Saturday, 5 November 2011

Mountain Equipment Firefox Gore-Tex Active Shell

I am a fan of Mountain Equipment, it’s my first stop when I’m checking out new clothes, their reputation is second to none (in my opinion, others may vary). First impressions of the jacket were good – long pocket zips high up for access when wearing a hip belt on a pack or a harness, mesh inside the pockets for immediate venting, good adjustment on the hood to get a proper fit and pit zips.

Now, I have read online that some people question the need for pit zips as Active Shell is the fabric to improve Gore’s breathability offering. My opinion - pit zips are to let air in, not to let moisture out, so I don't personally have a problem with them. I think it’s a good added feature. 

The hood will take a climbing helmet, I use a Petzl Elios which sits quite high on the head and was fine. I don’t think I would use it for a lot for trad climbing though, as the material feels quite thin, I’d be concerned about abrasion on rocks tearing or scarring the fabric.

The most important thing for a jacket, over and above the breathability (I’ll get to that!), is the fit. It turns out my normal size of a medium didn’t quite fit; I had to go for the large. This is unusual as any other jacket I’ve owned has been a medium. My assumption is the active cut of the jacket means the fit is a little sportier, like a super car - everything inside the cab is a bit more enclosed compared to your average family estate. The Firefox around the body feels a bit figure hugging, not too tight but you know it’s there. The arms are a little different; they allow a lot more freedom of movement. Not baggy, it just allows you to do what you need to do. The transition from the body to the arms is seamless and moving in the jacket is comfortable and unrestrictive. I found I could move whilst scrambling without the jacket riding up. Which is definitely an added bonus for this jacket as it is quite short in length. Not a bad thing as this suits me but it stays where it should be, under the level of the waist belt of my pack and not halfway up my back when I finish Curved Ridge.

The fabric, Gore-Tex Active Shell, is the next aspect for testing. I wasn’t too concerned about the waterproof test – it’s Gore-Tex, if it’s not waterproof there’s no point! Or so I thought, it isn’t really the fabric that has the issue, it was the zips. In the pocket of the jacket after I removed it from its clear plastic bag I found a disclaimer. A little leaflet to tell me the zips were not 100% water proof. Well, I found this out on a rainy day on Beinn Narnian, as we came off the summit I felt something cold on my stomach. The rain was hammering it down at this point, so, with my back to the rain my hooded skull was stuck inside the jacket. I found a little damp spot on my base layer. “Dammit!” It had let water in; the spot coincided with the bottom edge of the mesh in the pocket. I’ll admit I was a bit gutted, I expected better. However, giving it some thought and after it being pointed out to me, we had been in driving rain for about 3 hours. The jacket isn’t really designed to be in those kinds of conditions for that long. Further down the path to the car I felt a second spot on the inside, this time it was the main zip, only on one isolated area but it wasn’t long before we were back to the car. All in all, the jacket performed well, I think I pushed it to its limit and only a minor leak showed through.

I’ve haven’t used the pit zips yet, I’ve tried to keep the pockets shut to really test the condensation factor and also the weather hasn’t been good enough to need them. I did spend a bit of time pushing hard uphill and would be found with my head stuck inside the jacket and my hand in feeling about searching for moisture. A test is a test and all aspects need to be checked.  Excluding directly underneath the shoulder straps, there was no moisture to be found. Including my back area, with help from the freeflow set-up of my rucksack. There would have been a thin film of moisture inside my Pro Shell had I worn it.

The material has a really nice feel, it’s thinner than I’m used to but it works. How it wears over long periods will be the next test. I’ll keep an eye on it and let you know. One thing I did notice was when the wind picked up I wasn’t used to the flutter of the material. Pro Shell doesn’t budge, it’s strong and I’m not scared to wear it anywhere or in any condition. I would hesitate to use Active Shell in some more rugged situations and, as the weather on Narnian proved, some harsher raining days. I suppose that’s why the different shells exist though. It’s certainly my excuse when my wife sighs and asks “do you really need another jacket??”

Really my next point is more of a question. I hope somebody can answer it as I have been racking my brain and fiddling with the tags, draw cords and loops to figure out what it does. What is the loop above the NO HANG tag do? I can’t figure it out, please help!

I did have a thought that this material could be used in conjunction with a down to create a fully water proof version of a jacket like the ME Fitzroy. I don’t know it this would be allowed in the guidelines of Gore’s use of the material. On some research the list seems to be extensive and I hope not restrictive. Just a thought!

In Short –
It’s a great jacket. The fit took me a bit of time to get used to but it’s just right. It has an athletic cut so it can be a snug fit. The fabric keeps the water out, even if the zips don’t, and allows the upper body to breath. My hope is in the long term the material gets cheaper allowing the cost of the jackets to come down. Good jackets with a harder shell aren’t too much more expensive than this one. But if you’re buying Active Shell it’s for the weight and breathability, which is what it says on the tin!