Opinion: Is Fleece Dead?

In the not-so-distant past, fleeces of varying weights and purposes stuffed our closets and backpacks. You needed stretch fleeces, with their enhanced mobility, for climbing in cool weather, Windstopper fleece for above-treeline scrambles, and trusty 300-weight fleeces just to leave the house in winter. Of course, microfleece suited your summer escapes and offered an outdoorsy alternative to sweaters in winter. In recent years, though, a host of new insulation choices have crowded the fleece out of our closets. In response, we’ve asked ourselves, “Is fleece totally dead?”

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There are far superior technical outer layers…

Fleece is no longer the premier technical outer layer. That much we know for certain, for three main reasons.

Better Fits and Packability

First, packability. When some of us started hiking, climbing, and skiing, down coats packed reasonably well. But, put one on, and you immediately resembled the Michelin Man. The synthetic coats of the day cut a slimmer profile, but packed about as well as fleece.

By contrast, today’s down coats use super-high quality down to create the same amount of warmth, without making it look like you’re impersonating the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, while taking up far less pack space. As well, jackets with synthetic insulation now provide a less-bulky fit and have begun to rival down in terms of packability. Fleece outer layers? They still don’t pack well. And, who really wants to carry a giant pack solely to accommodate a technical fleece jacket?

Lighter Weights

Second, options. Much like the fleeces of the past, available in a wide variety of weights and features, down and synthetic jackets now come in an incredible range of sizes and styles. You’ll find everything from ultralight insulation, like the Arc’teryx Atom SL (men’s/women’s), to heavyweight pieces, like Marmot’s Men’s Guides Down and Women’s Aruna hoodies. Because of this, puffies have replaced fleece everywhere, from slightly cool summer summits to bitterly cold winter belays. Companies are even developing hybrids, like the EMS Impact Hybrid Jacket (men’s/women’s), which combines active insulation with lightweight, stretchy materials to keep weight down and packability up.

More Tech Features

Third, wicking. Within the outdoor community, fleece has long remained a staple for one significant reason: It keeps you warm, all while wicking away sweat. However, the advent of active insulation diversified the options offered. As such, today’s synthetic jackets provide more warmth, offer comparable breathability, and pack better than fleeces of similar weights. For these reasons, puffy vests are a four-season staple for us. As well, you’ll rarely find us in the mountains during winter without an active insulation-based midlayer, such as the EMS Alpine Ascender Stretch Jacket.

While active insulation has fueled the growth of synthetic options, technological advancements have further targeted common issues associated with down – most notably, its susceptibility to water. Hydrophobic down—down that’s resistant to water—and DWR (durable water repellent) treated shells on coats like the EMS Feather Pack (men’s/women’s) have helped minimize this insulation’s Achilles’ heel. No longer pigeon-holed for dry climates, down coats are now commonly used in soggy environments, like the Pacific Northwest and the Northeast.

All that said, abrasion resistance still gives fleece a leg up. It’s comparatively harder to tear.

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…But, don’t be fleeced into thinking it’s dead just yet

Despite synthetic and down insulation filling many of its former roles, we’re not ready to bury fleece just yet. Stretch fleeces, like the EMS Equinox Power Stretch Hoodie (men’s/women’s), are staples of our ice climbing and in-bound ski kits. In addition to being great for cold-weather pursuits, its adaptable design is a must-have for fall cragging. It’s also hard to beat the next-to-skin fuzzy texture of The North Face’s Campshire (men’s/women’s), especially when you’re wearing it around town. Lastly, a cozy microfleece lets you keep up appearances and stay warm while kicking back after a hard day playing outdoors.

For these reasons, fleece isn’t leaving our gear closet just yet.