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Fleece or down?

Ok, so don't laugh, but I'm trying to figure out layering.  I've done hiking (walking on cool trails outdoors and then going home) and car camping (pack stuff in the car, head to a campsight, setup tent and spend the night in it, hop in the car to run to the store if I forgot something) but I've never really really combined the two into backpacking (hike out into the woods with everything you're going to need and setup a tent and stay for a bit ).  I spent some time in the Army but I don't know that that really carries over.

 So, I'm trying to figure out layering.  So far, I believe I've determined that I need a base layer, mid layer and outer / protective layer. I think I've figured out the base layer (long underwear in the cold, shorts and lightweight in warmer) and outer layer (Frogg Toggs, they're $20) and I think the two basic options for mid are down or fleece. Down seems to be lighter, more compressible and more expensive. Fleece seems to be heavier, less compressible and less expensive. The expensive part is going to be a factor but the bigger factor is that fleece seems to still work of it's wet and down turns to basically dead weight. At this point, for me, fleece seems to be the clear winner. I don't mind a little more weight (my base weight is around 18lb +/-) if it means I can stay warmer even if I'm wet. I've been cold and wet and warm and wet and, if I have to be wet, warm and wet beats cold and wet every time.

What am I missing?

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9 Replies

@nathanu Depends where you are planning to go.  You may want both. 

Down works best where it is generally dry because it it light and very compressible.  A down jacket with hood is good evening wear in the Sierras where it gets cold at night but only tends to rain in afternoon thunderstorms.  You might wear it in your shelter at night where it getting wet is not really an issue. 

There are light weigh synthetic puffy fabrics that might work better where it rains more steadily.

Fleece works better as active wear under rain gear because it wicks.  It tends to be a bit bulky and heavy for the same warmth.  There are thin fleece hoodies that pack a bit better so you might wear it during the day but switch to the puffy when you get to camp (and are in you tent if it is raining) and let the fleece dry out.


@OldGuyot Right now, I'm going to be on trails in and around GA, mostly 3 season.  My goal is to through hike the AT but I'm a few years out from that. 

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@nathanu we'll throw in 2 quick resources:

In addition to fleece and down for your mid-layer, you might consider a synthetic fill. Synthetic will be similarly lightweight and compressible to down, but it'll continue to insulate you even when wet. The slight drawback to synthetic is that it doesn't always regulate temperature as well as down, meaning you may get a little warm or a little cool vs. keeping a really steady comfortable temperature.

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For three season use in GA, fleece should be sufficient and will work much better if you encounter rain.   Down comes into its own when temps are less than 15-20 degrees F.  You might want something  more breathable than Frog Toggs, especially in wind.

I always like a fairly heavy shirt (need those pockets) combined with a fleece jacket, light or medium weight.  Lots of options there for venting excess heat.

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I tend to agree with @hikermor and @OldGuyot .  To me, the big differentiator is your activity level.  I live in Maryland, where we have a wide variety of weather conditions, not unlike Georgia, but with cooler temps in the winter.  While I'm hiking, especially when carrying a heavier pack, I develop a lot of body heat, and, even in 20F temps, I am usually just fine with no more than a fleece and maybe a softshell jacket.  But, when taking a break, or setting up camp and settling in, the down or synthetic puffy proves indispensable.

My best suggestion would be to wear the fleece, and pack a puffy along with your Frogg Toggs (or more breathable shell) to be used as the conditions, and your comfort level, demand.

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I gotta disagree and set you straight, no down for a mid layer. 

Let me, there's too much, let me sum up:

Down only as your outer layer or outer layer when covered up with a water proof jacket, but never while moving. 

Don't even think about hiking in the down - unless - it's so cold your perspiration is not going to wick into the down, because the down looses all of its loft when the dampness hits it, then you're toast.

A cardinal rule - keep your down as dry as possible, always, because it can be you last line of defense against hypothermia.

Let's assume your going to wear a pack to you selected spot in order to do that camping, you're going to perspire and it needs to escape; fleece, wool, nylon layers, whatever, will vent for you, you just don't want to get overheated while walking.

Only put on a waterproof layer while your backpacking if you're getting chilled, but you need to only have then minimal layers, because, again, the perspiration, and with the jacket, it will start to collect, getting your layers wet, and that's a no no in the cold, so you want to always be cognizant of that and minimize it.

But to clarify, you're not going to need all the layers while walking, maybe when you stop.

In Georgia, in the summer, nylon shorts, nylon tee shirt, trail runners.  In the mornings, maybe a light shirt, possibly a light jacket, in the fall, maybe a light down jacket.

Now, in the summer, in the rain, assuming wind chill temps above say...60F, you suck it up and get wet.  When you get to camp, put on a dry set in your tent, if still storming. 

In the AM, put back on the wet clothes and walk them dry, they'll warm up after you get going.

Instead of trying to 'stay dry', think of it as 'rain management'.


REI Member Since 1979

@Philreedshikes You are not really disagreeing.  Just being a bit more prescriptive... so I'll agree with you.  Down as a hiking mid layer probably does not make sense on the AT where a fleece probably does.  If you look at gear list for the AT, some kind of fleece is usually called out as a "mid layer." 

However you may still want a puffy jacket for camp and cold nights and for very cold non rainy days.  This "layer" is sometimes called "the insulating layer"  ... This is where the down/synthetic debate is and probably for the AT a synthetic puffy might be more appropriate than a down one.  Possibly that could depend on the section and time of year you do it.  


These modern times are so complex.  one option is treated down which sheds water and retains at least a fair amount of its insulating qualities in the wet.  And there are different weights of both fleece and down, to say nothing of the various puffy synthetics.

Just be sure that you can ventilate whatever you choose, generally garments that zip up or button in front so that you can ventilate when you overheat after walking a while.

Ideally, you should start hiking feeling on the cool side, warming up as you stride along to a nice, non-sweating state.  No one ever does this. so eventually you will unzip and ventilate and make various other adjustments.

Whatever, be sure you don't get your garments wet with perspiration.  you will be very sorry if you do

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Be bold.  Start cold.  😁

Superusers do not speak on behalf of REI and may have received
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