Looking to get a warm jacket for winter? The most popular options out there are fleece and down jackets. In this comparison, we will take a good look at all the properties of these materials and see how they perform in different conditions.
Down and fleece are both commonly used in jackets for cold weather, but they are used differently. Down is overwhelmingly used to insulate jackets that are made from a variety of different materials, but fleece is a fabric that works as both the lining and the shell of a jacket. Read on to learn what that means for you exactly, and which material is better for different purposes!
Fleece and down have lots of similar properties like great breathability and good warmth, but they are two very different materials. They’re both used in jackets, but they’re used in different ways – where down usually serves as insulation inside a jacket, fleece can work as both warm lining or as an outer layer of a softshell jacket.
Fleece is a synthetic material made from polyester fibers. As such, it has excellent durability – polyester is generally a tough material and it takes quite a while to disintegrate naturally. A fleece jacket will last you a long time, but you will have to take proper care of it. Fleece is quite prone to pilling, you might want to look into depillers if you own lots of polyester or acrylic items.
Down, on the other hand, is entirely natural. It is sourced from waterfowl like duck and geese, and it comes in several different forms. First, it’s important to note that the exact properties of down clusters depend on the bird that it is sourced from, and what’s even more important is the age of the bird.
The older the birds the loftier the down, which means that it has a higher fill power and that it’s ultimately warmer.
Down fill power can range from 450 to well over 1000. That’s why you have down jackets that are cozy for chilly fall evenings on the one side, and heavy-down parkas that are suitable for extreme colds on the other. You don’t have much variety when it comes to fleece – it’s supposed to be either a warm mid-layer or a lightweight softshell jacket.
Fleece and down are used differently, but both materials are primarily used to make a garment warm. The thing that differs between them is the level of warmth they provide and the instances in which they are supposed to be used.
If you live in a very cold area and you require clothes with heavy insulation, down is by far the better alternative for you. Especially if you just want a warm jacket you can wear over anything and you don’t really like to dress in layers. Higher fill power-downs are easily suitable for extreme colds that go well in the negative double digits, which is something synthetic insulation just can’t compete it.
But, the main downside of down is its performance in wet weather, and I’ll get more into that a little later. What’s important to note for now is that synthetic insulation usually has the advantage of keeping you warm even when it gets wet, which isn’t true for down insulation. I am not talking specifically about fleece here, but just about other types of synthetic insulation like PrimaLoft and Thinsulate.
Fleece also does a great job at keeping you warm but it’s not as warm as down. That’s why fleece works best as a mid-layer or as lining in a jacket that has some extra insulation in it. Additionally, the high breathability and moisture-wicking capabilities of fleece generally make it the preferred material for active people.
Fleece jackets are great for hiking and climbing, and overall any adventure that requires a warm but breathable outer layer. And if you pair a fleece jacket with a waterproof outer shell, you have an excellent weather-resistant jacket!
Both down and fleece are highly breathable but that’s not all that matters. Bear in mind that down is just the insulation – the breathability of a down jacket also depends on the breathability of the materials used in the shell and the lining.
An upside here is that down is generally pricey insulation and it’s almost never combined with cheap materials that aren’t breathable. Most down jackets out there have great breathability, but it’s important to always check what the rest of the jacket is made from.
Fleece is made from polyester fibers that have high moisture-wicking abilities. The fibers are not very absorbent and they easily move to let moisture pass through them.
What this basically means is that a fleece jacket will not get soaked with sweat easily, and will instead keep you dry throughout your adventures. That is exactly why fleece jackets are so popular during strenuous physical activities during which you tend to sweat more.
When it comes to water resistance, neither fleece nor down perform exceptionally well. Also, neither material retains its insulating properties when it gets wet, so bear that in mind.
Fleece generally has better water resistance than down because of polyester’s low water absorbency. Polyester fibers are more likely to let water pass through them, so a fleece jacket is not going to get soaked fast. It’s also worth noting that polyester dries much faster than down, so a fleece jacket is generally the safer option if you’re worried about wet weather performance.
On the other hand, even though down insulation itself doesn’t have any water resistance, that doesn’t have to be true about the shell of the jacket. Remember that down is used as insulation and not as a fabric – down jackets usually have a hardshell exterior that more often than not has some sort of water-repellant coating.
That’s usually DWR (Durable Water Repellant), which performs really well in light rains. If you’re trying to decide between a fleece jacket and a down jacket with DWR coating and you’re specifically looking for rain jackets, the down jacket might actually be the better option.
However, it’s important to note that down loses all of its heat-trapping capabilities if it gets wet. A down jacket should never be exposed to heavy rain, no matter how waterproof it claims to be. Every jacket has a waterproof rating, and there’s only so much moisture a material can handle before it starts to leak.
When clusters of down get wet they clump up, and they are not able to retain heat anymore until they are fully dry. And since down takes quite a while to dry entirely, you might be out of a jacket for a couple of days.
Fleece and down can both give you warmth without bulk – that’s why they’re both pretty popular with hikers and travelers who need warm jackets that don’t take up a lot of space in their bags.
Down has a slight edge here because it’s able to provide you with more warmth while being more packable. Clusters of down are highly compressible, and they pop back into their original shape quite easily. That’s why there are lots of great down jackets that pack down into a tiny pouch that weighs just a few ounces.
Fleece is also very warm and lightweight, but it’s a bit bulkier than down. Polyester fibers are tightly packed and fleece just can’t be compressed as much as down can. If your sole focus is warmth without bulk, down is the better option for you.
The pricing of these materials can be a major factor when deciding what’s ultimately better than you. Fleece is a man-made fabric, and it’s ultimately cheaper to produce. Also, there are fleece jackets that are made from recycled polyester fibers, so it’s not necessarily worse for the environment just because it’s synthetic.
Down has to be sourced from waterfowl, and that’s actually harder than manufacturing fleece. Also, higher fill power down is rarer to come by, and it tends to be really expensive. Then there’s also the type of bird it’s sourced from – duck down is cheaper than goose down, but there are certain types of down that are so pricey it’s ridiculous.
Additionally, with down, you should always look for information about how it is sourced. Ethically sourced down is fine to purchase and you should avoid anything that doesn’t have that certification. If you care about the environment, you shouldn’t wear clothing that has been sourced from animals that were tortured in the process.
It’s not fair to just say that one material is outright better than the other. But I can tell you where each of these materials excel and in which instances you should go for one over the other.
If you require heavy insulation and you’re not worried about water resistance too much, down is a great option for you. Down jackets are perfect for cold winters, especially if you pick up something with a higher fill power. I’ve included a few of my favorite down jackets above, which range from lightweight jackets that are good for late fall to thick down coats that will get you through any winter.
On the other hand, if you need a breathable jacket for hiking or climbing, a softshell fleece jacket is likely what you should get. Especially if you need a jacket that performs well in wet weather – although fleece performs similarly to down in wet weather, it does have better moisture-wicking properties.
And fleece dries much quicker than down, so even if the jacket gets completely soaked, it will be good as new in just a couple of hours.
Anna is the co-owner of expert world travel and can't wait to share her travel experience with the world. With over 54 countries under her belt she has a lot to write about! Including those insane encounters with black bears in Canada.