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Gadget Bag: Shells For Nature Photography

Outerwear to make your late-winter and early-spring treks comfortable
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This Article Features Photo Zoom

As we approach the transition from winter to spring, nature photographers’ thoughts turn to getting more time outdoors to take advantage of the changing weather patterns. When one day can feature blowing snow and the next can see temperatures in the 50s, there are some interesting photo opportunities, to say the least.

Keeping comfortable in these conditions is a challenge. Waterproof and breathable outer garments are mandatory, and because temperatures can vary wildly, thinking in layers—a shell, fleece sweater, wicking undergarment—makes more sense than wearing a heavy, insulated parka over a thin undergarment.

The North Face Mountain Light

At the Outdoor Retailer show in 2010, we saw some interesting shells and outerwear technology, which are now available in stores. Many of these innovative garments are ideal choices for photographers. But before we get into specific shells, let’s cover some basics on outerwear technology.

Waterproof/breathable is a term that you see everywhere these days, and it seems that everyone has a proprietary technology with a catchy name for theirs. Most waterproof/breathable shells consist of a membrane that’s laminated to the outer shell material. Back in the 20th century, a DuPont chemist struck out on his own to explore some of the benefits of an interesting molecule, and he discovered that by heating the material up and expanding it (stretching it), the material formed millions of tiny open cells. The cells were so small that water droplets couldn’t get through, but they were large enough to let water vapor pass. The scientist was Bill Gore, and the company he and his wife Genevieve founded, W.L. Gore & Associates, developed the Gore-Tex® membrane.

At the time, there were other waterproof/breathable technologies on the market, but none was anywhere near as effective as the Gore-Tex membrane.

Despite that breakthrough, it took years for garments incorporating Gore-Tex to become universally accepted. As the company discovered, its membrane technology was solid, but the designs of the garments that membrane went into were frequently flawed. Purchasers of those early garments reported failures, but in almost every case it was because of the jacket’s design, not the membrane that failed—poorly incorporated seams, inappropriate materials used in key parts of the garment and other issues led to consumers’ claims that their Gore-Tex jackets didn’t work.

W.L. Gore & Associates embarked on two major campaigns. One was to change the way the membrane could be used by requiring all designs to be approved by the company, and the other was to educate consumers and salespeople on how this revolutionary technology worked. The results of both campaigns were successful. Today, a Gore-Tex hang-tag on a jacket or boots is recognized as a stamp of approval.

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Columbia Omni-Heat Squall

Of course, Gore-Tex wasn’t the only waterproof/breathable technology on the market. For years, there was a debate between the membrane technologies and the coated technologies. Although today, membrane technologies are by far the most common, there are still devotees to coated solutions.

In this article, we focus on shells that use a laminated membrane to create their waterproof/breathable qualities, so let’s talk about how the membrane works. We already mentioned the basics, that the membrane consists of tiny cells that are too small for water droplets but large enough for water vapor to get through. That’s the gist, but to be effective, you need to have one other key component, a driving force. The driving force is usually a combination of heat and humidity.

Your body heat and water vapor from sweat create a driving force when the weather is cold. That driving force pushes the water vapor out (from an area of higher concentration to lower concentration), and even if it’s raining, the driving force is sufficient to prevent water drops from coming in. The upshot is that these garments perform as well as they do through a combination of the membrane and your body’s ability to create a driving force to keep that membrane functioning properly.

Don’t Wear Gore-Tex

In The Rain Forest

If you travel to the tropics, you won’t see a lot of membrane-type waterproof/breathable garments for sale. That’s because in locations where the weather is hot and humid, the driving force we mentioned actually can force water into the garment. In places where the temperature exceeds body temp and there’s high humidity, you can expect to get wetter in such a garment.

We’ve talked about how W.L. Gore & Associates pioneered membrane technology, but today it’s far from the only maker. A number of companies have their own proprietary waterproof/breathable fabrics and membranes, and the technology continues to evolve and improve. Within the scope of a brief article, we can’t possibly cover all of the garments that are available. Instead, we want to give nature photographers a sense of what’s out there and what you might find most useful for your excursions at this dynamic time of year.

Columbia Omni-Heat Squall
Columbia has been active in developing new fabrics and laminates for its garments, and the Omni-Heat line is an excellent example that’s ideal for nature photographers. The Omni-Heat Squall is a shell that has a waterproof/breathable membrane, and lining the inside are tiny reflectors that Columbia says will help draw humidity away from your body as you’re moving (and thus sweating), which helps to keep you warm. The company claims an increase of up to 20% in heat retention. Since moisture is the enemy of heat (your body cools more than 25% faster when it’s wet), we can see how anything that pulls more moisture from the interior would keep you warmer. It’s certainly interesting technology, and the Squall jacket’s low profile keeps the bulk down, and on colder days it can be fitted with a Columbia interchange lining. Estimated Street Price: $250.

The North Face Mountain Light
This perennial favorite features two-layer Gore-Tex membrane construction in a rugged jacket that will withstand years of use. The North Face became famous for its technical wear, which has climbed mountains from the Alps to the Himalayas to the Rockies. While a photographer like Galen Rowell would have made good use of a highly technical shell built for high-level expeditions, most nature photographers find a model like the Mountain Light to be more in keeping with their needs and lifestyle. You can zip in a lining if the conditions warrant it, and the two-layer Gore-Tex membrane construction keeps you warm and dry in rain, snow and cold. Estimated Street Price: $299.

REI Taku

REI Taku
Retailing powerhouse REI has been building their own highly regarded garments for years under the REI brand. The Taku jacket has three-layer REI Element laminate construction—REI’s waterproof/breathable membrane technology—mated to a stretch fabric that’s comfortable and performs in all weather conditions. Designed for aerobic activity, the Taku is a good choice for a photographer who plans to be on the move a lot and isn’t going to have a need for bulky layers under the jacket. Estimated Street Price: $145 to $209 (depending on color and size).

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Mountain Hardwear Typhoon

Mountain Hardwear Typhoon
When weight is really important to you, a jacket like the Mountain Hardwear Typhoon is a good choice. Built with Gore-Tex PACLITE, which is a Gore-Tex membrane that was designed to keep weight to a bare minimum, the Typhoon is a fully waterproof/breathable garment that’s ideally suited to early spring conditions when you don’t want a heavy fleece layer and you’ll be engaged in some activity. There are ample zips for ventilation and just enough in the way of pockets to give you someplace to stow a lens cap while you’re shooting. Estimated Street Price: $200.

Marmot Oracle

Marmot Oracle
Marmot’s proprietary waterproof/breathable technology is called MemBrain Strata, and Marmot claims that its lamination process, which doesn’t require lining or three-layer construction, is lighter and more breathable than the competition. The Oracle features a zip-off hood for days when it really, positively isn’t going to rain (trust us, bring the hood with you anyway), and the jacket’s back design is purpose-made for maximum breathability, waterproofness and durability against abrasion, which is particularly nice for the photographer who tends to carry a large photo backpack on the trail. Estimated Street Price: $165.

Mountain Hardwear
The North Face
W.L. Gore & Associates, Inc.