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Thursday, 16 February 2012

The enigma that is Gore-Tex Active Shell

A new wonder fabric?


"I'm very much an outdoors man first, second and third. Gear is a tool to a means for me and my enjoyment of being out and about. If you participate in fast and light, done in a day activities then Active Shell is for you. If you love hiking and will be out for more than a couple of days with the odd chance of rain then Active Shell is again for you. It makes for a great back up waterproof jacket."

Since the back end of October I've been testing a sample jacket constructed from Gore-Tex's new Active Shell waterproof fabric. And I'd like to share with you some thoughts on this new development. I won't be reviewing the jacket per se but concentrating on the new fabric.




WHAT'S THE STORY?

As most of us well know during the last several years fast and light activities has been all the rage. Be it done in a day activities like running and cycling or backpackers wanting to shave weight from their rucksacks on weekend trips or multi-day hikes. The latter is something I've welcomed by and large with open arms for obvious reasons with what my work entails - but even so I'm very much aware that there is a limit on comfort and durability for some lightweight products.

That's not to say that lightweight gear is somehow inferior to it's weightier cousins - far from it. But it's more with how on occasion you may need to take more care or be aware of a some gear's lifespan or inherent strength. Of course, common sense and thought can make any gear last a long time but there's always function and form to consider too.

So, in a roundabout way I do tend to think of myself as a backpacker who enjoys the happy medium of both tough and bulky equipment but also products that save space and weight too. I have to anyway if I'm out for days on end. After a few days comfort comes more and more to the front of my mind when I'm cold, damp and tired - but less so perhaps on a one or two night trip.

Gore-Tex's Active Shell fabric is a sign of the times. A new waterproof fabric they've designed that's (on paper at least) their most lightweight and breathable yet. Active Shell is considerably lighter than Gore's other fabrics, is softer and more comfortable to the touch than it's close relative, Paclite (Gore's other super light waterproof membrane fabric). The waterproof membrane itself is thinner too which obviously helps in determining it's overall weight and feel.

It's constructed differently as well. The outer consists of new light medium strength fabric which is essentially bonded to the membrane followed by a stretched backer fabric. The result being a relatively tough outer with a softer and significantly more breathable garment. Inside there's no liner to soak up sweat but the general fitting of all Active Shell garments is very close. The idea being not only to save weight but to drive heat loss and moisture away from the user at garment level.

Heat and pressure is often the key for membrane fabrics to work effectively (given which activities they're targeting). It's all about that micro climate which surrounds you inside a jacket. Hence in real heavy downpours and consistently strong winds (as we often get on the hills in the UK) most waterproof membrane and non-membrane fabrics become overwhelmed. Consequently, this will be why the likes of Paramo or Rab's Vapour Rise products have many fans. You may get into a bit of a pickle in such conditions but you'll essentially stay warm if wet and it can dry much quicker in active use when the weather eases up.

Active Shell garments Gore have insisted on being in the 300-400g weight category. So, don't expect any bells and whistles. Simple, close fitting design is the order of the day - which consequently aids it's performance too (again on paper at least).

So, if you consider all the above points and Gore's aims it's pretty clear that it's designed to be a lightweight, breathable fabric that's relatively durable for fast and light activities.



CUT TO THE CHASE

What does this mean in the real world to us backpackers? After all, we're active while we plod uphill with varying weights on our backs. Our bodies are working hard and trying to cool/control our body temperatures with sweat. We want to keep the rain out (in the main), save weight and be comfortable too.

In truth, Active Shell has failed to 'completely' win me over. Yes, it's nice to wear if a little restrictive for my bulky frame. It packs incredibly small and weighs next to nothing. Big thumbs up from me in that department. And naturally the rain beads and rolls off it while keeping you dry inside (from the heavens above anyway). Furthermore, I've found it definitely has a tougher outer facing fabirc than it's comparative Paclite. Again, big thumbs up.

But as for breathability? From my experiences it's no different to Paclite. You soon get damp and chilly when active.

Walking fast uphill with a pack on is an active pursuit, wouldn't you say? You get hot and sweaty just the same as running, no? It is after all a close fitting garment and therefore relative air pressure within the garment will not be marginally different. Perhaps in a laboratory but to us mere mortals we'll hardly notice the difference in truth. Yes, it's close fitting and contributes as a consequence to the theory of it's intended performance but even so I found the breathability of the jacket leaving much to be desired.

I've been out cycling too with the jacket. And it's just the same in terms of performance. Aye, the wind and rain is kept out but you still get damp as a sauna inside at times. Inevitable perhaps as we all know but given the marketing spiel you could believe otherwise.

Sure, this membrane fabric isn't lined to soak up and wick moisture (which helps of course) and it's fit isn't loose but even so I fail to see how some people sing the praises of Active Shell like it's some wonder fabric that cures all ills. In reality, it's marginally better than Paclite in my opinion - so is it worth the money? In some respects the answer is yes. It's a nicer fabric to wear. It's not so 'crinkly' and stiff.

All said and done, it's big selling point is as a easily stowed away waterproof jacket that you only whip out when it rains while out hiking. But during prolonged downpours I did find it all rather morale sapping. I just couldn't get comfortable. On occasion I felt that I ought as well have walked about in just my baselayer. So, in some respects it would make a great addition to your kit collection for backpacking but in others it'll be the comfort value that marks it down.

Horses for courses I suppose. In the summer months it'll be taken with me if conditions looked mixed and generally favourable.

So, in a way Active Shell is somewhat of an enigma really.

Hyped? Definitely. Over-hyped? I'll have to sit on the fence with that one. Namely because I can appreciate it's pros and cons. I love it but at the same time it irks me too. The breathability of the fabric has been a bit disappointing. It's not terrible, don't get me wrong. But it does have an RET figure from lab tests of <3 which is very good (note the word 'lab').

But it's worth noting that Polartec's Neoshell is only marginally better in that respect on paper yet I've never felt like I'm in a steam room when wearing that or any grade or close fitting eVent fabric either. There's lab testing and athletes testing garments and then there's real world use I suppose.


Out and about in the jacket last week.


Forgive my cynical tone but the principle is simple really - imagine a fabric with 2 dials (like on an expensive hi-fi system), one for waterproof and the other for breathability.

You turn the dial for waterproof up and breathability goes down, you turn waterproof down and breathability increases. By dialling in a level of waterproofing that is enough to keep you dry you can maintain a level of airflow so breathability is not compromised. Soft shell jackets are highly breathable but not waterproof, for example.

Consequently, turn the waterproof dial higher than your competitors and as a manufacturer you can then boast how much more waterproof your fabric is and still be breathable. But at the end of the day, dry is dry - you can't be twice or thrice as dry like some manufacturers will explain with comparative RET lab test results.

What then is a serious consideration is the hydrostatic head (HH) of a waterproof fabric. As many of you know through wear and tear the durable water repellant's performance can spiral downwards in time and so you need to 'reproof' your garments. And at the moment only Polartec with their Neoshell fabric claims that their HH will not drop below 5000 for the life of the fabric - no other manufacturer will claim this.

So without wanting to sound too unjustly unfair, Active Shell is a great fabric from Gore make no doubt. On paper it appears to turn the waterproof dial high enough to keep the rain out and maintain an exceptional level of breathability too. In reality, I just didn't find it lived up to all the hype as a backpacker I'm afraid. And through regular use I've reproofed it twice already.

It's worth noting despite the gear testing I do I'm not particularly a 'gear freak'. I'm very much an outdoors man first, second and third. Gear is a tool to a means for me and my enjoyment of being out and about and what with all the hype out there about this latest wonder fabric I feel underwhelmed by it's performance in general.

Granted, I'm well aware I may be a lone voice in all of this but that's what my blog is about at the end of the day. Personal thoughts and so on. But I like to think I can be fair on any subject matter.

And though in all cases any gear I test or review is an honest critique (and I endeavour to list the pros and cons because we all have varying needs and desires), I'm not one to fall into line either and praise something due to marketing hype. Neoshell was hyped, and in my opinion deservedly so - call that a coincidence if you like (lightweight versions of this fabric are coming sooner rather than later incidentally). Active Shell is hyped and in my opinion it's not all it's cracked up to be for the masses.

You do fast and light, done in a day activities then Active Shell is for you. You may get damp and a little chilly but you're gaining elsewhere with a relatively comfortable and lightweight garment that will keep the rain out.

You love hiking and will be out for more than a couple of days with the odd chance of rain then Active Shell is for you. It makes for a great back up waterproof jacket.

Otherwise, you may be a little disappointed. Because by and large we don't get much in the way of long sunny days with the odd shower in the UK (if you can't be selective with your spare time and pick favourable conditions). We live in a turbulent maritime climate - not some arid plateau or alpine mass.

In truth I much prefer the weight penalty and use Gore's Performance Shell which I think is excellent! It strikes the balance very well indeed on all fronts. Find the right jacket from a manufacturer and you won't be gaining a great deal in weight and bulk. It's generally not too close fitting and so the micro climate within is more suitable for walking and hiking - even if at a brisk pace working and sweating hard. It's what it's designed for at the end of the day.

So, it's an interesting development from Gore and Active Shell is impressive statistically - but in reality I've found it marginally better than their Paclite fabric. If you're a fan of that, then you'll love it. Otherwise it's all very moreish for most people I think. Unless you really are running hard and fast in rain, yes you'll get some benefit from this lightweight membrane fabric obviously. But it's breathability will always be compromised to a large degree anyway. You ought as well head out running with a decent baselayer and windshirt in my opinion. What difference does being heated and overwhelmed with sweat make in heavy rain? And as for walkers, it really isn't that suitable. Yes, it's not targeted at this market per se - but we all know it will prick the interest of some due it's specs and weight (including manufacturers).

The reality is, I may be overly critical of Active Shell but it was never designed for easy going treks. It's for fast and active pursuits. And despite encountering similar conditions any athlete would physically (and heading out on speedy bike rides) I still found the fabric very moreish.

I'll continue to use the Active Shell garment (which says something) but only for certain trips with specific prevailing weather conditions. And in that respect I'm lucky I got the garment for free. Otherwise you'll have to weigh up the pros and cons yourself on whether it's worth the investment as a replacement or additional kit for your suited activity.

Admittedly, on reflection this whole post does make me sound like I'm contradicting myself - but I think this is only a reflection of the enigma that is Active Shell. On one side I love it and on the other it bugs me (just as Paclite did when it first came out). And that I suppose says it all about how I feel towards the fabric.

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Terry Abraham
Outdoors filmmaker who wild camps to capture the landscapes at their very best. Also a blogger, photographer and gear tester.

I've been known to write from time to time and am a big fan of real ales.



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