Lightweight softshell jackets are a summer staple for both walkers and climbers. We compare 11 models here.
A British lowlander has little need for a word to describe firm compacted and refrozen snow but winter mountaineers do; hence we had to pinch ‘névé’ from the French when they weren’t looking. Sometimes we just don’t have the right word to describe a new concept, and this includes trying to describe a shell jacket like the excellent Marmot Nabu. Marmot call it a softshell, but it’s fully waterproof with taped seams. But then, with its thickish, soft backed and stretchy material, it doesn’t feel like your classic hardshell either. I’ve tried saying out loud both “haftshell” or “sordshell” in an effort to come up with a suitable neologism for jackets like these; but both sound kinda stupid. If you can think of something better; answers on a postcard to the normal address please.
The Nabu is Marmot’s second NeoShell haftshell (it doesn’t sound right does it?) after the Zion which I reviewed two years ago. I came to really like the Zion and have used it loads skiing and ice climbing for two season now and the Neoshell is still shrugging off the elements with ease - a good sign for the Nabu. But there’s no escaping the fact that the Zion’s non-helmet compatible hood really limited its appeal to climbers heading out into wild weather. With the Nabu, Marmot has taken that onboard and given the jacket a big hood that goes over your helmet fine; it is not as deep as some British designed hardshell hoods, but fine for me to consider the Nabu a ‘proper’ winter shell.
Otherwise the short list of features is rather similar to the Zion, two big hand warmer pockets that you can still use with a harness on; one small outside chest pocket and one small inside one for valuables. No pit-zips, this is NeoShell - have faith. The Nabu is a bit lighter than the Zion, but not much. At going on 600 grams, it’s the type of jacket that you want to be wearing much more than carrying. It has a soft inside scrim lining that comfy against skin making the jacket fine to wear over just a t-shirt base layer, for example, whilst toiling upward. The soft scrim might also make it a little warmer than 3-ply hardshells tend to be on their own. The outer is a tough-feeling stretchy nylon, ski edges carried over my shoulder, ice axes hooked there and straps of heavy rucksack have failed to make any marks on it. The sewing and finishing looks like the normal high quality I’ve come to expect from Marmot.
I got the Nabu to try at arguably the wrong time of year as I think its more of a winter jacket than a summer one. Nevertheless you can chase ‘winter’ by going up in altitude or latitude, or in our case both. In early May I took the Nabu to the Lyngen Alps in Arctic Norway for a week of ski touring, we had 5 hill days in which I did 6750 mtrs of ascent - so plenty of sweating to test the NeoShell breathability! The weather was a mix ranging from heavy wet snow and sleet causing white out conditons; cloudless skies and fluffy white powder, driving winds barreling down valleys and on one day over the glacial icecap on the summit of the highest peak in Lyngen. For all this the Nabu was great. Neoshell is very breathable - OK, on sheltered lower slopes as you pant your way up a steep skin track no membrane is going to breath enough for the amount I sweat; take the jacket off or expect dampness inside. Once higher and in the wind, I could wear the Nabu more comfortably than I could a goretex whilst still working and sweating hard. But despite the increased breathability the jacket kept me dry when it was actually raining back towards sea level, and has done so since whilst sea kayaking on the Baltic on a choppy, rainy and windy day.
So the perfect (winter) outer-layer? The protection of a hardshell but the wearability of softshell? Well, not quite because Neoshell isn’t completely windproof. It takes quite specific conditions to notice this I suspect, but they are conditions that will be not too rare for winter climbers. In Lyngen I was often just wearing a baselayer, a thin Helly Hansen Lifa on most days, under the Nabu. When skiing up or a 1000 mtrs+ this invariably gets damp, to say the least. Higher on the peaks as air temperature dropped and winds picked up I would pull on the Nabu. Some days we had strong winds, winds that were blowing over ice and snow and where the air temperature was well below freezing. In these conditions, I think amplified by a damp baselayer below and lack of any other layers of insulation, I could feel cold air coming through the jacket. I’ve found I can replicate the sensation wearing the jacket on cool night over just a t-shirt then riding my bike: at about 25-30 kmph, you can feel the air on your arms not covered by the shirt.
This shouldn’t be a surprise; NeoShell is an air-permeable membrane (for a great explanation on how 'air-perms' work - see blistergearreview.com. The fact that NeoShell lets some air through is central to the high levels of breathability the material offers, just as opening the zip or pit-zips on traditional hardshells greatly speeds the ability of the jacket to get rid of the moisture you are building up inside. There is a very fine balance to be struck here; the air permeability of NeoShell keeps you drier underneath for much of the time (or lets your base-layer dry quicker if already wet) than with a traditional shell, but there may be times when you feel colder as a result. My feeling is once you have a mid-layer or -layers on the sensation will become unnoticeable, particular so as people increasingly use for a mid-layer synthetic puffy insulation that has windproof outer of Pertex or similar.
The other mitigating factor is more and more winter climbers using belay jackets in the widest sense of the term; if you wear a NeoShell jacket like the Nabu for winter climbing there is a very good chance that if you need to stop in wild conditions for any length of time, you’ll be pulling a big bundle of primaloft warmth over you in the form of windproof belay jacket. This will of course stop any sensation of cool air coming through the NeoShell too. Due to the dominance of Goretex, we have for decades taken waterproof to also mean windproof but not vice versa. Air-permeable membranes like NeoShell confuse this idea.
Overall I think the Nabu is a great jacket for colder weather pursuits where you are likely to wear it for most of the day. Good levels of breathability allow for wearing it longer in a ‘softshell-eque’ manner, yet the NeoShell stops rain and sleet like a hardshell. But all potential NeoShell users should understand what air-permeability means in real-world usage - you may feel the air moving through the shell in certain situations - and be prepared to think somewhat differently about your shell layers as a result.
The Nabu Jacket utilizes Polartec’s innovative NeoShell Technology. The fabric is waterproof, wind resistant and exceptionally breathable, and the seams of the jacket are fully taped. With its exclusive Polartec PowerDry High Efficiency Backer, the Nabu shifts moisture rapidly to create an optimized internal wear climate. It combines the weather protection credentials of a hardshell with the outstanding moisture regulating performance of a softshell.
The wicking baker helps pull moisture away from your body in all weather conditions. Standard waterproof shells are not able to do this unless an additional coating is applied to the inside of the jacket. This wicking baker helps keep you more comfortable in a wider range of conditions.
The Nabu Jacket utilizes Polartec’s innovative NeoShell Technology. The fabric is waterproof, wind resistant and exceptionally breathable, and the seams of the jacket are fully taped. With its exclusive Polartec Power
Dry High Efficiency Backer, the Nabu shifts moisture rapidly to create an optimized internal wear climate. It combines the weather protection credentials of a hardshell with the outstanding moisture regulation of a performance softshell.
Fully waterproof stretch fabric:
The Nabu jacket is fully waterproof by construction and features taped seams throughout. The face fabric has built in stretch to allow you a full range of motion for any activity.
Features: Polartec Neoshell | Wicking Baker | 100% seam taped | Laminated hood brim | Helmet compatible | Chest pocket | Two large chest pockets | Internal zip pocket | Angel-wing movement
Toby is based in Finland. He describes himself as: "a writer and researcher specialising in international security politics; finally no longer a PhD student; hopeless but enthusiastic climber; part-time gear reviewer; keen multi-role cyclist; idealist and cynic"
Climbing keeps him from getting too depressed about politics. He blogs about both at: