When I think of Outdoor Research, I generally think of no-nonsense and (dare I say) somewhat conservative design work that yields highly reliable gear. When I heard that they had come out with their own waterproof/breathable laminate, I was optimistic – unlike other companies, they don’t put their stamp on jackets that are so cutting-edge that they actually fall apart under pressure. And so, when their Realm Jacket with AscentShell showed up on my doorstep, I had high hopes for a trustworthy shell.
Outdoor Research Realm Jacket Features:
- Fabric: AscentShell™ 3L, 100% nylon 20D mechanical stretch ripstop face with 100% polyester 12D backer
- Fabric Performance: Waterproof, Breathable, Air Permeable, Fully Seam-Taped, Laminated Construction, Windproof, Lightweight, Movement-Mirroring Stretch
- Helmet Compatible Wire-Brimmed Halo-Hood
- YKK® AquaGuard® Zippers and YKK® AquaGuard® Vislon Zippers
- Internal Front Stormflap, Zip Chest Pockets
- Internal Pocket Doubles as Stuff Sack with Carabiner Loop
- Dynamic Reach™ Underarm Panels
- Single-Separating Front Zipper, Hook/Loop Cuff Closures
- Elastic Cuffs
- Elastic Drawcord Hem
- 15,000mm hydrostatic resistance
- 30,000 g/m2 breathability
- Weight: 10.9 oz
- MSRP: $279
A gift to the world from Outdoor Research
On the surface, the Realm is a pretty straightforward jacket. It has all of the normal features that you’d expect to see – two high-set pockets that work with a harness or pack, a fully adjustable and helmet-compatible hood, drawcord hem, etc. It features a trim, minimalist fit that certainly contributes to its svelte 10.9 oz claimed total weight. I’m 5’11” at 185lbs and the size Large that I tested fit perfectly, with just enough room to accommodate a fleece or light puffy beneath.
The jacket looks less orthodox as soon as you take a look at the fabric tag on the outside of the jacket – AscentShell fabric. Hmm, haven’t heard of that one before. That’s because it’s Outdoor Research’s new, proprietary electrospun laminate based on a 20D nylon face fabric and 12D polyester backer. It has the silvery sheen of most high-quality waterproof laminates and, naturally, the interior is fully taped. The promise, like all waterproof/breathable (WPB) fabrics, is that it’ll breathe well enough to keep sweat from soaking you while simultaneously repelling 100% of external moisture. The fabric looks good on paper – the hydrostatic head (HH) is 15,000mm which is above the baseline 10,000mm which I sometimes see on ultra-breathable laminates. Just so you know, the HH refers to how tall a column of water could be placed on top of the fabric before the pressure of the water begins to penetrate the fabric. Additionally, the air permeability is 30,000 g/m2/24hr.
Let’s talk about that number. 30,000g/m2/24hr is a pretty high rate of air permeability. Outdoor Research is keeping the details of their new fabric pretty close to the chest and I wasn’t able to get much information about the actual makeup of the fabric. However, based on real-world testing and that exceptionally high rate of air permeability, I think it’ll be useful for potential consumers to compare AscentShell to products like Polartec Neoshell and eVent. What I mean by this specifically is that those are both laminates that are designed to allow a small amount of air pass through the fabric. So, while they are not truly windproof like a Gore-Tex product, they regulate body temperature more efficiently and are generally still 100% waterproof.
In my testing I did notice that the wind came gave me a bit more chill while wearing the Realm than it does when wearing heavier shells (read Gore products), but that’s OK because I’m the type of person who AscentShell is made for; that is, I run hot, generate a lot of heat and tend to sweat heavily unless I can stay cool. People who are perennially cold and don’t sweat much aren’t going to gain much from these lighter laminates, and in fact they’ll lose out since they tend to be less durable in the long haul. Things get a big subjective since so little technical information is available, but this is my take on the matter. A quick and helpful (and also subjective) guide to the major fabrics can be found here.
My testing took place primarily on Mt. Baker. I guide for a non-profit that gets kids up into the mountains, and for this particular trip we took three sets of fathers and sons for a climb up the Coleman-Deming route. The weather was, in a word, miserable. On these trips we do a full day of snow school, including self-rescue with a Texas Prussik setup. For the entire day of snow school, not to mention the climb that night, we had a mix of rain, snow, sleet and driving rain. Most everyone was in Gore-Tex shells which are bomber, but I huddled inside of my new AscentShell jacket and wondered how well the fabric would do. It’s so light and breathable – could it possibly hold up to such challenging conditions?
I’m happy to say that yes, it did. After awhile the brand-new DWR was overwhelmed by the sheer amount of precipitation and bled to the membrane. It never soaked through, thankfully, and I was able to carefully modulate my activity (having slow clients helped) so that my sweat didn’t overwhelm the membrane while trying to escape the saturated face fabric. That said, I was actually really impressed with the Realm – it’s a pretty light jacket, but man, it really held its own up there. It’s also worth noting that the jacket moves really well. The underarm stretch panels are huge here, and that’s a big deal when you’re wearing a mountaineer’s coil and a pack and a harness and need to move awkwardly to adjust things.
With that handled, it’s worth talking about the features of the jacket. The Realm has OR’s tried-and-true Halo hood, which is fully adjustable and managed to just accommodate my clunky ski-mo helmet. The collar comes up nice and high to offer a lot of protection, but I wish I could have more fleece lining up there for comfort. The interior pocket are mesh on one side which I suspect won’t prove to be very durable, and on the other side there’s a weird velco-closure stuff pocket that looks pretty cheap. It’s functional, it just looks cheap. I’m used to more svelte designs, and actually it’s a good reminder that the Realm is a reasonably affordable shell for its performance level.
Throughout the course of the testing, and some very challenging conditions, I did notice one structural failure. The brim of the hood has a flexible plastic rod to offer some strength in windy conditions. This rod broke, which doesn’t drastically impact the function of the hood visor but it does mean that eventually those sharp plastic ends will work their way through the fabric and create a hole. Other more expensive shells use wire, and this is one reason why wire is preferable.
Let’s talk about that really quickly. We can learn a little about the Realm by looking at its positioning amongst OR’s other major jackets. At $279, it comes in well below their stellar Axiom jacket at $389. It’s also well above their equally popular, though more workhorse-y, Gore-Tex Foray jacket. This is actually pretty helpful to see – the Realm breathes much better than the Foray and I can tell that the laminate is higher-tech, but OR acknowledges that it can’t quite cut it against something like the Axiom’s phenomenal Gore-Tex Active fabric. The lesson to take from this is that the Realm is a great jacket for the money, even if it lacks the Gore-Tex label on the sleeve.
- Surprisingly resilient, high-performing fabric that can handle heavy perspiration
- Excellent fit and feature selection
- Underarm stretch panels contribute significantly to comfort
- YKK zippers look snazzy and all pull easily
- Helmet-compatible hood and high collar offer great protection
- Cool styling overall
- Interior pockets look kind of cheap
- More fleece on the chin would be nice
- Broken hood brim plastic tubing will eventually create a hole
The Bottom Line: OR Realm Jacket
Look to the Realm if you want a reliable, high-performance shell but don’t want to dish out the big bucks for a name-brand fabric. I’ll be curious to see how well the fabric does over the long run, and frankly Outdoor Research has the opportunity to one-up other laminates in the durability department. That remains to be seen. In the mean time, my initial expectations were all satisfied – you can trust the Realm to keep you safe from the weather, and that’s really what this is all about.
Buy Now: Available from Backcountry.com
The Realm is a reliable, weatherproof shell that's functional and capable enough for alpine ascents (like Mt. Baker in the spring). Overall, the fabric and waterproof/breathable AscentShell membrane can hold its own on this mid-priced jacket.
- Fit and tailoring
- Feature quality
- Build quality