Hands-on Gear Review
Compare hardshell jacket ratings side-by-side >
Street Price: Varies from $365 - $400 | Compare prices at 4 resellers
Pros: Excellent crossover hand pockets, 2 large interior zippered mesh pockets provide lots of storage and allow you to see inside.
Cons: No pit zips limits ventialtion, velcro cuffs are small and less sticky than others, no hand pockets can be a drawback for some people, main zipper is harder to pull than most others, features are not as refined as Arcteryx Alpha SV's.
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 Arcteryx Alpha SV, but costs 40% less!!
For an additional $250 the Arcteryx Alpha SV offers a more durable face fabric, a 100% windproof (as opposed to 99.9%) membrane, a more comfortable hood, a more spacious and customizable fit, better adjustable wrist closures, larger pockets, a primary zipper that's easier and faster to open with one hand, and- most importantly- it has pit zips (the Stretch Neo does not). The Alpha SV rates higher in every category and it only weighs 0.2 ounces more! Whether its worth the additional cost will likely depend on how much time you plan to spend in your hardshell.
At 14.1 oz, the Patagonia Super Pluma is our top rated all-purpose hardshell. With two high set hand pockets, the Super Pluma lets you shelter your paws in urban environments. It's also widely available for $125 less than the Alpha SV.
Going fast and light? Take the Arcteryx Alpha FL with you. Weighing only 10.7 ounces this ultralight shell boasts Gore Active Shell (more breathable but less durable than Pro Shell), a comfortable helmet compatible hood, a large watertight chest pocket, and the best drawcord adjustment of any lightweight shell tested.
Compare top rated competitors side-by-side >
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 Arcteryx 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 features fall short when compared with the best shell we tested- the Arcteryx Alpha SV. With both of these jackets in hand our testers always reached for the Alpha SV before the Stretch Neo. Here's why: Most importantly, theh Alpha SV has pit zips which allow you to vent the shell without stopping to take layers off (and then put them on again). Our testers agree that ventilation is more important than breathability, and pit zips provide relaible ventilation even in falling precipitation. Other advantages: its material, Gore Pro Shell, is 100% windproof- meaning it's slightly warmer; it has a larger cut that accommodates more layers; it has articulated elbows that are exceptionally ergonomic; its face fabric is more durable; its main zipper is easier to open with one hand; its hood is significantly more comfortable when worn over a hood and it adjusts with four drawcords (the Stretch Neo has three); it has a second waist drawcrod that pulls the jacket in so you can look down and see your feet (great for technical terrain); and all of the pull cord adjustments are exceptionally easy to use. All of this for only 0.2 ounces more than the Rab Stretch Neo.
The Alpha SV is the only five star shell we tested. It's as close to perfect as it gets. But the Stretch Neo is an excellent hardshell and it's $200+ cheaper. The differences between the two will likely be insignificant to all except big mountain guides and people who live in the backcountry.
— Max Neale
Compare this product side-by-side to top competitors >
OutdoorGearLab Member Reviews
Most recent review: January 23, 2013
Where's the Best Price?
*Help support OutdoorGearLab. If you click on one of the seller links and make a purchase, a portion of the sale helps support this site
Related Best-in-Class Review
Helpful Buying Tips
Get More OutdoorGearLab
Follow us on Twitter, be a fan on Facebook!
Related Gear Reviews
Other Gear by Rab
Recent Best-in-Class Reviews