Of the twenty-one hardshells we tested four were medium duty climbing-specific with crossover chest pockets. Having a very similar set of features, these weigh between 15.8 and 18.7 ounces, and utilize four different waterproof breathable technologies. Jackets included here 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 in 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 despite being designed for climbing, 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.
Medium duty climbing-specific shells, L to R: Montane Mohawk (15.8 oz), Arcteryx Alpha SV (16.9 oz), and Rab Stretch Neo (16.7 oz).
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.
Rab Stetch Neo in Hyalite Canyon, Montana.
Note the Stretch Neo's two mesh storage pockets. These are larger than most other climbing hardshells (ski jackets have big stash pockets) and the mesh let's you see what's 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 Hyper Puff Hoody).
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.
Velcro comparison, top to bottom: Montane Mohawk (strip is too thin), Rab Stetch Neo (two little strips), and Arcteryx Alpha SV (the best of all 20 shells tested). More surface area helps the velcro stick when its frozen with ice and snow.
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.