No matter what your fall or winter activity is, if it calls for keeping warm in the wild, there is likely a fleece jacket that will be ideal for the conditions and situation. Whether it's lightweight, heavyweight, windproof, or waterproof, fleece should be an integral part of any cold-weather clothing wardrobe.
Fleece's amazing insulating properties are matched by its breathability. The hydrophobic material allows moisture to pass through it—a process called “wicking”—allowing it to evaporate and dry quickly. This breathability may depend on the many different textures fleece may come in. There's the traditional soft and fuzzy fleece, the superfuzzy and extra-warm high-loft fleece, or the emerging "hard-face" fleece, which is growing in popularity for its extreme durability and water repellency.
Making the Right Choice
So, fleece is essential. The question is, where to start when it comes to choosing the right fleece for you? The answer depends largely on what activity you need the fleece for. Are you looking to keep warm during rigorous sports like running and cross-country skiing? Or do you need a jacket that can hold in warmth during more stationary activities, like camping or watching outdoor sporting events? Weather is another factor, especially if wind is in the forecast.
If you're interested in activities that generate large amounts of body heat, head to the lightweight, or 100-weight, fleece aisle. Take Nordic skiing, for example. In this activity, there's no getting around it—your body will heat up tremendously. Because of this abundance of body heat, even the lightest fleece will be plenty of insulation, and as long as there is no precipitation, a wind-resistant fleece can serve as a great top layer. This also goes for strenuous hiking or trail running.
The middleweight, or 200-weight, fleece is easily the most versatile, and can serve as either a jacket in cooler weather or a midlayer under a waterproof shell. Although it's slightly heavier than a lightweight, it's still breathable enough to be worn during most outdoor activities, such as downhill skiing or winter mountaineering.
The heaviest fleece, the 300-weight, should be part of your extreme cold-weather clothing repertoire and used when keeping warm takes precedence over weight and breathability. If it's not snowing or raining, a 300-weight fleece can be worn as an outer layer well into November; however it also works well as a midlayer for certain activities, such as downhill skiing or winter hiking when it’s extremely cold.
Keep in mind, though, that fleece's remarkable breathability goes both ways. If air can get out, wind can get in. For the most part, fleece should be a midlayer, unless it’s specifically designed to block the wind. If this is the case, a wind-resistant fleece—which can come as a 100-, 200-, or 300-weight—can take the place of a soft shell layer. When polyester fleece is blended with spandex, its stretchiness improves immensely, giving more freedom of movement even with multiple layers on.
As with any outdoor product, the quality of fleece can vary greatly. Buying a knockoff or imitation fleece could mean owning a product that lacks the durability, warmth, and softness that makes the fabric unique, and could even spell trouble when cold or wetness sets in on a hike, climb, or ski. So take the time to evaluate what exactly you'll need your fleece for, as it has proven time and again to be one of the most valuable articles of clothing among a cold-weather gear collection.
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