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Fleece top as a staple for backpacking?
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nick lidakis
(nyc_paramedic) - F
Fleece top as a staple for backpacking? on 08/27/2007 22:54:28 MDT Print View

How many people consider some type of fleece top as a staple for most of their three season backpacking? Is having a fleece jacket or sweater one of those indispensable clothing items for most? If so, does anyone have any recommendations for warm lightweight fleece tops? Anybody have any experience with the 8.2 ounce Patagonia;s El Cap Crew? This would be primarily for Northeast three season backpacking.

Jason Brinkman
(jbrinkmanboi) - MLife

Locale: Idaho
Re: Fleece top as a staple for backpacking? on 08/27/2007 23:42:07 MDT Print View

I think fleece tops (light and heavy) are probably in widespread use in the backpacking and outdoor community due to low prices and ready availability. However, it seems that the members and staff here prefer high loft garments made of Polarguard Delta, Climashield, and/or down. This is almost certainly due to the high loft insulations' significantly better loft to weight ratios (loft is basically proportional to thermal resistivity). Just look at the bulk of the gear lists in articles and member profiles on this site for proof.

Bozeman Mountain Works (the commercial gear sales affiliate of BPL) markets a line of high loft garments under the Cocoon name that is very popular with members here. To the best of my knowledge you will not find BMW selling any fleece.

I used to consider a 100-weight fleece a staple for my backpacking and outdoor pursuits, but I have since found much lighter choices with a high loft vest or jacket (in combination with a light wool or synthetic base layer, a windshirt, and rain gear). I still use a fleece garment for highly active pursuits like cross country skiing or snowshoeing, where high loft insulation could wet out and collapse. But while backpacking, I am able to control exertion and sweating to the point where the high loft insulations are preferable.

Edited by jbrinkmanboi on 08/27/2007 23:44:25 MDT.

Dirk Rabdau
(dirk9827) - F

Locale: Pacific Northwest
I am also interested in this question on 08/28/2007 00:02:09 MDT Print View

This is a topic I find very interesting because I know relative little (other than what I've read here) about the relative merits of fleece vs. high loft/insulation materials.

I currently use fleece but am investigating other options. I find fleece is warm and makes me happy, especially when the weather here in the Pacific Northwest isn't the greatest. I understand the whole loft-to-weight argument, but are there other reasons to consider a high loft garment over fleece? And are there conditions where fleece is the superior choice? I have had good luck with fleece but am willing to consider other possibilities. Thanks for all of your help!

Timothy Cristy
(tcristy) - F

Locale: Ohio
Fleece on 08/28/2007 03:15:08 MDT Print View

Out west where you are at elevations you can see 30s in the summer, the high loft gear makes sense. Where I go in WV, NC, and TN 3-season backpacking typically sees overnight lows in the 45-60 range and the high loft gear is often too warm. I have a light down jacket, but can only use it during the winter. I have a 6-oz alpaca fleece I generally take that under a windshirt works great in those temps.


ian wright
(ianwright) - F

Locale: Photo - Mt Everest - 1980
Fleece on 08/28/2007 03:52:46 MDT Print View

I am often confused about the huge range of options for warm layers. They all sound great but how do you rank them?
How can you be certain that this or that new fabric that you have never experienced will do the job you think/hope it will?

For me (who does not know too much!) fleece is the benchmark that I'd like everything else compared too.
Either 100 or 200 weight fleece.

If a product was advertised at being 'better than 100 fleece' for example, that would help me make a decision whether or not to buy. This is just my inexperienced way of thinking.

By the way, a little 'creation' of mine which I LOVE beyond belief is a short sleeved 100 weight fleece pullover. I made one by cutting off the long sleeves to just above the elbow. Does not sound too special but a great idea for when it's not that cold and also when it is cold and you have several layers on, you don't need all your tops to be long sleeved, your arms can build up too much heat.
Think of it this way . . . you're in a T-shirt and jeans and it gets cool so you put a long sleeve shirt on. It gets cold so you put on a long sleeved pullover of some sort. It gets colder so you put on a long sleeved jacket. . . but you still only have the jeans on and you're fine. No need for 3 lots of long sleeves.
(I'll step off my soapbox now !)

Adam Rothermich
(aroth87) - F

Locale: Missouri Ozarks
Re: Fleece top as a staple for backpacking? on 08/28/2007 07:30:43 MDT Print View

I used to bring along my fleece jacket every time I went hiking. It kept me warm until the wind started blowing at all but it seemed good enough. Then I made my Kinsman pullover from thru-hiker. It uses Primaloft and a shell and liner of 1.1 oz ripstop. It packs smaller and is much lighter than my fleece. The major advantage is that it blocks the wind so much better. It doesn't breathe like the fleece but I'm not usually exerting much energy when I'm wearing either one of them.
I've actually taken to wearing the Kinsman to and from class, the job that was reserved for my more stylish fleece. I may look goofy on my way to Electromagnetics, but you can sure bet I'm plenty warm. My only real qualm with it is that there are no pockets. However I've got extra insulation and ripstop and may try to add a hoody-style pocket to it before it gets cold this fall.


John Schafer
(jdshiker) - F
Re: Fleece top as a staple for backpacking? on 08/28/2007 09:06:19 MDT Print View

For me, in the northeast, for 3 season hiking/backpacking, I prefer a lightweight, highly breathable, fleece. I find the fleece more flexible as I can wear it while hiking in cooler/cold temps (less than 40, maybe closer to 30), at rest stops, and at camp. If it's windy, I just put on a wind shirt over the fleece.

I use an Arcteryx Delta LT which is made out of Polartec micro grid. Very lightweight, breathable, and warm. It also dries amazingly fast. My mens large weighs 8.6oz. It's way to expensive, but I got a good deal on a discontinued color. Also, checkout the Melanzana mirco grid tops.

Ben 2 World
(ben2world) - MLife

Locale: So Cal
Problem with Fleece on 08/28/2007 10:06:47 MDT Print View

Fleece is lightweight and warm. But fleece is just too bulky. While basic fleece (e.g. Polartec 200) is warm, light and affordable, I am not willing to size up my backpack to accomodate it. My MontBell Thermawrap synthetic insulation jacket is more expensive and only slightly lighter than fleece, but it compacts down to less than half the size of fleece -- maybe even a third the size!

nick lidakis
(nyc_paramedic) - F
Re: Fleece on 08/28/2007 13:19:02 MDT Print View

I should elaborate a bit. The fleece is in regards to hiking when the temps dip.

I was under the impression that the high loft garments like Primaloft and down aren't supposed to be used while hiking because they don't breathe as well. I can't picture myself hiking in my Patagonia micro puff pullover --way too warm. I also thought that the pack and straps would prematurely damage the delicate fill?

Edited by nyc_paramedic on 08/28/2007 13:21:55 MDT.

Richard Nisley
(richard295) - M

Locale: San Francisco Bay Area
Re: Re: Fleece on 08/28/2007 16:57:51 MDT Print View

Nick – Merino wool or two versions of fleece are designed for next-to-skin wear in cool to cold temperatures; those are the Power Dry (.080" loft) and Power Stretch (.130" loft) materials. Either, in a hoody design, will provide excellent variable temperature regulation while backpacking and not be damaged by the pack straps.

Polartec 100 (~.148" loft) Polartec 200 (~.195" loft) and 300 (~.250" loft) are engineered to be mid-layer insulation pieces. As others have mentioned, high loft synthetics (typically .400” - .600”) are lighter and compress smaller for any given temperature rating.

The key thing to remember is that you generate, on average, about 7 times the heat when backpacking as when you are taking a rest break. For times when you are active, you need only a relatively thin base layer and a wind shirt to maintain body warmth. Fleece variants such as Power Dry and Power Stretch have a thickness optimized for this function. Also the bi-component structure efficiently wicks moisture. When you are inactive, you need about 7x more insulation for the same temp. This is the scenario in which the benefits of high loft synthetics generally win out over conventional fleece (Polartec 100, 200, and 300). This is because at this level of loft requirement and above, high loft synthetics weigh less and compress smaller.

As an example, let’s assume that you are climbing over a mountain pass in a storm. A .080’ Power Dry or Merino wool, in combination with a wind shirt is keeping you warm. Now let’s assume you sit down and rest for an hour. You will need about 7 times the loft to now maintain your warmth. Let’s assume you are carrying a Patagonia pullover (.600” loft). You put it on and again are comfortable. You would need to carry a Polartec 300 jacket and Polartec 300 vest to approach the same warmth as your Patagonia pullover. The weight and pack volume would be dramatically heavier using the fleece option when inactive.

Edited by richard295 on 08/28/2007 17:58:04 MDT.

Tom Kirchner
(ouzel) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest/Sierra
pwer stretch while hiking on 08/28/2007 17:53:31 MDT Print View

I've tried power stretch when hiking in Cascade winter conditions and found it way too hot. Maybe just my metabolism. Too bad, 'cause it feels just great NTS. What I've ended up with is a Patagonia Capilene 1 base layer with a Patagonia Micro Puff vest layered over it when I'm starting out. After 1/2 hour or so, the vest almost invariably comes off, unless it's really windy. When I take a rest stop or lunch break, a wind shirt and either the Micro Puff vest or my Cocoon pullover do the job. I suppose the power stretch would also do just fine as an insulating layer, but it's so much bulkier than the Cocoon. Vest and Cocoon stuff down to less than the power stretch with an ~4 oz weight penalty, but with a lot of additional layering flexibility for varying levels of heat dispersal/retention needs. This is for day hike situations. On multi-day trips the vest stays home and I use the Capilene and wind shirt, with the Cocoon for an insulation layer. Bottom line: fleece is just too bulky and there are lots of other alternatives.

Jason Klass
(jasonklass) - F

Locale: Parker, CO
Fleece top on 08/28/2007 18:30:44 MDT Print View

I would have to have something with loft like a nice Mont Bell jacket but because of cost, I just carry my fleece jacket as insulation and use my rain jacket as a shell. It works fine for me--just bulky and somewhat on the heavy side. Once I win the lottery, I'm going to get one of those Mont Bell ultra-light, ultra-compressible jackets though! ;)

Michael Davis
(mad777) - F

Locale: South Florida
Re: "Fleece top as a staple for backpacking?" on 08/28/2007 18:54:27 MDT Print View

I love to read your posts. I feel like I'm back in engineering college. You are an encyclopedia of knowledge. Keep up the good work!

I hear you on the Mont-bell, prices. However, don't forget that Wallyworld and other similar discount stores and Sears and Penneys (on sale) have really low prices on down jackets. Maybe not the most uber-lite but, I know that you are no stranger to hacking up gear. For instance, remove heavy hardwear or even the sleeves to make a vest. Just a thought. BYW, I enjoy your website.

Richard Nisley
(richard295) - M

Locale: San Francisco Bay Area
Re: pwer stretch while hiking on 08/28/2007 18:57:03 MDT Print View

Tom - You obviously have dialed-in a system that works well for you in Cascade winter conditions. Only if your Capilene 1 base layer had to be augmented with your Patagonia Micro Puff beyond the first half hour or in heavy winds would one of the base layer optimized fleeces made better sense.

Perspiration moisture in Capilene or one of the base layer oriented fleeces is less of an issue than getting it the Polarguard Delta. There is a 40% reduction in Delta's thermal resistance when wet. I know the advertisements say "warm when wet”... but.

The base layer provides little intrinsic insulation. Its primary function is to wick.

If someone else with a lower metabolism decided to use your Capilene base layer during the Cascade winter and then needed to wear their high loft insulation, when hiking, to stay warm they could be in trouble. The problem occurs when they stop to rest and moisture has degraded their high loft insulation below the point it would keep them warm. When resting they need 7x times the insulation they needed backpacking.

The safety and comfort balancing act mid-point is generally where the selected wicking base layer can be adjusted in combination with a wind shirt, to keep you comfortable backpacking without adding high loft insulation the vast majority of time. This is why zippered synthetic hoodies, such as the Patagonia R1 Hoody, work well as base layers. They aren’t as warm as the Power Stretch material that over heated you and they have a very wide temperature adjustment range by virtue of the zipper and hood.

Edited by richard295 on 08/28/2007 19:19:42 MDT.

Dale Wambaugh
(dwambaugh) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest
To fleece or not to fleece on 08/29/2007 04:20:19 MDT Print View

Fleece is relatively light, inexpensive, and works well in a wet climate. It does not have the loft to weight ratio that polyester and down garments provide and doesn't compress as well. I don't think of it as extreme cold weather gear, but for moderate cool, wet weather-- great stuff on a rainy 45F day. Rain parkas and fleece are paired staples in the Pacific Northwest.

Like so many "lower performance" garments, fleece is great for day hikes and short trips. Many great clothing options are good for more single-purpose pursuits. I have a Marmot DriClime windshirt that is a wonderful garment for all kinds of outdoor use, but it doesn't fit into an ultralight multi-day scheme as it weighs 16oz and is replaced by a more vesatile Montane windshirt and a Patagonia MicroPuff vest. For a day hike or around town walks, it is one of my favorite peices of gear. Likewise softshell garments-- great for a day of downhill skiing, but too heavy for the utility provided in a multi-day ultralight trip.

I have 200 weight fleece vests and sweaters, several 100 weight fleece tops, some fleece bottoms in 100 and 200 weight, and a great Power Stretch top from Mountain Hardwear. I think of the 100 weight and Power Stretch as a heavy base layer option rather than a light insulation layer. The stuff wicks well and is good against the skin and perfect for sleeping in.

The high loft layers fit into the high performance demands of ultralight hiking where every gram is scrutinized. When you equip for thru-hiking and higher altitudes, I think the high loft garments make sense on a warmth to weight basis. For less demanding trips, cool and wet conditions, and all-round utility, I think fleece works just fine.

Bill B
(bill123) - MLife
Base Layer Thickness on 08/29/2007 08:52:51 MDT Print View

I've read a number of articles that claim that since a base layer's purpose is wicking, you should only use the thinnest material. If this is true, why are so many thicknesses & types made?

Kevin Sawchuk
(ksawchuk) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Northern California
Re: Fleece top as a staple for backpacking? on 08/29/2007 10:37:10 MDT Print View

Many fleece garments are overbuilt with zippers, draft flaps, pockets, cuffs, hems, and made of heavy fleece material. You don't want these. Lighter weight and simpler fleece of some sort is nearly always in my kit. I use an REI "powerstretch" type fleece in the summer. The Patagonia El Cap sweater has worked its way back into my kit primarily when themperatures are pretty cold. I use it on most winter/snow trips and some in the spring/fall. I find fleece more versatile than an insulated polargaurd piece because it breathes and vents moisture so well when hiking. If I need the extra warmth of a "microfiber encapsulated" jacket (read cocoon, micro-puff pullover) I can put a windjacket or rainjacket on top and don't need the "redundancy" of the windlayer that is intrinsic to the "cocoon style" jacket.

I still have and use the Patagonia micro-puff jacket and vest but mostly on cold trips for sitting around camp. They are important supplements but I almost never ski or hike in them.

Richard Nisley
(richard295) - M

Locale: San Francisco Bay Area
Re: Base Layer Thickness on 08/29/2007 11:33:04 MDT Print View

Bill – The reason varying thicknesses and types of base layers are manufactured is that for being active in a specific effective temperature range, just the base layer and a wind shirt provide thermal comfort while eliminating the hassle factor of adding and removing the insulation layers.

For example, I frequently hike the Northern CA coast during the summer. The day time temperature range is 45 to 75F, the wind is 0 to 35 mph, and the sky is foggy to clear. These changes can occur in short order as fog and wind belts are encountered and then blocked along the coast.

If I follow conventional wisdom and select my lightest base layer, it would be my Patagonia Capilene silk weight crew. I need to augment it with a mid weight fleece insulation layer or my Patagonia Micro Puff vest and a warm hat. During the course of a day I end up taking the insulating layer and warm hat in and out of my pack many times. With a thickness for temperature range optimized base layer hoody, I never need to stop and open my pack to put an insulating garment on or off… I just zipper adjust or flip a hood while on the move.

A COOL/COLD weather temperature range optimized base layer has two purposes: 1) keep your skin dry; and 2) provide the variable insulation required for the combination of your MET rate and the effective environmental temperature.

For purpose 1) It needs to fit tight to effectively wick moisture away from the skin. This is the reason Power Dry and Power Stretch are engineered to be very stretchy. Merino wool garments use a knit pattern to also be stretchy. Non stretch and non bi-component fabrics, such as Polartec 100, will wick moisture away from your skin 30% less effectively than Power Stretch or Power Dry. Capilene will wick well only if worn skin tight.

For purpose 2) they need to effectively evaporate water off the outside of the insulation. The bi-component nature of Power Dry and Power Stretch are designed to accomplish this. The internal buffering moisture storage of Merino wool also accomplishes this in a different fashion.

A wind shirt, in combination with the hoody base layer’s ventilation options, provides a very wide range of insulation values without having to add or remove an insulating hat or insulating mid layer garment the majority of the time. In addition, a hooded wind shirt that is sealed up provides up to .8 clo by preventing the air layer around the body from being blown away. A hoody’s base layer garment ventilation options include: stretchy sleeves that can be pushed up or down, deep neck ventilation zippers, tight fitting hoods that can be quickly flipped up or down, and thumb holes that can be quickly slipped into or out of. These integral adjustment options allow the base layer’s effective insulation value to be varied over a very wide effective temperature range without having to stop and get into the pack to add or remove garments.

Edited by richard295 on 08/29/2007 12:47:37 MDT.

Tom Kirchner
(ouzel) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest/Sierra
Pwer stretch while hiking on 08/29/2007 16:09:47 MDT Print View

We are pretty much on the same page regarding the R1 Hoody-it's in the "on deck" circle in my fall/winter purchase lineup. I look forward to being able to substitute it for the Cap-1/Micro Puff combo and go straight to the windshirt when resting or under consistently windy conditions. Right now, it's a question of financial constraints; they aren't called Pata Gucci for nothin'.

Nikolas Andersen
(nsandersen) - MLife
Fleece believer on 08/29/2007 16:37:14 MDT Print View

First of all, I am lightweight rather than ultralight. I use 2x100-weight fleece for 3 seasons and 100+200 for 4 seasons, the latter offering 3 different levels of insulation. I normally only wear both when not walking.

I tend to get warm and damp easily. I usually walk in a damp environment (Britain) and like to take a few mountain tops on the way, where you can experience sleet in the Summer. The airiness and water tolerance of fleece are the deciding factors for me.
I'd also worry about the durability of thin nylon shell fabrics, although I do like them for a wind shirt on day hikes and for sleeping bag fabrics.

I have been told (but not experienced) that fleece is good if it is sufficiently cold that the freezing point moves inside your insulation. From a moisture point of view that sounds sensible, but then I'm sure Andrew Skurka didn't bring fleece - correct me if I'm wrong.