Oh what fun it is being an outdoors lover in a country with weather as unpredictable and changeable as the UK… Deciding what to wear when hiking is hard here – we know we have to layer up with versatile clothing, but which pieces do you actually carry?
A good mid-layer fleece can really help. This is the item of clothing you put over your tee or base layer, and under your puffy coat or waterproof jacket. Excellent at any time of the year, mid-layer fleeces are warm, breathable, easy to pack (not too bulky), and comfortable to wear.
But how do you decide what fleece is right for you? When you walk into any outdoors shop, or open any outdoors website, there is so much choice, it’s quite difficult to know which will be best. In this post I want to tackle the topic by taking about fleece weight and how that might help you make a decision.
Examples from Regatta
Regatta very kindly sent me a couple of fleeces to illustrate this post. I have the Regatta Solenne and the Regatta Highton, both half zip fleeces that would make excellent mid-layers, and both lightweight options that roll up small enough to pack in a day hike pack or for an overnight trip.
The Solenne is in the colour “blueskies” and is a polyester and viscose mix, and the Highton is in the Dapple Onyx Grey and is a 100% polyester fleece. The Solenne is a 240gsm fleece (midweight), and the Highton a 175gsm fleece (lightweight).
While these fleeces are both excellent mid-layers, and I’ve had them a good few months now, wearing them regularly for hiking and casual-wear, this isn’t a review post. I’m using these pieces to help me explain something about the weight of fleece, and what to look for when you are looking for your next mid layer to keep you comfortable in your outdoor adventures.
What is Fleece?
Fleece is not a natural fibre. Rather, it is a manmade material modelled on natural wool, designed to be comfortable, warm, and moisture resistant. It’s a polyester, a plastic, and these days is generally made from recycled plastic.
Fleece is popular because it is durable, lightweight, and affordable. While natural materials such as wool might be more sustainable, it is expensive, can be heavy, and doesn’t have quite the same moisture wicking properties.
At least we are seeing outdoor companies head in the right direction by using recycled polyester and offering repair schemes, hugely important to bring outdoor clothing into a more sustainable field. There’s more work to be done here though, and while this post is about the weight of these garments rather than sustainability, I couldn’t not mention it.
When we talk about clothing for the outdoors, we head straight to this idea of laying up to help regulate temperature. In this, your mid-layer fleece is the layer you put over your base layer – your tee – and underneath your top layer – your jacket.
While fleece is hydrophobic (the threads cannot absorb water), it is not waterproof. This means that it might be good as a top layer in a bit of drizzle, but you’re going to want to pop a waterproof over the top in rain.
The key with layering up is that you can change your mind, and should often. Layers only work if you remove them when you get warm, and put them on when you get cold.
Thankfully fleece is lightweight and packs down well so you can easily stuff it in your bag when you don’t need it, and grab it when your temperature drops. So you can hike up that hill in your base layer, but whip your fleece back on when you reach the top to stop all that lovely self-produced warmth disappearing into the ether.
Interested in layering up applied to sleeping outside? Check this post about using your sleeping bag effectively.
The Weight of Fleece
This section is the reason for this post, as I’ve often found the weight of fleece a bit confusing. I hope it helps when you’re next looking to buy a fleece top, especially if you’re doing so online where you can’t hold the garment and feel whether or not it’s the right weight for you.
Fleece is categorised by weight, which is measured in gsm (grams per square metre). Fleece less than 100gsm is considered ultralight, 100-200gsm is lightweight, 200-300gsm is mid-weight, and anything over 300gsm is heavyweight. At the light end of the scale you’ll find tops good for summer walking, whereas over at the heavyweight end you’ve got super thick cosy sweaters that are good for bundling up on a cold evening outdoors.
Lightweight Fleece (Microfleece)
Any fleece up to 200gsm is considered lightweight, or might also be labelled as microfleece. At this weight, fleece provides its lowest levels of insulation but it’s highest levels of breathability, so it’s ideal for getting out and active when the weather isn’t too cold.
Lightweight fleece is also really flexible, so great for when you need to move your body – hiking, climbing, scrambling, biking, anything other than sitting still, really.
Given that they are thin, breathable and flexible, lightweight fleeces are perfect great for layering – wear one over your tee or other base layer, and under your puffy coat or shell jacket to keep the heat in.
Lightweight fleeces are also perfect for other activities such as motorcycling or skiing, where you want an extra layer under your technical gear, but nothing to thick or restrictive. A microfleece will provide extra insulation without bulk, so you stay comfortable.
The grey Highton top from Regatta is a good example of a lightweight fleece – it’s thin and stretchy, close fitting and warm, and rolls up small to pack in the top of a bag. It is designed with movement in mind, and is fitted enough to fit well underneath another layer if needed.
Midweight fleeces are generally anything from 200gsm to 300gsm, ish. A bit thicker than the lightweight fleeces mentioned above, but still good for layering.
They should still be breathable enough to wear whilst doing activities, but will be a bit heavier to wear and pack, and provide a bit less flexibility than a lightweight fleece. They make an excellent outer layer on hikes when the weather is cold but dry (oh how I love Spring and Autumn hiking!), or to layer under something such as such as a puffy coat when the weather is very cold.
They’re also an excellent option if you are backpacking, because you get a layer that is a good middle ground for both hiking and for camping. Excellent for picnics on hills or on windy days!
The blue Solenne top from Regatta is my example here. I imagine that if you imagine a fleece mid-layer, this is exactly the sort of thing that comes to mind; soft, cosy, warm, but still packable. When rolled up it’s a bit fatter than the Highton, but still goes in my day pack mesh pocket without any issue, and I can easily fit it under my waterproof jacket if needed. It’s not quite as stretchy though, so not so good for activities where arm movement is key, or where space is a premium under a motorcycle or ski jacket.
If you are only buying one fleece top and you are likely to do anything more than sit still in it, then a midweight fleece is probably what you should get.
Heavyweight fleece is anything above 300gsm, these are your thick, cosy, bulky fleeces you want if you are somewhere cold where you don’t need to move much. They provide an excellent thermal layer for evenings at camp, or when in particularly cold climates.
They look and feel amazing, are by far the most insulating fleeces you can get, but they are far from flexible. This means they are super warm and cosy, but not ideal if you are needing to move around much, as you’ll soon start sweating and want to take it off. Unless you are in the Arctic, of course, then you could wear one to chop wood for your fire and be grateful for it.
I personally think everyone should own a heavyweight fleece, you just can’t beat the feeling of snuggling into one, but they’re not something that can really be used as a mid-layer, not unless you buy a waterproof jacket that’s at least one size too big to fit over the top.
There’s no Regatta example to show you, but I do own a Patagonia Snap-T Pullover which fits the heavyweight criteria. I absolutely adore it; perfect for sitting around the campfire, or even just a particularly cold day at home. This isn’t something I pack for hiking trips or even motorcycle adventures, though, as it’s just not versatile enough given how thick and bulky it is.
How to Choose
As with any piece of outdoor gear or article of clothing, choosing the right mid-layer fleece should always begin with the kind of activities you will be experiencing whilst using/wearing it. And then working backwards.
If you are doing lots of hiking and running in the summer months only, then a lightweight fleece will be ideal. If you are camping and walking from Spring through to Autumn, then a midweight fleece will be more versatile for you. And if you aren’t moving around much at all, but like to get outside in winter, then heavyweight is for you.
I mean, choosing a 300gsm fleece to wear when trail running or climbing is impractical because it will be too warm, weighty and bulky. On the other hand, choosing a 100gsm fleece to keep you warm on your trip to see Santa in Finnish Lapland will probably leave you wishing you had packed two of them.
The Catch-All Option
As I mentioned above, if you are looking for a catch-all layer to wear over a tee and under a waterproof jacket for most UK based walking adventures, then choosing a midweight fleece does make sense. These are probably the most versatile, and generally are styled so they can be used as technical gear and for more casual wear, too.
But you tell me… do you only own one fleece? Which did you choose, and why – and does it do everything you need of it?
While this is more of an explainer piece than a review blog, I am more than happy to recommend Regatta as a great brand to look at if you are after a new mid-layer fleece. They are certainly a brand to look at if you need trustworthy quality with excellent value; Regatta tend to be kind on the pocket while still being perfectly technical for most activities and adventures. You can get the Highton for £12 at the moment, and the Solenne is just £9 if you catch the sale – not bad.
Thank you to Regatta for sending me a couple of fleeces to help illustrate this explainer post here on Splodz Blogz. I have therefore marked this post as gifted, but it is not a sponsored or review post.