Soft shells are old news in the outdoor world but are still catching on (again) in the ski biz. The irony, of course, is soft shells can trace their roots to when Maria Bogner created the first stretch ski pants in 1952. The new Patagonia Vapor Bowl Jacket ($350) and Scythe Pants ($275), premier pieces in the Edge Collection, offer skiers unprecedented comfort and performance.
Although Patagonia calls this "hybrid protection," it's actually a soft shell jacket with waterproof/breathable reinforcements. This type of construction is a bit warmer and heavier than a normal hybrid that simply varies the fabrics in different areas according to need.
What sets this soft shell combo apart is the proprietary four-way stretch polyester fabric bonded to a directional pile that adds significant warmth yet is very breathable. Areas that are likely to wet out (shoulders, sleeves, seat, knees) are covered by Deluge DWR-treated stretch nylon with waterproof/breathable coating.
After eight days of backcountry skiing, and several more on-piste, we can give this fabric package a resounding thumbs-up. It breathes well when skinning up long ascents while wearing a pack, blocks the wind effectively when ripping down the slopes, sheds snow and resists snagging on trees. Most of the time, unless it was bitterly cold, just midweight underwear is all the insulation our testers needed.
As you would expect from Patagonia, the cut and detailing are superb. Both jacket and pants allow excellent freedom of movement due to careful tailoring, such as articulated elbows and knees, which is enhanced further by the stretch fabric. The Vapor Bowl has the expected features (powder skirt, zip-off hood, chest and sleeve pockets) as well as some niceties (soft chin, elastic neck cord, hidden chest vents). Similarly, the Scythe Pants have good internal gaiters, a useful thigh pocket and front pockets; hidden thigh vents are nice when skinning on hot days but could be twice as long.
There were some notable problems on our pre-production samples, however. Foremost is significant pilling of the nylon fabric at the shoulder, either due to carrying skis or from pack straps. We'd expect that a customer paying full retail would be rather perturbed and presume Patagonia will be addressing this issue. Also the binding tape used inside the pants has very low abrasion resistance, which is an issue for skiers who wear a knee brace. The pants require using a belt, a minor inconvenience for the sake of fashion, but the belt tunnel tends to roll. And there is no place to attach a wicket on the pants -- a true oversight (the jacket has a holder but that doesn't help if things warm up and you change layers).
Despite these issues, the Vapor Bowl Jacket and Scythe Pants are a great combination for skiing at the resorts and in the backcountry. As many climbers have discovered, once you go soft shell, you'll never go back.
SNEWSÂ® Rating: 4 hands clapping for the jacket and pants set (1 to 5 hands clapping possible, with 5 clapping hands representing functional and design perfection)
Suggested Retail: Vapor Bowl Jacket -- $350; Scythe Pants -- $275
For more information:www.patagonia.com