March 2008 Essentials Review: Shell Jackets

Best Buy

Outdoor Research Revel

Some shells crinkle so loudly you can't carry on a conversation. Others seem to stiffen at the first sign of cold weather. No such problem with the Revel (Reflexa is the women's version). "The Pertex fabric is buttery-soft and stretchy, but it's no slacker in the rain," said our gear editor. The full-length side zips, combined with better-than-average breathability, kept her from overheating during a long climb up the Sand Creek Trail in Colorado's Sangre de Cristo Range. The Revel has one of the best stashable hoods we've seen: Whereas many others are bulky, stiff, and ear-high when rolled away–creating a sort of Elvis-circa-1968 look–the Revel's is unobtrusive, with a brushed liner that's cozy on the chin. Fit is dialed: shaped enough to look good, but roomy enough for layering. Available in men's S-XXL, women's S-XL. $150; 11.8 oz. (women's M);


GoLite Virga

Things that weigh around 8 ounces: Two king-size Snickers. A pocket-size Leatherman. And the GoLite Virga, which also packs down smaller than an orange. How? A minimalistic design (just two big hand pockets and an elasticized hood) and a thin waterproof/breathable fabric (called Alchemy) that's silkier than most hard shells. The Virga rebuffed Colorado hailstorms on multiday treks and kept us dry during drizzly trail runs, and it has a slim, efficient fit. The fabric isn't as breathable as others in this review, and the non-adjustable hood tended to blow off in strong winds. But if you're a die-hard ounce-counter on a budget, those are small sacrifices. Available in men's S-XL, women's XS-XL. $80; 8 oz. (men's M);

Most Breathable

Westcomb Specter LT Hoody

Listen up, sweathogs! This eVent jacket never got more than slightly damp on the inside, even during high-exertion outings, like a 24-mile snowy hike in the Sawtooths. "It's so breathable I didn't even miss pit zips," wrote one editor. The design is ultra-minimalist, with just a single chest pocket and an iPod-size inner pouch, but the hood has both rear and side adjustments for a dynamic fit. The waterproof front and pocket zippers let Westcomb shave a few more ounces by eliminating zipper flaps. All testers loved the easy-to-layer-under fit. Available in men's S-XXL, women's XS-XL. $250; 10 oz. (men's M);

Arc'teryx Epsilon SV Hoody

When one of our testers wore the Epsilon on a trip to Great Sand Dunes National Park, she got more compliments than a contestant on America's Next Top Model, thanks to the tailored, just-right fit. But this waist-length soft shell has more than just a pretty face fabric. During a snowy, early-morning skate-skiing session, it was breathable enough to avoid that clammy feeling and weatherproof enough to keep out breezes and light precip. But, as with most soft shells, the Epsilon is not waterproof. Think of it as lightweight insulation with great weather and abrasion resistance. Nice touches: The fuzzy interior lining is cozy; the adjustable hood is structured enough to stay put; and the stretchy cuffs are offset–shorter on the palmside–to improve dexterity. Available in men's S-XXL, women's XS-XL. $199; 1 lb. (men's M);

The North Face Triumph Anorak

This is one of those elegantly simple designs that's as aesthetically pleasing as it is functional. Take the hood: It looks basic, but the brim is perfectly carved for peripheral vision, stiffened just enough (a rarity in ultralight jackets), and sewn without a fraction of wasted fabric. Otherwise, the Triumph is a featherweight, waist-length anorak that squashes smaller than a softball and is totally waterproof. The proprietary Hyvent membrane is laminated to a Tyvek-thin shell material that's much more breathable than other Hyvent jackets we've tried, though still a tad clammier than eVent. It lacks coverage and venting for prolonged rain, but the Triumph is a terrific choice for either superlight trips or summer outings, when basic coverage for short afternoon soaks is sufficient. Available in unisex S-XL. $179; 5.4 oz. (M);