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Fleece Buyers Guide

Fleece is a synthetic fabric that’s proven ideal for outdoor recreational use because it’s warm, fast-drying, and extremely durable. Fleece clothing requires no special care and can be machine washed and dried for years without shrinkage. Stylish and available in many different colors, fleece pullovers and jackets, hats, gloves, mittens, and hats are still the best multi-purpose and affordable garments available to hikers and backpackers today.

Invented by Polartec in 1981, there are many different kinds of fleece garments available today in use by hundreds of outdoor companies such as REI, Patagonia, The North Face, Marmot, Mountain Hardware, Columbia, LL Bean, Eastern Mountain Sports, and many others.

However, there are many different types of fleece available which can make choosing the right fleece jacket or fleece pullover (usually a 1/4 zip sweater) difficult. This guide is designed to help hikers figure out the best fleece garment for their needs.

Types of Fleece

There are four types of fleece of interest to hikers and backpackers: lightweight, midweight, heavyweight and windproof. These usually correspond to 100 weight, 200 weight, 300 weight, and Polartec Windpro fleece when described in more technical specifications. Let’s explore the properties of each of these fleece types in greater detail below and explain when the conditions in which they’re the most appropriate.

Lightweight Fleece (100 Weight Fleece)

Lightweight (also called 100 weight) fleece is the most popular fleece jacket thickness or pullover weight used by hikers and backpackers because it will keep you warm in cool weather when you’re hiking with a backpack, without causing you to sweat. It’s also ideal for use under a rain jacket because it can absorb condensation without chilling you.

100 Weight Fleece

When shopping for lightweight fleece jackets or pullovers, you’ll find that retailers and manufacturers call it by several different names including Polartec Thermal Pro Lightweight, 100 Weight Fleece, R1, and TKA 100.

Description and best use:

  • Wear over a base layer in cool or damp weather
  • Low bulk
  • Highly breathable
  • Good when you’re generating a lot of heat
  • Easy to pack in a backpack

Most Popular Products:

Midweight Fleece (200 Weight Fleece)

Midweight Fleece is often used as an outer layer in cooler weather and when you’re less active. It’s thicker than lightweight fleece and more insulating, although it’s still quite breathable.

200 Weight Fleece

When shopping for midweight fleece jackets or pullovers, you’ll find that retailers and manufacturers call it by several different names including Polartec Thermal Pro Midweight, 200 Weight Fleece, R2, and TKA 200.

Description and best use:

  • Over a base layer in colder weather
  • Can be layered under a hard shell jacket
  • Very breathable
  • Good when you’re generating less heat
  • Bulkier than 100 weight fleece

Most Popular Products:

Heavyweight Fleece (300 Weight Fleece)

Heavyweight Fleece is almost always used as an outer layer in cold dry weather when you’re less active or stationary during such activities as camping or working around the house outdoors. While breathable, heavyweight fleece is very warm and heavier than lighter grades of fleece, making it too bulky and hot for active use.

300 Weight Fleece

When shopping for heavyweight fleece jackets or pullovers, you’ll find that retailers and manufacturers call it by several different names including Polartec Thermal Pro High Loft, 300 weight Fleece, R3, or TKA 300.

Description and best use:

  • Bulky, dense fabric
  • Usually worn as an outer layer in cold, dry weather
  • Very warm and best used for stationary outdoor activities like camping

Most Popular Products:

Wind Proof Fleece

Wind Proof Fleece Jackets and Pullovers can be lightweight, mid, or heavyweight. They typically have a windproof membrane sandwiched between an inner an outer fleece layer. This results in a noticeably less breathable fabric, making such garments good for stationary activities in cold or windy weather.

Wind Proof Fleece
Wind Proof Fleece

When shopping for windproof fleece jackets or pullovers, you’ll find that retailers and manufacturers call it by several different names including Polartec Thermal Wind Pro, Windwall, R4,or Windstopper. Many Wind Proof Fleece garments also have a hard-faced outer fabric that provides better abrasion resistance and further wind protection.

Description and best use:

  • Less breathable than regular fleece
  • Best worn as an outer layer in cold and windy weather
  • Available in lightweight, mid, and heavyweight fleece jackets and pullovers

Most Popular Products:

Jacket, Pullover, Hoody or Vest?

What’s the best type of fleece garment for hiking? While it depends to a certain extent on your metabolism and whether you run hot or cold, most people choose the following garments for the different activity levels, noted below.

  • Pullover, usually a 1/4 zip
    • Most common garment for 100 weight fleece
    • Cool-weather hiking, when more warmth is needed over a base layer
    • Moderate weather under a rain jacket, when condensation can cool your core
  • Hoody, 1/4 or full zip
    • Commonly worn using 100 or 200 weight fleece
    • Cool and dry weather hiking, climbing, or skiing when you want more head warmth
  • Vest. full zip
    • Popular for 200 or 300 weight fleece, and windproof fleece
    • Worn as an active outer layer for winter hiking
  • Jacket, full zip
    • Available in all fleece weights, but most common for 200 weight, 300 weight, and windproof fleece
    • Worn as a mid-layer or outer layer for lower levels of activity such as camping
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  1. I have way too many pieces of fleece. Just wanted to mention one that I’ve had and used for years. It’s a Walrus pullover I picked up over 20 years ago. It’s purple and was about $20 back then. It has been on countless pack trips and also works well doing yard work. For whatever reason I can’t seem to part with it. I also realize I usually wear the pieces I score that are cheap like LL Bean from the thrift store or Patagonia on sale somewhere. I also like my newest hoodie from Melanzana. Fleece is great stuff just bulked.

  2. I used to be (a guy from BPL)

    This was very satisfying to read first thing in the morning.

    My local newspaper has so many irritating typos. Your posts are a pleasure to read.

    To acknowledge your post, I’m going to dig out my 300 Polartec to walk the dog on this chilly morning.

    • I’ve got many fleece jackets, including my fave, which was designed and made for me by my sewing daughter.
      I am concerned about the microfibres that wear off and are washed into our water systems. Thoughts on that issue?
      On that account, I’m wondering about switching over time back to wool. Last month I scored a merino sweater from a used clothing shop, one made by a reputable maker, and in seemingly pristine shape. … I’ve not yet tried it out …

      • I’ve found that Merino anything dies a pretty rapid death compared to fleece sweaters. I have fleece garments that are 15 years old and still going strong. I wear through merino is a year or two. That also has to take an environmental toll given the cost of raising the wool, manufacturer, shipping it to market, etc because you buy the same garments repeatedly because they decay so quickly.

        I’m don’t know if the microfibers that are being washed into our water supply are from existing fleece garments (but surely anything plastic or synthetic has the same problem) or during the production process.

  3. Well wrought report. Many thanks. Hiker Mike

  4. Most fleece pieces I’ve had seem to rapidly gather lint, hair, dandruff, and dust or plant matter. Debris often simply falls off other fabrics in normal motion, and comes off with shaking or brushing it off. Not necessarily so simple for fleece.

    I wish this article did more to cover different faces and piles e.g. grid fleece and their advantages and shortcomings.

  5. I’ve got a 25 yo Patagonia lightweight fleece that has mucho wear and tear (including burn holes from errant campfire sparks) but I refuse to part with it, much to my wife’s chagrin. We’ve been to too many awe inspiring places together to say goodbye and there’s a good chance at 62 it’s going to outlast me.

  6. Here’s a shout out for Taiga fleeces, made in Vancouver Canada, from a NNY wearer. Found them while looking for a 300 weight Polartec product that was priced reasonably.

  7. I’ve got 1/4 zip polar fleece 100 from Eastern Mtn Sports from 30 years ago. It has been used for running, snowshoe racing, backpacking in every season except Summer. Simply indestructible and I’ve tried.

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