Low Mass Soft Shells – A Triad Shootout

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Left to right, Dynafit Patroul GTX, Westcomb Shift Hoody, Mountain Equipment Firefox.

Left to right, Dynafit Patroul GTX, Westcomb Shift Hoody, Mountain Equipment Firefox. Click images to enlarge.

- Dynafit Patroul GTX — Gore-tex Active Shell (13 ounces, 368 grams, size M)

- Mountain Equipment Firefox — Gore-tex Active Shell (11.1 ounces, 316 grams, size L)

- Westcomb Shift Hoody — Polaretec NeoShell (12.2 ounces, 342 grams, size L)

I’ve been playing around with recent fabric offerings that yield water-resistant breathable shells that have soft-shell feel while being beautifully light, quiet, wind-proof and more. Pure serendipity caused these three shells to be in play at the same time here at WildSnow HQ. With one being NeoShell and the others Gore-Tex this isn’t apples to apples, but after using all these shells I realized a comparo would be instructive. Looking at weight vs. features and fabric, we can cover some ground.

First, Gore-Tex Active Shell vs Polartec NeoShell. Lucky for me, I was outside tons of days these past few seasons so I’ve had a chance to test both these fabrics in everything from downpours to cold snaps. First, rain. NeoShell weighs a bit more than Active Shell, but it is most certainly more water resistant. I had my Mountain Equipment Firefox Active Shell jacket on for a one hour hike in quite a rainstorm, and it wet through at my pack straps and places on the shoulders. In similar situation another time, a Westcomb jacket made with NeoShell stayed dry. So if your days might include rain or wet snow by all means consider something that hates water more than Active Shell. On the other hand, many skiers hardly ever encounter such conditions — for us, lightweight Active Shell is almost always all we need for an outer layer.

Yep, for what you get in water resistance, wind proofness and feel, Active Shell is nice stuff. I like. It’s definitely my go-to choice for winter season ski mountaineering. But come spring, unless I’m on a roadside wonder with easy egress I do like the security of something that’ll keep my dry in the rain, so in that case I’ll pack NeoShell or another waterproof-breathable that provides more of a “rain jacket” performance level.

Looking at this whole picture, you have to admit it’s amazing how light Westcomb got the Shift Hoody to since the Neoshell they used appears to be a slightly heavier fabric than the Active Shell of the other jackets. This was done via rather ruthless minimalism — i.e., excellent design. For example, I don’t need bulky pockets under my pack waistbelt. Westcomb? Ditch ‘em. Same with Napoleon pockets. Who needs two, how about one? Again, Westcomb comes through. (Though their version of a Napoleon is ridiculously small, making me wonder why it couldn’t have been much bigger and backed with feather weight mesh instead of another layer of jacket fabric?) And pit zips? If you need those look elsewhere to haul the extra weight and pay the extra money for a feature that says “read our thousand words of PR about how well this fabric breathes, but enjoy the pit zips in this jacket anyway.”

While the weights vary a bit, it’s interesting what you pay for by carrying extra ounces — and how some ounces are saved.

In the case of the Mountain Equipment Firefox, lightest of our triad at 11.1 ounces, I was surprised they included pit zips in this ultra breathable full-zip jacket. Pit zips in this jacket are like adding an extra set of wings to a sparrow. On the other hand, I like the high vest pockets, though it would be nice if the zippers were in front of the pockets where you’d have better control of what was inside (thus making these into “Napoleon” pockets). The Firefox Hood fits over a helmet – tightly. Cuffs are basic velcro overlap tab style, which to me is unnecessary on this type of jacket. One has to wonder, if they got rid of the Firefox pit zips, tab cuffs and waist drawstring, could they cut an extra ounce off this jacket? That would be awesome. As it is, we like this minimal stripper. First prize for the cool one-hand-pull hood drawstring snuggers.

Lou on a day when Active Shell is the ticket -- in this case, Mountain Equipment.

Lou on a day when Active Shell is the ticket -- in this case, Mountain Equipment Firefox keeps the down puffy dry underneath.

Next up in the weight department for our triplets is the 12.2 ounce Westcomb Shift FT. What you get for the extra ounce here is impressive. Firstly, yes, Polartec Neoshell which holds up better in rain than Gore Active Shell and breathes about the same (though has a slightly stiffer feel). Beyond that, soft liner fabric at your chin, hood that fits snugly on a helmet (but fits), one Napolean pocket reduces weight. Gripes with this jacket: One has to wonder if the front zipper weather flap couldn’t be smaller and less prone to catching the zipper up near your neck where you can’t see it, and the hood drawstrings seem to take two hands to operate — that’s so 1980s. First prize for making a Neoshell jacket this light.

Third on the rack, Dynafit Patroul GTX comes in at 13 ounces at a size medium. That seems rather heavy and I’m not sure of everything that creates those two or so extra ounces. The collar area is lined with a thin comfy fleece; that accounts for part of the extra mass, and the Patroul does have two Napolean pockets that might be worth some of the weight. The reflective stripe on the back adds a few grams as well. Extra fabric that makes the hood fit a helmet a bit more comfortably also accounts for some of the mass increase. Double zipper pull adds a few grams, but hey, in our view those are important if you ever wear a harness. First prize goes to Patroul for eschewing fancy wrist mechanicals that usually end up under your gloves or bunched up against them, and instead having simple elastic wrists with thumb holes — these _always_ end up smoothly inserted under your glove wristlets.

A couple other things: We reviewed an Arcteryx women’s version of these jackets a while ago. I wanted to do a triplet of jackets that fit me so I didn’t include Lisa’s Arcteryx beta FL in this post, but covered the Arc’ before our last Europe trip. Check it out. Also, good way to go ultralight is to not carry a membrane softshell such as the jackets above (or heavier), but instead carry any one of the many super-minimalist hard shells you can find, such as the Outdoor Research Helium at under 8 ounces. The advantages of the membrane soft shells is they offer a small amount of extra warmth, are said to breathe better, are quiet, and simply feel like more of a “wear it anytime” clothing piece than does the harder type of shell. Perhaps part of the choice would be aesthetics, but if you do use any of these lightweight softshells, you can most certainly reduce your insulation layers a tiny bit — or just depend on it to add a smidgen of warmth. Me, I go both ways. For ultra-light packing I’ll bring my Helium, but I love the feel of these soft shells and tend to tune other layers so my pack ends up about the same weight, a few ounces heavier at the most.

There you go, a fun little comparo to help look at fabric type vs features vs weight. Shopping links below, these jackets will be easier to find come autumn.

Shop for Mountain Equipment clothing.
Shop for Dynafit clothing.
Shop for Westcomb clothing.

Comments

22 Responses to “Low Mass Soft Shells – A Triad Shootout”

  1. Jean Vives May 22nd, 2012 10:31 am

    Help! I need recent photos of AT clothing for my next book
    to be published by GlobePequot Press, aka, Falcon Guides.
    I can’t offer payment since they didn’t give me a photo budget.
    But if your photo is published I will send you a free book.
    Plus you will be famous I guarantee it!
    It is to be called “The Handbook of Alpine SKi Touring”.
    Please send photos as tiff files to “jean@skirandonnee.com”.
    Any other shots such as skiing and crevasse rescue photos would
    be appreciated as well. Thanks in Advance!–Jean

  2. Jernej May 22nd, 2012 12:18 pm

    well… on the other hand I think pit zips should be mandatory on any shell since I tend to overheat quite quickly but I’d still like something relatively wind resistant over the base layer/underwear.

  3. Erik May 22nd, 2012 2:44 pm

    I get the pit zip arguement for a high desert type of climate but most of us in the PNW don’t want anything to do with a shell (hard, soft or otherwise) without pit zips or an equivalently effective and large pocket venting arrangement. For Cascade weather most of the new fabrics do fine with waterproofing, but regardless of what the controlled lab testing says, it won’t transport vapor quickly enough to prevent pooling. The mesh panels some soft-shells are using are a poor compromise as they act more like a fluid reservoir and wind gap.

  4. Dominique May 22nd, 2012 3:56 pm

    Hi, great post, thank you. One thing would interest me in more detail- as to me breathability is is important as wind/waterproof capabilities: HOW do Gore and Polartec Neo Shall compare in terms of breathability? Am always disappointed by “super breathable” shells with a membrane – as in the end, you put a more or less breathable plastic bag on top of your body. Does New Shell feel significantly better than Gore, does it breath better? Or shall I stay with my “softshell without membrane” approach and only use a hardshell if really needed – because with membrane gear one just sweats much earlier?
    Looking forward to your FB

  5. john May 22nd, 2012 7:39 pm

    What have you guys heard about Polartec’s Power Shield or whatever the new stuff is. Patagonia used that in their Knifeblade pullover.

  6. P May 22nd, 2012 7:44 pm

    A few of the question-posts here are wondering about the breathability and Lou’s comment about pit zips. I’ve used a Neo jacket for over a year in the PacNW and I concur with Lou’s comments. Neo (and Gore ActiveShell) really are significantly more breathable than normal Gore ProShell or other Goretex. So much so, that although my thermostat runs very hot (i.e., sweaty), my Neo without pit zips has, surprisingly, been just fine. It isn’t perfect, but it is certainly far more breathable. A corollary is that a slightly sweaty Neo/AS jacket will allow you to dry under-layers more quickly. The jackets ‘feel’ a bit cooler because of that too.

    One concern is the durability of these new fabrics. Test results and returns have shown some problems (leakage, color bleeding) with AS and Neo as well. So keep an eye on yours if you have one… I’m sure feedback will help Gore and Polartec make improvements.

    Lots of positives though – I love the Neo shell I have. It ‘feels’ more like a soft-shell but performs like a hard-shell. Pretty good…

  7. Mike P May 22nd, 2012 8:46 pm

    Are you saying there is only one outside pocket (the small chest one) for the Westcomb SHift jacket

  8. Fernando Pereira May 22nd, 2012 9:58 pm

    I got an Westcomb Apoc Neoshell jacket last winter (following Lou’s recommendation here). Even though it has pit zips, and I all my touring last winter was in relatively moist, warm conditions around Tahoe and in the Monashees, and I get warm quick, I hardly used the pit zips. The best shell I’ve ever used, by a big margin (thank you Lou for the recommendation!)

  9. Jim May 22nd, 2012 10:18 pm

    The MH DryQ Elite Quasar weighs only 9 oz In M, but feels much burliest and sturdier than both Neoshell and Activeshell. It breaths so well it does not need pit zips, and has no pcckets except a mesh inside chest pocket. I was just out on Mt Hood in blowing wind and rain then sleet and it stayed dry. If I get soaked from sweat, I dry out in 30 minutes with the Quasar still on. It has high chin zip that covers the face and cheeks in a howling wind. It has a 1/4 zip and is a pull over.

    I felt the Activeshell was way too thin to last. Same with the Neoshell. I was all set on the Neoshell until I tried the DryQ. Partly it was due to weight and fit of the Westcomb Switch LT.

  10. Verbier61 May 23rd, 2012 1:53 am

    I’ve spent the whole winter and spring using the rab stretch neoshell jacket. It has been working really great for breathability and water resistance. So far, also durability has been ok.

  11. Fra May 23rd, 2012 8:41 am

    Do you think that Active shell is suitable for skinning up in windy or cold conditions? (not too much warmth needed) Or a windstopper is better in breathability?

  12. Lou May 23rd, 2012 8:48 am

    Fra, the idea of Active Shell is it’s super breathable so that’s not an issue. In my opinion it’s easily as breathable as Windstopper, and more water resistant. It’s worth noting that you generally are not going to find taped seams in a Windstopper garment (I’ve heard Gore won’t allow it), while you will with Active Shell. On the other hand, I suspect the membranes used for Windstopper and Active Shell are more similar than they are different…

  13. Lou May 23rd, 2012 8:50 am

    By the way, if any of you techies out there want to chime in with a more technical explanation of the fabrics covered in this review, feel free. I was staying away from that in the review, as I wanted it to be more of an experiential comparo. Lou

  14. Lou May 23rd, 2012 8:51 am

    Hey Fernando, glad to hear that worked out!

  15. toby g May 24th, 2012 5:19 pm

    Haved used the Rab Neo Shell for the last year. I get hot quickly and was really suprised at how breathable Neo Shell was. Just spent time skiing Rainier in varied conditions. Wore the jacket most of the time, including climbing up. I used to carry a Gamma MX and a hard shell (just in case). Replaced both with this and saved a pound in the pack. Must say you can feel a strong wind through, upgraded my puffy as a result.

  16. Rob Coppolillo May 24th, 2012 11:00 pm

    I’ll throw in another vote for the Rab Stretch NeoShell–loving it so far, far more breathable than any Gore product I’ve tried and the testing backs that up–soundly.

  17. DanP May 27th, 2012 12:22 am

    I’m debating between the RAB Neoshell; ArcTeryx Beta FL; and the OR Axiom.

    I’m after everything mentioned in this post: Lightweight; BREATHABLE; and storm proof. I guess I’m tempted by these three offerings as well–especially the Firefox (I like red!).

    Lou, could it be that the leakiness you experienced with the AS was due to a specific design–like seem placement? I wonder how the Beta FL is in rain?

    I live in the Pacific Northwest so a combination of protection against rain and amazing breathability in the moist air is what I’m after. I’m hoping to find the shell I can put on while skinning up and never take it off. any thoughts on the other Jackets I mentioned from anyone out there?

  18. Lou May 27th, 2012 10:38 am

    Dan, Active Shell is not designed for heavy and lasting rain. The wet through was normal. I’ve also tested NeoShell in rain, it’s better.

  19. DanP May 27th, 2012 11:08 am

    So… it sounds like Neo Shell is the better option in terms of breathability (about the same as Active Shell) and water proofness. Thanks for the helpful review… all these new fabrics boggle the mind.

  20. Lou May 27th, 2012 11:11 am

    I’d say that’s true Dan, what’s nice about AS is it’s thinner, more packable and has a slightly nicer feel, and is slightly lighter but not enough so to cancel out the effects of good design, as my post demonstrates. Lou

  21. Frame October 25th, 2012 8:07 am

    Anyone know whey there are so few jackets out there in Neoshell – Here in the UK, seems only the Rab Neoshell is being offered and while we are at it, no one seems to stock the Dry-Q (or any Mtn Hardware).

  22. Gustav August 10th, 2013 1:06 pm

    Last season I purchased the Westcomb Apoc. I purchased it due to frustration with a Stretch Ascent jacket with H2No. The H2No lacked breathability and would evidence this most when skiing in mid-30s humid rainy weather in New England; my mid layers would be soaked. I’ve been using Gore tex since about 1979, and never really notice terrible breathabilty, but most products have been 2 layer and I wasn’t concentrating on 4 season use.

    The Westcomb Apoc saw about 30 days use this ski season, both in New England and 10 days in Snowbird/Alta. Its breathability is much better than H2No. I had several days with humid freezing rain and the jacket’s breathability was noticeably better than H2No in that my mid-layers stayed dry. This summer in New England has been humid and rainy. I’ve worn the jacket with short sleeves, often with the hood on, and pit zips closed. I don’t experience the “clammy” feeling of the prior shell. I would say that NeoShell delivers what it advertises. The fit and finish on the Westcomb jacke is first rate.

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Welcome to Louis (Lou) Dawson's backcountry skiing information opinion website and e magazine. Lou's passion for the past 45 years has been alpinism, climbing, mountaineering and skiing -- along with all manner of outdoor recreation. He has authored numerous books and articles about backcountry skiing and is well known as the first person to ski down all 54 of Colorado's 14,000-foot peaks, otherwise known as the Fourteeners! Books and free back country news and information here, and tons of Randonnee rando telemark info.

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