It’s always best to know how to layer for outdoor activities. Having an idea of the weather and the demands of the activities you’ll be doing will make choosing those layers simple. But mid-layers—like fleece vs down vs merino wool—aren’t just for the mountains. You can wear them all fall and winter long. 

While a base layer is the root of a good layering system, choosing the best mid-layer is just as important. High-output activities that make you sweat need moisture-wicking from all layers, not just the base. If your mid-layer can’t breathe, there’s no point.

Editor's Choice - Patagonia Synchilla Snap-T Pullover

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The reference in cozy fleece jackets, Patagonia has created a versatile, featherweight midlayer you can easily wear under you ski shell, or bring to the fire on a cool night out at camp. It is also bluesign-approved for a worry free environmentally friendly option.

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Fleece vs Down vs Merino Wool Mid-layers

The three most common types of mid-layers found in an outdoor enthusiast’s wardrobe are down-insulated, Merino wool and fleece. We know them all, from puffy down jackets to comfy fleece zips and vests to sleek Merino mid-layers. Each has unique features and benefits—so how do you pick which one is right for your activity? Let the fleece vs down vs Merino wool battle commence!

MERINO MID-LAYERS

 

While Merino wool is usually thought of as a base layer, it also works well as a mid-layer. Brands like icebreaker and Smartwool specialize in Merino and are making more mid-layers than ever. Often these are blended with down or synthetic insulation for better heating.

Merino wool is known for its anti-odour properties, durability, and minimal washing. A Merino mid-layer is a wise idea on an expedition with few opportunities to clean your gear. This versatility allows you to pack lighter because of how much use you can get out of a single merino garment.

Merino Wool

Pros:

  • great anti-odour properties
  • super temperature regulation
  • retains warmth when wet

Cons:

  • 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 traveling adventures. Due to their ability to regulate body temperatures in a variety of weather, these mid-layers are great if versatility is 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 one garment.

Top Pick - Icebreaker Original Long Sleeve Half Zip

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Icebreaker continues to lead the way in all things Merino. This mid layer offers an incredibly breathable insulation which helps regulate body temperature during high output activities. It benefits from all the properties of Merino which also includes and ultra-soft next-to-skin feel and natural odour repellency. It's refined style also makes it perfect for urban adventures.

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other top merino wool mid-layers

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  • Merino wool + synthetic blends
  • Double layered
  • Soft to touch
  • Non-itch weave
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  • 100% Merino wool
  • Minimal seams
  • Durable and soft
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  • Merino-polyester blend
  • Warm, soft, breathable
  • Articulated fit
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  • Merino-polyester blend
  • Warm, soft, breathable
  • Articulated fit
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Down Mid-layers

Down is natural insulation which retains heat better than most materials. Used in jackets and parkas, it offers outdoor enthusiasts supreme warmth. As an insulator, nothing beats it—but you don’t need down for every type of activity. Wet or damp conditions aren’t friendly to down. Dry climates are where down-filled mid-layers shine brightest—or warmest, in this case. Brands like Arc’teryx and Norrøna are renowned for their down.

Down

Pros:

  • exceptionally lightweight
  • highly compressible
  • provides supreme warmth
  • retains shape & loft if dry
  • a long life with proper care
  • breathable

Cons:

  • loses insulating power when 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 icy and dry conditions. They work well as stand-alone layers in dry climates before temperatures plummet. It isn’t nearly as breathable as fleece, down is more suited to lower output aerobic activities when some insulation is necessary.

Wearing a down mid-layer isn’t ideal for anaerobic activities such as ski touring or running—it doesn’t expel moisture as quickly as other options. It is the perfect layer to put on while stopping for lunch when out mid-winter ski touring. The extra body heat from exercising will stay trapped inside. Stroll around the city or take the dog for a walk at your cottage wearing down, it provides the warmth you need while your heart rate is relaxed.

Top Pick - Arc'teryx Cerium LT

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With 850-fill-power down and a weighing in at light 275g, the Cerium LT sits among the best in weight to warmth ratio. It is treated with water repellent finish for extra versatility. Consistently a best-seller among the already-impressive line of Arc'teryx jackets.

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Other top down mid layers

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  • 750 goose down
  • Packs in pocket
  • 444 grams
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  • 800 RDS-certified down
  • Water-resistant finish
  • Outer materials made of recycled polyester
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  • 700 down defender
  • Made of recycled polyester
  • Outer material is Pertex Quantum
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  • 700 water-resistant down
  • Made of recycled nylon
  • Outer material is Pertex Quantum
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FLEECE MID-LAYERS

 

A fleece jacket is generally made from synthetic Polar Fleece, the most common type being Polartec polyester fleece. This soft-napped, insulating fabric is warm and soft next to the skin. Garments dry quickly and are durable enough for the most demanding outdoor pursuits. The North Face, Topo Designs, and Patagonia are virtually synonymous with cozy fleece mid-layers.

Although fleece is not usually ideal for wet and windy conditions (excluding Windstopper Fleece in The North Face fleece jackets), they are exceptionally breathable and have excellent moisture-managing properties. This makes them a near-perfect layering piece. They may be less compressible than a softshell or down mid-layer but will provide warmth all day even when wet.

Fleece

Pros:

  • exceptionally breathable
  • quick-drying
  • excellent moisture management

Cons:

  • lacks water resistance
  • lacks wind resistance

Ideal Use for Fleece Mid-Layers

Put a sherpa pullover mid-layer on a cozy merino wool base layer and you have the perfect layering for a day on the trails. They’re especially optimal on hiking trips in all conditions because they are quick-drying, moisture-wicking, and offer a quality amount of insulation. Because fleece garments and fleece-lined jackets are generally available in different weights, you can find the perfect one to trap your body heat while exploring the outdoors.

Top Pick - Better sweater Jacket

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A timeless classic, Patagonia's Better Sweater features a knit-like outer surface and a soft fleece interior. Made from recycled heathered polyester fibers, this jacket is dyed using an environmentally friendly technique that significantly reduces the consumption of dyes, energy, and water compared to conventional methods. The Better Sweater is also Fair Trade certified.

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other top fleece midlayers

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  • Polartec quick-dry fleece
  • 100% recycled fleece
  • 2 zip hand pockets
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  • 2-sided 100 weight anti-pill fleece
  • Anti-chafe seams
  • 2 handwarmer pockets
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  • Polyester sherpa
  • Warm and cozy
  • Reinforced elbows
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  • ThermalPro
  • Hand-warming pockets
  • Lightweight
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Mid-Layer Face-Off Conclusions

Everyone will have a fleece vs down vs Merino wool 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.