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Reviews > Clothing > Jackets and Vests > Red Ledge Unisex Exile Softhell > Test Report by Richard Lyon
RED LEDGE UNISEX EXILE SOFTSHELL JACKET
Initial Report November 20, 2007
PERSONAL INFORMATION AND BACKPACKING BACKGROUND
I've been backpacking for 45 years on and off, and regularly in the Rockies since 1986. I do a weeklong trip every summer, and often take three-day trips. I'm usually camping in alpine terrain, at altitudes 5000 to 13000 ft (1500 - 4000 m). I prefer base camp backpacking, a long hike in with day trips from camp. Though always looking for ways to reduce weight, I'm not yet a lightweight hiker, and I usually choose a bit of extra weight over foregoing camp conveniences. I'm an avid skier who does most of his backcountry winter traveling on telemark skis.
PRODUCT DESCRIPTION AND DETAILS
Manufacturer: Red Ledge
My initial reaction was favorable: this is a good-looking jacket. The colors, though definitely brighter than shown on the website, are cheerful but not loud, and the lines are trim and stylish. The brighter salsa is "stretch woven smooth face polyester" fabric. Hood, shoulders, and outside of the arms are "stretch woven ripstop polyester," and I can detect a tiny grid-style weave in this fabric. Stitching is sound, with no loose threads. The Red Ledge name and logo are embossed in unobtrusive silver type just to the zipper side of the left hand warmer pocket.
The Exile has two zippered hand warmer pockets and a top zippered "Napoleon" pocket on the left side (Napoleon must have been right-handed), each lined with brushed microfleece. This same black fleece is used to line the entire jacket, including the hood. The Exile can be cinched up at the hem and around the hood by means of drawcords with adjustable toggles. Sleeve cuffs can be closed up using hook-and-loop strips. An "interior storm flap" sits behind the zipper. The hood fits easily over my ski helmet. The Exile has no pit zips or powder skirt.
I tried the Exile on over a base layer and merino wool sweater and the fit is comfortable and non-restrictive. The jacket is sewn with two side panels that facilitate arm movement when I'm bundled up. I'd like an extra inch/centimeter or two at the cuffs, a common complaint of mine because of my long arms, but I wear gauntlet-style gloves for this reason most of the time so I think sleeve length is adequate. While several inches/centimeters shorter than my ski parka, torso length comes well below the top of my ski bibs, which I use as hiking pants once the snow starts to fall. Mittened hands fit nicely in the pockets and I could easily open and close the zippers one-handed with mittens on.
The test period will be in the boreal winter. I have ski tours in Utah in mid-December and February and a week in the Jackson-Grand Teton area (Wyoming/Idaho border) in January. There should be several overnight stays in the backcountry on these trips, and there's always plenty of hiking and climbing whenever I ski in-bounds, certainly enough aerobic activity not dependent on gravity to test the Exile thoroughly. In winter the weather can vary wildly in the Rockies, but I anticipate daytime temperatures between -10 to 55 F (-22 to 13 C) in December-March, and possibly as low as -25 F (-32 C) at night. Ordinarily winter weather in these places is dry cold. When backcountry skiing I usually wear a merino wool base layer, wool or fleece sweater, and an outer layer, removing the mid or outer layer when engaged in aerobic activity and not relying on gravity. The Exile will serve as the outer layer whenever conditions allow. This winter I'll also be testing a down mid-layer, providing several more possible upper body combinations. I expect to wear the Parka around home on my daily walks with my dogs whenever the early morning temperatures dip below 50 F (10 C).
Red Ledge states very prominently and in capital letters on its website that the Exile is WATERPROOF BREATHABLE. The manufacturer isn't very specific about how this is accomplished, claiming only that "Our exclusive T-Core series of laminates and seam sealing prove a bulwark against moisture." I have yet to find a softshell that's waterproof. Most aren't even claimed to be waterproof, merely water resistant. Water resistance, as that term is used to describe outerwear, suffices for most wintertime use in temperatures below freezing. Heavy and continuous precipitation is in the solid form of snow rather than a steady downpour of rain. Even the occasional fall while skiing is into fluff rather than standing water. Since I've had problems with other softshells (claimed to be water resistant) wetting out in snow to a degree that I have considered unacceptable, water resistance will be the Exile's trait most critically examined by this tester.
Though breathable, the Exile is also said to be windproof. We'll see about that too, as well as its insulating ability in whatever wind chill I face. I am interested to see how well the microfleece wicks perspiration and picks up (or not) odors. A tag at the collar of the Exile directs machine washing in cold water with no bleach; I'll check and see if this removes dirt, sweat stains, and odors.
As with any ultralight gear I shall examine carefully the Parka's ability to withstand ordinary wear and tear from backcountry hiking and skiing.
A chilly Thanksgiving weekend (late November) gave me many opportunities to wear the Exile near my home, on daily walks and dog park trips with my two dogs, on a couple of day hikes, and just around town. Temperatures ranged from 30 - 50 F (-1 to 10 C) amid wind, rain, and a brief snow flurry. I wore the Exile over a shirt and sweater moist of the time. Since these trial runs the Exile has been my most frequent outer layer for my half-hour dog walks every morning, rain or shine, whenever the temperature has fallen below 60 F (16 C). Most morning I wore it over a tee shirt and sweater but occasionally over only a tee.
I got a chance to warm up my ski legs during a weekend in Grand Targhee resort, just west of the Tetons in Wyoming, in mid-December. The resort base is at 8000 feet (2500 m). Both ski days were overcast and windy, with snow throughout (no chance to get a picture of the Grand Teton), and temperatures from 4 - 20 F (-16 to -7 C) at the ski area base, definitely colder on top. The Exile was my outer layer, over a merino turtleneck and a lightweight down parka. Targhee is a wide-open ski hill with no real distinction between named runs and the spaces between them. I also wore a pack. I skied mostly in-bounds, but did plenty of hiking to get to the powder stash at the far north of the area. I crossed the area boundary to boot pack to the notch on nearby Peaked Mountain.
In January I returned to the Tetons, this time to the better-known East side, at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, for a week's skiing. I wore the Exile, again over a merino base layer and a lightweight down parka, on two days, one while in-bounds skiing at Jackson Hole (mostly clear, high of 20 F/-7 C, light wind) and one in the adjacent backcountry areas of Green River and Pinedale Canyon (mostly sunny, high 25 F/-4 C, strong snow-blowing gusts of wind on the ridges and open spaces).
To get some preliminaries out of the way, let me begin by saying that this is a handsome jacket, certainly good enough for street wear in fashion-conscious Dallas. I've received several compliments at the dog park and on casual days at the office. Its fit is excellent, even for a guy with very long arms (37 in/94 cm sleeve length) and long torso (22.5 in/57 cm). I usually prefer a slightly longer windbreaker/jacket but in size XL the Exile's hem comes just below my waist, fine for hiking and adequate over my ski bibs. It won't (and isn't intended to) fit over a sport coat, but it's a useful everyday insulated shell for any attire less formal than that.
Turning to the Exile's utility for outdoor activities, let's look at some of the questions I posed when applying for this test.
Is it really waterproof? While I haven't been drenched with rain or worn the Exile in the shower, I've been outdoors in light rain, mist, and snow sufficiently to shake most of the skepticism noted in my Initial Report of Red Ledge's claim of waterproof fabrics. In light rain the drops bead immediately and drip away, and I have yet to find any water penetration through to the fleece liner. After each ski day's exposure to snowflakes and falls in the cold smoke (powder snow) of the Northern Rockies the outer shell (both parts – "smooth face" and ripstop) was dry in a matter of a few minutes. The only wet spot at any time was the hem around the bottom of the jacket after the ice that had accumulated in my falls melted in the car, after skiing. Though the hem was sodden this had no effect on performance and I didn't notice it when I put the jacket back on.
During the course of this test the manufacturer's representative informed BackpackGearTest.org that "the fabric of the Exile Jacket is waterproof breathable but the seams are not taped so the entire jacket will not be completely waterproof. It will withstand most rain and snow, but if you are out there for a couple of hours in torrential rain or a large snow storm you will most likely get a bit of seep through at the seams." Several hours of fairly heavy snow at Grand Targhee (plus a fall or two in the snow) is the closest I've come to the conditions described in this communication, and that had no noticeable wetting through – much better than any other soft shell that I have worn.
Does it breathe? It breathes very well, even when worn over the down parka, which makes no claim of wicking. I haven't noticed any dampness in the fleece after hiking or skiing even on days with relatively high humidity.
Can it handle cold weather? Up to a point. The shell fabrics do give thorough protection against the wind, very useful here on the prairie and in the backcountry wind tunnels. Gusts on the colder backcountry day made me put on a balaclava after my first lift ride, yet the wind didn't penetrate the Exile at any time, on that or any other day. I believe that 25 F (-4 C) will be the lower limit for my wearing the Exile in future, even over a sweater. I was often a bit cold at Grand Targhee, and donned an additional down vest at every outdoor rest break. On the first day there (high of 8 F/-14 C) particularly I would have switched to a warmer jacket had I had one with me. On the January trip I did limit my use of the Exile to the two warmest days, choosing a heavier parka for chillier conditions. I consider this not a flaw (I've never before been able to wear a soft shell at lower temperatures) but a limit on the Exile's insulating ability when worn by this particularly cold-prone skier.
In non-snow conditions I've been quite comfortable down to freezing, which I consider excellent performance for so lightweight a jacket. This bodes well for springtime backpacking use.
How well does it fit and feel during backcountry activities? With the above-noted reservations about protection against the cold, I intend to use the Exile for future backcountry adventures. It doesn't bunch up when wearing a pack even when skiing, when it's subjected to considerably more arm and upper body motion than hiking, and its fit is comfortable though not confining over a base layer and mid-layer. In the December and January wind chill it's a useful compromise between an unlined shell (not enough insulation for me) and my usual lined ski parka (too much) whenever uphill hiking is involved.
Is it durable? Definitely it is. It looks like new after two months, without a tear, loose stitch, jammed zipper, or any other defect in integrity or good looks. The outer fabrics seem to resist the smudges that skiing through the trees or an errant splash of coffee seems to leave on my jackets, and I've scraped a few rocks too. The fleece lining hasn't picked up any body odors. Maybe because I've usually worn the Exile over a sweater, there's not even a trace of a ring at the collar despite constant use.
What about its features? As noted in my Initial Report, it doesn't have very many. Those that are there work just fine. All pockets are easy to open when wearing gloves, thanks to the supplied zipper pulls. The hood fits over my ski helmet without reducing peripheral vision, and is a handy thing to have on a cold or windy day. The design of the fabric panels does seem to facilitate arm movement; I wasn't constricted even when flailing to avoid a fall. Because the pockets are lined with the same fleece as the jacket my hands stay warm when I've forgotten mittens on a morning walk.
Is it easy to clean? I haven't had the need to clean it so far. Helpful in this regard is that the liner fleece doesn't act as a magnet for dust or other small particles, especially nice in the pockets after eating a crumbly snack. Even if its condition doesn't require it I'll clean the Exile before filing my Long Term Report, following Red Ledge's instructions of machine washing in cold water with no bleach, if only to see how a trip through the washer affects color and waterproofing.
WHAT I LIKE
The Napoleon pocket. It's perfectly placed for easy access yet its contents don't interfere with arm movement. Great for my pocket camera.
Storm-worthiness. This jacket appears to be impervious to wind and water.
Durable and handsome.
WHAT I DON'T
Like other soft shell jackets I have worn the Exile doesn't pack very small, making for some inconvenience when de-layering in cold weather.
As a personal preference based on my winter backcountry needs I'd add an inside pocket, even if unzippered. Lack of this feature means that in future I am likely to choose another jacket for ski touring, as after first use climbing skins must be stored warm or it is impossible to unglue them for a second uphill hike. With no inside pocket on the Exile or my down parka at Targhee I had to keep the skins inside my base layer or risk losing them when skiing downhill. I don't intend to repeat that stopgap measure. At Jackson I was able to use the waist belt of my back to keep the skins inside my jacket when skiing but without a pocket the skins tended to fall out onto the snow immediately after I removed my pack.
LONG TERM REPORT
The Cold Smoke Festival at Whitewater Ski Area near Nelson, British Columbia, Canada, in late February, took place under overcast skies with occasional patches of sun and a few snow flurries on Saturday and Sunday, with temperatures posted at -5 C (23 F) in the morning, rising to 2 C (36 F) by mid-afternoon, followed by a sunny Monday with temperatures about 5 degrees C (9 degrees F) warmer. Whitewater's base sits at 5400 feet (1700 m), rising to about 6700 feet (2100 m). I wore the Exile on the first two days (one in the backcountry, one inbounds), over a merino or synthetic base layer and an ultralight down sweater.
The Exile made its backpacking and fly fishing debut on a two-day, two-night backpacking trip in Oklahoma, on a pleasant February weekend: down to about 40 F (5 C) at night, 65 F (18 C) during the day, moderate winds, low humidity, and no precipitation. I wore the Parka as my outer layer over a merino base layer in camp and sometimes while fishing, and as a combination insulating layer/wind shell around camp.
I've worn the Exile on several day hikes in Dallas and the Texas Hill Country. On these hikes the temperature ranged from about 40 to 60 F (5 to 16 C), at low humidity and with no rain.
Through the four-month test period I have worn the Exile on eight full days in the field (six skiing, two backpacking), another six on day hikes, and at least fifteen more near home as an everyday jacket.
Soft shells come into their own in spring skiing conditions. No more frigid temperatures, when I need more insulation, but little risk of continuous heavy rain, when I might face a soaking without a waterproof shell. As at Grand Targhee (see my Field Report), the Exile did well while downhill skiing at Whitewater. Its wind blocking abilities staved off the chills I get very easily while waiting for friends or riding a lift.
On my first backcountry day at Whitewater, however, an extended trek up a steep, rutted skin track soon meant perspiration heavy enough that I removed both the Exile and my intermediate layer, a lightweight down sweater. I don't like winter hiking with only a base layer on top. We had a large group on this day, which meant frequent pauses in hiking when those in front stopped to turn on the switchback or to adjust clothing or equipment. Even when these interruptions from hiking were only a minute or two I began to get cold from the wind or the temperature, and I had to reach for a second layer. Red Ledge says its fabric is breathable, but I found that to be inadequate during heavy exertion at these temperatures. Even with the jacket completely unzipped my armpits and upper body overheated from the Exile's fleece lining, as my pack's sternum strap and hip belt kept the jacket pasted to my back and chest. On the next backcountry day I replaced the Exile with a lighter weight (though still lined) eVENT shell that had pit zips so that I could moderate body temperature more effectively without having to take off my pack and grab another layer each time I paused.
I haven't had this overheating problem when backpacking, but my one trip was a short hike with little elevation gain; we selected our route and camp for fishing access rather than exercise or scenery. An easy route won't always be the case on spring hikes, though, and if I've planned an extended uphill climb I expect to pick a different outer layer. This is less of a problem on day hikes when I'm carrying less and it's easy to stash the Exile on the outside of my pack.
The Exile's waterproofing has served me well when I wore the jacket on ski days. Just as during the Field Test period, during the past two months I had no wetting out from snow melting and seeping through the shell or from perspiration soaking the lining. Very impressive performance, far better than I've experienced with any other soft shell. To my mind this bears out Red Ledge's advertising as "waterproof." Wind resistance is also excellent.
The Exile has become my casual, everyday jacket of choice during February and March. Windproof, pleasant warming especially early in the morning or late at night, a hood available when needed, and smart styling, it's perfect for wearing over a tee shirt in Texas or over a wool shirt or sweater around town in the Rockies. Water repellency during snowstorms promises that it will keep me dry in mist or light rain, too.
The Exile took a trip through the washer and dryer, as promised in my Field Report, although it didn't really need it. After washing with Atsko Sport Wash and drying on low it came out looking good as new, with no noticeable pilling or static electricity.
The Exile has much in its favor:
· Windproof and, at least in the conditions to which I've exposed it, waterproof. As advertised. A major achievement for a soft shell.
· Fleece-lined pockets
· Trail debris, Clif Bar crumbs, and other tiny particles that usually adhere to fleece either don't or brush right off. Particularly appreciated in the pockets.
· Really, I like everything about the fleece. It's still soft, and neither excessive perspiration nor regular friction against other layers or my suspender straps has caused any bare spots or pilling.
· Napoleon pocket
· Durable and handsome
In my Field Report I mentioned the Exile's failing to pack down very well, but in that respect it's no worse than any other soft shell I've tried, and really no worse than any of my lined hard shell alternatives. Lack of ventilation is my only real complaint. This significantly limits use of the Exile when I'm wearing a pack to colder temperatures. Adding pit zips would greatly expand this jacket's range of springtime use by reducing over-insulation at temperatures at which more venting is needed.
This concludes my Test Report. I have enjoyed wearing the Exile in the woods and around town. I shall continue to do so in the proper conditions for quite a while to come. Thanks to BackpackGearTest.org and Red Ledge for the opportunity.
Read more gear reviews by Richard Lyon
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