Foul Weather Gear: The New Suits Are Breathable, Dry, and Costly
The new Gore-Tex Ocean Technology suits deliver breathability as advertised, but can cost up to $1,000. We look at some of the major brands and also some lower-cost alternatives.
In the early 1980s, W.L. Gore & Associates and Atlantis teamed up to create waterproof foul weather gear that was also breathable. They had limited success: The fabric they designed was breathable, but it tended to leak. Ten years later, Gore has come up with a fabric that they say really is breathable and waterproof. Gore-Texģ has recently teamed up with most major maritime outfitters (and those that havenít come out with suits soon will) to create what are perhaps the first foul weather suits that really are both breathable and water proof, thanks to Gore-Tex Ocean Technologies fabric.
Meanwhile, several low-end suits have appeared, claiming to be waterproof and breathable, at about 3%of the price of the Ocean Technologies suits. What gives? Is everybody just snapping up the ďbreathabilityĒ buzzword, or is there really gear out there that not only keeps out the torrents but gets the sweat out as well?
Hereís how foul weather gear used to work. The gear had to be water-repellent, so manufacturers used fabric treated with a coating, like rubber, or, more recently, Teflon, which would seal the fabric and keep water out. The problem was that it often kept moisture in as well. With good layering, this wasnít really a problem: you could still keep dry by wicking the water away from your body. Itís just that when the water got to your outer layer, it was stuck there. As Martha MacKechnie of Team One in Newport, Rhode Island describes it, ďIt was like being in a Hefty bag. The water couldnít move all the way out.Ē But breathability would mean that all that moisture would stop pooling inside the gear. No more feeling like being in a Hefty bag.
Thatís what Gore and Associates seem to have done, this time without sacrificing waterproofness. The new fabrics are made of a layer of high-strength Gore-Tex ďmembraneĒ surrounded by an outer fabric and a non-absorbent lining. The membrane is the key to the system, and the reason it works boils down to this. Itís made of two polymers (basically plastics), one of which is ďhydrophobicĒ(water-hating) and the other of which is ďoleophobicĒ (oil-hating). The holes in the membrane are small enough to keep water droplets out but large enough to let the vastly smaller water vapor molecules pass through. The oleophobic polymer keeps contaminates from evaporating with the water vapor and harming the waterproofing. Presumably, this means that if the outer fabric were not also treated with a water repellent (it is) you could stand over a tea kettle or geyser and some moisture could get through. It also means that if a crewmate pours a bucket of ice-water down inside your gear, youíll have to warm it up enough for it to evaporate as vapor before you enjoy the comfort of arid breathability again.
By partnering with high-end active wear outfitters, Gore provides the membrane and the outfitters provide the waterproof design (doubled zipper plackets, reinforced seams, waterproof pockets), with the end result being a suit that is both waterproof and breathable.
Too good to be true? We wondered. So we obtained some of these new high-tech suits and tested them against their lower-tech counterparts to find out how much difference there really was (and with most of the new Ocean Technologies suits hovering in the $700 to $1,000 range, was the difference in comfort worth the higher price?)
Here a sampling of the best, the good enough, and just for fun, the really odd in foul weather gear. Many of these companies make both high-, moderate-, and low-end gear; we didnít have the opportunity to test each manufacturerís model in all categories. Also, at the time of our writing West Marine was discontinuing its lower-tech line of Pacific Cup gear and introducing its own line of Coastal Technology Gore-Tex suits, which should just be appearing in stores.
Ocean Technologies Gear
Patagonia Ocean Tech Jacket and Bib. This is a comfortable offshore suit, with all the amenities you would expect from a suit in this price range. A lined collar and fleece-lined hand warmer pockets in both the bib and the jacket make for comfortable wear.
The hood, which pulls out easily from the collar with the jacket on, has a small visor and two different adjustments for a good fit, which means you can be equally watertight with or without a cap. Double adjust cuffs on arms and legs will certainly help keep out water. The dry-suit material (essentially neoprene) on the trouser cuffs is a nice touch, but it makes for a difficult time putting the bib on over shoes. The seams are strong, reinforced with Goreís new Gore-Seam tape and top-stitching, and the seat and knees are amply reinforced.
Overall this is a good suit, but at $980 total ($505 jacket, $475 bib), would you expect any less? Even at these prices, the zipper on the bib is exposed, though your jacket will cover it up. If you need to get into it quickly, those trouser cuffs will be a drag, but overall, itís a good suit, well made, and comfortable. All this and it looks pretty good, too.
Patagonia Breakwater Jacket and Breakwater Bib. This suit has basically the same features as the Ocean Tech suit with a thinner and lighter outer material and one or two cut corners. The fleece-lined collar contains the same double-adjust hood as the offshore suit, but the hand warmer pockets are lined on only one side. While the offshore suit has a plethora of pockets, this bib has none, and the jacket has two instead of four. The trouser cuffs have the same problem of capturing shoes, but the adjustable interior and exterior cuffs will keep the water out. Itís a well-made suit that should stand up well to extended wear, and for anything less than very long trips, the lighter weight is probably preferable to the rugged but heavier offshore suit. Jacket $625, bib $350.
Henri Lloyd Breathing Ocean Jacket and Bib. If youíre planning to circumnavigate the globe, this is a good suit for you. The Henri Lloyd suits donít skimp anywhere. A generous fleece-lined collar keeps your face warm, and the hood has a padded visor that stays stiff. The seat and knees are generously patched, though itís hard to imagine the base fabric wearing outóitís like pulling on a lead apron. Not only are the seams taped with Gore Tape, theyíre also double-reinforced. The zipper has a double placket and an entire strip of Velcro on the outside.
The jacket has interior and exterior wrist closures, hand warmer and patch pockets and an interior pocket in the jacket lining. The lining tends to slip out of the ankle opening when pushing shoes through, so, like the Patagonia, they may not be the fastest bibs to don. If you need high performance, this suit is top-of-the-line, very comfortable, almost luxurious, but for most people, adequate gear is available at significantly lower prices. Jacket $625, bib $425.
Henri Lloyd Matchracer Jacket and Bib. This suit has many of the Ocean suitís strong features, with a lower price tag. The fabric isnít quite as rugged, but itís plenty strong enough for most people, and it has a nicer feel. The large lined collar and padded hood appear again, along with the generously reinforced seat and knees, and the double wrist closures. Another nice feature of both these suits is the ankle closures: The Velcro strip slants up, nudging the extra fabric away from the ankle. It makes for a nicer line, and less pooling in the folds. Aside from the fabric, the only other significant difference between the two suits is that the handwarmer pockets on the Matchracer jacket are behind the patch pockets near the waist; on the Ocean jacket, theyíre on the chest above the patch pockets. For comfort and economy this beats the comparable Patagonia Breakwater. Jacket $450, bib $325.
Musto HPX One Design Jacket and Hi-Fit Pants. The Musto suit is the lightest of the Ocean Technology suits, with a shiny, almost papery outer fabric. It features many of the same design elements as the other suits. Taped seams, some topstitching, reinforced seat and knees, handwarmer pockets separate from patch pockets, a double placket on the zipper. Thereís considerable range of motion and itís the only suit with a mesh outer pocket, but the fabric is a bit slippery and doesnít feel as nice as other suits in this range. Itís a comfortable, good-looking suit, but the pockets are lined on only one side, and there is no reflective tape, though the hood is neon yellow. Minor points, obviously, but for the price, they should be givens. This suitís major selling point is its weight. If a lightweight, strong suit that can stand up to tough conditions is more important than economy and minor creature comforts, this is a good choice. Itís lighter than the Patagonia Breakwater and the Henri Lloyd Matchracer, and looks about as durable. Jacket, $575, pants $475.
Other Breathable Gear
Douglas Gill Antigua Jacket and Pants. Gill will be introducing an Ocean Technology suit for 1998, but for now, the Antigua is a lightweight, moderately priced suit. With proper layering, most people should be fine in a suit like this. You sacrifice lined collars and handwarmer pockets, and it wonít stand up to rough treatment, but in return you have very little added weight and good range of motion. Knees and seat are not reinforced, and the elastic and snap leg and arm closures are the most comfortable way to go, but itís remarkably warm for such a light weight suit. Jacket $139, pants $60.
Helly Hansen North Sea Jacket. Of the three Helly Hansen jackets we looked at, this one will tolerate the most abuse. Made of a strong and heavy fabric, the North Sea jacket takes the stylish cut of the lower end jackets, and adds more serious features. The jacket has a double zipper for a lifejacket, a fleece-lined collar, double zipper plackets and double cuff closures. The side-access handwarmer pockets have removable fleece. A nice idea, but the pocket openings are too small and the Velcro that holds the fleece liners in invariably scratches your wrist. Still, itís definitely strong on style. Jacket $200.
Helly Hansen Spectra Jacket. This jacket has a nice fleece-lined collar, a visored hood that tucks into the collar, and top opening fleece lined pockets. The interior lining pocket is the only other one available, but the fleece is removable. The zipper has a double placket, and the cuffs have double closures of elastic and Velcro. The fabric is very lightweight, reinforced at the elbows and forearms. The seams are strong, and most of the seams are reinforced. A back toggle string at the collar will hold the collar snug. Another good-looking jacket that should hold up, and at about half the price of the Ocean Tech suits above, a good buy. Jacket $270.
Helly Hansen Meridian Jacket. This is a no-frills, pared down jacket. The visored hood has reflective tape, but the small tab of Velcro at the back will be hard to find if you want to tuck the hood back in with the jacket on.
The zipper has a double placket, no handwarmer pockets but two deep patch pockets on the front, and one on the interior. We did notice some fraying of the fabric on the inside and loose stitching on a pocket. Jacket $130.
Pro Rainer Ocean Jacket and Trousers. This is a bulky suit, even without the accompanying float vest, and it should stand up to long wear. Both the seat and knees are reinforced, with a little padding on the knees. Double wrist and ankle closures and a double zipper placket will keep the water out. An integral harness and reflective tape score top points for safety. Handwarmer pockets at the chest are comfortable and leave room for patch pockets below along with a leg pocket.
This isnít a suit for light or even moderate activityósomething lighter and less bulky will serve just as wellóbut for heavy duty where you can sacrifice some range of motion for durability and safety, it may be a good choice. The padding on the knees is a great feature and the price is right. Itís not breathable, so it may get steamy after extended activity, but if the price of the breathable offshore gear is prohibitive, this suit is a good compromise. Jacket (with float vest and harness) $225, trousers $115.
Kimberly-Clark Durafab Breathable Rain Suit. This suit is about as low-tech as you can get. A compact, lightweight suit that seems to stand up to its claims, this suit has a plastic feel to the outside while the inside feels like paper. The square plastic snaps wonít stand up to any kind of rough treatment without pulling away from the fabric, and the snap closures at the wrist and ankles will let some water in, as will the zipper with long exposure to anything more than a shower.
However, whatís remarkable about the suit isnít whatís wrong with it, itís how much is right for the price, which is under $30. The seams, which are fused rather than sewn, donít allow seepage. The hood is big enough to slip a cap underneath (youíll need it; thereís no visor) with a drawstring closure, and when you turn your head, it comes along. The pockets are roomy, and thereís a snap closure placket over the zipper. If youíre traveling light and you donít mind looking a little goofy as long as youíre dry in a sudden shower, itís a good buy. Also a good option as a spare suit for guests who get caught unprepared. As one of our testers put it, ďIf two sets of this stuff cost no more than a more expensive, heavier set of gear, Iíd prefer this light stuff.Ē Considering you could buy more than 10 sets for the price of one of the high-end jackets, itís definitely worth a look. Suit $29.
Frogg Toggs Pro Action Sport Suit. You may have to force yourself to take a second look at this suit. The mottled fabric and frog footprint insignia donít exactly exude respect, but this is another low-end suit that stands up well to the elements. The entire suit weighs in at under 9 ounces, and though youíll want something heavier if youíre big-game fishing, itís certainly adequate for a surprise shower. The suit features the same fused seams of the Durafab suit, with sewn reinforcements and topstitching. A placket with snaps at the top and bottom helps keep water from the zipper, zippered side cut leg openings make for easy on and off over shoes, and slash pocket openings allow access to your clothes underneath.
The fabric feels more like paper than cloth, and it stands up to stress the way two layers of grocery bags do: it may not tear, but it will stretch and weaken. (The same is true of the Durafab suit, though it seems slightly stronger.) The odd, almost fuzzy texture catches on calluses, which can be annoying. The hood, which rolls and tucks into the collar, is roomy enough, with toggle closures, but, unlike the Durafab suit, doesnít move with your head, which can cause a visibility problem. Still, itís a decent suit for the price, and may be preferable to the Durafab suit if youíre willing to sacrifice economy for a more sporty cut. If youíd rather be dry than look good, this suit doesnít have any more to recommend it than the Durafab suit at half the price. $69.50
The Bottom Line
The new breathable suits are waterproof and breathable as they claim. They are an improvement in comfort over other suits, but we just canít help wondering how much itís worth paying for complete dryness. No matter what suit you use, you still need a wicking middle layer and a thermal layer underneath; thatís what keeps your skin dry in any suit. Also, when we tested one of the suits in driving rain with a backpack on, the (supposedly waterproof) pack got soaked, and the spot underneath did get slightly damp since the pack kept the suit from breathing at that spot. It made us wonder what would happen if you were sitting in water for a long time.
These suits may be a vast improvement, but they arenít miraculous. Given that, there are less costly suits that will keep you warm and dry. If itís worth it to you to pay for the extra comfort, the Henry Lloyd, Patagonia, or Musto are all comparable, depending on what features are most important to you.
If you donít expect to be out day and night in an extended storm, the mid- and lower-range suits, like the Gill Antigua, balance economy with wear. If youíre going to spending a lot of time sailing in bad weather, and keeping dry is more important than breathability, the Helly Hansen North Sea jacket might be a good choice. If cost were not an issue, though, our choice would be the Henri Lloyd Matchracer. Itís comfortable, durable, and it looks good without the heavier weight of the offshore suit. If all you need is a suit to keep you dry in a surprise shower as you make your way back to shore, the Durafab may be all you need.
A word of caution: Sizes vary greatly, sometimes running larger or smaller than expected; because fit also affects effectiveness, we recommend trying a suit on before buying.
(Note: Practical Sailor would like to thank Team One Newport (401/847-2368) and Newport Nautical (401/847-3933) for their expertise and assistance in helping prepare this report.)
Contacts- Frogg Toggs, 517 Gunter Ave., Guntersville, AL 35976; 205/505-0075. Douglas Gill, 6087 Holiday Rd., Buford, GA 30518; 770/945-0788. Helly Hansen, Box 97301, Redmond, WA 98073; 206/883-8823. Henri Lloyd, 1160 Alpharetta Hwy., Roswell, GA 30076; 770/753-9887. Kimberly Clark, Box 2020, Neenah, WI 54957; 800/558-8810. Musto, Box 17467, Raleigh, NC 27609; 800/553-0497. Patagonia, 259 W. Santa Clara St., Ventura, CA 93001; 800/336-9090. Pro Rainier, Tahsin Ind. Corp., 130 Commerce Rd., Carlstadt, NJ 07072; 201/939-2878.