Thursday, October 17, 2013

Will the Rab Stretch Neo Pant keep me toasty on cold ski tours?

Me just after dropping off a ridge line in a poofy coat and softshell pants with cold legs last season.

I have a problem with cold legs when I get up high on a windy ridge.

I've been a dedicated user of softshell pants for years. I've written about my layering system before but, even in the rainy Cascades and Olympics I'd wear my Rab Exodus softshell pants for days skiing in the rain. I didn't even own a pair of hardshell pants for a few years.

I'm using the terms softshell/hardshell in the classic sense. A softshell is a highly breathable non-membrane, non-waterproof fabric as opposed to a less breathable fabric that includes a waterproof membrane.  Some manufactures have started to use the term softshell to refer to any stretchy garment, which confuses the issue. The Exodus pants aren't fully waterproof but with a fresh DWR the only time you'll really notice this is sitting on a soaked ski lift seat or wading through wet snow or brush. They breath much better than any hardshell and they are perfect for a typical day yo-yoing in the Cascade backcountry.

Versatility and ventilation options are key in touring pants like the Exodus pants shown here. 
However, they also offer less protection from the wind than a membrane garment. Last winter, after we moved to Montana, I started to feel like I needed something more. As we tackled days with more vert in colder temps, I'd find that my legs were too warm skinning uphill in the sun but too cold up on a windy Bitterroot ridge line. I needed a system that combined the breathability of my softshells on the ups with better wind protection and warmth retention up high.

First Look at the Rab Stretch Neo

After shopping around quite a bit I found a pair of Rab Stretch Neo Pants deeply discounted in's outlet section. I'll do a full review once I've used them in a variety of conditions but here are some initial notes covering features and fit.

The most exciting thing about the Stretch Neo is that it is made from Neoshell. This is a new waterproof shell fabric from Polartech designed to compete with Goretex and eVent by offering increased breathability at the expense of some wind protection. All the reviews I've read of this fabric are positive. My hope is that it will block enough wind to be warmer than my softshell's on exposed ridges yet still breath well. The thiner fabric of the Neos also makes them a few ounces lighter than my Exodus pants which is an added bonus.

The second most exciting thing about the Stretch Neo pants is the 3/4 side zip. I use the zip thigh vents on my exodus pants all the time and I think the longer side zips on the Neo will allow even more ventilation. My hope is that these zippers will allow them to be almost as cool as the exodus while skinning while offering better protection from cold winds up high, allowing me to get by with a thinner base layer.

The zippers also allow me to take the pants on and off even while wearing my mondo size 27.5 Scarpa Maestrali ski boots. This isn't quite as easy as it would be with full side zips but I may experiment with wearing thin softshells and carrying the Neo's in my pack as an add on layer on trips with especially variable conditions.

I sized up to extra large as there were no larges available but am happy with the fit. The pants are a trimmer climbing oriented cut so they are less baggy than many ski pants even when sized up. They will also fit over a variety of layers when needed. They have a highly elastic waste band which should keep them secure and also include belt loops and 4 attachment points for suspenders.The tag at the back can be used as a middle attachment point for three point suspenders like my Outdoor Research Suspenders.

The Stretch Neo's have a simple cuff with a drawstring, a button and two grommets to attach a bit of elastic to in place of gaiters. It is wide enough to slide over the top of my ski boots without too much trouble. They include a section of burly fabric on the inner ankle for protection from ski edges and crampon points.

They lack hip or butt pockets but have two pockets which should be fine for maps, cliff blocks and other things I generally keep in pants pockets. They are less stretchy than my softshells but do give more then some hardshells.

This years version looks similar but comes in Spring Green as well as black.

Some Other Options

I'm hoping I get a chance to test these pants doing this soon!

During my search I decided I wanted to stick with something lightish and with the flexibility of a pant
instead of a bib but I considered a number of options that either offered better wind protection in a single garment or as an add on layer.

Despite good early reviews of Neoshell, the Stretch Neo's are the only lightish side zip pants made from it that I am aware of. Since I originally wrote this post GoLite has come out with a line of Crestone NeoShell Jackets and Pants that look like a great light and affordable option if you don't mind storm flaps instead of waterproof zips. They have some nice looking Eolus Power Shield soft shells as well.

There are also a couple of bibs available this year or next including Eddie Bauer's First Ascent's Neoteric Removable Bib and Brooks Range's intriguing Neoshell bottom/fleece top Armor Suit.

Flylow Compound Neoshell Ski Pants

There are also some of heavier Neoshell ski specific pants available now or soon including some from Flylow, the Mountain Equipement Arclight and Rab Wasatch.

Some of the stand out pants made from other fabrics are:

Patagonia's Knife Blade Pants which are made from Polartech Power Shield Pro which is a membrane softshell that is supposedly almost-but-not-quite waterproof but offers great wind protection. Colin Haley gives a glowing review here but I decided that I needed more ventilation options.

Outdoor Research's Furio, Patagonia's Triolet and Arc'teryx's Beta AR Pants which are all made from Gortex but have full side zips.

Rab's Latok Alpine Pant are made from eVent which is reputably more breathable than Goretex and have partial side zips like the Neo.

Camp's Magic, and Flash Competition are light wind pants designed as add layers for ski mountaineering races or fast packing. The light weight of these pants makes them really intriguing but I don't think they would hold up well to the often brushy skiing we do.


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