Hands-on Gear Review
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Pros: Crossover chest pockets, 2 large interior zippered mesh pockets provide lots of storage, relatively inexpensive.
Cons: On the heavy side, not as durable as other jackets that weigh the same or less, other shells have better features.
Best Uses: Ice and alpine climbing.
The Rab Stretch Neo offers climbers and hikers the best hardhsell for their dollar. With crossover chest pockets, a helmet compatible hood, and well designed adjustment cords, the Stretch Neo packs almost as much punch as our top rated Arc'teryx Alpha SV, but costs 40% less!!
See our Hardshell Jacket Review to compare all of the models tested.
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OutdoorGearLab Editors' Hands-on Review
Of the twenty-one hardshells we tested four were medium duty climbing-specific with crossover chest pockets. These have a very similar set of features, weigh between 15.8 and 18.7 ounces, and utilize four different waterproof breathable technologies. These jackets are the Montane Mohawk (eVent), Rab Stretch Neo (Polartec NeoShell), Mountain Hardwear Victorio (Dry Q Elite) and Arc'teryx Alpha SV (Gore-Tex Pro Shell). All of them excel at alpine climbing and technical mountaineering; they're reasonably lightweight, sufficiently durable, have hoods that are designed to be worn over a helmet, and their crossover pocket design helps to keep the user balanced on technical terrain. This type of hardshell arguably offers the greatest performance for its weight, and, though designed for climbing, they can be used for anything. Below we discuss how the Stretch Neo compares to its three closest competitors and to the other seventeen shells tested.
The Stretch Neo is the only shell tested that uses Polartec NeoShell. Like all new waterproof breathable technologies that aim to steal market share from Gore-Tex, NeoShell claims to be the best technology available and has lots of pretty charts to prove it. In the field we were unable to observe a significant difference between the breathablilty of NeoShell and Gore Pro Shell. More importantly, we believe that the breathability debate is largely foolish, for two reasons. First, all shells steam up inside. Some steam up slower and some dry out faster, but the difference is largely insignificant. Second, the real problem with waterproof breathable technology lies not with the breathability of a membrane, but with DWR coatings- they all inevitably fail and thereby drastically reduce any jacket's breathability. Creating ultra durable DWR coatings is, in this author's opinion, the single thing that would improve rainwear most. If breathability is your top concern, and your intended use requires high physical exertion in cold weather, consider a softshell jacket.
For most users, the largest difference between Gore Pro Shell and NeoShell will be the feel (NeoShell feels less crinkly is quieter) and the warranty- Gore offers an unlimited limetime warranty (return anytime for any reason) and Polartec does not. Durability is another potential concern: Gore has decades of experience laminating ePTFEs to various fabrics and brings their vast experience in other areas, like medical products, to their outerwear division. Polartec is relatively new on the scene and NeoShell hasn't been around long enough to be field tested over the long-term. We have a lot of confidence in NeoShell, and love how it blends softshell-like feel with hardshell performance. Even if the Stretch Neo isn't as durable as other shells its low price could enable you to get two jackets for the price of one of top-tier Gore Pro jacket.
The Stretch Neo is designed for ice and alpine climbing, but it can be used many other applications. The shell’s most significant climbing-specific feature is the pocket design: two expansive bellowed pockets lie high up on the chest. The pocket zippers hug the jacket’s main zipper – the right hand crosses over the chest to open the left pocket, and vice-versa. This design is frequently employed in climbing shells because it provides access to the pockets without throwing the climber off balance. For example, imagine that you’re high up on a mountain on a steep snow slope. You need to get something out of your left pocket so you put your right ice tool over your shoulder and reach with your right arm across your chest into the left pocket. This is more stable than a traditional handwarmer pocket design – where the right pocket’s zipper is on the right side of the wearer’s right chest – because your right arm needs to move up high and right, which moves your center of gravity away from the snow/rock/ice and away from the center of your chest. Although most people who use this shell, including our testers, only spend a small amount of time using the pockets in the environment they’re designed for, the pocket design is better for climbing and easier to use in general. Crossing your right hand over your chest and unzipping the left pocket is easier and faster than reaching it high and right, where you heave less leverage to open the zipper.
The drawback to crossover pockets is that you don’t have any place to hide your hands from the elements. But in the backcountry your hands get wet and cold regardless of a jacket’s pocket design, and you always have gloves with you. Handwarmer pockets are best for urban environments, where you might get caught out in the rain while walking to the coffee shop. If you absolutely must have hand pockets check out the Patagonia Super Pluma and Rab Latok, or get a cheap rain jacket.
Beyond the exterior pockets, the Stretch Neo has a helmet compatible hood with three single handed drawcord adjustments and two interior zippered mesh pockets. These interior pockets are among the best of all 20 shells tested- they're large and the mesh (most others are solid nylon) allows you to see inside.
The Neo Shell has a versatile fit that accommodates moderate layering. There's space for lightweight insulated jackets (such as the Rab Xenon), but only skinny folk will be able to don a larger puffy (like the Patagonia DAS).
Although the Stretch Neo offers a high level of performance for an excellent price, the jacket's design falls short when compared with the best shell we tested- the Arc'teryx Alpha SV. With both of these jackets in hand our testers always reached for the Alpha SV before the Stretch Neo because it has more features, better features, is more durable, and is more comfortable and weighs nearly the same amount.
For many applications, including backpacking and climbing, a lighter shell is vastly preferable to a heavier shell. Some hardshells, such as the Patagonia M10 weigh half as much as the Stretch Neo. Therefore, it's important to consider the potential performance gain from using a much lighter shell like the M10.
On a smaller note, we believe the Stretch Neo's bottom snap closure is unnecessary. In our testing we found that snaps are best on large expedition shells with two-way zippers (neither the Alpha SV nor Stretch Neo have them) when your shell is worn over your harness and the bottom zipper is raised to expose a belay device. In this circumstance a snap can be useful to close the jacket around the bottom of the belay device, which helps keep you slightly warmer. Without a two-way zipper we see no reason for a snap. And climbers almost always climb with their shell tucked underneath a harness- so two-way zippers are rarely useful on hardshells.
The Stretch Neo is an excellent hardshell and it's $200+ cheaper than the Arc'teryx Alpha SV, our preferred expedition shell. The differences between the two will likely be insignificant to all except big mountain guides and people who live in the backcountry.
— Max Neale
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Most recent review: March 7, 2014
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