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.
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!SectionHiker is reader-supported. We only make money if you purchase a product through our affiliate links. Help us continue to test and write unsponsored and independent gear reviews, beginner FAQs, and free hiking guides.