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The North Face Summit Series L5 LT FUTURELIGHT Jacket and Trousers Review

In a campaign that challenges us to "Defy the past: Wear the future" The North Face's FUTURELIGHT has been heralded as a revolutionary new waterproof/breathable technology. Very much in the present, Rebecca Ting tests Summit Series L5 LT FUTURELIGHT ski touring jacket and pants to see what it's all about.


Fast and light is all very well as a concept, but the reality of high-intensity output in cold temperatures often involves lots of zipping and unzipping and some level of discomfort when the conditions catch you out. Waterproof-breathability has become the holy grail of fabric developments in recent years – if your shell layer protects you yet doesn't need taking off, you can scratch clothing from the long list of decisions to be made in the backcountry and enjoy more time for touring! In a bold move away from the supply chain, The North Face have invested millions of pounds and over two years' R&D in their new FUTURELIGHT ranges. Unapologetically aimed at "single-day, fast-moving missions with potentially short weather windows", the Summit Series L5 LT FUTURELIGHT jacket and trousers is a combo for the ski touring purist.

Testing has involved ski touring/mountaineering early season in the eastern Alps and mid-season in the Rockies, plus recent storms in the UK. Temperatures have ranged from -18˚ to +5˚C , with conditions from whiteout to warm bluebird days at 4000m with a high UV factor. (Nb. Given the testing window I haven't had the chance to test in late Spring conditions yet - check back after Easter for an update!) In terms of high intensity activity, testing included both genuine fast-and-light in clear conditions and slowish and very heavy breaking trail through deep early season snow, both up to the point of redlining.

Zooming mid-season in the Rockies  © Ben Bishop
Zooming mid-season in the Rockies
© Ben Bishop

Fabric

Let's start with the fabric, because the most significant innovation here is TNF's much-anticipated multi-million technology investment – FUTURELIGHT.

FUTURELIGHT has been incorporated into each top technical clothing series (Summit, Steep and Flight), with what has been described as "tunability"; five different weights of membrane and several different weights of polyester face and backer fabrics enable plenty of combinations which can be tweaked depending on the balance of stretch, durability, breathability and waterproofness required by a particular activity.

To make the membrane, TNF use a process called nanospinning, where more than 200,000 tiny nozzles spray a polyurethane solution into a random nanofibre matrix (see video below for exciting magnified images). This is incredibly porous (85% air) allowing sweat and air to get out but stopping water from getting in. The membrane is then sandwiched between face and backer polyester for a three-layer fabric.

The R&D extends beyond the membrane, with a new kind of seam tape that is lightweight and gives more stretch, plus proprietary yarn and new lamination and weaving processes.

The thing is, nanospinning isn't entirely new – Outdoor Research's AscentShell and Polartec's NeoShell precede FUTURELIGHT by a few years and already offer serious propositions in the waterproof-breathability stakes. However, the tunability of FUTURELIGHT combined with excellent cut means this is arguably a step forward in the industry, if not a revolution.

Nb. For the numbers geeks out there, The North Face are not officially publishing any testing figures for hydrostatic head (HH) or moisture vapour transmission rate (MTVR) so it is hard to see how it weighs up to the competition in the lab. But then neither does Gore. Having tested both the L5 LT flavour of FUTURELIGHT and OR Interstellar (AscentShell) on the mountain, my sense is that both are waterproof (in a binary waterproof or not way) but the FUTURELIGHT is more breathable and the AscentShell cuts more wind.

It's worth noting that in our recent Bombproof Shells group test we were less wowed by the breathability on offer from a thicker 70D version of FUTURELIGHT, and it wouldn't be surprising if boosting durability and waterproofness led to compromises elsewhere. The abilty to fine tune your fabric may not be a silver bullet for all settings and situations.

The trousers and jacket in their lightweight stuff sacks. They go even smaller than this!  © UKC Gear
The trousers and jacket in their lightweight stuff sacks. They go even smaller than this!

In an activity that inherently requires a decent amount of gear (and where you have a huge choice of lightweight ski/boot/shovel/pack etc options), lightweight clothing with stripped down features provides an obvious opportunity to streamline further.

Indeed, the first thing you notice with the L5 LT jacket and trousers is the weight. At 297g and 302g respectively (in stuff sack, women's size medium) they are unbelievably light. 'Unbelievable' is absolutely the right adjective here. It feels hard to believe that full-size shells (both jacket and trousers are generously but athletically cut) can be this light, and that something that feels this light and insubstantial (dare I say it – flimsy?) can be genuinely waterproof. And if it is genuinely waterproof, can it really be breathable? Will it survive a crampon snag or cope with a tight line through the trees?

Despite feeling softer than a softshell, FUTURELIGHT certainly does seem to be waterproof in all the ways you need for a ski touring shell. Snow glances by while rain and sleet beads on the face and doesn't wet out over time. This is completed by lightweight but solid waterproof PU zips on the pockets.

To date the FUTURELIGHT has proved totally waterproof  © UKC Gear
To date the FUTURELIGHT has proved totally waterproof

Rain and sleet beads on the face  © UKC Gear
Rain and sleet beads on the face

Sitting down on the snow to wrestle with crampons didn't result in a wet bum (though being so thin, it was bloody cold). In a totally irrelevant test, the jacket also didn't do too badly in Storms Ciara and Dennis, keeping a down mid-layer dry and not flapping about more than any other waterproof.

Once you take it off any surface moisture also sheds/dries quickly, which is good for winter camping, huts and quick turnarounds. It also stands up to the wind relatively well, both directional and gusting, though I found it a little chilly above the treeline and perhaps not the 100% windproof it claims to be. For exposed summits you will likely want an extra insulation layer for protection.

Though the breathability is tuned for high-intensity activity in low temperatures, the performance is decent over a range of conditions, and it doesn't seem to be a membrane which requires body heat to actively 'push' moisture out or a significant moisture gradient to be effective.

Not the fastest or lightest of conditions early season, but both the FUTURELIGHT and I were breathing hard!  © Ben Bishop
Not the fastest or lightest of conditions early season, but both the FUTURELIGHT and I were breathing hard!
© Ben Bishop

Conditions weren't ideal for breathability in the early season Alps; the touring wasn't often fast or light due to heavy wet snow. However it was definitely high intensity - much sweat was produced, and it did seem to disappear off somewhere!

Mid-season in the drier climate of the Rockies, the FUTURELIGHT really came into its own. Climbing up to 1100m each day across a range of temperatures (from trailhead to the cool spots between trees to sunny summits), the breathability meant I was able to maintain a comfortable body temperature, experiencing less of the fluctuation that comes from repeated sweating and cooling cycles than with any other ski-touring shell (hard or soft) I have tried.

And all with the bonus of not needing to remove or even adjust layers along the way, which was a very exciting development, though it did mean I lost the excuse of having a breather "while I faff with my jacket"!

The breathability of FUTURELIGHT has also changed my perception of features. For someone who is obsessed with pit-zips, I have not for one moment questioned the lack of them (Caveat: This view may change in warmer spring conditions, but at the moment I feel confident it won't…), and while many ski touring trousers use mesh-backed pockets or have side zips as vents, the breathability of the FUTURELIGHT means there aren't any.

The tester needs a breather, but the FUTURELIGHT could have kept going!  © Ben Bishop
The tester needs a breather, but the FUTURELIGHT could have kept going!
© Ben Bishop

The fabric is extremely soft and stretchy - to the point that I barely noticed it. As a result it lacks the crispy, resistant feel of a conventional shell, though cut and stitching provide stiffness where it is needed (eg. the chin-guard). Combining the softness with stretch and lack of weight means it is sometimes hard to believe that you are wearing something waterproof, especially the trousers.

Normally I wouldn't even contemplate wearing a waterproof layer next to the skin, as the idea of the plastic clamminess seems unbearable, but the soft feel of the L5 LT emboldened me to try a short-sleeve under the jacket in warmer conditions, and it wasn't utterly disgusting...

So can something this soft be tough enough to take on the full range of ski touring abuse? Weirdly, yes, but not for the reasons you would expect.

The durability I have noted actually seems to be a result of how soft the fabric is, rather than how tough it is. For example, on a crampon section of a tour in pretty deep snow, I definitely felt several sharp snags and was expecting to find multiple holes. Interestingly, the one puncture was on the reinforced Kevlar panel, and while from the scrape marks there had clearly been point contact on the FUTURELIGHT, the stretchy softness meant there wasn't enough resistance to puncture. With a stiffer fabric it would almost definitely have holed. So far the jacket has demonstrated similar durability. I have felt obligated to thrash it through the trees as hard as I can with tight lines that have scratched my goggles and snagged my pack and poles. But again the fabric has only suffered micro scrapes as snagging branches try to catch but then glance off. Both jacket and trousers survived a brutal buried tree-stump wipeout better than my pride…

Significant zoom was needed to see the marks left by intense tree skiing  © UKC Gear
Significant zoom was needed to see the marks left by intense tree skiing

Crampons punctured the Kevlar but glanced off the softer fabric  © UKC Gear
Crampons punctured the Kevlar but glanced off the softer fabric

In terms of abrasion, there has been no laminate weakening so far from friction points with pack, rocks, fences, harness and itself. Neither has the non-fluorinated DWR been compromised (TNF reassure me that a standard waterproofing wash regime will keep this tip top).

On this point, and as outdoor consumers increasingly (and rightly) demand sturdy environmental credentials from their gear, sustainability is now a key consideration for all new fabric technologies. The good news is that all FUTURELIGHT fabrics are made using recycled fabrics as part of a process that prioritises "responsible manufacturing and eco-driven innovation", some in solar-powered factories. Also of note is that the swing tags for garments on test are printed with soy ink on FSC paper. These are strong starting eco credentials but we must also consider the long view - like any piece of gear the L5 LTs will need to prove durable enough to last the course of multiple seasons (and therefore not need replacing) to be considered more sustainable.

‘Knockout orange’ is an excellent colour for low-light skiing conditions, even if it does get a bit dirty over time  © Ben Bishop
‘Knockout orange’ is an excellent colour for low-light skiing conditions, even if it does get a bit dirty over time
© Ben Bishop

So is FUTURELIGHT the game-changing revolution we were promised or a flash in the pan?

Without having side-by-side testing with equivalent Polartec NeoShell and OR AscentShell it is hard to declare conclusively, but it has definitely ticked all the boxes so far. The waterproofing is faultless and the breathability excellent. It is soft, and, to date, durable. However, in declaring something revolutionary we probably need a longer-term view on some of these aspects; only time will tell whether FUTURELIGHT can retain its properties over seasons and prove its durability and consequently sustainability.

Summit Series L5 LT FUTURELIGHT Jacket - £400

Features

An aspiration to 'lightweight, minimal and packable' tends to signal fewer features and this is certainly true of the L5 LT jacket. There are no pit zips or powder skirt and very few pockets. The good news is that those features it does have are well thought out and complement the fabric properties, all at a beautiful build quality which clearly has very low tolerances.

The L5 LT jacket's hood is generous and definitely helmet compatible. The stretchiness of the FUTURELIGHT allows a lower volume hood than most comparable shell jackets, and that translates to needing fewer adjustment features. It has a wired brim and volume is adequately controlled by a simple single-point adjustment at the back that (with concentration) can be operated in big gloves. There is no cinching around the face opening, but to be fair, the brim wiring and volume adjustment meant I could achieve a suitable fit uphill (prevent flappy fabric, stop snow and wind getting in and maintain sideways vision) without. Downhill, a helmet totally fills the space so none of that is an issue. The chin-guard is backed with a soft material for comfort against your face and perforated with small holes so you can breathe easily if you are zipped up over your mouth. With or without the hood up it stays up unzipped, allowing you to breathe hard yet giving protection from side gusts.

Minimalist cinch adjustments in hem  © UKC Gear
Minimalist cinch adjustments in hem

...and hood  © UKC Gear
...and hood

I normally love having lots of pockets in my outer layers but with ski touring this is a bit of a false value proposition; the combination of pack waistbelt, transceiver and sometimes harness means you can't easily access half of them, or perhaps the positioning of internal mesh pockets behind external pockets means either extreme bulk or you can only use one at once. In this respect the L5 LT jacket's two-pocket minimalism is a good call.

The exterior alpine chest pocket runs the whole length of the left chest fabric panel from the seam just below the shoulder/above the logo down to just above the waist. It has a waterproof matte polyurethane zip and is bellowed at the bottom, potentially giving space to carry skins. (For my skins with max dimensions 170x13.8cm this worked folded in thirds without cheat sheets).

The small mesh pocket incorporated into the chest pocket is useful for protecting and filing something small like a mobile phone or sunglasses that you want easy access to. It also keeps your phone close to your chest (which for me is reassuring in terms of warmth prolonging battery life) and the mesh and FUTURELIGHT combination means that screen condensation was minimal – again this speaks volumes for breathability! Obviously if you do choose to carry your skins in the same pocket, this might not be the case…

The outside zip pocket has a mesh section for your phone  © UKC Gear
The outside zip pocket has a mesh section for your phone

The inside mesh pocket could be a tiny bit deeper  © UKC Gear
The inside mesh pocket could be a tiny bit deeper

A single inside mesh drop pocket takes a pair of gloves and makes the most of body heat drying. The simple fact that this is on the other side (right) of the chest to the external pocket means you can efficiently load both pockets without competing for space and distribute weight more evenly. My only complaint would be that the shape is relatively square. If a bit deeper it would hold longer items more securely; as it is, the shape and stretch in mesh and shell mean it gapes a bit if you put anything any heavier or denser than gloves in it. That isn't to say it is insecure, but my personal preference is that things in pockets 'sit' in one place when I am moving.

It also comes with a very lightweight stuff sack with a clip loop. Considering this is a jacket you should never have to take off, I'm not entirely clear what that's about, but it does give protection from pointy things in a pack, make for neat compartmentalised packing in your duffel and I guess you have the option to hang your jacket off your harness in sunny spring situations where the air is so warm/still that you get down to a short sleeve baselayer.

Fit

A 'standard fit' shell, this is a generously cut jacket with plenty of length in the body. As someone with a long torso, this makes a tangible difference to comfort and practicality – it doesn't get bunched up by being too tight and the drop-tail hem gives good coverage when bending down to do up boots in transition and doesn't ride up too much when moving.

Cut generously yet easy to squish down, the L5 LT fits over or under a down layer  © UKC Gear
Cut generously yet easy to squish down, the L5 LT fits over or under a down layer

As mentioned with the hood, the lightweight nature of the L5 LT means that adjustment systems are minimal. There is a cinch on one side of the hem with a loop-clip to keep the cording tidy and velcro on the cuffs. That's it…but it really doesn't seem to matter due to the combination of a good cut and the stretchy low bulk of the fabric. The former means you can layer under or over as conditions dictate while the latter means you can wear pack and harness straps easily over the top. Funnily enough, it does layer very nicely within the TNF layering system and fits perfectly over an L3 down jacket in the same size. The cuffs fit both under or over gloves and mittens, according to your preference.

Cuff over mitten...  © UKC Gear
Cuff over mitten...

...or under glove  © UKC Gear
...or under glove

One danger of a thin waterproof layer is that it can look and sit like an unstructured bin bag. The good news is that on those rare occasions when you are wearing the jacket straight up, the L5 LT still has shape as is not at all boxy.

Having compared the men's and women's side by side, there is definitely a cut difference, with the expected smaller waist and wider hips on the women's version. However, the cut definitely goes beyond that and I was extremely impressed by the level of functional detail that had gone into shaping the jacket.

For example, the seams in the elbows are helical, with darting, recognising that as a ski tourer your arms are bent most of the time. The shaping gives optimal freedom and comfort in this position (no fabric bulking up inside your elbow). Don't get me wrong, the fabric has enough stretch that you could probably achieve any movement you wanted irrespective of the cut (whipping off skins behind, twisting skiing downhill, swinging an axe were equally unhindered), but these sport-specific details are neat.

The jacket is cut with a defined 'neck' section giving good coverage and head mobility  © Ben Bishop
The jacket is cut with a defined 'neck' section giving good coverage and head mobility
© Ben Bishop

Similarly, though the collar/chin-guard isn't wired, the cut of the L5 LT means that this is a jacket which feels like it has a defined 'neck section' between the shoulders and the hood, allowing each component rigidity and structure yet maintaining sightlines and the ability to turn your head.

The North Face say:

Our Summit L5 LT FUTURELIGHT™ Jacket allows you to defy the mountain like never before. This fine-tuned, superlight FUTURELIGHT™ membrane creates better airflow while keeping water out so your gear breathes as hard as you do. That means no more delayering. No more overheating. One less distraction so you can focus and go.

TNF Summit L5 LT Futurelight jacket product shot  © UKC Gear

  • Sizes: XS-XL (women) XS-XXL (men)
  • Weight: 297g (size M)
  • Standard fit
  • 3D ergonomic patterning for enhanced mobility
  • 100% windproof fabric (20D X 30D 81 G/M² 100% Polyester)
  • Attached, fully adjustable, helmet-compatible hood features a laminated wire brim and single-pull back adjust
  • Exposed, two-way, matte polyurethane (PU),VISLON® centre front zip
  • Large alpine chest pocket with bellow and exposed, matte PU zip
  • Small mesh pocket incorporated into chest pocket
  • One large internal, mesh drop pocket
  • Velcro® cuff tabs to lock in warmth
  • Drop-tail hem for extra cover at the back
  • One-sided hem cinch-cord adjustment system including internal clip-up loops to stash away excess cording
  • Oversize cord locks at hood and hem are easy to use when you're wearing gloves
  • FUTURELIGHT™ is the world's most advanced breathable-waterproof outerwear technology, developed using nanospinning technology and sustainable practices
  • Comes with a lightweight stuff sack

For more info see thenorthface.co.uk

Summit Series L5 LT FUTURELIGHT Trousers - £315

Features

In keeping with the fast-and-light purpose, The North Face have given the L5 LT trousers minimal features to keep the weight down. This means there is no belt (but there are robust belt loops should you need to add one) and other common shell features have been pared off such as pockets and either gaiters or a storm flap behind the waterproof boot zips (more on this later).

A single bellowed pocket holds essentials  © UKC Gear
A single bellowed pocket holds essentials

The single pocket is located on the right thigh and extends about a hand's depth below the zip to just above the knee. Like the exterior jacket pocket, it is bellowed with a waterproof PU zip and surprisingly proved totally sufficient to serve basic needs.

Within the pocket is a small webbing loop to clip your keys to, and a small mesh pocket to keep your phone easily accessible/battery warm/screen condensation-free. DWR Kevlar kick patches have been laminated to the FUTURELIGHT to provide extra durability and crampon protection in this high-wear area, and, as with the jacket, the L5 LT trousers come with a lightweight stuff sack.

Fit

Like the jacket, the L5 LT trousers rely on a good active cut and clever fabric to give a good fit. There is plenty of room for hips without anything feeling too tight, while my sister (same clothing size, totally different shape) had enough length without bagginess.

The waistband sits relatively high and is kept snug by elastic at the back (lightweight belt alternative?) and closed by a standard zip fly with a snap. This keeps your middle protected and, considering the jacket doesn't have a powder skirt, goes a good way to keeping snow out if you wipe out.

The cut makes them perfect for ski touring movement with just the right amount of fabric and articulated knees. Together with the stretchiness, this gives full freedom of movement whether that is lunging, high steps or fence hopping. Both uphill and downhill you would hardly notice they were there.

So how did you get snow in your boots again?  © Ben Bishop
So how did you get snow in your boots again?
© Ben Bishop

My only reservation was the fit around the lower leg. The 11" zips give full access to your boot buckles and there is a choice of three strong snaps to secure the hem. However, in walk mode I didn't have enough space for my touring boots (Atomic Hawx Ultra XTD), which have a flicky lever which locks the boot in ski mode making them quite bulky at calf level (okay and big calves themselves probably don't help!) Due to the Kevlar used here, this area doesn't have the stretch that is so beneficial in the rest of the trousers.

It was therefore not possible to get the zip fully closed over the boot and the flex with each step on the uphill gradually pushed the zip up. In normal conditions this wasn't a problem, but in deeper snow, either on skins or crampons, snow also pushed the zip up and was able to work its way into my boots if I didn't keep pulling the zip back down.

It's not a deal-breaker and should be fine with boots that don't have the lever - for example it appears to be fine with my old cam-locking ski touring boots (La Sportiva Starlet) and my B2 boots (Scarpa Manta Pro GTX). That being said it is definitely worth trying the fit over your ski boots in walk mode, simply because for a layer designed to keep you moving fast, this was the one feature that slowed me down!

The zips don't close over some boots in walk mode...  © UKC Gear
The zips don't close over some boots in walk mode...

...but are fine over slimmer touring or B2 boots  © UKC Gear
...but are fine over slimmer touring or B2 boots

The legs also have a military hem at the bottom (front higher than back) which prevents bunching and gives good coverage providing your boots aren't already pressed for space.

The North Face say:

Defy limitations in our lightest, most breathable L5 LT FUTURELIGHT™ Pants. Whether you're skiing down into powder fields or making an ascent on a remote peak, a minimalistic design helps eliminate distractions and almost feels like you're wearing no pants at all.

TNF Futurelight L5 LT Summit Series pants  © UKC Gear

  • Sizes: XS-XL (women) XS-XXL (men)
  • Weight: 302g (size M)
  • Standard fit
  • 3D ergonomic patterning for enhanced mobility
  • 100% windproof fabric (20D X 30D 81 G/M² 100% Polyester)
  • Durable beltloops
  • Zip-fly with snap closure
  • Elastic at the back waistband
  • One bellowed thigh pocket with exposed, matte polyurethane (PU) zip
  • 11" PU side zips and 18" leg opening for easy boot access
  • Adjustable snap tabs at hem
  • Eyelets at hem foreasy integration with boots
  • Military hem
  • Kevlar® kick patches provide increased durability (170D X 30D Keprotec®—85% Nylon, 15% Kevlar® With Durable Water-Repellent (DWR) Finish)
  • Small mesh pocket incorporated into the thigh pocket
  • FUTURELIGHT™ is the world's most advanced breathable-waterproof outerwear technology, developed using nanospinning technology and sustainable practices
  • Comes with a lightweight stuff sack

For more info see thenorthface.co.uk

Summary

At £400 and £315 respectively, there is no avoiding that you need either a decent budget or serious investment mentality to consider the L5 LT jacket and trousers, especially since they are unashamedly focussed on one discipline.

But we all know fast and light comes at a price, and if you are a dedicated (mostly) day-raiding ski tourer (and your boots fit in the trousers!) this could absolutely be the combination for you. The L5 LTs' mix of waterproofness and breathability plus an excellent cut makes for a really strong offer and there is definitely a refreshing zen quality to wearing something so streamlined and with so few features.

However, these are not shell layers that will comfortably bestride a general skiing/winter set-up. If you are more of an all-rounder looking for something for wetter heavier snow, longer hut-to-hut expeditions, perhaps a day on resort or general alpinism, it might be worth considering the 'non-LT' Summit Series L5 FUTURELIGHT options for heavier duty breathability or Steep Series for a downhill focus.

Defying the past - absolutely. Wearing the future - only time will tell...

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3 Mar

If this stuff remains waterproof I'll eat my hat


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