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Best Mid Layers for Hiking – 7 of the Best Options in 2020

In this article, I’m covering some of the best mid layers for hiking and giving you all the information to understand what to look for. Fleece mid layers are traditionally used as a layer to go on above your hiking shirt or base layer and underneath a rain jacket or an insulated puffy jacket. They are also used in colder temperatures when you need more than a single layer on your upper body but don’t want to use your rain jacket or puffy jacket.

Some of the best mid layers available in 2020

Hiking for sustained periods with a backpack means you generate body heat and if you don’t manage it effectively you will start to sweat. It’s important to manage perspiration (especially in cold environments) so that your clothing doesn’t get wet and when you stop you get cold. For this reason, mid layers are often called “active mid layers” as they allow moisture to escape better than rain jackets or puffy jackets, and they will also still insulate well when damp.

So to clarify:

Mid-Layers can be worn over a single layer (hiking shirt) to keep you warm enough whilst hiking, but not so warm that you sweat profusely.

And/Or

Can be layered underneath an insulated puffy jacket and rain jacket for extra warmth when necessary, for example when taking a break.

Let’s dive into the features of the best mid layers for hiking

It’s ALL about layering correctly

Materials

Fleece (Man-Made Synthetics) Vs Organics (Merino Wool or Alpaca)

The material is THE most important factor in selecting a good mid layer.

Fleece mid layers have been the norm for years but more recently organic materials such as Merino Wool and Alpaca materials have become excellent options. Each material has it’s pros and cons and in my opinion, there is no clear winner. In some cases, the best mid layers for hiking are a combination of these materials.

Fleece

“Fleece” is a generic term usually associated with synthetic (aka plastic) materials. The majority of the mid layers on the market today use synthetic fleece materials. Polyester is the primary material, sometimes with Spandex or Elastane added in for stretch.

Pros

  • Fleece mid layers are usually the cheapest option
  • These materials are versatile, can be blended and manipulated in many ways (grid patterns and “fluffiness” for example)
  • Very Durable

Cons

  • Will smell faster than organic materials
  • They are made of plastics which can be harmful to the environment and microplastics are released when washing
  • Melt/get holes when exposed to fire (although if you’re careful this shouldn’t matter)

Synthetics and Organics blended in the Capilene Air Hoodie

Merino Wool & Alpaca

Merino Wool is a natural fiber from that comes from sheep and Alpaca from well… Alpacas.

Merino is often used for base layers or hiking layers. It is a less popular option for mid layers than synthetics, although good options do exist. Merino is sometimes blended with synthetics for versatility.

Alpaca material is a relatively “new kid on the block” but is making an impact on the industry. It has very similar properties to Merino Wool.

Pros

  • Wool/Alpaca insulates well if it gets damp, making it a good option for an active mid layer
  • Both fabrics resist odor well, especially compared to synthetics
  • Inherently breathable

Cons

  • Usually more expensive than synthetics
  • Less durable than synthetics

Synthetic & Down “Puffy” Insulation as a Mid Layer

Synthetic & Down puffies are rarely used as a true mid layer unless it is extremely cold (mountaineering/polar). Or, you are not very active and thus not generating body heat. The problem with these types of puffy insulation is if they get wet from perspiration they can lose their insulating properties.

For hiking, they are probably best used for insulation when you have stopped for the day, although I will mention one below. I also have an in depth guide to puffy jackets here.

Breathability

The best mid layers for hiking allow excess body heat and moisture to escape through the fabric. This allows you to stay warm and dry whilst moving along the trail. Breathability is a by-product of material choice and the weave or design of the material.

Fleece breathes ok but natural fibers such as Merino and Alpaca tend to have the advantage.

Many fleece mid layers use a grid like pattern with channels in the fabric that allow heat and moisture to escape better than a fleece without.

Grid Pattern found on the Melanzana Fleece

Warmth & Warmth When Wet

A mid layer is not usually necessary for summer trips when you can hike in a single layer and put on an insulated puffy jacket when you stop for the day. But, when the temperatures drop and you need an extra layer to hike in, an active mid-layer comes into play.

We want a mid-layer to be warm but not too warm. Thick but not too thick. Our porridge has to be just right! People operate at different temperatures and finding out what works for you takes some trial and error.

There are good mid-layer options for differing temperatures listed below. These mid layers have comparable but differing warmth values. I’ll use an unscientific rating system of Warm, Warmer and Warmest.

Weight

Weight as always is a major consideration for ultralight backpacking and thru-hiking. A good baseline for a mid-layer is between 8oz – 12oz or 227g – 340g.

For a layer around this weight, you will have something that is warm, made of high-quality materials and have minimal features. Exactly what we are looking for.

Zippers, Pockets, Hoods & Other Features

These features are often what sets mid layers apart and make them tailored to peoples’ wants and needs. The more features the more weight, think very hard if you “need” a feature and if it’s worth the weight penalty.

Zippers

A quarter or half zipper is a nice feature to vent excess heat and moisture from the torso. I do not recommend a full zipper, it’s not worth the weight penalty and if you need that much venting then you should take it off entirely.

I don’t think a zipper of any kind is necessary though, and if the layer is breathable you can go without and save some weight.

Pockets

Pockets on any layer are nice to have, to stash items or your hands when it’s cold. They are essential on a puffy jacket as you are often wearing them when inactive. On a mid-layer they are less important as you are usually on the move and won’t have your hands in your pockets. Pockets will add a little extra weight but if it’s important to you then it’s worthwhile.

Hoods

Hoods on mid-layers are again very much personal choice. Nice to have, add extra warmth and coziness for a little extra weight.

Dorky but functional balaclava hood on the Patagonia Capilene Air Hoodie

Thumb Loops

I’ve mentioned it in other gear guides but it frustrates me how few companies add thumb loops to this kind of a garment. It adds zero extra weight and a whole bunch of functionality. Sleeves won’t bunch up when adding more layers and it helps keep your hands warm when removing gloves.

You don’t have to use them when not necessary but they are so nice to have.

Price

The best mid layers for hiking should last a long time so you shouldn’t be afraid to spend some money. Good gear is a good investment.

I will say that affordable fleece mid-layers are available (more info below) so if you’re on a budget then fear not. Yet, spending more money means you usually get a superior product from a responsible company.

You can pay anything from 5 USD for a cheap fleece mid-layer up to 150 USD for the Cadillac models.

Fit

Fit is very important for any layering system. A mid-layer should be fitted without being snug to trap warmth and be easy to move in. You want to be able to wear a base layer and/or a hiking shirt underneath it, and a rain jacket or puffy jacket over top.

7 Of The Best Mid Layers For Hiking in 2020

Now I’ve gone over the important attributes and features it’s time to look at seven of the best mid layers for hiking. There are a lot of good options on the market so find what works for you and your requirements.

Patagonia R1 – The Warm Heavyweight

Weight – 13.3oz – 378g for the large, hoodless pullover version shown here.

Quoted weights for hoodless pullover version (inaccurate):

Small – 9.7 oz / 274g
Medium – 10 oz / 290g
Large – 10.3 oz / 292g
XL – 12 oz / 369g

Material – Polartec Power Grid ( 93% Recycled Polyester 7% Elastane)

Cost – from 90 USD

My Temperature Rating – Warmest

The Patagonia R1 has a lofty grid pattern that traps warm air while allowing excess heat/moisture to escape. These pores make the R1 warmer than a comparative weight fleece without pores.

Its warmth may be overkill for summer trips when you can carry something lighter. Wind penetrates these pores so you may want to layer a wind shirt over the top if you’re consistently hiking in these conditions. It’s available with or without a hood, with a half-zipper or full-zipper, and in many colors. The lightest option is with a half-zipper and no hood. It’s still heavy with the large version weighing 13.3oz/378g.

The Power Grid fabric is soft to the skin and fit is snug without being overly athletic. The large zipper is great for venting and the chest pocket is good for batteries. Recycled materials and Fair Trade sewing make it a good sustainable option.

Appalachian Gear Company All-Paca Fleece Hoodie – The New Kid on the Block

Weight – 12.9 oz – 367g for the large version shown here

Website quoted weights:

Small – 10 oz / 283g
Medium – 11 oz / 312g
Large – 12 oz / 340g
XL – 13 oz / 369g
XXL – 14 oz / 397g

Material – 100% Alpaca Fiber

Cost – 145 USD

My Temperature Rating – Warmer

The Appalachian Gear Company All-Paca Fleece Hoodie is made from 100% Alpaca material, giving it similar properties to Merino wool. The fabric is very breathable in my testing and moisture and heat escapes well. This is an inherent property of the porous fabric and competes with the grid-like pattern found in other options discussed here.

Any wind is blocked a little better than the grid pattern options in this guide. It is soft to the skin and I often throw it on when at home. It comes in three colors, it’s made in the USA and construction is solid. I don’t love the hood and would love the addition of thumb loops. It’s not cheap but it’s worth it. As mentioned in my full review of the App Gear Hoodie, the sizing needs to be carefully considered.

The low weight, functionality, and use of organic/non-harmful materials make it my current go-to option.

The North Face 100 Glacier Quarter Zip Fleece Pullover – The Workhorse

Weight – 8.9 oz – 250g for the large version shown here

Could not find manufacturer weights online (why?? North Face Why?)

Sizes

S – XXL

Material – Polyester – Polartec Micro Fleece

Cost – from 45 USD

My Temperature Rating – Warmer

The 100 weight Glacier Quarter Zip from the North Face is a functional no-frills option. With my large version weighing 8.9 oz – 250g, it’s a contender for the best fleece mid layer.

This version uses recycled materials and the product is made in Cambodia. The fit is relaxed but snug. Materials and construction are solid and the cuffs and collar are finished with stretchy piping. Polartec Micro Fleece makes for a warm mid layer that is soft and cozy and a double layer at the neck adds warmth. It doesn’t breathe as well as organic fabrics or synthetics with “pores” but the quarter zipper helps with venting.

It’s available with a full zipper (heavier) and in several colors. Shop carefully as older versions can weigh more and be less awesome.

Melanzana Micro Grid Hoodie – The Cottage Company Favorite

Weight – 11.5 oz – 327g for the medium version shown here

Website states weight ranges from 9.5 oz / 269g -12.2 oz / 346g, depending on size but the medium version here weighs 11.5 oz – 327g

Sizes

Mens S – XXL
Womens XS – XL

Material – 100% Polyester – Polartec Micro Grid

Cost – 69 USD

My Temperature Rating – Warmer

We can’t talk about the best mid layers for hiking without the ultralight fan favourite the Melanzana Micro Grid Hoodie. It’s thought to have the best weight to warmth ratio of any fleece mid layer thanks to Melanzanas’ exclusive Polartec Micro-Grid Fleece.

The Micro Grid pattern helps trap warm air inside the hoodie but still allows for some venting. This is a similar idea to the use of Polartec Power Grid fabric on the Patagonia R1 although Polartec Micro Grid has a lower fabric weight. The hoodies are almost always “sold out” online and you’ll have to make a trip to their workshop in Leadville, Colorado where they are made in small batches. Or ask a Colorado native very nicely if they will pick one up for you.

An excellent hood and cozy hand-warmer pockets help make the Melanzana Micro Grid Hoodie one of the best mid layers for hiking.

Cheap Generic Fleece – The Budget Option

Weight – 15 oz / 430 g but MUCH lighter ones can be found

Material – 100% Polyester Fleece

Cost – Next to nothing at a used clothing store

My Temperature Rating – Warmer

A big part of pieonthetrail.com is testing out and recommending high quality ultralight backpacking gear. That often means looking at top of the range items that come with a decent price tag. I also want to make UL backpacking accessible for everyone, regardless of budget.

That’s where a cheap generic fleece mid layer like this one comes in. It’s durable, warm and will get the job done. But the biggest point is that a fleece like this can easily be found at used clothing stores or new online for very little money.

They may be manufactured in less than ideal working conditions, they may not have as many features and quality may not be the best. But, if you’re on a budget then don’t be afraid to look at these types of fleece mid layers.

Patagonia Capilene Air Hoody – The Base Layer That Makes a Surprisingly Good Mid Layer

Weight – 8.3 oz / 234 g for the large version here with a hood

Could not find manufacturer weights online

Sizes – XS – XXL

Material – 51% Merino 49% Polyester

Cost – 75 – 150 USD depending on size

My Temperature Rating – Warm

The Capilene Air Hoody is a base layer made of a blend of Merino and recycled Polyester that uses a 3D knit structure. This creates a lofty fabric with warmth trapping pores that allow the garment to breathe extremely well.

Despite being thinner than a lot of the mid-layers discussed here, the fabric is lofty and has a sweater like feeling to it, making it appropriate as a mid-layer when sized correctly. The material is soft against the skin, stretches and flexes when layered over a hiking shirt and retains it’s shape well. This version has a close-fitting balaclava type hood which adds warmth but it is also available without.

Price is high and durability may not be the best, but it’s a very warm base layer for its low weight and if you’re looking for a packable, lightweight mid layer for hiking it’s a great option.

Enlightened Equipment Torrid APEX Vest – The Wild Card Puffy

Weight – 4.8 oz / 136 g for my large hoodless version here

Weights vary depending on fabric and choice or with or without a hood

Small Hoodless – 4.6oz /133 g
Medium Hoodless – 5oz / 142 g
Large Hoodless – 5.2oz / 147 g
XL Hoodless – 5.6oz / 159 g
XXL Hoodless – 6oz / 170 g

Material – CLIMASHIELD™ APEX Syntethic insulation with 20,10 or 7 denier nylon shell fabric

Cost – from 125 USD

My Temperature Rating – Warmest

I’m calling the Enlightened Equipment Torrid APEX Vest the wildcard because I don’t generally recommend an insulated puffy jacket as a mid layer for reasons mentioned at the start of this guide.

However, the EE vest uses synthetic Climashield Apex, doesn’t have sleeves and has a full front zipper. Synthetic insulation will dry quicker and insulate better if damp than Goose Down. The lack of sleeves and a full zipper makes venting excess body heat easy.

I feel this makes the Enlightened Equipment Torrid APEX Vest a viable mid layer for hiking in very cold temperatures or if you are not constantly active.

The weight is shockingly low, it has two great handwarmer pockets and the collar insulates the neck really well. Plus you can customize EE’s puffy jackets/vests to your specific requirements on their website.

Summarizing the Best Mid Layers for Hiking

I feel these 7 options represent the best mid layers for hiking in 2020 and each one has their strengths and weaknesses. You should choose which one suits you and your requirements.

Thanks for checking out this article. If you’re interested in seeing a similar guide to the best insulated puffy jackets for hiking check out this post.

Cheers

Pie

Disclaimer – This post contains affiliate links. By clicking through and purchasing something you help support the work I do with pieonthetrail and it costs you nothing extra.

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