Shells That Almost Aren’t
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Outside magazine, October 1995
Shells That Almost Aren’t
In a weatherproof-breathable jacket, you can never have too much of a lightweight thing
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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”
Bob Howells is a frequent contributor to Outside‘s Review pages.