Gear Guy

Is there a consumer report evaluating all the soft-shell choices?

Are there any objective tests comparing the hard- and soft-shell products of different gear manufacturers? Yes, there's a huge ount of marketing hype easily available, but beyond XCR's assertion that it's "25 percent more breathable than standard Gore-Tex," there doesn't seem to be any hard numbers comparing materials. This is surprising when you consider how much consumers are prepared to pay for the latest and greatest. Jeff London, United Kingdom

Outside's long reads email newsletter features our strongest writing, most ambitious reporting, and award-winning storytelling about the outdoors. Sign up today.

Sure, there are all sorts of tests comparing the performance of different fabrics. Trouble is, the results tend to be so complicated, the rebuttals from the “losers” so vehement, that I tend to regard them as nearly worthless, at least to the everyday consumer. The three main tests are the breathability test developed by the Hohenstein Institutes in Germany, the Suter test, and a windproofing test.

In the breathability test, also called the “sweating hot plate,” a fabric sample is placed over a warm testing device that emits water through small pores. The speed at which moisture vapor moves through the fabric determines its breathability (that’s how Gore calculated the 25 percent margin you mention for XCR). The Suter test measures the fabric’s ability to keep water out under pressure by placing it beneath a glass column filled with water. The taller the water column, the greater the pressure. In wind tests, of course, the fabric is simply tested for its ability to block wind.

However, I’m unaware of an independently commissioned study of all the main fabrics out there. The results are almost always published by one gear maker or another. And then you get into disputes about whether the test reflects real-world conditions; for example, what happens if the fabric surface is wet, that sort of thing? My own feeling is that people are insisting on paying less for rainwear because of the lack of clarity on this issue and the reality that most waterproof-breathable fabrics actually under perform in many conditions. I haven’t seen any gear makers launch any new $450 jackets for a few years now. Furthermore, lots of sub-$200 products now dominate the market.

Filed to:

promo logo