Our Editor Tim and Founder Henry crossed the ditch to NZ to test out the new waterproof, breathable fabric from The North Face. FUTURELIGHT is promising to totally shake up the industry – so we ditched the numbers and charts for some real-world testing in the backcountry.
It’s easy to think that innovation is guaranteed. That new and better technologies will emerge at a steady pace. That progress is the status quo.
It’s not. Humans are just as good as following the ‘if it ain’t broke’ maxim if it suits them, especially when budgets get involved.
Innovation, as far as I can tell, is either a philosophy or a necessity. ‘Necessity’ explains why so many of our tech gains have cropped up during wartime, it really was life-or-death, but as a philosophy, it’s a pretty different matter. One that’s more often than not born of personality. Think Yvon Chouinard and the birth of free climbing through Chouinard Equipment; Elon Musk revolutionising the space industry with SpaceX; or Scott Mellin ushering in a new kind of outerwear with the birth of FUTURELIGHT.
Most big innovations in the outdoor scene come through lived experience, so it’s no surprise that Mellin, Global General Manager of The North Face’s Mountain Sports division, was out alpine ice climbing when, according to GearJunkie Founder Stephen Regenold, he had the thought ‘Why couldn’t we wear a shell all day, never taking it off?’ Unsurprisingly, he was climbing with athlete Andres Marin, whom he credits for helping him to think outside the box.
Fast forward to 2019 and FUTURELIGHT is coming to Australia. The North Face is claiming that their new waterproof fabric has unrivalled air permeability, lightness and softness, all with less environmental impact. And they’re backing it pretty hard. We’re headed to New Zealand with all of their store managers, most of Head Office and a who’s who of the outdoor industry in the region.
James McCormack, Editor of Wild Magazine is here, along with Quentin Nolan, the owner of Mountainwatch, Natalia Hawk from Miss Snow It All, celebrated Aussie Mountaineer Tim McCartney Snape and the local athlete team, including pro skier Sam Smoothy and pro snowboarder Michaela Davis-Meehan.
Before we hit the slopes
I can’t really give you the verdict before a little bit of an explanation now can I? There’s a LOT going on with FUTURELIGHT, but I’ll try and sum it up nice and succinctly with only a little nerding-out.
What is FUTURELIGHT?
The fabric is a superthin matrix of polyurethane ‘nanospun’ by over 220 thousand tiny nozzles. English? It’s chockas with tiny holes, that like other waterproof fabrics, are 1/20,000th the size of a drop of water, but 700 times bigger than water vapour. Rain doesn’t get in, but sweat, in the form of water vapour, can move out.
So how’s it different from other waterproof fabrics? According to The North Face, it’s way better, and doesn’t need to compromise durability, breathability or waterproofing to perform. They got it tested by a third-party lab to back themselves up too. While numbers are still a bit thin on the ground at the moment, the material surpassed US waterproofing standards for first responder gear (that are 50% tougher than those for the outdoor industry), all while achieving the highest Moisture Vapour Transmission Rate that they’d ever seen. Holy dooly.
Customised abilities for every application
There’s more. The nano-spinning process allows The North Face to customise the properties of the fabric for different applications. This has allowed them to use FUTURELIGHT in everything from the Flight Series running jackets, to burly Summit Series jackets for the Himalayas (they’ve already proven themselves on all kinds of expeditions, including this ski-descent of Lhoste). This means the applications are pretty endless and thanks to the thinness of the FUTURELIGHT fabric, The North Face isn’t nearly as compromised when choosing fabrics to bond to the waterproof layer.
Hear that? Didn’t think so. Possibly my favourite thing about FUTURELIGHT is its softness. The jackets feel more like cotton than plastic and are dead quiet. They scrunch down to bugger-all too. Colour me impressed.
Here’s the bit where we find out that FUTURELIGHT is an environmental bandito right? Actually, Captain Planet would be pretty stoked on this one: they’re made from over 90% recycled materials, in solar-powered factories that treat their workers right and sport a PFC-free DWR finish. Yeah, the treatment that helps water bead and run off the jacket doesn’t leach toxic perfluorocarbons into the environment like traditional rain jackets.
Shit ok. I can see why The North Face have thrown their whole marketing budget at this one. If FUTURELIGHT can live up to these claims it’s really going to be a huge step forward for waterproof tech.
How’d FUTURELIGHT hold up?
I’m wearing a kitout from The North Face. Free Thinker Jacket, waterproof pants with suspenders and gloves all featuring the speccy new FUTURELIGHT material. Dressed in our matching kit, we file off the bus at the Remarkables ski area like little orange minions – but the lifts aren’t running.
It’s genuinely warm in the sun, nearly 10 degrees, and the ski field has packed it in for the season. Despite the t-shirt-and-jandals weather, we’re kitting up in our waterproofs to go backcountry. Guides from Adventure Consultants are going to take us up and over the hill to ski some slushy couloirs. Rad.
My group includes James McCormack from Wild, Paul Karis, the GM of The North Face in Aus and NZ, and Mat Woods, Head of Sales at Cardrona Ski Resort. As we ski upwards I chat to Paul, and I’m reminded of Scott Mellin being inspired to push innovation at The North Face by getting out there – I’m stoked to see that Paul does the same.
Up we go (with a sunny disposition)
It’s hot. Conditions are even warmer than the Aussie backcountry a couple of weeks back, up to 10 degrees. I’m in full polypro thermals beneath my waterproofs and I’m skiing uphill over a mountain range. Few things get the body as warm. So am I sweating in torrents?
I’m not. I want to clarify, I am sweating, and I’ve rolled my thermals up beneath the jacket. FUTURELIGHT won’t cool you down, but I’ll be damned… I really don’t need to take it off.
When you de-layer, it’s usually because you’re feeling stuffy and want some airflow, but it feels like the heat is just zapping straight through the thin material. I crack the side zips on the pants and lower the zip on the jacket and continue upwards. There’s no way I could be doing this wearing thermals under traditional waterproof gear.
The best bit? With my thermals rolled up on my arms I’m now wearing the FUTURELIGHT directly against my skin, and it feels fine. That’s proper wild. I could be wearing a lightweight tee and undies under my waterproofs if I wanted.
Sweat’s getting out, but is water getting in?
It’s not long until I get to test the actual waterproofing. An unfortunate tumble down the second coliour covers me in soggy snow (and exposes my inadequacies to my elite crew). Yet despite having a yard sale and getting melty ice everywhere, I’m bone dry and I plop my butt directly in the snow for lunch.
I haven’t even had to take my insulated gloves off – despite their ‘very cold’ rating, the FUTURELIGHT is allowing them to breathe in these warm conditions.
Back in Aus, I wear the jacket in a downpour while walking through some Victorian rainforest and unsurprisingly, the material keeps the rain comfortably at bay. However I do have to chuck on a jumper as we saunter down to the blustery beaches. While the material is definitely windproof, a slight breeze does make its way through, and the thin material doesn’t trap any warmth. This is definitely a positive – it’s always better to be able to layer up.
There’s a bit of stretch in the FUTURELIGHT material too. This means it’s comfy for all the movements of skiing (or climbing, hiking and running) and easily moves with the layers beneath. You kind of forget that it’s on – all the pockets are thoughtfully placed and a decent size and the toggles just work, even with gloves on.
But will it last?
The final thing that we demand of waterproof gear (and we demand a LOT) is that it lasts. Obviously I can’t say for sure how the new kit will perform in the long term, but a few things are in its favour:
- Professionals are using it on tough, multi-day expeditions
- 40D nylon is pretty strong
- When carrying my skis on my shoulder, the sharp metal edges left no mark
- They’ve been testing it for two years
- It resisted my soy latte spill
I’ll check back in after I’ve had some more time for testing, but I’m pretty confident that if you throw down for FUTURELIGHT gear, it’s going to be with you for a long time.
Welcome to the revolution
It’d be easy to write this off as some junket, designed to lube me up for some choice words on rehashed waterproof tech – but that’s far from the truth. The North Face didn’t have to put us up in the sustainable Sherwood Hotel in Queenstown, take the time to invite Darren Rewi Ngai Tahu kaumatua (an elder) for a traditional Māori greeting or bring store managers over – some who had never had the chance to ski in their lives.
They also didn’t have to disrupt the outdoor industry like this – it’s safe to say that the company is doing pretty well. But what I saw on the weekend was a company run by staff who were not only inspired to excel at their work, but genuinely connected to it through a shared love of the outdoors and the way it affects the human condition. When you put a bunch of people like that together, anything’s possible.