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The best fleece jackets: versatile mid layers for breathable, year-round warmth

Best fleece jackets
(Image credit: Getty)

The best fleece jackets in this guide are by far the most popular choice when it comes to picking a mid layer for your outdoor layering system. In fact, it’s a pretty popular choice to wear to the shops, when walking the dog and for just kicking around at home too. Fleeces made the leap from technical outerwear to everyday wardrobe staples long ago, and today most people own a fleece, regardless of how often they venture into the great outdoors. That’s not really surprising – they’re soft, warm, comfortable and breathable, which is precisely why almost everyone has got one.

Usually made of lofty polyester pile, fleece – or polar fleece as it is sometimes known – is a synthetic fabric that comes in many different varieties, from lightweight microfleece to the super-fluffy high-loft type. But in almost all cases, fleece is lighter than a wool sweater or pullover (not to mention less itchy), while being cheaper and more hardwearing than a goose or duck down jacket or gilet. It is also very quick-drying, which makes it ideal for use as a mid layer, helping to keep you comfortable throughout the day.

Fleece is far from faultless of course. It’s a synthetic fabric made from polyester fibres, for starters, and – especially during washing – fleeces release microplastics into the environment.

But responsible brands in the outdoor industry are actively searching for answers to these problems. The best fleece jackets – such as the Helly Hansen Power Air Grid Jacket – are now designed to shed fewer microscopic fibres, lessening their environmental impact, and many fleeces are also now made from recycled polyester.

Helly Hansen Power Air Heat Grid Jacket

(Image credit: Helly Hansen)

Helly Hansen Power Air Heat Grid Jacket

As microplastic pollution moves higher up the environmental agenda, the days of fibre-shedding synthetic fleece ought to be numbered. Is this jacket’s Polartec’s Power Air fabric the future of fleece?

RRP: $200 (US) / £150 (UK) / €170 (EU) | Fabric: Polartec Power Air (89% recycled polyester, 11% elastane) | Sizes: Men's: S–XXL; Women's: XS–XL | Weight (men’s size L): 601g/21.16oz | Colors: Men’s: Black; Women’s Cream / Black

Innovative fabric that greatly reduces microfibre shedding 
Warm and breathable
Useful thumb loops
Not class-leading warmth for weight
Not the softest feeling fabric
Expensive

The Helly Hansen Power Air Heat Grid jacket is a mid layer fleece designed to greatly reduce the problem of microfibre shedding. To achieve this, its polyester fibres are encapsulated within pockets that trap air to generate warmth, a bit like the baffles of a down jacket. Since the loose polyester fibres are trapped in a tightly woven outer, there is up to 80% less microplastic release when wearing or washing the jacket. You’ll appreciate this if you don’t like fleeces that leave fuzz all over your other clothes too. The face fabric has been similarly developed with durability in mind, resisting pilling or bobbling. The jacket itself has an ideal semi-tailored fit – not too tight, not too baggy – with zipped hand pockets and thumb loops at the cuffs. A little stretch in the fabric ensures pleasant everyday comfort, and there’s plenty of length in the arms and torso for ample coverage. Lastly, the fabric is made from recycled polyester, strengthening its eco credentials. If you are mindful of the impact of synthetics, but appreciate their performance, this is a top choice. It is a fraction heavier than most other fleece jackets of similar warmth, but that seems a small price to pay for a greener garment.

Outdoor Research Vigor Full-Zip Hoodie

(Image credit: Outdoor Research)

Outdoor Research Vigor Full-Zip Hoodie

Lightweight, stretchy and super-breathable, this is a great all-action mid layer for high-tempo hill and mountain days – whether you’re beasting a climb or freewheeling downhill.

RRP: $99 (US) / £90 (UK) | Fabric: Grid-back fleece made from polyester (94%) and elastane/ spandex (6%) | Sizes: Men's: S–XXL / Women's: XS-XL | Weight (men’s size L): 340g/12oz | Colors: Men’s: Black / Cascade blue / Lichen Green / Madder red; Women’s Twilight Blue / Black / Cascade blue / Lichen Green / Madder red

Super breathable 
Elastic-bound hood
Three useful pockets
Thumb loops
Lightweight fabric designed to give only modest warmth 
Some concerns over long-term durability

The Vigor is a lightweight microgrid stretch fleece that is designed to maximise breathability and regulate body temperature effectively – basically, to keep you warm when it’s a bit chilly but stop you overheating and getting too sweaty when you’re working hard. The fabric incorporates a thermo-regulating polymer that the brand refers to as ActiveTemp technology. This treatment has been applied to the inside of the fleece fabric, and when you get hot, it activates to soak up more of your sweat, then releases it through the fabric as you cool down. As such, it ticks all the boxes as a technical mid layer. It is close-fitting, with plenty of stretch for dynamic movement. The gridded microfleece fabric is soft and comfortable, as well as being lightweight and breathable. Other details have also clearly been considered carefully – there are integrated thumb loops in the cuffs, an elastic bound hood, a full-zip with a chin guard, a zipped chest pocket, and two zipped hand pockets, both of which are placed a little higher than usual so as not to be obstructed by a climbing harness or a backpack hipbelt.

Sherpa Rolpa jacket

(Image credit: Sherpa)

Sherpa Rolpa jacket

This lightweight, full-zip fleece looks and feel great, with stylish details that make it suitable for everyday use as well as outdoor wear

RRP: $60 (US) / £50 (UK) | Fabric: 100-weight polyester microfleece | Sizes: Men’s S–XXL; Women's: XS–XL | Weight (men’s size L): 312g/11oz | Colors: Potala red / Raja blue / Neelo blue

Super soft fabric 
Quality construction and finishing
Stylish details
Ethically made with benefits to Nepalese children
Lightweight microfleece provides only modest warmth 
Cuffs and hem not elasticated

The Rolpa is a stylish crossover layer that you can take on the hills but also wear as part of an everyday wardrobe. As a lightweight fleece, it doesn’t deliver huge amounts of warmth, but is the ideal jacket to throw on over a base layer for hillwalking or over a T-shirt for daily wear. It is extremely soft and stays comfortable all day long. The full zip has a soft chin guard with a classy leather and brass pull-tab zipper. The zipped hand pockets also have cord pulls and a taped ‘prayer flag’ trim, which is also found inside the base of the collar. The fit of the Rolpa jacket is spot on, with a slim silhouette but enough length in the arms and torso for full coverage. The panel construction also thoughtfully places seams away from the tops of the shoulders for added comfort under a shell, or if wearing a pack. Best of all, however, is the fact that the Rolpa is actually made in Nepal, with the brand providing education and resources for children in Nepal for every product sold.

Klättermusen Balder Zip

(Image credit: Klättermusen)

Klättermusen Balder Zip

With its sustainable, soft and durable wool-polyester fabric blend, this warm mid layer exudes style and class, giving it more appeal than most synthetic technical fleeces

RRP: $200 (US) / £133 (UK) / €180 (EU) | Fabric: Recycled Wool (46%), Polyester (36%), Polyamide (16%), Other Fibres 3% | Sizes: Men’s: XS–XXL; Women's: XXS–XL | Weight (men’s size L): 380g/13.4oz | Colors: Men’s: Dark Moon, Dusty Green; Women’s: Charcoal* Sorrel Red

Durable and well-made
Sound eco credentials 
Very warm
Comfortable, with great fit
Relatively heavy
Not the most breathable
Not as quick drying as pure synthetics
Expensive

Rather than being fully synthetic, the Balder is made from an unusual blend of recycled wool, polyester and nylon. This ensures softness yet also durability, as well as improved sustainability. The wool is sourced from an Italian supplier, which spins new yarn from offcuts and old garments. It’s a typically considered and conscientious approach from the Swedish brand, which is known for its strong environmental stance as well as its high-performance technical gear. This jacket is designed for cold weather use, so delivers high levels of warmth. It is cosy, luxurious and not at all itchy. It also breathes better than you might expect for such a heavyweight layer. The overall cut is well tailored, with a trim fit, long arms and a scooped rear hem for good all-round coverage. The shaped cuffs cover the wrists and the backs of the hands well. The collar is snug and locks in heat very effectively, without feeling constrictive. The main zip and the hand pockets have chunky pull tabs that are easy to grip while wearing gloves. Overall, it’s a mid layer that offers good technical performance and which is stylish enough to wear as part of your everyday winter wardrobe too.

Keela Micro Pulse Top

(Image credit: Keela)

Keela Micro Pulse Top

This lightweight half-zip top offers plenty of soft, cosy comfort, so it is ideal as a simple, no frills mid layer all year round

RRP: £30 (UK) | Fabric: Zetland 100-weight polyester microfleece | Sizes: Men’s: 2XS–3XL; Women’s: UK 8–22 | Weight (men’s size L): 272g/9.59oz | Colors: Men: Red and black / Persian blue / Wolf grey, Moss / Navy / Black; Women: Berry / Calypso blue / Red and black / Persian blue / Wolf grey, Moss / Navy / Black

Flatlock seams for comfort 
Stand-up collar
Deep neck zip with chin guard
Lightweight microfleece provides only modest warmth 
Cuffs and hem a little baggy

The Micro Pulse Top from Scottish outdoor brand Keela is a no-nonsense sort of layer. It is made from soft and cosy 100-weight polyester microfleece, which is a proven fabric that balances comfort and performance. A half zip at the neck enables you to pull the top on and off easily, while also affording a bit of venting if you do start to overheat on those more strenuous uphill climbs. The zipper has an easy-grab puller and there’s a soft chin guard at the top to minimise irritation. You also get a stand-up collar to lock in heat and ward off any chilly gusts. Otherwise, that’s about it, although the thoughtfully designed panel construction ensures there are no awkwardly placed seams – and those that are necessary are flatlock stitched to avoid bulk and prevent chafing. All in all, it’s a simple but effective fleece top that will come in handy all year round.

Montane Viper Fleece Hoodie

(Image credit: Montane)

Montane Viper Fleece Hoodie

A technical fleece that works well as a low-bulk layer, made from a performance fabric that feels luxuriously soft

RRP: £80 (UK) | Fabric: Polartec Thermal Pro (80% polyester, 12% lyocell, 8% elastane) | Sizes: Men's: S–XXL; Women's: UK 8–16 | Weight (men’s size L): 358g/12.62oz | Colors: Men’s: Shadow / Redwood / Inca Gold / Narwhal blue; Women’s: Blue ridge / Shadow / Redwood / Inca Gold / Narwhal blue

Super soft fabric for superb comfort
Balances warmth and wicking ability
Elastic-bound hood
Full zip with inner baffle
Only one zipped pocket 
Lacks thumb loops

Montane’s Viper hoodie is a midweight stretch fleece made from Polartec Thermal Pro fabric. A trim-fitting mid layer, it offers good technical performance yet feels more like a favourite casual fleece. The unusual fabric blend incorporates soft Lyocell yarns that make this hoodie not just soft and comfortable, but positively luxurious. It also offers more warmth than a microgrid fleece, excelling in chilly conditions when worn over a wicking baselayer. Other details similarly aid comfort, like the micro-flatlocked sewn seams throughout, the snug lycra bound hood and cuffs as well as the brushed microfleece lined hand pockets. Montane has even added a couple of good features that many other fleeces lack – namely, a full-length baffle behind the main zip, which aids comfort, and a hanging loop at the collar, which adds practicality (especially if you’ve got a little sweaty and need to let your fleece dry out somewhere warm).

Picture Organic Marco Jacket

(Image credit: Picture)

Picture Organic Marco Jacket

With its distinctive looks, impeccable eco credentials and versatile, wear-anywhere performance, this is a jacket that will appeal to style-savvy and environment-conscious outdoorsy types

RRP: £130 (UK) / €135 (EU) | Fabric: Polartec Thermal Pro (100% recycled polyester) | Sizes: XS–XXL | Weight (men’s size L): 481g/16.96oz | Colors: Black / Grey melange / Army green

Ethically made, using recycled materials 
Warm and cosy fabric
Elastic-bound hood, hem and cuffs to lock in heat
Stylish looks
Lacks thumb loops
Fabric seems prone to pilling

Picture Organic is a French brand with roots in the snowboard and skate scene, and their clothing is known for its stylish looks as well as its strong focus on sustainability. The Marco Jacket employs Polartec Thermal Pro fabric made from 100% recycled polyester and is ethically manufactured in China. With its knitted outer finish, this jacket has a more casual look that hides its technical qualities. There are elastic bindings at the hem, cuffs and around the hood to help lock in warmth. There are also zipped chest and hand pockets for storage, plus a full length YKK main zip with a soft chin guard. This fleece offers a very good level of warmth for its weight to keep you toasty on the slopes, as well as for other adventures in the great outdoors. The length in the arms and torso is generous enough to provide good coverage. We liked the practical pockets for casual wear, and the soft linings make them an inviting place to stick your hands. In fact, we liked the jacket’s overall look and feel so much that it became a common choice for everyday wear. It also has superb eco credentials that put a lot of bigger brands to shame.

Mountain Equipment Concordia Jacket

(Image credit: Mountain Equipment)

Mountain Equipment Concordia Jacket

Designed to offer the maximum warmth for weight that a fleece mid layer can deliver, this technical jacket is a solid choice for cold-weather mountain adventures

RRP: £125 (UK) | Fabric: Polartec Thermal Pro High-Loft Grid Fleece (100% polyester) | Sizes: Men’s: S–XXL; Women's: UK 8–16 | Weight (men’s size L): 440g/15.5oz | Colors: Cosmos blue / Moorland slate; Women’s Legion blue / Cosmos blue / Moorland slate

Excellent warmth for weight
Very packable
Breathable
Quick-drying
Short in arms and body
No thumb loops

Fluffy high-loft fleece offers just about the best warmth for weight of any fleece fabric. The Mountain Equipment Concordia employs a double-sided Polartec Thermal Pro high loft fabric and is clearly designed for cold-weather mountain missions, ski tours and other sub-zero adventures. The other benefit of high-loft is its soft feel, and together with the jacket’s flatlocked, coverstitched seams, this gives a high level of comfort. The 100% polyester construction has no natural stretch, but the close fit ensures there is no dead space inside the jacket. There’s also a full-length baffle behind the reverse-coil main zip, again optimising wearing comfort, as well as helping to block draughts and any moisture that does make its way through the zip. The jacket’s body-skimming cut means it layers well under an insulated jacket or shell. The double-sided, close-fitting collar tucks in nicely under the chin, while the two zipped hand pockets are also placed high enough to avoid getting in the way of a rucksack hipbelt or a climbing harness. The fit won’t suit everyone, but if you need a fleece layer that offers maximum warmth for weight, you can’t do better than this.

Alpkit Yakutian Jacket

(Image credit: Alpkit)

Alpkit Yakutian Jacket

With a hardface outer fabric that is more wind-resistant than most fleeces, this jacket works well as both a mid layer and an outer layer on chilly, breezy days

RRP: £50 (UK) | Fabric: 225-weight hardface stretch fleece (92% polyester, 8% elastane) | Sizes: Men’s: S–XXL; Women's: UK 8–18 | Weight (men’s size L): 380g/13.4oz | Colors: Reef blue / Charcoal grey

Durable
Warm
Comfortable
Not as breathable as some fleece fabrics
No hand pockets
Cuffs and hem not elasticated

The Yakutian is a versatile fleece that can be worn as a mid layer or as an outer layer, thanks to a dense-knit hardface fabric that is designed to be much more wind resistant than standard fleece. It also adds durability, making this jacket less susceptible to pilling, as well as abrasion. But that tough exterior doesn’t mean sacrificing comfort, since the fabric is double-sided, retaining a brushed inner that offers warmth and good wicking abilities. You also get a deep half zip for venting, a zipped chest pocket and thumb loops at the cuffs. It’s a warm, soft and comfortable jacket, thanks to elastane in the fabric that gives it plenty of stretch and flatlock seams that don’t rub. It also has good articulation, with generous length and coverage. It may sometimes prove a bit too warm since the dense fabric seems to limit breathability a little. But this is a great fleece jacket for cold and breezy conditions.

Revolution Race Fusion Fleece

(Image credit: Revolution Race)

Revolution Race Fusion Fleece

Soft yet durable with a great tailored fit, this hybrid fleece jacket from Swedish newcomers Revolution Race is a well-made and thoughtfully designed bit of cold-weather kit

RRP: £55 (UK) | Fabric: Knitted fleece (100% polyester) with stretch fleece panels (92% polyester, 8% elastane) | Sizes: Men’s: XS–XXL; Women's: XS–XXL | Weight (men’s size L): 595g/20.98oz | Colors: Men’s: Black / Anthracite / Rifle green; Women’s: Deep teal / Black / Anthracite / Rifle green

Durable
Warm yet breathable
Comfortable, with great fit
Good value
Hand pockets lack zips
Double-layer cuffs tend to soak up moisture

The Fusion Fleece is a chunky, heavyweight insulator that is designed to be worn as outerwear or as a conventional mid layer. As such, it employs a hybrid construction, using a heavy-gauge fleece with a knit face as the main fabric, interspersed with lighter stretch fleece panels. This gives it a stylish and contemporary look while boosting performance in terms of overall warmth for weight, breathability, moisture management, comfort and fit. It’s also been made with durability in mind, with an anti-pilling fabric treatment and double-layer stretch cuffs, so it ought to offer good long-term value – and has a reasonable price point to match. It doesn’t skimp on features either, with a full-length reverse-coil main zip, which has a soft chin guard and is backed with a baffle. You get a zipped chest pocket and two open hand pockets. The cuffs also incorporate thumb loops – always a handy feature, as far as we’re concerned – while the hem has a drawcord adjustment.

Choosing the best fleece jacket for you

As with almost all outdoor kit, the best fleece jacket for you will depend on a number of factors – not least, when and where will you wear it. In addition, though the primary function of a fleece jacket is to provide insulation – ie to keep you warm – this can be balanced with other factors such as weight, bulk, breathability and pack size.

As a rule of thumb, the thicker and heavier the fleece fabric, the warmer it will be. On the flipside, that will also generally make it less breathable. If you’ll be moving fast or tend to run hot, bear in mind that most heavyweight fleeces will be too warm for active use – though they’re great for standing around in the cold. Numerous different types of fleece fabrics have also emerged, generally developed with one of two things in mind: to either increase the warmth for weight of the garment or to enhance its breathability, so it can be worn during high-output, energy-intensive activities.

Fabric type

Originally, ‘fleece’ referred specifically to polar fleece, a synthetic fabric made from polyester. Today, however, a ‘fleece’ has become a catch-all term for pretty much any warm and cosy mid layer jacket that does the job of a traditional wool sweater, jumper or pullover. As such, you might find some ‘fleece jackets’ that aren’t actually made from polyester fleece at all, or which are a hybrid of synthetic and natural fibres (including wool).

Popular forms of Polyester fleece available now include classic polar fleece (in various weights), microfleece (tightly woven pile), gridded microfleece (with good breathability for active use), shearling/pile fleece (heavier weight), high-loft fleece (super-fluffy, offering the best warmth for weight), hardface/techface fleece (designed to prevent to pilling), Thermal Pro (developed by Polartec, typically with a knitted face) and Power Air (also from Polartec, designed to counter the issue of microfibre shedding).

Design

While the fleece fabric type and weight primarily dictate the warmth and breathability of a fleece jacket, factors like construction and overall design also have an impact. Many of the best fleece jackets now utilise a zoned or hybrid construction. This means that panels of different weight fabrics are employed to make the garment more breathable or stretchy, resulting in greater comfort and better articulation for active use. You might find lightweight or stretch inserts used along the sides or under the arms of a jacket accordingly.

Features

Since they are primarily designed as mid layers, technical fleece jackets don’t always feature a hood, and some may not even have pockets. Obviously, these are less important if you’re wearing your fleece underneath a shell, since your outer layer is likely to have its own hood and pockets. Most fleeces that lack a hood still have a stand-up collar to help lock in core warmth though.

Of course, many users do prefer a fleece with a hood and pockets. A hood adds valuable insulation and can’t get lost or blow off your head, unlike a beanie. It is also easier to wear beneath a helmet. Hand or hip pockets are useful to keep hands warm as well as for storage. So are zipped chest pockets or even arm pockets. These all add versatility, especially if wearing a fleece as a standalone layer.

Fleece jackets will have a full-length main zip. Fleece pullovers just have a quarter zip or a deeper half zip at the neck. Look for zips that are backed with a baffle, which helps to prevent draughts and also adds to overall comfort. Similarly, a chin guard at the top of the zip is always a welcome detail, preventing irritation.

Cuffs and hems should be close-fitting for optimum thermal efficiency. Some fleeces have elasticated cuffs and hems (or even a hem drawcord) to help lock in heat.

One feature that is commonly neglected are thumb loops. These can be used to help cuffs cover the wrists and stop the sleeves of your fleece from riding up, which is good in cold conditions. If you’re wearing liner gloves, thumb loops can also eliminate any exposed skin, which is great for winter mountaineering and snow sports.

Weight and pack size

A fleece is generally worn on the hill rather than carried, but on warm days you may want to roll it up and stuff it in your backpack, so weight and pack size can be important considerations. A heavy and bulky fleece that takes up almost all the space in your pack and weighs you down is not particularly practical. That’s why warmth for weight and compressibility (or packability) are still important factors when looking for the best fleece jackets, even though fleece doesn’t offer the same performance in this regard as, say, a down ‘puffer’ jacket.

Fit

The thermal efficiency and comfort of a fleece is greatly influenced by how it fits. Loose fitting cuffs, hems and hoods can all leak heat, limiting warmth. Generally, the best fleece jackets should allow room for a baselayer underneath but should be trim enough to fit underneath your windproof or waterproof shell. Technical fleeces are usually stretchy and close-fitting. If you plan to wear a fleece as casual clothing, you might want something a little more accommodating.

An outdoors writer and editor, Matt Jones has been testing kit in the field for nearly a decade. Having worked for both the Ramblers and the Scouts, he knows one or two things about walking and camping, and loves all things adventure, particularly long-distance backpacking, wild camping and climbing mountains – especially in Wales. He’s based in Snowdonia and last year thru-hiked the Cambrian Way, which runs for 298 miles from Cardiff to Conwy, with a total ascent of 73,700 feet – that’s nearly 2½ times the height of Everest. Follow Matt on Instagram and Twitter.