When it comes to hiking jackets, especially mid layers, one fabric rules supreme: fleece. First developed in the late 1970s, this synthetic fabric was lighter and softer than wool. It was also much cheaper than down.
Fleece jackets have proven to be a big hit. Almost every outdoor apparel brand makes fleece jackets. Today, they come in multiple variations, from lightweight, breathable gridded microfleece tops to uber-cosy, high-loft fleece hoodies. Fleeces range from technical outerwear to an everyday wardrobe staple.
Mountain Equipment Shroud Hooded - Best in Test
Craghoppers CO2 Renu Half Zip Fleece - Best Value
Artilect Halfmoon Bio Fleece - Best sustainable fleece
For outright warmth for weight, ducks and geese down are the undisputed insulation champs. That’s why down is used for the warmest and best insulated winter jackets. But fleece is versatile. It's quicker drying than a heavy woolly pully or a down jacket. Most aren't particularly windproof but on the flip side, they can be very breathable.
The best fleece jackets in detail
This technical, high-performing fleece is good at everything. It’s tough and warm enough to be
- Zoned construction
- Great performance
- Too similar to a softshell
- Quite long in the arms
Craghoppers is a staple outdoor brand for many, but you wouldn’t necessarily consider it to be at
- Sustainable innovation
- Full zip option available
- Not a 'technical' fleece for more arduous adventures
The Halfmoon Bio Fleece is made from post-consumer recycled plastic bottles, which are transformed
- Recycled, biodegradable fleece
- Innovative fabric
- All-day comfort
- Good value
- Some might prefer a more 'technical' fleece
The Thrudark Centurion, which has won a Polartec Apex Award for its clever combined use of
- Comfortable thumb loops
- PFC-free DWR
- No women's version
Somewhat contrary to The North Face's ubiquitous nature as an outdoor brand, this fleece is quite
- Amazing breathability
- Superb comfort
- No wind protection
- Very thin
his fleece jacket has a very technical design, with its body mapped construction. For improved
- Zoned construction
- Good freedom of movement
- Not ideal as a standalone layer
- Non-adjustable waist
This fleece jacket is made from Polartec Power Stretch, one of the best fleece fabrics out there.
- Dependable performance
- Covered by Berghaus repairs
- No women's version
- Bit bulky for a mid-layer
How we test fleeces
Their rigorous testing takes place all over the UK, including the Scottish Highlands, Welsh mountains, and Yorkshire Dales, on everything from short hikes to multi-day excursions.
We look for and recommend fleeces that are versatile, comfortable, durable, and with an eye on sustainability. We know that our readers' demands for fleeces vary but those are all bottom lines are what we all expect from a fleece. And go to great lengths to find the best of them.
Read more on how we test here.
What to look for in a fleece jacket
Are all fleeces the same?
Since Polartec invented the first ‘polar’ fleece in 1981, there’s been an explosion in fleece material innovations. Traditional options include polar fleece, micro-fleece (lightweight and tightly-woven) and high-loft fleece (fluffy and warm). Modern offerings include gridded fleece and Polartec’s super breathable Alpha Direct fluffy mesh tufts.
Fleeces also vary in weight and thickness, too. Thinner fleece jackets work best as mid layers. Sleek, stretchy and technical, they provide better freedom of movement and overall breathability but don’t offer much warmth. Thicker fleeces with a deeper pile trap more heat. They work best as standalone outer layers on dry days, but they are heavier and may feel too bulky underneath a hard shell.
What's the difference between cheap and expensive fleeces?
Things like design, durability, and sustainability separate cheap and more expensive fleeces (generally). A cheap fleece will be warm and functional initially, but will wear quickly and won't usually give a thought to the environment.
More expensive and 'technical' fleeces often employ more thoroughly engineered design methods. For example, some feature natural fibres such as merino wool. Others blend in additional synthetic materials like elastane. Hybrid fleece jackets mixing different materials are common. Their ‘zoned’ or ‘mapped’ construction optimises warmth, breathability and stretch.
In terms of sustainability (more on this below), we consider the use of recycled material the bare minimum these days. Brands should be doing all they can to make fleece jackets more sustainable and durable, which is worth paying for.
Should a fleece be tight or loose fitting?
Ultimately, this is a personal choice. For hiking, a fleece needs to fit over base layers without feeling restrictive, but should also fit comfortably under a hardshell waterproof without being too chunky or boxy. Look for one with a snug, close-to-the-body fit, with warmth sealed-in at the wrist cuffs, waist hem and collar.
Adjustable drawcords or stretchy edging at the waist hem enable a snug fit tailored to your body shape. Adjustable wrist cuffs are rare, but some are elasticated for a closer fit that seals in warmth.
Should a fleece have a hood?
A fleecy hood provides excellent warmth and an essential feature for some. However, they can be annoying under other layers. If you prefer wearing a warm hat, you may not need a hood.
Are fleeces wind or waterproof?
Fleeces are neither wind- nor waterproof and thus need to be paired with a a more protective outer layer in windy or wet conditions. However, some fleeces use high-density, close-knitted yarns or the addition of wind-resistant face fabrics or membranes to keep the breeze at bay.
What about pockets and zips?
A selection of internal and external pockets is handy for storage. Handwarmer pockets are most common, but some jackets also feature Napoleon (breast) and bicep pockets too.
Fleece jackets have full-length, half, or quarter zips. Full length zips are easiest to get off and on, but they are heavier and slightly compromise warmth due to a longer seam.
In these more enlightened times, we’ve now realised that a fabric made from petrochemicals is not so great for the planet. The manufacture of raw fleece material (polyester) emits a lot of CO2. And when put through the washing machine, fleeces release tiny strands and particles called microplastics into the environment.
Some outdoor gear brands are trying to find solutions to these problems and many fleeces are now made from recycled material, which is something but doesn't wholly address the challenge and more needs to be done.
However, innovation continues to amaze. In 2021, New Zealand outdoor gear brand Kathmandu launched a world-first range of fleeces made from Primaloft Bio. This fully recycled fabric looks and performs the same as traditional fleece, but it largely breaks down at an accelerated rate in oceans, wastewater, and landfill, the three places fleece fibres usually end up. Primaloft Bio is now being used by other brands too.
Having a circular/closed loop (i.e., recycled and recyclable) fleece is an important step too. You can also help battle against microplastic release by using a washing bag that catches the dislodged fleece strands.