For several years now I’ve been looking for an ideal fleece insulating layer, with only modest success. This layer should be warm enough for stand-alone use in many three-season conditions, as light as possible, have minimal to no lycra in the fabric, fit over a baselayer but under a shell, and have a few pockets as well as a functional hood. Until recently almost all men’s fleece jackets were either hoodless, or not as warm as desired. The old Patagonia Los Lobos jacket came close to this ideal, but the hood was baggy, taking up too much space under a rain jacket and blocking peripheral vision. I bought an XL women’s Retool hoody from Patagonia, which fit when modified and had ideal fabric, but the kangaroo pocket on this pullover was made from moisture loving mesh, and I could never make the hood fit quite right. Then a few years ago Rab came out with the Novak hoodie, and all my problems were solved.
The Novak hides in plain sight as part of Rab’s “Escape” lifestyle line. It’s a solid coffee shop or bouldering jacket, but this winter and spring I’ve been using it as a technical layer with great success. The hood, fit, and features are classic Rab. The sleeves and torso are long, the hood covers my brow and stays put with nothing more than tailoring, and the jacket has two hand pockets and one left chest pocket. Hem drawcords, good non-absorbent mesh in the pockets, and plain finished cuffs round out the package.
The cuffs are the one aspect of the Novak’s casual intent that come up short in the backcountry. The sleeves run from the elbow to cuff with minimal taper, making the large wrist opening a significant source of heat loss. Thankfully the arm seam is plain finished, and the cuff seam serged with only two lines of thread, making it fairly easy to rip a few inches of the cuff seam and 5 or so inches of the arm before giving the lower sleeve quite a bit more taper when sewing it back together. In the above photo I’ve taken almost two inches of circumference out of each cuff compared to stock, and there is still enough room and stretch for the sleeves to be rolled up above my elbows.
The Novak fabric is 270 grams/meter, 100% polyester “honeycomb” fleece Polartec has been pushing lately. The exterior has a somewhat dense, rough texture, while the inside is as soft and a bit denser than traditional fleece. This fabric is a bit thinner than traditional 300-weight fleece, and has a hair of wind resistance. It dries quickly, and moves moisture fast. The only downside, relative to the more fluffy heavy fleeces (e.g. Patagonia Synchilla) is that it’s substantially less cuddly for anyone you might have occasion to hug, especially when the Novak is new.
I’ve worn the Novak to work and the brewery plenty, where the warmth and understated look are appreciated. I also used it as my only insulating layer on this trip, and my primary insulation for this trip. For outings where internal and external moisture are both probable issues, fleece works better, and when the cold is serious, a thick fleece like the Novak is my preference.
Beyond that, I think there is a good case to be made for something like the Novak as an outright replacement for a light synthetic fill jacket (such as the Rab Xenon) in all circumstances. The Xenon has an edge in weight (roughly a half pound lighter), packed size, and in having integrated windproofing. The Novak has the edge in better moisture management, not loosing insulating value with use (or only doing so very slowly), and in being less than a third the price. When you combine the lower price of entry with how quickly fills like Primaloft loose insulating value, I find the Xenon option hard to justify, both from an economic and aesthetic perspective.
There are now a couple of good, heavier, technical fleece hoodys on the mens market. Most, like the current version of the Patagonia R3, are a bit lighter than the Novak, but most also approach synthetic fill jackets in price. At $70 the Novak is a bargain, and it being so functional only enhances the deal. My only wishes for improvement are the cuff fit, as mentioned, and for the fabric which backs the hem drawcord to not be more absorbent than the main fabric. Otherwise, the Novak is about as good as fleece gets, given current technology.