Woman hiker wearing a fleece jacket

Softshell vs Fleece

If you are looking for a jacket that is lightweight and thin, you’re probably wondering whether you should go with a softshell or a fleece jacket. These two types of jackets differ in terms of weather resistance, durability, insulation, breathability, etc. To help you pick out the best jacket for your next adventure, let’s see how they compare.

What is a Fleece Jacket?

Woman shopping for a fleece jacketChances are, you’ve owned or at least worn a fleece jacket at one point in your life. A typical fleece jacket features a hood, long sleeves, and handwarmer pockets that close up with a zipper.

Fleece is an insulating fabric made from a hydrophobic fiber called PET (polyethylene terephthalate). In other words, fleece repels water instead of absorbing it.

A fleece jacket holds less than one percent of its weight in water. And, even if the water manages to penetrate the fabric, it will dry very quickly. Unlike down insulation, fleece retains its insulating properties even when wet.

Fleece jackets are soft to the touch, comfortable to wear, and very lightweight. They are also warm and highly breathable. Even though most fleece jackets are made from synthetic fabrics, there are also merino wool fleece jackets on the market.

It’s important to note that not all fleece jackets are made the same. High-density fleece jackets offer better insulation and water resistance. They also see fewer pills. Lower-density fleece fabric is more porous. As a result, it snags easier and provides less warmth.

If you are considering buying a fleece jacket, it is important to be familiar with fleece weight. Fleece weight refers to the thickness and loft of the fleece fabric.

  • 100 weight: This is ideal for weather that is not too cold and not too hot. Think fun adventures that require a lot of movement, such as early morning climbs or cool hikes.
  • 200 weight: This is the most versatile option. If you are looking for a do-it-all jacket, a midweight fleece is a great option. These jackets are great for fall hikes and chilly campsite evenings.
  • 300 weight: Heavyweight fleece jackets are cozy, thick, and super warm.

What is a Softshell Jacket?

Man wearing black softshell jacketSoftshell jackets are made of stretch-woven nylon or polyester and spandex. Generally, the term “softshell” is used to describe any type of jacket that is more comfortable, flexible, and breathable than crinkly and stiff hardshell jackets (such as those that feature Gore-Tex).

But, that doesn’t mean that softshell jackets and fleece jackets are one and the same. Softshell jackets are designed to provide weather protection first and foremost while fleece jackets are designed to provide warmth before weather protection.

Softshell jackets combine many qualities of hardshell jackets with more comfortable fabrics such as fleece.

Thanks to the versatility of softshell fabrics, softshell is the most popular type of jacket. Softshell jackets are stretchable, and, as such, they allow for great freedom of movement.

The average softshell jacket comes with an insulating collar, hem, cuffs, and a hood. You can wear a softshell jacket on its own or as a mid-layer.

Softshell vs Fleece Jackets: Similarities and Differences

Insulation and Warmth

When it comes to outdoor activities, warmth is likely the biggest reason for wearing a jacket. In general, fleece jackets are warmer than softshell jackets. Providing warmth is the main purpose of your average fleece jacket.

A softshell jacket is just that—a shell. However, many softshell jackets come with features that help maximize warmth, such as Velcro cuffs. Moreover, some softshell jackets feature a fleece lining. And, even if a softshell jacket happens to be just as warm as a fleece jacket, rest assured that it is much heavier.

Weather-resistance

Detailed view of softshell jacket with water dropsAs mentioned, fleece is water-resistant. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that it will keep you dry in rainfall. Fleece doesn’t absorb water, but water still may pass through the fabric. If you want to avoid this, make sure to go with a higher-density fleece.

Fleece jackets dry very quickly. But if you expect a lot of rain on your hiking or backpacking adventure, fleece won’t be of much use. Because fleece jackets are highly breathable, they don’t offer great protection against the wind.

Softshell jackets can’t compare to hardshells when it comes to weather protection, but they are still better than fleece jackets.

The average high-end softshell jacket has a waterproof/breathable membrane. Stretch-woven softshell jackets are water-resistant.

Many softshell jackets feature a DWR (durable water repellent) coating that improves the overall water resistance. Most softshell jackets do a decent job of blocking out the wind.

Breathability

Softshell jackets are designed for high-output activities. So that you won’t feel uncomfortable when you start sweating, the weave of the fibers facilitates moisture transfer and allows some air to permeate the garment.

However, the same weave is also supposed to block out wind, so there is a balance between breathability and wind resistance.

Most fleece jackets are highly breathable; they generally offer greater breathability than softshell jackets. If breathability is your main concern, it’s best to go for a lightweight fleece jacket.

Close up of colorful fleece clothesBut it’s important to mention that high-end softshell jackets often include more ventilation options, such as pit zips. Fleece jackets rarely have such features.

Durability

Without a doubt, softshell jackets are much more durable than fleece jackets. Fleece resists detergents and soaps as well as water. Because of this, fleece jackets are prone to “mountaineerish” odor. As time goes by, this odor becomes more difficult to get rid of.

As the name of the fabric suggests, fleece is fleecy. It pills. Pilling is when fibers clump into small “pills.”

On top of making the jacket look shabby or worn, piling reduces its insulating properties. As the jacket becomes older, pilling becomes worse.

Since they are made of nylon and polyester, softshell jackets are more durable and abrasion-resistant. Many softshell jackets feature reinforced elbows and shoulders.

Unlike fleece jackets, softshell jackets don’t pill at all. Softshell jackets don’t attract lint, hair, and dust as much as fleece jackets. On top of that, they are easy to wash and care for.

Function and Purpose

Hiker wearing softshell clothingMost hikers and backpackers wear a fleece jacket as a part of their layering system, underneath a heavy winter layer. If the weather is dry and not too cold, you can also wear a fleece jacket on its own.

Like fleece jackets, softshell jackets are also worn as layering jackets. Depending on the weather, a softshell jacket can make for a great mid-layer or an outer layer.

Compared to fleece jackets, softshell jackets are more suitable for dynamic activities. Softshell jackets are designed to be form-fitting, and to allow for a greater range of motion.

Best Fleece Jackets

Outdoor Research Vigor Full Zip

Outdoor Research Vigor Full Zip

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Specs:

  • Weight: 12 oz
  • Type: Lightweight
  • Fabric: Grid-back fleece: 94% polyester, 6% spandex

Pros

  • Inexpensive
  • Comfortable for athletics
  • Breathable
  • Great freedom of movement
  • Lightweight

Cons

  • Could be more water-resistant

As I have written elsewhere, I am a huge fan of OR, and this one does not let the side down. The Vigor is an incredibly breathable, highly comfortable fleece jacket. The minimal bulk and thin fabric make it an easy piece to layer over.

Compared to similar products, it comes at a fraction of the price. The Vigor is an excellent choice for fast and light missions, thanks to its functional lightweight design. It is ideal for hiking, biking, and mountain climbing.

The jacket doesn’t sacrifice warmth and wind resistance to offer great breathability. The cut of the Vigor Full Zip jacket is athletic. It is accommodating to wide-set shoulders.

While the jacket is more than great for sustained athletic activities, it is not the best choice for lounging around in cold weather. Moreover, the breathable nature of the fleece makes it less resistant to water. Still, the Vigor really shines when worn in a layering system.


Arc’teryx Kyanite Hoody

Arc'teryx Kyanite Hoody

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Specs:

  • Weight: 14 oz
  • Type: Midweight
  • Fabric: 53% polyester, 38% nylon, 9% elastane

Pros

  • Athletic fit
  • Incredibly soft lining
  • Warm
  • Great for cold weather
  • Scuba-style hood

Cons

  • Expensive

When it comes to performance fleece wear, the Kyanite is the cream of the crop. It scores exceptionally high marks in every metric.

The Kyanite Hoody is incredibly comfortable to wear, allows for great freedom of movement, and has a great warmth-to-weight ratio. The brushed fleece lining feels really nice against the skin.

This fleece is excellent for hiking, skiing, and climbing. It doesn’t create any hotspots in the shoulders or the armpits. The scuba-style hood is a nice touch. It traps hard-won body heat inside and keeps the cold air out.

The Kyanite Hoody really only has one downside. It may not offer the breathability you want for high output activities in summer. But this fleece jacket is great for cold-weather pursuits. If you want to build out your winter layering system, this is an ideal piece.


The North Face Campshire Hoodie

The North Face Campshire Hoodie

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Specs:

  • Weight: 24 oz
  • Type: Heavyweight
  • Fabric: 300-weight Sherpa fleece

Pros

  • Super comfortable
  • Neat kangaroo pouch
  • Great for layering
  • Warm, thick hood
  • Great value for money

Cons

  • A bit heavy

This fleece goes all in for comfort and warmth. If you like lounging in front of the fire, the North Face Campshire Hoodie may be the perfect choice for you. The Sherpa fleece feels like you are wrapped in one big cozy blanket.

The Campshire pullover is more supple than most other heavyweight fleece jackets. It is very easy to layer underneath a windshell or a waterproof rain jacket.

The collar and the hood add warmth. When fully zipped, they rest over the chin. The cuffs could be tighter, to prevent drafts, but the loose sleeves add to the overall comfort.

The large kangaroo pouch with Velcro closure is a really nice touch. You can stash all sorts of camp amenities in this gigantic front pocket, from snacks to headlamps. Behind the kangaroo pouch, there’s a big handwarmer pocket for your cold hands.

All of this luxury makes Campshire one of the best fleece jackets on the market. But this comes at a price – this piece is a bit on the heavy side. If you want to pair this with a North Face jacket check out my comparison of Resolve vs Venture.


Best Softshell Jackets

Arc’teryx Gamma LT Hoody

Arc'teryx Gamma LT Hoody

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Specs:

  • Weight: 17 oz
  • Type: Active
  • Fabric: 56% nylon, 34% polyester, 10% elastane

Pros

  • Quality, detailed construction
  • Excellent all-weather shield
  • Mobile, stretchy fabric
  • Breathable
  • Stylish

Cons

  • The cuffs are not adjustable

When it comes to softshell jackets, the Gamma LT is a top-performer. This softshell has everything you want to see in a hiking or backpacking jacket. On top of being great for outdoor adventures, it’s stylish enough to wear in a casual setting.

Thanks to the expertly tailored panels, the Gamma LT fits well and moves with your body during high output activities.

On top of being stretchy and breathable, this softshell is moderately weatherproof. Thanks to the additional DWR, the hard-faced weave does a great job of repelling rain.

You can wear the Gamma LT with or without layers in cool to warm weather. The hood comes with three different cinches, so it is very easy to adjust.

Arc’teryx outerwear is famous for being expertly crafted, and this softshell is no exception. This jacket could almost make the cut in my list of best Arc’Teryx jackets.


Marmot ROM

Marmot ROM

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Specs:

  • Weight: 17.1 oz
  • Type: Technical
  • Fabric: 92% nylon, 8% elastane

Pros

  • Wind-resistant fabric
  • Durable
  • Exceptionally breathable
  • Incredibly stretchy
  • Well-fitted

Cons

  • Only one hood adjustment

The Marmot ROM can handle nasty weather more than well. This softshell shakes off rain and snow with ease. At the same time, it’s breathable, mobile, and incredibly stretchy. Even though it has an athletic cut, the Marmot ROM allows you to wear base layers underneath.

It’s the perfect example of a well-tailored piece. The Marmot ROM is one of the best options for athletic outdoor activities.

The jacket features wrist cuffs, a single adjustment hood, and plenty of pockets to hold your beanie and some snacks.


Outdoor Research Ferrosi Hooded Jacket

Outdoor Research Ferrosi Hooded Jacket

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Specs:

  • Weight: 13 oz
  • Type: Active
  • Fabric: 86% nylon, 14% spandex

Pros

  • Stretchy
  • Great breathability
  • Inexpensive
  • Packable
  • Versatile

Cons

  • Lacks extra features

The Ferrosi Hooded Jacket is durable enough to provide protection through rough terrain, but still lightweight enough to be perfect for hiking and backpacking. Unlike most lightweight softshell jackets, the Ferrosi allows for easy layering underneath.

The jacket offers great 3-season protection from light rain and winds, even though it’s not the most weather-resistant model on the market.

The Ferrosi is also well known for its stretchy fit and breathability. The shell fabric allows sweat to pass through easily. This makes the Ferrosi an excellent choice for high-output aerobic activities.

If you go with this softshell, you’ll be getting proven performance for a pocket-friendly price.


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Takeaway

Compared to fleece jackets, softshell jackets are much more versatile and fare better in most weather conditions. Fleece jackets, on the other hand, are warm, soft, and super comfortable. When purchasing a lightweight jacket, take into account the weather in your area and your level of activity.

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