Group Test: Lightweight Technical Shells
A lightweight alpine shell is a must-have item in every mountaineer’s wardrobe – we test 12 of the best models available right now to find which ones you should be considering…
How many waterproof jackets do you need? Well if you’re a mountaineer, scrambler or climber then the answer is probably two: a heavy-duty shell for winter conditions that offers lots of protection and a roomy fit allowing you to layer up underneath; and an alpine shell (or lightweight technical jacket) for the rest of the year when rain is less of an issue, but wind and the occasional shower need to be accounted for. The ideal alpine shell will have a number of characteristics including low weight and good packability (since it’ll hopefully spend much of the time in your pack), a slim fit that doesn’t impede your movement while climbing or scrambling, an adjustable hood that will accommodate a helmet, and of course it must also protect you from wind and rain, while being as breathable as possible. It’s a tall order, but with the advances in modern fabrics and waterproof/breathable membranes, there is now a great choice of jackets on the market that fulfil the criteria listed above. For this month’s test we chose 12 lightweight technical jackets from the leading outdoor brands to find the models that achieve the best combination of weight, features and performance.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
Fabrics and membranes: There’s a wide range of waterproof/breathable fabrics that feature in our test, from well-known brands such as Gore-Tex, Pertex and Polartec through to ‘own-brand’ fabrics such as N2No (Patagonia), AscentShell (Outdoor Research), DryQ (Mountain Hardwear) and Nikwax Directional Clothing (Páramo). Most of these use a membrane that lets water vapour escape but prevents water molecules getting in, while the Nikwax system relies on moisture being ‘pumped’ from the inside to the outside of the garment. Remember that the face fabrics largely give the feel of the jacket and that this, the DWR (durably water resistant) coating and the backer can also affect the performance of the jacket.
Weight and packability: On a summer jacket we are looking for low weight (for our test we specified under 350g) since the jacket will hopefully be spending much of its time in your pack. With low weight usually comes good packability, but it’s also important to realise that the durability of the jacket is likely to be less the lighter it is.
Hood: For climbers and mountaineers who will be wearing a helmet, it’s vital to test if the hood fits over your helmet. You should be able to adjust both the volume of the hood and the fit around your face, and be able to move your head sideways, upwards and downwards. When not wearing a helmet, the hood’s usability is enhanced by a stiffened and/or wired peak that will give structure to the peak and rain off your face.
Pockets: We’re not looking for lots of pockets on this type of jacket, as the weight savings are more important, but at least one pocket on the chest is useful. Unlike winter jackets, which need a ‘belts and braces’ approach, mesh-lined pockets are preferable in the lightweight waterproof jackets we are testing here. The reasons for this are three-fold: firstly they aid breathability as there is no doubled-up fabric in the pockets and they can be left open to aid venting; secondly they save weight; and thirdly they are sufficient for the light showers you generally get in the summer months.
Zips: Water-resistant zips are usually found on alpine jackets, and they may also have a DWR coating applied. Although not 100% waterproof, they should be able to keep water out in all but the most persistent showers. The main zip of the jacket will generally be backed up with a stormflap, though if keeping anything of value in the pockets (e.g. smartphone) it’s worth making sure they are suitably protected in case water does get inside. Look out for zip garages to make sure water doesn’t get in at the top of the zip.
Fit: The fit of a lightweight tech shell differs from a heavy-duty winter waterproof because of the amount if layers you’re likely to wear underneath. In warmer conditions you may only need a baselayer on underneath the shell, unlike in the colder months where several layers is normal. Therefore the fit of the shell can be a lot slimmer, thus saving more weight and aiding movement. The jacket should come down well below a harness waistbelt, but not below the leg loops, and the arms should be quite long so your wrists are still protected when reaching for holds. Check that there is enough room in the shoulder areas to allow unrestricted movement too.
ABOUT THE TEST
The waterproof/breathable performance of jackets is notoriously difficult to compare, since there are so many factors that affect results including the physiology of the wearer themselves. For this test, then, we have focused mainly on the functionality, build quality and comfort of the jackets, though we have commented on the breathability/waterproofness if it is noticeably good or bad. All jackets were tested in the Alps in a variety of conditions while walking or climbing. Turn the page to see the results..
ARC’TERYX ALPHA FL £350
The stand-out feature of the Alpha FL is the fact that it is the lightest jacket on the market using Gore-Tex Pro, with the medium we were testing weighing in at a mere 325g. How have they achieved such a weight? Well firstly there’s the high-tenacity face fabric which is lightweight yet durable, and secondly there’s the stripped down feature set which includes just one pocket located on the chest. In addition, the jacket makes use of narrow tape at the seams. The fit of the jacket is athletic as you would expect on an alpine shell, however the arms are nice and long for keeping your wrists covered when reaching up for holds. The length is quite generous too, with a dropped hem at the back and the brilliant hemlock feature – basically two foam tubes that are inserted into the hem to stop the jacket riding up when wearing a harness. The hood works well, with the generous size accommodating the bulkiest of helmets and a flexible polymer insert giving some stiffness to the brim which is particularly useful in the rain when not wearing a helmet. In use the jacket moves beautifully with your body, with features such as the articulated elbows and gusseted armpits making unrestricted movement possible. Breathability is excellent, the combination of the face fabric and clean design (which necessitates less glue and overlapping material) allowing water vapour to escape more easily. It’s not cheap, admittedly, but the Alpha FL could be used all year round.
Verdict: The lightest Gore-Tex Pro jacket on the market
BERGHAUS VELUM III £250
We tested out both the men’s and women’s versions of the Velum III, and from an aesthetic point of view they both scored highly, with the colours we were sent among our favourite in the test. The Velum III uses Gore-Tex Active and has a soft and non-rustly face fabric which feels substantial while still being lightweight. There’s two mesh handwarmer pockets positioned to avoid a harness, and there’s a single adjustor to tighten up the hem if needs be. The hood is spacious and easily accommodates a helmet, while all the zips on the jacket are water-resistant. When zipped up the jacket gives protection to the lower part of your face, and there’s a length of soft fabric on the inside of the zip to enhance comfort. In use the Velum III was comfortable to wear and the Gore-Tex Active gave the performance we’d have expected i.e. good breathability and excellent waterproofness. The fit is generally good, however we would have liked the hem to come down further to avoid a harness waiststrap. As roomy as the Asgard hood is, we weren’t very keen on the means of adjustment. Instead of the standard volume adjustor at the back, the Velum III has two fiddly cordpulls inside the collar of the jacket, and we couldn’t see the advantage of this. Despite these small niggles, we enjoyed wearing the Velum III, and we felt it was best suited to hillwalkers who also do some occasional climbing/mountaineering, rather than out-and-out climbers.
Verdict: Great-looking jacket that has one or two minor niggles
BLACK DIAMOND LIQUID POINT SHELL £200
The Liquid Point Shell (also available for women) is a slightly perplexing jacket; it is sold as a ‘lightweight shell’ and makes use of Gore-Tex Paclite – traditionally used in ‘just in case’ jackets that are kept in your pack – yet features a heavy 75-denier face fabric and weighs in at over 400g (412g for the medium we tested) – which puts it more in the midweight category in our opinion. It’s also got all the bells and whistles, including three pockets (two handwarmer and one internal), pitzips, and even soft material on the neck and around the chin. Not necessarily what you’d expect on a stripped-down alpine shell. Despite its weight it certainly has its good points as well. The hood is excellent when worn with a helmet, giving plenty of adjustment (volume adjustor and side pulls) as well as giving good room around the neck, with the jacket coming up over the mouth to give good lower face protection. As with most US-designed jackets, the Liquid Point Shell lacks a wired or stiffened peak, and this makes it less capable in wet and windy conditions when not wearing a helmet. The two side pockets are a bit of a fail, as they are located right where a harness’ waistbelt sits, and we would happily have traded both these and the internal pocket for a single chest pocket. The overall fit of the jacket is excellent though, with long arms and enough room to allow good movement.
Verdict: Good hood and overall fit, but pockets are poorly positioned
JOTTNAR HYMIR SMOCK £250
Jöttnar’s Hymir is the only smock in this test, but for those who want a full zip, the British brand’s new Asmund (not available at the time of our test) gives you a very similar spec for £20 more. What you get with the Hymir is a lightweight (333g for a medium) 3-layer Polartec Neoshell garment, with a single chest pocket and fully-adjustable hood. There’s a single pullcord at the hem and Velcro tabs at the cuffs. It also comes with a natty half-mesh stuffsack so you can clip it to your harness or rucksack for quick access. The big story with this jacket is the use of Polartec Neoshell though, the only garment in our test to do so. The face fabric has a really great, non-crispy handle to it and a small but useful amount of stretch. The weight of the face fabric (96g/m²or about 75-denier) strikes just the right balance between weight and protection. Neoshell is known for its excellent breathability (albeit with a comparatively low hydrostatic head) and this was borne out when testing the Hymir. The fit, as with other Jöttnar products, is superb, with room in all the right areas. There’s a dropped hem at the back and articulated arms that are long enough to keep wrists covered when stretching. The hood is first rate too – plenty of adjustment with a wired peak that makes it just as good without a helmet on. There’s plenty of room in the neck/chin area, which means your lower face is protected when the zip is done up. The balance of features and performance is first-rate.
Verdict: Superb fit and features, combined with excellent breathability of Polartec Neoshell
MONTANE AIR JACKET £200
M ontane’s Air Jacket (available in men’s and women’s versions) uses Pertex’s new 85g Shield AP fabric which has a hydrostatic head of 20,000mm. The jacket comes in at 350g for men and 300g for women. While it’s not the lightest jacket in the test, it isn’t the heaviest either, but is one of the few that is suitable for year-round use. The articulated arms give a lot of movement and hem lift was not an issue when testing. The women’s version is fit nicely and gives slightly more room in the chest than the other women’s jackets in this test. The hood is well-thought out and gives a good fit, whether wearing a helmet or not. It has a wired peak and can be adjusted at the sides as well as the back. The pullcords are located inside the jacket so they don’t flap around in the wind, however they are a bit more fiddly to adjust. On windy days, you can also stow the hood away, securing it by using a hook on the back drawcord. There is plenty of pocket room, with two large side pockets and a smaller chest pocket. The mesh-lined side pockets double as vents – something that is really useful when moving quickly in warmer weather. The side pocket zippers are high enough that accessing them when wearing a harness is not a problem, but the pockets are quite deep so if putting items in the pocket before putting on the harness you may find accessing the contents slightly more cumbersome. The cuffs are tapered and have a Velcro adjustment and work well with gloves or mitts.
Verdict: All the right features and at a good pricepoint too
MOUNTAIN EQUIPMENT FIREFOX £250
The Firefox Jacket (available for men and women) is a tried-and-tested design and one of the best-selling pieces in the Mountain Equipment range. The latest version of this Gore-Tex Active jacket features a burlier 30-denier fabric across the shoulders and arms as well as 20-denier in the rest of the jacket. The Firefox really is the quintessential alpine shell and ticks all the right boxes; it’s light and packable, has only essential features and has a slim, alpine fit. It has two side pockets that sit above a harness and feature mesh innards, and water-resistant zips are used for the pockets, the pitzips and the main zip , which is also backed up with an internal stormflap. There’s a pullcord adjustor at both sides of the hem, and a Velcro strip at each wrist to adjust the cuffs. The hood is well-spec’d, with a stiffened and wired peak, a volume adjustor at the back and two adjustors below the chin. In use we found the fit of the Firefox excellent, the length of the jacket ideal when wearing a harness as it sits below the waistbelt but just above the leg loops. Although it has quite a slim fit, there’s movement where you need it – across the shoulders and in the arms – though we did find the area around the chin and neck slightly restricted. The hood itself is excellent, as is breathability – due not only to the Gore-Tex Active fabric but also because of the pitzips and venting pockets.
Verdict: Classic alpine shell that ticks all the boxes
MOUNTAIN HARDWEAR QUASAR LITE £180
The Quasar Lite is available for both men and women, although we tested only the men’s version in our round-up. Coming in at £180 it is one of the most affordable technical lightweight shells available, but what do you get for your money? Well the Quasar Lite is made using 2.5-layer DryQ Elite, a waterproof/breathable membrane based on GE’s eVent membrane, and so its performance should be up there with the best in this test. The face fabric is 40-denier nylon and it feels light but reasonably durable. There’s two mesh-lined handwarmer pockets that sit well above a harness, and a single adjustor is used to tighten the hem. All zips are water-resistant, with the main zip backed up by a stormflap. The hood is adjusted via a volume adjustor at the back and two pullcords situated on the inside of the collar. A stiffened and wired peak means the hood is also very usable on rainy days when you’re not wearing a helmet. In use we found the fit of the Quasar Lite to be excellent, working well with a harness and giving enough movement across the shoulders and arms when stretching. The hood is great, roomy enough while not restricting movement or visibility even when tightened up. The cuffs have enough expansion in them that getting gloves on is easy enough. Overall we felt the Quasar Lite was an excellent jacket that gives you everything you need at a good price.
Verdict: Excellent-value jacket that has a good fit and great features
OUTDOOR RESEARCH REALM JACKET £200
The Realm Jacket (available only for men) is a little bolder in its visual design than other jackets in this test, with colour-contrasted zips and matching stripes going across the chest and back. In other respects, though, it follows the brief to a ‘T’. It’s the second lightest men’s jacket in the test at 293g, and uses OR’s own AscentShell waterproof/breathable membrane with a 20-denier face fabric. The feel of the fabric is superb, with a soft handle and as ‘un-rustly’ as you could get. There’s two chest pockets with mesh inners, and all zips are YKK Aquaguard water-resistant types. The Realm has a single adjustor at the hem and the cuffs are adjusted by Velcro pull tabs. Despite the low weight of the jacket, there are some luxury items such as an internal mesh pocket and soft material around the chin area. The hood is fully adjustable with a volume adjustor at the back and two pullcords on the inside for tightening around the face. It has a stiffened and wired peak. In use the Realm’s fabric is a delight to wear; light and tactile, moving as your body moves. The hood is excellent with a helmet on, giving good movement and with the lower face protected when the zip is done up. With its stiffened peak, it’s also good in the rain when not wearing a helmet. The waterproofness and breathability of the AscentShell seems on par with the better membranes on the market.
Verdict: Lovely material, good fit and spot-on features, however its look won’t suit everyone
RAB WOMEN’S FLASHPOINT JACKET £200
Of the women’s jackets in the test, the Flashpoint is the lightest (and is also the lightest women’s technical waterproof jacket available from Rab, weighing just 160g). Made from a soft 3-layer Pertex Shield + fabric, the Flashpoint Jacket (also available for men) has all of the features that you’d expect but has cut weight by keeping to necessities – a helmet-compatible hood with a wired peak, a single chest pocket, and Velcro cuff adjusters as well as a half-hem drawcord. The jacket has a slim fit and works well with a harness. Although it’s super lightweight, it serves its purpose and has kept me dry during a particularly wet spring – in light rain but also when walking several hours in a downpour. The waterproof zipper and storm flap keep water from entering, and the hood does a good job of keeping rain off the face – the back and side adjusters allowing for a good snug fit; the wired peak also helps. The hood fits extremely well over a helmet, and allows for plenty of movement. There is a lot of movement in the arms and the hem doesn’t rise up when reaching for holds. The lightweight fabric on the Flashpoint is likely not to be as durable as other, heavier fabrics in the long run (although, so far it’s held up nicely) – certainly when it comes to abrasion by rock or ice – but that’s a fair trade-off for the superb light weight and packability of this jacket.
Verdict: Unbelievably light and packable jacket that still manages to give you the essential features
RAB SPARK JACKET £200
The Spark Jacket (also available for women) is not quite the lightest technical waterproof jacket in the Rab range – the Flashpoint wins that accolade, checking in at a miniscule 185g – but the Spark is no heavyweight either, at just over 300g. For that weight you get a surprisingly well-spec’d jacket, with a fully-adjustable hood with wired peak, two Napoleon-style chest pockets, and an adjustor on either side at the hem. The main fabric is Pertex Shield+ 2.5-layer with stretch, which is very the soft to the touch. All zips are of the YKK Aquaguard water-resistant type, and the main zip is backed up with a double stormflap. We were supplied with a Large test sample (as opposed to Medium) so can’t comment definitively on the fit of the Spark, but according to Rab it has a regular fit that gives the wearer ‘high levels of freedom of movement’ – so it’s probably a bit roomier than most jackets in the test. In use we found the Spark’s hood to be one of the best we tried, offering plenty of adjustment whether with a helmet on or not. The wired peak, as with the other wired peaks in this test, was a real bonus in wet weather. Breathability was good and we found that the mesh-lined chest pockets could also be pressed into action to add an extra bit of venting. The Spark coped well with light rain, however the key issue with this 2.5-layer jacket is how durable it is in the long term. Only time will tell…
VERDICT: Good feature set though outer fabric feels less durable than others in the test
PARAMO ENDURO WINDPROOF/FLEECE £245
Páramo are offering a different approach to lightweight weather protection with their Enduro Windproof Jacket and Enduro Fleece combination (also available for women as the Ventura Windproof Jacket and Ventura Fleece). The idea is that the two items can be used separately to offer wind and light rain resistance, however when rain gets more persistent then they combine to provide a waterproof barrier. Essentially they’ve separated the two elements found on their other jackets – the pump liner and outer – to create a versatile system that moves water (whether rain or sweat) away from the body and through the outer of the jacket. In terms of features the Enduro Jacket is well spec’d; the fully adjustable hood has a chunky wired peak, and there are two pockets, one fitting a map. Huge side vents run from the torso to halfway down the arms, and these match up with similar vents found on the Enduro Fleece so they can be opened in tandem. The Fleece itself is made from a very soft micro-fleece material on the outside with a high-wicking mesh on the inside. Once we’d adapted to the principle of this system, we did find it remarkably versatile in practice. Breathability is the strength of the system, and in warm and wet conditions the Enduro (as with other Páramo products) is almost unbeatable. One slight niggle was the elasticated hem which we found rode up a little when wearing a harness.
VERDICT: A different approach to lightweight weather protection, but one that works well
PATAGONIA M10 JACKET £320
The M10 is one of the lightest men’s jackets in our test at 229g, which is incredibly light for a 3-layer shell. The jacket uses Patagonia’s own H2No membrane and the fabric has a nice handle to it, almost a ‘matt’ finish. The fabric itself is light, but the M10 also keeps weight to a minimum by having no extraneous features; there’s just a single adjustor at the hem, and a simple single-pull adjustment system on the hood, and micro-tape at the seams. There are three pockets however – one chest and two handwarmers – which you could say is a bit of a luxury on this type of jacket. The fit of the jacket is reasonably generous with quite a low hem – in practice we liked this as it was easy to wear a harness over the top. All zips are water-resistant and have a DWR finish, while the overall build quality of the jacket is excellent. In use, the M10 dealt with persistent rain well, and breathability seemed to be comparable to the best jackets in the test. Due to its low weight and packability, the M10 is ideal for keeping in your pack for occasional showers, and it even stuffs into its own chest pocket which features a hook for clipping to you harness or pack strap. The hood, although simple, works well with a helmet, but without a stiffened or wired peak isn’t quite so good in the rain without it. A slight niggle was the single hem adjustment which tends to just tighten on one side – and we would have traded the weight of the handwarmer pockets to have an extra adjustor on the other side.
VERDICT: Pricey but super-lightweight
There was a consistently high standard of product submitted for this month’s test, and any one of the jackets we reviewed fulfils the requirements of a lightweight technical shell. We must stress, however, how important it is to try these on before buying, as the fit is particularly crucial in this type of jacket, as is the ability to accommodate your own particular helmet. For the women, we tested three very good jackets, all offering something different, however we opted for the Montane Air Jacket as our Editor’s Choice for having all the right features and a good price and offering year-round protection. For the men the competition was fierce, with some fantastically light and capable jackets competing for the Editor’s Choice award. We plumped for the Jöttnar Hymir Smock though, for its wonderful fit, almost-perfect feature set and excellent breathability.