Reconsidering the humble fleece jacket for outdoor use.
Over the years, my hiking style and choice of gear has evolved. I went from bulky and heavier clothing and gear to lighter and more compact choices for what I choose to use and carry.
Heavy leather boots became trail runners.
An MSR Whisperlite was replaced by a home made alcohol stove for three season solo use.
And I stopped wearing a fleece jacket and used a lined wind shirt or a “mini-puffy”.
But just as my gear choices has changed, so has my view of gear itself.
Like many people who go from heavier to lighter gear, I fell into the trap of thinking “light is always right“.
Then I became a bit more intelligent about my gear and realized it is about taking the right gear for my desired goals, comfort levels and the type of trip I am taking.
And that brings us to the humble fleece.
A stalwart of outdoor use for about 30 years now, it has been out of favor for many so-called “hard core’ (????) outdoors people. A soft shell has more versatility for people out backcountry skiing or climbing. Down or synthetic mini-puffies are a lighter and more compact insulation. And hard shells have become lighter and compact enough where outdoor enthusiasts wear them 100% of the time during cold , snowy or rainy conditions.
The humble fleece has been relegated to around town or as beater camping gear.
And worn by strikingly handsome REI models!
But the more I look at the choices for outdoor use, seems a basic fleece jacket makes more sense for certain situations than the above clothing choices.
Yes, a fleece jacket is comparatively heavier and bulkier than the previously mentioned choices, but consider the advantages the fleece has for certain situations:
- A soft shell, if it is an insulation layer too, does not breathe well. When it does get wet, it tends to stay wet. Fleece dries quicker.
- Down or synthetic insulation is wonderful. However it is prone to be wetted out by a person’s own perspiration. Ditto for the ‘when getting wet, it tends to stay wet’ issue
- Hard shells? No matter how open the pit zips are for ventilation, I find that for highly aerobic activity (such as Nordic backcountry skiing) that the moisture build up from my own body leads to frost inside the jacket itself. Brrr! 🙂
After struggling to find a good core insulation layer for backcountry skiing, I finally tried out my beater fleece jacket I’ve used for car camping. Much like the wool pants I also use
, the full-zip fleece jacket breathed remarkably well.
No moisture build-up from own sweat. My base layers stay dry. The moisture passes through quite nicely and sublimates into frost on the outside of my fleece. And any of the wonderful light and fluffy Colorado snow that falls is brushed quite easily off the jacket. For windy conditions or continuous downhills, I’ll throw on an unlined windbreaker
over my fleece with excellent results.
Another good use for a fleece jacket is for cold and rainy conditions such as encountered during shoulder seasons
in the Appalachians, the Pacific Northwest or similar areas. Couple the fleece with a light shell, and a fleece jacket is an excellent choice over more popular and modern choices. The fleece fibers do not collapse like down or even synthetic puffies either. In other words, fleece works better in wet conditions.
Basically, a fleece jacket has become my clothing piece of choice in conditions that warrant constantly keeping on my core insulation layer.
So which fleece to get?
I’d suggest a full-zip jacket as opposed to a pull-over if possible. The full zip allows more ventilation and versatility. I’d also avoid getting wind block fleece. The wind block properties limit the breathability of the clothing which negates the main advantage of the fleece.
As far as quality, you can pick up a thrift store fleece almost anywhere if you just want to try out a fleece without investing a lot of money. In general, a higher end fleece tends to breathe better than a really cheap fleece. But, don’t go too crazy. 🙂 My beater fleece seems to work well enough vs a $100 fleece. As a bonus, many companies give away fleece jackets as promotional items. These Corporate Synergy Company Kool-Aid fleece jackets are usually of very decent to good quality and can often be found in the thrifter. For $5 or so, not a bad price if you don’t mind wearing a company logo. 🙂
Is a fleece jacket my choice for all conditions? Nope. It is heavier and bulkier than other choices. Anytime I keep my core insulation layer mainly stashed in my pack is when I will pack something different. Essentially, I use fleece for car camping, winter use and for shoulder seasons in cold and rainy areas.
For these conditions, it works wonderfully.
A simple fleece jacket should be looked at again for any active outdoor person’s choice of clothing.
I have been traveling my thrift store circut this past year on quest for backpacking equipment since I have decided to take up backpacking after a 24 year marriage fell apart. I now have an excellent selection of fleece jackets and hoodys from users who were convinced they needed to buy “new and improved” technology, gear, and attire. I now have everything except for a long hammock system. Thank you for confirming my belief that all “new” stuff is the best stuff.
Time to dig out the original Patagonia rust colored fleece. Fresh perspective on an old warrior.
Agreed. I too stopped carrying a fleece while blindly following the path to UL. Then i starated to take my locale and prevalent weather into consideration and since then I’ve been packing a Polartec fleece vest on many trips here on the wet and cold west coast of Norway. Also acts as a great ‘buffer’ between my damp base layer and my puffy. My 200g insurance policy also makes for a very comfortable pillow 🙂
A fleece vest is something I would consider carrying if I was in an area such as Norway or in Appalachians esp in the fall. Not much weight penalty for some versatility and keeping the core warm w/o overheating. Good idea.
Some of the best fleece is made here in Colorado – Melanzana in Leadville.
Fleece is better for sleeping because it is less compressable. The weakness become a strength at night.
My favorite piece this winter has been a Melanzana hoody. No zip but breathes well, handy kangaroo pouch and the hood is truly great (and works well under a helmet). I’ve used it for downihll skiing, snowshoeing, and winter camping. And much to the chagrin of my wife, since its so comfy I wear it about 3-4 days a week in civilian life. Long live fleece!
Mrs Mags says something similar about a wool-acrylic blend sweater I love to wear all the time. 🙂
I am pleasantly surprised at the amount of people enjoying the article. Seems I am not the only person who is taking a look at fleece again. 🙂
Yup, you are right. I like R2 fleece jackets from Patagonia, but there’s not really a lot of additional benefit for the huge difference in cost. LLBean is high quality and has many colors, styles, sizes. The trick is to have an unlined windshell, super thin, to pair it with. Daytime I wear the thin shell over the fleece – the obvious way – nighttime under a quilt or in a bag, I wear it UNDER the fleece – as a vapor barrier of sorts.
I live in my berghause polartec full zip fleece when camping or climbing in Scotland. Really can’t see how you can improve on this?