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Camping & Hiking

Tested: Spring 2015 shells that make the grade

Which spring 2015 shells actually lived up to manufacturer promises?

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SNEWS readers hear about the latest and greatest new gear long before it ever hits retail shelves. But which products actually live up to the manufacturer’s lofty promises?

In the second installment of our new series, Tested, we partner with our sister brand and the gear pros at Backpacker to bring you field reviews of 2015 in-line shell SKUs that are selling to consumers now.

[rev_slider Shells2015]

Marmot Crux
$275; 8.5 oz.;
What SNEWS said then: “Marmot also aims for lightweight, stretchable waterproof/breathable protection in its men’s and women’s Crux Jacket (MSRP $275), featuring its 20-denier Stretch NanoPro MemBrain fabric with backpacker-friendly pockets, an adjustable hood and moldable brim while weighing just 8.5 ounces.” [Sept. 2014]

BACKPACKER’s verdict: Marmot’s 2.5-layer NanoPro Membrain employs an air-permeable membrane with millions of heat-venting micropores. Sure, we got sweaty while climbing in the Pacific Northwest in mild, humid weather, but not enough to be uncomfortable. Mesh-backed pockets effectively pinch-hit as vents. Marmot added polyurethane patches on the shoulders and hips to increase abrasion resistance. We also like the helmet-compatible-yet-close-cinching hood and the generously long sleeves that work well with gloves and kept our baselayers dry. Another upgrade: the addition of two hand pockets. Trim but not restrictive, the slightly stretchy Crux accommodates a light puffy underneath. But when worn with just a baselayer, it doesn’t feel like a sail. It proved weathertight on Colorado mountain passes, in all-day drenchers in the Mt. Hood Wilderness, and while hanging from a rope deep inside a dripping North Cascades crevasse during rescue training. Minor gripe: A few of us wished for adjustable cuffs to better seal out wind. The superlight, 20-denier nylon (a slightly tougher fabric than the Essence’s) crunches to grapefruit size.” [April 2015]

Montane Featherlite
$399; 10.5 oz.;
What SNEWS said then: “Ingredient brand eVent makes its entry into the air-permeable, waterproof/breathable space with its membrane technology DVStorm, which not only lightens up three-layer jackets with 15-denier face fabrics and 10-denier backers, but also allows stretch and softness. See it in the men’s 12-ounce and women’s 10-ounce Rab Muztag Jacket (MSRP $300) and the 10.5-ounce men’s Montane Featherlight Shell Jacket (MSRP $399), both of which sport high-level hand pockets and helmet-compatible hoods.” [Sept. 2014]

BACKPACKER’s verdict: We hunkered down inside the Featherlite in freezing rain in the Wind River Range, summer storms in the Colorado Rockies, and wintry, 30-mph winds in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The verdict: always dry and comfortable. Storm-ready touches include a deep hood with an exceptionally well-formed wire brim for max protection and a long hem that blocked rain and wind when we bent over to pitch a tent. It features the new eVent DVstorm, an air-permeable membrane eVent says is 40 percent lighter and 15 percent more breathable than the original (already one of the airier fabrics we’ve tested). The company pulled it off by using a more open microporous structure. eVent has always been riddled with ultra-tiny holes of varying sizes, too small to let rain in, but large enough to allow sweat vapor to escape; the new membrane has more large pores. The thin, 15-denier face fabric and 10-denier backer further enhance breathability. One Colorado tester said it prevented him from overheating in challenging conditions: “I huffed and puffed while breaking trail in 2 feet of powder,” he says. “I got steamy, but not sweaty, and when I stopped, I was dry in a minute and change.” A different tester still wished for pit zips when hauling a 50-pound pack uphill in a 50°F summer shower. The tradeoff for better breathability: DVstorm is less durably waterproof than former iterations. We didn’t notice any weakness in protection over a season of hard use, but this may not be the best choice if you typically haul a heavy pack in the roughest conditions. Good for a four-season shell: It packs to cantaloupe size. Cut is athletic, with ample room for a baselayer and winter midlayer. The articulated shoulders leave extra space for arm movement, so we could reach and pole plant without yanking the shell out of our hipbelts. Nitpicks: Water-resistant zippers are stiff and fabric is “crinkly and wrinkly.” [April 2015]

Outdoor Research Allout Jacket
$209; 14.5 oz.;
What SNEWS said then: “Outdoor Research takes what it’s learned from winter product temperature control for its spring-oriented Allout Jacket (MSRP $209) and pant (MSRP $169). The pieces have hardshell weather protection, but in “soft shell packages” that offer freedom of movement. It employs three-layer, waterproof/breathable Ventia Dry technology and fully sealed seams. And as any backcountry skier or split boarder knows, one of the quickest way to dump heat is through zippered vents. The Allout sports twin-zip vents, located along the side of the jacket and thighs of the pants. The twin zips are also functional — the lower half works as hand pockets while the upper portion vents.” [Sept. 2014]

BACKPACKER’s verdict: We love hiking in airy softshells, but who wants to carry another jacket for when it’s raining? No such doubling up required with the Allout, which uses a three-layer proprietary membrane that proved equal to a good, all-day Northwest rain. “We had pouring rain, then snow,” a tester says. “Then we had to wade through soaking brush that was over our heads. When we got back to camp, my underlayer was completely dry.” And unlike other waterproof softshells we’ve seen, this one never got saturated and dried quickly. It also thwarted freezing winds up to 20 mph on a -1°F snowshoe in Colorado’s James Peak Wilderness. The Allout is surprisingly comfortable to hike in with the vents zipped (though it’s not as breathable as a conventional softshell). Breathability becomes superior when the shell’s vents are open. Both the shell and pants have zippered vents on the sides (7 inches on the shell, 11 inches on the pants) that very effectively cooled testers when they were cranking hard up precipitous trails in 50°F temps. A fully adjustable hood with a moldable brim protects against breezes and precip. But the pockets and vents are tough to unzip, particularly with gloves on, because they extend back toward your hips at a 45-degree angle. [April 2015]

The North Face FuseForm Originator
$299; 11 oz.;
What SNEWS said then: “The Fuse Uno jacket earned The North Face a lot of buzz last winter. Instead of a jacket made of several segments sewn together, it’s a single piece of fabric that’s origami-folded to eliminate seams and stitching. FuseForm only needs a single piece of material because it’s manufactured to blend and map different yarns with different durability. No seams and a single piece of material mean a lot less weight and abrasion. The Originator (MSRP $299) is the spring/summer version.” [Sept. 2014]

BACKPACKER’s verdict: The North Face weaves a heftier, high-tenacity Cordura nylon into a lighter, 40-denier nylon at the yarn level, so the fabric transitions from one to the other without seams or seam tape. The result: a tougher fabric on the high-abrasion areas on the shell’s shoulders and upper back and a more breathable material on the bottom. And because designers don’t have to cut and sew two different materials together, you get a smoother look and feel, a more durably waterproof exterior, less weight, and better breathability. The slightly stretchy fabric didn’t restrict our movement when we wore midlayers or down sweaters underneath. But the liner feels grabby on bare arms, like a water balloon. Sewn seams have two major drawbacks in a waterproof shell. First, they’re vulnerable to abrasion and one of the most likely spots for a jacket to fail. Secondly, seam tape is less breathable than a shell’s membrane, so it physically obstructs the jacket’s waterproof/breathable technology. By combining the FuseForm weave with a one-piece pattern, the Originator dramatically cuts down on seams: The jacket uses only 11 yards of seam tape, compared to 24 yards on a comparable shell without those innovations. The North Face’s 2.5-layer HyVent fabric felt more breathable in the Originator than in other shells we’ve tried, thanks to the seamless design. “I never felt like too much moisture was building up inside the jacket, even on steep approaches in Colorado’s Eldorado Canyon State Park,” says a tester. [April 2015]