Winter Ultrarunning Apparel Review 2015

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In the early days of ultrarunning, our sport had well-defined seasons: build up mileage in the spring, peak for races in the summer and fall, then rest and recharge during the winter. Now that major races can be found all over the calendar, your high mileage seasons could be any time of the year– including the dead of winter.

At this time of year, the primary difference between a freezing, miserable winter run and a comfortable, invigorating winter run is the type of apparel you wear along the way. Having the right gear allows you to brave harsh conditions while keeping you insulated and moving moisture away from your skin to prevent chafing or overheating.

Our review focuses on cold-weather apparel from the waist up; combined with the compression lower-body garments reviewed in our September 2013 issue, they make a complete ensemble for long winter running. Top garments can be broken into four categories: base layers, jackets, hats and gloves. We’ve tested a sampling of apparel from several companies over the past few months in order to provide the descriptions and recommendations that follow.

Base layers

A good base layer can be one of the most versatile pieces of apparel in your wardrobe. Worn alone, it is ideal for warmer winter or warmer spring and autumn days; worn under a jacket, it helps keep you toasty in the most frigid conditions. Base layers vary significantly in thickness, and the sequence that follows progresses from the lightest and thinnest of our group to the thickest and warmest.

Some of our base layers in this round of testing feature the use of silver for permanent odor control, which is one of the coolest recent innovations in active apparel. For example, Polygiene is a treatment technology that utilizes silver salt, a naturally occurring and highly effective anti-bacterial agent, woven into the fabric; because odor-causing bacteria can’t settle into the material, your clothes won’t stink. You can wear a Polygiene-treated shirt for back-to-back workouts, or just wear it around the house after your morning run. The technology is completely safe on your skin, and is guaranteed for the life of the garment. It’s also an eco-friendly technology, as the Polygiene company meets bluesign approval for sustainable textile production, and the treatment extends the lifespan of your apparel since it requires fewer washings.

Polygiene is utilized in the lightest base layer in our review, the La Sportiva Epic LS Shirt (138g, $70). Material construction is 100% polyester, and the thin material is silky smooth against the skin, with flatlock seams to eliminate chafing. The Epic has a body-mapped venting system with faster wicking through the sleeves and upper torso, and extra-long sleeves with thumbhole slots to keep out a bit more chill.

Two Patagonia base layers feature Polygiene technology: the Nine Trails Long Sleeve (170g, $49) is the latest addition to the company’s longstanding Nine Trails trail running collection. It’s a 100% spun heathered polyester jersey that looks and feels like a soft cotton crewneck, but it wicks moisture and dries very quickly like tech fabrics. It has set-in sleeves with underarm gussets for chafe-free range of motion, is tag-free to avoid itching or chafing, and has a locker loop on the collar to let it hang dry until tomorrow’s run.

 

The Patagonia All-Weather Zip Neck Hoodie has various ventilation features, hood, and multifunctional cuffs

The Patagonia All-Weather Zip Neck Hoodie has various ventilation features, hood, and multifunctional cuffs

Patagonia’s All-Weather Zip-Neck Hoody (269g, $69) is an 88% polyester/12% spandex jersey with a fully breathable mesh ventilation panel on the back and under the arms for moisture management and thermoregulation. A deep front zipper also helps with quick ventilation if the day warms up on you. It also features a close-fitting anatomical hood that is very thin but stays securely in place and provides nice warmth on its own, or tucked under a hat. Another feature that is highly useful is the multifunctional cuffs: you can wear them as traditional sleeves, use a built-in thumb hole to keep your wrists warm, or use the fold-over hood to wrap your hand like a mitten. This kind of cuff is more common on jackets than on long sleeve shirts, but it works very well on Patagonia’s hoody shirt and makes this piece a top choice to use as a base layer or stand-alone top in the spring.

Mammut’s Go Dry LS Shirt (155g, 55g) uses a different silver application called HeiQ, which also blends pure silver into the fabric for bacterial resistance and odor control. Like the Polygiene process, HeiQ also lasts for the lifetime of the garment and is bluesign approved. The Go Dry LS is a lightweight 93% polyester/7% elastene top cut with a slim torso profile, and is relatively no-frills in regards to additional design features.

The Salomon Fast Wing LS Shirt (190g, $70) is a lightweight and highly breathable 100% polyester base layer made of Salomon’s Active Dry wicking fabric, which also uses an extensive mesh paneling and a half-zip front design for maximal ventilation. Distinctive features on this shirt are shoulder areas with a matrix of silicone dots to help keep your hydration pack in place, and two strategically placed pockets on the rear flanks that you can access even while wearing a hydration pack. These are great features for a warm winter day, but are only functional when worn as a standalone layer. Otherwise, the Fast Wing is a very effective base layer to keep you dry underneath a jacket.

Moving on to heavier base layers, The North Face Isotherm LS Shirt (260g, $90) uses a hybrid blend of 58% merino wool and 42% double-knit polyester that is designed to regulate your core temperature effectively. The fabric feels a bit coarse to the touch but is tagless and doesn’t cause any chafing or irritation. Its body-mapped construction places thicker material in front where you need more wind resistance, and lightweight FlashDry wicking material down the sides, under the arms, and down the back for faster drying in areas where guys typically sweat the most.

Mammut’s Thermo LS Zip Shirt (340g, $89) is a midweight top with the same HeiQ odor-resistance as its Go Dry top, and has the thickness to be a stand-alone layer on its own for mild winter conditions. The Thermo is a blend of 78% polyester and 22% elastene, and the higher than average elastene content gives this garment excellent stretch properties for full range of motion. The inner surface is a brushed jersey, and the fabric also provides a nice combination of heat retention and moisture transport.

Pearl Izumi’s Fly Thermal Run Top (360g, $75) also provides enough insulation to be a standalone layer. It is constructed of 100% polyester thermal fleece fabric that is thicker in the front and back panels, with thinner wicking material down the sleeves. Although the fleece is breathable, this shirt is more designed for retaining warmth than efficient ventilation. The Fly Thermal Top also features internal fist mitts similar to the Patagonia All-Weather Hoody, and a 10” front zipper to help with ventilation.

REI's Airflyte Hoodie combines warmth and functionality with a slip-on hood and a chest pocket with a cord port if you want to carry tunes with you.

REI’s Airflyte Hoodie combines warmth and functionality with a slip-on hood and a chest pocket with a cord port if you want to carry tunes with you.

One vendor that sometimes gets overlooked among the traditional players is REI, but the company has a couple of strong offerings for winter running in its Airflyte collection. The Airflyte Hoodie (396g, $69) is a 92% polyester / 8% spandex top that combines the warmth and functionality of Patagonia’s All-Weather top with the insulation of Pearl Izumi’s Fly Thermal top. The main panels are composed of breathable polyester with a soft brushed interior, and there’s a slip-on hood to keep your neck and ears warm by itself or underneath a hat. (The Airflyte hood is thicker than the Patagonia All-Weather hood, so it insulates better, but is still thin enough to fit underneath a hat.) The arm cuffs have thumb holes but don’t extend to full mitts, and the pocket zip allows for quick ventilation when necessary. There’s also a zip chest pocket with a cord port if you want to carry tunes along with you.

*Reviewers choices from this section: Patagonia All-Weather Hoody as a base layer under a jacket on frigid days, and the REI Airflyte Hoodie as a stand-alone for warmer winter running. And if you’re wondering about the spelling of that word, Patagonia spells hoody with a “y”, and REI does it with an “ie”; we don’t know which is correct, but that’s the way it is. 

Jackets

In our winter running exploits, we give a bit more importance to the outer layer then the base layer. After all, having the wrong base layer may make you uncomfortable, but having the wrong outer layer will absolutely ruin your run. Here are some new offerings to keep you protected the right way:

The lightest jacket in our testing is the Brooks LSD Lite Jacket IV (112g, $90), which would properly be considered a winter jacket only in warmer climate regions, and a spring jacket everywhere else. It’s a 100% polyester windproof and water resistant shell that compresses into its own small pocket, making it simple to stash in your pack for just-in-case insurance. The LSD Lite has a stowable three-panel cinch hood that stays in place nicely to help keep the chill out, and large ventilation panels on the back for when you start to heat up. It has a semi-fitted contour to allow it to go over a base layer or under a weatherproof shell if conditions are harsh.

Salomon’s S-Lab Hybrid Jacket

Salomon’s S-Lab Hybrid Jacket  is a super lightweight waterproof and breathable jacket that is built for moving fast in the mountains.

Salomon’s S-Lab Hybrid Jacket is a super lightweight waterproof and breathable jacket that is built for moving fast in the mountains.

(120g, $275) is a super lightweight waterproof and breathable jacket that is built for moving fast in the mountains. Fabric composition is a combination of polyester and elastic, in different percentages in different areas of the jacket; for example, the main upper panels are 90% polyester /10% elastene, and the waist area is 62% polyester and 38% elastene. This jacket also features a number of design innovations that place it somewhat in a category by itself.

The Hybrid jacket is put on as a pullover, as the jacket doesn’t completely unzip. Its front panels and most of the sleeves are made from Salomon’s Advanced Skin Dry fabric that is extremely thin, waterproof, windproof, and breathable. The zipper can be opened to approximately navel-level to shed heat quickly if necessary, but there’s a small chest strap that can be snapped to prevent the jacket from billowing out if the zipper is down. Laser cut holes in the armpit and forearm areas provide additional breathability, and the entire jacket can be stashed into its 4.5” elastic waistband if conditions turn bluebird on you. (One tradeoff is that these laser holes and elasticized areas prevent the jacket from being fully waterproof – but you still get plenty of protection. See the next item on our list for a 100% waterproof jacket.) There’s also an elasticized hood that stays in place with a sweatband-like cuff; this is a great design for allowing full head range of motion without compromising visibility; the only downside is that it’s a bit tricky to keep in place if you’ve got a headlamp on your head as well. However, this is the only drawback on what’s one of the most versatile and innovative jackets we tested.

Patagonia's Storm Racer Jacket provides complete protection for prolonged outings in the harshest elements.

Patagonia’s Storm Racer Jacket provides complete protection for prolonged outings in the harshest elements.

For full waterproof protection, it’s hard to do better than the Patagonia Storm Racer Jacket (272g, $279), a hooded, fully seam-tapedwaterproof shell built for running comfortably in the most demanding conditions (Patagonia bills it as UTMB-ready). High-texture backing on the waterproof/breathable fabric makes it comfortable to wear next to the skin, and active venting in the armpits and across the back helps regulate core temperature. A stowable hood can be secured with lightweight snaps and adjusted with a single-pull cord. Elastic closures at the cuffs and an adjustable drawcord hem help you stay insulated in severe cold. This is a heavier jacket than Salomon’s Hybrid Hoody, but it provides complete protection for prolonged outings in the harshest elements.

If a good vest is all you need for cold weather, the Mammut Aenergy Thermo Vest (310g, $149) provides a nice combination of lightweight insulation and high breathability, with DWR protection for mild water resistance. It utilizes Polartec Alpha insulation which has high vapor permeability for ventilation, and a soft microfabric interior surface for comfort. It has a contoured fit that can also fit under a heavier shell in frigid temperatures.

You’ll notice that REI’s Airflyte Hybrid Jacket (425g, $99) weighs only slightly more than their midweight Airflyte Hoodie, but the material distribution on this garment is more heavily focused through the torso, making it more like a long sleeve shirt plus vest combination all in one piece. The jacket core uses PrimaLoft insulation in the torso, with a DWR finish and a 55-mph wind-resistance rating, while the arms consist of thinner polyester/spandex fabric that provides breathability, moderate warmth and 4-way stretch. There are two zip pockets, one with a cord port on this jacket. This is a very comfortable jacket that might give the best dollar-to-warmth value in our test group.

The North Face Isotherm Windstopper Jacket provides completely windproof and water resistant insulation in a thin, athletically contoured jacket

The North Face Isotherm Windstopper Jacket provides completely windproof and water resistant insulation in a thin, athletically contoured jacket

As its name implies, The North Face Isotherm Windstopper Jacket (420g, $160) provides completely windproof and water resistant insulation in a thin, athletically contoured jacket. TNF’s Windstopper fabric comprises the front panels, shoulders, and arms, with stretchy FlashDry moisture wicking fabric under the arms, between the shoulder blades, and down both sides of the back (the same “body contouring” seen in the TNF Isotherm LS shirt) to manage moisture more effectively. This jacket also has an ample rear stash zip pocket that’s perfect for a smart phone, and thumbhole cuffs to help hand and wrist insulation. This was the most effective jacket in our testing for pure wind resistance, and also provides decent water resistance in light precipitation.

Pearl Izumi’s Fly Softshell Hoody (435g, $140) offers strong thermal protection thanks to stretchy windblocking panels on the front, and breathable thermal fleece interior lining that is soft and comfortable. A form fitting hood has the same wind blocking exterior and brushed fleece interior as the body of the jacket does, and it offers outstanding insulation without compromising your field of view. The Fly Softshell has the most versatile cuffs of the jackets we tested, and allows you to choose between standard sleeves, thumbholes, or full mitten coverage. Full-length internal draft flaps further seal in warmth while running. One drawback of this jacket is that when the zipper is completely up, the neck is somewhat narrow and lightly touches our testers’ windpipe while running.

The Brooks Adapt Jacket (440g, $180) has the softest and most comfortable overall feel of the jackets in our testing. The main panels are made from water-resistant, stretch woven fabric with polyfill insulation that feels soft like a lightweight down jacket, but doesn’t have the bulk of most down tops. Stretch thermal panels under the arms and in the shoulders help with ventilation as well as range of motion. The Adapt also wins for the most innovative hood: it can be completely stowed as a traditional collar, pulled partially out as a regular hood, or pulled completely out for use as a balaclava to keep your neck and chin warm also. There are thumbholes on the sleeves, two side zip pockets, and an internal media pocket to round out the well-thought out feature set on this jacket.

If you love the feel of fleece, the Columbia Helter Shelter Hooded Fleece Jacket (440g, $85) gives you the insulation and comfort of fleece with a bit of water resistance thrown in for good measure. The 100% polyester fleece fabric is thick enough to keep you insulated in severe cold, with stretch properties for full range of motion, and has Columbia’s Omni-Shield water-resistant treatment throughout. There’s a soft microfleece interior lining, deep zippered hand pockets, and a built-in scuba-style hood. The overall garment runs a bit large, and the hood in particular is quite large in comparison to other jacket hoods we tested, and sometimes obstructs peripheral vision because there aren’t cinch cords to adjust the fit.

Reviewer’s choices for this section: The North Face Isotherm jacket for freezing wind, Patagonia’s Storm Racer for heavy downpours, and Salomon’s S-Lab Hybrid for everything in between. 

Gloves

There’s almost nothing that can make an otherwise enjoyable run turn unbearable quicker than having freezing cold fingers; if you’ve ever felt the stinging pain of inadequate finger insulation, you know what we mean. Two trends stood out above others in this year’s hand coverings: 1) conductive fingertip material to use smart phones or music players without taking off your gloves, and 2) enhanced insulation by using a mitten in conjunction with traditional gloves. Allow our first sample to demonstrate:

The Pearl Izumi Shine Wind Mitt (65g per pair, $35) is the first of three convertible-style mittens in our collection; if your fingers get too warm with the mitten in place, you peel back the outer covering and tuck it into a pouch on top of the hand, and you’re left with a traditional glove. The mitten hood is made of a super lightweight, wind resistant polyester, and the fabric on the hand and fingers is lightweight thermal fabric, with a terrycloth thumb wipe area. The thumb and index fingers are both smart-phone conductive, and the mitten hood is very easy to apply and take off during the course of a run.​

Like the Pearl Izumi mitt, the Brooks Adapt II Glove (80g per pair, $50) also has conductive thumb and forefingers, and also uses a convertible style to combine a glove with a thin mitten hood; in this case, the hood also includes the thumb, whereas the PI model does not. From our testing, this design element is a good news/bad news proposition; on the plus side, having another layer over the thumb definitely keeps it warmer. On the other, it’s tricky to actually get the thumb hood on when your other hand is “mittened,” and when the thin polyester is over your thumb, you lose the terrycloth wiping surface on the back of the thumb. Another innovation on this glove is the built-in LED light on the right hand that can be activated to blink toward oncoming traffic (if you’re running on the left side of the road), or can be turned off if you’re on the trail. Of course, you have to remember to take the blinker out before laundry time, or its life span may be short-lived.

North Face Runner's Overmitts are super warm, thin enough to allow most fine motor tasks and have great weather resistance.

North Face Runner’s Overmitts are super warm, thin enough to allow most fine motor tasks and have great weather resistance.

The North Face takes an interesting approach to the glove/mitten combination: rather than combine two pieces in one, they have a “system” using gloves of various thicknesses that are compatible with an external weather-resistant mitten. For example, you can use either the Runners 1 E-Tip Glove (50g per pair, $30) or the slightly thicker Runners 2 E-Tip Glove (60g per pair, $30) in combination with the super-light Runners 3 Overmitt (25g per pair, $35) to customize the amount of insulation you want on any given run. The overmitt provides a waterproof outer shell, has four-way stretch to make it easy to put on, and is thin enough to easily be stashed in the smallest of pockets when not in use. However, because it’s a separate piece rather than a 2-in-1, there is always the chance of inadvertently dropping one while donning or doffing on the go. Finally, in case you didn’t catch the reference in the name, all of the TNF E-Tip gloves are smartphone compatible like the previous gloves discussed here.

Salomon created an innovative and simultaneously old-fashioned approach to the smartphone issue: rather than creating conductive fingertip material, they took off the fingertips entirely. The resulting XT Wings Glove (40g per pair, $40) is super lightweight and does a decent job of providing warmth through a mitten hood (or as Salomon calls it, a cabriolet) rather than traditional glove tips. Still, you’ll notice the lack of insulation when temperatures dip really low.

One final entry in this category comes from another source that’s not traditionally associated with trail running: the Eddie Bauer First Ascent Flux Pro Touchscreen Gloves (60g per pair, $45). In addition to being phone compatible, the entire back panels are comprised of Polartec Wind Pro stretch fleece that blocks cold air quite effectively on the run. One great design feature here is that the palm surface and fingers are covered with a sticky silicone print that makes it easy to do fine motor tasks like tearing gel wrappers open even when your fingers are frosty.

Our clear reviewer’s choice in this category is The North Face Runner’s Overmitt 3; buy one pair of them, and you can double the warmth of any pair of gloves you already have. They are thin enough to allow most fine motor tasks and have great weather resistance when conditions are nasty. Just make sure you don’t drop one while you’re running.

Beanies

You may think there isn’t a lot to distinguish one beanie from another … and actually, you’re probably right. However, we tested a sampling from a few companies, and found one style that won out over the others because of a cool design innovation that serves a simple but important purpose.

First, the contenders are Patagonia’s Capilene 4 Beanie (19g, $25), the Brooks Infiniti Beanie II (45g, $24), and The North Face Nite Lite Beanie (40g, $30). All of them provide a nice combination of warmth and moisture transfer. Coverage-wise, the TNF Beanie runs on the small size, and the Brooks is the most generous.

Salomon's Momentum Beanie has a unique small visor in front.

Salomon’s Momentum Beanie has a unique small visor in front.

However, the winner in this category is the Salomon Momentum Beanie (50g, $30) because it works just as well as the others, with one addition: it has a very small visor in front, which is the perfect size to keep our headlamp in place on dark early mornings.

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Sometimes it doesn’t take a lot to tip the scales one way or the other … which is why you should decide for yourself which clothing works best for you. Pick your favorites, and get out in the cold!

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About Author

Donald is a physical therapist, California native, barefoot aficionado, and father of three with more than 25 years of experience in endurance sports. He was a collegiate rower at UCLA, then dabbled in marathons and Ironman-distance triathlons before falling in love with ultras in the early 2000s. His favorite locations to run include Marin County, CA, and the Sierra Nevada mountains, and he loves exploring America's National Parks. When he's not training for ultramarathons, he enjoys hiking or slacklining with his family in Monterey County, CA.

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