For most countryside walkers and hill hikers who enjoy four-season strolling in Britain, a good fleece is the best midlayer option to wear while out wandering.
These insulating jackets made of synthetic fibres held together in a lightweight napped fabric that resembles wool or felt. They fit perfectly over the top of a baselayer and beneath a waterproof shell.
Fleeces are available in a variety of thicknesses, and with different features to suit your preference or the prevailing conditions: some are windproof, for example. They are usually relatively lightweight, reliably warm (even when wet), quick-drying and comfortable.
Bulk can be a downside. The first fleeces were often bulky – if you found yourself overheating, you needed plenty of room in your pack for your bundled-up fleece. To some extent this is still true, especially of the warmer or cheaper fleece fabrics. While thinner fleeces are now available, some other thermal midlayers such as down-filled jackets are lighter and more compact.
Right from the beginning, most fleeces were made using recycled plastics, and brands are continuing to refine this process.
Berghaus Prism Polartec InterActive Fleece
An interactive fleece designed for walkers, which works in conjunction with Berghaus outerlayers
This 200-weight midlayer fleece is designed to form part of multi-garment all-weather walking system, attaching directly to interactive Berghaus waterproof jackets to keep you warm and dry all winter long, and as such it has a fairly tight and tailored fit. However, it also works perfectly well as a stand-alone fleece. As is typical with Berghaus, there are few bells and whistles, you just get a sensibly priced garment that works. The Prism has a full-length zip, two zipped side pockets on the outside and a pair of generously proportioned mesh pouches on the inside, for extra carry capacity. It has thumb loops, so the sleeves don’t bunch up when you add the outer layer, a high collar to stop you getting a cold neck and a slight longer hem at the back to help keep your bum warm and stop drips from dropping in.
Craghoppers unisex Spindle fleece
If the unisex Spindle looks like a throwback to the 1980s when the fleece was in its infancy, that's 100% deliberate. Retro is, of course, all the rage, and vintage clothing shops up and down the country do a brisk trade in these seemingly indestructible garments.
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Many of the first fleeces – notably by US brand Patagonia, the co-inventors of the first fleece fabric – were pullovers. They were generously cut, if not baggy. There might be a half-zip – or poppers, up to a warm collar. Two-tone colour schemes were common. (Indeed, Patagonia themselves still honour their own noble history by offering the gloriously old-school Retro Pile Fleece for men and women, and the Synchilla, also for men and women.)
On each count, the Spindle nails the look perfectly. We love that zingy colour scheme, very much in the season's hip outdoor-wear colours. (A couple of other colour ways are available too.)
The fabric is thick, soft and warm. Semi-elasticated cuffs and a cinch at the bottom hem keep out drafts; though you may find the collar is not as close-fitting as it might be, so on freezing days you may to fill the gap with a scarf.
It's great for camping, watching the sun set on the beach, and all manner of outdooriness... as well as cosying up on the couch to watch Countryfile on iPlayer.
If you want to buy a fleece for hiking, the Spindle has some drawbacks. It's bulky, so when you warm up and want to shed a layer, you'll need a spacious pack to accommodate it. The loose fit may also hamper your layering system when it comes to pulling on a raincoat. As our main purpose here is to identify fleeces for hikers, we've taken a star and a bit off for that reason.
But if the price and style of this fleece appeal, scroll down towards the end of the reviews below, where we've parked some similar fleeces for you to browse. First, though, there's a bunch of lower-profile fleeces more attuned to hikers with limited backpack space and a preference for more technical features. JP
Best technical fleece
A seriously expensive shearling fleece – but it will literally take you to the end of the earth
- Buy now for WOMEN from 66north.com for £250
Made with Polartec Wind Pro Stretch and synthetic shearling (all 100% recycled), the Tindur Fleece offers the kind of thermal performance capable of keeping you warm in the most extreme conditions, from Arctic adventures to skiing escapades and serious sailing endeavours, especially when used in conjunction with a waterproof shell. But you don’t have to be Ranulph Fiennes to feel the benefits of this terrific top – it also makes a brilliantly protective mid and outer layer for winter hill hikers. It boasts a bunch of features that make it impressively dynamic, ideal for wearing while engaged in high-intensity activity, including smart venting, high-reach sleeves and seamless shoulders. There’s no hood, but both the hem and the collar have elastic drawcords to keep the elements out, and the cuffs are tailored tight to avoid roll-up issues. Storage is supplied via two zipped hand pockets and a chest pocket, and there are expansive pouches on the inside for maps and whatnot. There’s only one big downside to this magnificent fleece: the eye-watering price. It is, however, very robust and should last you for a lifetime of walks on the wildside.
Rab Capacitor Hoody
Best lightweight fleece
Smart, technical, tidy and made with recycled polyester, the Capacity is a featherlight fleece boxing well above its weight
This very lightweight jacket provides some effective thermal protection when you are hill walking, hiking, biking and climbing. The cut is sporty, with stretchy side panels to keep it close to your body.
BAM 73 Zero Fleece Jacket
Most eco-friendly fleece
A fantastically comfy fleece that performs well and has great green creds
- Buy now for men from bambooclothing.co.uk for £95
This is BAM’s first foray into the fleece field, for the very simple reason that all of the brand’s clothing is usually made with bamboo, but fleeces are, by definition, synthetic. Accordingly, this comfortable, stylish, midweight top is made from 100% recycled 335g polyester, which is also 100% recyclable at the end of the garment’s life, making it the first and only fully circular fleece (as certified by the Circular Textiles Foundation) currently available.
Beyond its impeccable eco credentials, this technical top is super soft and wonderfully warm.
The women’s version is double-sided and oversized by design, and has a hood, a half zip and a kangaroo through-pocket. The men’s version has no hood, but it features a full zip, high collar, two hand pockets and a chest pocket (all with zips), plus a pair of huge pouches on the inside, which can be used to store maps, tablets and many other things besides.
RRP £95 (Men’s), £89 (Women’s)
- Buy now for women from bambooclothing.co.uk for £89
- Buy now for men from bambooclothing.co.uk for £95
Who invented fleece?
The first fleece was made in the US state of Massachusetts in 1979, the fruit of a collaboration between Polartec (then Malden Mills) and US outdoor firm Patagonia.
The researchers were looking for a cheap and effective alternative to wool.
Malden Mills CEO Aaron Feuerstein chose not to patent the new invention, allowing other brands to cheaply produce their own versions of the fabric, and soon fleeces were selling by the million worldwide.
Quechua Hiking Fleece SH500 X-Warm
Best budget fleece
A low-budget but brilliantly featured and highly functional fleece for walkers
Available for a very pocket-friendly price, this warm, mid-weight (280 g/sqm) fleece from Decathlon homebrand Quechua offers several intelligent features missing from far more expensive garments. We were particularly impressed with the reinforced panels on the shoulders, where backpack harnesses rest (and, sometimes, rub), which really adds to the longevity of this hardwearing top. It also has a surprise waterproof hood, which is stored in a zip pocket on the back of the neck – it’s not the most stylish lid, but it’ll keep your ears warm in a storm, and it’s almost unnoticeable when put away. With a full-length zip, it has two zipped hand pockets, elasticated cuffs with an extra insert to stop wind and snow from getting in, and stretchy side panels to allow good freedom of movement. The main drawback of this otherwise excellent fleece is that it’s not made with recycled polyester – a great shame.
Alpkit Mamalute Jacket
A tough, windproof top that looks after you on hillsides, campsites and crags
- Buy now for women from alpkit.com
- Buy now for men from alpkit.com
As soon as you put the Mamalute on it feels as though you’ve been embraced by a protective force. Although it doesn’t look particularly technical, the dense weave of this heavyweight (727g), windproof fleece keeps chilly breezes at bay brilliantly, but it doesn’t feel too chunky or overbearing. It has a two-layer construction, with the classy outer knit backed by a soft, brushed-finished inner, which effectively traps and warms air to keep you cosy in all sorts of outdoor scenarios. With a full zip (and a chin guard) and a hood, this garment is available for men and women, and looks great and works best as an outerlayer. It has a couple of zipped hand pockets on the outside, and two generous pouches inside. The cuffs are subtly elasticated to prevent the cold seeping in, and stop sleeves getting bunched up if and when you put on a shell when it rains. The materials used are not recycled.
Artilect Men's Halfmoon Bio Pullover
An eco-conscious, high-performing, midweight fleece
- Buy now for men from artilect
Available in three colours, including an incredibly bright sun-yellow option, the Halfmoon Bio is a midweight fleece with a half-zip that ends in a tall collar with a chin protector, which keeps the wind off your neck. Except for the Lycra in the cuffs, which helps banish breezes, this stylish garment from Artilect, a brand based in Boulder, Colorado, is made entirely from PrimaLoft Bio, which is 100% recycled. Comfortable and very soft to the touch, this material is reliably warm, breathes brilliantly and dries quickly. The manufacturers also claim that most Primaloft Bio fibres – thought possibly not all – will biodegrade more rapidly in landfill and ocean environments than conventional polyester. This hoodless fleece features two zipped hand pockets and a generous vertical chest pocket. I found the fit to be slightly on the small side, and would move from my usual Large to Extra Large on this basis.
For women: Artilect's closest equivalent is the Supermoon Bio Hoodie, which is also made from PrimaLoft Bio but adds a hood and a full-length zip.
- Buy now for men from artilect
Thrudark Men's Mantra Fleece
A premium-quality, highly protective fleece that’s always ready for action
- Buy now from Thrudark
Made with 100% recycled Polartec Shearling material, the Mantra is at once a classic fluffy fleece and a cutting edge modern garment designed and ready to serve in really quite extreme conditions, if the need arises. And this brand, launched by former soldiers, keeps its marketing muscular and its products firmly focused on serious stuff, like staying hidden in the shadows. The Mantra is only available in obsidian black, but the traditional knit, napped and sheared finish of the top makes you feel a tad black-sheep-like when you’re wrapped in its embrace. However, it is windproof, durable and has sensational thermal properties, keeping you warm in the coldest conditions. Wearable as an outer or a midlayer when things get wet, it has a full-length zip, which ends up parked in a good size garage to avoid the risk of beard or skin snags. On the outside there’s a pair of hand pockets and a chest pocket, all zipped, while inside you’ll find deep pouches on either side. Additional features include thumb loops and elasticated cuffs and hem to keep the cold and wind at arm’s length.
- Buy now from Thrudark
Craghoppers Frey Overhead recycled fleece
A quirky unisex microfleece with in-built snood-style neck protection
This pullover-style unisex microfleece has an unusual design, with an ultra extended neck tube that – like a snood – can be worn loose, folded over or pulled right up over your nose to supply protection against wind, rain, sandstorms, plagues of locusts – whatever goes down around you. Not everyone – especially the gentlemen out there – will like this design, but others will absolutely love it. The lack of a front zip helps keep this top very light, but its warmth-to-weight ratio is excellent, and the additional neck and lower face cover can really be a bonus on frosty morning walks and chilly evening strolls. The Frey also features elasticated cuffs and an adjustable hem. On the front there are two enormously deep pockets for plunging hands in, which near-enough meet in the middle and zip shut.
Mountain Warehouse Men's Relic Recycled Fleece
An unflashy fleece that quietly goes about its business of keeping you warm
As you might expect from Mountain Warehouse, who produce reliable outdoor gear for affordable prices, this is a no-frills, few-thrills fleece that does exactly what you want it to do without costing a fortune or pretending it’s the answer to all the world’s problems. This poorly named (in our opinion) midweight top is made from entirely recycled polyester, and it offers all the features essential in a fleece, including wonderful warmth. There’s no chest pocket or hood, but it has a full-length zip, two outer hand pockets with zips, and a couple of pouches on the inside, big enough to take an OS map. There are stretchy panels on the arms and shoulders to give it some shape and definition, and while the hem can’t be tightened, the cuffs are elasticated to keep out drafts.
Animal Men's Carter Recycled Fleece
A casual fleece with a front pouch, for laid-back urban and countryside outings
- Buy now for men from Animal for £30
This midweight fleece made from recycled fabric has a rather different design to most. With a quarter-length front zip, it dispenses with hand pockets and instead offers one massive kangaroo-style pouch on the front, complete with a zip and a cover flap. While this could prove pretty useful for carrying sheet maps somewhere they’re always close to hand and easy to access, there isn’t much else we can think of that people will happy use this for, since anything bulky will just look like a beer belly. This aside, it’s soft, warm and comfortable, and has a high, neck-protecting collar.
- Buy now for men from Animal for £30
- For women: Animal make a similar fleece, The Lottie, which fits more loosely around the waist and omits the pouch.