Some reviews are harder to write than others, and this particular one has given me a terrible bout of ‘white page syndrome’. I was sent the Marmot Zion jacket by Polartec back in July. They asked if I could try it out because it’s made with a new Polartec fabric called NeoShell which they were saying some very bold things about. I’ve been wearing it at least two days per week ever since and I think now’s the time to report back.
I accept that I’m generally quite enthusiastic about outdoor gear, and that GearWeAre’s reviews tend to trend towards 4 & 5 Hammer ratings (mostly because we don’t get sent much crap gear), but the Marmot Zion jacket is special. Of all the gear that I’ve reviewed in the last few months it is probably my favourite single item.
Polartec NeoShell is the new boy on the waterproof breathable market, released earlier this year against very stiff competition from market leaders GoreTex, eVent and various other similar membranes. NeoShell is made from a microscopically small doodle of polyurethane strands. In between these strands are holes which are too small for water droplets to pass through (even ones under a great deal of force), but large enough for both air and water vapour molecules to pass through. What that means is that your evaporated sweat can waft through the meshwork, but the rain can’t get in. The strands are then glued, using tiny dots of glue, to a backing fabric of polyester (tough stuff) and a face fabric (the outer surface of the jacket). The glue dots are so small that they don’t block the holes between strands.
Polartec are claiming that NeoShell is more breathable than GoreTex, but slightly less waterproof. However, they say that NeoShell is waterproof enough (10,000mm on the Hydrostatic Head) that you’ll never be lacking in protection, and that the difference isn’t noticeable in practice. Furthermore Polartec say that NeoShell does something called ‘Active Transfer’ of moisture. What that means is that, where GoreTex relies on heat and moisture to build up inside the jacket and create a pressure difference to push moisture through the membrane, NeoShell just shoves moisture through regardless of temperature and humidity differences. Complicated stuff.
Polartec have developed two flavours of NeoShell for 2011. One with a smooth backing fabric, which is used in lightweight rain jackets, and a fleece-backed version which is used in more winter-oriented jackets like the Marmot Zion. So from here on in, I’m talking about the latter.
When brand-new, the Zion jacket is slightly stiff and crispy. It holds its shape and makes you feel a little like a mannequin in GAP. But surprisingly for this it’s a quiet material. You don’t get the ‘Shoop Shoop’ noise of a hardshell as your arms swing. And it looks great too. I’ve had experienced outdoorsy types remark on what a nice looking jacket it is, which I think is in part due to its crisp lines. It’s bold in colour, but can carry that off because it’s quite simple.
The cut of the arms and torso are slim, but long enough that raising your arms or bending over won’t expose skin to the elements. Antisymmetric cuffs mean that the backs of your hands are a little more protected from the weather and your palms are free to grip things. Simple Velcro closures work very well to keep out wind.
All of the zippers are waterproof, and very reassuringly firm in use. They’re quite an effort to do up, which you can imagine is the seal being created as they close. The main zipper has a rain baffle inside, and a chin guard which is very comfortable and necessary since the neck easily covers my mouth.
The hood is warm and windproof. It’s lined with the same fleecey NeoShell which can gently tug at your hair a bit when you twist your head, but I’m fine with that. It has adjusters which work brilliantly for sealing things down in high winds, and whilst the hood peak isn’t wired (it’s laminated) I didn’t experience a problem with it in even the worst Welsh rain. The hood adjusters are finished inside the hood so they don’t flap around, which is a nice touch.
Generous and warm hand-pockets are on both sides and positioned high so they work with a harness. There are also chest and arm pockets which are useful for car keys and MP3 player. The chest pocket has a headphone outlet on the inside of the jacket.
Hiking in the latter half of the summer I did get too hot, and I did get too sweaty but I was pushing the limits of what the Zion is designed for. Hiking in late Autumn I’ve had no sweat build up at all and have worn the Zion with everything from a cotton T-shirt to woolen base-layers. It is warm and cosy and a nice place to be inside of.
SUMMARY: Polartec’s NeoShell fabric is absolutely superb – waterproof, windproof and exceptionally comfortable in most activities. Marmot’s jacket is styled to look good everywhere from the summit of Snowdon to the bar at your local. It fits and works as an active jacket should and is going to protect you from the worst of the British weather. I absolutely love this jacket.
More: Marmot (US Site)