I’ve been putting off writing this for a month or more, until I had it on through a good solid half+ day rain. But walking out earlier this week in two hours of steady rain, I realized that due to terrain and preference I just don’t hike in that sort of thing very often. Maybe once a year, on average, and therefore the half dozen or so occasions I’ve had the Elite Cagoule on in 2-4 hour spells of precip are for me quite adequate for evaluative purposes. If I lived somewhere else or went on more multi-week trips I’d likely have a different opinion, and if you the reader are a consistent deluge hiker you might want a different reviewer.
I discussed and photographed the fundamentals of this anorak here.
Strong points of the Elite Cagoule are the construction quality and venting features. It is well put together, the fit is good (save for the hood volume, see below), and details like the elastic and velcro cuffs are dead on. The armpit vents work astonishingly well, impressive given that I was all but convinced they’d prove a gimmick. The combination of the mesh backed kangaroo pocket and open “skirt” provide more air circulation through the chest than one would expect. The neck opening, which closes with three snaps, is just deep enough to use that venting while still keeping your chest protected. The chest pocket, with no closure mechanism save gussets in the bottom corners, securely held things like maps, yet never let water in. Overall, Sierra Designs has found an approach that, for backpacking, works much better than any pitzips I’ve ever used. If function trumps hype and the market of non-core hikers are willing to buy something which won’t be seen in any mountaineering ad, this approach should become the standard.
The Elite Cagoule is a backpacking and hiking specific rain coat, and the same features which work so well while hiking with a pack make it unsuitable for most other wilderness pursuits. The armpit vents can’t be closed, for one, and vent well enough that in cold wind they hemorrhage body heat. A 20 minute hail storm with strong upstream winds, endured in a packraft during the Bob Open this year, made that very clear. This can also be a liability in shoulder season alpine environments. The skirt, which “closes” with velcro dots and a single pair of snaps at the hem, doesn’t seal up reliably, and if it did wouldn’t provide enough room for a full stride. This renders it flappy in high winds, unusable on a bike, and a nuisance when paired with a packraft sprayskirt. I no longer bring the Elite Cagoule on any packrafting trip, or biking trip, or any trip up near treeline where I might really be pushing the warmth boundaries of my clothing system.
None of this is a condemnation of the Cagoule itself, just a reminder that it is a niche rain coat (albeit the biggest niche around). Sierra Designs also made a few choices which just irritate the hell out of me in all circumstances. The hood is well shaped, but lacks a rear cinch cord and more seriously is too small. When I have a hat, hood, or both on under it, and pack straps further constraining fabric mobility, I can’t look too far up without forehead pressure. More egregiously, the two hood cinch cords on either side of the face are routed inside the garment, which is for me totally unacceptable, and something I just cannot understand. After initial adjustment I only need to further cinch my hood when the weather really gets nasty, so why the hell would I want to unbutton my coat and let weather in to do that? The enhanced appearance this gives a puffy coat I can understand, but in a shell it is unjustifiable, common practice though it may be. The DWR also seems a bit weak, though in truth I haven’t used and washed the Elite Cagoule nearly enough to say anything meaningful on that subject. I also think the skirt opening should be moved further back. As mentioned the velcro closure dots are all but useless, and they have to be open to allow for full leg movement anyway. By being positioned towards the front they’re pushed open with each stride, allowing more of the thigh than seems necessary to get wet.
Overall, the Elite Cagoule is a well built and (with a few small yet serious flaws) functional piece of rain gear for hiking and backpacking. It takes venting seriously, which is fairly unique amongst WPB rain jackets, and as Sierra Designs conclusively demonstrates is a very effective approach to the problem of sweaty raingear. With a few tweaks the Elite Cagoule could be even better, and darn close to a faultless jacket for backpacking.