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
Berghaus Carnot Hooded - Best Value
Artilect Halfmoon Bio Fleece - Best sustainable fleece
OMM Core Fleece Jacket - Best fleece for breathability
Montane Protium XPD - Best fleece for layering
Haglöfs Pile Hood - Best fleece for warmth
Sprayway Saul Hoody - Best budget fleece
ThruDark Mantra - Best fleece for style
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
This fleece jacket is made from Polartec Power Stretch, one of the best fleece fabrics out there.
- Tad heavy
- Bit bulky for a mid-layer
The Halfmoon Bio Fleece is made from post-consumer recycled plastic bottles, which are transformed
- Innovative fabric
- All-day comfort
- Some might prefer a more 'technical' looking fleece
The OMM Core Fleece Jacket is very specialist with a niche approach. The main benefit is
- Amazing breathability
- Good price
- No wind protection
- Very thin
- No hood
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
High-loft fleece – recognisable for its thick, fluffy, deeply-piled tufts – is about as thermally
- Very warm
- Super cosy
- Not ideal for layering
- Risk of overheating
Arguably some of the fleece jackets we’ve tested are overly complicated. The Sprayway Saul Hoody
- Bargain price
- No-nonsense approach
- Good in a layering system
- Not the warmest
- No recycled content
- No women's version
Newcomer brand ThruDark, has been building a reputation for performance apparel over the past few
- Thumb loops
- No hood
- No women's version
Fleece and the environment
In these more enlightened times, we’ve now realised that a fabric made from petrochemicals is not so great for the planet. For example, 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 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 breaks down at an accelerated rate in oceans, wastewater, and landfill, the three places fleece fibres usually end up.
You can also help battle against microplastic release by using a washing bag that catches the dislodged fleece strands.
What to look for in a fleece jacket
Fit: A fleece needs to fit over base layers without feeling restrictive, but should also fit comfortably under a hard shell 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.
Fleece type: 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.
Hem and cuffs: 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.
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.
Materials: Historically fleeces have been made from polyester, but modern iterations are more varied. 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. Many fleeces are now made from recycled plastic too.
Pockets: 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.
Thickness: 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.
Weight: As a rough guide, a 100g/m² fleece is the most breathable and lightest; 200g/m² is ideal for a mid-layer; and 300g/m² is best for cold winter hikes. The higher the grade (measured in grams per square metre), the thicker, heavier and warmer the fleece will be.
Wind resistance: Most fleeces are neither windproof nor wind-resistant, and thus need to be paired with a windproof outer layer in blustery 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.
Zips: 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.