Well, the simple fact is that no fleece is going to keep you warm in Boston on a freezing day (which many Bostonians would dearly love to see, given the past two weeks temperatures). Most fleece jackets simply allow too much air to pass through them. So while theyre pretty warm under a windproof shell, theyre not very warm at all if exposed to the wind.
True, Patagonias R4 ($215; www.patagonia.com) attempts to solve that problem. Its fabric is built like a sandwich, with soft fleece on the outside and a slightly different type of fleece on the inside. In between is a windproof, breathable panel. So in theory, the stuff in the middle resists wind well enough that you wont always need another shell just because its breezy outside.
Windproof fleeces have come a long ways in the past few years. Originally, they were stiff as cardboard and made unpleasant crinkling sounds when you moved. But Im still not a huge fan of them. To me, theyre not as comfortable as traditional fleece in cool, calm conditionstheyre just too warm. But theyre not so warm that theyll suffice on their own when its very cold and windy, or cold and snowy, or cold and rainy (the fuzzy fleece, in fact, will absorb quite a bit of water). So a Patagonia R4 would be a good starting point for winter insulation, but its hardly the answer." Youll still need some sort of shell, and maybe more.
Besides, fabric technology has advanced so much that windproof fleece represents an evolutionary branch that is going the way of the Neanderthal. Todays smart, over-wintering Cro-Magnon wears a soft shell jacket that provides protection from wind and light rain while offering breathability and insulation that keeps you comfortable across a surprisingly wide temperature range. Patagonias Womens Ready Mix Jacket ($199) is such a piece. Its made with highly water-repellent and windproof polyester knit, has a hood, and has a technical look thats pretty cool. REIs One Jacket ($130; www.rei.com) offers similar performance in a slightly less technical piece that lacks a hood.
Soft shells also are trim enough that they still work well in a layering system, so when you go skiing you can throw on a waterproof-breathable shell jacket and stay warm and dry.
Youve seen our picks for 2006 Gear of the Year, and now the entire 2006 Outside Buyers Guide is online. Check out this years more than 400 must-have gear items, including a special section on womens gear.