Marmot Zion Jacket

About as far as you can do the zip up with the helmet on. © Toby Archer
About as far as you can do the zip up with the helmet on.
© Toby Archer
NeoShell, made by Polartec, has been the 'big new thing' of this winter season and the companies using the material have all been excited about their new products made from it. Marmot's Zion has been prominently featured in the company's marketing for this season. This review will endeavour to answer two questions from the point of view of a winter climber and outdoor sports enthusiast: Firstly, is this NeoShell all that it is cracked up to be? And, secondly, what is the Zion like as a jacket over all?

My tentative answer to the first is that as long as you understand that a material can't bend the rules of physics and physiology, then yes – it's a pretty impressive fabric. My answer to the second question, is that for a winter climber the Zion has some problems stemming from its design.

NeoShell's hydrostatic head, the measure of how waterproof the material is, isn't as high as the market leaders' Gore-Tex and eVent but I've found this doesn't mean it isn't waterproof. In desperation to get the first leads of the ice season done, recently I went out ice climbing one afternoon when the temperature went back up above freezing. The weather was making no pretence to even sleeting, it simply rained on us all afternoon and evening. Wearing the Zion over just a base layer, I was impressed to find myself completely dry inside. Not only did the NeoShell keep all the rain out (the outside of the jacket was very wet); the highly breathable nature of the fabric had ensured no clamminess inside from sweat.

Last winter, I was pretty impressed when trying Gore-Tex Pro Shell for the first time, thinking it was noticeably more breathable than earlier forms of that material, but I'm now certain NeoShell is another step up in terms of breathability. As stated earlier: don't expect miracles, a fabric can only let sweat out, not stop you from sweating in the first place, but in the past I would have never used a membrane shell for a highly aerobic activity like running or cross country skiing. Yet I've now used the Zion for both of these. Yes, some sweat does build up inside the jacket (I've even seen some icing along the seam tape after XC skiing on a very cold evening) but when you stop or slow down, it quickly dissipates.

 

"Not only did the NeoShell keep all the rain out; the highly breathable nature of the fabric had ensured no clamminess inside from sweat."

Polartec explain that the increased breathability comes from actually letting some air through the fabric, making an 'active exchange' that doesn't happen in Gore-Tex and the like. Polartec claims you can't perceive this exchange, although before even reading that I did wonder whether it felt in going out into very cold temperatures as if air was coming through the fabric. But, even if I really could perceive this, the feeling went away as soon as I was warmed up and I've found the jacket completely windproof.

Overall, whilst the Zion may not be as breathable as a Pertex windproof or a stretch-woven softshell, it is not far from being so, and those materials are nowhere close to being as waterproof as NeoShell is. It's notable that the Zion doesn't have pit zips, but I think this is the right decision, as I at least haven't wanted them once.

 

Marmot Zion © Marmot

Features:

 

  • Polartec NeoShell waterproof/breathable stretch Softshell fabric
  • 100% Seam Taped - For full waterproofness
  • Attached Storm Hood with laminated brim
  • Water-resistant CF zip
  • Chest Pocket with water-resistant zip
  • 'Pack Pockets' with water-resistant zips
  • Sleeve Pocket with water-Resistant zip
  • Asymmetric Cuffs with Velcro adjustment
  • Internal Zip Pocket
  • Elastic Draw Cord Hem
  • 'Angel-Wing' arm movement
  • 29" centre Back Length for Size Medium

In this respect, Marmot's decision to classify the Zion as a soft shell is interesting. The material is thick and tough but stretchy. I can climb in it with no dragging or resistance but a gnarly mixed chimney, where my shoulders and back were used a lot, left no mark on the jacket beyond some dirt. The toughness does means though that the jacket is no lightweight at 680 grams in medium. The inner of the jacket is a thin fleece which makes it warm, very comfy against the skin and must also help it to wick.

 

"I've been wearing it ice climbing with just a merino base underneath and have been fine at temperatures down to about –6 or –7 when active."

In terms of warmth, I've been wearing it ice climbing with just a merino base underneath and have been fine at temperatures down to about –6 or –7 when active. With a midlayer (I've been testing it with the Marmot Variant top) it is really warm, although if you are climbing or hiking fast in anything but very cold or wild conditions you may overheat. I know some people still take a lightweight waterproof along with a soft shell into the mountains, but with the NeoShell I don't think this is necessary, and the Zion's multi-role nature is definitely its strength.

Mixed climbing in the Zion (thanks to Joel Ormala for the photo). © Toby Archer
Mixed climbing in the Zion (thanks to Joel Ormala for the photo).
© Toby Archer
Ice climbing in the Zion (thanks to Eärendel Fingerson for the photo). © Eärendel Fingerson
Ice climbing in the Zion (thanks to Eärendel Fingerson for the photo).
© Eärendel Fingerson

UKC gear reviewer Toby Archer wearing a Neoshell Marmot Zion Jacket © Toby Archer
UKC gear reviewer Toby Archer wearing a Neoshell Marmot Zion Jacket
© Toby Archer
I've been wearing the jacket almost everyday for the last three months, just about town during the day and for skiing, running, hiking and ice climbing at the weekends and evenings. So although it's not years of wear, nothing has worn, broken or shows any signs of doing so far. After a few years of using a number of Marmot products, I feel that their manufacturing quality is better than most and as equal to the best. The Zion reinforces that opinion: the sewing is tight, neat and nicely finished.

Little things like the 'zip garages' work perfectly and drawcords all work fine one handed. The pockets are well laid out and work with a harness and little flourishes like the 'port' to allow a headphone cable to go from inside your jacket to your iPod in your chest pocket are both cute and work well.

But unfortunately there is trouble in paradise. I feel the hood design rather lets down an otherwise very clever jacket. This is coming very much from the perspective of a climber (but then this is a climbing website!) - the hood is simply too small to work well with helmet. You can just about get the hood up over a helmet, but then it is impossible to zip the jacket up fully without seriously crushing your face and stopping all neck movements! As even many skiers wear helmets these days, I can't really see any logic to making a serious mountain jacket and then putting a non-helmet compatible hood on it?

 

"There is trouble in paradise. I feel the hood design rather lets down an otherwise very clever jacket."

Even more oddly the hood is a pretty serious design in that it has a stiffened peak (although I think they work better when the drawcords go all the way around the hood rather than just up to the start of the peak). It's substantial nature is noticeable when for instance you are putting a belay jacket on or taking over-the-shoulder slings off, so you have the hassle of a big hood without the full benefits. The hood my Marmot Alpinist hardshell is fantastic so it's not like Marmot don't build great mountain hoods – they have just chosen not too here for a reason I don't understand.

Summary

The Zion is a nice jacket made out of impressive material but I can't help feeling Marmot have missed a trick here. It truly is a 'waterproof softshell' which means you should be able to dump your hardshell and rely on this as an outer layer for all mountain conditions; but until it has a fully helmet-compatible hood it will still be something of a compromise for winter climbers. We are getting closer to the perfect winter climber's jacket for the cold but often soggy hills of the British Isles, but we're not quite there yet.

 

 


Marmot Genesis softshell jacket: Toby ice climbing in North Wales © Toby Archer

About Toby Archer

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:

Light from the North - chilled thoughts from the top of Europe.



For more information visit Marmot/Zion


14 Feb, 2012
Nice review Toby. I like the look of this NeoShell stuff, but the question is now that the review is done, will you be going back to the Speed Ascent? Perhaps invalid question as one is very warm and one not, but assuming you layered up a bit under the Zion - which would you pick? Not that I am giving up the SA any time soon.
14 Feb, 2012
Interesting question Nick. When I do a jacket review like this, I tend to wear it for everything, just so I can 'get the wear in' and see if anything breaks as much as anything else. So when I finally wrote this and sent it off, it was almost a relief the next time I went out that I could wear what seemed best for the day. It happened I had agreed with Eärendel who, as you know from his camping is totally impervious to cold, to go out with him one day when it turned out to be about -22. He was of course still keen, so I had to man up and at least go and belay him! That day I was very happy to wear the Speed Ascent as it has a lot of its own warmth in it, and is more breathable than any membrane shell, soft or hard, which is good when you are hiking in with various layers on. But the Zion is pretty impressive except the hood issue. I haven't actually worn much under it generally. Down to about -5 it has been fine with just a base layer under it as long as I just use a belay jacket when not climbing/walking. On colder days, a light base layer than this funky Marmot variant jacket (review coming very soon). The night Eärendel and I went out and it just rained was perhaps most impressive of all in some ways as were got drenched (it was +1 or 2) and I just had a merino t-shirt under it. That's the warmth of the Zions velour-like inner. A goretex shell would have felt pretty cold and clammy i reckon next to the skin on my arms. If Marmot put a good hood on it, I really reckon the Zion would be excellent for the UK where you really do get rain sometimes when going up or coming down from winter climbs. Here, things like the Speed Ascent work so well because its so rare to get rained on as part of an ice climbing day.
14 Feb, 2012
Just like to back up what Toby has said about the Zion in cold temps as I have been wearing one too, similarly to Toby in sub-freezing temps with a merino wool base and merino wool mid-layer doing both high and low aerobic activities. Tomorrow I am visiting Polartec at their HQ in Lawrence, Massachusetts. I will be witnessing the testing of waterproofness (hydrastatic head) and the measuring of moisture vapor transmission rate as related to Neoshell used in the Marmot Zion, and also looking at other types of Neoshell. I will of course report back with an article. All the best, Mick
15 Feb, 2012
Great article. Very objective- as ever Toby. There's no danger you could be accused of being in Marmot's pocket. I definitely feel the Neoshell stuff hasn't been sufficiently promoted and marketed yet. I know it's fairly new, but I was in Montreal recently and went to a few outdoorsy retailers. I was met with blank looks when I enquired about Neoshell I endured a short and patronising lecture from one shop manager telling me I was definitely mistaken- because 'Polartec only make insulating fabrics'! Anyway, UKC please wangle a shot of the Rab jaiket in this fabric and do another write up. Now I've ruled out the Marmot I need to know if the Rab should be my next purchase. Ta very much. And a note to Polartec- please ensure your models have a bath before the next photo shoot.
15 Feb, 2012
nice article mr A. as a neoshell user over this winter as well, id say spot on - even tho the neoshell in the zion and what ive been wearing is very different in weight and texture, your fundamental description is the same (the jacket is also quite similar in design - tho i hail the hood on mine ha ha) i too wondered about the zions softshell genus, but have a feeling its so they can still flog their regular hardshells as well (call me cynical). hoping not to muscle in on your review, i find the ultimate test of venting and breathability actually comes with leg wear, and after wearing a neoshell bib much of winter have found it - like you have with your zion there - to breath well and be water resistant, even tho its a ski-specific design with only small vents at the top of the legs. glad you like the stuff too, and its not just me getting gear-dazzled with techy new stuff.
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