When putting together a cold-weather clothing layering system, you have a number of fabrics and insulation materials to choose from. Should you wear a fleece, wool sweater, down puffer jacket, or all 3? The answer depends on the climate, your level of activity, and personal preference. This guide outlines the pros and cons of down vs fleece vs wool for hiking and other outdoor activities.
A Bit of Info About How Insulation Works in Cold Weather Garments
Insulation in clothing works by trapping body heat in small air pockets. A good insulating material has the ability to trap more body heat to keep you warmer. Down, fleece, and wool are all used as insulation in winter clothing.
Down insulates by trapping heat within clusters of goose or duck feathers. It makes for an excellent mid or outer layer for cold weather. Fleece and wool trap heat within the fibers of the fabric. They are usually used as mid-layers in more mild weather. Wool makes for an excellent base layer. You can combine all three in extremely cold weather.
Down Jacket Pros
- Warm- Down provides the best insulation of any fiber used in the manufacture of winter garments. Even with modern manufacturing, down still performs better than any synthetic material. A good down jacket can keep the average person warm down to around 20°F (around -7°C). If you expect colder weather, you’ll want to pack a fleece or wool layer in addition to your down jacket.
- Lightweight- An average down jacket contains 3-4 ounces (85-115 grams) of down filling and weighs 10-16 ounces (280-450 grams) in total. This is light enough for any ultralight traveler or hiker. If you’re willing to spend a bit more, you can buy high-end ultralight down jackets that weigh as little as 8 ounces (around 226 grams). That’s half a pound.
- Compressible- One of the biggest benefits down has over fleece and wool is the fact that it’s highly compressible. A down jacket stuffs into a bundle that’s about a liter in size. Some compress even smaller. Because down jackets compress so small, they are easy to pack. This makes them a great choice for travelers and people who fly often. They take up very little space in your pack.
- Long-lasting- If taken care of, you can get decades of use out of a down jacket. Natural down doesn’t degrade as fast as synthetic materials.
- Down is more environmentally friendly- Down is a natural product that comes from geese and ducks. It’s renewable. Fleece, on the other hand, is made of polyester which is essentially a type of plastic.
- Fashionable- Down puffer jackets are always in style. They make for an excellent day to day winter garment even while you’re not on the trail. They make a great addition to your wardrobe.
Down Jacket Cons
- Expensive- Budget down jackets start around $60. For a high-end ultralight model, expect to spend $200-$300. They’re not cheap.
- Some people find down to be unethical- Down is made from the feathers of ducks and geese. If you have a problem with wearing clothing that is made from animal products, you’ll probably want to stay away from down jackets. Synthetic options are available. They have their own set of benefits and drawbacks. When buying a down jacket, it is a nice idea to make sure that the down was ethically sourced. The manufacturer indicates this on the label. For more, check out this article about ethical down from Tuck.com.
- Down does not perform well in wet conditions- When down gets wet, it loses its insulation properties. The reason for this that water causes down loses its loft by causing the feathers to stick together. Because there are no air pockets to trap heat, you don’t stay warm in a wet down jacket.
- Slow to dry- After a down jacket gets wet, it tends to stay wet. It will never dry out in your pack or in wet conditions. If you expect a lot of precipitation, it’s best to leave your down jacket at home. Fleece and wool dry very quickly.
- Down is harder to wash- You can’t just throw your down jacket into the wash with the rest of your clothes. You have to use a special type of soap called down wash. You should also use a front-loading washer. They are more gentle on clothing. After washing, you must slowly dry your jacket over the course of a couple of hours with tennis balls to remove clumps. For more info, check out this guide to washing a down jacket from cleverhiker.com.
- Less durable- With down, you have to worry about mold and mildew. If these develop, you’ll pretty much have to throw your down jacket away. To avoid this, make sure you let your down jacket dry completely before putting it away after use. You also want to avoid overcompressing your down jacket or leaving it compressed for long periods of time. The reason is that the fibers can degrade when compressed. Your jacket will also take more time to loft when it has been overcompressed.
- Down can get smelly- If you don’t wash your down jacket properly or if it gets damp and doesn’t dry out soon enough, it can develop a pretty nasty barnyard smell. Lower grades of down are more likely to smell. The solution is to properly wash your jacket. Buying a jacket with a higher grade of down helps as well.
- Some people can have allergic reactions to down- Dust particles in down can cause allergic reactions in some people. A type of down exists which is designed to be hypoallergenic.
- Inexpensive- You can pick up a decent fleece jacket for $15-$20 online or at most department stores. For a high-end fleece jacket from a major outdoor company, expect to pay around $100-$200.
- Fleece is breathable- This is probably the best quality of fleece as a material. It has the ability to wick moisture. This helps to prevent you from overheating and from getting soaked with your own sweat. This breathable quality is the main reason that hikers choose fleece over other insulating materials like cotton.
- Lightweight- The average fleece jacket weighs between 9 and 18 ounces (about 255-510 grams) depending on the features and thickness of the fleece. Ultralight fleece jackets use quarter length zippers and remove the pockets to save weight.
- Ethical- Fleece is not made from animal fibers. It’s a synthetic material that is made from polyester, which is a type of plastic.
- Quick-drying- You can basically shake your damp fleece out in the air and it will dry enough to provide some warmth. This comes in handy for hiking in wet weather. It can also reduce the risk of hypothermia. During my Wonderland Trail hike, my fleece was the only warm piece of clothing I had after everything got wet during a 6-day rainstorm. I had to sleep in it to stay warm enough during the night as my sleeping bag had gotten damp.
- Fleece is warm- The warmth of a fleece jacket depends on the ‘weight’ or thickness and loft of the fleece. Manufacturers use a few different scales to measure the weight of their fleece. The most common is the Polartec scale where fleece is measured in weights of 100, 200, and 300. The higher the number, the heavier and thicker the fleece material. An ultralight 100 weight fleece jacket can keep you warm down to around freezing if you’re staying active.
- Fleece is hydrophobic- Polyester fabrics like fleece allow water to move through the fibers without absorbing it. Fleece won’t get heavy and waterlogged like cotton or down. The material has a low absorption rate.
- Fleece provides some insulation when wet- Due to the hydrophobic properties of fleece, the material can provide warmth even when it gets wet. It retains some loft which provides insulation by trapping body heat. Fleece performs better than down when wet but worse than wool.
- Easy to wash- You can just throw it in the laundry with the rest of your clothes. You don’t have to use a special soap or drying technique like you do with down.
- Durable- You don’t have to worry about damaging fleece by overcompression. Mold and mildew isn’t a worry either. The material is very sturdy. As a kid, I had a fleece jacket that I wore almost every day for a couple of years. I wore it hard and must have run it through the wash hundreds of times. The material got a bit thin but never tore or wore through. I grew out of that fleece before it wore out.
- Comfortable- In my opinion, fleece is one of the nicest feeling materials. It just feels good against the skin. It’s very soft to the touch. It also doesn’t itch. This makes fleece an excellent alternative to wool.
- Fashionable- A nice fleece jacket is kind of a step up from a hoodie, fashion-wise. You can wear it around town while you’re not on the trail. It’s also comfortable to wear while lounging around at home. I probably wouldn’t lay around at home in my down jacket.
- Not environmentally friendly- Fleece is a synthetic material made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET). This is a type of plastic that has been stretch into fibers. Essentially, fleece is made from oil which is a non-renewable resource. If you’re looking for a material that is more environmentally with similar properties to fleece, consider merino wool. It is a more sustainable material.
- Fleece develops odors easily- Because of the hydrophobic qualities of fleece, the material tends to resist detergents and soaps. Fleece doesn’t have antibacterial or antimicrobial properties like wool. This means that fleece develops an odor more easily.
- Bulky- Even though fleece is lightweight, it doesn’t compress very well. It’s a bulky fabric. A fleece takes up more space in your pack than a down jacket.
- Fleece pills- This is a common problem with many fabrics. Pilling is when fibers clump together into little balls. This reduces the insulating properties of the fleece. Pilling also makes the garment look worn and kind of dingy. When pilling gets too bad, it’s time to buy a new fleece.
- Fleece is flammable and has a low melting temperature- You don’t want to sit too close to a campfire when wearing your fleece. If a spark jumps onto your jacket, it will probably melt a hole. Some fleece jackets are treated with a chemical fire retardant to make them less flammable. Check the label for this information.
- Not as warm as down– If you expect weather below 20°F (about -7°C) you’ll probably want to pack both a fleece or wool sweater and down jacket.
- Not as long-lasting- Fleece degrades more quickly than down. After a couple of years of heavy use and wash cycles, fleece begins to pill and wear thin. At this point, it loses much of its insulating properties.
- Fleece generates static electricity- This attracts hair, lint, and dust to collect on the garment. This is mostly just an annoyance.
Wool performs in a similar manner to fleece. In fact, fleece was designed as a synthetic alternative to wool. Both fabrics have similar characteristics with a few key differences.
- Wool is resistant to odors- Wool has natural anti-bacterial properties making it resistant to developing odors from sweat and body odors. This is maybe the best property of wool. I have worn my wool sweater for over a week straight and it magically doesn’t stink.
- Breathable- Wool wicks moisture away from your body. This helps you regulate your body temperature and avoid getting soaked with sweat.
- Quick-drying- Wool dries faster than down but not quite as fast as fleece. The thinner the wool, the faster it will dry. Thick wool sweaters are pretty slow to dry. Thin merino wool base layers dry quickly.
- Flame retardant- This is one area where wool outperforms fleece. Wool has naturally flame retardant properties. You don’t have to too much about sparks from your campfire.
- Environmentally friendly- Wool is a natural fiber that is made from sheep hair. This natural fiber is renewable and environmentally friendly. Sheep are periodically sheared and the fibers are woven into wool. The animal is not harmed during this process.
- Semi water repellent- Wool has a natural waxy coating called lanolin which helps it repel water. The fibers soak up about 20-30% of their weight in water before they begin to feel wet.
- Wool retains its insulating property when wet- Wool retains much of its loft when it gets wet. It can still provide some insulation to help keep you warm. This makes wool a good choice for wet weather hikes.
- Durable and long-lasting- Wool fibers can bend up to 20 thousand times before failure. Wool garments tend to hold up well and last a long time if they’re properly taken care of.
Wind resistant- Due to the tight weave of the fibers, wool blocks wind better than fleece. A wool sweater can keep you warmer under certain conditions.
- Expensive- A nice wool sweater costs $100-$200.
- High maintenance- Wool is slightly harder to wash than fleece. Ideally, you should hand wash it to avoid damage. For more info, check out this guide to washing wool sweaters from Man Made.
- Slow drying- Thick wool sweaters take a long time to dry.
- Some people find wool to be unethical- Wool is an animal product. It comes from sheep hair. Some people are against using any animal product.
- Bulky- Wool doesn’t compress. It takes up quite a bit of space in your pack.
- Not comfortable- This depends on the type of wool. Some wool sweaters are itchy and don’t feel good against the skin. Merino wool is very soft and comfortable and feels great against the skin.
- Wool pills- This is when fibers clump together into small balls. This reduces loft, making the sweater less warm. It also makes the garment look kind of ratty. There are a few ways to reduce or repair pilling. For some tips, check out this guide about wool pilling from merinowoolrocks.com.
- Not as fashionable- Even though a wool sweater is a classic piece of winter clothing, many people associate them with ugly Christmas sweaters. This is a subjective view. Many people like the look of wool clothing.
Which Should You Choose? Down Vs Fleece Vs Wool
This choice really comes down to the weather conditions that you expect and your use of the garment. For wet weather or if you expect to be active, fleece or wool is best. Fleece wicks sweat and dries quickly. Wool is somewhat water-resistant.
If you’re looking for the warmest material, down is the better choice. It provides more insulation than fleece or wool. Down is also better for travelers because it packs much smaller. It’s compressible.
If you’re expecting extremely cold weather, a merino wool base layer, fleece jacket, and down jacket pair together perfectly. Wear the fleece as a mid-layer with your down jacket as an outer layer. If you pair this with a merino wool thermal base layer and a rain jacket or wind shirt outer layer, you can stay comfortable well below 0°F (about -18°C).
To make the choice even harder, synthetic insulated jackets are also an option. For more info check out my down vs synthetic insulation guide.
Down Jacket Recommendations
Down jackets are available in a number of price points. Generally, budget jackets are just as warm as high-end options. They just don’t pack down as small. The more you pay, the higher the grade of down and lighter fabrics you get. Down jackets are available with and without hoods. Down vests are also available if you’re looking to save weight.
This ultralight down jacket has a water-resistant nylon shell with responsibly sourced 650 fill down insulation. It is packable and compressible ad is available in tall and regular sizes.
This nylon down jacket is available in a wide range of colors and sizes. It has two side pockets to keep your hands warm. It also includes a stuff sack for packing.
Fleece Jacket Recommendations
This choice comes down to what features you want. For the most part, fleece jackets are the same. The most common type of fleece is 100 weight. Heavier, thicker fleeces are available. Fleece jackets come in a variety of styles. Some offer pockets. Some include a wind-resistant lining or outer.
This ultralight 100 weight fleece uses a quarter-length zipper and doesn’t have pockets to save weight. This is the fleece that I currently wear. So far, I’m really happy with it. Recently, it kept me warm during some cold nights on the Wonderland Trail when temperatures dropped to around freezing.
This classic fleece jacket features a full-length zipper and two side zippered pockets to keep your belongings secure. It is made of 100% polyester MTR filament fleece.
When shopping for a wool base layer or sweater, look for Merino wool. This type of wool is made from a specific type of sheep with finer hair fibers. Merino wool is known for its softness, breathability, and color. It is comfortable to wear against the skin.
This affordable sweater is made from 100% merino wool. It is lightweight enough to wear as a base layer or sweater for extra warmth.
Final Thoughts: Down Vs Fleece Vs Wool
Down, fleece, and wool all have their place in any hikers or travelers’ wardrobe. I like to wear my fleece during the day while I’m active. During cold mornings or evenings, I put on my down jacket for extra warmth. Wool is an excellent base layer material for its odor-blocking properties.
If you’re on a tight budget, I think fleece is the most versatile option. Mostly due to the wider range of conditions that you can use it in and the ease of care. Fleece is also significantly cheaper than down or wool. I get the most use out of my fleece for sure.
Where do you stand on the down vs fleece vs wool debate? Share your experience and experience in the comments below!
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