Emerging from winter with fresh memories of big and beefy equipment making days feel like slogs, the summer months invite the 'light is right' attitude. A good place to start saving weight is on your rain shells.
While the world of ultralight gear was once thought to be reserved for those obsessed with shedding every last gram, these days the concept of fast and light is ubiquitous across the market. Whether it's showery hillwalking and running, weight-conscious backpacking, a rock day in iffy weather, or alpine climbing with limited space, the lightweight waterproof has a place in most summer packs.
At this time of year, lighter softshell trousers come into their own too. Here we're looking at a combination of a shell jacket and softshell trousers.
I've been using The North Face Summit L5 Ultralight Storm Jacket and Summit L1 Climb Pants through spring and into summer, largely on the rainy West Coast of Scotland. As well as being light and packable, are they able to perform? And do they justify the price tag?
Summit L5 Ultralight Storm Jacket £290
The L5 Ultralight Storm Jacket comes in both men's and women's versions. We found the sizing of this jacket a bit unusual. In a size Small, the smallest size available to men, my brother Martin was lost; I'd normally take a Medium but on me the Small is about right. Smaller men are going to struggle to fit the L5 Ultralight Storm, though women do get an XS option.
With many ultralight jackets, saving weight often comes from trimming off areas deemed excessive, and the Summit L5 is no different. The body is not as long as many typical rain shells, which would otherwise protect the full waist and bum area. I am 6ft1 tall, with a short body compared to my leg length, long arms and a slim build overall. The hem sits just below the waist on me and drops to about half bum coverage, which is arguably adequate in merely showery conditions, but less than ideal in a storm. People with a longer body might find it on the short side.
The North Face call the fit slim, which I would agree with, although the body is only slightly tapered. I still have room for a reasonable insulation layer underneath, and this appears sensible since the L5 is targeted primarily at climbers where cold conditions at a belay might require some layering up.
I tend to find I need to compromise between a smaller/slimmer size for the body, or a baggier fit that's long enough in the arms. In this case I find the arm length good, and on me there's adequate volume in the forearm (I'm not built like The Rock so if you have larger forearms/shoulders then you may want to check the fit for movement...). The cut allows for suitable movement when long reaches are needed climbing, and while the hem does lift a little it's not a big deal. Having said that, the undeniably thin nature of the jacket means that I would not expect it to last long if it was being used for climbing hard in.
The 3-layer Pertex shield fabric is designed for lightness and packability, and at 156g in a size S this jacket is clearly both, squashing down to about the size of a potato. With a waterproof/breathable membrane inside, it is also finished with a DWR on the face, and after several months it still seems to bead up nicely. The first impression most people will have is how thin the fabric feels, and whilst it may be durable considering its thickness, I would say it's a bit of a stretch to state - as TNF do - that it 'withstands the extremes of rugged rock faces', as I would be over cautious taking this out on any rough rock. Weight and toughness are always going to be a balance, and when all's said and done this fabric is only 7 denier! That's not to say that it has no place in more rigorous environments, but it is maybe best brought along for the occasional emergency use rather than setting out to wear it all day when actually climbing. Considering the price tag, this is an expensive 'just-in-case' piece.
The Pertex Shield fabric is designed to perform when the wearer is highly active, with the inside finished with a 'dry touch print', apparently to lift the fabric from the skin for comfort and enable the quick transfer of water vapour through to the outside of the fabric. I have used this with a thin base layer, working up a sweat running down-hill on a reasonably humid day and this did seem to work well, wicking moisture away. Understanding the effectiveness of the 'dry touch' is difficult - with a decent sweat, the fabric was still clinging to my skin in sweatier areas, though this obviously is inevitable. Basically, breathability in general seems good - albeit not miraculous.
Stripping back on features that more traditional and durable technical shells would have as standard is commonplace among ultra-lightweight jackets. The Summit L5 delivers on some features, but falls short elsewhere.
The full length waterproof zip is a good addition, since some other ultra-light jackets opt for a less versatile half zip for weight saving. A full length zip allows for good venting when running and makes it easier to put the thing on.
The hood is helmet compatible (a must if using whilst climbing), stiff and pre tensioned, which is welcome - and that's more than you could say for many lightweight shells. There is also a rear draw cord to bring in the fit without the use of a helmet. However this causes the ear/neck area to puff out, which feels a bit odd, and this is made worse because the elasticated sides don't pull into my face as tight as I would like, so in a strong wind a lot of air can blow in and circulate around the head. In short, the hood only works well when paired with a helmet - which even for climbers, is only some of the time you're likely to be wearing it.
A similar minimal and simple semi-elasticated cuff and hem are offered here. I have quite thin wrists, so again this doesn't pull in as tight as I would need in bad weather, although the loose cuff is welcome for venting if you're active in humid conditions.
Finally, the chest pocket features a small stretch mesh insert which I rate, especially for securing a phone in to stop it bouncing around when running. Only one pocket seems adequate on a jacket of this type and the inner mesh doubles as the stuff sack for the jacket, which provides a little extra protection when clipped to the harness.
This is definitely a shell for those who are really serious about saving weight, over and above the toughness, features and longer fit you'd expect in a heavier mountain shell. Its minimal features and relatively delicate fabric would make me think twice about the price tag. It's great for running and packing into a sack in the summer but I would only use this if I had to when climbing rough rock. As usual with a very light shell, its best use is in your pack just in case, while in wear the compromises are evident. In this context it's a decent jacket, but it's worth noting that similar shells are available elsewhere for less money.
The North Face say:
This is our lightest, most packable shell yet, and it's designed to make you move higher and faster on the mountain. Featherweight 7 denier fabric - engineered with Pertex® shield - reduces weight and bulk for optimum mobility, yet withstands the extremes of rugged rock faces. DryVent™ blocks out moisture to keep you dry and fresh through mountainside squalls.
- Sizes: S-XL (men) XS-XXL (women)
- Weight: 156g (size S)
- Slim fit
- Arms-up mobility; built for climbing
- Featherweight 7 denier, waterproof, breathable, seam-sealed Pertex® shield 3L fabric
- 100% windproof fabric
- Attached, pre-tensioned, over-helmet-compatible hood with back adjustment
- Exposed, water-resistant, reverse-coil centre front and chest pocket zips
- Chest pocket features a small stretch-mesh stow pocket with a loop that you can easily clip to your harness while you're climbing
- No-fuss elasticated cuff and hem are lightweight, no fuss and keep out bad weather
For more info see thenorthface.co.uk
A short film featuring the Summit L5 Ultralight Storm Jacket:
Summit L1 Climb Trousers £130
Moving on to the legwear, we're looking at a softshell here rather than a full waterproof overtrouser.
The Summit L1 Climb Trousers are made from 154 g/m² stretch Cordura fabric, a mix of 94% nylon and 6% elastane. My first impression is how thin and lightweight they are, making them well suited to warmer days where I am still looking for some wind resistance, like on a mountain route.
Given their thinness, they have unsurprisingly felt breathable and performed well keeping me cool and dry throughout the day. Breathability is especially good in the waist where the 'Bemis Flowfree' technology has allowed them to strip back lots of material and bulk to provide a clean and comfortable waist, especially with a harness on. I haven't felt as sweaty as I usually would here.
Being picky, I would possibly like something lighter in colour as black does feel like it absorbs a lot of heat once the sun gets on them, while their light cool feel is why these trousers are so attractive.
They are finished with a durable water repellent treatment, which has been effective shrugging off light moisture. I haven't had these out in any significant rain, but I'd not be too concerned if a short lived heavy shower passed through as the trousers dry very quickly.
Although The North Face market these as having 'unparalleled durability against rugged faces', I am sceptical. Granted, the stretch-woven Cordura fabric feels impressively durable for its thickness, but I'd not expect them to stand up better than something more substantial. But arguably that isn't what these are made for and I've been impressed at how strong and abrasion resistant they feel for such lightweight trousers. This fabric also offers a lot of stretch, making high steps and bridging an easy task.
These trousers are available for both men and women, in a good range of sizes - but only on offer in a regular leg length.
I have these in 32" waist which is a good fit for me, albeit slightly large in the waist (though I suspect dropping to a 30 would be too tight in the waist). Rather annoyingly there is no belt/tightening system to correct this. However there are belt loops, and at the price I would have liked a minimalist belt to be provided, to keep the trousers positioned correctly when not wearing a harness.
They are slim in the leg but on me don't feel tight or rub in any areas. The articulated knees and a gusseted crotch make moving and climbing in them a breeze, especially with the added stretch. I'd say a great fit were it not for the lack of a belt!
Being a lightweight pair of trousers they still offer two large zipped hand pockets and one on the bum. Arguably I'd have been happy enough with two but a third is welcome. These are all mesh-lined to increase breathability and I've left these open to add to venting when walking uphill. One thing I like about the pockets is that they are bonded to the leg and don't flip round my leg or bunch like a lot of other trouser pockets.
A single pop button and front top and bottom zipper is used to fasten these, nothing fancy.
If the wind picks up there is a leg hem to bring them in at the ankles, and the elastic can be tucked up inside whilst climbing. The push button for these is hidden inside the seam which gives a nice clean finish, like the rest of these trousers.
These lightweight softshell trousers are stripped down and comfortable when climbing in warm conditions and surprisingly tough for their light build; I just need a belt...
The North Face say:
Our new Summit L1 Climb Trousers are designed for longs days in the harness. Crafted with lightweight, stretch-woven Cordura™ fabric, they deliver unparalleled durability against rugged faces, and optimum range of motion for support on the way up and down. Bemis® Flowfree™ technology allows more airflow through the waistband for incredible comfort.
- Sizes: 30-40 (men) 6-18 (women)
- Slim fit
- Articulated knees; built for climbing
- Stretch woven Cordura® fabric throughout provides exceptional durability
- Clean, bonded waistband construction features Bemis® Flowfree™, which provides excellent breathability, stretch and comfort
- Crotch gusset
- Zip-fly with hidden snap front and bonded belt loops
- Two invisible, secure-zip hand pockets and one invisible, secure-zip back pocket
- Perforated pocket bags for maximum breathability
- Leg hem-cinch system for easy pull up
For more info see thenorthface.co.uk