Sunday 23 April 2017

Windshirt or Fleece. Are they alternatives?

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.


  1. Totally agree with you, Chris. Fleece and windshirt have completely different objectives. The windshirt, as the name heavily implies, is to lower cooling by convection. The fleece has almost entirely insulative properties, it traps air and lessens cooling by conduction and, to some extent, radiation. A windshirt on top of an 'air trapper' like fleece helps keeping the air trapped and is a perfect combination. I have not made a single backpacking trips for 15 years without a windshirt.

  2. As a Caithness based hiker, I agree with you both. My RAB hoodie has such an open weave that it wouldn't even keep me warm indoors until I put a windshirt on over it. Together, the two garments are so warm that I don't need an insulated jacket in summer.

    Also, having to re-apply the DWR to a £60 windshirt is a lot less upsetting than having to re-apply a DWR to a £180 waterproof. I prefer keeping the waterproof for when it's really needed.

    Alan clearly hikes in a different environment to me, but I was surprised by his comment about inexpensive, densely woven fleeces. They aren't going to be much lighter than a combined RAB hoodie and Montane windshirt.

  3. I agree. My windshirt is a Montane Pertex half zip (must be over ten years old?) and I can see how breathable it is by dampness coming through to the outside eg. under rucksack straps. For multi day backpacking I find a thin merino base layer with a wind shirt is ideal, and carry a half zip lightweight fleece for campwear or early starts/rest stops, and bring out a lightweight waterproof for prolonged or heavier rain.
    I've found that cheaper garments (fleece or merino) tend to lose their shape or shrink when washed. False economy in my experience. Different strokes for different folks I guess.

  4. Agreed. I'm just about to go for a run in my wind shirt. The same one I cycle in. The same one I take backpacking. Wind shirts are great!

  5. Pretty much live in my Patagonia houdini windshirt, has to be my favourite most useful item of clothing I own. use it hiking, running, climbing, cycling... going to the shops

  6. I may go backpacking without a fleece, but never without a windshirt. On drier hikes I'll carry a down Jacket. It's lighter, packs smaller and warmer than fleece.

    I also never take rain pants. They are heavy, bulky, clammy and restrict movement. I always take wind pants. They dry quickly, keep my legs warm and I can walk miles in cold and snowy conditions comfortably.

  7. I agree and would take the wind-shirt over the fleece every time but usually take both. My use is mostly in Scotland too. I'd say that they aren't alternatives but the partners in an essential relationship when talking about micro-fleece or powerstretch type tops.

  8. Windshirt+fleece is better than fleece alone in all accounts, wind-shedding, insulation and weight, it's a paradigm case of synergy at the true essence of layering. Alan Dixon's advice was puzzling.

  9. I agree with you Chris on all counts. My windshirt is indespensible for both walking and cycling. On a wet and cold windy day on Meall a' Bhuachaille a couple of years ago, I put an ancient Lowe Alpine waterproof over a windshirt and base layer and I went from feeling cold to being toasty

  10. What are wind shirts and where can i buy one from? Fleeces are in every mountain shop but I,ve queried shops about wind shirts and really not found that many. Tried one or two and they seem very thin and also much more expensive than a fleece. A detailed article about them would help. Thanks Chris.

    1. Windshirts are fairly simple garments with just one purpose - to protect against the wind. At the same time they are very versatile. If local outdoor shops don't stock them or don't have a good selection there are plenty available on line on sites such as Ultralight Outdoors -