The Worst Deals in the Outdoors

I really don’t like rain gear reviews. The materials are highly technical and it’s hard to make accurate comparisons without the standardized conditions and precise measuring tools in a lab. It’s really hard to make definitive comments on value without knowing how waterproof, breathable, and durable a membrane is. However, Gore Tex tends to be a great equalizer. Most brands carry it in some of their rain gear, which means many brands end up making basically the same pieces, letting us make direct comparison on value. Most of these direct competitors end up within $20-30 of each other, but a two jackets end up looking like a shit deal: The Zeta SL and Beta SL Hybrid from Arc’teryx.

Now, to delve into what makes jackets expensive there’s a little bit of base knowledge we have to build.

  1. Waterproof construction: Every waterproof-breathable garment has a waterproof membrane that’s laminated to an outer fabric. The first Gore Tex jackets were made with only those 2 pieces, and they quickly learned that skin oils and dirt destroyed the membranes from the inside, so they needed to add a protective layer inside. They started by sewing in a lining, which is now known as 2 layer waterproofing. Later, they started laminating the protective layer to the membrane and outer layers, which is known as 3 layer waterproofing. Laminating is a really expensive part of production and drove up costs, but it made pieces lighter and easier to pack. They also came up with methods to spray or print on the protective layer, which is 2.5 layer or “PacLite” waterproofing. 2.5 sounds better than 2, but that’s not necessarily the case. 2.5 layer is lighter and more packable, but the spray on layer can rub wears away much faster than a piece of liner fabric, shortening the life span of the garment.
  2. Liner fabrics: Interior fabrics (whether 2 or 3 layer) can be knits or weaves. Weaves tend to be more durable and offer better protection for the membrane, while knits tend to be softer and more breathable. Brands really like knits, though, since knitting uses less thread and is more mechanized, so they sometimes upcharge you and market positive features and also pocket the savings on the product cost.
  3. Gore Tex Performance vs. Pro: Not all Gore Tex is created equally. Gore Tex Performance is “basic” Gore Tex made out of 2 materials, one cheaper, called PU, and the other, an expensive one called ePTFE. Most cheaper membranes of PU are either thick and really waterproof or thin and more breathable. ePTFE is still really waterproof when stretched incredibly thin, which makes Gore Tex Performance pretty great with both metrics. Gore Tex Pro is a completely different membrane that only uses the expensive ePTFE and is even more breathable. Gore also requires that any brand who licenses it contractually has to use very strong face fabric and woven protective inner layer. They can’t use it for 2.5 layer garments.

So with that out of the way, let’s talk about Arc’teryx. They’re a unique brand. Most other rainwear brands make 3-4 Gore Tex pieces, with Gore Performance options in in 2, 2.5, and 3 layer options. Then they offer 1 option in Gore Pro. For Arc’teryx, half – five out of 10 – of their hardshells for hiking & climbing are made with Pro. For the most part, these jackets, while expensive ($549-799), are priced pretty competitively compared to their peers, like the Black Diamond Sharp End, Patagonia Pluma, and Marmot Alpinist. And it’s common for customers to gravitate towards Arc’teryx since there are so many options. You can get picky with the length of the jacket, pit zips, price point, how trim or wide it fits, and there are plenty of color options across each model.

By dominating the market with Gore Tex Pro customers, Arc’teryx builds a reputation that they’re the trusted brand for the most hardcore, demanding outdoor customers, and that their hardshells are worth the hefty price tag. Then, they exploit the hell out of that reputation.

Let’s start with the Zeta SL. This is a 2.5 layer Gore Tex Performance rain jacket priced at $299. Jackets with the same exact construction include the REI Westwinds GTX Jacket at $199 or the Mountain Hardwear Exposure 2 GTX Jacket at $249. And the options get even cheaper if you flip out polyester for nylon (nylon is stronger, but with a 2.5 layer garment, your membrane will be shot eons before either nylon or polyester durability becomes an issue). For example, the REI XeroDry GTX is $159, Outdoor Research Aspire jacket is $215, and Marmot Knife Edge is $225. If you’re going to spend more than $200 on a rain jacket, make sure you’re upgrading the inside protection of your rain jacket before upgrading the outside.

Moving on to the Beta SL Hybrid. This is also a Gore Tex Performance shell priced at $425. Surely, if it’s $126 more expensive than the Zeta SL, it’s probably much more advanced? I mean, it’s only $124 less than the jackets that have Gore Tex Pro, durable face fabric, durable woven backer – all the bells and whistles. Nope! It’s just Gore Performance, with 2.5 layer construction in the bulk of the jacket and 3 layer C-knit in “high wear areas” (mainly just the shoulders and dropping down to about nipple territory in the front). So this is a small improvement from that $199 REI Westwinds jacket for more than double the cost. For $425, get yourself a whole-ass 3 layer rain shell. The REI Stormbolt GTX jacket is $279, on sale $138, and has the more durable interior backer. If you miss the dead bird logo, you can use the difference to buy eight Arc’teryx hats. And it’s not just private label hitting that kind of pricing. The Patagonia Triolet and Marmot Spire are both 3 layer Gore Performance jackets at $399.

I’m extra salty about that jacket for 2 other reasons. First, the high wear areas should really include your back. You get a ton of pack friction that will rub through that spray on interior protection and expose the membrane, but Arc’teryx doesn’t extend the 3 layer coverage on your back under the notion that your back doesn’t really get wet when you’re wearing a pack. However, sometimes you take it off, like at snack breaks or at camp. Or, you spent $400 on a fucking jacket and rightfully expect to be able to wear it as your around-town rain layer too. Second, the Beta is their versatile, multi-sport jacket design. They gave it harness-compatible pockets, a helmet compatible hood, yet in the Customer Q&A, customer service says it’s unfit for mountaineering. So seriously, what’s the point? (I mean, other than maximizing profit out of a customer trying to save a few bucks). And they even have the audacity say that the Beta SL is really only durable enough for emergencies. I don’t know who needs to hear this, emergency ponchos are made of Mylar or plastic and cost under $25.

Got more questions about rain gear? Drop a line in the comments.

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