Why should you buy a fleece jacket? Fleece jackets are breathable, cozy and warm, which makes them a mid layer ideally suited to outdoor adventures when you need to adjust your outfit according to your level of exertion and the weather. Fleeces are also a stylish, everyday jacket option for people who live in colder climates.
To bring you the best fleece jackets of 2019, we started by reading through dozens of reviews from REI customers. Then we interviewed several outdoors experts to learn about the benefits of wearing a mid layer, like a fleece jacket, during outdoor activities. Finally, we ordered nine of the most popular fleece jackets sold at REI. Our two testers (a petite woman who is generally cold; and a tall man who runs warm), put the jackets through the paces during an unseasonably cold Pacific Northwest winter. They brought them to ski hills, wore them around town, packed them for winter hikes and snowshoe adventures, wore them during snowy jogs, and even put the jackets through the washer and dryer to check for pilling and shrinking. After more than 20 hours of testing, we decided that the following fleece jackets are the best you can buy at REI this year:
The Best High-Performance Fleece Jacket
- Weight: 12.8 ounces (women’s), 13.9 ounces (men’s)
- MRSP: $179
If you’re headed out ice climbing or mountaineering and you’re in search of a quality mid-layer jacket that’s breathable and warm, we think the Arc’teryx Kyanite is your best bet. This jacket fits close to the body, offers optimal breathability while also keeping your core warm, and contains a tightly fitting hood that allows for added head warmth.
The Kyanite comes in many colors and sizes, in men’s and women’s profiles. It does fit a bit narrow; if you plan to buy this jacket, try it on in the store first and consider sizing up. Even our petite tester found the fit to be tight! That said, we found the tight fit to be a benefit because it makes it easier to layer outerwear like a down jacket or a waterproof and breathable shell on top of the Kyanite without compromising comfort.
The jacket has two pockets along the sides of the body and soft wrist cuffs, along with an easy-to-use, durable zipper. One thing to note: The zipper on our male tester’s Kyanite slipped down during high-movement activities like running, likely because he has broad shoulders. (Yet another reason to consider sizing up.) The Kyanite came out of the drier unscathed and proved to be quite durable during our testing period, with no snags or pilling in sight.
This Arc’teryx jacket is made with a combination of polyester, nylon and elastane, and it features Polartec® Power Stretch® Pro™, which makes it more windproof than most of the other fleeces we tested. Due to its breathable materials and windproof nature, this jacket was our favorite for shoulder-season hiking, and we also reached for it on snowy days when we knew we’d be sweating a lot in the cold air. We also took this jacket on several winter runs and gave it stellar reviews for its warmth-to-breathability ratio. Plus, the Kyanite is light enough to stow in your pack.
“One of my favorite mid layers. Deceptively warm for how thin it is. Hood is the best and hugs your ears. If you’re on the fence, don’t be,” said one customer. “It’s worth the price.”
The Best Lightweight Fleece Jacket
- Weight: 9.8 ounces (women’s), 11.7 ounces (men’s)
- MRSP: $129
Patagonia’s R1 Pullover (which comes in various styles) feels like a cross between a base layer and a fleece jacket. It was the lightest option we tested for this guide and while it was certainly less traditional than the other fleeces on our list, we loved the R1 for its breathability, packability and comfortable fabric. We think it’s a great jacket option for cold mornings on the trail, shoulder-season runs, or for adding warmth to your layering system on a cold day.
The R1 Pullover offers superior breathability and stretch due to its material makeup, which is a combination of recycled polyester and spandex. (The materials are also bluesign® certified, which means the manufacturer took painstaking steps to keep chemicals of concern out of the manufacturing process.) The jacket is comfortable against the skin, with a waffle-like construction that keeps warmth in while allowing the moisture from your sweat to evaporate. The jacket’s Polartec® polyester fabric also buffers wind more than most of the other jackets we tested, which makes it a great option for runners who want to get outside in colder temperatures. The jacket’s materials also reportedly have an odor control element.
The features on this jacket are fairly simple: There’s a breast pocket and a quarter-zipper that zips into a “zipper garage,” which means the cold metal of the zipper doesn’t have to rest against your chin. The cuffs and hems are soft and relatively unnoticeable. We also found that this jacket fits true to size, if a tad narrow, allowing you to easily layer a down jacket, rain jacket or even another fleece over the top. It’s offered in several colors and comes in a range of sizes, in men’s and women’s profiles.
“Great heavy base layer,” said one reviewer. “Depending on the conditions, it is good by itself or paired with a shell to keep the wind off. If you do wear it under a shell, it makes the shell a lot more comfortable because the shell will not stick to you. Wore it ice climbing this weekend, and it was great for the 4 mi hike back to the car in 0F weather under my Torrentshell, but everyone is different. It also makes a great sweater to wear around town. The chest pocket is great for keeping your keys in, or keeping camera batteries warm near your core.”
The Best Fleece Jacket for City Winters
- Weight: 12.8 ounces (women’s), 14.5 ounces (men’s)
The Patagonia Synchilla® Fleece Pullover has become somewhat synonymous with outdoor life and we can see why: The jacket itself is pretty basic but it offers everything you need (except usable pockets) for cold days. The Synchilla is a lightweight, mid-layer pullover with four snaps at the neck and many color and size offerings. It’s fairly versatile, comes down to your hips and cinches at the wrists with simple but soft spandex cuffs, and offers one breast pocket (for looks, mostly, as you can’t fit much in that pocket).
Our testers thought the Synchilla was best-suited for wearing over a base layer on a late-fall hike when you need added warmth but still want quality breathability, or when you need a jacket that’s easy to pull on but light enough to carry in your pack. We also liked it for skiing and snowshoeing adventures, as it added mid-layer warmth without weight and kept us sweat free. The Synchilla is made with mostly polyester fleece, 85 percent of which is recycled. (The jackets’ materials are bluesign® approved, according to Patagonia.)
It’s worth noting that the Synchilla’s fleece material pills over time, so you should avoid drying it when possible. The Synchilla fits large and is a bit boxy, so make sure you try it on before buying. The style of this jacket isn’t for everyone, either: Our tall, male tester found the style to be rather short and square on him, while our petite female tester loved the fit of her jacket and ended up wearing it constantly, with her only complaint being the lack of pockets.
“Definitely one of the warmest pullovers I own,” said one customer. “It is rugged but so cute all at once. I love that it really lasts in color vibrancy and durability. You get what you pay for. These go on sale every now and then. Wish I had one in every color. They are great for every day as well as hiking.”
The Best Town-to-Trail Fleece Jacket
- Weight: 1 pound (women’s), 16.4 ounces (men's)
- MRSP: $139
Another of Patagonia’s classics, the Better Sweater Fleece Jacket is an outdoor industry staple that comes in a range of styles, from performance fleece to hoodies. The Better Sweater has a stylish, knit look that’s appropriate for city life but also offers enough performance-focused qualities to be a good choice for outdoor adventures. We liked the Better Sweater’s breathability and warmth for hiking or backpacking. We also felt that its just-right fit offered room to breathe, as well as enough space for layering a baselayer under the fleece or a down jacket and waterproof shell over the top.
As with all of Patagonia’s jackets, the Better Sweater’s polyester fleece materials are Fair Trade Certified™; the jacket also contains materials that meet the bluesign® criteria, meaning that chemicals of concern weren't part of the manufacturing process. The Better Sweater comes in several variations, including a high-performance quarter zip that gives you increased breathability, movement and warmth, as well as a version with a hood. The basic model is a full-zip with two lined side pockets and one chest pocket for men (in lieu of the chest pocket, the women’s jacket has a small pocket on the upper arm), plus comfortable, jersey-material cuffs and a stand-up collar, to block the wind. All of the pockets have zippers, which seem to work smoothly and also stay secure, even during rapid movement.
The Better Sweater comes in many sizes and colors and fits true to size, although it’s a bit longer than many of the other jackets we tried. (On our petite 5’3” tester, this jacket came down to her upper thighs. Our 6’3” male tester found the fit to be perfect.) Watch for pilling on the newest versions of this jacket and consider keeping it out of the drier if possible.
“I absolutely love this sweater, I practically live in it,” said one customer. “It is typically a well constructed garment from Patagonia. It slides easily under a shell or when worn alone has deep enough pockets to keep Necessity's in. It breaths nicely so you aren't a clammy mess after working your way up a big hill. Got this on sale so it was affordable, should have bought two. By the way the zippers are large enough that you don't have to remove your gloves when looking for a snack in the pockets.”
The Best Casual Fleece Jacket for Women
- Weight: 1 lb, 3 ounces
- MRSP: $119
While it’s not a high-performance fleece compared to the other jackets we tested, we’d be remiss not to mention the North Face Osito 2 Fleece Jacket, which is one of the coziest fleece jackets on the market. The Osito has that classic The North Face look, with two zippered pockets at each hip, a full front zipper and soft wrist cuffs, but with the added benefit of a super-fluffy polyester fleece material on the outside. It comes in four colors in sizes XS-XXXL.
The Osito is indeed less technical than some of the other jackets we tested, offering only moderate breathability and a lot of bulk. However, this jacket’s comfort (it feels like wearing a blanket!) made it hard to ignore. In fact, every time we wore this jacket out, people commented on its attractiveness and asked where we got it. The almost 400 REI reviewers who commented on this product also gave it an unusually high score of 4.8 out of 5, too, mostly due to comfort and fit.
It’s worth noting that the Osito jacket is a bit bulky, and while it fits true to size, you may want to head to the store to try it on before purchasing. Our testers took the Osito to the mountains and found that while it was quite warm, its thickness made layering difficult: When we wanted to add a down jacket over the top of the fleece, we couldn’t zip either jacket up all the way, which left us with a cold neck and chin during a snowy day. That’s why we think this jacket is best suited to casual use in the outdoors during the fall or spring months. Some reviewers also noted that the Osito tends to shed fuzz on your other clothes, which we observed when we washed and dried it.
Said one reviewer: “I was looking for a jacket with a relaxed fit that would be warmer than just a sweater but not as intensely warm… and this jacket is exactly that. It is shaped enough to fit comfortably under a coat and be cute but relaxed enough to be super comfy for lounging. I wore it to the ocean in winter and it did decently against the wind. The high collar was definitely a plus.”
Fleece Jacket Buying Advice
Why should I buy a fleece jacket?
You should buy a fleece jacket for two reasons: First, it’s a stylish option for wearing with jeans around town on colder days. And second, fleeces make good mid layers for outdoor adventures. If you’re someone who runs cold, or if you plan to spend significant time in very cold conditions, Tim Brown, senior product manager at REI, says you need a fleece. “Fleeces are also good for people who want added breathability,” he adds.
Tim recommends creating a layering system of jackets that consists of a breathable base layer and a down jacket, with an optional windproof or waterproof shell on top. If you’re extra cold, he says to add in that fleece jacket between the base layer and the down jacket.
“Layers should basically add increments of warmth and/or protection based on the conditions you might experience so you can always customize to your environment and physical output,” says Ashley Brown, an editor at REI and an avid backpacker, snowshoer, snowboarder and occasional mountain biker who completed a thru-hike of the PCT in 2015.
If you’re hiking in the fall of spring, Tim says you may want to ditch the down jacket and just wear your fleece because of its great breathability. The only downside to that breathability? Fleeces typically aren’t windproof: “If its a windy day, the wind will go right through the fleece,” Tim says, “but that’s why you pack a rain or wind shell!”
What makes a fleece jacket “good”?
Fleeces are both a fashion item and a function item. They should be attractive but you should also look for a fleece that’s warm and breathable for outdoor adventures. “Most good fleeces are insulated, warm, comfortable and have a lot of stretch,” Tim says. He recommends looking for a fleece that fits close to your body but will still move well around you, and finding something that can be layered under or over without too much trouble.
Typically, fleeces come in brushed and hard face models. Hard face models (like the Arc’teryx Kyanite) offer elevated performance, Tim says, noting that hard face fleece jackets often look like more of a shell and offer wind protection. Brushed fleeces can get caught on the brush and are prone to pilling, but are typically cozier against the skin.
What’s the best way to wash a fleece jacket to prevent pilling?
Brushed fleece jackets are prone to pilling, which occurs when the fabric balls up on the surface and looks worn. To avoid pilling, avoid washing unless you really need to. “I only wash fleeces and down when they really need it to limit the wear and tear,” says Ashley. Most of all, you should avoid the dryer. Hang fleece jackets to dry whenever possible.
Should I waterproof my fleece jacket?
There’s no need! Simply grab a wind or waterproof shell to throw over your fleece and you’ll be all set when the weather turns.