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Fleece Sweaters: Must-Have Clothing for Hiking and Backpacking

Rab 100 weight Polartec Fleece Pullover

I always bring a fleece pullover or hoodie on my hiking and backpacking trips. I’ve never found a mid-layer garment that insulates as well, stays warm when wet, and that I can dry with my body heat if it gets soaked with perspiration.

A fleece pullover is an essential piece of backpacking clothing in my book, better than a lightweight synthetic or down-filled jacket because it can be worn alone or easily layered with a rain shell, keeping you warm even if moisture condenses on the inside when it rains.

A fleece sweater can be bunched up to make a pillow, used as a pot cozy to keep your food warm, or worn as a shirt while your laundry washes in a laundromat. Synthetic fleece tops require no special soap or care when washing and you can throw them in the drier without fear of shrinkage. They’re the perfect garment for a dirtbag hiker, but they still look fashionable when you need to look nice.

The inventor of fleece was a guy named Aaron Feuerstein, the one-time CEO of Polartec, the first company to manufacture fleece. To speed its adoption by the clothing industry, he declined to patent fleece, so other manufacturers could make it and use it in their products at low cost. While you can pay extra for a specially formulated and textured fleece pullover from Polartec, you can just as easily buy a cheap knockoff for a third of the price and still get all of its technical benefits.

Fleece is available in lightweight, midweight, and heavyweight garments. You can also get it with a wind-proof face, which is useful if you want to wear it as an outer winter layer.

I prefer wearing a lightweight 100-weight, hoodless fleece top for three-season use because it is easier to layer with my other clothing. For winter, I will occasionally wear a 200 weight fleece top as an active outer layer on cold dry days, but feel that 300 weight fleece is too warm to be used for anything except an outer winter jacket.

100 Weight Fleece

I like fleece pullovers with a 1/4 or 1/3 length zipper in the front, which helps me regulate my warmth and perspiration level. A zippered chest pocket is also convenient, but some people like fleece jackets with a full front zipper better. It’s a matter of personal preference.

The lightweight Patagonia R1 Fleece Pullover is very popular with hikers and backpackers, as is the Patagonia R1 Hoodie which makes a nice winter garment. Both have a grid-like texture with raised fabric panels that wick perspiration away from your skin. However, they’re not as warm as a lightweight untextured flat fleece weave like the very reasonably priced North Face TKA Glacier 1/4 Zip pullover. Shop around. All brands and retailers sell lightweight-weight fleece tops and you can usually find a good deal.

For more information about 200 and 300 weight fleece pullovers and a discussion about the layering differences between pullovers, jackets, hoodies vests, see the SectionHiker Fleece Jacket and Pullover Buyers Guide, for more information

I’m a huge fan of fleece pullovers for hiking and backpacking. Don’t leave home without one!

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  1. I have found that the the high loft grid power dry hoodies such as patagonias thermal weight (used to be cap4) is almost as warm as a 100 wt fleece when worn under something that blocks the wind, and given its extreme air permeability can be comfortably worn in warmer conditions giving it a wider range useful temp range.than the tradition 100wt fleece.

  2. Thanks for that! Definitely gonna remember them!

  3. All these hikers wearing their down puffies, scrambling for shelter at the slightest sign of rain; and here I am, in my fleece, just hanging out.

  4. I have this ultralight very thin 1/4 zip hoodless EMS branded fleece I got a few years ago, I think it was about $30 or so. Made with some Polartec waffle weave pattern. It was the greatest thing ever, but it doesn’t look like they carry it anymore! Something like this perhaps might be a good replacement.

  5. More of a merino fan myself

  6. FYI, REI has a blowout price on the Marmot Reactor Fleece Jacket, an Outdoorgearlab best buy winner. The jacket is in the garage for $46.73 plus, you get an extra 25% off when you checkout.

  7. I camp and hike along Lake Superior a lot. Certain gear never leaves my pack list, a fleece top, a heavy fleece buff by Avery,, and polypropylene longjohn set.. Rain, sleet, snow, bring it. Experienced temp swings from 80 to 20 on Memorial Day week end with black flies and snow. Be prepared.

  8. Fleece might be great but they are not great for the enviroment. Fibres come off in the wash
    and end up in rivers and oceans, yes more plastic in our oceans which causes a huge problem.

  9. Come on Rex, educate yourself.

  10. Are you carrying a puffy and a fleece for fall in the whites?

  11. Can’t beat a light fleece despite their extra bulk compared to down. Tough as old boots, warm when wet, very long lasting- I have one 25 years old and still going strong.. I prefer the 100 with a full length zip as I find it gives good ventilation options. 200 is good for colder weather, 300 is very warm indeed. All need a Windproof shell as they aren’t windproof.

    Essential gear in the uk.

  12. Theirs a fleece company located in Leadville, CO called Melanzana. It has been making fleece garments for over 20 years. I have one of their light weight pull overs and take it on all my hikes. They have a large selection of different kinds of garments that would be suitable for all kinds of weather conditions.

  13. Right on Philip! 100 wt fleece is an essential piece of kit for just about all occasions. Hiking, fishing, hunting or going out on the town, perfect. Australian outback, NZ Alps Antarctica or the Sahara fleece layering consistently does the job better than anything else.
    Hooray 4 Fleece!

  14. I recently returned from 4 days over the Goat Rocks on the PCT. Rain, wind, and even a bit of wet snow. Highs touched 50° or so, maybe. I wore my fleece every day, sometimes under rain jacket. My puffy would not have been the right jacket for the conditions.

  15. I have a a lavender walrus pullover I picked up for half price in the warily nineties. Probably because of the color. It’s a little heavy for mid summer otherwise it’s in the pack. Mid summer calls for the Earily Winters Butter Fleece. These things never wear out. Just have a few burn holes.

  16. I’ve got several fleece pullovers, but my favorite, go-to is a mil surplus ECWCS polartec “waffle weave” mid-layer. warm as all get out, can be easily layered, has a thumbhole, and a 1/3 zip for venting AND is pretty inexpensive. It’s one of my favorite pieces of wearable gear right next to my shemagh.

  17. Hiking primarily in the pacific northwest, I’ve always been flabbergasted of the idea of my main insulating layer being broken by water or moisture. it would literally be incredibly unsafe to count on down as insulation for anything besides a bag or quilt up here.

  18. Bought an R1 long ago. Definitely suffers in the wind if not moving strenuously enough. Disadvantage of fleece is stench and poor packability (does make a good pillow if not stinky).

    Will have to look at 100 wt options. R1 weighs in at 12 oz. Would never go without a down, hooded puffy however during shoulder seasons when temps drop below freezing. Adds another 12 oz to the kit, but makes for much more pleasant time in camp.

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