The ultimate guide to fleece


High quality clothing gives you confidence as you head outdoors, allowing you to concentrate on performance and enjoyment. This handy guide will explore the history, developments and benefits of one vital fabric: fleece. 

Different conditions and activities call for different levels of insulation, weight and breathability. Identifying the right fleece for your needs is an important part of your planning. Engineered to optimise insulation and weight, a fleece layer will help you stay safe and comfortable when temperatures drop. Naturally breathable, fleece will allow perspiration to escape when you are working hard. 

By considering the construction, technology and latest developments, this article will help you to make informed choices when buying a fleece.

Why is fleece so warm?

Fleece is a synthetic material that keeps you warm by trapping body heat close to the skin. In cold conditions, fleece will slow down the thermal energy loss from your body to the air around you. Engineered to achieve the effective insulation of wool, lightweight fleece is ideal for active use.

Wool has long been known for its strong insulating properties. By trapping pockets of air close to the body, the rate of heat transfer is reduced. This keeps you comfortably warm in cold environments. Wool provides insulation and remains breathable when you start to sweat, and is hard to beat for natural fabrics. 

However, wool has several disadvantages. Firstly, wool becomes heavy when wet, making it less suitable for outdoor activities; fleece holds less water. Secondly, it is not machine washable. And thirdly, it’s generally quite expensive, especially for fine merino wool. 

This led to the development of polar fleece, commonly known as fleece, in the 1970s. Engineered from polyester, the aim was to create a lightweight fabric with the insulating properties of wool without the need to rely on sheep. The technology has remained largely the same since its inception. Modern fleece will keep you warm, remain breathable, dry quickly and is softer on the skin than wool – and it’s machine washable.

How does fleece work?

Your body produces heat which transfers to the air around you in low temperatures. This makes you feel cold and causes your body to work harder to maintain a comfortable temperature. The lofted polyester fibres of fleece trap air between the strands. This retains the warm air close to the body rather than transmitting it to the surroundings. 

In comparison to wool, fleece is a vegan alternative that is more cost effective and easier to wash. Combining fleece with other synthetic materials such as nylon or elastane allows for enhanced functionality through the combined properties of those fibres.

The North Face Women’s Denali 2 Fleece Jacket is a perfect example of the versatility of fleece clothing. Made from recycled polyester, the addition of reinforced shoulder, chest and forearm panelling improves durability. Zipped pockets and stretch fabric at the cuffs improve functionality and comfort without compromising on insulation.

Wind chill is also a factor in staying warm. The movement of air across the skin increases the rate of heat transfer, causing you to feel colder than the ambient temperature. The North Face WindWall™ fleece clothing has been designed to reduce the effect of wind chill without compromising on comfort or breathability. 

Related: What is the benefit of fleece?

What is softshell fleece?

Softshell fleece clothing combines two fabrics to optimise performance. Fleece material is more effective for warmth, but is not water resistant. Soft shell garments provide more protection from the wind, but less insulation. Fleece feels softer to the touch, while soft-shell has a smoother, ‘brushed’ finish.

Softshell fabric is woven to provide a more comfortable and flexible experience than a traditional hard shell. Combining breathability with warmth, softshell jackets are great all-rounders for changeable weather conditions. 

Fleece and softshell can be combined in your layering system. In moderate conditions, a lightweight softshell jacket will offer flexibility for a range of outdoor activities. In colder weather, consider pairing an insulating mid-fleece with a softshell outer layer. If heavy rain is expected, pack a waterproof rain shell to provide protection from precipitation.

Related: How to choose a softshell jacket

What is the best fleece?

Choosing the best fleece will depend on your specific needs. Think about warmth, breathability, flexibility and comfort. Consider the temperatures you are likely to encounter, along with how much you’ll be carrying to identify the type of fleece that you need. 

To decide on a fleece for your next adventure, consider the following factors:

  • Insulation - The thicker the fleece, the greater the insulating effect

  • Weight - Heavier weight fleeces provide greater insulation but are more bulky

  • Breathability - The more strenuous your planned activities, the greater need for airflow when you start to sweat

  • Performance - Consider the key features of your trip. Look for light, flexible garments that will not restrict movement for high output activities. 

  • Functionality - Think about pockets for your essentials 

  • Layers - Think about the other clothes you will be wearing and how the combinations will work together




Lightweight fleece and microfleece are easy to pack and have high levels of breathability. These fabrics are most suitable for high-output activities such as running or cycling.

  • Lightweight construction sacrifices insulation in comparison to heavier fleeces.

  • Midweight fleece is a versatile fabric that aims to balance insulation with breathability. Look for a midweight fleece as a good all-rounder to cover multiple activities.

  • Heavyweight fleeces are ideal for extended periods of time in low temperatures. While providing greater insulation, the heavier the fleece, the less breathable it is.



To help you deal with changing weather conditions, consider how your clothing works together in layers. Your base layer is closest to your body. This should be soft and comfortable, allowing moisture to be wicked away from the skin as you perspire.

Fleeces are ideal as a mid layer which can be added when the temperature starts to drop and you need to stay warm. The North Face Men’s TKA Kataka ½ Zip Fleece is warm, light and quick-drying. It’s a versatile mid layer for changeable temperatures.

An outer-shell acts as a waterproof layer that can be worn over your other clothing when it starts to rain. 

Our Women's 100 Glacier Fleece Jacket is an ideal layering piece. It integrates with other compatible garments from The North Face allowing you to create a layering system that works for you. The lightweight construction aids mobility and comfort, making this fleece the ideal companion for the commute or the trail.

Related: The North Face guide to layering

The North Face is proud to be the first choice of elite mountaineers, weekend walkers and everyone in between. Our commitment to innovation over 50 years gives you the confidence that your clothing won’t let you down in tricky conditions. A good fleece will be a valuable piece of your equipment, allowing you to deal with high-output activities in variable temperatures. Whatever adventure you have planned, The North Face has a fleece to meet your needs.