Hands-on Gear Review
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Pros: Very warm, comfortable, harness and pack compatible pockets, helmet compatible hood,
Cons: Pockets should be larger, top hood cinch is hard to undo, expensive, less versatile than uninsulated softshells,
Best Uses: Ice and alpine climbing.
The Northwall marries Patagonia’s exceptional R2 fleece and Polartec’s Power Shield Pro softshell fabric to create a toasty warm insulated shell for cold weather climbing. The jacket is wonderfully comfortable and balances wind resistance and breathability better than any other non-hybrid piece we’ve tested. The hood is large enough to fit over a helmet while climbing and two medium sized crossover chest pockets are harness and pack friendly.
Although the Northwall is our highest rated insulated softshell, it’s very expensive and has limited versatility. Other softshells cost the same amount and offer an equal amount of performance for climbing and more performance for other activities.
Check out our Softshell Jacket Review to see how the Northwall stacks up to the other jackets we’ve tested.
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OutdoorGearLab Editors' Hands-on Review
Insulated softshells combine fleece with a softshell exterior and aim to simplify layering and reduce weight. They’re best suited to high output activities on very cold days— perhaps twenty degrees Fahrenheit or colder. Insulated softshells are a specialty piece in that they’re considerably less versatile and more expensive than their uninsulated counterparts.
Wind and Water Resistance
The Northwall’s Power Shield Pro (a polyurethane membrane is sandwiched between the outer face fabric and inner fleece lining) is highly wind resistant but not windproof. The fleece lining help to block slightly more wind than the shell alone. We found that the jacket strikes and excellent balance between wind resistance and breathability. There’s an inherent tradeoff between the two and we found the Northwall to be slightly more breathable (and less wind resistant) than softshells with Gore Windstopper membranes. This makes the jacket best for activities where you keep moving and stop in areas with lower wind speeds. Depending on the temperatures and the underneath layering system (and other factors), we found that the Northwall was wind resistant enough to climb shorter multi-pitch ice routes without a belay jacket. That’s if your partner climbs reasonably quickly.
The Power Shield Pro membrane is has a water column rating of 5000mm, which makes it highly water resistant. As is the case with all softshells, it’s very important to wash the jacket frequently and reapply DWR after washing. If the face fabric wets out the jacket will be significantly less breathable.
The Northwall is best for high output activities in cold weather. The membrane is air permeable; it allows moisture to escape (and wind to enter).
We tested the Northwall side-by-side with Patagonia’s R2 and Simple Guide Jacket (an uninsulated softshell), Outdoor Research Lodestar (a slightly warmer insulated softshell) as well as several insulated and uninsulated softshells from Arcteryx. We found that we still needed to layer underneath the Northwall—sometimes quite substantially. We experimented with a variety of baselayers and fleeces: the Capeline 4 Hoody, R1 Hoody, R2, and Nano Puff Hybrid, and other layer from other companies. The key finding here is the Northwall does not offer as much warmth as an R2 combined with a lightweight softshelll or windshell (without wind).
The jacket is very comfortable and unrestrictive. Several testers found that lifting their arms in the Northwall raised the bottom hem significantly less than other insulated softshells, namely the Outdoor Research Lodestar. This was a primary reason why several testers preferred the Northwall to the Lodestar, even though the Lodestar has other advantages over the Northwall.
The Northwall has two crossover chest pockets that are easier to access than handwarmer pockets. They make it hard to warm your hands if you are walking without gloves around town, but they are better for climbing because they keep your arms in closer to your chest when opening the pockets, a feature that’s useful in many climbing situations. Unfortunately, the pockets are considerably smaller than many other crossover chest pockets from other companies. This is very sad. There’s less space for gloves, bars, a camera, or anything else you need to have quick access to. Our testers unanimously preferred the pockets on the Arcteryx Venta MX softshell, which are much larger. Given that these are the Northwall’s only pockets we view this is a significant drawback that greatly reduces the jacket’s performance.
The Northwall uses Patagonia’s Touch Point System (flat cord adjustments that are embedded into the hood and waist), which is also found on the company’s other shells like the Super Pluma and Super Alpine, and on shells from other companies, like the Mountain Hardwear Drystein II. Compared to other adjustment systems this works well at the waist but not as well on the hood. One must reach for, or feel for, the small grey area that identifies the location of the adjustment, but this is hard to do with gloves on. It’s very difficult to release the top rear hood adjustment, even with bare hands.
The size of the hood is similar to many other softshells and hardshells. Making it larger would be more comfortable to wear over a helmet. Our testers find that Arcteryx hoods (Venta MX, Venta SV, Alpha SV), which are larger, fit them better. But the Northwall’s hood should fit most people well. We had to unzip the primary zipper some in order to comfortably climb with the hood over a helmet.
Weight and Packed Size
25.8 oz. in size medium is heavy considering the jacket’s warmth and weather resistance.
Insulted softshells are a weight-inefficient way to keep you warm, but they’re very good at active use in cold weather. Softshells have reduced weather resistance and versatility when compared to an equivalent weight combination of two other types of jackets: a hardshell layered over a fleece, for example. More specifically, the Patagonia R2 fleece and the Mountain Hardwear Blazar hardshell combination weigh a total of 19 ounces and are warmer (than the Northwall) in wind, completely waterproof, shockingly breathable, and much more versatile.
Beyond the drawbacks listed above, the Northwall’s greatest limitation is its very specific application. Although it works OK at other things, we only recommend it for climbing. To be explicit, softshells are not suitable for backpacking and are rarely ideal for multi-day trips. Advances in waterproof breathable fabrics are quickly narrowing the comfort gap between softshells and hardshells. Many new top-tier lightweight hardshells are very comfortable, very light, highly breathable, and create a layering system that’s more versatile than the Northwall.
At $450 we don’t believe the Northwall is a good value. It’s well made but we find that other combinations of layers, and other softshells, offer increased performance, often for the same price or less.
— Max Neale
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Most recent review: January 24, 2013
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