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Waterproof Wars

Gor-Tex gets sued, and it opens the door for new outerwear technology

Gore-Tex is getting sued.

W.L Gore and Associates, the makers of Gore-Tex, a waterproof, breathable membrane that has been the industry standard for 40 years, is the subject of anti-trust investigations in both the United States and Europe because of allegations that the company abused its market share to stifle rivals.

Columbia Sportwear filed an official complaint with the European Commission in June. “[Gore-Tex’s] commercial practices systematically prevent consumers and manufacturers from gaining access to competing product innovations….[their] exclusionary conduct has deprived outdoor enthusiasts from benefiting from new and innovative products,” said Peter Bragdon, Columbia’s V.P. of legal and corporate affairs.

In 2008, REI released a line of clothing with eVent, a waterproof breathable technology that directly rivals Gore-Tex. Shortly after, REI had its license to use Gore-Tex in its footwear revoked.

“Losing those licenses is what pushed us out of the footwear market,” says REI spokesperson Libby Catalinich, who adds that REI is participating in the ongoing investigation.

W.L. Gore spokesperson Michael Ratchford said that “Gore’s business practices are in compliance with the applicable federal law.”

How does Gore-Tex work?

Gore-Tex is a membrane that has nine billion microscopic pores per square inch. Each is 20,000 times smaller than a drop of water, but 700 times larger than a water vapor molecule.

The problem with Gore-Tex, according to its competitors, is that it’s not breathable enough. Gore-Tex doesn’t start breathing until you create enough body heat to turn sweat into water vapor. Jacket manufacturers have typically addressed this with pit zips. But if you could make a waterproof fabric that’s more permeable to air, you could benefit from direct evaporation and start transferring moisture before you begin to heat up.

That’s what three new technologies have done. And W.L. Gore isn’t resting on its laurels. They’ve introduced a brand new waterproof tech that they bond directly to the jacket, making it lighter than traditional Gore-Tex and far more breathable. Here’s a look at the newest crop of waterproof, breathable jackets.

Columbia Flyin’ Dry
Columbia’s new waterproof/breathable technology is Omni-Dry, which the company says is just as waterproof as Gore-Tex, but 75 percent lighter and far more breathable. Omni-Dry takes a traditional three-layer format with a waterproof membrane sandwiched by an inner and outer layer, but Columbia uses a polyethelene membrane that’s comprised of 50 percent air. The Flyin’ Dry is a lightweight jacket that’s easy to stash and built for high output activities in rainy conditions.

Rab Stretch Neo Shell
Rab is using Polartec’s new NeoShell waterproof/breathable technology in this lightweight shell that we’ve pegged for high-output winter activities like snowshoeing or backcountry skiing. According to Polartec, NeoShell is 100 percent waterproof, but five times more breathable than traditional waterproof membranes. There’s a two-way air exchange with NeoShell, so a little wind gets through the jacket in order to jumpstart evaporation, making it a bit cooler than a traditional hard shell. This may be okay for the backcountry, but it might not be your choice for a bitter cold resort day. Look for Polartec’s NeoShell in a variety of jackets this winter.

Mountain Hardwear Dry Q Elite Quasar Pullover
Mountain Hardwear partnered with GE (the makers of eVent fabric, also a supremely breathable waterproof technology) to create Dry Q. Elite, an air-permeable laminate. Mountain Hardwear is using the technology across their top-of-the-line jackets (check out the Snowtastic for a killer winter shell). We tested the Quasar Pullover, which comes in at a svelte 9 ounces, easily the lightest jacket on this list. This is a piece you can put in the bottom of your pack and forget about it until you need it. And when that day comes, you’ll find it does the job in spades, keeping the rain at bay, but breathing much better than the shells most of us are used to. The hood and stretchy thumbhole cuffs are also an unexpected touch on such a lightweight jacket.

Mammut Felsturm Half Zip
Mammut uses Gore-Tex Active Shell, a new technology that the company says is 33 percent more breathable than their other membranes. It’s a laminate bonded to the inside of the jacket that’s far lighter than their traditional membrane and has proven to be much more breathable. It’s thinner, softer than the old Gore-Tex model, but you still have to heat up before your sweat will evaporate. Still, the Felsturm is a sweet jacket with zippers bonded directly to the fabric to save weight. And while it’s not air permeable like the competition, it is completely wind proof, which could come in handy on bitter cold days.

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