|Windshirt and fleece worn together at a camp on the summit of Ben Nevis|
Windshirts are one of my favourite and most worn pieces of outdoor clothing. I’ve taken one on every long walk I’ve ever done. I’ve always felt they were under-valued and under-appreciated so I’ve often promoted them. I like fleece too but not as much and I haven’t taken a fleece on every long walk – sometimes I’ve taken a light insulated top instead.
|Polycotton windshirt on the Continental Divide Trail in 1985|
I was surprised then to read a recent piece on the layering system by very experienced backpacker Alan Dixon in which he says that a fleece is better than a windshirt. Now I take Alan’s carefully considered thoughts seriously and the article is excellent (I recommend his blog as a whole) but on this I cannot agree with him. He says that a light fleece has a far greater temperature range for comfort than a windshirt. I find the opposite. He says a thin fleece doesn’t trap moisture in the same way as a windshirt. I get sweatier much more quickly in a fleece. He says windshirts are not that ‘breathable’. That depends on the fabric. Some are easily breathable enough that I can wear them all day while walking and stay dry underneath. Alan also says that inexpensive fleeces are more densely woven than expensive air permeable ones and so better at keeping out the wind. I’ve tried many fleeces in all price ranges over the years and none have kept out more than a light breeze except those with windproof linings or membranes. The best was a fairly dense fleece called Karisma or Ultrafleece that was around in the 1980s but even that was no more than slightly wind-resistant.
|Fleece for warmth at a camp in the Scottish Highlands|
Overall I don’t consider windshirts and fleeces as alternatives. For me they have different functions. A windshirt is to cut the wind and provide a tiny bit of warmth (don a windshirt over a damp base layer when there’s even the slightest breeze and the difference it makes is noticeable). A fleece is to provide warmth – in summer I often only carry a thin fleece for warmth and only usually wear it in camp.
|Windshirt cutting the wind on Telescope Peak in Death Valley|
When it’s cold and windy enough to justify a windshirt Alan suggests you can just wear your waterproof jacket. Well, yes you can but you’ll shorten the life of your waterproof and you won’t be as comfortable or stay as dry inside – no waterproof is as breathable as windshirt. I also find that a light waterproof and windshirt combination is often all I need for protection in cold, wet weather outside of winter conditions. Change the windshirt for a fleece, even a thin one, and I overheat. And on cold windy days a fleece under a windshirt is a more breathable combination than a fleece under a waterproof.
|Fleece for warmth at a camp on the Arizona Trail|
Now clearly for Alan Dixon a windshirt doesn’t work well enough to justify carrying one. For me a windshirt is essential. What works for him wouldn’t work for me. I can’t imagine doing without a windshirt. This might be because much of my walking is done in the windy Scottish Highlands where a fleece on its own is rarely enough. Outside of winter my commonest clothing combination is a base layer or hiking shirt and a windshirt. However even on walks in much more sheltered and less windy places I’ve often worn the same two garments when a cool wind picks up. Sometimes on a slightly chilly morning a windshirt can be just enough to keep me warm in camp. In rain a windshirt and waterproof combination is excellent and more versatile than a fleece and waterproof as it’s comfortable over a wider temperature range. A windshirt and light waterproof combination gives the same protection as a heavier waterproof too, again being more versatile as you can wear the garments separately.
|Windshirt at a breezy camp on the Pacific Northwest Trail|
Just in case I’d forgotten what fleece was like in the wind I’ve been out for a few short walks in dry windy weather in some fairly dense fleeces recently. I got cold quickly! And was glad I had windshirt with me.