|L.L. Bean Sweater Fleece||$89||Casual||Unavail.||Light/mid||2 hand, 1 chest|
|MTN Hardwear Polartec High Loft||$175||Performance/casual||13.4 oz.||Midweight||2 hand, 1 chest|
|Arc'teryx Kyanite LT||$139||Performance||9.9 oz.||Lightweight||2 hand|
|Outdoor Research Vigor Full Zip||$99||Performance||12 oz.||Lightweight||1 chest|
|REI Co-op Hyperaxis 2.0 Hoody||$129||Performance/casual||Unavail.||Midweight||2 hand, 1 chest|
|Patagonia R1 Air||$159||Performance||12.9 oz.||Lightweight||2 hand, 1 chest|
|Columbia Steens Mountain 2.0||$40||Casual||1 lb. 0.6 oz.||Lightweight||2 hand|
- Fleece Categories: Casual vs. Performance
- Full-Zip vs. Pullover
- Fleece Warmth and Weight
- Wind and Water Resistance
- Fleece Jacket Features
- Is Fleece Sustainable?
- Fleece vs. Synthetic and Down Insulation
- Caring for Your Fleece
The majority of people wear fleece jackets for their unbeatable combination of coziness and warmth. They are terrific for layering on chilly evenings, wearing around the cabin, and underneath your ski jacket. Accordingly, most fleeces trend toward being casual in nature, from hard-weave cardigan-style jackets that dress up nicely to basic fleeces that are little more than the fabric itself. Casual fleeces make up the majority of our list, although we do want to reiterate that they still are great for layering.
For performance or serious outdoor use as an outer layer, a down jacket or synthetic jacket beats out a fleece in most cases. Both are lighter, more packable, and offer better protection from the elements. Where fleeces do have the upper hand is breathability (although this can also be a downside as most offer little wind resistance), and they’re often the most affordable option. As a result, there are a small handful of high-end, climbing-centric brands that design fleeces for performance use. Patagonia’s R series, for example, prioritizes mobility and weight-savings alongside breathability (and their TechFace options even add a weather-protective shell). And some fleeces like the Kuhl Interceptr are more of a hybrid piece: good for wearing around town but also easy to move in and decently tough.
Most of the jackets toward the top of this list are of the full-zip variety, which gives you maximum versatility and are easy to slip on and off. Full-zip models tend to have more features like hand pockets and stretchy side panels, whereas pullovers are more basic and function like a sweatshirt (albeit a very comfy one). The upside of fleece pullovers is that they weigh slightly less, pack down smaller, and generally are cheaper. The Patagonia Lightweight Synchilla is an extremely popular fleece pullover that in many ways defines the category.
For an idea of how warm a particular fleece will be, some jackets list the fabric thickness or fleece weight. Polartec breaks it out into four categories—Micro, 100, 200, and 300-weight fleece—and other brands use a similar nomenclature (Patagonia’s R series, for example). In its lightest form, a fleece is only a small step up in terms of insulation from a baselayer (the Patagonia R1 Air is a great example) and ideal for high-output activities when breathability wins out over maximum warmth. Midweight or 200-weight fleeces are warmer and make a great pairing for fall and spring or a mild-weather day on the slopes. Heavy fleeces of the 300-weight variety are warm and can insulate when temperatures dip below freezing, but their bulk often comes at the cost of mobility and breathability.
As more companies have moved toward designing their own proprietary fleeces and Polartec has diversified their offerings, the demarcation isn’t quite as simple as explained above. But it’s still helpful when available, and in general, the weight of the fleece correlates with its warmth. The heavier a jacket is, the more likely it will be able to keep you warm and block wind from entering.
Although often worn as a standalone piece, fleece jackets are not intended to combat heavy wind or rain. The synthetic fabric itself is hydrophobic, but wind can make its way through the porous construction rather easily. Exceptions include jackets with WindStopper technology or tough face fabrics, which provide a modest increase in weather resistance. Patagonia’s TechFace series, for example, uses a double-weave shell fabric with DWR finish, and the classic Denali 2 jacket from The North Face has non-fleece nylon panels that can repel light amounts of precipitation. But no matter the fleece, when the conditions get tough, you’ll want to bring along more reliable wind and rain protection like a softshell jacket or rain jacket. One of our favorites in the former category is the Arc’teryx Gamma MX, which features a fleece interior for warmth but a thick outer layer to better isolate you from the elements.
A notable upside to fleeces is their breathability. This is one of the primary reasons that they work so well as a midlayer, and it also contributes to their shortcomings as a true outer layer in the cold and wind. Compared to a softshell jacket, a fleece is made from standard polyester that is dotted with tiny openings—hold up a fleece into the sun and you’ll see light streaming through. But as we mentioned above, some high-tech fleeces include wind-resistant fabrics, making them less permeable to air. While these styles offer more protection against the elements, breathability takes a back seat. The technology is improving (the TechFace series is less compromised than most), but windproof fleece still isn’t our go-to choice for most conditions. If we know we’re venturing out in inclement weather, we usually prefer to wear a softshell or synthetic-insulated jacket with wind-blocking fabric instead.
Fleece jackets range widely in terms of fit, and it’s important to look into the jacket’s intended use to make sure it aligns with your own. Performance pieces (like the Patagonia R1 Air) have a trim cut that is designed to remove excess fabric for added mobility and efficient ventilation. While very effective on the mountain, the style doesn’t always translate well to urban life. If you’re in search of a jacket adept at both, something like the Arc’teryx Covert Cardigan may the ideal choice, with enough room to be comfortable but not so loose as to be useless in the backcountry. For casual wear, a roomier fit option like the Patagonia Synchilla or one of the other budget options may be the ticket.
The synthetic nature of fleece jackets means they can vary pretty dramatically in style, and one of the best representations is the amount of loft in the jacket. Less loft means a lower profile that has a brushed, sweater-like look, while high-loft options are fuzzier and thicker. Much of the decision will come down to personal preference on style and feel. Some of the high-loft options have polarizing looks (the extra fuzzy Mountain Hardwear Polartec High Loft comes to mind). The extra-soft feel of a high pile jacket is well worth it for some, while those that use their fleece around town may prefer a lower loft alternative like the Arc’teryx Covert Cardigan.
Nearly every fleece out there is offered in either hooded or standard fare. For use as a classic midlayer, we typically lean towards a non-hooded option as even a low profile hood can get in the way underneath your shell (unless you always use both hoods). And for use under a ski jacket, it’s a no-brainer to go with a non-hooded model. Alternatively, in colder conditions a hood is a welcome addition and many fleece hoodies are nicely fitted over your head and should stay on even while exercising.
Performance fleeces designed for activities like running or cross-country skiing will occasionally have thumbholes built into the sleeves. While serving as an opening for cold air to sneak in when not in use, the openings work well for keeping the sleeves in place during high effort activities or when taking on and off layers. User tip: if you’re eyeing a jacket that has this feature, we recommend checking to make sure the fabric around the thumbhole has some stretch so it doesn’t feel like your thumb is being yanked around when you extend your arms.
Animal-derived insulators like down and wool get a bad rap from environmental advocates (and in many cases, rightly so), but fleece isn’t without blame either. Polyester fleece is a synthetic, petroleum-based material, which means a few things. For one, it’s plastic—in fact, it’s made up of the same stuff as those single-use plastic bottles many of us try to avoid. Second, unlike sustainably produced natural materials like cotton or down, the production of fleece can result in greenhouse gas emissions and potentially unsafe work environments. And finally, fleece sheds throughout its lifetime, littering microplastics in its wake—as multiple studies have shown, one single fleece jacket can release thousands of fibers into wastewater with each wash. Given the current state of plastics in our oceans, this is not good news.
But there are steps we can take to address this issue. Companies like Patagonia and Polartec produce most of their polyester fabrics (including fleece) from recycled plastic bottles, which both reduces emissions and repurposes materials that might otherwise end up in a landfill. At the time of publishing, 84 percent of Patagonia’s polyester fabrics are derived from recycled materials. We’re also seeing manufacturers increase their use of natural fabrics, including hemp, lyocell, wool, and bamboo. Unlike polyester fleece’s microplastics, fibers that shed from these materials actually biodegrade. And then that leaves you, the consumer. You can do your part by following the three R’s (reduce your consumption, reuse what you have, buy products made with recycled materials), and when you can, seek out clothing made with natural—rather than synthetic—fibers.
The midlayer market is chalk full of options, and fleece’s two primary competitors are synthetic jackets and down jackets. Both are more expensive than a fleece but offer improved warmth relative to their weight and are far more packable. Further, synthetic jackets provide better protection against wind and rain (although some modern fleeces aren’t far behind). But if breathability and a soft next-to-skin feel are at the top of your list, a fleece remains our go-to choice. Synthetic and down jackets require a lining and outer shell to hold the insulation, which impacts comfort and the ability to pull away sweat and hot air. As a result, the fleece excels at aerobic activities when bulk isn’t as much of a concern, such as resort skiing and day hiking. But in the end, none are the end-all-be-all insulating layer, which is why it is common for people to own one (or more) of each.
Pilling is one of the downsides of a low-quality fleece, and even a nicer option can start losing fleece over time. Once a jacket starts pilling up, it’s difficult to reverse the process, so prevention is key here. One of the best ways to extend the life of your fleece is keeping it clear of a drier. Line drying or at least tumble-drying on low will do wonders, and some have had success washing their fleeces on the delicate wash cycle. Also, while fleece jackets are a popular choice for hanging around the campfire, do your best to keep it clear of the flames. The plasticky construction will melt when exposed to extreme heat. Beyond those considerations, fleeces are easy to maintain and should give you years of comfy service.
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