It’s hard to believe now, but there was once a time before fleece when people kept warm with manly woolly jumpers and then scary, shaggy, blue, pile jackets. Then someone invented fleece and it became the ubiquitous uniform of the outdoors person.
Now in turn fleece is being displaced by other fabrics, but it’s
still a useful tool to pack in your outdoors arsenal. But which one
should you choose? We guide you through the soft, fluffy fleece
What’s it for and why is it good?
Put simply, the stuff is there to keep you warm. It’s a matted,
mesh of synthetic fibres that’ll trap warm air, dry out reasonably
quickly, feel comfy and luxurious and pack down fast. It’s basically
a high tech pullover.
Conventional fleece has very little wind or water resistance, so
in anything short of perfectly still conditions, you’ll need to wear
it with some sort of waterproof or windproof shell to stop the
trapped warm air in the fibres from blowing away.
What weight fleece do I need?
There are three classic fleece weights originally introduced by
Malden Mills the makers of Polartec fleece.
weight or microfleece is the lightest normal fleece and the limit
for many people as an undershell insulator when moving fast. It
packs small and light and may be all you need except in really
- 200 weight or midweight / normal fleece is twice the weight
per square metre as microfleece and is significantly warmer. Many
people will find it too heavy for active use, particularly with a
shell, however it’s ideal for stops and for less active use when
camping and so on.
- 300 weight or heavyweight fleece is a third heavier again and
is next to useless for active use, though great for sitting around
in cold climbing huts, snuggling in pubs and caffs and generally
staying warm when stationary.
If you run on the warm side then a 100 weight microfleece might be
your best choice, if you run cooler then think about 200 weight and
for active use, forget about the heavier 300-weight
It used to be the case that Polartec fleece substantially
outperformed cheaper, own brand fleeces which were prone to bobbling
with use. Things have changed though and the latest own brand fabrics
from outdoor brands are much better than they used to be. Polartec
has also dropped its prices and this winter, Regatta is selling
genuine Polartec fleece.
We’d happily use most own brand fleeces for general outdoor
One of the side effects of the levelling out of the fleece playing
field has been the development of a range of ‘clever’ fleeces with
premium prices. The four most obvious are:
or Karisma – a densely woven fleece used by Mountain Equipment,
Montane and others, it’s significantly more wind resistant than
‘normal’ fleece and slightly less thermally efficient making it
more versatile for UK mountain use. A good option though now being
superceded by shelled microfleeces. Polartec’s Thermal Pro is a
ver similar fabric, but also available in heavier weights.
- Powerstretch – made by Polartec, Powerstretch is a
close-fitting, stretchy fleece derivative that’s thermally
efficient and works well in technical situations. Not the most
flattering fabric out there, but hey, eat less do-nuts….
- Thermal Pro is Polartec’s range of high tec fleeces at
high tec prices. It covers a whole range of fabrics, but the
common factor is that they use cunning fabric structures to make
the fleece significantly warmer for its weight than you’d expect.
In weights all the way from microfleece through to heavier, furry
grades like MHW’s Monkey Phur. It first appeared as Patagonia’s
- Warm Zone is the result of Lowe Alpine’s co-operation
with Du Pont. It maps thick and thin areas of a tough, stretch
fleece onto the body so you get insulation where you need it most.
Light and warm, it looks strange, but we like it.
We’ve used lots of windproof fleece over the years and so far,
none of it has been breathable enough for active use in the UK,
though it may function better in cold, dry mountain conditions at
high altitude. Frankly we believe there are better alternatives to
windproof fleece such as Schoeller, synthetically insulated windproof
jackets and some types of softshell. We’d save this for dog
Design and cut
Most fleece tops are based on a simple jacket or smock design but
there are a few points you should be aware of when buying….
cut jackets will be more thermally efficient and eliminate air
pockets which allow you to lose heat watch out for lost mobility
- Handwarmer pockets are great for general use, but if you’re
planning to use a pack with belt or a harness, you should opt for
chest pockets which won’t get in the way instead.
- An adjustable hem and close-fitting cuffs are near essential,
without them air will be free to billow into and out of your
- A nice, comfy collar will keep your neck warm on winter days
and stop shell jacket from rubbing unpleasantly.
- There are a few technical fleeces with hoods around, though
generally the hoods are designed to be used for extra heat during
stops and under helmets. Look for captive drawcords which won’t
whip into your face in high winds and ideally the ability to cover
the lower part of your face.
- Zip-In fleeces are a waste of time for proper outdoor use. The
system leaves a cold gap where the zip is plus is less versatile
than a seperate fleece and shell jacket. Don’t bother.
As clothing technology’s developed, alternatives to fleece have appeared
many of which are either more weather resistant or lighter for the
insulation value than fleece.
One alternative is shelled microfleece – for example
Marmot’s Driclime range or ME’s Microtherm – which uses a very
lightweight fleece lining with a woven, windproof outer.
The other is synthetically insulated jackets which use a
lightweight synthetic fibre – often Primaloft – in a windproof shell
to give effective, damp resistant insulation.
Both are definitely worth considering for active use, but lack
that luxurious soft touch for sitting around the caff after a hard
day on the hill.