When I was 19 years old, and first working as a wilderness guide, I learned about a secret room in the back of the local outdoor store, full of deeply discounted gear that was only accessible to those in the know. On my days off, I always ended up there—enjoying the feeling of being an insider, a feeling I did not actually have at my guiding job (I was too young, too female, too not-from-around-there). I didn’t shop so much as linger, but the staff were gracious enough to ignore me, which I appreciated.
There was a fleece in the secret room that I tried on week after week. It was baby blue—unapologetically feminine, though at the time I wore mostly men’s gear in an effort to be taken seriously—and it was the softest fleece I’d ever touched, more like mist than fabric. It was exactly my size, but out of my budget, and each week I was afraid it would be gone. Finally I saved up my tip money and bought it.
That was my favorite fleece for years. I wore it until it was full of holes, at which point I was heartbroken to find out that the model had been discontinued—until I learned that the company, Mountain Hardwear, had a whole line of fleeces from the same material. I’ve tried several over the past decade-plus, and loved them all (they’ve gotten better, too; the current fabric is, by my estimation, very marginally less soft but infinitely more durable than the original). When I saw that the company introduced matching PANTS this year, I immediately wrote to my editor and begged for her blessing to review them. Which brings us to this, an extremely decadent gear review for when you want clothes that are more comfortable than a bathrobe, whether you’re spending the home stretch of the pandemic backpacking, working from home, re-watching The Crown, or all of the above.
Mountain Hardwear High Loft Pants ($150, XS-XL) and High Loft Pullover ($75, XS-XL)
Look: these pants are, predictably, fantastic. They pill a little bit on the inner waistband, but it’s pretty negligible, and the fleece itself is almost ridiculously plush and warm. So far I’ve worn them under rain pants for mushing and as general around-home cozy pants, and for both purposes, they’re the best I’ve ever tried, an instant layer of pure goodness against your skin. And they still come in second to the matching pullover (although I’d totally recommend both). But that’s Mountain Hardwear’s own fault for setting the bar so high.
The pullover is my favorite garment in the world. It feels like you’re wearing a pile of sleeping puppies, and the puppies are all dreaming about lambs. It’s equally soft inside and outside, it doesn’t get matted (which plush fleeces are wont to do), and it comes out of the washing machine looking great. You can button up the (very soft) collar and stick your hands in the (very soft) kangaroo pocket. I like the shape—loose, but not too short or long, with a cuff along the bottom and wrists, and a cut that helps camouflage bralessness (if that’s your goal).
Mountain Hardwear has other fleeces in the high-loft line, and I imagine they’re very good, although I haven’t tried them, because that would require taking this one off. The only downside is a limited size range: the largest size, XL, is equivalent to women’s 14-16, but I recommend sizing up for maximum coziness, which makes the range even smaller. If you’re reading this, Mountain Hardwear, please continue to expand the sizes of your line of fuzzy garments. I’ve been wearing them constantly for a decade straight, and if they get discontinued I will have to set up eBay alerts for life.
Kavu Cabin Toes Slipper Socks ($35, S-L)
These slipper socks have a hidden inner layer of super-plush fleece, perfect anyone with chilly feet or people who, like me, always get their slippers gross by wearing them outside and need something else for lounging. The socks run large, so when in doubt size down, although an elastic drawstring around the ankle keeps them on nicely even if they’re loose. For that reason, I wouldn’t recommend wearing them inside boots; the toggle would rub. My husband stole them from me almost immediately, and wears them around the house every day, but I plan on stealing them back to wear inside my sleeping bag for snow camping.
Patagonia Recycled Cashmere Cardigan ($249, XS-XL)
It seems negligent to discuss soft clothing without including cashmere, which has a pretty extraordinary resume: like wool, it insulates when wet, but it’s eight times warmer and way softer. Cashmere can be fairly delicate (and expensive), which is probably why it hasn’t taken off as an outdoor fabric; but if you’re looking for something luxurious for gentle use, this cardigan is a great option. It’s made from materials that would otherwise go to waste—cashmere scraps that are sorted by color, shredded, and mixed with a small amount of wool for strength. I like how the cardigan itself is almost dainty, with an open knit that’s surprisingly warm for how light it is.
DIY Recycled Cashmere Gaiter (around $10, any size)
If you want to take advantage of recycled cashmere on a smaller budget, here’s a project I’ve been making in various capacities since I was a teenager. First, you need an old cashmere sweater, of basically any size, color, shape, whatever. It doesn’t matter if it’s been felted or not (although felted fabric will be thicker and warmer). I’ve found a lot of used cashmere in the range of $5 to $10 at thrift stores and online, and I usually snatch them up to wear or repurpose. If you find a sweater that fits you well, but you don’t love how it looks, try wearing it as a base layer—it’ll last one extremely cozy season before wearing thin, at which point you can commence the upcycle.
The process is simple: cut out a rectangle (or two rectangles), and sew up the sides to make a tube, either by hand or with a machine. You don’t need to hem the edges; unless the knit is very loose, the fabric will curl but not fray. And that’s it! The softest gaiter ever, in roughly ten minutes’ work.
If you have extra fabric, you can use it for wrist warmers (sizes vary, but when in doubt, sew tubes with four-inch diameter openings), headbands (just measure your head), or even insoles (glue/sew a layer of cashmere onto pre-existing foam or felt insoles). Voila: you win winter.
Lead Photo: Blair Braverman