“Bring a fleece top,” said my buddy Martin, as we were packing for a two week-long wilderness backpacking trip. “I’d feel naked without it,” I replied. I always bring a fleece pullover 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 rained on or 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 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 the technical benefits of a fleece pullover.
Fleece is available in 100, 200, and 300 weights which correspond to lightweight, midweight, and heavyweight insulation. 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 a full front zipper better. It’s a matter of personal preference.
The 100 weight 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 panel which are supposed to wick perspiration away from your skin. However, they’re not as warm as a untextured 100 weight flat fleece weave likethe very reasonably priced North Face TKA 100 1/4 Zip pullover. EMS also sells high quality, reasonably priced fleece tops. Shop around. All brands and retailers sell 100 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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