On three-season backpacking trips in the Mountain West, and on cooler trips elsewhere, I consider a fleece top like the REI Co-op Quarter-Zip Fleece Pullover ($45, 8 oz) to be an essential item. It serves two functions:
- As a second layer in brisk conditions (e.g. chilly mornings, windy ridges and peaks), when my hiking shirt isn’t sufficiently warm on its own; and,
- As a mid-layer in cool-and-wet or cold-and-wet conditions, worn between my hiking shirt and rain shell, to insulate me and to buffer any precipitation or perspiration that seeps through or is trapped by my rain gear.
A fleece is complementary to, not a replacement for, a high-loft jacket with down or synthetic insulation, such as the Patagonia Ultralight Down Hoody. That piece is useful for trapping body heat during inactivity, like during a rest stop or in camp.
For backpacking, the most desirable fleece is also perhaps the simplest. It should be made of 100- or 200-weight polar fleece (or similar), have a chest zip, and be sized to fit over a hiking shirt. That’s it. No full-length zips, pockets, water- or abrasion-resistant panels, wind-resistant membranes, or other extraneous features.
Update: The REI Quarter-Zip Fleece has been discontinued. A reliable substitute is the Patagonia Micro D Fleece Pullover, which has nearly the same materials and features, and a reasonable price tag for the source.
Review: REI Co-op Quarter-Zip Fleece Pullover
This $45 top — which is on sale now for just $22 — may be the benchmark for backpacking fleeces. It’s an exact match to my earlier description: 160-ish weight polar fleece, quarter-zip, and feature-less. My size Medium weighs 7.1 oz.
I purchased the Pullover for a yo-yo of the Pfiffner Traverse, a high route through Colorado’s Front Range that hovers between 10,000 and 12,000 feet in elevation, and used it daily. It was lovely for the mornings — when I would start hiking at 6 AM, temperatures had not warmed up yet, and the sun was often blocked by high ridges. It was also useful during a few afternoon thunderstorms, during which temperatures seemed to plummet.
Quite simply, there’s nothing more I want in a fleece top for backpacking. If I was willing to spend two- or three-times more, I could find a more high-performance fleece (e.g. hooded, more breathable fabric, or thumb loops), but it would not be two- or three-times better, or more applicable for 3-season conditions.
My only reservation in a full-throated endorsement of the REI Pullover is that I’m uncertain of its durability. After 1.5 weeks of hard use, it’s as good as new. But what about after 1.5 years? REI used a run-of-the-mill polar fleece fabric, which based on previous experience will result in reasonable durability. With extensive use the fabric will start to pill and thin, and eventually need replacement.
Own the REI Quarter-Zip Fleece Pullover? What’s been your experience with it?
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