The industry seems to be giving up on promoting new soft shell technologies - at least those that are defined as true softshells, made with highly breathable stretch-woven nylon fabrics, such as Schoeller Dryskin and similar air-permeable fabrics. However, one interesting soft shell jacket seems to set a new benchmark, at least in aesthetic design, if not function for the weight.
With the industry moving increasingly towards "soft shells" that have "stretch" and "waterproofness" in them, the category continues to flounder in an identity crisis. As successful as original soft shells like the Cloudveil Serendipity were, it's clear that most industry professionals view soft shells as a "stretch" category of apparel, with no indication whatsoever towards what the original air permeable soft shell fabrics offered in terms of increased breathability. Consequently, when we asked manufacturers to show me their new soft shell fabrics, they almost universally brought out raingear made with waterproof stretchwovens rather than anything made with air permeable fabrics.
Refreshingly, one company still held onto the concept and offered us a refreshing look at an interesting category for winter soft shells - the hooded jacket.
The North Face Apex Kinetic Jacket
The category of "hiking clothing", or more commonly known as "travel clothing" is one of the most boring, cluttered markets around. How to even define this category? Anything that doesn't fit into any other category? Clothes for fly fishing tourists? Included in this category are garments such as Supplex nylon shirts, zip-off travel pants, and Tilley hats. The category is defined by manufacturers that cater to the mass-market consumer that wants to look like they spend a lot of time out of doors (including the small fraction of their customer bases that actually do), including the likes of Ex Officio, Rail Riders, Cabela's, and Orvis. In spite of the Ten Thousand Pieces of Apparel That All Look Alike in this category, we somehow force ourselves to weed out some of the good stuff, and we found a couple of soft shell gems at ORSM'06.
Royal Robbins Global Traveler Pant
The first is a zip-off pant. "Good Lord," you say, "not another zip off pant". But, get this: it's a soft shell pant, and it comes in a women's version. It's not the first zip-off soft shell pant (the first was the Cloudveil Inertia Plus Spinner Wading Pant, marketed primarily to, ahem, the fly fishing community), but at least we now have a choice, and the category is officially born. The Royal Robbins Global Traveler Pant (women's) is made with a low-rise waist using a napped soft shell fabric, zip off legs, side zip entry, two front pockets, back pocket, convertible pocket/stuff sack, zippered leg openings, articulated knee, and weighs 11-12 ounces. MSRP is $65, availability is January 2007.
Mountain Hardwear Ascent Shirt
Mountain Hardwear Talus Short
The second is more interesting, perhaps. Mountain Hardwear will be offering a long sleeve, button up collared shirt (the Mountain Hardwear Ascent) and matching short (the Mountain Hardwear Talus) set. These are breathable, stretch-woven garments that weigh 9 oz each, and look sharp: they have welded seams, a new technology in this category. MSRP is $130/$95. Dang, it costs coin to look good sometimes.
"In the beginning" (six years ago), the wind shirt category was defined by the introduction of the Montane FeatherLite, a 3-ounce long sleeve pullover made with a wispy nylon fabric (Pertex Microlight) and sporting a ridiculously short neck zipper barely suitable for pulling the short over your head, let alone venting.
Like a snail inching towards nowhere, so too did wind shirt design. Rab, GoLite, and another model from Montane (the Aero) offered the same non-feature set. These four wind shirts all weighed less than three ounces, they all had long sleeves, they all offered short zippers, and they all were a real pain for most users to don and doff and vent.
But we loved them. Their simplicity belied their real function: adding tremendous warmth and wind resistance to a clothing system for the additional weight of a pair of moldy Power Bars.
And none of us really cared that the zippers were short or no features were there.
Until Montane introduced yet another wind shirt - the Lightspeed Jacket. A full-zippered hooded jacket made with "wind shirt fabrics". This of course, was a brilliant move that opened up the utility of the wind shirt to far more situations. The long zipper allowed for excellent venting, the hood provided more protection in the cold, and the weight penalty was not so severe. The conditions in which we could now wear a wind shirt were dramatically expanded. Marmot followed suit with the Ion, made with Pertex Quantum, that shaved an ounce and a half off the weight of the Lightspeed, but at the expense of less durable fabric and a belly-button exposing fit. GoLite blended the best of both worlds, we thought, with their 3.5-ounce Ether, but took it in the shorts from most of our readers by making it out of what we affectionately termed "sauna" fabric - an acrylic-coated woven that breathed so poorly we found the Ether to be reasonable rainwear. At the time, MontBell and Outdoor Research was entering the game by filling the final remaining market niche - wind shirts with no hoods and full zippers - and destroying their performance as well with the acrylic fabrics (which MontBell still uses to this day). Fortunately, that fabric didn't last for GoLite, and they replaced it with the more breathable Wisp (and Wisp HP), which were a hit.
However, one should realize that until now, no perfect, full-function, highly breathable wind shirt existed. Where oh where are the highly breathable, full zip, hooded wind shirts with a hem long enough to actually function as a cool-weather jacket? When Ryan was shopping for these features in a wind shirt for a recent June trek in the Western Arctic, he reverted to his old Lightspeed.
ORSM'06 offers promise.
GoLite Ether Wind Jacket
The GoLite Ether pullover has been a staple in GoLilte's product line for several years now, and gets a facelift in 2007. The 20 denier calendared polyester Wisp HP remains, thankfully: Wisp HP feels comfortable against the skin and provides sufficient breathability for a backpacking wind shirt. Better, however, is a full length zipper. With its longer length, the Ether may become one of the more functional and breathable wind shirts around. Plus, it does all this without bloating: it's still only 3.5 ounces. Perhaps the best news: Fifty bucks for the GoLite Ether Wind Jacket.
Marmot Ion Wind Jacket
The Marmot Ion Wind Shirt stays in Marmot's product line. It's a wind shirt that our readers either love (for its 3 ounce weight) or hate (for its too-trim and too-short torso fit). The '07 Ions (Marmot claims) will offer a better DWR without sacrificing breathability (for how many years have we been hearing that one?). And, like GoLite, the Ion goes on a price diet: it's fifty bucks, too.
MontBell U.L. Wind Parka and Vest
Mountain Hardwear Ghost Wind Shirt
MontBell retains sauna (a polyamide-treated) fabric in their wind shirts but also introduces a full zip hooded wind shirt (the creatively named MontBell U.L Wind Parka) that weighs 3.1 ounces. They also go the opposite direction and offer an ultralight full-zip wind vest. Its only real competition is the 1.9-ounce Montane wind vest, which is made with more breathable Pertex Quantum (and has been on the market for a year already), and the ridiculously heavy 3-ounce Mountain Hardwear Ghost Vest pullover, which sports unnecessary wind shirt features (common on Arc'Teryx offerings, which we can't even consider ultralight wind shirts), a chest pocket, brushed tricot lining on the neck, and an open weave mesh back panel. The Mountain Hardwear wind vest is 50% heavier than its competitors. Mountain Hardwear also offers a new wind shirt: 4 oz, pullover, same tricot mesh neck lining, same open weave mesh back, no hood, and (cough) four ounces (sic).
Outdoor Research Synergy Wind Shirt
Outdoor Research is coming around and abandoning sauna fabrics this year in their wind shirts. Interestingly, OR improves breathability with a new fabric, but retains the older, hooded pullover design (the Outdoor Research Synapse Wind Shirt), and their price goes the other direction by $30 up to an outrageous $119. At 3.3 oz for a $119 hooded pullover you could outfit a family of four with GoLite or Marmot full-zip hooded wind shirts and still not be able to buy two OR models.
Ultralight rainwear options five years ago consisted of a handful of 10-12 ounce offerings including the Red Ledge Thunderlight, the GoLite Newt, the Marmot Precip, and a few others. If you wanted to break the 10-ounce barrier, you had to opt for poorly durable nonwoven polypropylene fabrics, and the abysmal fit and styling, of products like Frogg Toggs and Rainshield.
Now, most of the major manufacturers of ultralight gear offer sub-10 ounce, full-zip, hooded rain jackets made with woven nylon fabrics and emplying waterproof breathable technologies that may not offer the performance of eVENT, but hold their own well enough for three season backpacking.
Currently, the benchmarks for ultralight raingear are held by Patagonia (with the 6.5-ounce Specter hooded pullover), Outdoor Research (7.5 ounce full zip hooded Zealot), and Marmot (7.0 ounce full zip hooded Essence). Sierra Designs claims the lightest weight crown with its NanoLite (4.5 ounces), but not without seriously sacrificing breathability, and GoLite announced the six-ounce Virga at ORWM'06 (full zip hooded jacket with no pockets and a two-layer fabric). All of these jackets (except the NanoLite and prototype Virga announced six months ago) are made with 2.5-layer fabrics.
GoLite Virga Jacket
Ryan took the GoLite Virga Jacket prototype on his Arctic trek, and claimed that "it worked well enough" for the high winds and rain of Northwestern Alaska, but the fabric was not without its durability problems. He took a second prototype, chopped off the arms, and created a pullover from the full zip, and brought it down to four ounces. The additional ventilation and simplicity "are nice" he says, for summertime weather conditions. The new Virga (coming to the market in Fall 2006) gets a minor facelift, adding pockets, and better fabric (2.5 layer). Unfortunately, its promised six-ounce weight is not to be (the production Virga will be closer to 8.5 or 9.0 ounces).
The matching pant, the GoLite Reed Pant, gains a few tenths of an ounce with ankle zips. This change will certainly cause some to swear and others to drop to their knees in worship of Designers Who Recognize the Value of Ankle Zips. Still, at their weights and prices ($80 and $70 respectively), the newer Virga and Reeds are worth a hard look. The Virga + Reed, at $150 and 15 ounces for the combo, is an incredible deal for any ultralight backpacker.
The Sierra Designs NanoLite Jacket is now "fixed" (although "fixed" wasn't the exact term used by Sierra Designs...something about "upgraded"). They now (after the third iteration) claim that the fabric is finally waterproof, and they seam-taped the pockets, a big oversight on the '06 production runs.
We were really looking forward to the announcement of a sub-10-ounce 3-layer pullover from Patagonia's Grade VI series, but fabric problems are tabling the project for a while. And, since rumor has it that the Specter is disappearing altogether soon (grab them now), Patagonia's play in the ultralight raingear market may be to fold their hand until 2008.
The North Face Diad Jacket
Of the more interesting rain jackets on the market is The North Face Diad Jacket. TNF announced some modifications for it that will appear in the 2007 model to both clean it up and improve its performance. For 8.5 ounces, you get rain jacket with a tremendous fit (well-articulated, excellent adjustable hood, mid-length hem, long enough arms), welded seam technology, core vents, chest Napoleon pocket, dual handwarmer pockets, 2.5-layer fabric, adjustable cuffs, and a drawcord hem. Where on earth does this product save weight? In its remarkable 15d fabric, branded "HyVent DT" (note the similarity to the excellent Entrant DT fabric, which has breathability rivaling eVENT). Unfortunately, TNF ruins the photography experience with its reflective logos. Regardless, this will be a jacket to watch for in the coming season.
GoLite Phantasm Jacket
GoLite's Phantom is one of the full-featured rain jackets in the 13-ounce class that offers excellent performance and features for the weight, but at a price ($220). The new GoLite Phantasm is in the same family of fabrics (Gore-Tex PacLite III) but offers a simpler design (eliminating the pit zips and core vents). The result: a $180 Gore-Tex jacket with full coverage (long hem, long sleeves, big hood) that weighs 11 ounces.
GoLite Gamut Jacket
While few manufacturers are pushing true soft shell (air permeable) garments, the entire industry is searching for a slice of the so-called waterproof soft shell pie. This pie, however, is a rather small one that seems unappealing to the mass market: these garments are not cheap. GoLite saw an opportunity not only to increase the size of the pie, but their piece of the pie in particular. They announced the Trinity series, highlighted by the GoLite Gamut Jacket for men, a fully waterproof soft shell rain jacket for - get this - a hundred bucks and only 12 ounces. The Trinity series also includes the Paradigm jacket (16 oz, pit zips, more pockets), the Enigma zip pullover (10 oz), and the Paradox pant with ankle zips (12 oz), and equivalent styles for women.
Integral Designs eVENT Thru-Hiker Jacket
Speaking of eVENT, Integral Designs, who launched a 10-ounce eVENT jacket (full zip, hooded) last year, adds to the mix with a nonhooded eVENT shirt (pullover style, non-hooded, 9 oz) and a more functional backpacking jacket (long hem, adjustable hood, chest pocket) in its 11.5-ounce Thru-Hiker model.
Some years, Outdoor Retailer is flush with puffies, other years, it's barren with new insulating clothing. This year, there's not much to talk about.
MontBell Down T-Shirt
Valandré Looping Vest
Valandré Split-S Jacket
In a quieter corner of the show floor, Valandré, from their tiny booth featuring the slogan "Saint Hot as Hell" perched over a polar sleeping bag that looks like it levitates on its own, they whisper about new garments coming in early 2007 that should raise the eyebrows of Western Mountaineering Flight Jacket and Vest fans. The Valandré Looping Vest and Split-S Jacket will feature fully-baffled construction, 850+ fill down, and ultralight fabrics. With 80g of fill in the vest and 160g of fill in the jacket, the new Valandré garments should give WM a run for its money - and weight.
Remember how excited we were about merino wool five, or even three, years ago? The excitement hasn't waned. Virtually 100% of our staff has converted to merino. Ryan squeezed Smartwool for a few Shadow Hoodies for Roman Dial and Jason Geck for their recent trek across the Arctic. Roman and Jason were both die-hard synthetic fans. After the trek, Roman said rather matter of factly that he's switching to wool, for its comfort, warmth, and range of temperature regulation.
And so, it's not that we're bored with wool - quite the opposite, in fact. It's just that it's starting to all look alike, and new manufacturers are coming out with the same old styles and not doing anything particularly creative.
That's why when we get wind of something unique, we are eager to check it out.
Move over, Victoria's Secret. You ain't got nothin' on this.
Ibex Women's Bra and Panties
We're glad you made it through the last few paragraphs, because more interesting news follows: wool is getting lighter.
Three companies introduce garments made with the new benchmark in ultralight merino wool fabrics: Patagonia (reviewed in detail elsewhere), Icebreaker, and Smartwool. All of these fabrics are 140-150 g/m2. Patagonia and Icebreaker are launching comprehensive lines, while Smartwool (who terms their version "Tissue" weight merino) is releasing it only for women in a few hip styles that are notably not targeted for mountain performance (including a tank top and striped scoop shirt).
In Longmont, Colorado, a tiny technology company called Traptek has been quietly developing a very interesting invention: Cocona.
Traptek crushes coconut shells into tiny bits and turns it into an activated carbon. By incorporating crushed coconut into fiber polymers and fabric yarns, it has created the potential for fabrics to wick, resist UV degradation, and absorb odor better than any synthetic fiber treatment seen to date. Cocona technology is licensed by Burlington, Cannondale, GoLite, and Marmot. The latter two manufacturers presented their first garments using Cocona-treated fabrics at ORSM'06.
GoLite Dri-Mov Shirt with Cocona (note dark color on inner surface resulting from Cocona carbon treatment)
Marmot Cocona Travel Shirt and Convertible Travel Pants
Cocona's benefits seem numerous, but it's still too early to tell if it's going to be a lasting technology or another passing fad. Here are the claims:
- Cocona treated fibers wick moisture 50% faster than all leading polyester moisture management fabrics
- Cocona provides longer-lasting odor resistance via odor absorption than other anti-microbial technologies available for synthetic fibers
- Cocona's activated carbon never washes out of the garment
- Cocona provides 50+ SPF UVA/UVB protection, enhancing UV resistance of ultralight mesh garments
- Cocona is natural, non-toxic, and environmentally sensitive
We've covered a handful of specific technologies in detail (see dispatches about new shoes from Salomon, GoLite, and Inov-8), but one trend in particular is clear. The number of shoes with integrated gaiter systems has increased dramatically in recent years, from zero to many.
La Sportiva, Salomon, Inov-8, Timberland (who entered, with the Delerion Pro, and promptly exited, after half a season), and a handful of others have all been developing integrated shortie gaiters with their running shoes in the past year.
This is a positive advance in trail shoe technology. Here's why.
Short, breathable gaiters are very useful when combined with a trail shoe for adventure racing, trail running or lightweight backpacking. They keep dust, mud, pebbles, scree, pine needles, and other debris out of the shoe, which means less fiddling with your feet during a race or run or trek. Keeping debris out of the shoe means that your feet will stay healthier during the duration of your activity - debris tends to cause blisters and sores in subtle ways, without you knowing about it (or doing anything about it) until it's too late.
The traditional means of dealing with this has been to use aftermarket shortie gaiters, usually made of a stretchwoven soft shell material (e.g., Spandura or Schoeller Dynamic). These gaiters have the awful under-the-strap retention system that alpine climbers have grown to hate: straps wear out fast. You can replace them with new straps, or replace them with more durable products, such as Spectra cord or bailing wire, but the result is always the same: the straps always fail when you don't want to deal with replacement!
And so, companies have devised various strategies to eliminate the gaiter strap.
Timberland (in the Delerion Pro) and Inov-8 (in prototypes that we reported on from ORWM'06) have piloted technologies based on rail systems, by which plastic rails were sewn to gaiter cuff hems, and those rails slid into receiving (female) slots fixed to the shoe. In theory, the concept is sound, and adds flexibility to the system, because the gaiters can be used when needed, left home or in the pack when not. In practice, the concept is fraught with limitations, not the least of which is the temperature dependence of rail-slot fit. In cold weather, sliding gaiters onto Delerion Pro's was a nightmare. And if the rail slots clogged with mud, forget getting your gaiter on until you used something else, like the blade of a knife, or a pressure washer, to clean them.La Sportiva solves that problem with new shoes this year by which the gaiters clip to rings attached to the shoe. A total of four clips makes the process something more than trivial. I can't imagine what it's like with cold fingers.
Now, let's regroup for a moment. Once you slide a gaiter onto its rails, or clip it onto its shoe, why even bother to remove it again? They are so unobtrusive, so effective at what they do, and in all but the hottest conditions, so breathable, that there are few situations where you'd ever take one off in the field (except to repair the attachment system, perhaps!).
Over the past two years, Ryan has been eliminating gaiter straps altogether and sewing his gaiters directly to his shoes, a technique that has been used by adventure racers and wilderness runners for years. The result is a perfect seal, no parts to break, and added simplicity in the foot "system".
It seems that Salomon has finally implemented just such a gaiter-shoe combo. The Salomon the XA 3D Pro weighs about 12 ounces per shoe (including gaiter), and combines both an outstanding and proven shoe technology (the XA series) with an excellent, stretchy, breathable, side-entry gaiter. This one is going to be a winner.
The question will be asked: "what happens when the gaiter wears out?" That's a good question, because the gaiter will certainly wear out before the shoe. The answer may not appeal to some, but is a simple one: get out your needle and thread. Hopefully, Salomon will provide some support to their XA gaiter-shoe customers to walk them through this process. But don't count on it.
An interesting adaptation of integrated gaiter technology shown at ORSM'06 was a gaiter-sock combination by Inov-8. This was a simple running sock (available in either synthetic or merino wool) with a roll-down cuff that secured over the top of the shoe to form the seal. This concept is based on the common practice, first used by Marathon Des Sables runners, of wearing a second sock (with the foot cut out) over their ankles to keep sand out of their shoes. It's a lightweight (1.3 oz for the sock/gaiter combo), breathable, good fitting solution, but not as secure or durable as a sewn, stretchwoven gaiter, and unfortunately, requires an underfoot elastic cord for security.
In spite of its rail-slot limitations, the Delerion Pro was a revered shoe. Very limited production resulted in quite a lot of pent up demand for the shoe - and its integrated gaiter. Unfortunately, Timberland, who developed the shoe in concert with the adventure racing team GoLite/Timberland, ended production on the shoe, promising a replacement at ORSM'06. Well, we got the replacement, sort of, in an entirely new line of shoes, branded as GoLite Footwear. They shared some features with the Delerion Pro, but none of the new models included an integrated gaiter.'
The final trend we are observing is that more companies are taking environmental sustainability into consideration when bringing apparel to market. Environmentally responsible fabric treatments, such as Cocona, get lucky - they offer excellent performance without adding a dramatic amount of weight or cost. Unfortunately, not all green technologies are as effective or as cheap. Climashield, a new continuous filament polyester insulation, offers Climashield Green, which is made from 30% or more post-consumer recycled fibers, and offers it without significant cost premiums. Unfortunately, it's not available in Climashield XP, their highest performance-to-weight insulation product. Other fibers are coming to market that will be used in baselayer fabrics that will follow Patagonia's committment to making Capilene a green product. Bringing green products do come at a cost, because they comprise such a small part of the total market; thus, manufacturers are unable to enjoy economies of scale during manufacturing. Green products will also come with a performance cost. Such is the nature of recycling technologies.
This presents an interesting dilemma for the ultralight backpacker, who also subscribes to a need to exert an ultralight impact on the earth. The best fabrics and fibers (e.g., those offering the highest performance-to-weight ratios) are currently, not green products. We expect green technologies to improve, certainly, but we must also expect that green technologies will continue to be outpaced (in terms of performance) by non-green fabrics and fibers.