Will 2011 mark the rebirth of the waterproof-breathable hardshell jacket? A slew of recent news points to significant effort to upgrade the category, which has long been lacking on the "breathability" side of the equation. Today on GearJunkie.com, I wrote in-depth on Polartec, Gore, Mountain Hardwear, and Columbia. Each brand has made waves in the hardshell arena as of late, including new membrane types, better laminates, higher air-permeability ratings, and from-the-lab specs that can make any geek-minded gear junkie drool. Here's a summary on the news.
Polartec: Since the 1980s, when the Massachusetts company invented polar fleece, all things soft, warm and insulating have been company hallmarks. But an evolution through fleece, softshells, into technical layers, and, finally, to waterproof-breathable membrane types, has marched Polartec to a brave new vantage point. In 2011, with several partner brands, the company will unveil its first waterproof-breathable hardshell fabric alternative.
NeoShell is the name of the Polartec product, and as the moniker hints it's being touted as something revolutionary and new -- the "most breathable waterproof fabric on the market," to be exact. Polartec says NeoShell is different from GORE-TEX in that it is highly "air permeable." Translation: While other membranes are airtight, Polartec says NeoShell lets a tiny bit of air get in through a hardshell fabric.
Here's an official explanation from Polartec literature: "NeoShell is completely waterproof but unlike most hardshells on the market today with zero airflow, NeoShell allows actual air permeability. Even a tiny amount of air permeability, imperceptible from a wind chill standpoint, accelerates moisture vapor transport significantly."
Gore: The category originator, which debuted GORE-TEX three decades back, this fall unveiled its most breathable fabric to date, GORE-TEX Active Shell. Like other GORE-TEX products, the Active Shell membrane is waterproof and windproof. But the membrane is half the weight of previous GORE-TEX versions, and the company has removed an adhesive layer in the Active Shell application that it says substantially increases breathability.
To differentiate it from other GORE-TEX versions, Active Shell jackets have design criteria made by Gore to keep the garments set with features made for active sports. This includes better articulation in running outerwear, vents on jackets, non-waterproof zippers, and hood-less designs. Another Active Shell product coming to market, which struck me as odd: Short-sleeved jackets!
Mountain Hardwear: Not to be outdone, Mountain Hardwear made a major announcement this week in the hardshell arena. The company's Dry.Q technology is touted to "keep you dry on the inside and from the outside," and it relies on an air-permeability principle like Polartec NeoShell.
Mountain Hardwear reportedly partnered with the General Electric Company subsidiary that makes eVent. Mountain Hardwear cites the membrane plus a "unique combination of supreme quality face fabrics, barriers, backers, glues, tapes and lamination technology" as the keys to build its Dry.Q shell line.
Columbia. News from Columbia on a new hardshell line was announced last summer, and three styles will be to market this spring. The company has jumped on the "permeability" boat along with Polartec and Mountain Hardwear. But Columbia is touting its Omni-Dry hardshell as "the lightest membrane in the industry."
The secret ingredient in Omni-Dry is a polyetheleyne membrane, which, like the Polartec and Mountain Hardwear products, lets air move in and out -- though with no perceptible wind chill from the flow, Columbia states. Columbia notes Omni-Dry as "surpassing or equaling" industry leaders in moisture vapor transfer and waterproof ratings.
For the first time in years, Gore has some significant challengers for 2011. Read between the lines and Polartec, Mountain Hardwear, and Columbia are all referencing GORE-TEX and noting differentiators or perceived superiorities. All the companies have committed big budgets in the lab and on the marketing front -- including Gore. It should be a fun year to watch hardshells from the sidelines as well as test them in the field.
--Stephen Regenold is founder and editor of www.gearjunkie.com. Continue reading on the "hardshell revolution" at http://gearjunkie.com/waterproof-breathable-hardshell-jackets-2011.