Recently, I’ve been looking at buying a new hard shell waterproof jacket. It’s been several years since I last bought one, and a lot of things have changed since then, most notably in terms of materials, style, layering and design, and the advent of soft shell as well. So I thought it might be helpful to put some of my findings down, both good and bad, about the whole experience.
My brief, I thought, was straightforward enough. I was looking for a waterproof, highly breathable jacket with a decent hood, of modest weight and medium length that fitted me well, had a couple of pockets for a map and other essentials, and was robust enough to wear all day under a pack when trekking in poor weather. My intended use was primarily 3-season, but I wanted something that would be OK for milder winter days as well as occasional trips to the Alps.
I wanted a reasonable quality if I could, so I set what I considered to be an adequate budget that allowed me to look at some of the main players’ mid- to top-end jackets with the hope I might be able to find a deal when it came to purchasing.
Bear in mind that I am predominantly a hillwalker with occasional forays into the higher mountains, and that product features that might be of benefit to a climber or mountaineer might not be so valuable for the walker, and vice versa.
I studied some recent reviews: interestingly, although most reviewers seemed to use similar criteria by which to assess the jackets, no one manufacturer or jacket stood out above the others. In fact, in the case of the Haglofs Lim, one review scored it at 10/10, another at 3/5. These reviews really are just a matter of opinion, aren’t they?
Having done my research, re-read the reviews and worked out what was in stock at retailers I could realistically visit, I drew up my shortlist. Under consideration were:
Rab: Bergen, Latok, Latok Alpine
Mountain Equipment: Kongur, Morpheus, Diablo, Firefox
Mountain Hardwear: Stretch Cohesion, Axial
Montane: Venture, Superfly
Berghaus: Mera Peak
Haglofs: Zenith, Lim
Arc’Teryx: Alpha SL
Of course, some of the features could only be tested properly during the conditions for which they are designed, and I did not have the luxury of a wet weather outing or six months of rugged trekking in which to try them.
There are many different fabrics to choose from too, all claiming various properties of waterproofness, breathability, robustness, stretch, etc, so I wanted to try the latest from Event, Gore Tex and the other proprietry fabrics to see, as far as possible, how they measured up against each other, although I was unable to do this “in the field”. However, I did weigh up what I could in the shop environment – here are the particulars I examined.
Even after shortlisting, a couple of the jackets here were a bit above my budget. Although seemingly fine garments I had to mark them down for that reason – even searching the Internet most seemed to come in well over £200. (ME Kongur, Rab Latok, MH Axial, Montane Superfly, Berghaus Mera Peak, Haglofs Zenith)
Almost all this crop of jackets came up quite short. There’s nothing particularly wrong with that, but it means you might need your waterproof trousers on more often. A slightly longer cut will give more warmth and protection around the hips and crotch, and will properly cover your mid layer garment. As a non-climber, the business of rucking under a harness is a non-issue. The Berghaus Mera Peak, ME Morpheus and Rab Bergen offered a slightly longer cut.
There seems to be an almost obsessive drive to achieve lower and lower weights at the moment, not only in clothing but in all outdoor kit. In some ways that can be good – no one wants a jacket that’s too heavy. But often it can mean that certain features might be in short supply, or even lacking altogether. I also believe it is part of the reason for generally short jackets mentioned above.
I’d already ruled out a few candidates that didn’t seem to meet my spec, but of the shortlist, the Berghaus Mera Peak and Rab Latok were the heaviest (both being over 700g and weightier than I was looking for) although both are no doubt great jackets they would be better suited to winter expeditions.
Allied to weight is durability, an important feature in a jacket that might need to be worn all day in bad conditions under a heavy pack. And, for the money, I want any new jacket to have a reasonable lifespan – 5 years at least. Several of the shortlist did seem to feel a bit flimsy, most notably the MH Stretch Cohesion, Haglofs Lim and Arc’Teryx Alpha SL.
That’s not to say they were bad, but probably designed more with summer use in mind (ie: only worn occasionally during rain showers) rather than for prolonged bad weather use under a weighty pack. I also think that in some cases durability has been sacrificed in the drive for lower weight.
This was actually the main peculiarity of many of these jackets. I am a size large for jackets, and have been consistently so for a number of years. I would expect a shell jacket (ie: an outer layer) to be sized to take a base layer and mid layer of some description underneath – fairly standard procedure, you might have thought.
In nearly all these cases, a size large was barely big enough over a thin base layer. Even some XL jackets left little room for the mid layer. But it’s not just a case of going up through the sizes until one fits, because by then the sleeves probably hang down by your knees. The only reason I can think of for this is to reduce the amount of material, and hence weight, used in any given size.
There was one notable exception on sizing who got it just about right: Rab, stand up and take a bow.
All the manufacturers, indeed all of the jackets, featured slight differences in cut. Of course, this is a matter of personal preference – what suits some will not suit others. But it is worth checking because it can make quite a difference to the comfort of the garment depending on your shape, build and posture. There were distinct differences noticeable. Is the cut more generous across the chest or the belly? Are the sleeves too tight? Is there any “spare” material anywhere? In one instance, the Montane Venture, I found the chin guard too close fitting for me, even on the XL. In another, nearly all the ME jackets seemed to be roomier at the back with spare fabric that might bunch up under a rucksack.
Many of the jackets featured hoods designed to be compatible with a climbing helmet. To you and me, that means large. Yes, they have an array of drawcords and other adjustments to cinch them down to a more useable size for the walker, but even if you can get a close fit to keep the rain out, that can still leave a lot of spare material to inflate or flap in the wind.
One or two were simply massive, with poor adjustment and little support, and would have flopped around in a light breeze, even fully cinched. Most were large with a good range of adjustment but often just with too much spare material, and the support in the peak varied wildly. It is worth checking carefully that your potential new purchase is not let down by a poor hood.
Remember; the high chin guard and voluminous hood may have advantages in bad weather, but when not in use and the jacket zipped open at the neck (as is normal in dry conditions) there can be an awful lot of loose material behind your head and round the neck/lapel area that can flap about in the breeze. To my mind, this was the only thing that let down a number of otherwise excellent jackets.
I think it is good if manufacturers can offer models that might make use of a smaller hood for those who don’t intend to ever use a climbing helmet. Surprisingly few seem to do so amongst the models tested, in fact just one that I could see: Rab. I only tested a smallish selection from a fairly narrow range of suppliers, but these models were the ones most shops opted to stock - in other words, alternatives might be scarce.
Pockets & Pit Zips:
A couple of jackets only offered one pocket in the pursuit of lightweight – Haglofs Lim and ME Firefox for example – possibly not enough for most people. Think about the acoutrements - map & compass, snacks, gloves - you might want close at hand.
It is good to note that most manufacturers made sure at least some pockets were situated high enough to be accessible when wearing a rucksack hipbelt.
Pit zips are liked by some and not by others. For me, they are not a deal breaker as long as other aspects of protection, breathability and ventilation options are good. Some of these models had them; some didn't. Extra venting can be a good thing if you run hot, but I'm not sure they were a necessary feature in my search.
With their short length, close fit and voluminous hoods, it appears that most of these jackets are aimed at the climbing and mountaineering fraternities. Some of the features that might suit them aren’t necessarily great for the hillwalker.
Most of the jackets I tried on seemed to be of the good quality that you would expect from top-notch manufacturers, and all had at least some excellent features or build quality. Of those tried, I was pretty impressed with the ME Kongur and Diablo, the Montane Venture and Superfly, the Berghaus Mera Peak and the Rab Bergen and Latok Alpine.
In the end, the ME Kongur, the Montane Superfly and the Berghaus Mera Peak were a bit over budget. For me, the ME Diablo and the Montane Venture had sizing issues, and Rab Latok Alpine seemed to have just a little bit too much spare material in the hood and round the face.
So, I plumped for the Rab Bergen, which seemed to me to have a good combination of modest weight and packed size, a good hood and pockets, and seemed tough enough to cope in rugged conditions. It was just the right length and comfortable to wear, and, to my mind, correctly sized to go over base and mid layers. What’s more, it’s made from Event fabric and only cost £125 – considerably inside my budget.
So here I am with my shiny new purchase, having done all I can from the point of view of research and trying on. Of course that's only half the story, and I want to test it's other credentials as soon as possible, so I can report back on that.
Now all I need is a rainy day …..