Sweaty, Fat Bastards rejoice for there is sartorial salvation amongst the people. The Good Lord has delivered unto us a textile that releases our vaporous, malodorous body fluids (in gaseous form, of course), thereby returning exercise to a sane, just, and righteous means of worship.

What in the bleep doeth I mean, you ask?

Basically, I scored a Rab jacket made of Polartec NeoShell (18 oz.; 538g; $365–my weights, verified at home on a digital kitchen scale) and the thing breathes like a mofo–well enough to actually use the thing. There you have it.

Boring History Aside

Biblical tones and bleeped-out vulgarity aside, let’s revisit the history of waterproof-breathables for a quick sec. During the Carter administration, W.L. Gore and Associates patented expanded¬†polytetrafluoroethylene (ePTFE), commonly known to this day as Gore-Tex. Turns out a Kiwi had developed the same technology a decade before, but had concealed the production secrets from the public. Once he and Gore collided in court–because it always ends up in court, folks–the Kiwi first won, then lost on appeal, the fight to see who “owned” the technology. Gore won and it’s been three decades of hot, sweaty, unusable hard-shellery ever since.

Why? Because Gore-Tex essentially doesn’t work very well. Their marketing fluff will tell you otherwise, but independent testing (like THIS done at the U.S. Army’s Natwick laboratory) show conclusively that Gore (as well as most other waterproof-“breathable” membranes) doesn’t breathe very well until the interior environment approaches 100-percent relative humidity–which is to say, Gore doesn’t breathe until you’ve humidified the inside of your jacket (or pants or boots or whatever) with your own body heat/vapor.

This, friends, is why Sweaty, Fat Bastards like me don’t wear hard shells. Combine vigorous activity (uphill ski touring, hard hiking, hot-oil Twister sessions) with a relatively unbreathable membrane like Gore-Tex (or nearly any other fabric like Mountain Hardwear’s Conduit, Patagonia’s H2NO, Entrant’s Toray, Sympatex, The North Face’s Hydroseal, Schoeller WB-Formula, to name a few obvious ones), and you get hot, uncomfortable, clammy conditions. Annoying at best (an afternoon hike in Rocky Mountain National Park) and somewhat dangerous (dehydrated, sweat-soaked, unplanned bivy on the Diamond) at worst.

Some people have happily made do with hard shells. People who generally run cold or don’t sweat too much find Gore products, and their relatives, perfectly acceptable. The rest of us have switched to soft shells–garments made of merely water-resistant fabrics that offer vastly superior breathability to hard shells. Soft shell materials like Schoeller’s Dryskin Extreme and Patagonia’s Velocity breathe long before the wearer “wets out” his/her interior from perspiration, offer some water resistance, and shed snow/ice pretty well, especially in low-humidity, cold environments like the interior Rockies in winter.

There are exceptions to the hard-shell heinosity–notable improvements like eVent being the most valid. eVent takes the Gore technology, but perfects a simpler iteration, vastly improving breathability without sacrificing waterproofing. Check the test above to see verification of this.

A few manufacturers use eVent, but the Gore juggernaut holds sway in the marketplace. Why people are spending $400-plus dollars on Arc’teryx shells made of Gore-Tex is beyond me, honestly. Companies like Rab, on the other hand, offer superior shells like the “Demand Pull-on,” (9.35 oz.; 266g; $250-$290) crafted of eVent (which I previously reviewed)–not only does the eVent breathe fairly well, it’s crazy light, too. The Demand weighs a scant 9-plus ounces. It’s a great piece, and definitely the shell in my pack during alpine climbs, but again, going uphill in it is a sweaty affair, unless it’s down towards single-digit temps. In short, I like eVent garments, but unless they are adequately vented with zippers (pits on a jacket; thighs on pants), they simply don’t breathe well enough for long tours or intense exercise.

Enter Ne0Shell

The term “game-changer” gets thrown around a lot today, so much so, when I hear it I typically roll my eyes and my BS-meter pegs. When my buddy at Rab being telling me about Polartec’s new material, NeoShell, and how badass it was going to be, I thought–“Yeah, right. Twenty-five minutes uphill in the thing and I’ll be bucketing sweat like Dick Cheney in front of the International Criminal Court.”

Desperate attempt to interject my overstated political opinions–apologies and besides, they say Cheney skis in jeans. Or used to.

Whatever the case, I got Rab’s “Stretch NeoShell” last spring and begrudgingly began wearing it. First, ski-touring on the Dana Plateau in the eastern Sierras, then in the rain over the summer while hanging in Colorado. This fall I wore it while I followed my buddy up the Ames Ice Hose, pulling hard, groveling in the chimney pitch, and thanking the good Lord I wasn’t leading. Then, the unthinkable–several days of ski-touring, including a 30-minute base-to-top effort at Breck, with dorky rando-race skis and all. I tried to overheat, soak myself in sweat, and basically hate the jacket…but I couldn’t.

Dutifully belaying the first pitch of Ames Ice Hose. Despite being a great jacket, the Rab Stretch NeoShell didn’t make me braver in the mountains. Bummer.

Bottom line, the NeoShell stuff works. A rather imperfect test in Popular Science suggests NeoShell breathes better than Gore, and my experience certainly corroborates it. The marketing mumbo-jumo through Polartec says NeoShell allows a tiny bit of air permeability, which means outside air penetrates the garment to some degree. This I believe because I’ve definitely had the sensation of a bit of evaporative cooling–that is, whatever moisture is present on the inside evaporates in the presence of drier, cooler air from the outside environment. Am I imagining this? Anybody else experience this, or does anyone have testing to corroborate this?

Other membranes (Gore, etc.) rely solely on internal pressure, generated by one’s body heat and increased humidity, to force moisture through the fabric and out into the universe. It makes sense that greater internal humidity would result in greater breathability: recall high-school chemistry and gradients. As one’s body warms the inside of a jacket, the air around the body also has the ability to hold more moisture (in this case, from sweat). The greater the temperature and humidity inside the jacket, the stronger the gradient between inside and outside environments. A stronger gradient means more greater transport from inside to out.

NeoShell functions in this way because of the laws of physics, but it also relies on a bit of the air permeability (cooler, drier air from the outside is exchanged with the inside), and the marketing material also says it employs “convection” to move moisture to the outside. On this point I’m not quite clear, as convection is simply the transfer of heat–but perhaps with the transfer of heat there is associated transfer of moisture? I think that’s the point, but I’m no physicist.

What I am is a Sweaty, Fat Bastard and my bod doesn’t lie. Going uphill in the Rab NeoShell feels like wearing a mid-weight soft shell, rather than a Hefty-bag hard shell.

The NeoShell materials also stretches a bit. The face fabric is plenty burly, too. Having climbing some rock in it, a mixed chimney pitch above Ouray as well as Ames, and two particularly unpleasant bushwhacks (welcome to Front Range ski-touring) and the thing looks brand new. That said, it’s nearly 19 ounces, so it should look brand new! It’s no featherweight.

(Rumor has it Rab will began messing with lighter designs. If they do a Demand in NeoShell it will be the last shell I ever buy, period. For now, most manufacturers seem to be in the one-pound range for NeoShell jackets.)

The Jacket Itself

So, enough about NeoShell–what about Rab’s jacket? I’ve raved about Rab designs plenty through this blog and for the most part I’m a loyalist. My one consistent gripe is two-layered fabric in the pockets. Their jackets tend to have waterproof-breathable material on the inside of the pockets–rather than mesh venting. I’m assuming this design commitment is because they’re rain-soaked Brits, but in the relatively dry Rockies, I’d much rather have venting built in to a pocket design, rather than double-waterproofing. Those of you in the Pacific Northwest might disagree with me, so I’m willing to call this a mere preference, not a flaw of any kind.

Good hood–with or without a helmet–and a great cut keep the Stretch Neo in place climbing or skiing.

The Stretch NeoShell indeed sports two layers in the two Napoleon pockets on the chest. Left to me I’d go to slash pockets (above the waistline) with mesh backing–at the least I’m going to look into having the pockets replaced with mesh, at a professional outfit Ripstop Repairs.

My only other gripe is color. My Rab contact hooked me up with the “Spring” color combo–which is light green and piss yellow. I’m being a total whiner here, because I’m sure somewhere on the planet somebody likes the look: but not me! They make a cool blue/blue one, as well as a gray/black version. A bit lower key.

Beyond those two nitpicks, as usual the Rab folks nail the design. Narrow in the body and long in the sleeves–perfect. In a t-shirt, the sleeves fall beyond the middle of my hand, which feels like extra material standing in my living room, but in the field the hook-and-loop closures cinch down around the cuff of my gloves and they’re sealed. No pulling back when ice climbing, falling skiing, or wearing a thick mid-layer.

Long sleeves work perfectly in the field.

The hood sports Rab’s bendable wire brim, plus adjustments to reduce volume (when not wearing a helmet) and scrunch around the face. All effective, simple and efficient.

Microfleece at the collar cuts down on chafing.

Seam-taping is solid and hasn’t pulled or frayed anywhere, despite plenty of usage.

The fabric seams are all sewn, rather than welded, mainly for durability purposes, according to Rab. So far, so good.

Two interior mesh pockets hold small stuff–a GPS, cell phone, a folded map, but they’re not sized for skins or a full notebook.

Sizing seems pretty consistent with other Euro brands–my medium fits me perfectly. I’m 5’10”, 165 pounds, and normally wear a 41-regular suit jacket. The long arms are definitely a plus and a below-the-waist cut keeps the jacket beneath a harness or pack while skiing and climbing.

Conclusion

I’m curious to see if Rab can cut a few ounces off the jacket in successive seasons. Slightly lighter face fabrics in low-wear areas might help, though venting the pockets might add a few grams. I should watch what I wish for. The Stretch NeoShell is a near-perfect winter piece for mixed climbers and most ski-tourers. On warmer days I still bust out my beloved Patagonia Houdini, but below freezing and with snow flying, I’ve been pretty psyched on the Stretch NeoShell. I can use it going uphill, it’s fully waterproof, has proven durable thus far, and is cut just right.

Great job to the Rab crew. Their gear has gotten better and better over the past few seasons. I know the gang at Climbing Life Guides is using and testing Rab apparel extensively and I see it more and more on athletes here and in Europe. Keep building good stuff and I’ll be one of ’em–thanks!