The versatility, durability, breathability, price, and functionality of this humble piece of clothing make it a crucial part of my kit. For $25 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.
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.
Increasingly popular are the “Alpha fleece hoodies” which, in simple terms, take the insulation from garments similar to the above and weave a fleece-like product out of the material. Very light, breathable, and on the fragile side without a windshirt, however, which cuts down considerably on the breathability factor. Great for on-trail pursuits or tundra, perhaps not for off-trail or more technical pursuits, however.
So, I advocate the basic fleece pullover as a standard part of my kit.
Now that I’ve praised the fleece pullover, the astute reader may notice two different types of fleece. These two types of? Solid (standard) fleece and Grid fleece.
Revised for 2022
What are the differences between solid and grid fleece?
The solid (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 an earlier time – A grid pattern with elastane stitching (spandex) gets woven into the fabric. The breathability is better than the standard or solid fleece, which is the main selling point. A grid fleece is also less bulky vs. a standard fleece, too. 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.
The grid fleece price is comparable to standard fleece at this point. Discount stores sell grid fleece for a reasonable price. And ECWCS pullovers or similar for the military get sold at a competitive price.
Since I started biking regularly around town in the colder (below 20F) mornings, the grid fleece and windbreaker combo worked very well. A solid fleece allows too much wind while biking at a brisk clip but gets too hot under my wind shell. However, a grid fleece with a windbreaker works very well for my needs and strikes a balance.
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 fleece baggier.
The military grid fleece has a substantial zipper, and that also helps quite a bit with breathability, in my opinion.
On the other hand, Joan runs colder than me, 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 provides enough versatility for breathability vs. warmth, and the kangaroo pocket lets her easily access her warm clothing.
Overall, I think many people conflate “grid fleece = hoodie” and “solid fleece = quarter zip” in the outdoor world, and that’s not always the case.
So which layer to wear?
I think a solid or standard fleece is a more versatile layer overall. It can be worn as a light jacket by itself 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.
However, if you tend to wear fleece as a base layer under a shell, the grid fleece will work better for your needs due to its breathability.
As 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.
Wear grid fleece if breathability is the focus; standard or solid fleece if you want a more well-rounded layer.
Or, to put it another way, grid fleece makes a better base layer or under a wind shirt. Traditional fleece makes a better insulation layer/light jacket.
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. It’s just polyester insulation overall!