Before the invention of waterproof materials people were sad.
Then, in 1824, the first rubber raincoat was invented. I shall venture into the rain without getting wet, thought many people, and this idea made them happy. Unfortunately, while these jackets did keep the rain out, they also kept the sweat in, trading cold and wet for hot and wet. Humans continued to be sad.
All seemed solved in 1970 when Gore patented Gore-Tex, a fabric that promised to be both waterproof and breathable. For decades we excited masses dawned our flannel shirts, piled into our Subarus, and lined up at our local outdoors stores to spend many dollars so that finally we could go into the rain. Yet somehow we were still wet. The jacket doesn’t keep the rain out! Better buy a more expensive one, us flannel wearing, Subaru drivers thought. Many additional dollars were spent, but we were still wet. Only then did we realize that (as Andrew Skurka has points out in his definitive series on the topic HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE) breathability is measured on a spectrum, and while, yes, Gore-Tex is “breathable,” all that “breathable” means is that the slightest amount of sweat can escape. Again we were sad.
And so, the soft shell was born. By changing the goal of being “waterproof” to “water-resistant” designers realized that they could let a lot more sweat out while only letting a little more rain in. Best of all, being made of slick fabrics they were comfortable to wear and dead sexy.
Yeah, I said it: dead sexy.
But soft shells aren’t perfect either. They are heavy, and, because they are designed to be a one jacket battery, tend to be quite warm. But don’t worry, wonderful hikers, RailRiders is here and they have the answer. Its called the WeatherTop.
RailRiders Weather Top
PROS: Comfortable, tough, absurdly breathable
CONS: I once tried to wear it to the store and Angie wouldn’t let me out of the house
SHOULD I BUY IT: YES.
At first glance you might think that I am crazy. For one, this jacket doesn’t look like a soft shell, it looks like a wind breaker. Railriders doesn’t even use the term “soft shell” on their website. But it is probably worth stepping back and thinking about what a soft shell really is.
First of all, a soft shell is soft. This might sound obvious, but one of the things people like about soft shells is that they are more pliable than rain shells. The WeatherTop has this in spades. Being made of the same 2ply, 3oz nylon as their Adventure Pants and VerstaTac Light Pants (both of which I review HERE) the WeatherTop is lighter and more flexible than any other soft shells I own.
Second, a soft shell is a shell, meaning it keeps the elements out. On the waterproofing side, Railriders accomplishes this using a Durable Water Resistant (DWR) finish, just like most other soft shells. Like the name entails, DWR finishes are not waterproof, and though durable, tend to wear over time. In this way the WeatherTop is just about as good at keeping the rain out as any other soft shell (read: light showers or snow=good, rain=okay, downpour=find your tent and wait it out). Where the WeatherTop excels, however, is at dealing with other types of weather. Unlike my other soft shells the WeatherTop is completely wind proof and has a high collar that is great for sun protection.
So, the WeatherTop is unquestionably a soft shell, and a damn good one at that. But, if you are anything like me you probably have a closet full of soft shells and a significant other who would prefer you have fewer, not more jackets. To justify the hours spent explaining another jacket acquisition that jacket has to be genuinely better than everything already in the closet. Luckily the WeatherTop has a trick up its…um, sleeves: zippers.
Zippers? you ask.
These zippers are the core of an ingenious venting system. From the earliest days of waterproof jacket design people realized that the breathability problem could be solved if vents (read: holes) were added in areas that would allow air to move out without rain getting in. Generally this led to zippered vents under the armpits (where little rain goes). Unfortunately pit vents don’t work as well as advertised because little air moves around your arm pits. The WeatherTop takes this idea and adds to it by including chest vents as well. As your chest is always exposed to the elements, chest vents are radically more effective.
This solves the main problem that soft shells have: they are just too warm. In the winter (when soft shells are primarily used) this might not be a problem, but being an Arizona dwelling desert rat the coupling of a densely woven exterior and liner that most soft shells use leaves makes them all but un-useable when my heart rate is up. The WeatherTop has solved that problem and it is wonderful.
Of course, the WeatherTop has the other usual niceties as well. It has both a kangaroo pouch and a hoddie-style hand warmer pocket. There is a small pocket on the left bicep, which, despite looking great, is throughly useless, and there is an elastic band in the bottom seam, which you can tighten if you want to look goofy. And, of course, being a piece or RailRiders gear the thing is undeniably tough. If you made me pick a quibble I would say that the WeatherTop sacrifices the slick, sexy, pull into the REI parking lot feeling like a total baller look many soft shells have. In return for this lack of sexiness you get pure utility, which seems a good trade to me.
But all that is burying the lead. This jacket is fantastic. Breathable, tough, and reasonably light, it is difficult to think about how the WeatherTop could be improved. Be happy, hikers, this is the jacket we have been looking for.
You can purchase the RailRiders WeatherTop HERE.
SEE IT IN ACTION
RailRiders provided this WeatherTop for review.
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Max Wilson is a graduate student studying ecology at Arizona State University. He writes here at Lesser Places, occasionally for Backpacker.com, and even more occasionally for scientific journals. You can follow him on twitter @maxomillions.