Fleece VS Down VS Merino Wool; The Ultimate Mid-Layer Face-Off

Text by: Kelsey Begg

Arc’teryx, Burton, Helly Hansen, Icebreaker, Mountain Hardwear, Norrona, Patagonia, Smartwool, The North Face. Fleece VS Down VS Merino Wool; The Ultimate Mid-Layer Face-Off

When gearing up for a weekend in the mountains or a day exploring new trails, it is important to pack efficiently and dress wisely. Knowing how to layer for outdoor activities is crucial and it is important to have an idea of the weather and the demands of the activities you will be doing. Your activities will reflect what you choose to pack.

While a base layer is the roots of a good layering system, choosing the appropriate mid-layer is just as important. If you are going to be participating in aerobic activities where you will perspire, a moisture-wicking base layer is nearly useless if your mid-layer is not breathable.

The three most common types of mid-layers found in an outdoor enthusiasts wardrobe are down, wool, and fleece. Each has its own unique features and benefits, but how do you pick which one is right for your activity? 

down insulated mid layer

Down Insulated Mid-Layers

Altitude Sports X Arc’teryx 

Cerium LT Hoody

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Patagonia

Down Sweater Jacket

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Mountain Hardwear

Ghost Whisperer Down Hooded Jacket

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Norrøna

Falketind Down 750

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Down is a natural insulation which retains heat better than most other organic materials and is used in a variety of products including jackets and parkas to offer outdoor enthusiasts supreme warmth. While it is the most effective form of insulation, it isn’t necessarily ideal for every type of activity. Down does not perform as well in wet or damp conditions, making it an ideal mid-layer choice for those adventuring into drier regions. 

Down

The pros are:

  • exceptionally lightweight
  • highly compactible
  • provides supreme warmth
  • retains shape & loft
  • a long lifetime when cared for correctly
  • breathable

The cons are:

  • loses insulating power in the wet
  • requires special cleaning care
  • not hypoallergenic
  • higher average price

Ideal Use for Down Insulated Mid-Layers

Down mid-layers are ideal for use in extremely cold and dry conditions and also work well as stand-alone layers in dryer climates before temperatures begin to plummet. Although down is breathable, it isn’t nearly as breathable as fleece. For this reason, it is a mid-layer more suited towards activities that are anaerobic where insulation is necessary but the wearer is not working so hard that they are perspiring heavily.

Wearing a down mid-layer isn’t ideal for aerobic activities such as ski touring or running because it doesn’t evacuate moisture as quickly as other options. Having said that, a down mid-layer is the perfect layer to put on while stopping for lunch when out mid-winter ski touring. This will help you retain the body heat you have accumulated exercising, ensuring you don’t catch a chill. Down is an ideal piece for a day strolling around town or taking the dog for a walk at your cozy cottage. It provides the warmth you need while you’re heart rate is relaxed during leisure activities where you are not working up a sweat.

Down mid-layers have also become fashionable pieces for life in cool and dry cities. They come in multiple styles that look just as great in an urban center as they do in an alpine forest.

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fleece mid layers

Fleece Mid-Layers

Patagonia

Better Sweater 1/4 Zip

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Burton

Hearth Fleece Pullover

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Norrøna

Lofoten Alpha Raw Zip Hoodie

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The North Face

Summit L2 FuseForm™

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A fleece jacket is a garment generally made from polyester synthetic Polar Fleece, with the most common type being Polartec fleece. This is a soft-napped, insulating fabric that is warm and soft next to the skin. These garments dry quickly and are durable enough for your toughest outdoor pursuits.

Although fleeces are not ideal for wet and windy conditions – excluding Windstopper Fleece – they are exceptionally breathable and have excellent moisture managing properties, which makes them the perfect layering piece. They may be less compactible than a softshell or down mid-layer but will provide warmth all day even when wet.

Fleece

The pros are:

  • exceptionally breathable
  • quick-drying
  • excellent moisture management

The cons are:

  • lacks water resistance
  • lacks wind resistance

Ideal Use for Fleece Mid-Layers

Pair your favourite fleece mid-layer with a cozy merino wool base layer and you have the perfect layering set-up for a day on the trails. They are especially optimal mid-layers to use for hiking trips in all conditions because they are quick-drying, moisture-wicking and offer a quality amount of insulation. Because fleece garments are generally available in different weights, you can find the perfect one to ensure you are preserving your body heat while exploring the outdoors.

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wool mid layers

Merino Wool Mid-Layers

Arc’teryx

Satoro AR Zip Neck

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Helly Hansen

Lifa Merino 1/2 Zip

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Smartwool

Merino 250

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Icebreaker

Quantum LS Zip Hood

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While merino wool is most commonly thought of as a base layer, it also works well as a mid-layer. Brands like Smartwool and Icebreaker specialize in wool products and have ramped up their designs of mid-layering pieces. Often these merino layers have been blended with down or synthetic insulation for optimal thermal capacity.

Merino wool is known for its anti-odour properties and how well merino garments hold-up while needing minimal washing. For this reason, a merino wool mid-layer option is a wise idea if you are going on an expedition where there will be no chance to clean your gear. This all-around usability also allows you to pack lighter, because of how much use you can get out of a single merino garment.

Merino Wool

The pros are:

  • great anti-odor properties
  • superb temperature regulation
  • retains warmth when wet

The cons are:

  • not the best warmth to weight ratio
  • expensive

Ideal Use for Merino Wool Mid-Layers

Unlike fleece and down, merino wool mid-layers are usually heavier and become even heavier when wet. For this reason, a merino wool mid-layer is beneficial for short hiking trips, backpacking, or for traveling adventures. Due to their ability to regulate body temperatures in a variety of weather, these mid-layers are great if comfort and warmth are a necessity.

If you are embarking on a more casual multi-day expedition with limited space, a merino wool mid-layer is a smart choice because of its anti-odour properties. You won’t have to worry about smelling funky after one day of exercise, and you’ll stay sufficiently warm while needing only the one garment.

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Mid-Layer Face-Off Conclusions

Everyone will have a mid-layer preference depending on their own experiences, preference of feel and weight, and the activities they are doing. For those new to the process of layering for outdoor activities, the suggested breakdown above will help you dress appropriately. Over time you may find certain mid-layers work better than others for your endeavours, or you may find that you prefer down, fleece, and merino wool mid-layers for specific activities.

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There is 1 thoughts on this article titled “Fleece VS Down VS Merino Wool; The Ultimate Mid-Layer Face-Off”.

  1. Great comparison!

    I’d like to point out though that anaerobic activity is an activity in which your body is working so hard that the oxygen you breathe isn’t enough to utilize your stored fat for energy. This results in your muscles using glucose and glycogen to produce ATP instead of oxygen + fat, thus anaerobic. This type of activity usually means short and really intense bouts at very high heart rates, i.e lots of sweating. Don’t mean to come across as a smart ass, just figured it was better to point it out than not…

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