Rob's Blog Archive

December 20, 2015

My Fetish with Parkas










Two and a half years ago, I started looking for a new parka.  My old Wintergreen Design had wear from many miles and holes from lots of hard spills.  Unfortunately, the company that had bought Wintergreen Design clothing had gone out of business, so simply replacing the parka wasn’t an option. 

Around the same time there were glowing reports about how well softshell fabrics were doing.  Along with this, my REI softshell pants were great:  they breathed well, were adequately waterproof for pants, and wore like iron. 

I bought three softshell parkas that spring, all on sale, of course.  All three did okay, but all either failed in ultra cold weather---it’s more than just breathing---or weren’t adequately water repellent given their weight.  Starting at 20 oz, they were heavy for unlined parkas. 

I bought two more parkas—actually duplicates---from LL Bean that fall.  Plain nylon anoraks, bang for the buck, these remain the best parkas I have ever bought.  They’re quite featureless, but also very light.  They weigh in at 15 oz.  Still, they had the main adjustments I wanted---a hood that I could adjust to my heart’s content.  To date, neither shows any wear. The LL Bean jacket and an old 15 oz. Cabelas/Gore-Tex were what I brought on the Iditarod Trail two years ago as my main and rain parka respectively.  Unfortunately, LL Bean dropped them---the reason I had two was because I had an inkling they might do just that.

A year and a half ago, I revisited the parka issue.  I got two new waterproof-breathable parkas, both Patagonias, and a Patagonia ultra light wind parka.  While I’ve become less impressed with the softshell parkas as I’ve used them, I’ve become more impressed with the durability of the new ultralight fabrics.  I took a spill biking down my driveway that split my helmet, but only resulted in a tiny patchable hole in my 4 oz. Patagonia parka.   Its brother, the ultralight waterproof-breathable parka, weighs in at 7 oz.  The full weight waterproof breathable parka—another anorak actually---weighs in at 11 oz. 

Early this fall, I started revisiting the parka issue once more.  Mountain Hardwear had developed a new set of fabrics based on the Event waterproof-breathable barrier, and these were getting great reviews, particularly regarding breathability.  Beyond that, the full duty Gore-Tex parka I bought in 2007 had seen better days and replacing my heavy duty rain parka hit my to-do list. 

In addition to replacing old gear, I hoped that the new fabric might actually work in ultra-cold temperatures.   My theory is that dust plays a critical role in moisture transport in cold weather clothing.  If it can pass through a hydrophobic insulator, like foam, it’s a center on which water from sweat can freeze and then continue to cool.  With this, the difference in heat between water at our body temperature and ice crystals on a piece of dust becomes available to help keep us warm.  For this process to be optimized, the dust has to be able to pass through all the layers of fabric, as well.  It’s a variant on a process called enthalpic heat exchange.  Yes, I still have a passion for physics. 

Regardless of the process, people have always gone to straight up nylon for the coldest expeditions.  That’s what my old Wintergreen Design parka was.  That’s also what the primary parka I’ve been using over the past two years, the LL Bean anorak, was.    I’m also pretty sure that I can feel which outer garments will work and which won’t by testing them with my old Northern Outfitters foam jackets.  That’s what I did to determine that the one softshell parka that was adequately waterproof wasn’t that good for ultra cold weather.

And so, I bought two of the new Mountain Hardwear jackets.  One had their super-breathable fabric, Dry-Q Elite, and the other was specifically designed for doing highly aerobic activities like running and skate skiing in winter cold, Dry-Q Active.  Pretty quickly, I was sure that neither was as good at keeping me warm in really cold weather as my old Wintergreen Design parka or the LL Bean Anoraks.  Still, I was impressed with the breathability.  The three softshell jackets and Patagonia anorak are history.   

I liked the Dry-Q Active parka a lot, and it took longer to determine that it wasn’t going to work as well as straight nylon parkas.  With my first tests and a great price, I bought a bigger version of the same jacket.  I paid $90 including shipping for a parka that retails for $200.  What I knew was that I’d be able to use both Dry-Q Active parkas until they wore out. 

The rain parka I’ll probably take on the trail with me is a lightweight version of the Mountain Hardwear Dry-Q Elite Parka.  That one, I paid $105 for, including shipping, and it lists for $240.  Of course, it’s a color that Mountain Hardwear is evidently dropping, even though it’s the available color I prefer.  It’s two ounces heavier than the Dry-Q Active parka, but has features I prefer, particularly a very adjustable hood.  Also, while not as good as straight up nylon at keeping me warm, I think it’s second best. 

The other event of significance regarding the world of arctic parkas is that, like the phoenix, Wintergreen Design reappeared this fall.  With this, they now also have an unlined anorak matching my old favorite full zip nylon parka.  This, I paid full retail for.  I don’t think that parka has ever gone on sale.  At $250 plus an extra $30 for a zipper for the ruff I already own, I wasn’t going to complain. 

The Wintgreen Design Anorak arrived a couple of days ago.  I take it off to go to sleep, but not a lot else.  Just like the original, the workmanship and design are impeccable.  It’s only flaw, that there isn’t enough back adjustment on the hood, took me about thirty minutes to fix.  That included pulling my sewing machine out, threading the needle---not as easy as it used to be, and putting it away.  As for the parka, I took it out x-c skiing on the longest run I’ve done to date as well as several yard times.  Using the LL Bean anorak as my main winter parka was a workable stretch.  The Wintergreen Design Anorak is tried and true over many years of arctic travel. 

So, all told, I’ve bought thirteen brand new parkas over the past two and a half years.  Okay, it’s actually fourteen parkas and I didn’t mention another LL Bean parka I bought a little over a year ago.  Others may think that I have a problem.  My response will be that I had to replace old gear as well as check out new designs and fabrics.  I can quit any time.  And I actually do take my Wintergreen Design Anorak off before I go to bed.

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