For the past 30 years, the waterproof-breathable market could be summed up in two words (or is that one hyphenated one?): Gore-Tex. No more. Gore’s might is about to be tested by no less than three of the outdoor world’s largest brands. The roll-out begins this spring with Columbia’s Omni-Dry then flows through to fall 2011 when Polartec’s NeoShell and Mountain Hardwear’s DryQ arrive. And Gore itself isn’t sitting still, with a new product, Active Shell, that promises greater breathability. It’s the biggest wave of new waterproof-breathables from major brands in, well, ever.
Mammut is using Gore's Active Shell in its Felsturm Half-Zip.
Gore’s rivals are attacking the biggest chink in Gore’s formidable armor; while Gore-Tex has been the gold standard of waterproofs, anyone who’s worked up a sweat in it knows that it simply doesn’t breathe as well as “breathable” suggests. Gore-Tex requires the wearer to warm up enough for his or her sweat to turn to water vapor, since only vapor can escape the Gore-Tex membrane’s tiny pores. Hence the need for pit zips and vented pockets – opening a Gore-Tex coat allows air permeability, which creates the chance for direct evaporation. But what if the fabric itself allowed air to come in, to facilitate evaporation without pit zips and other workarounds? That’s the idea behind these new wunder-fabrics – which their makers say can breath just enough to allow both evaporation as well as the transfer of water vapor, and still be 100 percent water- and windproof. The upshot should be a drier, happier camper (or runner, or hiker…).
Yes, we’re skeptical. If only because we haven’t seen apples-to-apples numbers from every manufacturer using the same tests to quantify their claims. Nor have we been able to test any of these materials in the real world. So there’ll be waaaay more coverage once AJ’s got its mitts on the goods and can report on what happens during a powder day at Bridger Bowl or a trail run during a Seattle deluge. For now, here’s the skinny on each, both the claims and the fine print.
POLARTEC NEOSHELL Brands Using It: Mammut, Marmot, Montura, Mountain Equipment, Rab, The North Face, Vaude, Westcomb
Construction: Hard or soft shells; stretch; varying liner materials from soft weaves to more slippery coatings.
Waterproofness: Polartec’s director of global marketing, Nate Simmons, has gone out of his way to say that NeoShell is 100 percent waterproof, but has also attacked the methodology used to measure waterproofness by Polartec’s leading competitor (Gore).
Breathability: The promise is five times the air permeability of “the leading waterproof-breathable.” Mountain Hardwear’s DryQ and Columbia’s Omni-Dry are making almost identical claims of air permeability, which likely means they’ve all found the happy place where evaporation happens but isn’t perceived as wind chill.
MOUNTAIN HARDWEAR DRYQ Construction: There are three lines of DryQ: Elite, the most ruggedly built (think mountaineer; off-piste skiing); Active, which will include stretchy, low weight, soft and hard shells; and DryQ Core, which looks to be more mainstream consumer focused.
Waterproofness: Mountain Hardwear’s focus is on “durable” waterproofness, since past laminates have suffered a steep performance loss over time, clogging from dirt and skin oils. Mountain Hardwear says DryQ has oleophobic (“oil hating”) properties built directly into the membrane and notes that the membrane will be protected from direct skin contact in even the lightest applications. Since DryQ comes from the same minds that produced eVent (which is also oleophobic) this isn’t surprising. But unlike eVent, DryQ will allow for more varied construction, as well as have stretch.
Breathability: See NeoShell. Also note there will be a spectrum of breathability – a DryQ product aimed at alpine skiing could be less aggressively breathable than one targeted at trail runners.
COLUMBIA OMNI-DRY Construction:Somewhat more traditional, with taped seams, waterproof zippers, and standard features like pit zips. Full deets are still sketchy but this stuff will be spendy if you’re used to Columbia’s old pricing model: Expect prices in the $300-$400 range
Waterproofness: Columbia is taking a direct shot at Gore, claiming the same levels of waterproofness as measured by the same tests Gore-Tex endures, while also claiming that its membrane is 75% lighter than Gore’s.
Breathability: Omni-Dry will be about as air-permeable as NeoShell and DryQ.
GORE-TEX ACTIVE SHELL Brands Using It: Adidas, Arc’teryx, Castelli, Gore Bike Wear, Mammut, Mountain Equipment, The North Face, Specialized
Construction: Active Shell may spell an evolution for Gore-Tex, because the membrane is now bonded directly to the fabric that rests against your skin. This allows for far less adhesive to be used, allowing much more breathability, and also enabled Gore to make its shells softer, and the membrane far thinner as well-all aimed at fast moisture transfer in a very low-weight garment.
Waterproofness: The company says Active Shell will be as waterproof as the rest of Gore’s “Guaranteed to Keep You Dry” materials.
Breathability: Gore boasts a “water vapor resistance” score (a claimed measure of breathability) that’s very similar to the rankings achieved by NeoShell, but Gore isn’t claiming that Active Shell allows air penetration; liquid sweat still has to become water vapor for Active Shell to function, so while it may indicate lighter, softer Gore togs in the future, it doesn’t signal a change in Gore’s core thinking.