How to Choose a Fleece Jacket
Fleece is warm and fuzzy and provides excellent warmth. It's an ideal layer for a wide range of seasons and activities. This guide breaks down everything you need to know when choosing a fleece jacket including fabric types, weights, styles of jackets, and the best times to wear them.
A go-to you can count on, fleece offers a lot of happiness when the weather starts to get cool. The best part is it's a versatile, year-round piece. So long as you're a little chilly, wear fleece in any season you want. Warm yet breathable, you can count on fleece through spring, summer, fall, and winter. There are adjustments to be had for sure; for example, skip the heavyweights in the heat of summer. Fleece is light, breathable, and ideal for layering. Yep, it can totally be worn alone with just a t-shirt, but you can also put a shell over top to create your very own system of protection against the cold. Regardless of what weight you choose, it's light in weight overall, making it easy to stuff it in your pack if the weather starts to warm up. Technology in fleece jackets has come a long way since your parents' old boxy jackets. Designed for layering, fleece jackets come optimized for breathability and moisture wicking, or thicker heavier weights with water resistance and abrasion-resistant panels. Not all jackets are created equal and so activity and energy output should be considered when choosing a fleece for that activity.
First created by Polartec in the 1970s, fleece has come a long way from scratchy fabric with no stretch. While Polartec is still a leading maker of fleece jackets of various styles and for various brands, many brands also produce their own in-house blends as well. So what makes one fleece feel different from another? Different blends, source materials, and weaving processes can affect the feel and stretch of different jackets. A fleece designed for a high-output activity may have Lycra or elastane in the weave to promote stretch while still retaining its shape. A fleece designed purely for warmth may have wool or Sherpa fleece to create a thicker pile with more warmth. Fleece can be made from recycled materials, wool, or petroleum derivatives like other synthetic fabrics. These fibers are then woven in different styles to promote air circulation and retain warmth, while wicking moisture.
So how do you know if one fleece will be warmer than the other? Fleece jackets are generally categorized by weight class. This helps determine the thickness or “pile” of the jacket. A thicker jacket of higher weight and thicker pile, will be warmer than a similar looking jacket of lighter weight and shorter pile. It is also important to note that although weight directly contributes to warmth, factors such as fabric weave and loft or fluffiness also contribute directly to how warm a jacket will feel. The longer and fluffier the fibers, the more air pockets there are to trap more heat. Heavier, tightly woven jackets will not provide the same amount of warmth that a mid-weight, higher-loft jacket will provide. However, the heavier, tighter-woven jacket will make it more wind resistant and less breathable. Certain trade-offs will have to be made to suit your activity or use in mind. Or just wear both and be the warmest, fluffiest person on the trail or at the campfire.
Ultralight, < 100 g/m²
The thinnest and lightest option of them all, ideally for weather that is not too hot or too cold. Think fun adventures that include extremely high output activities such as running or mountain biking. This layer is designed to allow for maximum ventilation and breathability while maintaining a bit of warmth when at a standstill. A great layering piece for early morning adventures or for when the sun starts to dip and the temperature starts to drop. Ultralight and lightweight fleece jackets are the most breathable and fit under outer layers easier.
Lightweight, 100 g/m²
Thicker than ultralight, a 100 weight fleece is best used for high output activities for the shoulder season where you will start using a layering system to maintain warmth. A lightweight fleece is also a great option for layering in colder seasons when doing high output activities such as ski touring or snowshoeing. Do keep in mind that these lightweight options are usually designed for maximum breathability and moisture wicking and less on warmth retention. On colder days, lightweight jackets can also be layered under mid-weight or heavyweight fleece for maximum layering and warmth retention.
Mid-weight, 200 g/m²
Not too thin, not too heavy, the Goldilocks fleece. A mid-weight fleece is a great option as a go-to fleece for any adventure. Use it as a thicker layer for high-output activities that you can use when cooling down or if the weather gets cold. A mid-weight fleece can also be a great layering piece for winter activities with a moderate level of output like resort skiing or hiking. Due to the popularity of mid-weight fleece jackets, this category will see the largest variation in weave density and loft thickness. A thicker, short-weave fleece will be more wind resistant but will feel less fluffy and warm on its own. A mid-weight high-loft fleece will be fluffier and feel warmer until a breeze cuts right through it. Layer one of each for the best of both worlds. A mid-weight fleece is the do-it-all option for chilly campfires, fall hikes, and even hanging around the office when the AC is blasting.
Heavyweight, 300 g/m²
The heavyweight contender, as you may have guessed, will be the warmest and bulkiest of fleece jackets. These jackets are usually used as stand-alone coats, or as an additional layering piece for the coldest adventures. A heavyweight fleece will be just as home on the bleachers at a late season football game or slope-side at a ski resort. Heavyweight fleece jackets usually have different materials or layers to them to maximize warmth and resistance to the elements. Water-resistant patches on the shoulders or arms can help block the wind and rain while high-loft fibers are used in other areas such as chest and back for added warmth. Due to their thickness, these jackets tend to be bulky and not play as nice in a larger layering system.
While this was not always the case, most fleece jackets from ultralight to mid-weight are designed with breathability in mind. So why would they design a jacket meant to keep you warm, but also be able to let air through it? This feature is actually very helpful in letting hot air from your body escape, so you won't overheat. You want this to happen since physical activities like hiking, climbing, biking, and more cause your body to heat up. Fleece allows that extra heat to release out while still helping warm your body from the cold temperatures. So how do you dial in the right amount of heat retention, without ending up in a puddle of sweat during your activities?
Breathability can be greatly affected by the different fabrics, weights, and weaves of materials used. This method is sometimes referred to as heat mapping, where the warmer areas such as back, sides, and armpits have less coverage, while colder areas such as chest, shoulders, or arms may see thicker or different fabrics. This increases the breathability of the more critical areas and promotes sweat and moisture to wick away while keeping the rest of the areas warm and dry. Fabric or weave styles can also contribute directly to warmth and breathability of a fleece. For example, “gridded” fleece is excellent at promoting breathability while retaining warmth. Gridded fleece usually has a checkerboard look of small fleece squares. These squares create channels between them that create small air channels between the jacket and your skin. This also allows sweat to evaporate quicker through these thinner channels. The trade-off is that although these grid fleece jackets are extremely breathable, they allow wind to cut right through them. This makes these jackets great for high-output activities, but they should also be paired with a wind resistant shell for maximum warmth retention.
Full-zip, quarter-zip, thumb loops, scuba hoods, and reinforced sleeves are all useful features that you can find on a fleece jacket.
Style is the form or fashion that cuddly fleece comes in and there are a whole boatload of options out there. Full zip, half zip, quarter zip, and crew top. Hood or hoodie. There are even cardigans and wraps. The most versatile is the full zip, as you can close that front zipper or leave it hanging open to release the heat. It's all about the personal comfort and daily style that you wish to exude. I prefer a half or quarter zip pullover, but I might change my mind next week, so I keep a variety of options in my closet. Style can also change depending on the activity or purpose the fleece is designed for. A fleece designed as a layering piece may be more slim fitted so that you can wear other layers overtop. Other fleece jackets may be intended for more casual adventures with different features such as a more relaxed fit, buttons, or basic pockets.
Style will ultimately come down to personal preference. If you are looking for a fleece but hate zippers, you may go with a pullover or quarter zip. If you are looking for a true layering piece, you may go with a full-zip with heat mapping, using different thickness materials in different areas of the jacket. Maybe you like a casual hood or are looking for a fleece jacket with a helmet-compatible hood. There are a multitude other features such as cinch cords or waist-belt compatible pockets for backpacking backpacks. Seamless shoulders for backpack straps as well as thumb loops for hand warmth or for ease of getting on additional outer layers are other welcome features depending on the intended use. Jackets can also include activity specific features such as chest pockets instead of hip pockets for better comfort in a climbing harness. The options are endless and can be as specific as you wish; you can either go with a special fleece for specific activities, or go with one fleece to rule them all for any adventure.
How can you tell the quality of fleece?
Quality fleece is most easily characterized by being anti-pill. It goes through additional processing during manufacturing, which also causes it to be smoother, more durable, and feature tightly packed-together fibers. It's less likely to unravel, tends to be heavier weight, and often carries a higher price tag.
What does 280 GSM fleece mean?
GSM stands for grams per square meter and refers to the weight of the fleece. There are typically three major categories, but I've added a fourth to really narrow things down. A 280gsm fleece will fall into the midweight range, it is ideal in cool to cold conditions and can be worn alone or as a midlayer, underneath a shell. Think fall and winter adventures on the trail, or on the slopes.
• Ultralight - less than 100 gsm
• Lightweight - 100-200 gsm
• Midweight - 200-300 gsm
• Heavyweight - 300 gsm or more
Are there different types of fleece?
You betcha. There are many fleeces and they fill lots of different roles in your everyday to adventuring life. The two most common are micro (soft and thin) and Polar (thick and warm). Eco fleece is made of recycled materials while slub is blended with other material such as cotton or French Terry. Textured is high pile, super warm, and typically fuzzy, it's a more casual wear piece and Sherpa is in this category. Grid fleece is relatively new, featuring a grid pattern that breathes better and packs down easier, making it more suitable for fast-moving outdoor adventures.
• Polar - The most common style. This features a double-sided pile and can be found on jackets, blankets, and even gloves and hats.
• Micro - A thinner, lightweight version of Polar fleece. This is the most breathable, flexible, and lighter version. This material is usually found in Ultralight, and Lightweight jackets.
• Eco - Since polyester is a petroleum product, Eco fleece uses recycled materials such as recycled polyester or even plastic bottles. This material can be found in all types of fleece jackets from Ultralight to Heavyweight.
• Slub - A textured, heather colored material made by weaving two different size materials. This material is generally a mix of cotton and polyester and can range from athletic jackets to casual wear.
• Textured - Textured fleece can range from Sherpa, or Wool styles and usually refers to high-pile fluffy fleece jackets. Most used in casual wear or heavyweight jackets.
• Grid - As mentioned above, this style is used generally for high-output activities where moisture wicking and breathability are paramount. This material gets its name from the grid-shaped squares that are used to promote heat retention and vapor release.
What is the best fleece (for me)?
High quality fleece comes in many weights and styles. The trick is to remember the best fleece is the one that most closely aligns with your lifestyle or adventure ahead. Fleece in general is very versatile, and can span through the seasons and your particular journey. You may even find yourself with a closet of thin and thick options, textured and smooth, each one dialing into your comfort level depending on the weather or simply your mood.
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