VersaLayer Ability Jacket SPOTLITE REVIEW

A unique soft shell jacket with retractable insulation in the torso area.

Overall Rating: Above Average

The VersaLayer Ability Jacket gets high marks for its superb Schoeller soft shell fabric, features, and fit. And its retractable torso insulation is a novel feature that adds to its versatility. Its 2 pound weight makes it too heavy for backpacking by our standards, but it's a very useful and versatile piece for active day tripping in cool and cold weather. However, I question the versatility of a 2-pound jacket that is only insulated in the torso area. In cold weather, a user will still need to carry an insulated jacket to wear under or over the Ability Jacket.

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by Will Rietveld |

Overview

What’s unique about the VersaLayer Ability Jacket is that it’s a soft shell jacket with retractable insulation in the torso area. Pulling on two blue cords inside the side pockets retracts the insulation; pulling on two red ones extends the insulation. A system of thin 100-pound test Spectra lines connected to each pull cord allows the insulation panel to slide back and forth.

VersaLayer Ability Jacket SPOTLITE REVIEW - 1
Whala - you can adjust your temperature on the fly by pulling on two cords to extend or retract the insulation in the VersaLayer Ability Jacket. This jacket has a lot of style and features.

The insulation is a proprietary CoreWarmth® polyester panel only in the torso area. It's encased in a 30-denier nylon shell to make it slide easily. There is no insulation in the upper back, shoulders, sleeves, and hood.

You are probably wondering about the reliability of the insulation retraction system, so I will address that first. As part of their testing and promotion, VersaLayer developed a machine to continuously pull the cords to extend and contract the insulation. They found that the system will handle 20,000 pulls before any failure occurs, and they rate it to withstand 12,000 continuous pulls before failure. The thin cord used in the retraction system is Western Filament SpectraƂ® braided line with a proprietary coating, which has never broken during their testing. So, it appears safe to assume that the retraction system is reliable.

VersaLayer Ability Jacket SPOTLITE REVIEW - 2
The manufacturer photo on the right shows the location of the retractable insulation system. Inside each side pocket (right) there is a blue cord to retract the insulation and a red cord to extend it.

The soft shell fabric used in the Ability Jacket is Schoeller FTC fabric engineered by Schoeller AG, which is a stretchwoven fabric claimed to be truly air permeable, breathable, water and wind resistant, and fast drying. This fabric contains 6% Spandex, which gives it good two-way stretch and good articulation, but also adds weight and retains moisture. The fabric is soft and durable and its hydrophilic/hydrophobic 3XDRY technology provides excellent moisture management. For a more detailed discussion of soft shell fabrics and their performance, read Alan Dixon and Ryan Jordan’s article on Soft Shells: The Real Story

The Ability Jacket has a trim cut and is intended to be worn over a baselayer. In size Large the jacket fit loose enough on me (6 feet, 170 pounds, 41 inch chest) that I could layer it over a down sweater (Montbell Alpine Light Down Jacket) without it being too tight (which is a good thing, which I will explain later). The sleeves are extra long, and the jacket has a dropped tail. There is a drawcord in the hem but it is hardly needed because of the trim fit.

VersaLayer Ability Jacket SPOTLITE REVIEW - 3
The Ability Jacket has a trim fit and is well designed and full-featured. It is designed to be worn over a baselayer and used for high output alpine activities. For me, the jacket was barely roomy enough to wear a thin insulated jacket under it for extra warmth when needed.

The feature set is extensive: fully lined, stow-away hood with drawcord adjustors in front and back, dropped tail with drawcord hem, full front two-way zip, adjustable Velcro cuffs, two large front Napoleon pockets, two zippered side pockets (that contain the pull cords), one inside drop pocket, and one inside zippered security pocket (six pockets total).

VersaLayer Ability Jacket SPOTLITE REVIEW - 4
The Ability Jacket has two large Napoleon pockets (left) in the chest area. Inside (right), the jacket is fully lined and has a drop pocket with Velcro tab and a zippered security pocket.

VersaLayer Ability Jacket SPOTLITE REVIEW - 5
With the hood stowed away (left), the collar stands up to chin height. The uninsulated hood (right) has three drawcord adjustors and a brim.

The manufacturer states that the Ability Jacket is “designed for high-output alpine activity”, and I agree. This is not an insulated jacket per se, rather think of it more as a soft shell jacket that has a torso warming feature. The Ability Jacket works best for active outdoor pursuits in cool and cold weather. While it is a warm jacket as long as I keep moving, the chill sets in when I am inactive.

On the trail, the Ability Jacket delivered very good breathability in true soft shell fashion - this baby breathes!. I found it quite comfortable to wear while actively hiking, snowshoeing, XC skiing, and igloo building in cold weather. The retractable insulation extended its comfort range, as long as I kept moving. On a steady ascent while breaking trail with skis or snowshoes, I found that I easily overheated in the Ability Jacket, especially in the sun due to the jacket’s black color. At a moderate pace in undulating terrain, especially in overcast conditions, it was remarkably comfortable and dry inside.

Its Schoeller stretchwoven soft shell fabric deflected a light wind quite well, but a more serious cold wind cut through it, requiring an insulating layer under it or a wind shirt or hard shell jacket layered over it to stay warm. The shell is also quite water-resistant (its DWR is claimed to withstand 80 washings), so it easily deflected light rain and snow.

While the insulation retraction system appears to work smoothly in VersaLayer’s promotional video, in practice it was never very clear whether the insulation was completely retracted or extended. When retracted, the insulation bunches up in the backside of the jacket, so it is really only the chest area that is affected when the insulation is drawn back. The retracted insulation on my backside did not create a noticeable lump, so it was comfortable under a backpack. Although the front pockets that contain the pull cords are located above a backpack’s hipbelt, I found that the retractable insulation system did not work very smoothly with a backpack on. It was better to take my pack off to make the change.

The insulating limitations of the Ability Jacket were more apparent when I stopped, or traveled downhill. Since it has no insulation in the upper back, shoulders, and sleeves these areas were the first to feel chilly when my metabolic heat output dropped or the wind picked up. At a lower activity level, the Ability Jacket worn over a baselayer is warm down to about freezing for me, but its warmth will vary with different users. Fortunately (for me) the size Large jacket I tested had enough room to layer over a thin insulated jacket, so the combination was warm. However, because of its trim fit, that may not be the case for many users.

Another disadvantage of the insulation retraction system is that the pull cords are concealed in the bottom of the side pockets. This makes it difficult to find and operate the cords if the pockets are full, so the upshot is that the pockets are not very usable for storage. It’s also a good situation for losing things from the pockets when pulling the cords. I would prefer to have the pull cords located outside of the pockets so they are more easily accessible and the pockets are more usable.

The main downside of the Ability Jacket is its weight. While other soft shell jackets weigh in the 15 to 20 ounce range, the VersaLayer Ability in size Large weighs slightly over 2 pounds! This is not a jacket I would take backpacking! Its best use is day tripping in aerobic cold weather pursuits, where its breathability and weather resistance are most useful and weight is a lesser concern. For cold weather, an adequate weather protection layering system would add an insulating jacket to wear under or over the Ability Jacket when aerobic activity stops, and a shell jacket to go over it in serious wind or wet weather. That adds up to a lot of weight. I would be happier with the versatility of a lightweight soft shell jacket, plus a thin synthetic insulated jacket, plus a wind shirt.

Features and Specifications

  • Manufacturer: VersaLayer (http://versalayer.com/)
  • Sizes: S, M, L, XL, XXL
  • Shell: Schoeller 0X95 nylon soft shell fabric with 3XDry DWR finish
  • Insulation: CoreWarmth® 3.5 oz/yd2 continuous filament polyester fiber encased in 30d nylon
  • Features: fully lined, Schoeller 0X95 two-way stretchwoven soft shell fabric with 3XDry finish, stow-away hood with drawcord adjustors in front and back, dropped tail with drawcord hem, full front two-way zip, adjustable Velcro cuffs, two large front Napoleon pockets, two zippered side pockets (that contain the pull cords), one inside drop pocket, and one inside zippered security pocket
  • Weight: Measured weight size Large 32.3 oz (916 g); manufacturer specification 28 oz (794 g)
  • MSRP: $349.95


Citation

"VersaLayer Ability Jacket SPOTLITE REVIEW," by Will Rietveld. BackpackingLight.com (ISSN 1537-0364).
http://backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/versalayer_ability_jacket_spotlite_review.html, 2007-02-12 03:00:00-07.

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