Backcountry.com Cairn Fleece Jacket

Fleece jackets hover in a mushy middle ground between waterproof-and-breathable shells and sturdy workaday wool sweaters. They’re warm enough for nice sunny winter days, but too airy when the wind really blows.

But even on the coldest days a fleece jacket is often part of my insulation arsenal. Indeed, as a second-to-top layer — underneath a Gore-Tex or eVent shell jacket — a good fleece can keep you toasty while wicking sweat better than almost any other apparel option.

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Backcountry.com, an online retailer of outdoors equipment, launched an in-house line of technical outerwear earlier this winter, including the Cairn Fleece Jacket, a $110 model I’ve been testing for two months.

Made of Polartec Thermal Pro fleece, the Cairn has a unique look and feel. Its exterior face is a rough weave of lines and micro corrugation. Unlike the synthetic fleece popular in the 1990’s, Polartec Thermal Pro has no pilling effect and not a hint of lumpiness, making it more sleek and durable.

The interior face fabric is soft and almost cottony, feeling warm and fuzzy to the touch.

I tested the jacket skiing and running, both as a layer and on its own against the elements. As suspected, the jacket excelled on mild days, breathing nicely and insulating just enough in temps between 20 and 50 degrees.

On my nightly 3-mile training runs around the neighborhood I wore the Cairn on top of a single wool base-layer turtleneck. Aerobically maxed, this system was near perfect for jogs even in temps down to about 15 degrees.

Alpine skiing with the Cairn was comfortable only on the warmest winter days, as wind filtered through with little resistance as I gained speed on the slope. Mostly, I wore the Cairn underneath a new eVent shell I’m testing, and the setup proved a good pairing, with the fleece insulating while also providing an airy conduit to move moisture out to the shell.

While Nordic skiing, the Cairn’s clean, athletic fit acquiesced just fine with striding and poling. Deep pockets inside the jacket were great for stashing gloves and a light winter hat as I warmed up and needed to de-layer.

The jacket is manufactured in Canada, and it comes in red or black. Its $110 price tag seemed fair and reasonable to me.

Backcountry.com’s marketing department touts the Cairn jacket as embodying “trail-ready performance beneath a lifestyle-inspired look.” I guess I agree, as the Cairn both looks good and — in the right conditions — performs in the outdoors with aplomb.

(Stephen Regenold writes The Gear Junkie column for eight U.S. newspapers; see http://www.THEGEARJUNKIE.com for video gear reviews, a daily blog, and an archive of Regenold’s work.)

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