UKH

66°North Skaftafell jacket Review

© Toby Archer

The 66°North Skaftafell is an interesting jacket to review. First, the headline: I like it a lot. But then the sub-heading will have to be: but I'm still not exactly sure what it is. OK, it's a jacket - a rather smart-looking orange-verging on red jacket. It has a hood and pockets and all that normal jackety-type-stuff, but beyond that things get fuzzy, even unsettling.

With a close cut and a bit of stretch, it's a shell for active use without loads of layers (unless you go up a size)  © Toby Archer
With a close cut and a bit of stretch, it's a shell for active use without loads of layers (unless you go up a size)
© Toby Archer

Different countries have different outdoor cultures that have developed from both the local weather and social conditions. So I have no real research basis for this claim beyond 30 years of being active in various outdoor pursuits in a number of different countries, plus half a sociology degree, but bear with me. As those outdoor cultures develop, so do our attitudes to the equipment we use.

British mountain culture has given us a particularly dichotomous view of our gear. For our outdoor clothing, that fundamental bifurcation has tended to be between 'things that are waterproof' and 'things that are not'. Questioning this binary division is, thankfully, pretty apolitical compared to questioning binary distinctions such as male and female.

But, all the same, tell me my jacket is 'sort of waterproof' and I am unsettled; maybe not to a Sartrean level of existential angst but at least confused enough to spend a good few minutes, the night before a hill day, staring at my Skaftafell jacket and at my-half packed rucksack and mentally going backwards and forwards - do I put in a hardshell (another hardshell as well? Is this my "waterproof" in which case why isn't it "fully waterproof"? Or is it a "softshell", in which case why does it act so much like a waterproof? And what, really, is the difference between waterproof and highly water resistant?

If it's too cold to rain, do you need your shell to be 100% waterproof?  © Toby Archer
If it's too cold to rain, do you need your shell to be 100% waterproof?
© Toby Archer

Fabric

The 66°North Skaftafell is made from GORE-TEX® INFINIUM WINDSTOPPER® (GORE seem to insist on only using upper case for reasons that are not immediately clear). They now split their "fabric technologies" into black label - fully waterproof - "guaranteed to keep you dry", which I think is what most of us think of when we say a "Gore-Tex jacket" - and then white label, the Infinium range that Gore say is "totally windproof, water resistant, and very breathable—protecting you where other jackets won't". Gore-Tex Windstopper was launched in the early 1990s: so does adding the INFINIUM name to Windstopper signify a change to the technology and performance?

What if we could think of waterproofness as a matter of degree, rather than a binary opposite to not-waterproof?

It is interesting that 66°North, an Icelandic brand, have made a shell out of just INFINIUM. Gore's Windstopper has long been popular in the other Nordic countries, perhaps reflecting that in colder wintery conditions waterproofing is less crucial an issue. Or maybe it's just that Nordic people are more relaxed in their mindset towards transgressing boundaries?

In the 2000s I bought a Windstopper jacket made by a Swedish brand. In Finland where I lived they were ubiquitous: people using them for cross country and alpine skiing, hiking and trekking from the forests of the south to the fjells of Lapland. Lots of my friends used them for ice climbing as well. I never really got on with mine - while the jacket itself was well designed and well cut, it was the WINDSTOPPER fabric that I didn't like. While it was without any doubt windproof, it didn't seem any more breathable than the Gore-Tex of the time, yet also it would let water in when it was raining. I can't honestly remember, this might have been because the seams weren't taped but I think I remember it seemed to come through the fabric itself in heavy enough rain.

Using it as a climbing windproof in Winnat's Pass  © Toby Archer
Using it as a climbing windproof in Winnat's Pass
© Toby Archer

I originally bought that Windstopper jacket for cool weather bike-commuting but found it nowhere close to breathable enough. Hence I was really interested to see if the INFINIUM WINDSTOPPER of 2021 was any better. And in a word - yes, it is.

I've worn the Skaftafell a lot now since receiving it in the autumn last year. Separating the performance of the fabric itself from the design and fit of the jacket is actually really tricky, but it definitely seems that the Infinium fabric of today is more breathable than the Windstopper of 15 years ago. But, considering Gore has claimed better performance from all their ePTFE membranes (the technology that underpins both waterproof Gore-Tex and Infinium/Windstopper) over time anyway, that perhaps shouldn't be a surprise. What has surprised me though is that, when wearing the Skaftafell in some pretty minging weather in the hills, it seems to be essentially waterproof. It is noticeable that the jacket is fully seam-taped. Inside the Skaftafell looks like a modern well-made mountain hardshell. This does lead to the question: why bother with all that when making a jacket out of material that, to quote GORE-TEX's own INFINIUM sub-site, is for "when waterproof protection isn't a priority"?

For something not marketed as fully waterproof, it performs surprisingly well in heavy rain!  © Toby Archer
For something not marketed as fully waterproof, it performs surprisingly well in heavy rain!
© Toby Archer

Yet in the same way that I've been impressed by the degree to which the INFINIUM WINDSTOPPER fabric seems waterproof, I'm also not sure whether the Skaftafell is actually any more breathable than a well designed hardshell made out of Gore-Tex Pro or similar high performance waterproof/breathable fabric.

On UKC and UKH we often note that Gore do not release lab results for either the waterproofness or breathability of their fabrics, and how this can be rather annoying. I suspect that Infinium would have a higher measurement of breathability and lower one of waterproofing than, for example, Gore-Tex Pro. But we don't know this.

If there is a limit to the waterproofness of the Skaftafell, I haven't found it yet, but then again if I'm going out on a day where I know it will be raining all day or at least raining until I'm high enough for it to snow, then I will probably take a traditional hardshell. Likewise, walking hard uphill with a pack on my back gets sweaty regardless of what I'm wearing. Does that moisture get moved away and escape through the membrane faster in the Skaftafell than on a comparable hardshell? Perhaps, but it's not noticeable, at least with my physiology and the conditions that I've been using the jacket in.

Fabric tough enough for climbing  © Toby Archer
Fabric tough enough for climbing
© Toby Archer

Hood that works with a helmet  © Toby Archer
Hood that works with a helmet
© Toby Archer

Weight and toughness

At 486g in medium the Skaftafell is not a particularly light shell - let's call it a midweight. The INFINIUM fabric that 66°North have used feels a bit softer than many high denier nylons used as the face layer on stuff like Gore-Tex Pro, but not massively so. The jacket does feel tough though, both in terms of withstanding abrasion when climbing, and offering a feeling of protection in high winds. It also has a slight stretch, which is good.

Design

Moving beyond the fabric choice, the Skaftafell is a very well-designed and well-cut jacket. Unlike on the otherwise very nice 66°North Hornstrandir Gore-Tex Pro hardshell that I reviewed last year, the hood of the Skaftafell goes over my helmet and with the zip fully up, I can move my head about without restriction. You can't hide in the hood quite as much as some with really big volume: your cheeks can feel a bit more exposed than with bigger hoods, but I have found it seems to work very well with goggles. When not wearing a helmet the hood also reduces in volume well; it has a peak that gives it good structure, and a volume reducer around the crown with a toggle at the back, and drawcords around the front that adjust at the neck.

I like the pockets  © Toby Archer
I like the pockets
© Toby Archer

A good design for an all-rounder  © Toby Archer
A good design for an all-rounder
© Toby Archer

Also unlike with the Hornstrandir, both the external chest pocket on the Skaftafell, and the internal one, take my smartphone in its case easily - perfect! Considering the slightly too small hood and the pockets that wouldn't take a phone were my only complaints about the Hornstrandir, it's just possible 66°North are listening to feedback - which is great - and I really can't find any niggles like that with the Skaftafell.

Other design features with the Skaftafell include two zipped hand warmer pockets that will take a flat OS map without much trouble, although that's not where I would choose to carry my map personally. Like all the zips on the jacket, those zips are the waterproof type but inside the pockets is a stretchy very breathable material meaning the hand-warmer pockets can be opened in dry conditions like pit-zips. The external chest pocket, where I have normally been putting my phone for quick access to maps and camera, is made of two layers of INFINIUM, so works well to keep the phone dry. Mentioning zips, the main zip is a larger gauge water resistant one (or at least it seems to be so in driving rain!) and 66°North have put a good size protective flap behind it. I've seen no hint of it leaking. The arms are a relatively trim fit and the cuffs close with simple but effective velcro flaps. The cuffs have plenty of space under them for me to fit insulated gloves of the type I use for winter climbing. Finally there is a waist drawcord with adjusters on each side.

Fit

Firstly the Skaftafell is available in both men and women's versions - interestingly in exactly the same three choices of colours, so it is nice to see 66°North not taking the "shrink and pink" route to women's models that some brands are accused of. On their website they state: "Skaftafell fits true-to-size. Those planning to pair with a puffy mid-layer might consider sizing up." This is basically my experience, I find the Skaftafell has a slightly more trim cut than many hardshell. I can still get it over a base-layer and hooded microfleece easily, and have added an additional light fleece gilet under it as well on cold days, all with no issues. But it feels a bit tight if I wear it over a light synthetic fill jacket, the kind of jackets that do fit under a hardshell like the Hornstrandir. The Skaftafell is a jacket for being active in and its trim fit reflects that.

It's cut well enough for climbing - I get no hem lift  © Toby Archer
It's cut well enough for climbing - I get no hem lift
© Toby Archer

There is definitely some stretch to the fabric, and technical climbing, either rock-climbing or snow and ice with tools, seems what the Skaftafell was cut for. I get next to no hem lift reaching up both arms without a harness on, and none when it is tucked into one.

Environmental and social sustainability

66°North is a certified B Corp meaning they have reached a good level of environmental and social performance, measured by an independent foundation. The company proudly states that it has been carbon neutral since 2019. 66°North have their own factory in Latvia, so produce many of their products, including the Skaftafell, under EU employment and environment regulations. 66°North are clearly proud of their achievements on these matters and have a dedicated section of the website that explains what they do. 

Conclusion

At £425 the Skaftafell is not a cheap jacket although it is cheaper than 66°North's GORE-TEX Pro hardshell the Hornstrandir. In the process of writing up this review I decided I really needed to try to conclude whether or not it can be considered a "hardshell".

Fortunately the recent weather has been foul enough to help with this. I popped up onto the moors above Sheffield for a walk. It was about +3 degrees, strong winds gusting up to about 40 or 50 mph, and raining hard. I walked a 4km circular route for just under an hour. It was all distinctly unpleasant and when I got home I was wet to my underwear on my lower body (note to self, time to replace my elderly 'just in case' overtrousers!). But despite the Skaftafell being soaked on the outside, I was dry on the inside. Some moisture had wicked up the lower sleeves from the cuffs, and there were some tiny wet patches on the inside of one of the hand-warmer pockets, probably I opened it at some point to put something in, or possibly a tiny leak through the zip. But considering I literally had soggy pants and socks, it was really quite impressive.

Stretchy, well-cut and weatherproof - but how much more breathable is it than a hard shell? I just can't say  © Toby Archer
Stretchy, well-cut and weatherproof - but how much more breathable is it than a hard shell? I just can't say
© Toby Archer

If I had walked for two hours, or four, would the INFINIUM have been overwhelmed? Possibly, but I have worn the jacket for full days in the mountains - for example climbing Crib Lem on Carnedd Dafydd. That day we walked in with cold but damp conditions that turned to snow as we reached the spur. After the summit, the snow reverted to sleet and then rain as we descended towards Bethesda. I was comfy all day in the Skaftafell, and didn't once think "should have brought a 'proper' hardshell".

And so we circle back to the beginning and that unsettled feeling of being somewhere fuzzy between socially accepted and understood polar alternatives: waterproof or not waterproof. To me the Skaftafell jacket feels closer to the established hardshell/waterproof pole, than it does the softshell/non-waterproof alternative. But both GORE-TEX and 66°North don't sell it as such and you are left with the feeling they must know something we don't (quite possibly the hydrostatic head figures of Gore-Tex compared to Infinium!).

Probably the most common complaint heard on forums and Facebook groups for UK hillwalkers and mountaineers, is either people who think their hardshell or boots are leaking. Perhaps our green and soggy isles lead us to have very high expectations of waterproofing. Would life be less stressful or disappointing if we could think of waterproofness as a matter of degree, rather than a binary opposite to not waterproof?

It definitely has a role - particularly in winter  © Toby Archer
It definitely has a role - particularly in winter
© Toby Archer

The Skaftafell is a great jacket for wearing in the mountains, it has kept me dry and warm in typically harsh British winter hill conditions, including long periods of time when the precipitation was falling as rain, not snow. I suspect it is both more breathable and less waterproof than a hardshell made of Gore-Tex Pro or similar but I can't actually claim to have proven either.

It won't be the shell I reach for on summer days in the hill, when I'd go for a much lighter hardshell to carry just in case along with an ultralight and more breathable non-membrane windproof. But for winter conditions, when there is at least a good chance you'll be dealing with snow as much as rain, the Skaftafell really comes into its own. And if it does rain, not snow, the situation is still far from a disaster. It may not be helpful as a label on a sales tag, but "waterproof-ish" definitely is very helpful out on the hill when the blizzard turns to driving rain.

66°North say:

Skaftafell is a versatile, all-seasons jacket made from GORE-TEX® INFINIUM. Modern materials equip a heritage-inspired design with intelligent weather resistance: enough to handle Iceland, without compromising wearability. For a mix of style, comfort, and capability, there's none better.

Behind Skaftafell is GORE-TEX® INFINIUM WINDSTOPPER® technology. This windproof and highly water-resistant textile is designed to maximize breathability, preventing the clammy feeling often associated with shells. A stretch-enabled nylon face ups Skaftafell's agility.

  • Sizes: S-XXL (men) XS-XXL (women)
  • Weight: 486g men's size M (our weight)
  • Faric: GORE-TEX® INFINIUM WINDSTOPPER® 92% Nylon, 8% Elastane
  • Two spacious chest pockets
  • Adjustment points on the hem, hood, and cuffs provide customized fit (or added weatherproofing, depending on the day)
  • Visor on hood for additional comfort and protection and drawstring adjustment 
  • Fits true-to-size. Those planning to pair with a puffy mid-layer might consider sizing up

For more information 66north.com


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22 Feb

I would imagine that it performs in a very similar way to Rab's Proflex fabric. It does look, from your pictures, that it wets out quite badly, but I found my early Proflex did the same until I washed it in Graingers. I also wonder how much the price reflects import costs as it is an Icelandic company?

22 Feb

In p*ssing down rain I don't think it wets out any more than a new decent hardshell. Plenty of beading up happens - see pic. Funnily enough, I wore this jacket https://www.ukclimbing.com/gear/clothing/softshell/marmot_nabu_neoshell_jacket-5883 in pouring rain yesterday for the first time in ages and it worked fine for a limited time at least - maybe INFINIUM is the new Neoshell - neo-NeoShell?! - (which might mean not waterproof enough for Brits/Irish hill goers who like their waterproofs as waterproof as possible!).


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