My current thoughts on shells

Monday, for moment, is gear day. Check the last few mondays for thoughts on base layers and footwear.

This article will be much shorter than either of the previous, because the subject is much simpler. You need shells to keep wind and precipitation out. Wear as little shell as you can get away with given the conditions, and pick one that fits and has useful features. That’s it.

Shells can be separated into windproof and waterproof shells. Both are misnomers, as no windshell is windproof, and no waterproof shell you’d actually want to wear moving through the wilderness is actually waterproof. A good example from either category will block most of the wind, or almost all the water in almost all conditions. I’ll address the former first.


Windshell tops

A good windproof shell jacket is probably the most versitile piece of outdoor clothing you can own.  Shown below (Danni Coffman photo) is me in my 5 year old Patagonia Houdini. 

The Houdini is a great example of what a good windshell can be.  Mine weighs 4 oz, has a hood, a full zip, and an inside pocket that closes with a velcro dot.  Nothing else.  It stuffs down to small apple size, and can thus be brought along on any adventure.  There have been but a handful of bike rides, any bike ride, in the last half decade where this thing hasn’t been on me on in my pack, frame bag, or jersey pocket.  It came to Egypt last winter, has logged many days skiing, etc, etc.  Originally I was concerned about the light fabric, but I’ve only put one hole in it this whole time.  Amazing.  (The original #3 zip did fail, but Patagonia repaired it for free, and at my request put in an all metal #5 instead.  My Houdini is unique, and in my opinion the best in the world.)

The Houdini is floppy, but also big enough to layer over a fat fleece.  A good tradeoff.

A hood is mandatory.  It can add tons of warmth for little weight and fuss.  The newest Houdini has a rear cinch cord on the hood for better fit and visibility.

A windshell like the Houdini is highly breathable.  I can chug uphill sweating like crazy and moisture will not collect and condense under it.  It dries blazingly fast.  For this reason windshells are vital in winter.  Waterproof fabrics are not appropriate in true winter conditions (ie when rain is not possible).  At single digits or below, moisture will condense inside a Gore-tex shell and freeze to the inside.  Worse than useless, they are dangerous.

The shortcoming is that the wind resistance of something like the Houdini can be overpowered by extreme wind and cold.  A Houdini copy, but with a bigger hood and thicker uncoated fabric (3-4 oz a yard or so) would be great for winter, but I don’t know of such a shell that is presently available.  I layer the Houdini with a light soft shell shirt, and throw the belay coat on when its really cold.  This works fine for skiing in the woods, but would come up short in the winter mountains.  I may have revised opinions next spring.

Windshell pants

Windshell pants have been one of my great gear discoveries this year.  Specifically, the Montane Featherlight pants.  The Pertex is a bit heavier than the Houdini fabric, they have ankle zips (easy to get on and off with shoes on), and velcro straps on the lower legs (keeps them out of your chainring, but gets undone in stream crossings).

I don’t find waterproof pants necessary.  The Featherlights keep wind off, dry super fast, and thus keep my legs warm.  For the moment, they’re all the shell pants I want.  Pictured below on the Thorofare traverse in May, which tested shell gear hard.

Waterproof shells

In short, a necessary evil.  While I haven’t tried Event, I’m skeptical that any waterproof fabric will be able to come close to keeping up with the sweat that is part and partial of serious aerobic output.  Goretex is ok, and pit zips sorta work, but if its raining and coldish and you’re trucking uphill, you will get wet.  Pick the lesser of two evils: waterproof shell on or off.  At least on the downhill you can throw the hardshell back on and not get wetter or colder.

I’ve been using an Arc’teryx Alpha SL pullover this year, and other than the fabric issue stated above its quite ideal.  The cut is roomy enough for layers but trim, the fabric is tough without being overbuilt, the hood is a work of art (cinches tight, over a helmet or a bare head or anything in between), and the front ‘roo pocket is perfectly positioned to sit above a hipbelt and provide convenient storage.  I like a waterproof anorak because it’s a bit more weathertight, has no full length zip to make it feel stiff under motion, and if I’m putting on a hardshell I plan to keep it on all the time.

Here in Montana a waterproof top is essential for any multiday trip, even if it never gets used.  I often bring both the Arc’teryx and the Houdini.  Back in Arizona, or somewhere like the Sierras with dry and predicatable weather, you can chance leaving the hardshell behind given a good forecast. 

Shells: try them out, try them on, buy some, love them, never leave home without them.

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2 thoughts on “My current thoughts on shells

  1. Curious as to what kind of shell set-up you use for packrafting, especially in cold and/or whitewater conditions. Do you ever use a dry suit?

  2. Dave, one option for a more 'mountain-ready' version of your Houdini may be Rab's Alpine Pull-on at 26g/9oz and made from Pertex Equilibrium, the same material used on the outside of their excellent Vapour Rise soft-shells. I was looking for exactly the same kind of 'winter wind shirt' as you and I have one on it's way. I'll post a review in due course.On wind pants. What a revelation! I wore them as shells over my running shorts on a trip in the summer instead of my GoLite Reeds and I didn't miss the rain pants at all! Sure they wetted out a bit in torrential rain but they dried in double quick time, breathed far better and were lighter too. I have the Haglofs versions of the Featherlite pants. They're practically the same.

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