Whether you're hunkered down around the campfire, sipping your morning coffee while enjoying the view from your RV, trekking through a forest, or just trying to keep the chill off as you prepare to hit the road or the shops, a good fleece jacket is indispensable. The fabric tends to be lighter and softer (without the itchiness) than wool or other fabrics, so it's comfortable to wear no matter where you go.
What Do We Mean by a Fleece Jacket?
The term fleece often refers to various jackets made from a fleece material. It can be a hoodie, a lightweight causal pullover, a sweatshirt, etc. In this case, though, we're using the term fleece jacket specifically to refer to polar fleece.
Polar fleece was invented in 1979 when Maden Mills (which later became Polar Tec) and Patagonia developed a lightweight pile fabric that somewhat mimics (and may be even better than) wool. The inventor never patented the material, so it became widely available.
Fleece jackets typically have either a full or half zip and provide good insulation to keep you warm as the temperatures drop in the evening or the weather gets chilly in the fall and winter months.
These jackets are designed to keep you cozy, but unless you have an outer shell, most won't keep you completely dry (though many help keep you warm even if they do get damp). You may also find the wind still gets through. Thus, they're often considered an essential layer to be worn over a sweat-wicking shirt (such as merino wool) and under a more weather-resistant outer layer.
Because they're so lightweight and don't add a lot of bulk (as a down jacket can), they're good to use as a single layer in mild weather conditions or under a hardshell jacket when storms come in.
Now that it's been around for several decades, one of the biggest concerns with polar fleece is that it's made of synthetic polyester from petrochemicals. Over time, polyester slowly degrades and releases tiny microplastic fibers into the environment. While one of the benefits is how easy they are to launder, again, the plastics break down and can end up in our water supply over time. In addition, this breakdown of the fabric can cause the fleece to pill (develop fuzzy dots) and wear out.
Fortunately, many companies are now taking steps to address these issues, often by making polar fleece using only recycled materials and processing it so that it's less likely to shed fibers. For instance, Power Air is a newer fleece fabric invented by Polar Tec, which was designed to prevent shedding. According to Polar Tec, this fabric sheds five times less plastics than similar polar fleece. Others are made by combining synthetic fleece with natural fibers to help decrease the issue of pilling and shedding microfibers.
Choosing the Right Fleece
Polar fleece comes in different weights, with 100-weight fleece being the lightest and 300-weight being the heaviest. Microfleece jackets are very lightweight and soft. They're also thin enough to wear under other layers without adding a lot of bulk. You'll find a number of fleece jackets at the 200-weight mark, as it's often the most versatile for keeping you warm yet providing breathability, so you don't overheat or get too sweaty during activities.
Other fleece jackets are made with a grid pattern that allows more air to flow through, which you'll appreciate if you're very active (such as during hikes or bike rides).
You can also find fluffy fleece jackets that look more like animal fur or soft wool. These tend to be a bit bulkier but are also much warmer. They're still lightweight, though, so there are good options when you're out in the cold.
You can find fleece jackets made with hard-faced or tech-face fleece or Thermos Pro, which was developed to prevent pilling, last longer, and provide greater weather resistance. Some jackets even add additional water resistance. These jackets tend to resist pilling, and many people prefer the look and feel.
Top Fleece Jackets
Now that you know some of the many benefits of fleece jackets, you may wonder which one to choose. Because fleece jackets are so versatile and cozy, they're worth the investment to choose a quality jacket that will last many seasons. Here are some of the top fleece jackets by category:
Top Lightweight Fleece for Men and Women: As one of the originators of polar fleece, you'd expect a lot from Patagonia. Their R1 Air Full-Zip Hoody provides warm, dry comfort with a lightweight, breathable jacket made to be on the move. It doesn't keep out the rain, snow, or wind, but it's perfect for walks or hikes when the weather cools down. And, it also makes an ideal layer under a shell when the weather takes a darker turn.
Top Mid-Weight Fleece Jacket for Men and Women: If you're looking for a slim fit, comfortable layer that's warm and wind resistant, the Arc'teryx Kyanite Hoody fits the bill. Because it offers more room in the shoulders and is made with a fabric that stretches with you, it's great for activities. Plus, it blocks much of the wind to keep you warm and comfortable. It also has a smooth outer layer, so it's easy to brush off dirt and debris.
However, this likely isn't the right layer if you'll be highly active or if it's only slightly chilly, as it's heavier and less breathable. But for cold fall evenings or winter days, it's a nice, cozy layer to have with you!
Both Arc'teryx and Patagonia are typically at the top end of the budget when it comes to outdoor gear. You may be able to find both pre-owned at various thrift stores, which can help protect your wallet. But you may have a harder time finding the color and size that fits. Other quality brands of fleece jackets include Outdoor Research (like their Vigor Quarter Zip), Columbia (e.g., Benton Springs), Cotopaxi (e.g., Teca Full-Zip), The North Face, or even store brands like REI.
While we certainly have our top picks, you may be looking for different features, such as a hood, deep pockets, or thumb loops. No matter which fleece jacket you choose, it's sure to keep you warm and cozy throughout the year, whether you're kicking it around your RV, summiting a majestic mountain, or enjoying your favorite restaurant with friends.