Rab Cirrus Flex Jacket
This lightweight synthetic duvet is a versatile insulating layer that's well suited to the UK's damp climate, says Charlie Low
In this comparative test Dan Bailey and Pegs Bailey try out a variety of light mid-layer fleece tops, in both men's and women's styles.
A thin lightweight fleece layer is a basic year-round staple, something for almost any trip from seaside cragging to Alpine summits. Whether you treat it as a stand-alone outer on dry-but-cool spring and summer days, or a warmth-boosting mid layer in the colder months, a microfleece is one of the most versatile garments. You might wonder what more can meaningfully be written about a glorified polyester jumper, but in fact there's plenty to choose between the many models on offer. What fabric has been used, how thick is it and how well does it keep out a breeze when the garment's being worn without a shell? Is the cut body-hugging or generous, and does it permit freedom of movement? Would you prefer a full-length zip for maximum ventilation or a slightly lighter and simpler half-zip model? Hooded fleeces are popular at the moment, and since they offer extra optional warmth with minimal added bulk it's easy to see why. Hood-free tops are marginally lighter though. More by accident than design, most of the models covered here happen to be hoodies.
Having recently had a baby I've not been spending much time up mountains over the winter, so the women's tops on test have been put through a slightly less gruelling regime of family country walks, with occasional baby peaks like the Pentlands or the Lomond Hills on a good day. The Namche Hoody has been excellent for this sort of casual day to day use, and I'm sure it'd be equally at home up in the Himalayas too. As a fan of ethical companies I was pleased to discover Sherpa, a fairly new brand that makes its stuff in Nepal, sponsors high altitude Sherpas and donates a little of every sale to a fund for underprivileged Sherpa kids. With its light but fluffy Polartec Classic 100 this affordable top has a great warm loft for something so thin. It wicks well and dries very quickly; but as with the Rab top it doesn't do much to keep the wind out. On breezy days and lunch stops I'm quick to put something more shell-like over the top. It was a pleasant surprise to find that the zip comes down low enough at the front to allow me to breast-feed outdoors without exposing myself too much to the elements. At this time of year that really matters. Sadly the Namche Hoody has an oddly stumpy hood that doesn't quite account for the length of my (or anyone's?) neck, and it lacks any pockets. However on the plus side there are nice little details like the embroidered zip pull (easy to use with gloves), good contouring so you don't feel like you are wearing a pillow case and simple thumb loops – I know Dan isn't a huge fan of these but I certainly am. Loving the 'Manang blue' colour too!
Though it's one of the thinner (and lighter) tops on test the Orbit Hoodie's Polartec Classic Micro fabric has a good fleecy loft for its weight, and worn as part of a layering system it gives a fair measure of warmth without getting too hot. For a mid layer that you can comfortably use in a variety of conditions (not just up snowy mountains) I think Rab have got the fabric weight about right, and I'll still be wearing this come summer. The quick-drying fabric breathes very well, and I've yet to feel too sweaty when lugging a heavy baby uphill. It seems relatively durable for something so soft, and baby sick washes out of it no trouble too. However, unlike some of the slightly more technical models that my husband kindly volunteered to test himself, once again the thin fleecy fabric offers very little barrier to a cold stiff breeze, so in windy weather this is very much a mid layer to wear under something else rather than a stand-alone top. It has lovely pockets with enough room to warm your hands, but the addition of zips would've made them more useful for securely carrying bits and bobs. They're also a little low on the body to access when wearing a rucksack hipbelt (solution; get Dan to carry it). There is a half-length zip with fleecy chinguard and breeze proof baffle, and a pull-tab that's big enough to use with gloved hands. There are flatlock, low-bulk seams throughout for comfort. I love the hood, with its ultra-stretchy lycra rim and snug fit (but not too snug, see above). On a more frivolous note, I'm also a fan of the contrasting colour scheme on the seams and zip. As well as being in its element outdoors this is definitely a top for casual use too, and it is currently my favourite go-to for everyday comfort and warmth that feels stylish.
A simpler hoodless Micro Pull-on is also available in the same Polartec Classic Micro fabric at £50. It lacks the Orbit Hoodie's pockets and the zip doesn't come down as low (so no good for the babies) but it's still well made, well cut and will keep you nice and cosy. I've been using it on the rare days so far this year when a hood has seemed OTT.
The ominously-named Shroud is a well-featured garment aimed at mountaineers, but it's equally well suited to walkers too. Two different fabrics are used to maximise warmth/wicking and stretch where they're both most needed. The 100-weight Polartec Classic fabric on the front and back of the torso and the underside of the arms has a nice fluffy loft that offers good warmth for weight. Its brushed face is not as windproof as a more densely-woven smooth-faced fabric would be however, and on breezy winter hill days I've usually needed to layer it under a shell. I think that makes this model slightly less versatile than some of its rivals, as you're less likely to use it minus an outer layer. As for midlayer mode, because it's furry rather than smooth there's a tendency for the Polartec Classic fabric to cling a little to the inside of some outer layers, and I've found this slightly restricts arm movement when paired with a Vapour Rise jacket for instance. Obviously this is no issue if your outer layer is smooth on the inside. The Polartec Power Stretch fabric employed on the underside of the arms, the sides of the body and the hood gives good freedom of movement when climbing, and the Shroud's pre-shaped sleeves help in this regard too. Features-wise there's plenty going on: a full-length zip with fleecy chin guard and full-length draft baffle; flatlock seams throughout; two generous mesh-lined pockets placed high enough for access with a harness; one small internal pocket; and thumb loops. Given how many firms add thumb loops to this sort of garment it's safe to assume that people generally like them, but personally I'm not convinced (the photo above is me giving them a chance). If it's that cold I'll usually be wearing gloves, rendering a loop redundant, while a thumb hole that's not plugged with a thumb just means a little cold spot on your wrist. This isn't a criticism exclusive to the Shroud, and it's only my own opinion in any case. Elsewhere, I'd say the hem drawcord is overkill for a microfleece (simple elastic would do), but I do appreciate the addition of a hood, which really increases insulation options. The Shroud's stretchy hood moves well with the head, has enough space to accommodate a hat, and fits comfortably beneath a helmet.
Patagonia's classic R1 Hoody is regularly lauded by alpine and winter climbers, not least on the UKC forums; and there's a good chance the new Piton Hybrid Hoody will gain a similar following. This is a beautifully designed mountaineer's mid layer on which every feature does a job and nothing is superfluous. Panels of two different Polartec fabrics are used – Wind Pro Hardface fabric with a DWR (durable water repellent) finish in high-wear, weather-exposed areas on top of the hood, across the chest and shoulders, and at the elbows; and a rather lighter Power Dry for maximum stretch and breathability elsewhere. It is soft and supple throughout, lightly brushed within and smooth-faced outside for easy layering. The Piton Hybrid's composite construction is a great example of the oft-quoted 'body mapping' that higher end clothing firms are increasingly going in for, and the choice of materials allows it to double as a very light softshell outer in benign conditions. The full-length zip has a minimalist fleecy chin guard, and both this and the roomy single chest pocket have zippers with chunky pull tabs for easy use in gloves. There's a simple elasticated hem and sleeve cuffs with no thumb loops (a bonus in my book), and a snug-fitting hood with flat seams for comfort under a helmet. Perhaps it's worth noting that I've found the sizing a little short on the body, and prefer the length of XL even though it's a little roomy elsewhere on me. On a sunny walk-in to Lurcher's Crag the Piton Hybrid Hoody felt light and fast-wicking enough not to get clammy, while still keeping a needling cold breeze out as a stand-alone outer. I added a light duvet jacket for the climb. When moving I appreciated the Piton's lightness and freedom of movement as a mid layer; and while stationary the face-hugging hood came into its own. This top has seen plenty of action since, including a storm at night with unforseen complications and a long cold sit in a river of spindrift - and even then it was hard to fault. However there is one large elephant in the room - the price! Nb. If you struggle to find the hooded version, a hoodless Piton Hybrid Jacket is also available.
This is an excellent light(ish) full-zip hooded fleece, along similar lines to the Patagonia and Mountain Equipment models. As with its 'body mapped' peers, panels of two different materials are used where each are best employed: brushed fleece on the front and back of the body for maximum warmth and moisture wicking; and a thinner grid fleece along the sides and underarms for lightness and air flow. There's a 'Polygiene' treatment to reduce the whiff of prolonged use – my personal standards are fairly slack, but this certainly seems to work. The outer face is smooth and densely woven for durability and a measure of wind resistance, and the fabric has what manufacturers call four-way stretch (for my money this is 'two-way' – ie. horizontal and vertical) - for freedom of movement and lifting your arms without the hem rising. To that end the cut is fairly long in the body too, which helps stop it riding up under a harness and keeps the midriff snug. Thumb loops are common these days, and the Radiant Hybrid Hoody is no exception; I'm willing to forgive them, but would prefer none. A full-length zip (offset at the top for under-chin comfort) might add a fraction to the weight, but on a recent sweaty slog up to Stob Coire nan Walk-in it meant I could stay cool enough without having to stop and remove the fleece, worn over a thermal top. Up on the crag in a biting wind I was pleased with the hood, which has a nice close draft-excluding fit without restricting movement, and works well under a helmet. For winter climbers and hillwalkers the Radiant Hybrid is hard to fault, especially at the price. A Radiant Hybrid Pullover is also available - exactly the same minus the hood.
Lacking the hood and the composite multi-fabric build of the other men's tops on test, and having only one small chest pocket and a half zip, this is a slightly simpler model than the rest. But then simplicity is not necessarily a bad thing in a mid layer. The Aconcagua Pull is however the thickest of all the models on review. Its super-snug Polartec Powerstretch Pro combines a luxurious fluffy inner with a more densely-woven smooth-faced nylon outer to give a good level of insulation inside and durability/breeze resistance outside. In my experience, when you're on the move and generating plenty of heat a pretty cutting wind has to be blowing before you need to layer up over the top of the Aconcagua Pull. Despite its breeze resistance and sheer fluffy thickness this top wicks sweat away very well, and it's so soft that I like wearing it next to the skin too. The double-thickness collar with chin guard flap is very cozy, but it could be an inch higher around the neck in my opinion. However the half-length zip with its lovely thick anti-draft baffle does come low enough for effective venting - not always the case with half-zip tops. I do wish the pull tab was bigger though, as this one's a bit of a fumble to use with gloves. Though the cut is body-hugging the fabric's excellent stretch allows plenty of freedom to move. The sleeves have thumb loops, and more importantly sufficient length in the arm when climbing; but less so the body, which errs ever so slightly on the short side. On me the size L has a slight but persistent tendency to ride up over a hip belt or harness, but doubtless an XL would be too roomy in the body. Assuming it fits you though, and if you don't mind the lack of a hood, then this is a model worth considering – especially when heading to colder climes where that coddling thick fabric would really come into its own. If you ever found yourself up on the Aconcagua's chilly namesake, for instance, you'd probably be glad to have it as part of your clothing armoury.
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