Nothing fights a chilly day like the right fleece. It’s the symbol of dads standing around the campfire, staying warm during soccer games, or wrangling kids out on the trail. Soft, warm, and insulating, the fleece has attained its reputation for good reason.
Fleeces have changed a lot since their fuzzy, soft ’90s heyday. Synthetic fleece is the backbone of technical outdoor apparel — with recent advances, they move and breathe like a T-shirt, keep you warm like a sweater, and are sustainably made.
Still, the quality of the fleece can vary greatly. Performance depends on the brand’s yarns and construction in crafting the fleece fabric and the yarns that repel or absorb moisture. Where to start? With reliable brands. We’ve tested fleeces from each of the brands represented in this list, and everything we’ve tried has been durable and comfortable, and has lived up to the hype. The eight layers we’ve chosen have features that stand out in one way or another, whether in the form of breathable panels, excellent stretch, or responsible sourcing. They’ll keep you warm, allow for airflow when you start moving, and look damn good while doing it.
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This light pullover creates breathability — and retains heat — via a mesh construction in the back that both allows air to pass through the fabric and retains heat. Moreover, the fabric itself, a recycled polyester, consists of tiny hollow tubes that suck up sweat and dry in a hurry. The result is a layer that provides a lot of protection for cold-weather, high-output activities like hiking, ski touring, and biking.
A fleece that functions as a highly technical hoodie, this piece is ideal for those days when you want warmth but don’t want to be encumbered by the bulkiness and weight of a burlier piece. It’s the ideal piece to toss on when you are enjoying some time reading, sipping, and laughing in front of a fire, but the recycled polyester fabric breathes far better than a puffy or other big insulator so that it can pull double duty when you get after it on the trail.
British mountaineering brand Rab imbued this light, breathable fleece with plenty of stretch so that it performs more like a jacked-up base layer than a traditional fleece. The polyester here not only breathes well, it also sports a grid backing on the inside which gives it more durability as well. It all adds up to a piece that can tackle sweaty endeavors but stay dry and comfy — making it the perfect layering piece.
Made of 100% recycled, fair trade polyester, this is the fleece you’ll want to wear while on a hike listening to NPR on your earbuds. That commitment to causes beyond profit put Patagonia in the headlines when owner Yvon Chouinard ensured the company would continue to serve environmental and social causes long after he is gone by giving it to a trust. Beyond the feel-good story, the fleece itself breathes like a champ while keeping you toasty on chilly mornings and the off-shoulder seams prevent chafing when you wear a backpack.
One easy way to up the breathability of your fleece is to choose a vest. The classic outdoor dad style piece only insulates you where you need it most, the torso, leaving your arms cool and free. Columbia’s light polyester material offers all the usual fleece super powers, breathing better than heavier options while still retaining plenty of warmth in your core.
Straight from Norway, this no-nonsense fleece makes for the perfect ski jacket on warm days. While it’s not warm enough for midwinter lift-access skiing on the lifts, the highly breathable Polartec Alpha fabric — which consists of lofted fibers (like you would find in a puffy), held together by a strong mesh — makes it ideal for athletic uphill touring at the resort and laps on the Nordic course, and it excels when you are simply out schussing in the woods and working up a sweat. It also makes an outstanding midlayer on those super-cold ski days.
The grid backing on this fashionable fleece gives more room for air to both insulate and escape so that you don’t sweat it out. If you do start to heat up, just pull down the big front zipper for extra airflow. That makes it ideal for travel when you are moving between different temperatures but don’t want to futz with several different layers. Plus, the material is 97% recycled polyester and Cotopaxi gives you full disclosure on the factory in Cambodia where it was made, so you can feel informed about the ethics of your purchase.
Voormi took the fleece title literally when it made this cozy, durable layer with wool crafted to feel and perform more like a shell material and brushed with a DWR treatment to repel precipitation (though it’s not technically waterproof). The result is a surprisingly breathable jacket that cuts wind and weather and provides an athletic fit without the stuffiness of a bigger piece. It proves that some of the best fleece can still come from sheep.