Comparing the Best Mid-Layers for Year-round Outdoor Fun: Fleece

From inexpensive jackets in a rainbow of colors available at just about every department store for $30 or less to oversized pullovers with campy throwback prints from brands like Patagonia, North Face, and Columbia, fleece jackets are an outdoor staple that never seems to go out of style.

But are they really the right choice for a warm, comfortable mid-layer on your next outdoor adventure?

Keep reading to learn the benefits of fleece, the drawbacks of this popular material, and how to choose the right jacket, sweater, or pullover for you.

A History of Fleece

The origins of today’s fleece are actually natural wool. Spurred in part by a wave of anti-fur activists, a family-owned mill in Boston sought out a synthetic alternative that offered the benefits of fur and faux fur with a different look. Fleece was born. 

This material was invented in 1979 and was quickly snatched up by the outdoor company Patagonia. They used the new lightweight, warm synthetic material to produce their iconic Snap-T pullovers, which are still one of their best sellers today.

Pros of Fleece

While fleece hasn’t been around as long as many other popular materials used for outdoor gear, it’s widespread popularity is a testament to how versatile and functional the material truly is.

A few of the benefits of fleece for everyday wear and outdoor adventures alike include:

  • One of the biggest benefits of opting for fleece for every layer is how affordable it is. If you aren’t attached to major brand labels, you can find versatile, functional fleece jackets, coats, and base layers at just about any price point. And if you do prefer sticking to brands that you know and trust, fleece is often one of the most affordable options for outer layers that popular outdoor gear companies offer.
  • If you prefer not to use animal products, fleece is the obvious choice over down, made from feathers, or wool sheared from sheep.
  • Thanks to its looser weave and the nature of its fibers, fleece is very breathable. This makes it comfortable enough to wear on warmer days or sweaty hikes.
  • Fleece jackets are some of the fastest-drying options for outdoor gear on the market today. As far as performance while wet, fleece falls somewhere in between down and wool, providing some warmth, but not as much as wool.
  • You can wash and often even dry your fleece without worrying about damaging it.
  • Fleece is lightweight, which is great for when you need to keep your packing light.

Cons of Fleece

While fleece is warm, lightweight, quick-drying, and affordable, it does have its drawbacks. These include:

  • Because fleece is fully synthetic, it isn’t as environmentally-friendly as some of its alternatives.
  • It’s good that fleece is easy to clean because the material also traps odors easily. Wearing a layer underneath can help cut down on smells, but keep in mind that you’ll want to wash your fleece if it gets sweaty or comes in contact with anything smelly.
  • Over time, fleece will begin to pill. While this won’t affect its warmth or function, it can leave your jacket looking a little dingy after lots of use and many washes.
  • Fleece won’t wrinkle easily, so you can stuff it in your bag. However, it will take up a lot of space there, as it doesn’t compress easily as a down jacket will.

Choosing the Right Fleece Mid-Layers

With so many options to choose from, there’s a lot to consider when it comes to choosing the right fleece layers.

One big decision you’ll get to make when choosing a fleece mid-layer is the cut and style of your jacket, sweatshirt, or sweater. Pullovers, quarter-zips, or full-zips jackets, longer cuts or ones that stop at your belt, and fuzzy fleece or a tight weave are just a few of the options you can choose from.

It’s a good idea to start with a budget and to weigh whether you want to prioritize function over looks. While cute colors and fun patterns look good in your vacation photos, choosing a comfortable jacket that’s the right weight for the weather you’ll face is the better choice.

Deciding Whether Fleece is the Right Material for You

Fleece’s functionality, paired with how affordable it can be, make it a great all-around choice for outdoor gear, especially on a budget. If you’re looking for a little more warmth and even less weight and are willing to spend a bit more, check out this guide to choosing down jackets. Prefer a more traditional sweater fit that’s warm and all-natural? This guide will tell you everything you need to know about wool.