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Hands-on Gear Review
The North Face Denali 2 Review
Cons: Heavy, bulky, bunches up, blocky cut
Bottom line: The Denali is an excellent stand alone fleece for shorter day hikes and staying warm around town on cool, breezy days.
The North Face Denali 2 is an updated version of the classic North Face fleece jacket, first debuted all the way back in 1988. Its fans are legion and you'd be hard pressed to find an outdoor retailer that doesn't carry it. This fleece is thick, heavy, and reinforced with nylon patches over the chest arms, making it a poor choice when weight is a concern. However, for a short day in the wilderness or running around town on cold winter days, the Denali holds up as a stand alone jacket against the wind and light rain better than any other jacket in this year's review. For technical pursuits in the mountains, check out our Editors' Choice Award winner, the Patagonia R3 Hoody. If you're on the lookout for style and more breathability, the Patagonia Performance Better Sweater Hoody is a better option.
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Our Analysis and Hands-on Test Results
The North Face Denali 2 comes with a lot of different features to please just about anyone looking for a warm fleece. It is constructed with Polartec 300 Series fleece with "Repreve" fibers (fleece derived from recycled soda bottles) and is made with 85% recycled materials. This jacket has two hand warmer pockets along with two chest pockets, and a zip cord hem and elastic-bound cuffs to trap in body heat. It also sports two-ply nylon reinforced shoulders and elbows to help reduce abrasions and extend the life of the jacket. For an extra $50, you can order a customizable one from TNF. There are currently 10 stock color options, and the jacket weighs 24.7 ounces. In support of the "Denali" jacket, TNF makes an annual donation to the Denali Rescue Volunteers, an organization which provides support to the National Park Rangers on Denali to help keep climbers safe and assists them if they need a rescue.
The chart below indicates the Denali's Overall Performance score when compared against the rest of the contenders in our line-up.
This jacket is by far the warmest fleece in this year's selection, a 10 out of 10. It's 333 g/m2 Polartec 300 series fleece is thick like a heavy blanket. No breathable grid patterns or stretchy side panels here, just thick fleece between you and the cold, reinforced with wind resistant nylon on the chest and across the back of shoulders. Snug cuffs and a cinchable hem keep the heat in, and the warm collar kept or necks warm like a scarf. No other contenders were on par with the Denali's warmth, though the Patagonia R3 Hoody, Mountain Hardwear Monkey Man Grid II Hooded, and Patagonia Better Sweater Hoody were close behind.
The Denali 2 is comfy when hanging out by the fire, or strolling around on a brisk, winter evening. As soon as we did anything that got our heart rate up, this fleece felt too hot, bulky, and restricting. It is too bulky to fit comfortably under a climbing harness or the waist belt on a backpack, and the hem cinch rides up when pulled tight. Two zippered handwarmer pockets offer a welcome respite for your freezing mitts, and the two chest pockets have plenty of room for snacks, keys or chapstick. The left chest pocket has a hole for headphones. Our testing found that the Patagonia R3 Hoody scored a perfect 10 out of 10, while the Arc'teryx Fortrez Hoody, Patagonia Better Sweater, and Mountain Hardwear Monkey Man Grid II Hooded were close behind with near perfect 9 out of 10s.
The thickest fleece is in this year's lineup is also the least breathable. This jacket is designed to get the most warmth you can get out a traditional fleece jacket, making no concessions for breathability. Gone are the pit zips from the old Denali Jacket, which isn't a big problem, as they didn't offer much relief from this furnace of a fleece anyway. The takeaway here is that the Denali 2 is great for stationary activities like belaying or sitting on the chairlift, but don't try to run or do any steep hiking in this jacket, our testers who tried found themselves a sweaty mess in no time. The Patagonia Better Sweater Hoody has thin, breathable side panels, making it a better choice if you're in the market for a stylish fleece but want more breathability.
Attributes that make this jacket warm and weather resistant aren't the best for layering. The bulky material tends to bunch up in the sleeves, noticeably restricting movement when under a puffy jacket or a hardshell. If you want to layer up over this fleece, you'll need to size your shells a bit bigger to accommodate the big shoulders and thick, stiff collar. A more breathable and layer capable offering from the North Face is the North Face Fuseform Progressor Hoodie, but you won't get the same warmth and weather resistance of the Denali 2. This jacket is sized big, and our testers hand no problem fitting a base layer or a sweater underneath.
The Denali 2 stands up to wind and rain better than any other fleece in this year's review. It's also the only fleece with a durable water repellent finish. While it eventually becomes saturated in heavy rain, light rain beads up on the fleece and nylon portions and is easily shaken off. The nylon panels that reinforce the chest, shoulder, and elbows help light winds at bay. A cold, breezy winter days, this was the only fleece we could wear comfortably as a stand-alone jacket without a shell. If weather resistance is important to you in a fleece jacket, but you want something lighter and easier to layer with, the Arc'teryx Fortrez Hoody is the second most weather resistant fleece we tested.
This is not the jacket you want to lug around the backcountry or haul into the alpine. Weighing in at 24.7 ounces, it's the heaviest fleece in the review. The Patagonia R1 Hoody is half the weight, and while not as warm, it does have a great warmth-to-weight ratio and is an excellent layering piece. If you plan on using your fleece for shorter day hikes, car camping or staying toasty around town, than the weight of this jacket won't be an issue.
Love it or hate it, this jacket has a classic look that has remained popular for years. The people have spoken, and we give the Denali 2 an 8 (out of 10) in this hotly debated, highly subjective metric. Those drawn to the style of this fleece have a plethora of color combinations to choose from. Other stylish contenders, at least in our opinion, include the Marmot Reactor, Patagonia Better Sweater, The North Face FuseForm Progressor Hoodie, Arc'teryx Covert, and Arc'teryx Fortrez.
This competitor is a good choice for those looking for a fleece they can wear as a stand alone jacket and don't want to carry around other layers. If weight isn't a concern, you'll enjoy the Denali 2 on winter hikes, at fall football games, camping trips and any frontcountry fun you have planned when it's cold outside. For the backcountry, we recommend our Editors' Choice Award winner, the Patagonia R3 Hoody. It's not quite as warm as the Denali 2, but it's lighter, way more breathable and a better jacket for layering.
$179 for this iconic jacket seems fair to us. It's warm and weather resistant, so on chilly days around town, you could get away with one layer. We didn't do any destructive testing, but in our time with this jacket, we noticed no obvious damage after a few months of climbing and scrambling around. In a nod to environmental stewardship and sustainability, each Denali 2 is constructed with at least 50% recycled content.
The North Face Denali 2 delivers an iconic look while keeping you warm and the wind off your back. It's by far the most weather resistant fleece in this year's review. Due to its lack of breathability, we don't recommend it for endurance activities, and it doesn't score well in layering ability because of its stiffness and bulk. We recommend lighter, more layer capable fleece for the backcountry like the Patagonia R3 Hoody, or the Mountain Hardwear Monkey Man Grid II, but if you're interested in purchasing this jacket because you like the style, you'll also be taking home a fleece that specializes in keeping you toasty.
— Matt Bento
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