The North Face — FUTURELIGHT Clothing — Review

Post by blogger | April 22, 2019      

Gary Smith

This post sponsored by our publishing partner Cripple Creek Backcountry.

Pulling Cramp-ins during a big tour in FUTURELIGHT pants.

Pulling Cramp-ins during a big tour in “FUTURELIGHT” pants.

Editor’s note: We are attempting to provide you, dear readers, with legible prose. These all-caps product names make the reading stutter. They work fine for titles and such, but they do not work in prose (other than for SHOUTING). Our policy starting now is we’ll use the official ALLCAPS spelling a few times at the start of a post, then we’ll use readable proper case.

Pants as light as the beacon residing in the dedicated thigh pocket? A jacket so remarkably weightless and mobile that the ethereal shell goes unnoticed? Is it possible to comfortably wear a waterproof shell during aerobic activity? These queries are at the core of one of the biggest fabric innovations since 1969, that time long ago when Wilbert and Bob Gore stretched Teflon into a breathable membrane.

The North Face launches “FUTURELIGHT” in their pinnacle product lines (Summit, Steep, and Flight) this coming fall after over 400 days of athlete and laboratory testing. I tested a Summit Series kit for the past eight weeks, as well as learning from friends’ who’ve spent plenty of time using the gear.

First: the science. Futurelight membrane is a nanospun web of recycled synthetics. This sorcery is performed in Korea, where purpose built machines spray the weave from hundreds of thousands of nozzles to create a 4-way stretch membrane that is largely air. Whaaat? As futuristic as this sounds, similar membranes have been achieved by competitors. What TNF brings to the table appears to be a huge positive leap in all directions: air permeability, mobility, and weight reduction; all the while meeting stringent waterproofing standards.

Microscopic view of  Futurelight’s nanospun membrane.

Microscopic view of Futurelight’s nanospun membrane.

You might have already guessed, but Futurelight is, well, light. 342g and 274g in the medium jacket and pants respectively. Picking up the pants to put on in the morning is almost comical. You might hit yourself in the face your hand comes up so fast. Clothing is often overlooked, obscured by the constant flow of sexy lightweight hardgoods. Years ago I switched from touring in my ski patrol issue Patagonia Rubicon pants into a Polartec Neoshell pant and was shocked by gains that rivaled those of a frame-to-tech binding swap. Futurelight pants are near that jump yet again.

 Futurelight pants rivaling the weight of the lightest beacon on the market. A strange feeling when the pocket contents are about the same weight as the pant.

Futurelight pants rivaling the weight of the lightest beacon on the market. A strange feeling when the pocket contents are about the same weight as the pant.

On to the field. I’m no Jim Morrison or Hilaree Nelson and haven’t been up and down Lhotse recently. My testing has consisted of backcountry skiing and light ski mountaineering in Colorado’s high Rockies. Comically illustrating this difference, my first test was an hour groomer lap wearing Futurelight over a full insulation system in an attempt to sweat out my prior evening at the Belly Up club. On this temperate day, I was far less of a sweat bag than I would have been in a conventional waterproof suit. Aspen, where the beer flows like hangover sweat through nanospun membranes.

After more serious testing, away from nightclubs, I’m here to tell you this is probably the most breathable waterproof fabric out there — by a long shot. More, the temperature range of Futurelight is incredible. Days often turn from frigid starts to downright balmy here due to our dry air and proximity to the sun. I have had several afternoons moving briskly in what would normally have been too much base layering, where Futurelight dispersed my heat adequately. This is without the use of armpit or pant side vents, which don’t exist in the future.

Conversely, my spring season base layering system is usually synthetic boxer briefs/t-shirt doubled with synthetic running shorts/sun hoodie. Temperature swings to the downside, and long transitions, have been completely tolerable in said get up despite Futurelight’s faint presence. Though a throw over puffy is always a welcomed friend on ridges and summits.

Spring ski mountaineering in Colorado. Big temperature swings with variable weather handled well by  Futurelight.

Spring ski mountaineering in Colorado. Big temperature swings with variable weather handled well by Futurelight.

FUTURELIGHT is so thin and flexible that the fit and feel are unique for a technical garment. It hangs freely from the body lacking self support. Detailed multipanel design, seen across the high end outdoor market, does provide some shape. The articulated knee panels in the pants are particularly nice. The mobility resulting from the combination of the fabric and well thought out design is my favorite attribute of Futurelight.

The pant leg fits perfectly over any light or midweight touring boot such as Alien RS’ and even Hoji boots. Four buckle Tecnica Zero G in its exploded touring mode, not so much. One would think the forthcoming Steep series rendition would aim to accommodate a beef boot.

I am 6’ 150 lbs with a 28” waist and relatively broad shoulders and chest for my otherwise skeletal figure. The medium pants are spot on with a light belt. The jacket shell is great for wearing over a puffy, but quite large on me over a simple base layer like I prefer. I generally opt for a climbing sized softshell and then throw a puffy over as needed. This layering method would be achieved with a small sized Futurelight jacket.

The North Face design team started at the extreme light end of the spectrum with Futurelight prototyping- a fantastic methodology. This approach challenges the necessity of many features we see standard in the industry.

I was enjoying the lack of a snow gaiter for ease of boot adjustment. This however faded in early spring when booting up steep couloirs in deep transitional snow. There are two eyelets sewn in to the hem for stringing a paracord keeper loop under the boot sole. This would help but certainly not as effective as a gaiter.

No vents- no problem. This stuff breathes. Additional boot cuff reinforcement, already on the way in the production models, is a must- I have a handful of holes developing down low. One thigh pocket with an inner mesh pouch and loop for clipping the beacon leash is all you need in a pant. The jacket utilizes standard features seen in current minimalist tops- hem and hood drawstring, brim wire visor reinforcement, one mesh inner pocket, two way zipper, single chest pocket and adjustable Velcro wrist cuffs.

The durability is about as unique as the textile itself. There is a spot worn in the hip of my pant, which I can’t explain. Alternatively, while sloppily cramponing I snagged the non-reinforced area and the fabric only slightly punctured without tearing. The market standard waterproof fabrics have far less stretch and would have torn open in that scenario. I have given one jacket arm a classic tree branch gashing. Friends who have been in the kit longer, and ski the same amount (a lot), have fared even better with durability. The Steep series implementation of Futurelight is intriguing to me as it will have a thicker, higher denier face fabric.

Notorious for his abuse of gear, Doug leading a scramble in the full  Futurelight kit. Doug has had the kit twice as long as myself and is yet to do major damage, even with shenanigans like this.

Notorious for his abuse of gear, Doug leading a scramble in the full Futurelight kit. Doug has had his test gear twice as long as myself and is yet to do major damage, even with shenanigans like this.

Wearing Futurelight gives an exciting glimpse of what is to come in mountain sportswear. At the helm of this charge is The North Face and Global GM of Mountain Sports Scott Mellin, local light gear disciple and WildSnow reader. Scott has put together a fantastic team of out-of-house developers and testers to challenge the norms and generate innovation. In the distant future we will press a “waterproof/windproof” button and be enveloped in a molecular cocoon. For the immediate future the weight, breathability, and mobility of this new technology is pretty darn close.

(WildSnow guest blogger Gary Smith is an avid backcountry skier and ski mountaineer residing in Eagle County, Colorado. You can find him at Cripple Creek Backcountry in Vail when he is not in search of steep lines or face shots. Please visit @g.allen.smith on Instagram for ski shots and snippets of mountain life.)


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19 Responses to “The North Face — FUTURELIGHT Clothing — Review”

  1. Nate Porter April 22nd, 2019 6:18 pm

    Thanks for the review Gary. How wind proof is the membrane compared to Gore Pro Shell, or Neo Shell?

  2. DJ April 22nd, 2019 11:02 pm

    Isn’t the main reason one opts for a waterproof shell is to protect oneself from external sources of water? A whole review without mentioning this wonder material’s weather resistance?

  3. TimRules April 23rd, 2019 7:44 am

    What is new here? There is waterproof/breathable gear that is far lighter already on the market (e.g., OR Helium series. If the main benefit is being lightweight, it seems a day late and a dollar short … what am I missing?

  4. Lou Dawson 2 April 23rd, 2019 9:06 am

    Hi Tim, we’ll see what Gary has to say, but my impression (and I have some of the gear as well) is that this stuff is just super super breathable while still being adequately waterproof for most mountain sports, that’s the value proposition. Yes, all sorts of lightweight stuff out there. They can’t compete on just that. Lou

  5. swissiphic April 23rd, 2019 1:31 pm

    “…adequately waterproof for most mountain sports…”

    Inquiring minds need to know: how does it fare ski touring on the wet coast in continuous rain downpour or 5cms/hour wet dollar bills falling from the sky with 100 percent humidity?

    Is the stuff waterproof or not?

  6. Lou Dawson 2 April 23rd, 2019 3:52 pm

    Swiss, I was avoiding unprofessional hyperbole! I’m sure we’ll test it in the rain this summer. As is always the case, for the wet coast I’d be leery of anything! And of course, with 100 percent humidity you sweat up in inside unless you’ve got an electric fan in there, and perhaps a heater. Lou

  7. Matt April 24th, 2019 9:23 am

    Is the only pocket a dedicated beacon pocket? I love that there is finally attention being paid to dedicated beacon pockets, however, am I the only person who also likes another pocket for snacks, map, lipstuff, or whatever? Is the trend just to keep adding pockets to the pack shoulder straps and waist belt? If so, kinda reminds me of Apple and their new found obsession with all things dongle. Outsourcing design challenges. Other than that, this stuff seems perfect for most touring places outside the PNW.

  8. XXX_er April 24th, 2019 12:17 pm

    Unless you can compare the performance of Futurelight to something people have experiance with like Neoshell/gortex/ helly hansen rubber rain gear … we don’t really have any context

    YMMV but I like at least one breast pocket in a shell, 2 is even better, 2 waist pockets and 2 thigh pockets in ski touring pants

  9. Kristian April 24th, 2019 1:56 pm

    Curious to see how this develops. “Welded” seams were supposed to replace sewn thread seams. They easily came apart in washing machines and dryers.

    And real waterproof is very important.

    However careful you are, it is still possible to get trapped inside a rapidly developing wild thunderstorm far above tree line – torrential downpours, hail, hurricane strength winds, and near freezing temps. Also sweat & dirt contamination and compression from heavy backpack shoulder and waist straps have plagued past membrane fabrics.

  10. Gary Smith April 24th, 2019 4:02 pm

    Hi All,

    So ya, it’s Colorado in March and doesn’t rain in ski territory. We only have so much space in the article so best to stick to field use. No showers taken. From TNF in waterproofing:

    Beyond The North Face athletes internal testing labs, the brand worked with third-party independent experts including UL (Underwriters Laboratories) a world-renowned safety certification testing organization, to push the limit of the FUTURELIGHT fabric. UL predominately tests waterproofing for the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), an organization that certifies first responder gear for firefighters, EMS and hazmat responders. The test methods developed were 50 percent more stringent than the current standard for the Outdoor Industry.
    “The liquid integrity test for FUTURELIGH is even more extreme compared to the NFPA testing that UL conducts, proving FUTURELIGHT is not only totally waterproof, but also fit for the harshest expeditions the outdoors has to offer,” Michael Seward of Underwriters Laboratories said.

  11. Gary Smith April 24th, 2019 4:26 pm

    And for Nate, Tim, et al on weight and direct comparisons.

    Fully windproof

    I have used a lighter rain jacket such as Patagonia’s lightest stuff. No comparison in breathability. Ditto with C-knit or Pro shell Gore. Have also toured extensively in Strafe Neoshell pants with similar results- less breathability and less mobility. There is lighter out there, particularly the jacket. Even the current TNF summit series shell using Gore Pro is lighter with the same features.

    What’s new is the large increase in breathability and mobility while maintaining waterproofness. Such an increase that delayering your waterproof layer is rarely necessary.

  12. Kristian April 24th, 2019 6:15 pm

    Thanks Gary. Great review and comments.

    So you are essentially saying that there is no need to carry an additional layer of pants and shell because the FUTURELIGHT layer conveniently is also waterproof? Less complexity, bulk, and weight.

    How is it as a wind shell? Does it cut the wind like a traditional hard shell or do you feel the wind more through the massive breathability?

  13. Kristian April 24th, 2019 6:18 pm

    Unable to edit comment. I see “Fully windproof” in the prior comment.

  14. Gary Smith April 25th, 2019 10:02 am

    Hey Kristian,

    Yep that’s the root of the design thought process- you don’t have to chose between sweating in your shell or carrying extra while wearing a more breathable option. I put the breathability on par with any quality windproof soft shell.

  15. Gary Smith April 25th, 2019 10:21 am

    Matt I missed ya,

    Yes the pants have just one pocket mid thigh with internal mesh pocket and leash loop. The jacket has one large breast pocket with an internal mesh pocket. Also has dump style internal pocket. In all layering levels in the line, TNF includes a single breast pocket with mesh internal that alternates sides. So the grid base layer is left (cellphone for me), puff layer right, shell back to left to eliminate stacking.

    It does seem people are moving away from pockets in general. Less fiddling, less weight, less cost? It’s nice not being tempted to load up pants pockets which then rub on the thigh all day. An extra jacket or sleeve pocket would be nice for snacks/snack trash and such. Agreed that a certain part the trail running or “dongle style” stuff on the packs is just silly. Also keep in mind that this is the lightest lineup and is intended for aerobic ski touring and high out put climbing. The Steep series will have more bells and whistles.

    I would be very interested to try this out in PNW type of climates. As Lou eluded to, anytime a face fabric wets out you loose significant breathability. I’ll use it as a rain shell for hiking, mountain biking, and climbing/belay this summer and keep everyone posted.

    Keep the comments coming! I’m sure Scott and his team will browse through here soon to take notes, make comments. They are sadly occupied dealing with the loss of some of their athletes in Canada currently.

  16. Lou Dawson 2 April 25th, 2019 11:52 am

    Thanks Gary. I like a few pockets in my pants, but too many is a drag for sure. For my style, a rear hip pocket is essential, and at least one side hip pocket. I prefer all pockets zip. The TNF variety and prevalence of the chest pockets is appreciated. If I don’t have at least a couple of chest pockets, I don’t use the gear other than to test it. All pants could have better accommodation for beacons, and would someone please just build in the leg loop for the airbag pack? So it can be clipped with a ten inch lanyard from the pack? They could do that for an additional ten cents, knowing the way they factory this stuff out. Lou

  17. TimRules April 25th, 2019 12:04 pm

    Thanks for the update/clarifications, Gary.

    On the issue of pockets, FWIW the best thing ever on shells/rain gear is pass-through ‘fake pockets’, to instead allow access to the mid (or base) layer pockets … I don’t think I’ve ever seen them outside the military, though.

  18. XXX_er April 25th, 2019 1:16 pm

    whatever you like is whatever you like BUT if you are reviewing a piece the readers will want to what the various features are, also how/if they work

    IME if pants pockets are horizontal near the waist band there is more room to make zippered vents longer BUT if the pockets are vertical there is less room on the pant leg for a zippered vent

  19. Florian May 28th, 2019 3:36 am

    It’s said to be a tune-able fabric for specific types of activities. Let’s hope they are already doing this in generation 1.0 – like more abrasion resistance on the shoulders and lighter/even more breathable in heat-accumulating areas (e.g. armpits).
    Would also be awesome to see them incorporate their FUSE technology with FUTURELIGHT also for as little seams as possible.
    Eventually even this fabric is going to be pushed to it’s limits by harsh weather conditions, heavy perspirer and or anaerobic activity, so they’ll probably be implementing electro-osmosis like KJUS is doing with their Hydro-Bot Jacket.
    I’m looking forward to this one – kind regards from Bavaria

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