Spring has officially sprung, so it’s time to update you on some new foul weather gear developments.
Grundens makes some great rain gear but, notwithstanding Bering Sea crabbers and other commercial fishermen, not everyone needs or wants gear as heavy-duty as their best commercial-grade stuff. The heavy-duty PVC-coated fabric doesn’t breathe at all, so if you are involved in activities requiring moderate to heavy exertion you will sweat yourself up pretty quickly, even in winter. This can be almost as unpleasant, and just as bone-chilling, as getting soaking wet from the outside. Also, conventional rain gear doesn’t give and can be very constricting and cumbersome, sometimes dangerously so, especially for climbing up ladders. Outdoor clothing manufacturers have been making jackets and pants out of new technical fabrics known as “soft shells” for years now. The modern types are made from nylon, polyester or hybrid fabrics that are wind and water-resistant, to widely varying degrees, depending upon what type of activity and level of exertion they’re meant to be used for. There are always trade-offs: nylon is tougher but is also hydrophilic, while polyester is less durable but more breathable, very stretchy and hydrophobic. And generally, the more wind and water-resistant they are the less flexible and breathable they’re going to be. But those are all relative terms. Great advances have been made in recent years and in both categories performance can be excellent. Soft shells are, however, not really considered to be truly waterproof like the “hard shell” fabrics (for more information about layering, technical fabrics and their uses click here), but the most water-resistant types (seam-taped on the inside) are more than adequate for almost all situations other than continuous long-term exposure to sustained downpours. Even then, leakage tends to be minor. In my experience, 90% or more of your rain and snow protection needs can be very well met with a good soft shell jacket.
And now Grunden’s has gotten into the “technical fabrics” market for us commercial mariner-types with their Weather Gage softshell jackets. They’re very lightweight and stretchy, reasonably durable, highly water and wind-resistant, and yet still have enough breathability to avoid the rain forest-effect inside during all but the heaviest sustained work. The stretch fabric really stretches, so it doesn’t interfere with things like climbing up pigeon holes, scrambling up onto docks and around obstacles, or throwing mooring and heaving lines: all things that conventional rain gear isn’t terribly good for. The polyester fabric is also fine enough, and knit tight enough, that it has proven to be much more snag-resistant than I initially thought it would be. There’s no question that soft shells, by their very nature, can’t possibly be as durable as hard shells, let alone the old-school, heavy-duty PVC-coated gear. But most who try them wind up agreeing that the compromise is worth it for the benefits gained. I bought the hooded version in late fall of last year and, so far, it has met my expectations in every way. It’s very comfortable and, except for rare occasions, I won’t be needing anything more for rain or snow protection. As for sizing, at 6’3″ and 195 pounds the XL fits me just right while still leaving plenty of room for adequate winter layering underneath without it getting too tight.
Grunden’s has also expanded into general industrial work wear with some products that should cross over very well for our needs. Their hard shell Weather Boss line (jacket, parka and pants) seemed like the perfect choice for conditions that require either 100% waterproofness and/or the very highest level of toughness and abrasion resistance, so I bought both the jacket and pants at the same time as the hooded softshell. Pants always seem to get beat up the most, especially the seat, knees, and cuffs, so I don’t know that softshell pants (if they ever do decide to make them) would really be durable enough unless they were carefully made with strategically-placed heavy nylon reinforcements in those areas for extra protection. In any case, I now wear the hard shell pants with the hooded softshell whenever I’ll be out in light to moderate rain for an extended period, otherwise I just wear the soft shell alone. I keep the hard shell jacket on standby for whenever the worst conditions warrant it. That being the case, neither the pants or jacket have seen much use in the short time I’ve owned them. What I can say is this: the Weather Boss line has every appearance of being exceptionally well-made, with extremely tough nylon shell material that seems to be as strong as any I’ve ever seen, including the very best high-altitude mountaineering shells. If they hold up like they should, given their construction and materials, I won’t be replacing them for a long, long time.
As it happens, Hamilton Marine is having a major sale on all of them right now (scroll down the page about halfway to find them), along with much of their other commercial-grade Grunden’s and Guy Cotten foul weather gear, through next Saturday, April 11th. The hooded soft shell jacket, at just $107.99 (versus the normal $169.00), is a steal at this price. The Weather Boss parka (reduced to $83.69 from $130.00) and pants (reduced to $83.69 from $127.00) are also excellent bargains. If you’ve got the cash, now is a great time to get the best gear available for the same price as the inferior stuff.
One important thing to remember maintenance-wise about modern waterproof or water-resistant clothing: they are all treated with some sort of water-repellant finish, like NIKWAX. And like the finish on a car, over time dirt and oils will build up on the surface of these treated fabrics (hard and soft shells alike) and water will no longer just bead up and roll off like it did when new. In most cases a good washing will restore the performance . Most modern laundry detergents have all sorts of additives that you don’t want anywhere near your gear. NIKWAX makes a Tech Wash, but I use Charlie’s Soap, a super-concentrated laundry powder which is just coconut-based detergent and washing soda, with no other crap in it. Unlike the tech wash, it can be used for all of your laundry. The liquid detergent is just as good but the powder is far more economical, so suit yourself. Eventually, you may notice that the fabric “wets out” on the surface even though moisture doesn’t actually penetrate to the inside. That is a sign that it is in need of re-treating and NIKWAX makes fabric-specific wash-in treatments for soft shells and hard shells, a spray-on treatment, and other products for practically everything else including leather boots. CAMPMOR sells the whole line. Knock yourself out…..
Editor’s Note: please read the follow-up post to this one, Risk Assessment & Dressing For Success: Killer Cotton, Wild & Wooly, Or Polyester Leisure Suits, which was inspired by a reader’s comment.