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Gear Reviews

Outdoor Research Skyward II: Still the Greatest Waterproof Shell

It’s true: BACKPACKER hasn’t given an Editor’s Choice Award to a waterproof shell since 2016. But hear us out.

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The editors at BACKPACKER have a little explaining to do. If you’ve been paying attention, you’ve probably noticed there wasn’t a single waterproof shell among the Editor’s Choice Award winners this fall. Or this spring. Or the fall before that.

In fact, BACKPACKER hasn’t awarded a waterproof shell since the magazine gave an Editor’s Choice (EC) award to the Outdoor Research Skyward II in fall 2016. But, trust me—it’s not because they’ve been slacking off with the testing.

As a former BACKPACKER editor, I can tell you firsthand that BACKPACKER holds new gear to a ridiculously high standard. The editors keep a tight fist on those EC awards. And if nothing in the test can out-perform a previous winner? Well, let’s just say they’re not participation-trophy types.

The Skyward II was the last hardshell to really move the needle on membrane technology. In a sector of the industry where technological advances are usually incremental, that’s a big deal. 

Teal and light blue Outdoor Research Skyward II jacket with AscentShell sits on a white background.
Since 2016, Outdoor Research’s proprietary AscentShell™ technology uses an electrospun process to create a 3L construction that breathes faster, weighs less, stretches more, and far surpasses the comfort of traditional waterproof membranes.

When the Skyward II arrived on the market in 2016, the BACKPACKER staff was immediately impressed: It’s durable and well-featured, but unlike other winter-ready hardshells, it moves and breathes like a softshell. Credit that balance to Outdoor Research’s proprietary AscentShell technology, which changed the waterproof/breathable game by rethinking membrane construction entirely.

Prior to AscentShell, the best waterproof/breathable membranes were comprised of a single sheet of polymer (essentially, plastic) pocked with tiny pores. AscentShell membranes, on the other hand, are electrospun. Tiny nozzles spit out jets of liquid polyurethane, drizzling it into a fine mesh of microscopic fibers. The high ratio of negative space between those fibers provides billions of channels just wide enough for water vapor to escape, making that mesh layer at once incredibly breathable and impermeable to liquid water. The web-like construction also means the membrane stretches and drapes just like any woven fabric (read: no crinkling).

BACKPACKER first tested the Skyward II in winter in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, then on a four-day ski tour of the notorious Spearhead Traverse near Whistler, British Columbia. It shed rain and snow without issue and kept testers dry on sunny uphill hauls. Even the sweatiest members of the team didn’t feel the need to take it off. 

Person in AscentShell Skyward II Jacket and pants stands on a mountain top pulling off a skin from the bottom of a ski while wearing it.
Outdoor Research injected even more stretch into the Skyward’s face fabric to enhance your range of motion while kick turning and long strides while skinning.

Today, three and a half years later, the Skyward II has stood the test of time. Despite years of rigorous testing, the BACKPACKPACKER crew has yet to find anything that’s more breathable or more reliably waterproof. Brands this year are making bold claims about new membrane technologies, but the truth is, it’s all tech BACKPACKER testers have been using for years—in the Skyward II.

So, if you don’t see a shell among the 2019 Editor’s Choice winners, don’t worry that BACKPACKER has lost its edge. The magazine has a full staff of editors, plus an army of gear testers on the job, hunting for the next greatest shell. They just haven’t found it yet. 

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