Friday 7 November 2014

Synthetic Insulated Jacket: Jack Wolfskin Thermosphere

At a time where I thought I had my gear pretty much sorted and I’d come to terms with my view on down versus synthetic, I was contacted by OutdoorWorldDirect to see if I wanted to test the Thermosphere Jacket by Jack Wolfskin. At the time I had my doubts as to how and where this would have relevance to my kit.

First things first lets tackle the difficult issue of weight. The jacket in medium weighs 447g on my trusty scales. Not bad for a jacket not claiming to use superlight materials and with a hood. Up against my Western Mountaineering down jacket it will lose every time but for the money its certainly not ridiculous. JW have kept the weight down through minimal insulation, fairly light fabric and simple features – all outlined below.

The jacket retails at £120 but can be found online for £100. This isn’t cheap as such but the item is well made and feels like a well-designed and made piece of kit.

The jacket could be described as part or semi-insulated and this is because it has stretch, articulating panels around the elbow area of the arms. This fabric is a fairly thick, stretchy material and in contrasting blue in my jacket which gives it a technical look and feel. 

There is a very basic insulated hood but this can’t be adjusted. It has some volume and I suspect it would fit a climbing helmet under it but I’m not convinced it is designed for this.

There are two large, fleecy lined pockets that will hold a folded map and other assorted items but I found them to be shallow to the extent that things do fall out if you open the zip all the way down. Once you know it isn’t a problem but it’s something I immediately noticed.

There is only one type of adjustment on the jacket and this is at the hem in the form of the classic pull-cord elastic adjustment. As is fairly standard nowadays this is the type that is anchored and can be done with one hand whilst wearing gloves. There are no other adjustments on the cuffs or hood and as mentioned this is probably about weight and simplicity as well as the potential market this is aimed at. Having said that the cuffs are terminated in  nice discreet elastic piping and there are thumb-loops using the same material as under the arms. This is nice and stops the arms from riding up if using as a belay piece. I’m still undecided on whether thumb-loops are for me so I was happy to see that if you choose not to park your thumbs like this then the jacket doesn’t bunch or look odd – it just works either way.

Without even looking for the Jack Wolfskin marketing blurb, its clear this is designed around alpine pursuits and by nature means that movement and fit are really nicely dialled in. I’m usually a small in European outdoor clothing but this medium fits just right whilst allowing room for a base layer and or mid layer underneath.

The stretch panels on the arms are a nice touch and add to the natural and unhindered fit you feel while wearing it – so much so you can easily forget you have it on and of course this is the idea! It seems all too often that you are either in a strait jacket or in a fabric box with insulating pieces so for me the fit is the stand out success of this item.

I received this item in January this year (sorry for the extended review period David!) and have used it extensively and surprisingly this has been off and on the hill. The first trip was a slight cop-out as the jacket arrived in time for our yearly trip to the cabin in Wales where there’s lots of day walks directly from the door. I married the Thermosphere with a simple merino base layer and it worked perfectly. I was initially a bit paranoid at getting it wet and pulled on a waterproof when the heavens really opened. It took me a few downpours to get out of my down jacket mentality before allowing it to get wet and I’m glad I did. This is after all the jewel in the crown of synthetic insulation. I wouldn’t say it was just as warm when wet but when paired with a merino base layer and as long as you’re still moving about getting it wet isn’t the disaster I was expecting. Drying time is pretty good too and this is best done whilst still wearing it so your body heat helps it along a bit. I’ve not yet got it wet whilst having to dry it out under a tarp but as most of you will know this is isn’t really going to happen.

I used the jacket in ‘proper’ conditions in April on a one nighter in Wales. I was in two minds whether it would make my final kit choice depending on the temperatures. As the day loomed closer the forecast was for slightly warmer conditions but would be wet – perfect! Not wanting to chance being cold I brought along the trusty Montane Volt to layer underneath – just in case! In a slightly underwhelming scenario it just worked. The only time I wanted a bit more heat was whilst I was setting up the Trailstar in quite an exposed spot. The temperature got down to 6 degrees which I think was possibly the limit of use for me. 

One bad point did emerge, which I’d started to notice during the first windy outing in January, and that is the stretch arm panels. There being no insulation here and the nature of the material means you do feel a noticeable difference in temperature around the panels and particularly in a chilly wind. There’s nothing you can do about it and I really only noticed it whilst still but when pitching a tent or tarp in cold, windy conditions the body tends to cool quite quickly.

The only other point to note is the bulk of the jacket when packed down. If you’re used to a down based insulation piece then the size when packed of the Thermosphere will disappoint. It only really bothered because I’m anal about packing my gear in the Gorilla pack and everything has a place. 

I didn’t really expect much from this jacket and had no prior experience of Jack Wolfskin before this. Having said that it has exceeded my expectations and I’d consider bringing it out on trips that I knew were going to be predominantly wet but not so cold. The fact is its my go-to jacket for walking the dog in a whole range of conditions and makes for a simple layering piece for longer day walks where 1 jacket is all you need.

The fit is excellent and the simple features work for me too. The stretch panels around the arms won’t suit everybody and neither will the bulk when packed down but when all is said and done the Thermosphere is warmer when wet making it a bit more flexible and it makes a better pillow than a superlight down jacket!


Anonymous said...

Hi Marcus, if my experience with JW products is typical, then you'll find the jacket to be very durable and long-lasting.

I've also found their sizings throughout the range to be more consistent than some manufacturers, which can be useful when ordering stuff online. Unfortunately, unlike yourself, I am no longer a small.

Marcus said...

It feels as if I've not really taken it off since it arrived - though I've not ventured to the pub in it yet so I've not completely crossed the outdoor/casual wear line!