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.
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 fleeces from brands like Patagonia or The North Face. 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.
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 and R2 fleeces 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: Mid/heavyweight
What we like: Classy looks and versatile performance.
What we don’t: Lets a lot of wind through.
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. 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, feels slightly thicker and has more of a tailored fit, which we prefer. Further, the Better Sweater has a tendency to let even the slightest gusts of wind through. But we do love the versatility: it’s easy to layer underneath a shell, 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).
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
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 $185—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
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
Weight: 13.4 oz.
Fleece weight: Light/midweight
What we like: Combination of warm high-loft fleece and performance R1 fabric.
What we don’t: Not very wind- or water-resistant.
Patagonia’s R2 is their go-to fleece for active outdoor pursuits in the cold. The jacket features a combination of high-loft fleece over the core of the body with stretchy, gridded material on the side panels (the same fabric that makes up the popular R1). This combination gives the R2 the breathability, low weight, and freedom of movement of a baselayer, but with the core warmth of a thicker fleece. In a sense, it’s a best-of-both-worlds combination, and one of our favorite fleeces for everything from casual use to climbing and skiing.
Although the R2 is impressive for a fleece, we can’t deny that a synthetic or down jacket will provide similar warmth in a lighter, more packable, and often more weather-resistant package. On the other hand, the R2 breathes better than a puffy jacket, has a thinner feel, and sports a more casual look. Further, while it’s easy to assume that a jacket like the R1 TechFace above (which also comes in a warmer R2 version) is the superior option in every setting, there’s a lot of cases in which you don’t need the weather-protective shell (plus, the R2 is much cozier). All told, if you’re looking for a classic fleece that looks and plays the part both for casual and performance use, the R2 should be near the top of your list.
See the Men's Patagonia R2 See the Women's Patagonia R2
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). And like the popular Patagonia R2 below, 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
Weight: 12.6 oz.
Fleece weight: Lightweight
What we like: A highly capable and good-looking fleece for alpine pursuits.
What we don’t: Offers less weather protection than the R1 TechFace above.
Arc’teryx’s Delta LT above nicely combines casual and performance features, but the Delta MX (short for “mixed weather”) falls decidedly on the technical end of the spectrum. Both jackets feature a gridded exterior finish and soft interiors, but the MX adds a functional, under-the-helmet hood that can be used as a neck gaiter or full-face balaclava for added coverage and warmth. And the MX’s climbing intentions are clear: this jacket is highly mobile with articulated patterning and gusseted underarms, a great breather with an air-permeable Polartec Power Dry fleece, and sports a trim, athletic fit that layers nicely under a shell (the Delta LT has a more around-town-friendly regular cut).
We found the Delta MX to be an impressive insulator while backpacking in chilly fall conditions, and it effectively wicked sweat even on long, arduous climbs. That said, it’s too warm for high-output activities in mild weather, and we wouldn’t recommend it as a sole outer layer when the weather takes a turn (the jacket wetted out quickly in sustained rain, although we managed to stay comfortable). Compared to Patagonia’s performance-oriented R1 TechFace Hoody above (also $179), the Delta MX is slightly lighter, softer, and noticeably more breathable. But the Patagonia ranks higher on our list as a better standalone piece, topping the Arc’teryx in terms of durability and protection against wind and precipitation (although unlike the Delta MX it does not include a built-in balaclava).
See the Men's Arc'teryx Delta MX See the Women's Arc'teryx Delta MX
Weight: 14.8 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, at 14.8 ounces, the Vigor is fairly heavy considering the level of insulation, 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.
See the Men's OR Vigor Full Zip See the Women's OR Vigor Full Zip
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 and Arc’teryx Delta MX 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 and Arc’teryx, you get a bit more weather protection by way of a robust shell with a DWR finish (the R1 TechFace) or built-in balaclava (Delta MX). 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 warmth and durability.
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 winter, the R1 Air joins 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 ideal 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 far 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. Alternatively, a more traditional design like the R2 offers a bump in warmth and is a better crossover piece for casual 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.||Mid/heavy||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|
|Fjallraven Keb Fleece Jacket||$185||Casual/performance||1 lb. 2 oz.||Midweight||2 hand, 1 chest|
|The North Face Gordon Lyons||$99||Casual||1 lb. 2 oz.||Heavyweight||2 hand, 1 chest|
|Patagonia R2 Jacket||$169||Performance/casual||13.4 oz.||Light/mid||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 Delta MX Hoody||$179||Performance||12.6 oz.||Lightweight||2 hand, 1 chest|
|Outdoor Research Vigor Full Zip||$99||Performance||14.8 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
- 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.
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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