I made a New Years resolution and this year I intend to honor it. Until the daytime temperatures average 70 degrees again, I will not wear pants that are not lined with fleece.
There are several reasons for this decision, the most important of which is comfort. It’s cold outside in winter, especially here in Montana, and I like to stay warm. While getting dressed for an outdoor activity is relatively easy, getting dressed comfortably in a variety of conditions is challenging.
The different conditions in which I need pants to perform includes everything from spending time on a mountain top in minus 30 degrees Celsius to sitting in front of the fire at home. Even more mundane: I drive seats in a nice warm pickup and then stand around a cold gas station. I go to the grocery store, then go in and try to decide what to cook for dinner. and I spend hours and hours shouting with my neighbors across the street while pretending to be shoveling snow.
But it is probably my care of three hellhounds that cause the most unpredictable climate changes. If one of them decides that it is time for a bathroom emergency or that they need to cough up a hairball, I must immediately get them out of the house or car, and then dwell in the dire conditions that they seem to have endured for the longest time to do their business in.
The traditional way to keep legs warm in winter has always been to use base layers. However, underwear bottoms have some limitations that fleece-lined pants do not. First, the job of the base layers is to wick moisture away from the skin. Therefore, they must be designed to be breathable, which also means that they are usually thin. Even my heaviest merino wool tights weighing 250 are not warm enough in freezing temperatures alone. And layering that heavy undergarment under regular pants is restrictive and diminishes comfort, whether you’re moving or just sitting around. In addition, expensive merino base layers don’t have to be washed and dried frequently, which means you only want to wear them when really necessary – not every day – or accept body odor, which my wife tells me I shouldn’t.
What about midlayers? I have everything from thick, puffy items to thinner fleece sweatpants to hybrid designs that try to map the insulation by area, which reduces the bulk of the pouf. But they only fit under the kind of pants that would have bullied you if you had worn them in high school, and they’re all so warm that they have to come off as soon as you move around a heated room.
Provide polyester fleece. Polyester fleece was invented as part of a collaboration between Patagonia and Malden Mills in the 1970s and designed as a cheaper and easier-care alternative to wool. The result was so successful that Malden changed its name to Polartec and Polarfleece is now likely to need very little introduction. The material insulates by trapping air between its fibers, it wicks moisture away by drawing water along its fibers, it dries quickly, is easy to care for and durable. Available in different strengths, it can add a little bit of warmth or a lot. And it is comfortable on your skin, so you can wear it alone or anywhere in a layer system.
Or you can wear polyester fleece pants. Note, however, that not all polyester fleece linings are created equal. Some brands simply hang a thin fleece liner in a shell that is only connected by the seams on the waist and cuffs. This acts more like a non-removable middle layer than a lining, adding little more than bulk and discomfort. What you want is a fleece lining that is firmly attached to the shell everywhere, either glued (read: glued) or woven directly into it, creating a uniform material that fits like normal pants and moves with you, but is warmer.
Here are the three fleece-lined pants that will get me through this winter.
Sitka Dakota Pant ($ 229)
The high performance option
I tried the Dakota pants for the first time in 2017 while on a cold weather duck hunt. Layered over a thin synthetic base layer I don’t think my legs ever layered felt more comfortable. But printed in the brand’s very effective, very ugly waterfowl swamp camo, it wasn’t exactly something I could get away with wearing outside of a duck blind. So I spent three years trying to find a pair in regular brown (a color that Sitka charmingly calls “mud”). I think my 32 waist, 34 inseam is popular because it took me until last fall to find a pair my size.
The Dakota consists of a thick, stretchy, woven nylon shell that is supported by a heavy, bonded fleece lining. They are therefore 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 in the double digits of below zero. But they’re breathable enough that you can wear them in heated rooms too. Vent pockets cut across the thighs can give off so much heat that you can hike in them in only icy weather.
The robust Materials, belt loops, buttons and zippers make these pants feel like they will last a lifetime, which goes a long way in justifying their price.
Beyond the Testa K5 Pants ($ 135)
(Photo: Beyond Clothes)
The Beyond Testa uses a similarly stretchy softshell outside with a bonded fleece lining and is slightly thinner, slightly lighter and significantly cheaper than the Dakota. This makes it a better option for everyday use in a wide variety of winter conditions. I’m writing this from our cabin in northern Montana, where my wife, dogs, and I spent three weeks on vacation. The Testa is the only pair of pants I’ve brought, and they’ve proven comfortable on every hike, every hour I chopped wood, and every night we spent in front of the fire.
The Testa is breathable enough to hike on 40 degree afternoons. It’s a solid option on its own in the cabin. Since the lighter material doesn’t block the wind as well as Sitka’s very heavy pants, they work best with a slightly thicker pad in the cold. (Together with 200-weight Smartwool Intraknit tights, they are comfortable all day long at single-digit temperatures.)
A friend who also has a pair of Testas called them “stretchy, warm pajama pants for the outdoors”.
Heavy duty jeans by the fireplace ($ 159)
(Photo: Wes Siler)
The pants you can wear in public
Both the Sitka and Beyond designs are technical softshell pants that can withstand extreme outdoor conditions. And while they look great there, they’re not the kind of thing you would wear to a restaurant (if we were ever to sit in those again). That’s a problem Duer’s Fireside Denim Jeans were designed to solve. To everyone else, they look like fashionable jeans. Only you will know that there is a secret made of soft fleece inside.
Duer found a way Weave the fleece into the denim, resulting in a material that looks, feels, and moves like normal denim on the outside, but is warm and fluffy on the inside. I wasn’t thicker than regular, unlined denim and was skeptical that these pants would provide the extra warmth I was looking for. But I was wrong. Wearing these is loosely the same as wearing a thin pad under normal jeans, only that it is a uniform material that is not as restrictive.
Like other Duer jeans, the Fireside Denim is made of a mixture of cotton, polyester, nylon and spandex, which makes it stretchy and slightly less prone to water absorption than a normal alternative made of 100 percent cotton. Combined with the brand’s signature crotch gusset, movement becomes free to an extent that you won’t find in other jeans. You could fully wear these hikes in cold weather and stay comfortable as long as the conditions were a little mild and you didn’t work up a big sweat. The cotton blend that makes this garment look good, however, rules it out as true outdoor apparel.
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Main photo: Beyond clothing