Fleece VS Down VS Merino Wool – The Ultimate Midlayer Face-Off

Text by: Altitude Sports Editorial Team

Arc’teryx, Burton, down insulated, fleece, Helly Hansen, Icebreaker, merino wool, Mountain Hardwear, Norrona, Patagonia, Smartwool, The North Face. Fleece VS Down VS Merino Wool – The Ultimate Midlayer Face-Off

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 midlayers – 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 midlayer is just as important. High-output activities that will make you sweat need moisture-wicking from all layers, not just the base. If your midlayer can’t breathe, there’s no point.

Editor’s Choices – Best Midlayers


Patagonia  – Synchilla Fleece Pullover – Men’s

Patagonia Synchilla Fleece Pullover

  • Recycled fleece
  • Featherweight
  • bluesign approved

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Icebreaker – Tech Trainer Merino – Women’s

Tech Trainer Hybrid Jacket by Icebreaker

  • Merino wool
  • Water-resistant
  • Stretchy

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Fleece vs Down vs Merino Wool Midlayers

The three most common types of midlayers found in an outdoor enthusiast’s wardrobe are down-insulated, wool and fleece. We know them all, from puffy down jackets to comfy fleece zips and vests to sleek merino midlayers. 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!

Down Insulated Midlayers

Arc’teryx – Cerium LT Hoody – Women’s

Cerium LT Hoody - Arc'teryx

  • 850-fill-power down
  • Lightweight (275g)
  • Water-repellent finish

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Check out the men’s model!


Norrøna – Falketind Down750 Jacket – Men’s

Norrona - Falketind Down750 Jacket - Men's

  • 750-800-fill-power down (RDS Certified)
  • Lightweight (360g)
  • Water-repellent finish

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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 midlayers shine brightest – or warmest, in this case. Brands like Arc’teryx and Norrøna are renowned for down.



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


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

Ideal Use for Down-Insulated Midlayers

Down midlayers 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, but more suited to lower output aerobic activities when some insulation is necessary.

Wearing a down midlayer isn’t ideal for anaerobic activities such as ski touring or running – it doesn’t evacuate 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 in down. It provides the warmth you need while your heart rate is relaxed.

Shop Women’s Down JacketsShop Men’s Down Jackets


Fleece Midlayers

The North Face – Borod Hoodie – Men’s

North Dace - Borod Hoodie - Men's

  • Stretch fleece
  • Allows full range of motion
  • Elastic-bound hood

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Topo Designs- Mountain Fleece – Women’s 

Topo Designs Mountain Fleece - Women's

  • Polartec 200 fleece
  • Classic trim fit
  • Reinforced elbow patches

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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 midlayers.

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 midlayer but will provide warmth all day even when wet.



  • exceptionally breathable
  • quick-drying
  • excellent moisture management


  • lacks water resistance
  • lacks wind resistance

Ideal Use for Fleece Midlayers

Put a sherpa pullover midlayer 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.

Shop Women’s FleeceShop Men’s Fleece


Merino Midlayers

Icebreaker – Descender Long Sleeve Zip – Women’s

Icebreaker Descender Long Sleeve Zip - Women's

  • Breathable insulation
  • Helps regulate body temperature
  • Chin guard

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Icebreaker – Tech Trainer Hybrid Jacket – Men’s

Icebreaker Tech Trainer Hybrid Jacket - Men's

  • Warm & breathable
  • DWR treated
  • Chin guard

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While merino wool is usually thought of as a base layer, it also works well as a midlayer. Brands like Icebreaker and Smartwool specialize in merino and are making more midlayers 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 midlayer 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


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


  • not the best warmth-to-weight ratio
  • expensive

Ideal Use for Merino Wool Midlayers

Unlike fleece and down, merino wool midlayers are usually heavier and become even heavier when wet. For this reason, a merino wool midlayer 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 midlayers are great if versatility is a necessity.

If you are embarking on a more casual multi-day expedition with limited space, a merino wool midlayer 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.

Shop Women’s Merino WoolShop Men’s Merino Wool

Midlayer Face-Off Conclusions

Everyone will have a fleece vs down vs merino wool midlayer 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 midlayers work better than others for your endeavors, or you may find that you prefer down, fleece, and merino wool midlayers for specific activities.

There is 1 thoughts on this article titled “Fleece VS Down VS Merino Wool – The Ultimate Midlayer 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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