For years, the choice for waterproof jackets for skiing, backpacking, hiking, climbing, etc. was pretty cut and dry: Gore-Tex and all the other junk. And by other junk, we mean the proprietary waterproof/breathable fabrics that just never quite gained a foothold in the battle against the Gore Goliath. Gore's formula has been part marketing (how many other fabrics have taglines as well known as Gore's "Guaranteed to Keep You Dry"), but bigger part substance: The stuff just works.
Case in point: I bought my first Gore-Tex garment back in 1997, a pair of snowboarding pants from Wave Rave. These pants have been battered, ripped, bruised, dirtied, but they've taken the abuse and kept on repelling water. I've rarely washed them and never Nikwaxed them. They're absolutely bomber and the only time I've ended up with a wet backside is when I tore a hole in the seat from clipping a pine branch.
Thousands of others have had similar experiences to share. The fact is that with a product that good and only a fragmented collection of rivals, Gore has been free to dominate the waterproof/breathable garment market for decades. In a case study on Gore-Tex in his 2007 book Organization Theory and Design, 9th ed., author Richard L. Daft cites Gore Tex's share of the waterproof/breathable fabric market at an estimated 90 percent. Gore-Tex has been untouchable.
But that market stronghold may be just be loosening. Whispers have grown into audible chatter on Gore's biggest competitor: eVent, a fabric that competes on the Gore-Tex Achilles heel: breathability. Once a difficult fabric to find in actual garments, the GE-backed eVent is now readily available in garments from companies like Loki, Rab, REI and Westcomb.
And within the past few months, three major outdoor clothing and textile players have thrown their respective hats into the ring in an all-out war against the outdoors' Big G. All three have introduced fabrics that will breathe better than traditional Gore-Tex fabrics while offering similar water- and wind-proofing.
Growing up, Columbia made an impression on me as the discount outdoor-wear company--the clothes you bought if you were on a tight budget, but looked right past if you wanted the best performance. Last year, Columbia addressed its poor image with a plan to do a 180 and become a leader in outdoor innovation.
Integral in this plan is the new Omni-Dry fabric. Columbia claims the fabric holds up to outside moisture as well as market leaders (read: Gore-Tex) while offering superior breathability. The increased breathability comes from the fact that the polyetheleyne membrane is air permeable, unlike Gore-Tex. It allows air molecules (not wind or water, but air) to circulate inside and vent moisture out. According to Columbia's numbers, its membrane is some 5 x lighter than Gore-Tex, making for lightweight, rapid-breathing garments. Columbia already has a few Omni-Dry jackets for sale and it will be getting more out during the remainder of 2011.
Mountain Hardwear Dry.Q
Mountain Hardwear, which is owned by Columbia, has its own take on waterproof/breathable fabric and it looks a lot like both its parent company's fabric and eVent--at least on paper. Developed with the help of the GE subsidiary that designed eVent, the Dry.Q is air-permeable just like Omni-Dry, meaning that perspiration is filtered out with the help of air circulation and doesn't condense inside the jacket. Mountain Hardwear has a full line of different types of Dry.Q, which it will use to meet the different waterproof/breathable needs of sports like skiing and running. Dry.Q garments will launch in Mountain Hardwear series like Alpine, Snowear and Mountain in fall 2011.
Yep, the fleece company is going full-blown outerwear. And a number of heavy-hitting companies are going with it. Like both Dry.Q and Omni-Dry, polyurethane-based NeoShell sells itself on its air-permeability. And as we've seen before that means better breathing to keep you drier inside. Polartec also claims that NeoShell is 100 percent waterproof. Polartec, however, explains it a little more thoroughly:
"Waterproof technology has remained about the same since the very first hard shell. Breathability is achieved through diffusion: moisture and heat create enough pressure that moisture vapor finally passes through the fabric. Soft shells trade waterproofness for greater breathability by making use of convection: a constant exchange of air allows more moisture vapor to escape.
Now, Polartec® NeoShell® delivers the best of both worlds. Its exclusive membrane allows air to pull moisture vapor out – even at extremely low levels of pressure. So it helps keep you drier during high-exertion activities."
Polartec has already convinced such companies as Mammut, Marmot, The North Face, Vaude and Westcomb. They'll start launching NeoShell garments in fall 2011, with a variety of types of jackets, including a stretchy "waterproof soft shell."
It should be noted that Gore-Tex also has its own new fabric, a lighter, more breathable fabric called ActiveShell. Gore-Tex claims it is half the weight of other Gore-Tex fabrics and more breathable thanks to a thinner membrane and new lamination technique. Unlike the three previously-detailed products, though, ActiveShell is not air-permeable. ActiveShell will launch in garments from partners like Mammut, Adidas and Arc'teryx.
If I had to place bets, I'd say that Polartec's respected name and its network of equally respected partners will make it the most serious competitor to Gore-Tex out of these three. But one thing's for sure: The waterproof/breathable market should be more interesting than it's ever been. Hopefully, these fabrics will deliver on their promise waterproofing/windproofing equal to Gore-Tex with vastly enhanced breathability. Until we get our hands on a few, though, we're left with the company statements...