In warmer months, a fleece top may offer adequate insulation for lower overnight temperatures. However, it is less thermally efficient (i.e. less warm for its weight) than down- and synthetic-insulated jackets, which I will discuss later in this series. So I do not consider fleece to be an optimal “stop” piece when backpacking.
Instead, I include a fleece top in my Go Suit for two purposes. It’s a critical part of the Core 13, a 13-item collection of backpacking clothing that can be mixed-and-matched to create appropriate systems for every set of 3-season conditions.
1. Second layer. In cool conditions — e.g. windy summits and peaks, crisp mornings, etc. — a fleece can supplement the warmth (or lack thereof) of my hiking shirt; and,
2. Mid-layer. In cool/cold-and-wet conditions, a fleece serves to increase warmth and to buffer moisture when worn between my hiking shirt and rain shell.
From a physics perspective, fleece reduces both convective and conductive heat loss.
Why not a wind shirt?
A wind shirt made of wind- and water-resistant nylon or polyester like the Patagonia Houdini is a popular alternative as a second layer, since it is lighter and more packable than a fleece. However, a wind shirt is useless as a mid-layer: it does not buffer moisture like fleece, nor does it provide any warmth when wet. In other words, it can only reduce convective heat loss, not conductive. Therefore, I think that the additional few ounces of a fleece is well worth this added role.
That said, I do like wind shirts, but not for backpacking. Instead, I use them for:
- Day-hiking in dry weather, when I may want “low-cost insurance” (i.e. minimal weight and volume) against temporary cold or windy conditions; and,
- Winter runs, when I want an ultralight and ultra-packable shell to reduce convective heat loss, especially early in a run before my body has warmed up.
Fabrics and features
Fleece tops can be made of synthetic fibers (i.e. plastic, specifically polyester or polypropylene) or natural merino wool. Synthetic fleece will be far less expensive and lighter weight for its warmth. It also performs better as a mid-layer because it absorbs less water and dries faster. While I wear a wool fleece top, the Ibex Shak Full-Zip Sweater, nearly everyday in the winter, I don’t think it rivals the field performance of a synthetic.
Mass fleece fabric is available in 100-, 200-, and 300-weight, i.e. the fabric weighs 100 grams per square meter. Higher-grade fleece is usually branded (e.g. Polartec, Patagonia R-series) and sometimes has a grid-like pattern for improved moisture management.
These fabric weights are often categorized as Lightweight, Midweight, and Heavyweight. Lightweight fleece is my go-to. Midweight is best if cold-and-wet conditions are the norm. Heavyweight I would avoid as it’s bulky and more worthy of a standalone jacket, or a mid-layer for winter conditions.
Ironically, for backpacking the best fleece top is the simplest and usually the least expensive option. In fact, it’s the antithesis of the iconic The North Face Denali Hooded Jacket and The North Face Denali Windpro Jacket. Avoid tops with features that only add weight, absorb water, reduce breathability, slow dry times, and add cost — specifically:
- A spandex component in the fabric
- Wind-blocking membranes
- Panels of wind- and water-resistant fabric (e.g. ripstop nylon)
- Lots of pockets and a full zipper
My picks and suggestions
Fleece tops are a commodity item, so focus on fabric weight, features, and price instead of brand. Here are two examples of simple, functional, lightweight, and inexpensive tops made of 100-weight fleece:
If you wish to spend more, you can join the mass love affair with the Patagonia R1 Pullover or the Patagonia R1 Pullover Hoodie.
If you need more warmth, consider 200-weight The North Face Texture Cap Rock Fleece Pullover, which meets the key specs at a good price. A full-zip equivalent is the Marmot Warmlite Fleece Jacket.
Columbia Sportswear is also a great brand for inexpensive fleece.
I have a few fleece pieces by them but they don’t always list whether it’s 100, 200, or 300 gram weight. How can you tell what weight a fleece is when it is not listed?
Agreed, re Columbia. No need to overpay for commodity fleece.
Without fabric swatches or product specs, or without personal familiarity with the fabric weights, I’m not sure there is a reliable test of the fabric weight.
In general, 300-weight feels jacket-worthy, and 100-weight has the thickness of an expedition-weight base layer but doesn’t weight has much (more porous). 200-weight in in between.
A really good inexpensive option for this article of clothing is the Champion C9 brand sold at Target. They have a micro-fleece pullover that is very similar specs to the Marmot and TNF recommendations you post. Lightweight fleece, no pockets, elastic hem or other bells and whistles other than a quarter-zip neck, and about 9 ounces. Price runs about $20 and you can frequently find it on sale for even less.
The problem I have with fleece is that it doesn’t work well for me as a standalone layer unless it’s sunny and calm. As soon as a cool breeze picks up it cuts right through, and even if it isn’t that windy you can still feel a chill if the sun drops behind a peak or it’s overcast. At that point it becomes a mid layer under something to block the wind, which is presumably a rain shell of some sort. But if I’m actively hiking at a good pace, that setup can quickly become TOO warm and then the fleece is wet from sweat.
One solution I’ve found that works for me is Arc’Teryx’s Atom LT vest… instead of fleece you get synthetic insulation so it’s warmer for the weight, but it’s not super puffy and the side panels are mesh so it’s still good for active use vs. being a “stop” piece. It also sheds wind much better than a fleece, which combined with the warmer insulation seems to make up for the fact that it doesn’t have arms (I’ve found that a warm core = warm arms, but that may not hold true for everybody). I’ve never gotten it completely soaked so I don’t know how it stacks up thermally against fleece (fleece probably wins here), but I have noticed that it doesn’t absorb moisture very easily either so it never really gets wet from sweat, even after wearing a pack for several hours. Cost-wise it’s obviously going to be more than your generic fleeces but it’s still pretty comparable to the R-1.
I like your approach to find a good middle ground for the solution. My idea came about when buying items for cycling and ran into a mesh back zippered vest to wear over my base layer T/shirt. I was really happy not only because it worked, but b/c it was fairly inexpensive. The addition of arm warmer sleeves was another epiphany that worked like a charm for temp regulation.
I loved my trusty old fleece before I needed a new one. Sadly it was discontinued and I’m currently in the market for something new. I’m very frustrated that there are not women’s versions of most of your picks and many other quality tech fleece pullovers as well. If,you get to talk to gear makers at all, please tell them we want technical items too and not just cute colors.
You might look at Melanzana (I hope I spelled that right), they make garments out of Polartec 100wt grid fleece in Colorado and do make women specific garments. I have a Mens Medium Crew that is only 7.8oz.
Lands End has inexpensive 100wt fleece tops for men and women
Patagoinia sells the womens version of the R1 Pullover and hoodie but they are quite pricy at MSRP. (and heavier)
Quick question about spandex content in fleece. How much does it affect drying times?
Reason I ask is that it looks like Patagonia has increased the spandex in their R1. According to their website the newest R1 has a spandex content of 7%, while I’m pretty sure my ancient and much beloved R1 hoody only has a 2% spandex content.
Did Patagonia mess up a classic by adding too much spandex?
A fabric expert could probably give you a better answer, or even Patagonia Customer Service. I’d say, it’ll definitely add weight and slow dry times, but probably not terribly so, and Patagonia clearly made the decision the tradeoff was worth the improved stretch and fit.
One significant difference in fleece is the how dense the fiber is. I have had some fleece material that is very dense/heavy and therefore less breathable, while others that are very open. To me optimal is a fleece with the most air pockets in it. Something that wind blows through very easily is my preference. It provides the most versatility by breathing exceptionally well and only requires a wind shirt over it colder windy conditions. You really notice this with the Patagonia R2 fleece which is much warmer than similar weighted fleeces I have.
I love Fleece pullovers, specially with a hood. My choice Is the Bora Fleece from Páramo replacing my old R1. The bora is 50 grams heavier than the R1, but works like a pump liner helping my with the sweat and the moisture. I’m a Paramoholic!
I have a number of thin fleece running 1/4 zip tops. Is that 100 wt?
It’s probably not true fleece. It’s probably a mid- or heavy-weight polyester knit with a brushed fleece inner. A true fleece will be about the same thickness but it’ll be lighter because it’s more porous, which improves airflow and moisture transmission. All that said, it’ll work similarly so long as the cut is generous enough.
I use my wind shirt (MEC RD) where you use a bug shirt/long sleeved shirt and a either a light merino sweater (a Pierre Cardin that I picked up at a discount store) or a puff depending on conditions. The sweater usually goes under the wind shirt, the puff always goes over.
Other than that I use pretty much the same system as you and it’s worked out well.
Would you consider Polartec Powerstretch a 100 weight fabric?
No, not really. If it’s what you have and don’t want to buy something new, it’ll be fine. But because of all the spandex it is not as warm for its weight and it will absorb and retain more water.
Loving the simplicity with which you lay out your clothing choices as well as suggestions for different climates. I did however notice that this entry isn’t tagged Core 13 like the rest of the series. Keep up the good work!
Hi Andrew, really appreciate the thought and effort you put into the Core 13. Explaining your choices based on your experiences really helps others better understand what will work for them and conditions they expect. Keep up the awesome writing. One quick question regarding your Salomon Dicovery Hoody. It’s possible you have an older version, but the recent and current versions have a very high stretch fiber content (13%). I’m looking for a 300 weight hooded fleece for very humid conditions in place of down – only one I’ve found so far without stretch material is the Norrona Roldal which weighs in at about 21 oz for a men’s in Polartec Thermal Pro. Pretty pricey too. Do you think a hydrophobic down jacket could perform as well in humid conditions? I’m skeptical.
Found this 300 weight Polartec High Loft offering from Melanzana in your backyard: http://bit.ly/1HMV9cZ Is this “hairy” fleece, which I think Patagonia calls R3, going to be as warm as smooth-faced 300 weight fleece, given a shell or windshirt over it?
Down is so much more thermally efficient that even a damp down jacket will still be warmer for its weight than a fleece. Consider that the Sierra Designs Baffled Parka weighs 22 oz, and that damn thing makes you look like the Michelin man. I think synthetic or water-resistant down is your answer, not fleece, for insulation while stopped. Beware that not all water-resistant down is created equal: http://www.idfl.com/media/pdfs/IDFL%20DWR%20Info%20Sept%202014.pdf
If you still want to go with fleece, look for something cheap from a department store. I think anything from an outdoor brand in 300-weight will be too tricked out and jacket-like.
Hi possible to check why is the choice still fleece since there are items like light weight down jacket which is a scaled down version of your usual puffy(down jacket)?
would these products being more compact and thermally efficient make the fleece layer redundant?
For one of the conditions for which I recommend using fleece (as a mid-layer in wet conditions between a hiking shirt and rain jacket), a puffy down or synthetic jacket will not perform as well. When very damp or outright wet, this latter type of garment performs very poorly — it’s like wearing a wet blanket, and the insulation collapses. A wet fleece is not comfortable either, but at least it will perform almost as good as dry if it is wrung out.
The 100 weight fleece prototype you show pictured. That appears to be Power Dry yes? Check the tag on the left love handle.
I think I will try this system out this spring. It does make sense. Any truly biting wind can be cured by the rain shell, and the rain buffer the fleece provides would be much more comfortable.
It is a prototype, and I can’t recall the exact fabric used. It is 4% elastane, 96% polyester.
I think the “core 13” is a pretty good article but I must say I have not used a fleece on the trail in over 13yrs. Even the 100wt fleece is too heavy for minimal warmth and is very much a one-trick-pony. I have a Marmot DriClime windshirt I have used in all four seasons for over ten years – eventually replaced last year with the exact same top because the zip was starting to fail at the bottom. It is a combination of wind shirt loosely attached to the lightest weight pile fleece you can imagine (in fact the fleece would not be durable as a single layer by itself). The pile fleece completely covers all parts of the nylon so it can be worn as a base layer with wind protection or to sleep in under a draughty quilt. It is also surprisingly warm underneath a genuine waterproof jacket as a mid layer. As an outer layer it is highly wind resistant and far more breathable than a membrane waterproof. It is very water resistant, but if the shower becomes heavier it operates like a wetsuit so the water that does reach your skin is still warm. On day hikes in the summer without a dedicated waterproof jacket I have been caught out by sudden heavy downpours; the solution is to remove the base layer to a dry bag and wear just the driclime until after the rains, then swap back into the dry base layer). Two weeks ago (March) I UL backpacked 160km in Sweden and yet again the DriClime wind shirt was the core of my clothing system; at various times during those 5 days it was worn as base, middle, and outer layer – I welcome the crossover in functionality with base TShirt and waterproof jacket because there are so many circumstance in which the insulated wind shirt out-performs either of these. And as a mid-layer it is both lighter and warmer than a 100wt fleece.
Looking forward to trying this system. I’ve wondered in some conditions, “why carry this windbreaker when I have a hardshell?”
Pretty sure I’m going to get the Canadian MEC Polartec Power Dry T3 Zip. It is 7-ish ounces, cheap, microbial treated.
I typically use my fleece before my shell for windy or crisp conditions. If you’re going to skip the fleece, make sure to get a shell that offers good range of motion and good ventilation, or else you will be limited in for how long you can wear it before becoming uncomfortable.
I really like my MEC T3 hoodie. A stretchy gridded powerdry fleece, with hood and thumbholes. 8% spandex. Pretty cheap. Not tricked out with pockets. Just a deep 3/4 zip. With a merino T, a long sleeve nylon shirt, and an old Marmot Precip hardshell, I can mix and match over a very broad range of conditions.
I am also going to try out the Atom LT in place of a fleece. The Atom LT has vented side panels, so should be good for active use while hiking. Water and wind resistant, and decent warmth while being breathable. The women’s Atom LT is 9.9 oz with no hood, where as the women’s R1 pullover is 8.1 oz, so they are in the same ballpark, weight-wise. (I opted for the hoody version tho, since it will double as my insulation layer.)
I think this can be both my #7 (fleece layer) and #8 (insulation layer, esp w the hood) for a mostly warm, summer mountain thru-hike. The addition of the Houdini can solve the problem of wind coming thru the side panels, especially when stopped. Plus the Houdini is so useful on it’s own, I wouldn’t want to leave it at home.
If I think I might need even more warmth than that (as some nights will get to freezing) I am considering throwing in my 4.25 oz Ghost Whisperer vest, but I am guessing that is overkill. Most likely no puffy needed.
If conditions warrant Items 7 and 8, you cannot take one item that can be used for both. Here’s why: If it is cold and rainy enough that you need a mid-layer while hiking, how will you continue to stay warm when you stop and are no longer producing as much body heat if you do not have a dedicated insulated layer?
For a warm-weather hike, e.g. a section-hike of the AT in July or August, you can leave Item 7 at home and only take Item 8, and it need not be much — a high-loft vest or non-hooded jacket, or a fleece if the superior thermal efficiency of a puffy is not worth the additional cost to you. I offered location-specific systems of backpacking clothing in the last post of the series — check it out if you have not already.
The Atom jackets are pretty warm despite the side panels, so for active use in anything but really cold weather, I would reverse your choices and go with the Atom vest for hiking and the Ghost Whisperer jacket (not vest) as a stop piece. Also, you probably don’t need both the Atom vest and the Patagonia Houdini; I would go with one or the other if you’re looking for additional warmth while hiking on cooler days.
I always use an Atom vest (cooler weather) or a Montbell wind shirt (mild temps) in place of a fleece for my #7, but I definitely agree with what Andrew’s saying about not combining #7 and #8. I want my #8 to be dry at all times, whether it be from sweat or rain.
Hey Andrew, another great option similar to the Patagonia R1 is from Melanzana a small company in Leadville, CO. Their hoodie is about half the price of the R1.
Hi Andrew. Love the site and can’t wait for the next SD Live session if you’re still doing them. I recently bought an Eddie Bauer 1/4 Zip Cloud Layer Men’s (polartec classic micro velour fleece) and for some reason after short 2 hour walks on the weekends the fleece stinks after drying. Is this something that’s normal for fleece or should I return it? Me and my baselayer shirt don’t smell bad after the walk so this is unusual for me! Thanks.
Fleece is polyester, which is notorious for being a festering ground for smelly bacteria. However, I would not normally describe my fleece layers as “stinking” — my polyester shirts, absolutely, but not normally my fleece. If it’s not something that you think you’ll be able to tolerate, I would bring it back.
Another great option, similar to the TNF TKA 100 1/4 zip, is the Helly Hansen Daybreaker 1/2 zip pullover. It’s made out of Polartec 100g classic fleece, sports a long half-zip for great ventilation, and can usually be found on sale for around $35.
Just for fun tonight I rigged up a little device that can measure the thickness of fleece. I weighed a bunch of my fleece and wool sweaters, compared the results to the thickness and was really surprised at the results.
In order of thickness: my Polartec PowerStretch (13oz) and R1 pullover (12.6oz) were equally thin. Next came a cashmere sweater from ebay (9.6oz) tied with my possum down sweater from Backpackinglight (11oz). A lambswool sweater from Ireland was about the same weight as possum wool (10.7oz)but was much loftier. The lightest (8.6oz) and thickest by far was a wool/nylon blend by Exofficio in a fabric called boucle (discontinued of course).
I would have never guessed.
I think you’re assuming that thickness = warmth. That may not be the case. For example, the thicker fleece may have higher air perm, so it would be less warm in a breeze. Also, some fabrics may be warmer when wet. (Notice that I’m not saying “warm when wet.)
I have a Patagonia Capilene 1/4 zip top, texture like fleece, non grid, weighs 9 ozs in a small. I soaked it in a bowl of water and wrung it out, and it then weighed 25 ozs. I then put it on without a base layer and It felt warm immediately against the skin which surprised me. I then went hiking up the 1500 ft hill behind my house in wet mist and drizzle at 5C, 42F. I also wore a Packa jacket, which is sil nylon so totally non breathable. When I got back 2.5 hours later it weighed only 14 ozs, so that is the heaviest it would ever get providing my jacket did not leak, and probably less than that if it had been dry to start with. It was draining water the whole time out of the bottom, and a quick squeeze of the wrists and waist would get loads of water out, and the rest of it stayed warm. It would have dried out on me had I kept it on.
Hi Andrew, thanks for all that you give to the hiking community. I own a Patagonia Cap 4 quarter zip grid stop fleece hoodie and a Patagonia R1 quarter zip. I am hiking the JMT this summer in late July and early august and want to carry a light pack. Do you think the Cap 4 hoodie will be warm enough as my layer to keep me warm while hiking in the rain under a rain jacket? I will be using a Cap 1 long sleeve as my base layer. Thanks.
At that time of year, and assumimg you put out average body warmth, probably. I would try out this layering system before I went though — the Cap 4 is designed as a base layer and the fit may be too tight, whereas the R1 should be looser.
What are your thoughts on the Marmot Driclime windshirt? I have used it for backpacking trips during every season, including winter.
I find the Driclime wind shirt works well as a second layer and is super warm when paired with my rain shell and/or a light weight base layer.
Do you think I’m better off with a traditional fleece? Thanks.
I have no personal experience with it and had to look it up. For other unfamiliar readers, here’s a product description. Essentially, it’s a full-zip windshirt with a fleecy liner that weighs 8.8 oz for size large.
Personally, I opt for a more breathable layer — full fleece with no wind-resistant panels that limit air flow. This allows me to hike hard without overheating. But YMMV, and if you are using it effectively now as a second layer and as a mid-layer between your shell and hiking shirt, I would encourage you to continue using this product.
Hi, Mr. Skurka,
Looking to buy a new fleece after getting one that is too roomy a cut. Are branded fleece materials, e.g. Polartec, warmer for their weight than non-branded fleece, e.g. REI quarter-zip fleece pullover? I noticed you say that moisture management may be better, but are there any other benefits to “higher-grade fleece”, mainly warmth? Thanks.
No universal difference in warmth per weight. The biggest driver will be fabric weight, eg 100, 200.
If you have two fabrics of similar weight, the higher-lofting one will be warmer. However, it may also be more vulnerable to compression because it is less structurally enforced. So overall I think it is pretty negligible.
The REI Co-op fleece is en excellent 100 weight option. No frills, very light and stands up well to moisture.
I recently got soaked in my Capilene Thermal hoody and the 8% spandex caused it to retain a ton of water compared to my classic 100 weight. Nothing like first hand experience to understand the difference.
When I started trying to lighten up my gear I happened upon a Starter fleece 1/4 zip with one chest pocket that I already had in my closet. 11 oz and I got it for $10 at Walmart. I think with a fleece, just take a scale to local store and you may find something perfect for really cheap.
Any experience with Haglofs’ Power Dry Hoody? It is about half the weight of a 100-weight fleece.
No experience with it. Once you’ve removed all the features from a fleece (e.g. chest zip instead of full-zip, no waist cinch toggle, etc.) the only way to make a fleece lighter is by using lighter fleece. But that is somewhat counterproductive, because a lightweight fleece will not be as warm, especially in a wind.
Hi Andrew, thoughts about the Smartwool Kiva Ridge Henley hoody? It’s 60% Merino Wool, 20% Nylon, 20% Acrylic. I like the hood and 3/4th button down for venting, and I love wool shirts but I’m not sure if that works for the fleece layer. Thanks!
I don’t know the weight, but performance-wise it will function well as a mid-layer. It’s fleecy, and the nylon and acrylic will result in less water being absorbed than a pure merino version.
Grid fleece is probably my favorite layer due to breathability, versatility and relative warmth.
It’s gets a lot of use here in relatively dry Colorado as an outer layer or mid layer when really cold, really wet, and/or windy.
I like the Polartec, military surplus version (ECWCS or PCU lvl 2). Just a simple pullover with a high collar and 1/4 zip. Same Polartec Grid fleece as the R1 but U.S. made, comes in long sizes and can be had lightly used for $20 up to around $50 new (via ebay). Also comes in pants.
PCU version is slightly better constructed but both perform equally well.
If you are in the UK, Mountain Warehouse does a basic 100 weight fleece 1/2 zip top for £30, but it is often on sale and can be got for £10. Decathlon do a similar one too.
Have you found any simple 100wt fleece tops that include an antiodor treatment?
The buff I made from power grid with the anti microbial really does resist stink much better – unfortunately it seems companies are only making either simple cheap 100wt or microfleece tops with no antiodor or high Spandex microfancygrid stuff with it. Closest I’ve found is the Kuiu Peloton, but that’s a bit lighter than I’d like and costs and arm and a leg. Basically would want something like TNF TKA glacier you recommend or the Pata micro D just also with polygiene or x-static or whatever. Remarkably hard to find. I don’t care about branding.
Andrew, do you consider polar tech alpha direct as fleece? If so would you use it as item 7? I’m not sure on the timelines alpha direct may not have been available at the time of publishing this.
Alpha was not in broad use when I wrote this series, and it’s really not in broad use now either.
From what I know of it, and I have not worn it firsthand so this is purely speculative, it seems like alpha favors breathability and insulation at the expense of resistance. So probably does just as well, maybe even better, when used in column conditions or when worn between a hiking shirt and a range jacket, but I think on a windy ridge top or peak it could be quite chilling.
The Helly Hansen Daybreaker line are excellent polartec 100 pieces. I wear their anorak a lot. But for a hoodie, I picked the polartec 100 Mountain Equipment Micro Zip @ 11.5 ounces (large) instead of the Daybreaker @ 10.5 ounces (large), because the elastic hood fits snugly around my face. I learned that lesson with the Mountain Hardwear Kor Nimbus synthetic insulated jacket (11.7 oz. in Large). When it arrived, I put it on I walked around the block w/ 38 degrees F & strong wind. It was warm enough, but the loose hood was a parachute of constantly replenished cold air, which just won’t do. So, for me, most hoods without adjustments or tight elastic doesn’t work. Even a simple volume adjustment like the Atom LT, or Montbell Thermawrap Pro is much better than nothing. I returned the Kor Nimbus, and hope to get a jacket from Enlightened Equipment. Both of those have sheets of insulation, instead of baffles, or sewn through pockets, which seems warmer to me, but I don’t think garments like that should be compressed in a sack if you can help it.
Have you tried the Rab filament hoodie? It has been a game changer for me. Maybe slightly less warm than the Patagonia fleece, more breathable though and great fit. I hike warm—running shorts, a long sleeve, and the Rab down to 30-35 degrees (when there’s a lot of elevation), so I prefer something more breathable. And for bugs, the long sleeve plus the Rab serves as plenty of bug protection. If you haven’t tried it, I highly recommend the Rab as a highly technical fleece. Love your work!
I have not. That’s quite the endorsement though!
I really appreciate the practical information that you provide. Have the newer active insulation options, such as the Patagonia Nano Air stuff, changed your views at all on fleece as a second/mid-layer?