Full confession: I've been living like a homeless person lately. I'm not quaffing sweet strawberry wine behind a dumpster or sleeping on the streets under a cardboard box, mind you, but I have been wearing a certain article of clothing day-in, day-out without fail. The Royal Isle soft shell, from Nike's ACG line of outdoor-centric apparel, got handed down to me by a generous superior a few months back, and since then it's fused to my top layer of skin.
The Royal Isle has stayed glued to my back from office to bar to home and back (not always in that order) mostly because it's pretty damn stylish—with a form-fitting cut, sleek lines, and a goes-with-everything gray color, it's the perfect way for a band-t-shirt-and-holey-jeans guy to look a shade more presentable without really trying. And in the city, it deflects rain with aplomb and keeps me warm (with just said band t-shirt underneath) into the low 40s.
But this is BACKPACKER, after all, and I'd be seriously remiss if I didn't give my second skin a spin in the wilderness. I tested the Royal Isle on a backcountry trip in the Sangre De Cristo mountains of Colorado, where Friday's crisp evening quickly devolved into a two-day, Easter blizzard. On that cold, clear night, temps hovered in the low 20s, and with a Merino wool baselayer the Royal Isle needed added insulation to keep chills away.
But when temps rose to the 30s during the next day, the jacket fabric held its own against horizontal snowfall and howling wind on a snow hike to a 11,000-foot ridge. Most impressive was the Storm-FIT fabric, which stretched to allow a wide range of movement but also repelled wet spring snow in fat beads of water that never soaked through.
Insulation is the jacket's weak point—while it'l block wind and rain with ease, don't expect it to keep you very warm without stout baselayers or added insulation. Also, the Storm-FIT fabric could stand to be a bit more breathable, though it worked fine for moderate climbs in cold weather. (Green bonus: Trims, zipper pulls and cord locks are made from recycled material).
After testing the Royal Isle out in the snow, it finally earned a much-deserved wash (for which my coworkers thanked me profusely). On longer trips, I still might reach for a more technical piece of gear, but it's nice to know if I'm ever drawn into a last-minute hike, ski, or jaunt directly from the office or bar, my second skin will do just fine.
Nike ACG Royal Isle ($59.99)