There are two approaches to this outerwear system. You can buy just about any ol rain shell and, in most cases, fit it over most any ol fleece jacket. That has the advantage of letting you mix and match to find the best of each. Or, you can buy a combo" that comes with a fleece jacket and matching shell. The fleece zips into the shell to create an integrated unit (or each can be worn alone).
Theres a great bargain to be had from L.L. Bean in that latter category. Bean offers its Weather Challenger Jacket ($159; www.llbean.com), which comes with its own Polartec Windbloc fleece jacket. The shell uses a proprietary Bean waterproof-breathable coating (very similar to that found in budget-priced rain shells from REI, Marmot, and others) over a nylon face fabric. The fleece part is a midweight jacket made with a tightly woven material that does a good job of blocking out wind. The whole jacket fits over a light sweater or other layering piece if it gets REALLY cold. And as a bonus, the setup looks good and comes in several color combinations.
The North Faces Denali Jacket ($165; www.thenorthface.com) is about as warm as a fleece piece gets. Its made with 300-weight Polartecthe heaviest version of that fabricand has a variety of anti-abrasion reinforcements. Its an awfully warm piece, particularly under a shell. Ive found 300-weight Polartec too heavy for anything remotely aerobic down to zero degrees or so. But its a nice piece, no question about that. It would need a generously sized jacket to slide over it, something like Mountain Hardwears Exposure II Parka ($200; www.mountainhardwear.com). The roomy, full-featured Exposure has a powder skirt (handy for skiers!) and is made of Mountain Hardwears very fine Conduit waterproof-breathable material.
These days, Im also very fond of combos that include a soft shell as the base insulation/layering piece. Thats because the soft shell has a slightly wider temperature and precipitation range, so you can leave the hard shell in the pack more often than not. REIs Mistral ($149; www.rei.com), made with Polartec Power Shield, is a highly wind- and water-resistant piece that has midweight" warmth. Slide over it something like The North Face Varius Guide Jacket ($199), which is designed for skiing or snowboarding, and youve got a great combination.
Check out this years more than 400 must-have gear items, including a comprehensive jacket section, in the 2006 Buyers Guide.