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The Great Waterproof-Breathable Debate

The Great Waterproof-Breathable Debate

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by Ryan Jordan | 2001-11-06 03:00:00-07

Conjecture, hearsay, and Internet science have two things in common: first, they are entertaining to read because they often challenge the Establishment. Second, they result in an ill-educated populace that creates, at best, an atmosphere of distrust among consumers and product providers, and at worst, a very frustrating environment for exchanging educational information. Unfortunately, this is exactly the environment in which the discussion of waterproof-breathable fabric technologies has fallen into, providing the motivation for me to try to make some sense out of the madness.

First things first. Waterproof-breathable technologies borne from the Gore-Tex revolution that began in 1976 are one of the single most outstanding achievements in textile engineering of the 20th century. I would argue that the development of a technology (in this case, starting with Gore-Tex) that provides a barrier to liquid while being permeable to moisture vapor stands second only to the development of nylon with respect to its impact on outdoor sports soft goods.

OK, now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, let’s focus on the debate.

You whine: “This crap doesn’t work. I sweat like a pig in it.”

I ask: “Why are you sweating?”

You reply: “Because it doesn’t breathe, you idiot!”

I suggest: “Maybe you are wearing too much underne—“

You interrupt: “The tag says ‘Guaranteed to Keep You Dry’! Hmmmph!”

I add: “It’s not even raining…”

You justify: “Yes, but it should be breathable enough to also be my windbreaker!”

I try to interject: “----“

You maintain: “Sheesh, I’m going back to my $29.99 coated nylon jacket!”

I cease and desist but think:

If you can’t learn to use a waterproof-breathable technology, you sure as heck won’t be able to use a waterproof-nonbreathable fabric, which provides far less room for error, buddy.

Item Number One. If you are going to participate in the Great Waterproof Breathable Debate, try to understand the difference between the garment not performing to its specifications and you not using the garment appropriately.

Everyone wants the Holy Grail – a single garment that will perform all functions appropriately without making adjustments in layers, ventilation, or exertion level, in spite of changes in the weather, your metabolism, and altitude.

Are you searching for the Holy Grail? Worse yet, do you think you actually own it? Well, let me know when you find it. I’m going to keep walking down the trail, if that’s OK with you.

Item Number Two. Take responsibility for educating yourself.

Try to understand the basics of moisture vapor transport and humidity condensation and learn how to take a proactive position in controlling it. With this in mind, Stuart Bilby and I present an article on Breathability Considerations that may do just that. This reading will require some thinking and learning (yes, even study—gasp! But I’ve already graduated!) on your part, so if you’re looking for an easy way out, well, I guess we’re just going to keep walking down the trail, if that’s OK with you.

Are you seriously going to believe marketing claims without actually thinking rationally about them? Do you want to know how breathable a garment is? Then ask them for hard data and compare it to that of other manufacturers. If they don’t give that data to you (they may cite some lame excuse about proprietary information), then don’t buy the gear. If you have a right to know anything, you have the right to know the science and data on which these claims are founded.

Item Number Three. Never, ever, blame your gear – or the manufacturer’s marketing strategy – for your discomfort. Case in point:

Mallory and Irvine climbed to 28,000 feet on Everest (maybe even higher, although that is the subject of another debate entirely) wearing brushed wool and waxed cotton (do you really think their garments were articulated?), and carrying ash-handled piolets. Do you think Gore-Tex or nylon or titanium would have helped them reach the summit? The better question is this: was their lack of Gore-Tex or nylon or titanium involved in their failure to reach the summit?

If you could ask that question of George Mallory today, he would laugh you right off the mountain. And then he would turn around, and keep walking down the trail, certainly not bothering to ask, “If that was OK with you?”


Citation

"The Great Waterproof-Breathable Debate," by Ryan Jordan. BackpackingLight.com (ISSN 1537-0364).
http://backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/00023.html, 2001-11-06 03:00:00-07.

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