Solid (Classic) Fleece vs Grid Fleece vs. Alpha fleece

For years, a 100 wt fleece has been my go-to layer in all four seasons.

The versatility, durability, breathability,  price, and functionality of this humble piece of clothing make it a crucial part of my kit. For $20 or less, and often found at the thrift store, I have a light and trail-proven product that I can’t fathom being outdoors without.

On the way to the 10th Mtn Division Hut. December 2017. PCO Anton S.

Other products gaining traction seem to perform better than the basic fleece pullover in some ways, at least in lab settings. But at a much higher cost.

And I question the long-term durability versus the humble fleece pullover I’ve bushwhacked, ski toured, scrambled, and did rough camping over many seasons, miles, and nights in the backcountry. Oils, sweat, and salt are also harder to remove from these newer garments. In addition to compromising breathability and loft effectiveness, these factors also affect the product’s long-term durability for real-world world backcountry and overnight use, where frequent washing is not an option.

In Dominguez Canyon one October. PCO Joan.

Now that I’ve praised the fleece pullover, the astute reader may notice different types of fleece that are popular with backpackers. The types are solid (standard) fleece, Grid fleece, and Alpha fleece.

Revised March 2024

What are the differences between solid, grid, and Alpha fleeces?


The solid (classic or standard) fleece gets carried in almost every discount, thrift, and outdoor store. You know the type: fuzzy, fluffy,  and comfy—the modern equivalent of everyone’s favorite sweater.

A solid fleece breathes reasonably well, is moderately wind-resistant, dries quickly, is durable, and is warm for its weight compared to a traditional sweater or sweatshirt. I wear my fleece pullover on the larger side, so it ventilates well.

A grid fleece is somewhat newer than the standard fleece in widespread use but is reminiscent of the old “waffle weave” long johns of earlier –  A grid pattern with elastane stitching (spandex) gets woven into the fabric. The breathability is better than that of the standard or solid fleece, which is the main selling point. A grid fleece is also less bulky vs. a standard fleece.   The grid fleece does not dry as well as the solid fleece due to the elastane stitching, does not block the wind, and is not quite as warm for its weight.

The grid fleece, however, is a superior layer when worn under a shell due to its breathability versus standard fleece.

As with any base-type layer, grid fleece works better when the layer is more form-fitting.

Joan is wearing her Squak Mountain Co. (Utah) hoodie. It has a more athletic cut than the Melly style, is more breathable, is readily available, and costs $60.

At this point, the grid fleece price is comparable to standard fleece. ECWCS pullovers or similar military items are sold at a competitive price.

USMC issued “Frog fleece” with a kangaroo pocket. As a side note, the genuine military issue gets made with Polartec Power Dry fleece.

You can buy higher-end ones like the popular Melazana fleece or more technical pieces like the Patagonia R1. Joan and I like our Squak fleece for active use during colder months.

A rare selfie to give perspective to the climb out of a canyon on December 31st.

The grid fleece and windbreaker combo works well since I started biking regularly around town in colder (below 20F) mornings. A solid fleece allows too much wind while biking at a brisk clip but gets too hot under my windshell. However, a grid fleece with a windbreaker suits my needs and strikes a balance.

A sub-type of grid fleece is the “micro hoodies.” Best for quick breaks or light insulation when moving during colder weather, they’re somewhere between a baselayer and mid-layer in terms of effectiveness. They’re excellent for three-season use when on the go and roughly half the weight of a “full” grid fleece.

I received a Montane Allez Hoodie as a thank-you gift from my good friend Cam Honan (aka Swami of The Hiking Life) for some webwork I did.

This sub-7oz layer (Men’s UK large, roughly a Men’s US Medium) Polartec grid fleece became a favorite piece for active three-season hiking and an adjunct for cold weather use. It’s a bit like the famous Patagonia R1 hoodie but lighter, more versatile, and more backcountry-oriented, in my opinion.

The Allez is highly breathable, surprisingly warm for its weight, and more durable than the popular alpha fleeces. Alas, it is no longer made, but the similar Kuiu Peloton 97 pullover fits a niche that the Montane used to fill. Other companies also make them.

It’s a piece I initially expressed skepticism over its use but quickly became a favorite for three-season use.

Alpha Fleece

However, a newer fleece-like fabric has become increasingly popular since its introduction in 2017 – Polartec Alpha Direct.

A successor to a similar design in 2012 for the US military, it’s a highly breathable, quick-drying, very low-bulk, and fast-wicking garment with an outstanding warmth-to-weight ratio. It is NOT wind resistant but works exceptionally well under a shell be it a windshirt or a rain jacket.

Squak Mountain Alpha UL Fleece next to their grid fleece hoodie.

The major downside of the fleece is its weave, which makes it prone to potential snagging and shedding material and would not work as a standalone garment in brushy or technical conditions. Alpha Direct has found a niche for on-trail and wide-open areas like alpine terrain.
Alpha Direct fleeces come in four general “flavors” with various degrees of breathability, warmth, and durability rated in grams per square meter of fabric (GSM).
This chart, initially available on Garage Gear in a different form, sums up the options well (notes and equivalent  use are mine, however)-
Alpha Direct Types
GSM Type Weight for a medium, approx. Rough Traditional Fleece Equivalent Use Notes
190gsm 9.5 oz / 270g 300 wt Heaviest and most durable, less breathable
120gsm 8 oz / 227g 200 wt Comparable in weight to a grid fleece but warmer and more breathable
90gsm 5 oz / 156g 100 wt Not quite as warm as above, more breathable, somewhat less durable
60gsm 4 oz / 113g Heavy thermal top The lightest but also the least warm and wind resistant. Least durable.
What does all this mean?
From a backpacker’s perspective, The 120gsm makes an all-purpose layer with a weight and warmth combo that works well for different uses and could pass easily for more casual wear.
If breathability and weight are more of a concern, the 90gsm type works well without sacrificing as much durability and warmth as the 60gsm for not much weight penalty. The look is more technical but not as “Muppet-looking” as the 60gsm and makes acceptable post-trip clothing in an outdoor town.
Many people will pair the Alpha fleece with a wind shell for versatility and light bushwhacking, but you add more weight and reduce the breathability.
I believe Alpha fleece works best as a layer not used for active hiking but for breaks, in camp, or at night while sleeping. In other words, it does not work as well for active use unless it is colder and the conditions aren’t brushy.
You can pair it with a windshirt for more abrasion and wind resistance, but add weight and mitigate the breathability aspects.
Joan quite likes her Lightheart Gear (LHG) Alpha Fleece hoodie for our trips to the mountains in late spring through early fall. LHG tends to make clothing that fits women better than most companies and has many different size options.
A word about mechanical ventilation 


Though grid fleece does breathe better than solid fleece, you can make a solid fleece breathe about the same with a deep zipper and oversized like a classic anorak. For ski tours, I particularly like my classic fleece baggier.

Skiing in the La Sals. PCO Joan.

The military grid fleece has a substantial zipper, and that also helps quite a bit with breathability, in my opinion (if still running on the warm side, overall)

On the other hand, Joan runs colder than me, wears her fleece often during the day,  suffers from Reynauds, and desires a more breathable garment than a solid fleece. The classic Melly-style hoodie has been a staple of hers since 2011.

The hood and drawstring closure to adjust ventilation provide enough versatility for breathability vs. warmth, and the kangaroo pocket lets her easily access her warm clothing.

Overall, many people conflate “grid fleece = hoodie” with “solid fleece = quarter zip” in the outdoor world, and that’s not always the case.

Joan with her homemade 100wt fleece “Melly style” hoodie.

So, which layer to wear?


A solid or standard fleece is still the most versatile layer overall.

The classic 100-wt fleece pullover has the best combination of weight, price, durability, and versatility. A $10 thrift store fleece will last for many years of hard use before it gets retired, and I have one stashed in my daypack at all times.

It can be worn as a light jacket very easily. And the standard or solid fleece seems to do better in the wind and drizzly conditions. Size the fleece up a bit for maximum ventilation, and the versatility is enhanced. If you are like me, the moderate wind-blocking properties work well if you get too hot under a shell in all but the coldest or windiest conditions.

We are gathering water in the morning near our camp. PCO Joan.

However, if you wear fleece as a base layer under a shell, the grid fleece will work better for your needs due to its breathability.

Another point: Joan loves her grid fleece hoodie. She tends to wear her layer constantly in the cold, dry conditions of the Colorado Plateau and likes the inherent ventilation properties of grid fleece. It’s been her mainstay piece of clothing for over a decade now.

However, the Alpha fleece is the reigning champ in prime three-season conditions for many, especially if not worn while hiking.
Many thru-hikers, in particular, will pair it with a windshirt for more versatility if with a weight penalty. If you want a warm garment that’s light and an adjunct to your light puffy and do not see the need to wear it in rough conditions, the Alpha fleece works well.
As mentioned, it became a favorite piece for Joan when we went to the alpine terrain, where there was little bushwhacking or even on trails at certain times of the year.


Joan in the Weminiche Wilderness of Colorado.

If you hike more than camp and need lighter insulation or to stay warm, microfleece grid hoodies make an excellent piece of kit. They’re highly breathable, half the weight of the “full” grid fleece garments, and even less bulky.
It’s NOT a piece for hanging around camp, nor is it meant as such. It’s an adjunct for a light puffy and for the quilt at night. It replaced a solid fleece as my main piece for three-season backpacking overall.

Paired with another mainstay for my three-season use – The Monbell Superior Down.  Photo via Joan.

In Summary
    • The standard or classic fleece is the most versatile layer overall and the champion of the price-to-performance ratio. It is moderately wind resistant, reasonably breathable, dries quickly, inexpensive, and durable. It will always have a place in my kit.
  •  .
    • A grid fleece is better if you want more breathability than a standard fleece while maintaining a reasonably warm and durable garment. I like it for active use during cold weather, when I wear it all day without removing it.
  •  .
    • Alpha fleece if you are not wearing the garment all day and it lives mainly in your back. The low weight and bulk make an attractive garment for many with a price, durability, and versatility penalty. Joan finds her Alpha fleece a practical garment during our summer alpine use. You can pair it with a shell for more versatility, but a weight and breathability penalty. And more wear equals more tear compared to other fleeces.
    • Finally, a micro-grid fleece is a niche garment but one that works well for backpackers who use it. Its low weight and bulk, breathability, and reasonable durability make it a useful tool in the kit for the hiker who runs warm or hikes all day and makes getting into their quilt the main way they spend time at camp.

In the end, it does not matter all that much, however.

Wear what is most comfortable for you, your needs, what is available, and your aesthetic preference. Overall, it’s just polyester insulation!


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6 years ago

I shudder to think what would happen if I were to wear both.

The grid fleece has been very comfortable during our recent arctic weather.

6 years ago

I love my “waffle” tops and bottoms. I generally use them for sleeping wear on the occasional Texas winter night when it gets below freezing.


[…] many years, people had a choice of two types of fleece – Your classic solid fleece and the somewhat newer grid fleece. . There are many nuances; the overall synopsis is that Wear grid fleece if breathability is the […]

1 month ago

Is Joan wearing some Showa mittens in that one photo? I’m only familiar with their gloves.