Shells That Almost Aren't

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, October 1995

Shells That Almost Aren't

In a weatherproof-breathable jacket, you can never have too much of a lightweight thing
By Bob Howells

On extended runs, day hikes, trail rides--any excursion short of an overnight--my attitude toward foul-weather gear has always been somewhat cavalier. A two-pound waterproof-breathable parka works great, but in terms of weight and bulk it can seem like overkill. So I'm often tempted to go without: If into every life a little rain must fall, it's only a little rain.

More than a few times, however, my smugness has been responsible for getting me soggy. That's why I'm thankful for the latest in protective shells. They're light, breathable, waterproof or highly water-resistant, and very packable. By virtue of spare design and materials, such a jacket can be crammed into a fanny pack or, in many cases, into its own pocket.

Most of the jackets reviewed here are made of supple, soft nylons and polyesters that are light and yet durable enough for uses short of prolonged bushwhacking. They also trim bulk by forgoing true mountain-parka details, such as powder skirts, multiple pockets, and oversize storm flaps, which are unnecessary on a jacket that will see lighter duty. Features you might find--two-way zippers, hoods, linings, and mesh pockets--are all included in the name of comfort and ventilation. Look for those that matter to you, of course, but keep in mind that they add to weight, bulk, and cost.

Less apparent but just as important is the means by which a jacket repels water and lets sweat escape, which is the responsibility of material and construction. Here shells can be divided into two categories: water-resistant and very breathable, or what we'll call high-output shells, and waterproof and moderately breathable, or storm shells.

For activities like running and mountain biking, choose a high-output shell made from a microfiber fabric, in which fine threads are woven very tightly to resist wind and water, or one made with W. L. Gore's Activent, which in simple terms is a more breathable, less waterproof version of the famous Gore-Tex membrane. Such shells remain comfortable during sweaty activities and will turn back a heavy mist or even a brief cloudburst.

Gore-Tex itself still heads the list of jacket materials that are waterproof and somewhat breathable, and a Gore-Tex jacket, with its sealed seams, really won't let precipitation in. If you need to save money, consider a seam-sealed jacket with a waterproof-breathable coating; the best coatings perform as well as Gore-Tex and don't add as much stiffness or weight.

Nearly all manufacturers top off their shells with a durable water-repellent (DWR) finish, which acts as the first line of defense by causing moisture to bead up and roll off. Here as elsewhere, the price-quality relationship holds: The more you pay, the better the finish and the longer it will last. While a jacket that's waterproof will remain so even after its DWR finish has worn off, the shell fabric will get saturated in the rain, and a soggy shell is a cold shell.

Here's a look at the spectrum of lightweight foul-weather shells. The price range is wide--$50 to $325--to cover a wide range of activities and fall and winter conditions. Find one that matches your favorite pursuits, your favorite places, and your budget--they're all worthy contenders.


Two minimalist shells that will stuff into the pocket of a bike jersey are the REI Zephyr and the Pearl Izumi Zephrr Attack. Both are lightweight (11.5 and eight ounces, respectively), but that and the names are the extent of the similarities. The no-frills REI Zephyr is made of a highly breathable, uncoated microfiber fabric that kept me dry while I pedaled through a heavy mist but left me wet in the rain. At $50, it's a bargain for folks who encounter a lot of fog. Pearl Izumi's microfiber shell justifies almost twice the price ($90) because it's coated and is detailed with nice ventilation features, including a flap-covered mesh vent in back, mesh-lined waist pockets, and a two-way zipper. A built-in pouch with integral straps lets you neatly belt the stuffed-away jacket around your waist. With short cuts and no hoods, these jackets are very svelte protection.

The coated microfiber fabric known as Silmond is used in the Sierra Designs High Altitude Anorak (13 ounces, $120)--and it's extremely compressible. Even with its hood and long cut, this supple shell scrunched smaller than any of the others. The fabric also boasts a high degree of water-resistance--it'll withstand a brief storm--but that comes at the cost of breathability, and despite a long chest zipper the High Altitude didn't let sweat escape as well as some of its peers.

Moonstone's Activent Pullover (11 ounces, $149) was my favorite in the high-output category. The Activent membrane alone was breathable enough to keep me comfortable for hours, and with the unlined jacket's huge, ventilated waist pockets and underarm zippers open I simply couldn't exercise hard enough to make it retain moisture. The hooded Moonstone also stuffed down to fill less than half of my average-size fanny pack.

If I had to peg the microfiber Lowe Stratos (19 ounces, $185) for one sport, it would be cross-country skiing. Wherever an early-season snow is likely to melt on you--on the hood, shoulders, and arms--the jacket has a waterproof-breathable coating and the seams are sealed. The torso, however, is uncoated and unsealed, the better to cope with sweat. The Stratos has a very roomy cut, and kudos go to the mesh lining in the arms, which greatly reduces clamminess. This shell kept me dry in everything short of a windblown downpour; for such conditions I recommend the completely waterproof Lowe MFS Tech (21 ounces, $199), a true Gore-Tex rival.

It's tempting to think that The North Face's ICR Activent Jacket (20 ounces, $185) could substitute for your mountain parka--it has the hood and the long cut, and its Activent membrane does a commendable job of keeping precipitation out. The seams aren't sealed, however, and the nylon skin is on the soft side. But these qualities make the ICR a perfect jacket for extended day hikes when you're working hard and the weather might turn crummy. A mesh CoolMax liner that extends into the hood does a great job of passing moisture on to the membrane, as I found during a long, rainy run. When the weather's fine, the ICR stuffs down small.

When either is shoved into a fanny pack, Columbia's Hunstein Parka (18 ounces, $119) and the Helly-Hansen Downpour Parka (20 ounces, $150) leave only enough room for some trail mix--but these are fully waterproof jackets at very competitive weights and prices. Both have waterproof-breathable coatings, sealed seams, and mesh-lined torso areas. The Downpour's fabric, which has a soft feel, was one of the least breathable in my tests, but extra ventilation, in the form of underarm zippers, does help. The Hunstein's ventilation comes by way of huge, mesh-backed chest pockets that keep the air flowing. Its hood has a stiffened bill to keep the rain out of your eyes.

L. L. Bean's Gore-Tex Stowaway Jacket (20 ounces, $129) goes the Hunstein and Downpour one better. With Gore-Tex, a soft liner, a somewhat short cut, and a very light nylon fabric, Bean's shell is trim enough to stuff easily into its own pouch. The hood requires an inordinate amount of futzing, and there's no extra ventilation to help the Gore-Tex manage moisture, but this jacket is a completely waterproof and reasonably breathable bargain.

Nike's Storm F.I.T. Anorak (20 ounces, $190) neatly spans the gap between high-output and storm shells. No one at Nike or W. L. Gore will say exactly what the membrane material that Gore concocted for this jacket is--only that it's neither Gore-Tex (though waterproof and breathable) nor Activent (though fine and pliant). All I know is that it works quite well. The anorak has the tailored cut and soft hand I like in a workout jacket, and I particularly laud the mesh liner that extends into the arms.

At 17 ounces, Patagonia's Super Pluma has to be one of the lightest full-cut waterproof-breathable jackets around. It's got a nicely designed hood, a highly durable polyester- and-nylon face fabric, chest pockets, and not much else. Without a liner or underarm zippers, the Super Pluma depends on a three-layer construction using "Gore technology" (what is essentially Gore-Tex) to keep you dry, which it did for me until I had to grunt up a steep hill shouldering a day's load. The jacket is stuffable but a bit crinkly--the folks at Patagonia say that's due to its highly durable DWR finish--and hence makes some noise as you stride. But for some that's a small price to pay, as is the $325 asking price, for such solid protection.

Bob Howells is a frequent contributor to Outside's Review pages.

See also:

Essentials: Protect That Shell

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