With a wide variety of insulated jackets on the market, the classic fleece still is the most comfortable and affordable. These polyester jackets have been providing cozy warmth for years from campsites and ski resorts to the streets and restaurants of mountain towns. Fleeces run the gamut from casual to breathable performance pieces for serious adventures. Below are our picks for the best fleece jackets of 2023, with options from leading outdoor brands across a range of price points. For more background, see our fleece jacket comparison table and buying advice below the picks.
Our Team's Fleece Jacket Picks
- Best Overall Fleece Jacket: Arc’teryx Covert Cardigan
- Best Budget Fleece Jacket: REI Co-op Groundbreaker 2.0
- Best Weather-Resistant Fleece Jacket: Patagonia R2 TechFace Hoody
- Best Heavyweight Fleece Jacket: The North Face Denali 2
- Best Breathable Fleece for High-Output Use: Patagonia R1 Air Full-Zip Hoody
- Best Pullover Fleece Jacket: Patagonia Lightweight Synchilla Snap-T
Best Overall Fleece Jacket
1. Arc’teryx Covert Cardigan ($180)
Weight: 1 lb. 2.9 oz.
Fleece weight: Midweight
What we like: A very versatile fleece with a super clean design.
What we don’t: Pricey and no chest pocket.
For the top all-around fleece on the market, we give the nod to the sleek Covert Cardigan from Arc’teryx. This full-zip jacket is comfortable, well built, and super versatile, and with the most recent update it’s now made with 100% recycled polyester. Modern styling and a wool-like appearance make the Covert ideal for casual days around town, but it can easily pull double duty for cool weather hiking or as a midlayer for resort skiing in mild temperatures. And while many fleeces are prone to piling, the Covert features a durable face fabric that maintains a premium feel even after dozens of washings. It’s true that the Covert Cardigan isn’t nearly as stretchy as more technical fleeces like the Patagonia R2 TechFace below, but it has a nice hip-length cut and still moves reasonably well on the go.
What are the downsides of the Covert Cardigan? At $180, it’s one of the most expensive fleece jackets on this list. Second, the fit may be a bit trim for some people. Due to its casual slant, the Covert Cardigan isn’t as slim as some of Arc’teryx’s true performance pieces, but it’s not as baggy as alternatives like Patagonia’s Synchilla Snap-T or The North Face’s Denali below. And finally, you don’t get a chest pocket, which can be a handy spot to store a phone or other valuables while skiing. Minor nitpicks aside, you won’t find a better-looking or feeling fleece jacket, and we think it’s a step up in build quality from the popular Patagonia Better Sweater below. And if the cardigan style isn’t for you, Arc’teryx also offers the Covert as a hooded jacket and half-zip pullover... Read in-depth review
See the Men's Arc'teryx Covert Cardigan See the Women's Arc'teryx Covert Cardigan
Best Budget Fleece Jacket
2. REI Co-op Groundbreaker 2.0 ($50)
Weight: 13.2 oz.
Fleece weight: Lightweight
What we like: Comfortable and inexpensive.
What we don’t: Thin and slightly inferior build quality.
Let’s face it: many people want a fleece as a basic layering piece to stay cozy around the cabin or out by the campfire, and they don’t want to spend $200 to get it. If this sounds like you, the REI Groundbreaker is a quality option that truly outperforms its budget-friendly $50 price tag. It’s lightweight and relatively easy to squeeze into a pack on a day hike or bike ride yet built well enough to last through a few seasons of wear. And with upgraded styling that includes a trimmer fit, slightly thinner fleece, and zippered handwarmer pockets, the Groundbreaker strikes us as a serviceable layer for year-round use in a range of conditions and temperatures.
What do you sacrifice by going with a fleece like the REI Groundbreaker? The jacket is built reasonably well but is a notable step down in quality compared to competitors from Patagonia and Arc’teryx, and the fleece is relatively thin (don’t expect serious insulation from the cold). In addition, overall fit and finish fall short of the more premium brands mentioned above, and the feature set is fairly basic (you don't get a chest pocket or thumb loops). But the Groundbreaker nevertheless is an excellent value and can be worn for everything from outdoor use to travel, which is why it's ranked here. For another everyday-friendly option from REI with a more premium build, check out their retro-inspired Trailsmith.
See the Men's REI Groundbreaker 2.0 See the Women's REI Groundbreaker 2.0
Best Weather-Resistant Fleece Jacket
3. Patagonia R2 TechFace Hoody ($199)
Weight: 17.1 oz.
Fleece weight: Midweight
What we like: Cozy yet tough and weather-protective.
What we don’t: Design is on the technical side for daily wear.
A softshell or synthetic-insulated jacket is a common choice for aerobic activities in cool weather, but performance fleeces are on the rise. In this category, the Patagonia R2 TechFace Hoody is a phenomenal piece of gear and performs as an excellent outer layer for backcountry skiing, ice climbing, and other winter pursuits. Like most fleeces, the R2 TechFace breathes well, but it goes the extra mile with a tough and weather-resistant face fabric and 3-way adjustable hood with a laminated brim for standalone use in inclement conditions. When a hardshell is too much jacket but you still need some amount of protection, the R2 TechFace is a solid bet.
With a soft, pliable fleece liner, the R2 TechFace Hoody offers great next-to-skin comfort, especially relative to the slippery nylon of many synthetic insulated jackets. But compared to other fleeces here it has a noticeably technical feel, and you give up some breathability with the durable shell. If you only plan on wearing your fleece around town, the R2 TechFace is a bit overkill—but for the right user, it’s the complete package. Keep in mind that Patagonia also offers the R1 TechFace, which is a step down in warmth for milder days out
See the Men's Patagonia R2 TechFace See the Women's Patagonia R2 TechFace
Best Heavyweight Fleece Jacket
4. The North Face Denali 2 ($179)
Weight: 1 lb. 0.9 oz.
Fleece weight: Heavyweight
What we like: Warm and tough.
What we don’t: Fit is a little baggy for our taste.
The Denali line from The North Face has been on the market for years and is right up there with the Patagonia Synchilla in terms of its iconic status (it’s particularly popular for urban use in cold climates like the East Coast of the United States). The most recent version, which features a slightly thicker fabric than previous models, provides the most warmth and wind protection of any jacket on this list. The fleece is thick and made to last, and the shoulders, hood, and chest feature nylon panels that resist light wind and moisture. For moderate fall and early winter days, the Denali 2 can be your only outer layer.
Keep in mind The North Face Denali 2 is one of the heaviest and bulkiest fleeces on this list. Additionally, the jacket is lacking in any real compression abilities, meaning that it is not easily stowed away in a pack. But most people don’t buy the Denali 2 for the backcountry, and it makes a really nice fleece for walking around the city, blocking wind, and providing warmth where others on this list will not. If you’re looking for a substantial and tough fleece jacket from a respected brand, this is it.
See the Men's The North Face Denali 2 See the Women's The North Face Denali 2
Best Breathable Fleece for High-Output Use
5. Patagonia R1 Air Full-Zip Hoody ($169)
Weight: 12.9 oz.
Fleece weight: Lightweight
What we like: Very breathable, lightweight, and cozy.
What we don’t: Compromised durability and no weather protection.
Patagonia’s Regulator (R) collection fleeces are high on performance, from the standard R1 pullover (our favorite climbing midlayer for years) to the TechFace series above. Recently, the R1 Air joined the lineup with a new fabric tech that makes it even lighter and more breathable than the original. The material features hollow-fiber yarns arranged in a zig-zag pattern, resulting in a lightweight fleece that traps heat when you want it and dumps it when you don’t. We’ve worn the R1 Air for everything from shoulder season backpacking to backcountry skiing and winter climbing, and its combination of warmth and breathability is noticeable. And with three streamlined zip pockets, off-shoulder seams for comfort while carrying a pack, and a low-profile hood, it’s fully functional as a standalone piece, too.
The R1 Air is softer and more breathable than a jacket like the R2 TechFace above, but without any sort of weather-resistant shell, you do give up a noticeable amount of protection and durability. As a result, it’s less versatile as an outer layer, and you’ll want to be particularly careful around sharp items like crampons, poles, and even rough rock. We haven’t had any issues to date despite lots of wear and haphazard packing around pointy equipment, but it’s best to exercise caution. That said, for those looking for a fleece that can handle sweat-inducing activity, the R1 Air is hard to beat. We love the full-zip hooded version for its versatility, but the design also comes in zip-neck and crew versions.
See the Men's Patagonia R1 Air Hoody See the Women's Patagonia R1 Air Hoody
Best Pullover Fleece Jacket
6. Patagonia Lightweight Synchilla Snap-T ($129)
Weight: 14.3 oz.
Fleece weight: Midweight
What we like: Very cozy and warm.
What we don’t: No features: this is fleece and nothing more.
It’s hard to move very far down this list without including the Synchilla Snap-T. This pullover is pretty much synonymous with the word “fleece,” and despite its simple appearance, can be a pretty versatile piece of gear. The Synchilla is easy to throw on before heading out for a walk or bike ride, and perfect for wearing out on the town after a day of skiing. It’s definitely not performance-oriented in any way, but the masses have had no problem embracing its casual slant.
Don’t expect a whole lot of features on the Patagonia Synchilla. The lack of pockets is one potential issue—aside from the famous snap chest pocket, of course—and you don’t get panels of fancy stretch fabrics or adjustments like some of the technical pieces. But it’s the fleece that matters here: soft, two-sided, extremely cozy fleece. Of the two available Synchilla versions, we like the lightweight best, which is about 4 ounces less than the regular but surprisingly thick and warm. And keep in mind that the Synchilla Snap-T has a fairly roomy fit, much more so than the Better Sweater below. For a few more stylish options from Patagonia, it's worth checking out their Retro Pile and Classic Retro-X.
See the Men's Patagonia Synchilla Snap-T See the Women's Patagonia Synchilla Snap-T
Best of the Rest
7. Arc’teryx Kyanite AR ($159)
Weight: 13.4 oz.
Fleece weight: Light/midweight
What we like: A plush and stretchy midlayer made with premium materials.
What we don’t: Not as weather protective as the R2 TechFace above.
Arc’teryx’s Covert above is a traditional fleece for casual use, but it’s also worth taking a look at their Kyanite series. Trim-fitting and stretchy, the Kyanite AR (short for "all round") is a fantastic layering piece with articulated patterning that places a premium on mobility. It features Polartec’s premium Power Stretch Pro, which offers enough warmth for spring and fall weather while still effectively dumping heat during high-output activity. This material is one of our all-time favorites in terms of comfort: It features an impressive amount of stretch, is soft next to skin, and maintains a high-end fit and finish throughout its lifespan (and in between washings). Added up, the Kyanite AR fits the bill as a premium midlayer for cold-weather activities like skiing and snowshoeing.
Despite its ranking here, we think the Kyanite AR makes a better performance midlayer than the Patagonia R2 TechFace above. The Arc’teryx’s material is softer, the overall feel is more pliable and easy-moving, and it gets the edge in terms of breathability, too. But while you do get some weather resistance with the Kyanite’s durable nylon face, the DWR-treated R2 TechFace is still the better outer layer. It's worth considering your priorities, but it's for good reason that the Kyanite AR has become a staple in our lineup, both for days spent in the mountains and in town (and it also comes in a hooded version).
See the Men's Arc'teryx Kyanite AR See the Women's Arc'teryx Kyanite
8. Patagonia Better Sweater ($149)
Weight: 1 lb. 6.5 oz.
Fleece weight: Midweight
What we like: Classy looks and versatile performance.
What we don’t: Lets a lot of wind through and more restrictive than the Covert above.
Patagonia has more fleece options than just about any other gear company, ranging from the casual Synchilla Snap-T to the performance Regulator (R) series. Sitting conveniently in the middle is the popular Better Sweater, which can be used for anything from daily wear to light outdoor activities (it’s a great midlayer choice for resort skiing). Moreover, the Better Sweater is stylish and comes in a multitude of colorways that will make just about everyone happy. At around $150, it’s not even all that expensive for Patagonia.
Why isn’t the Patagonia Better Sweater ranked higher? Our top pick, the Arc’teryx Covert Cardigan, has a softer feel and a more consistent fit overall (the Better Sweater is a bit tight in the arms), which is great for both comfort and mobility. Further, the Better Sweater has a tendency to let even the slightest gusts of wind through, while the Covert adds a liner to the front side for extra wind resistance. But we do love the versatility: the Patagonia layers well underneath a shell, has a large chest pocket that easily fits our smartphone, and looks equally at home on your morning commute and the ski hill. As an added bonus, the latest model is made with 100%-recycled fabric (environmental consciousness has become a Patagonia trademark)... Read in-depth review
See the Men's Patagonia Better Sweater See the Women's Patagonia Better Sweater
9. Cotopaxi Teca Fleece Full-Zip ($110)
Fleece weight: Light/midweight
What we like: Retro styling and unique colorways.
What we don’t: Not warm enough for most winter uses.
Performance fleeces can offer serious midlayer warmth for skiing and hiking, but sometimes you just want to throw on a casual fleece and feel cozy. In this category, we really like the Teca Fleece Full-Zip, which combines Polartec Micro Fleece with Cotopaxi’s hallmark retro style. Cotopaxi uses all repurposed materials for the Teca, meaning that every production run results in different colorways, and each design is a limited edition. To round out the build, two handwarmer pockets give you functional storage for daily tasks or outdoor pursuits, and elastic binding at the cuffs and hem provide a nice seal against the elements.
At just $110, the Cotopaxi is a nice alternative to the Patagonia Lightweight Synchilla Snap-T above for those looking for a fun fleece for around-town use (the Teca also comes in a hooded full-zip and both hooded and non-hooded pullover versions). You can certainly wear it while hiking, skiing, climbing, biking—or whatever your adventure of choice—but the Cotopaxi isn’t as warm as many of the alternatives here, and it doesn’t stuff down super small, either. In terms of build quality, Cotopaxi doesn’t quite measure up to brands like Arc’teryx and Patagonia, but their products get the job done for casual use, and we love that they’re made with repurposed materials. Finally, the Salt Lake City-based company recently announced that they’re 100% carbon neutral, which is big news that sets a high standard for the outdoor industry.
See the Men's Cotopaxi Teca Fleece See the Women's Cotopaxi Teca Fleece
10. Fjallraven Keb Fleece ($195)
Weight: 1 lb. 2 oz.
Fleece weight: Midweight
What we like: Quality materials and good looks.
What we don’t: Pricey and a little overbuilt for everyday wear.
If you’ve worn Fjallraven apparel in the past, you may be drooling over the Keb Fleece. In typical fashion, this jacket has a high-end look and feel that few brands are able to emulate. For the build, Fjallraven uses a unique polyester and wool blend that does a nice job at keeping you warm while still retaining a decent amount of moisture-wicking ability and stretch. We also like the simple but effective storage layout, including two nicely sized hand pockets and one smaller chest pocket. The end result is a very comfortable and functional fleece that also looks the part.
Like many Fjallraven products, the Keb Fleece toes the line between casual and performance use. The fleece blend, reinforced G-1000 shoulder panels (it wouldn’t be Fjallraven without some G-1000 in the mix), and aggressive hood are built for the outdoors, but the clean design and attractive colorways wear decently well in the city too. It doesn’t have the outright casual appeal of designs like the Patagonia Synchilla or REI Groundbreaker above (fit is decidedly on the athletic side), and you’re certainly paying a steep premium at $195. But there’s no denying that the Keb is another classy piece of gear from the Swedish company. For a lighter-weight option from Fjallraven with similar styling, check out their $45-cheaper Abisko Trail Fleece.
See the Men's Fjallraven Keb Fleece See the Women's Fjallraven Keb Fleece
11. Kuhl Interceptr Fleece Jacket ($139)
Weight: 1 lb. 3.2 oz.
Fleece weight: Midweight
What we like: A great value for a quality full-zip fleece.
What we don’t: Build quality can’t quite match the Arc’teryx or Patagonia models above.
We were immediately impressed when trying on the Kuhl Interceptr, which feels like a more economical sibling of the Arc’teryx Covert Cardigan above (it has more technical features too). For a very reasonable $139, you get an athletic-fitting fleece jacket with tons of storage (four pockets in total) and handy features like articulated five-panel sleeves with thumbholes at the end to keep your hands warm and the sleeves in place.
The Interceptr does great in mild fall and spring conditions, but don’t expect much in the way of wind resistance or warmth when the temperature really drops. For just $10 more, the Patagonia Better Sweater offers more warmth in a similar style. Plus, we don’t love the dual chest pockets of the Interceptr, especially for a casual layer. But if you’ve tried Kuhl products in the past and like the brand and styling, the Interceptr is a solid value. For an even cheaper option from Kuhl with a trimmed-down feature set, see their popular Revel Quarter-Zip.
See the Men's Kuhl Interceptr Fleece Jacket
12. Outdoor Research Vigor Full Zip Hoodie ($110)
Weight: 12 oz.
Fleece weight: Lightweight
What we like: Stretchy and breathable for high-output use.
What we don’t: Not very warm or versatile for wearing around town.
Lightweight performance fleeces are a growing trend, and we like what Outdoor Research has come up with in the Vigor Full Zip. This trim-fitting midlayer slips nicely over a thin merino long-sleeve and provides a great combination of stretch, breathability, and modest warmth. In terms of construction, OR uses a hybrid concept with a thicker polyester/spandex mix along the arms and upper chest, while the lower body and back have a thin, grid-style fleece that is soft, wicks moisture, and helps keep you cool. For anything from running in frigid temps to backcountry skiing, the Vigor is a great layer to have in your quiver.
Where the Vigor comes up short is versatility. The jacket isn’t all that warm for low-output pursuits and isn’t as viable for wearing around town in the cold. Further, the trim fit is more reminiscent of a souped-up baselayer than an outer layer, although it’s better-equipped to handle the elements than the Patagonia R1 Air above. Finally, the Vigor is known to hold a stink, and many users report premature pilling. But if you want a thoughtfully made performance option—complete with thumb holes and a useful chest pocket—put the Vigor Full Zip on your short list. For a bump in warmth and weather protection, check out OR’s Vigor Plus Hoodie, which uses a thicker fleece and tacks on a wind- and water-resistant panel at the chest.
See the Men's OR Vigor Full Zip Hoodie See the Women's OR Vigor Full Zip Hoodie
13. The North Face Canyonlands Fleece Hoodie ($99)
Fleece weight: Midweight
What we like: Great durability and warmth in an affordable package.
What we don’t: Lacks the premium fit and finish of pricier fleeces.
It’s not a stretch to say that The North Face popularized the modern fleece with their Denali, but the Canyonlands Hoodie is arguably the more approachable design for most. Rather than the bulky, heavyweight construction of the Denali, the Canyonlands utilizes lighter 200-weight fleece with a little elastane for a functional mix of warmth, weight, and mobility for shoulder-season use. The face fabric is tough and smooth, while the interior boasts a soft brushed backer for great next-to-skin comfort. And despite the budget-friendly price tag, The North Face didn’t skimp on features, including three zippered pockets, a well-fitting hood, and slight stretch at the hem that keeps it nicely in place. All told, it’s a well-built and good-looking option that won’t break the bank.
All that said, the Canyonlands falls a little short of the options above in terms of high-quality fit and finish. The fabric simply isn’t as premium as pricier fleeces here, which means it will stretch out over time and is more likely to pill. Further, while 200-weight fleece offers a nice amount of warmth, we prefer a thinner build for more technical pursuits (such as the R1 Air or Fjallraven Keb). But for a considerable $50-$80 cheaper than options like the Covert and Better Sweater above, the Canyonlands checks most of the boxes for a functional everyday fleece at a fraction of the cost.
See the Men's TNF Canyonlands Fleece See the Women's TNF Canyonlands Fleece
14. Norrøna Falketind Warmwool2 Hood ($219)
Weight: 1 lb. 3.8 oz.
Fleece weight: Midweight
What we like: Durable, warmth without bulk, and premium fit and finish.
What we don’t: Expensive.
Norrøna might fly a little under the radar this side of the Atlantic, but the Norwegian outdoor clothing brand gives names like Patagonia and Arc’teryx a run for their money. From their Falketind mountaineering collection, the Warmwool2 is a high-quality midweight fleece hoody built with a stretchy blend of wool and polyester. Unlike many jackets here, you get a smooth, abrasion-resistant face fabric that makes for a durable outer layer, but the fleecy inside is still cozy and soft next-to-skin. And we particularly love the fit of the Warmwool2, which features a long cut that sits securely at the hip and a high, snug collar for a nice seal around the neck.
With 18% wool in the construction, the Warmwool2 gets a boost in warmth and temperature regulation without adding on the extra bulk typical of fully synthetic fleeces. You’ll likely overheat in mild temperatures or during high-output activities, but the Falketind is ideal for cold-weather resort skiing or casual use around town. And in truly wintery conditions, we really appreciate the added security of the scuba hood. It’s a big investment at $219, but the Warmwool’s premium fit and finish and performance both on and off the mountain will be well worth it for many.
See the Men's Norrøna Falketind Warmwool2 See the Women's Norrøna Falketind Warmwool2
15. Rab Capacitor Fleece Hoodie ($140)
Weight: 14.1 oz.
Fleece weight: Midweight
What we like: Stretchy side panels add mobility and venting.
What we don’t: Lacks the durability and weather resistance of a brushed-back fleece design.
U.K.-based Rab makes some of our favorite down jackets and hardshells for demanding backcountry use, so it comes as little surprise that their fleece jackets are impressively well built and competitive. From their collection, the new Capacitor is a high-performance pick that offers a modern take on the classic midweight design. Like the much-loved (but now discontinued) Patagonia R2, this jacket features 200-weight fleece, stretchy side panels for added mobility and venting, and a flattering shape. Tack on a low-profile brushed finish and trim-fitting hood that slides easily underneath a climbing helmet, and the result is a decently warm yet breathable performance piece built for action.
For activities like winter hiking or skiing, the Capacitor is a nice step up from a jacket like the OR Vigor above—its midweight designation makes it a better option for cold weather, while the large side panels, trim fit, and scuba hood keep performance high. We do have a slight preference for the brushed-backed design of the OR for performance use, as the smooth exterior tents to be slightly more durable and weather resistant. Further, keep in mind that not everyone will prefer a hood for midlayer use—they can get in the way under a hardshell—and Rab only offers a hoodless pull-over version of the Capacitor for men, while the Vigor comes in a variety of hoodless designs. But for $140, the Capacitor is one of the best-priced midweight fleeces here, and it has a lot going for it both in and out of the mountains. For a lighter design, check out their Nexus Jacket ($130).
See the Men's Rab Capacitor Fleece See the Women's Rab Capacitor Fleece
16. L.L. Bean Sweater Fleece Full-Zip ($99)
Fleece weight: Light/midweight
What we like: Nice looks and great price.
What we don’t: Not as well-made or versatile as the Patagonia Better Sweater.
It doesn’t get much more classic than the L.L. Bean Sweater Fleece Full-Zip. From the throwback logo on the chest to the knit exterior and wide range of muted colorways, the jacket is an everyday staple. The middle-of-the-road fit (L.L. Bean calls it “slightly fitted”) slides easily over a long-sleeve baselayer or dress shirt, although it is a bit bulky for wearing under a rain shell. And you don’t get a waist cinch for truly sealing out the cold, but the light-to-midweight insulation, drop hem, and lined hand pockets make the Sweater Fleece a nice match for many spring and fall days.
In many ways, this L. L. Bean is a budget alternative to Patagonia’s Better Sweater above. Both have a timeless look, similar pocket layouts, and a lot of around-town appeal with their moderate levels of warmth. Where the Patagonia gets the edge is its very cozy interior, which uses higher-quality fleece, plus it’s longer-lasting and less prone to pilling excessively over time (this is especially valuable if you’ll be wearing the jacket for activities like downhill skiing). But for a substantial $50 savings, it’s hard to argue with the simple L.L. Bean for daily use.
See the Men's L.L. Bean Sweater Fleece See the Women's L.L. Bean Sweater Fleece
17. REI Co-op Hyperaxis 2.0 ($139)
Weight: 15.8 oz.
Fleece weight: Midweight
What we like: A performance Polartec fleece at a reasonable price.
What we don’t: Overkill for casual use.
Seattle-based REI knows a thing or two about the importance of a good fleece—they’re useful in the Pacific Northwest about 9 months a year. But breaking in tradition from more basic fleeces like the Groundbreaker above, the Co-op has put together a surprisingly modern and performance-oriented design in the Hyperaxis 2.0. It’s true that $139 is expensive for an REI in-house product, but with this fleece you get premium Polartec Power Stretch Pro fabric, low-profile seams, and even features like thumb loops. The result is a good-looking, well-built, and versatile jacket.
In many ways, the REI Co-op Hyperaxis 2.0 does a pretty darn good impersonation of pricier jackets like the Patagonia R2 TechFace above. All three performance fleeces use a stretchy and moisture-wicking shell fabric and are built to breathe during high-intensity movement. But with the Patagonia, you get a bit more weather protection by way of a robust shell with a DWR finish. All in all, it’s tough to beat the looks and quality of these premium brands, but the more affordable Hyperaxis 2.0 isn’t far behind.
See the Men's REI Hyperaxis 2.0 See the Women's REI Hyperaxis 2.0
18. Columbia Steens Mountain 2.0 ($45)
Weight: 1 lb. 0.6 oz.
Fleece weight: Lightweight
What we like: Tons of colors and sizes.
What we don’t: Durability is questionable.
Soft, inexpensive, and offered in a ton of sizes and colors, the Steens Mountain is a very popular budget fleece. First and foremost, this is a very simple jacket: the fabric is basic and you don’t get any features to speak of. But it provides decent warmth and styling and a hefty portion of coziness, especially for the price of only $45 (prices do vary on retailers like Amazon depending on the color).
It’s a good idea to set reasonable expectations for a fleece in this price range. For its weight and bulk, the Steens Mountain does very little to trap warmth or keep out wind, nor is it super breathable. It’s also not trim-fitting and layers poorly under a hardshell. To put it simply, the Steens Mountain won’t be your workhorse for any kind of serious outdoor use. But if you’re looking for an inexpensive layering piece to wear around town, Columbia’s bottom-shelf offering should get the job done.
See the Men's Columbia Steens Mountain See the Women's Columbia Benton Springs
Fleece Jacket Comparison Table
|Arc'teryx Covert Cardigan||$180||Casual/performance||1 lb. 2.9 oz.||Midweight||2 hand, 1 sleeve|
|REI Co-op Groundbreaker 2.0||$50||Casual||13.2 oz.||Lightweight||2 hand|
|Patagonia R2 TechFace Hoody||$199||Performance||17.1 oz.||Midweight||2 hand, 1 chest|
|The North Face Denali 2||$179||Casual||1 lb. 0.9 oz.||Heavyweight||2 hand, 2 chest|
|Patagonia R1 Air Full-Zip Hoody||$169||Performance||12.9 oz.||Lightweight||2 hand, 1 chest|
|Patagonia Lightweight Synchilla Snap-T||$129||Casual||14.3 oz.||Midweight||1 chest|
|Arc'teryx Kyanite AR||$159||Performance/casual||13.4 oz.||Light/mid||2 hand|
|Patagonia Better Sweater||$149||Casual||1 lb. 6.5 oz.||Midweight||2 hand, 1 chest|
|Cotopaxi Teca Fleece Full-Zip||$110||Casual||Unavailable||Light/mid||2 hand|
|Fjallraven Keb Fleece Jacket||$195||Casual/performance||1 lb. 2 oz.||Midweight||2 hand, 1 chest|
|Kuhl Interceptr Fleece Jacket||$139||Casual||1 lb. 3.2 oz.||Midweight||2 hand, 2 chest|
|Outdoor Research Vigor Full Zip||$110||Performance||12 oz.||Lightweight||2 hand, 1 chest|
|The North Face Canyonlands Fleece||$99||Casual||Unavailable||Midweight||2 hand, 1 chest|
|Norrøna Falketind Warmwool2 Hood||$219||Casual/performance||1 lb. 3.8 oz.||Midweight||2 hand, 1 chest|
|Rab Capacitor Fleece Hoodie||$140||Performance||14.1 oz.||Midweight||2 hand, 1 chest|
|L.L. Bean Sweater Fleece||$99||Casual||Unavailable||Light/mid||2 hand, 1 chest|
|REI Co-op Hyperaxis 2.0 Hoody||$139||Performance/casual||15.8 oz.||Midweight||2 hand, 1 chest|
|Columbia Steens Mountain 2.0||$45||Casual||1 lb. 0.6 oz.||Lightweight||2 hand|
Fleece Jacket Buying Advice
- Fleece Categories: Casual vs. Performance
- Full-Zip vs. Pullover
- Fleece Warmth and Weight
- Wind and Water Resistance
- Fleece Jacket Features
- Is Fleece Sustainable?
- Fleece vs. Synthetic and Down Insulation
- Caring for Your Fleece
Fleece Categories: Casual vs. Performance
The majority of people wear fleece jackets for their unbeatable combination of coziness and warmth. They are terrific for layering on chilly evenings, wearing around the cabin, and underneath your ski jacket. Accordingly, most fleeces trend toward being casual in nature, from hard-weave cardigan-style jackets that dress up nicely to basic fleeces that are little more than the fabric itself. Casual fleeces make up the majority of our list, although we do want to reiterate that they still are great for layering.
For performance or serious outdoor use as an outer layer, a down or synthetic jacket beats out a fleece in most cases. Both are lighter, more packable, and offer better protection from the elements. But where fleeces do have the upper hand is breathability, and they’re often the most affordable option. Further, performance fleeces are fairly slim-fitting and stretchy, which translates to great mobility for activities like climbing. As a result, we're seeing more and more technical fleeces hit the market, as evidenced in jackets like Patagonia's R2 TechFace and R1 Air above. There are also a number of hybrid designs that merge a fleece back with a synthetically insulated, nylon, or softshell front (the Black Diamond Coefficient LT Hybrid is a prime example) for a brilliant combination of breathability and weather resistance. When deciding on a performance fleece, it’s worth thinking about your needs in terms of weather protection, mobility, warmth, and packability: There’s virtually something for everyone.
Full-Zip vs. Pullover
Most of the jackets toward the top of this list are of the full-zip variety, which gives you maximum versatility and are easy to slip on and off. Full-zip models tend to have more features like hand pockets and stretchy side panels, whereas pullovers are more basic and function like a sweatshirt (albeit a very comfy one). The upside of fleece pullovers is that they weigh slightly less, pack down smaller, and generally are cheaper. The Patagonia Lightweight Synchilla Snap-T is an extremely popular fleece pullover that in many ways defines the category.
Fleece Weight and Warmth
For an idea of how warm a particular fleece will be, some jackets list the fabric thickness or fleece weight. Polartec breaks it out into four categories—Micro, 100, 200, and 300-weight fleece—and other brands use a similar nomenclature (Patagonia's R1 and R2, for example). In its lightest form, a fleece is only a small step up in terms of insulation from a baselayer (the Patagonia R1 Air is a great example) and ideal for high-output activities when breathability wins out over maximum warmth. Midweight or 200-weight fleeces are warmer and make a great pairing for fall and spring or a mild-weather day on the slopes. Heavy fleeces of the 300-weight variety are warm and can insulate when temperatures dip below freezing, but their bulk often comes at the cost of mobility and breathability.
As more companies have moved toward designing their own in-house fleeces and Polartec has diversified their offerings, the demarcation isn’t quite as simple as explained above. But it’s still helpful when available, and in general, the weight of the fleece correlates with its warmth. The heavier a jacket is, the more likely it will be able to keep you warm and block wind from entering.
Wind and Water Resistance
Although often worn as a standalone piece, fleece jackets are not intended to combat heavy wind or rain. The synthetic fabric itself is hydrophobic, but wind can make its way through the porous construction rather easily. Exceptions include jackets with WindStopper technology or tough face fabrics, which provide a modest increase in weather resistance. Patagonia’s TechFace series, for example, uses a double-weave shell fabric with DWR finish, and the classic Denali 2 jacket from The North Face has non-fleece nylon panels that can repel light amounts of precipitation. But no matter the fleece, when the conditions get tough, you’ll want to bring along more reliable wind and rain protection like a softshell jacket or rain jacket. One of our favorites in the former category is the Arc’teryx Gamma MX, which features a fleece interior for warmth but a thick outer layer to better isolate you from the elements.
A notable upside to fleeces is their breathability. This is one of the primary reasons that they work so well as a midlayer, and it also contributes to their shortcomings as a true outer layer in the cold and wind. Compared to a softshell jacket, a fleece is made from standard polyester that is dotted with tiny openings—hold up a fleece into the sun and you’ll see light streaming through. But as we mentioned above, some high-tech fleeces include wind-resistant fabrics, making them less permeable to air. While these styles offer more protection against the elements, breathability takes a back seat. The technology is improving (the TechFace series is less compromised than most), but windproof fleece still isn’t our go-to choice for most conditions. If we know we’re venturing out in inclement weather, we usually prefer to wear a softshell or synthetic-insulated jacket with wind-blocking fabric instead.
Fleece jackets range widely in terms of fit, and it’s important to look into the jacket’s intended use to make sure it aligns with your own. Performance pieces (like the Fjallraven Keb) have a trim cut that is designed to remove excess fabric for added mobility and efficient ventilation. While very effective on the mountain, the style doesn’t always translate well to urban life. If you’re in search of a jacket adept at both, something like the Arc’teryx Covert Cardigan may the ideal choice, with enough room to be comfortable but not so loose as to be useless in the backcountry. For casual wear, a roomier fit option like the Patagonia Synchilla Snap-T or one of the other budget options may be the ticket.
Fleece Jacket Features
The synthetic nature of fleece jackets means they can vary pretty dramatically in style, and one of the best representations is the amount of loft in the jacket. Less loft means a lower profile that has a brushed, sweater-like look, while high-loft options are fuzzier and thicker. Much of the decision will come down to personal preference on style and feel. The extra-soft feel of a high pile jacket is well worth it for some, while those that use their fleece around town may prefer a lower loft alternative like the Arc’teryx Covert Cardigan.
Nearly every fleece out there is offered in either hooded or standard fare. For use as a classic midlayer, we typically lean towards a non-hooded option as even a low profile hood can get in the way underneath your shell (unless you always use both hoods). And for use under a ski jacket, it’s a no-brainer to go with a non-hooded model. Alternatively, in colder conditions a hood is a welcome addition and many fleece hoodies are nicely fitted over your head and should stay on even while exercising.
Performance fleeces designed for activities like running or cross-country skiing will occasionally have thumbholes built into the sleeves. While serving as an opening for cold air to sneak in when not in use, the openings work well for keeping the sleeves in place during high effort activities or when taking on and off layers. User tip: if you’re eyeing a jacket that has this feature, we recommend checking to make sure the fabric around the thumbhole has some stretch so it doesn’t feel like your thumb is being yanked around when you extend your arms.
Is Fleece Sustainable?
Animal-derived insulators like down and wool get a bad rap from environmental advocates (and in many cases, rightly so), but fleece isn’t without blame either. Polyester fleece is a synthetic, petroleum-based material, which means a few things. For one, it’s plastic—in fact, it’s made up of the same stuff as those single-use plastic bottles many of us try to avoid. Second, unlike sustainably produced natural materials like cotton or down, the production of fleece can result in greenhouse gas emissions and potentially unsafe work environments. And finally, fleece sheds throughout its lifetime, littering microplastics in its wake—as multiple studies have shown, one single fleece jacket can release thousands of fibers into wastewater with each wash. Given the current state of plastics in our oceans, this is not good news.
But there are steps we can take to address this issue. Companies like Patagonia and Polartec produce most of their polyester fabrics (including fleece) from recycled plastic bottles, which both reduces emissions and repurposes materials that might otherwise end up in a landfill. At the time of publishing, 91% of Patagonia’s polyester fabrics are derived from recycled materials. We’re also seeing manufacturers increase their use of natural fabrics, including hemp, lyocell, wool, and bamboo. Unlike polyester fleece’s microplastics, fibers that shed from these materials actually biodegrade. And then that leaves you, the consumer. You can do your part by following the three R’s (reduce your consumption, reuse what you have, buy products made with recycled materials), and when you can, seek out clothing made with natural—rather than synthetic—fibers.
Fleece vs. Synthetic and Down Insulation
The midlayer market is chock full of options, and fleece’s two primary competitors are synthetic jackets and down jackets. Both are more expensive than a fleece but offer improved warmth relative to their weight and are far more packable. Further, synthetic jackets provide better protection against wind and rain (although some modern fleeces aren’t far behind). But if breathability and a soft next-to-skin feel are at the top of your list, a fleece remains our go-to choice. Synthetic and down jackets require a lining and outer shell to hold the insulation, which impacts comfort and the ability to pull away sweat and hot air. As a result, the fleece excels at aerobic activities when bulk isn’t as much of a concern, such as resort skiing and day hiking. But in the end, none are the end-all-be-all insulating layer, which is why it is common for people to own one (or more) of each.
Caring for a Fleece Jacket
Pilling is one of the downsides of a low-quality fleece, and even a nicer option can start losing fleece over time. Once a jacket starts pilling up, it’s difficult to reverse the process, so prevention is key here. One of the best ways to extend the life of your fleece is keeping it clear of a drier. Line drying or at least tumble-drying on low will do wonders, and some have had success washing their fleeces on the delicate wash cycle. Also, while fleece jackets are a popular choice for hanging around the campfire, do your best to keep it clear of the flames. The plasticky construction will melt when exposed to extreme heat. Beyond those considerations, fleeces are easy to maintain and should give you years of comfy service.
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