I’ve made a New Year’s resolution, and this year I intend to honor it. Between now and the time when daytime temperatures again average 70 degrees, I will not wear any pants that are not lined in fleece.
There are several reasons for this decision, the foremost of which is comfort. It’s cold outside in winter, especially here in Montana, and I like to stay warm. While dressing for an outdoor activity is relatively straightforward, dressing comfortably across a range of conditions is challenging.
The range of conditions I need a pair of pants to perform in includes everything from spending time on a mountaintop in minus-30-degree temperatures to sitting in front of the fire at home. More mundanely, I drive places in a nice warm pickup truck, then stand around a cold gas station; I walk to the grocery store, then wander around inside, trying to decide what to cook for dinner; and I spend hours upon hours engaging in shouted chats with my neighbors on the other side of the street, while I pretend to shovel snow.
But it’s probably my custodianship of three hell hounds that creates the most unpredictable changes in climate. If any one of them decides it’s time for a bathroom emergency, or that they need to cough up a hair ball, I have to let them out of the house or car without delay, then linger in the kinds of terrible conditions they seem to take the longest time to do their business in.
The traditional way to keep your legs warm in winter has always been with base layers. But base-layer bottoms involve some limitations that fleece-lined pants do not. First, the job of base layers is to move moisture away from the skin, so by design they need to be breathable, which also means they’re usually thin. Even my heaviest, 250-weight merino-wool tights aren’t warm enough on their own in below-freezing temperatures. And layering those heavy base layers under normal pants is restrictive, limiting comfort whether you’re moving or just sitting around. Further, expensive merino base layers don’t take kindly to frequent washing and drying, meaning you only want to wear them when really necessary—not every day—or embrace body odor, which my wife tells me I’m not allowed to do.
What about midlayers? I’ve got everything from thick puffy items to thinner fleece sweatpants to hybrid designs that try and map insulation by area, reducing the bulk of the puff. But they only fit under the kind of pants that would have gotten you bullied if you wore them to high school, and all of them are so warm that they need to come off the second you move inside a heated space.
Enter polyester fleece. Invented as part of a collaboration between Patagonia and Malden Mills back in the 1970s, polyester fleece was conceived as a more affordable, easier-to-care-for alternative to wool. The result was so successful that Malden ended up changing its name to Polartec, and polar fleece now likely needs very little in the way of introduction. The material insulates by trapping air between its fibers, it wicks moisture by drawing water along its fibers and dries quickly, it’s easy to care for, and it’s durable. Available in a variety of thicknesses, it can add a bit of warmth or a lot. And it’s comfortable next to your skin, so you can wear it on its own or anywhere within a layering system.
Or you can wear a pair of pants lined in polyester fleece. Note, however, that not all polyester fleece linings are created equal. Some brands simply hang a thin fleece liner inside a shell, connected only by the stitching at the waist and cuffs. This acts more like a nonremovable midlayer than it does a lining, adding little more than bulk and discomfort. What you want is a fleece lining that’s permanently attached to the shell all over, either bonded (read: glued) or woven right in, creating a unified material that should fit and move with you, just like a regular pair of pants but warmer.
Here are the three pairs of fleece-lined pants that are getting me through this winter.
Sitka Dakota Pant ($ 229)
The Heavy-Duty Option
I first tried the Dakota pant in 2017 on a cold-weather duck hunt. Layered over a thin synthetic base layer, I don’t think my legs have ever felt cozier. But printed in the brand’s very effective, very ugly Waterfowl Marsh camouflage, it wasn’t exactly something I could get away with wearing outside of a duck blind. So I spent three years trying to locate a pair in plain brown (a color Sitka charmingly refers to as “mud”). I guess my 32 waist, 34 inseam is popular, becuase it took me until last fall to find a pair in my size.
The Dakota is made from a thick, stretchy woven nylon shell, backed by a heavy bonded fleece liner, so they’re not only extremely durable but also extremely warm. Layered over nothing but Sitka’s Core Lightweight bottom ($ 69), these pants are warm enough for conditions well into the double digits below zero. But they’re breathable enough that, on their own, you can wear them in heated spaces, too. Vent pockets slashed across the thighs can dump enough warmth that you can hike in them in merely freezing weather.
The sturdy materials, belt loops, buttons, and zippers make these pants feel like they’ll last a lifetime, which goes a long way to justifying their price.
Beyond Testa K5 Pant ($ 135)
Employing a similarly stretchy soft-shell outer with a bonded fleece liner, the Beyond Testa is a little thinner, a little lighter, and significantly less expensive than the Dakota. That makes it a better option for daily wear across a wider range of winter conditions. I’m writing this from our cabin in northern Montana, where my wife, dogs, and I have spent three weeks over the holidays. The Testa is the only pair of pants I brought with me, and they’ve proven comfortable on every hike we’ve taken, every hour I’ve chopped wood, and every night we’ve spent in front of the fire.
Breathable enough to hike in on 40-degree afternoons, the Testa is a solid option on its own inside the cabin. But because the lighter material isn’t quite as good at blocking the wind as Sitka’s very heavy pants, these work best with a slightly thicker base layer in cold conditions. (Paired with some 200-weight Smartwool Intraknit tights, they’re all-day cozy in single-digit temperatures.)
A friend who also has a pair of Testas called them “stretchy, warm pajama pants for the outdoors.”
Duer Fireside Denim Jeans ($ 159)
The Pant You Can Wear in Public
Both the Sitka and Beyond designs are technical soft-shell pants that stand up to extreme outdoor conditions. And while they look great there, they aren’t the kind of thing you’d wear to a restaurant (if we ever get to sit inside those again). That’s a problem Duer’s Fireside Denim jeans were created to solve. To everyone else, they look like nothing more than a fashionable pair of jeans. Only you will know there’s a soft fleece secret inside.
Duer has found a way to weave the fleece into the denim, resulting in a material that appears, feels, and moves like normal denim on the outside but is warm and fuzzy on the inside. Not any thicker than normal unlined denim, I was skeptical that these pants would provide the additional warmth I was looking for. But I was wrong. Wearing these is loosely equivalent to wearing a thin base layer under regular jeans, only it’s a unified material that isn’t as restrictive.
Like other Duer jeans, the Fireside Denim is composed of a cotton, polyester, nylon, and elastane blend that makes it stretchy and a little less prone to soaking up water than a normal, 100 percent cotton alternative. Combined with the brand’s signature crotch gusset, it frees up movement to a degree you won’t find in other jeans. You could totally wear these hiking in cold weather and remain comfortable, as long as conditions were somewhat mild and you didn’t work up a huge sweat. But the cotton blend that makes this garment good-looking still rules it out as true outdoors apparel.