Outdoor Research is well known for their shells, which often compete for top honors as some of the best shells in the industry. Their insulation game is not as well known, though, despite putting out some very innovative products in recent years. Most recently, they’ve come out with a creative new jacket called the Uberlayer. The Uberlayer aims to top the heap of the new synthetic wonderjackets, promising the capacity to handle huge ranges of temperatures under a full range of aerobic loads.
Outdoor Research Uberlayer Jacket Features:
- Water & wind resistant
- Highly breathable Polartec Alpha insulation
- Double-separating center front zipper with storm flap
- Two zippered hand pockets and Napoleon pocket
- Two internal Shove-It™ pockets
- Interior glide panels applied to lining at shoulder and arms
- Adjustable wire-brimmed, helmet-compatible halo hood
- Low-profile inset Lycra cuffs
- Drawcord at hem
- 100% nylon 30D stretch woven shell // 100% polyester stretch mesh lining // Polartec® Hi-Pile Alpha Insulation 100% polyester, 98 g/m
- Weight: 20.5oz / 581g (Large)
- MSRP: $289
Uberlayer – what’s in a name?
First of all, let’s get the basics on the table. The Uberlayer is an insulated active jacket suitable for everything from climbing to skiing. Most of the inside of the jacket is hung with a polyester mesh. The outer nylon shell has a DWR, enabling the Uberlayer to function as an outer layer during light precipitation. This is 30D stretch nylon, offering excellent range-of-motion in all directions.Its foundation is Polartec’s Hi-Pile Alpha insulation at a weight of 98g/m. These three fabrics, coupled with some careful tailoring and a few select features, are supposed to provide one of the best and most versatile insulating experiences available.
The Uberlayer is an exciting piece for several reasons. For one, it features absolutely premium materials – Polartec’s Hi-Pile Alpha insulation is, in many ways, the gold standard for versatile insulation. In 2012 Polartec announced that they had been contracted by the US military to produce an insulation that could both breathe well when active and retain heat when sedentary. The result was a new polyester-based insulation which Polartec has continued to refine since then. The particular variation in the Uberlayer is Polartec’s Hi-Pile Alpha, which means that the insulation is ‘piled’ slightly thicker than the standard, resulting in a warmer jacket. This is a much more desirable situation than what other competing jackets have created, especially when they start to use their own proprietary insulations which often are not as good as what comes from the minds at Polartec and other dedicated brands. Another bonus – Polartec is made out of recycled plastic bottles. Lots and lots of them.
It has to be said, though, that breathability and warmth will always be a balancing act in synthetic insulation. Synthetic insulation works by trapping pockets of warm air, and if you make the insulation too effective at transferring water vapor you’ll find that the pockets of air don’t stick around long enough to warm up. And it becomes even more complex when you consider that the face fabric that the insulation is paired with is terribly important – too tightly knit and it won’t breathe, but too loose and the wind will steal away all of your warmth. These considerations, along with many others, go into fine-tuning the balance in synthetic insulation.
Let’s start with the Uberlayer’s performance in active, sweaty conditions. I am a notorious sweater; I heat up slowly, but once I’m warm I am really warm. It’s always a challenge to find gear that can deal with the sweat. The Uberlayer has a leg up on this front because it uses a hung mesh liner throughout most of the jacket. This mesh liner acts almost like a bellows, mechanically aiding airflow within the jacket as you move in order to keep moisture moving away from your body and into the jacket fabric, where it will (theoretically) be whisked away to evaporate off. This is a significant advantage over jackets that simply line their interiors with nylon or polyester panels, which don’t perform this function as well as mesh. Outdoor Research also included low-friction panels of smoother mesh on the shoulders and sleeves to help the jacket most easily over layers.
I almost always wore this jacket with a long-sleeve capilene baselayer, which I highly recommend. With this combination, I never felt the jacket getting oppressive or clammy. In fact, on several occasions I was downright surprised by how much sweat the fabric had dealt with that I simply wasn’t aware of. This is a very stark contrast from most similar jackets, where I’m almost always painfully aware of how much sweat I’m putting into the fabric. It really is quite remarkable.
The Polartec Alpha, coupled with OR’s 30D nylon face fabric, deserves kudos on another front as well. Once the insulation has managed to wick the moisture into its outer layers, it usually evaporates off very quickly depending on conditions. For example, I wore this jacket nordic skiing and, coupled with strong sunlight and the heat from my body on a 20′ day, I could watch a patch of sweat disappear over the course of a minute or so. Your mileage will no doubt vary, but let it be said that Outdoor Research’s claims about breathability are true.
Now for the other side of things – warmth retained when sedentary. My opinion is that, as a whole, the Uberlayer leans further to the side of being breathable than it does being warm. I would not be comfortably sedentary in this jacket past 45′ or so, even higher if there’s significant wind. This is not so much because there’s any inherent flaw in the fabric or insulation, but simply because there’s not actually all that much loft to the Hi-Pile Alpha when compared to less-breathable synthetic insulation. The jacket is nicely windproof, but there’s not enough bulk there to really shield you. Mind you, this shouldn’t really be a problem for most consumers; the Uberlayer is highly versatile, but not magical. You’ll have to layer up on colder days – that’s why they make things like parkas and goose down jackets. But for active things, I’ve been comfortable in the Uberlayer and a medium merino baselayer down to the single digits.
So the upshot should be pretty clear – it’s a highly breathable jacket and, blow for blow, may be without peer in terms of avoiding that heavy, clammy feel that comes with sweat. But it’s not a belay parka, and you shouldn’t expect that level of warmth simply because Polartec says that the insulation can retain warmth when sedentary.
Alrighty, so that’s the really interesting stuff. On top of all of this are a number of useful features tailored to the alpine. First and foremost, I’ll pick on the hood. It’s helmet compatible and works well with my chunky Mammut Alpine Rider, which is good. It only has one adjustment, though, so in very windy places you may have some difficulty. However, the fabric isn’t all that bulky which means that it’s easier to tame with just the one adjustment, contrary to, say, a belay parka. And, importantly, there’s a wire in the peak of the hood for added strength against gusts.
I’m fond of the cuff and hem design on the Uberlayer. The cuffs are low-profile Lycra and slide easily underneath heavy gloves, a boon for getting a good seal. Additionally, there’s just one hem adjustment that works well and saves a little weight and complexity. Two big, fleece-lined hand pockets provide lots of warmth when wearing a harness and the Napoleon pocket doubles as a stuff sack, although by my judgment OR made the pocket uncomfortably small for that purpose.
Another feature is the contrasting two-way zipper. It’s a nice toothy one so it pulls very easily, and since it’s two-way you can unzip from the bottom for easier access to your harness if you’re using the Uberlayer to belay in the shoulder season. The main zipper is backed up by a really good snag-free storm flap. I mean it: it’s really good. Probably the best I’ve come across. If the rest of the jacket weren’t already so good, I would make a bigger deal of this.
Lastly, a note on fit. OR says that the Uberlayer is slim-fit, but I’d say it’s close to being true-to-size. I usually wear a Medium but ordered a Large when I saw that they list it as slim fit; sure enough, it’s a little large on my 5’11”, 185lb frame. Don’t be afraid to order true to size on this one.
- It’s breathable! A great way to minimize moisture build-up within a layering system
- Excellent range-of-motion for climbing
- Nicely tailored and true to size
- That zipper track – it could get a review all of its own
- DWR performance has been excellent
- Interior glide panels are a nice touch
- Great cuffs and hems
- At 20oz, this jacket won’t be competing for any ultralight prizes
- Stuff pocket is too small
The Bottom Line: Outdoor Research Uberlayer
If the Patagonia Nano-Air has been the agreed top dog for breathability, it had better watch out – the Uberlayer is likely just as good. Quantifying exact performance metrics is likely to be a dubious venture, though, so potential users ought to rest contented knowing that most of the jackets employing Polartec Alpha are going to breathe exceptionally well … but the Uberlayer happens to be one of the best!
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