I like being warm when it’s cold outside—you probably do too—and nothing kills a fun day faster than shivering. Which is why we have fleece: Technical fleeces wick away moisture so you don’t get chilled when you sweat, and nontechnical fleeces are soft and toasty. A great fleece will keep you comfortable during a range of situations in cool and cold temps, from slow ski lifts to multipitch sport climbs. For this article, I spent two months researching and testing fleeces, taking them climbing, ski touring, running, and walking around town. My favorite was Patagonia’s R1 hoodie. It’s a technical layer—more on the differences between technical and casual fleeces below—that worked well in every activity I used it for. If you spend a lot of time outdoors, it might be worth adding an R1 to your layering system.
What Should I Know Before Buying?
First, a primer on layers. There are three basic components in an active layering system: a base layer, insulation, and an outer layer. The base layer—never cotton!—pulls moisture away from your skin; the midlayer provides insulation and won’t absorb moisture; the outer layer repels elements like wind and rain while letting water vapor escape through vents or a permeable membrane. Fleece is usually a midlayer, though sometimes it’s the only layer you need. In my experience, no single fleece works perfectly for every activity, but there’s usually a perfect type of fleece for anything you want to do outdoors.
It’s worth mentioning that there’s no rule that says your midlayer has to be fleece, but I find myself reaching for fleece over other materials, like merino wool or a light soft shell, because it breathes so well and dries quickly. Merino insulates better than fleece when wet and has better odor regulation, but its warmth-to-weight ratio is worse, and it’s generally more expensive. Soft shells are ideal in windy conditions, but they don’t breathe as well.
Most fleeces on the market are made with a synthetic fabric from Polartec, the dominant fleece manufacturer since 1981. There are other fleece manufacturers, but Polartec’s fabrics are durable, lightweight, and washable, and they’re used by nearly every apparel company you’ve ever heard of.
Polartec fleeces typically come with ratings of 100, 200, or 300. A 100-weight fleece works best for aerobic activities like trail running or uphill skiing, whereas the heavier 200-weight fabrics are better for moderate activities like resort skiing. If you’re sitting around ice fishing all day in the bitter cold, you’ll need a very thick fleece and probably some other layers as well.
Once you’ve identified an ideal fabric weight, you’ll need to sort through features, and those will also depend on your activities. My review leaned toward technical fleeces, and the small details ended up mattering a lot. The Patagonia R3, for example, my favorite fleece for skiing inbounds, has hand pockets and a chest pocket, which are great for storing snacks and lip balm. (Chest and interior pockets are nice if you’re going backpack-free, and hand pockets are best when they’re placed high and don’t interfere with a harness.) I prefer quarter-length zippers over full-length; they save a bit of weight and are more comfortable. I’m an advocate of thumbholes that keep sleeves in place when layering, and I get really excited when those sleeves also stretch enough in the forearm to roll above my elbows. Climbers and mountaineers should look for hoods that fit under helmets and reinforced nylon or soft-shell sections to prevent abrasion from harnesses or backpacks. Other details to keep an eye out for are packability, coziness, and, of course, price. Technical fleeces tend to run more than casual fleeces.
How I Picked the Best Fleece
I’ve been testing and writing about gear for Outside for four years, but I’ve been wearing fleece since I was a kid. It’s a key layer for all the activities I do, from mountaineering and ultrarunning to skiing and coffee-shop lounging. For this test, I combed the internet and browsed brick-and-mortar stores. I was on the hunt for a range of fleeces that I could test while doing the sports I participate in yet still feel comfortable wearing to run errands. Then I called in a bunch of fleeces started testing them. For two months, every day, I wore nothing but fleece. My mornings began with a seven-mile run to gauge how the layer performed as the sun rose and the temperature crept from below to above freezing. I also took those layers to our local crag and on skin laps at Ski Santa Fe. Test conditions ranged from 30 mph winds and heavy snow to temps in the single digits. (And unseasonably warm weather—New Mexico has had several 60-degree days this February.) I took the nontechnical pieces on walks, easy hikes, and bike rides and wore them out to coffee shops and bars. In a couple cases, I also gave pieces to friends and collected their feedback.
Best Overall Fleece
Patagonia R1 Fleece Hoodie ($159)
Iterations of the R1 half-zip hoodie have been on the market for years, but it’s still the ideal layering piece for a variety of activities, and it’s my pick for the best overall fleece. The R1 uses Polartec’s Power Grid fabric—tiny squares of thicker fleece are arranged in a grid pattern and separated by thinner fleece fabric. The pattern is meant to increase air transfer and reduce the material’s overall weight, and it works as advertised. The R1 was my go-to choice when I knew I’d be working up a sweat, and at 10.7 ounces, it’s among the lightest (and most packable) pieces I tested. I wore it for chilly morning runs and shady crag days and under a shell for sunrise skin laps. I didn’t get too hot or too cold, and it never got in my way. If I was going to play outside, the R1 came with me.
During hard exercise, the Power Grid fabric breathes well and dries quickly. It also has a Polygiene odor-control treatment, meaning you probably won’t need to wash it after every use. In my experience, odor-control treatments are worth taking with a grain of salt. They’ll help you smell less bad if you’ve been sweating really hard, but you won’t smell like roses. After a dozen or so outings in my R1 without a wash, I could smell sweat when I took a deep whiff, though the people standing next to me were none the wiser.
The R1 is comfortable in a range of conditions. It provided full-coverage warmth when I needed it and allowed for maximum venting for when I didn’t. Its thumbholes held my sleeves in place and kept my wrists and hands warm, and the raglan sleeves (there are no shoulder seams) were stretchy enough that I could push them up above my elbows when I started getting hot. Likewise, the three-quarter-length zipper allowed me to dump heat quickly and made the fleece easy to take off, even when wearing a helmet. I frequently unzipped it when running or skinning, then zipped it back up when ripping skins or starting downhill. The balaclava-style hood doesn’t have much in the way of an around-town aesthetic, but it’s incredibly functional. In cold conditions, a fully zipped R1 can cover your nose and provide Buff-style protection from the elements. (It also has a zipper garage, which kept it from pinching.) The hood fits comfortably under a climbing helmet and works with a helmet strap.
I’m 5'7", and a size small was long enough to stay tucked under my harness and offer a bit of extra coverage. The R1 has a slim fit but didn’t restrict my motion, and it was comfortable with a pack, a harness, or tucked into ski bibs. The sleeves fell right at my wrist, but when I used the thumbholes, they just barely reach, which is slightly irksome; if your arms are on the longer side, you might find the sleeves too short. If you’re looking for similar-style hoodie with a looser fit, I recommend the Black Diamond Coefficient ($159). It’s similar to the R1 but uses Polartec’s Power Dry fleece, which doesn’t employ the grid design and, as a result, is slightly heavier.
La Sportiva Gamma Hoodie ($139)
The Gamma, a 14.5-ounce full-zip hoodie intended for active cold-weather sports, is both the stretchiest and softest technical layer I tested. It’s made from Pontetorto Technostretch, known for its abrasion and pilling resistance, and it was the only tech fleece I tested that didn’t use a Polartec fabric. The performance and feel of the Technostretch earned it my affection.
The size medium I tested was roomy without being baggy, and it looks good if you can get down with the Euro color scheme. I wore it on several morning skin laps in 15- to 20-degree weather and was pleased with its temperature regulation. That said, it is best suited for light to moderate activity in cold temps or high-output activity in very cold temps, since the only way to vent heat is the front zipper. The Gamma has a helmet-compatible hood, thumbholes, a high collar, hand pockets, and a pocket at the left biceps. The sleeves are longer than the R1, and the thumbholes were the perfect length for me. There’s even a ponytail hole in the hood, which is great because wearing a ponytail would look ridiculous under the Gamma’s tight-fitting hood. This is the fleece I’d choose for cool-weather climbing—it’s warmer than the R1, the interior is super-soft against your skin, and the outer is durable without sacrificing elasticity.
Best Casual Fleece
The North Face Campshire Full-Zip ($129)
Made from 300-weight Sherpa fleece, a super-thick synthetic material, the Campshire is a heavyweight full-zip layer that comes in a relaxed fit. The collar, cuffs, and zipper are elastic-bound, meaning they’re stretchy and soft against skin. At 17.5 ounces, it’s not light, but it is designed for comfort and not tackling big objectives, unless your objective is to be ridiculously cozy.
This is by far the most comfortable fleece I tested, and it might be the coziest fleece I’ve ever worn. Anecdotally, I got the most compliments when I was wearing the Campshire, and many people liked the retro vibes from the TNF patch on the left sleeve. People wanted to know what it was, they wanted to feel the material, and they went googly-eyed when they realized how soft it was. Hugs lasted longer; pats on the back turned into back rubs. What can I say? This thing feels really nice.
A fleece of this weight is not ideal for aerobic activities, but it is perfect for light to moderate activity in cold temperatures. The Campshire is very warm. I took it camping, on a short hike to an alpine lake, and walking around town. It bordered on too warm when I was hiking slowly and was perfect for sitting still in a camp chair. If it’s a particularly chilly ski day, throw this on as a midlayer when riding lifts. An online reviewer who bought this jacket for their girlfriend said, “It’s kind of like her own personal Cookie Monster outfit. I would recommend this to anyone who wants a warm, cozy jacket to wear inside and outside.” I agree with that.
Best Fleece for Resort Skiing
Patagonia R3 Hoodie ($199)
The R3 is a medium-weight, 15-ounce fleece that the best of both worlds: soft and technical. The R3 uses Polartec’s High Loft fabric, which provides a high warmth-to-weight ratio without being too bulky. I was able to stuff it into my pack without it taking up too much space. The R3 is breathable and dries quickly, but it retains heat a little too well to be used for aerobic activities unless it’s bitterly cold and windy—for me, that meant the 5-to-25-degree range. The only option for dumping heat is unzipping the full-length zipper since the sleeves don’t roll up past mid-forearm.
I like the R3 as part of a resort layering system. You get warmth and mobility under a shell, and it’ll dry quickly if you work up a sweat. It’s also good for hikes and cooler belays. I appreciated the longer sleeves and the fact that the R3 is reversible. (One side has the hand-warmer pockets and the other has the left-breast zip pocket.) The high collar kept me warm when the wind was blowing, but it bunches up around the neck a bit awkwardly when fully zipped and not pulled all the way up. The hood is snug and fits under a helmet, but it slides around more than the R1. Though not stretchy, the R3 is designed to move, and it’s super-soft and cozy against the skin. It’s kind of like a technical version of the Campshire hoodie.