Fjällräven Bergtagen Eco-Shell Jacket Review

Overview

Fjällräven has been making quality gear for over sixty years now, but one relatively recent addition to their line-up is properly waterproof high-performance gear. While waterproof apparel has been in their collection for quite some years, 2015 saw the introduction of a revolutionary new material: Eco-Shell (or, technically, Eco-Shell 2.0: They already released a previous version in 2011). Why this material is so ground-breaking is a question I will return to later.

When Eco-Shell 2.0 first came out I tried the Keb Eco-Shell Jacket for a while. I liked it in terms of fit and feel, but to me it had one major drawback: My climbing helmet barely fit underneath the hood. Fjällräven claims that a helmet should fit but I just did not have enough room for movement – quite annoying when you’re pushing uphill. I sold it after about half a year of use and switched to one of Fjällräven’s main competitors: Arc’teryx. Until recently, their hood design was unrivalled. I say ‘until recently’ because the Swedish crazies from Övik came up with the Bergtagen Collection: a concept built for technical mountaineering, alpinism and back-country skiing. Anxious to find out if this system of clothing is all that it is cracked up to be? Please read on…

Fjallraven Bergtagen Eco-Shell Jacket Helmet Compatible Hood.jpg

Construction

As I’ve come to expect from the Swedes, the construction is technically top notch but straightforward. Where some brands can go a bit overboard with features, Fjällräven tends to be simpler and more barebones in their approach, especially with their technical apparel.

Let’s start with having a look at the major identifier of this jacket: The main material (bear with me here…).

As I’ve said before, Eco-Shell is quite the revolution in the outdoor industry. Where most waterproof-breathable apparel throughout the market is made from Gore-Tex or some sort of copy of that American powerhouse, Eco-Shell is different, especially in Version 2.0.

Gore-Tex advertises with the slogan ‘Guaranteed to Keep You Dry’. Rightly so. Their materials are inherently waterproof because the microporous membrane does not let water through from the outside. Now, Gore-Tex (or any other microporous membrane really) remains breathable because the material contains microscopic pores – hence the name. These pores essentially are super-small holes in the material that let water vapour through from the inside, preventing the quick build-up of sweat and heat.

Gore-Tex is made from stretched PTFE, short for Polytetrafluoroethylene (you can forget that and call it Teflon). You’re likely to be familiar with this: it’s used around the house in tape form to waterproof faucets and showerheads.

In most garments, it is laminated to a polyamide outside and in most cases a protective inside coating as well (hence the industry mumbo-jumbo about 2, 2,5 and 3-layer clothing). Then, the face material gets a durable water-repellent coating made from PFC (perfluorocarbons). This makes water bead off of rain jackets. This construction has essentially remained the same since the material’s invention in the sixties and seventies. Of course, the layers have become thinner, stronger and more breathable. But the main concept has remained the same.

While it works reasonably well in temperate to cold conditions, this set-up has one major drawback: it totally destroys the environment. Most Gore-Tex or Gore-Tex copycat clothing consists of multiple textile materials (polyester, polyamide, PTFE and sometimes more). This makes them virtually impossible to re-cycle. Furthermore, Teflon production involves numerous extremely harmful chemicals, which can lead to cancer if not properly worked with. To add insult to injury, PFC-made DWR’s are harmful to nature because they take an extremely long time to break down and are poisonous to small animals and, because they linger and build up, the rest of the food chain.

Then there is the inherent technical drawback of microporous membranes: because they are basically a super-thin plastic layer with tiny holes they are susceptible to wear-and-tear and their breathability is limited.

Eco-Shell 2.0, especially the 3-layer variant, avoids most of these issues. While Eco-Shell 1.0 essentially was a 100% polyester microporous membrane with a PFC-free coating (which already is a lot better than PTFE membranes coated with PFC’s), Eco-Shell 2.0 improves upon the first edition in a couple of important ways.

Number one is the basic technology used: Eco-Shell 2.0 is a hydrophilic membrane. That means that it is actively sucking away excess moisture from the skin. This makes it much more breathable than a microporous membrane. Whereas microporous membranes rely on mechanical transportation of water vapour, hydrophilic membranes chemically suck it away from the inside out. The difference is very noticeable when working hard or when the temperature rises.

Number two is that Eco-Shell is a mono-material: the entire garment is made from partly recycled polyester (details such as zipper runners excluded). This already was the case with Eco-Shell 1.0, but not so much for most other waterproof-breathables. Mono-materials are easier to recycle than garments in which multiple types of plastic need to be separated before melting them down. Also, polyester membranes tend to be stronger and therefore longer lasting than PTFE membranes.

Number three is the total lack of PFC DWR. Fjällräven works with DWR’s with a shorter carbon-chain. This makes them significantly less harmful. Granted, most brands are currently ditching PFC’s. That’s a good thing. The only drawback is that PFC’s are extremely water-repellent, and PFC-free DWR’s thus need to be replenished more often.

Number four is a CSR-related choice made by Fjällräven to climate-compensate production and transportation of Eco-Shell, meaning that it is completely CO2-neutral when it ends up in the customer’s wardrobe.

Last but not least, polyamide-reinforced PTFE membranes tend to feel like wrinkly and noisy plastic bags. This is because the membrane needs plenty of reinforcement to remain reasonably durable. Normally this is done by adding a layer of polyamide in a thickness dictated by how strong the garment needs to be.  Eco-Shell apparel uses polyester instead. Polyester is much stronger, more pliable and softer, and hence not nearly as loud when moving around. It is also easier to recycle, as mentioned before. It is heavier than Teflon and polyamide though, so that comes at a small weight penalty.

To me, Eco-Shell is a major improvement over most other waterproof-breathable materials. Now let’s discuss why the Bergtagen Eco-Shell is such an improvement upon all the other Eco-Shell jackets in the Fjällräven line-up.

Features

First up: the hood. Whereas Fjällräven’s other shell jackets feature hoods designed with hikers and trekkers in mind, the Bergtagen Eco-Shell’s hood has been designed for one purpose only: to fit a mountaineer’s helmet with room to spare. In many ways, it is very similar to Arc’teryx’s Stormhood design: it is two-way adjustable, very roomy and has a laminated brim. However, there also are some major differences: the collar is higher, meaning that it offers more protection from harsh winds. Also, the entire front is lined with microfleece for a soft feel and warmth.

Fjallraven Bergtagen Eco-Shell Jacket Helmet Compatible Hood Adjustable.jpg

Second, it is made from 3-Layer Eco-Shell RipStop fabric, meaning that the outside material is a lot harder-wearing than the Keb or Abisko Eco-Shells. Furthermore, it features elbow patches made from Corylon, an Aramid-based fabric developed in-house by Fjällräven to be immensely strong yet very pliable.

Fjallraven Bergtagen Eco-Shell Jacket Corylon Elbow Reinforcements.jpg

The third major difference between this one and the rest of the Eco-Shell line-up: zippers. Bergtagen products feature very tough zippers, laminated ones on the Eco-Shells to make them waterproof. Also, they feature innovative pullers to make them easier to manipulate with gloves on. In fairness, they are a bit bulky but the large pullers are a big advantage in bad weather.

Fjallraven Bergtagen Eco-Shell Jacket Front Pockets.jpg

Other than that, the features are pretty similar to the Keb Eco-Shell Jacket and most other high-quality shells: two pockets on the front with roomy inside pockets for GPS or phone, Velcro-adjustable sleeves and a draw cord-adjustable hem. Large ventilation zippers on the side prevent overheating.

 

A few omissions make it clear this is a more hard-core jacket: no sleeve pocket (why would you need a ski pass in the back-country?), no cord hole for your headphones, and no inside pocket. You’ll only hear the wind howling in this one. Due to the fact that it is tougher, it is also a little bit heavier than the Keb Eco-Shell – but the weight penalty is barely noticeable: about 30 grams in a similar size.

Fit

Roomy but articulate. A thin down jacket will easily fit underneath but it is not bulky when only wearing a t-shirt. Fjällräven jackets tend to be roomy. If you know your sizing with their stuff you can stick to your normal size but if you’re new to the brand you might want to size down. The hem is quite long, which is nice in bad weather as it offers ample wind and moisture protection, and protects fleeces and down or synthetic layers from moisture. The sleeves are long, as is generally the case in climbing oriented jackets. It’s a necessity for me as I have rather long arms for my overall height.

Fjallraven Bergtagen Eco-Shell Jacket Size Tag.jpg

Details

Fjällräven is a brand with its own quirks and design philosophy. This is most apparent in general things such as colour choice (compared to most household outdoor brands their palette is quite subdued) and in some of the design details. For example, while most brands tend to go with pit zips to offer extra ventilation, Fjällräven is steadily banning this from their line-up, instead opting for core ventilation zips placed along the entire side of their shell jackets. This has a number of advantages: one, it offers better ventilation as your body generates most of its heat at the core. Two, they are not blocked by backpacks, whereas pit zips tend to be closed off by shoulder straps, and three, they can double as access to the pockets of midlayers worn underneath. This makes hand pockets on the outside unnecessary, reducing bulk and weight.

Fjallraven Bergtagen Eco-Shell Jacket Vent Zips.jpg

Another quirk is their obsession with double zippers. It’s hard to find a jacket without a zipper that can open from the bottom up. This is annoying and nice at the same time: annoying because they can be a little finicky to close, nice because it makes for an extra ventilation option. It also necessitates the push button at the hem to make sure it does not open up by itself.

Fjallraven Bergtagen Eco-Shell Jacket Double Zipper Bottom Push Button.jpg

Other than that, some things stand out: the mesh pockets inside the chest pockets are roomy, roomier than on the brand’s other shell choices. The hem drawstring does not have a garage, making sure it can be adjusted easily on the fly while wearing a backpack or harness (but also making it more noticeable and a snag hazard). The best detail in my opinion is that the Velcro tabs on the sleeve cuffs are sewn into the material, as opposed to the industry standard of a strip of Velcro sewn onto the sleeve. This helps make them longer lasting, and might prevent the build-up of snow on the tab in heavy weather.

Fjallraven Bergtagen Eco-Shell Jacket Hem Draw Cord.jpg

Furthermore, what makes Bergtagen unique in the Fjällräven line-up is the incorporation of RECCO reflectors into the garments. This enables Search and Rescue teams to detect the wearer via a small and flexible metal strip sewn into the material.

Fjallraven Bergtagen Eco-Shell Jacket Cuffs Velcro.jpg 

Usage

To be honest, so far I’ve only used this jacket around town, riding my bicycle to and from work in various weather conditions ranging from cloudy to continuous rain and sleet (biking through precipitation, especially sleet, is a good way to test a shell though: it increases the pressure on the material).

It does breathe much better than most other shell materials during the same activity, and most details work as advertised. The hood is roomy but adjusts well when not wearing a helmet, you can easily manipulate the zippers while wearing gloves and the pockets provide ample room for large phones, GPS and other necessities. Most importantly, the jacket is completely waterproof but breathes very well in most if not all cases. I’m looking forward to stress testing this jacket next Alpine season.

 

Pros

Tough 3-Layer RipStop face fabric

RECCO

Pliable and soft

Recyclable

PFC-free DWR

Completely waterproof

Very breathable

Hard-wearing reinforcements

Large zipper pullers

Large side zips

Spacious pockets

Roomy, fully helmet-compatible hood

Cons

PFC-free coatings are less water-resistant

Hem draw cords need to be tucked in manually

Just one slit for a headphone cord would have been a nice touch

Overall

If you need a hardwearing and exceptionally breathable hardshell jacket for back-country and alpine adventures year-round, and still want it to be somewhat good looking in daily life: look no further. This jacket has all the bells and whistles you might want – and none that you don’t. It will protect you from the elements no matter the circumstances, and will do so with room to spare for a helmet and necessary layers.  Fjällräven also makes a women’s version, obviously. Follow the links below for more information.

fjallraven-bergtagen-eco-shell-jacket-recco-label.jpg

With a recommended retail price of 579,95 Euros, it comes with a hefty price tag. But then, most of the jackets in this category are that expensive, if not more so. Design, construction and the materials used make them pricy – no compromises are made in terms of functionality. More than with any other type of gear, rainwear is you-get-what-you-pay-for. The Fjällraven Bergtagen Eco-Shell Jacket is, however, built to last, with careful attention to detail and the environment.

Further reading

https://www.fjallraven.com/bergtagen-eco-shell-jacket

 

https://www.fjallraven.com/bergtagen-eco-shell-jacket-w

 

Advertisements

Footwear Frenzy PT 2: Hanwag Friction GTX

Overview

During one of my prep sessions for a recent winter trekking trip to Skuleskogen National Park in Sweden I discovered that my waterproof trekking boots were as waterproof as a cheese grater. Fair enough, in my army years they really took a beating and I guess that was to be expected after five years of heavy use. Nevertheless, wet feet in cold environments can cause so many horrible problems that I really needed to invest in new boots. Because I want to do proper mountain work in the near future I opted to widen my range of outdoor footwear with a slightly heavier pair of boots. Boots I could take on alpine excursions, without being to stiff for difficult treks.

The middle ground between these two would be a good C or light D category boot. These are stiff, crampon compatible boots that still have a little bit of sole flexibility in them, so you can also use them for trekking through difficult terrain, preferably off-trail.

There is a particular boot in this category I have wanted to try for a while, but they seemed to be out of stock – they are due for an update. As luck would have it, my size suddenly popped back up into stock so I seized the opportunity and ordered them.

I’m talking about the Hanwag Friction GTX. Hanwag is a very traditional German boot maker. They are well known for their old-school double-stitched boots (where the sole is literally stitched to the upper using two rows of very heavy stitching, making these models almost indestructible). Hanwag also make very well thought out modern trekking and mountaineering boots though. The Friction GTX is such a boot. On top of being a well-made piece of equipment, I also like the look of this particular version.

 

Construction

C- or D-category boots are usually quite heavy and well made, which can be expected from boots costing upwards of 300 Euros. Construction wise it’s pretty much par for the course here as well, but Hanwag have really gone out of their way to make these as light as possible, without compromising usability in difficult and demanding terrain.

Where a lot of D-category boots consist of suede or rawhide leather, Hanwag has opted to make the Friction’s partially, in less exposed areas, out of Cordura and synthetic materials. Also, they have opted to let D-ring style lace eyelets on the lower part of the shoe go, instead choosing to have the laces go through Cordura eyelets sewn into the material. This has upsides and downsides. An obvious pro is less metal in the boot, saving weight. Another one is less metal rubbing onto either your feet or the Gore-Tex waterproof membrane, enhancing expected lifetime. Normally, boots start to soak through earliest at the metal eyelets. An obvious downside is that Cordura is easier to wear down than metal. However, due to the Click-Clamp lacelock system installed halfway down the laces, wear-and-tear on the Cordura eyelets is reduced to a minimum. Well-done Hanwag!

Hanwag Friction GTX Click-Clamp.JPG

Stitching is quality throughout, with two rows of stitching on high-wear areas, for example at crampon brace zones. The materials used are beefy as well, with a thick layer of rawhide leather covering most of the boots. This stuff will definitely stand up to abuse!

Features

Like most, if not all, boots in this category the Friction GTX comes with a high rubber brim around the upper, protecting the leather from scree and rock, and moisture. The outsole is beefy, with a Vibram Dolomite profile, providing grip on anything but ice. One annoying thing is that this wears down rather quickly, especially with use on tarmac. This, however, can be expected, as the shoes are so stiff that they don’t flex much during walking. The tarmac is tougher than Vibram rubber compounds so it wins that battle, regretfully. This problem is less noticeable in the Friction’s natural habitat – mountainous, mixed and difficult terrain.

Hanwag Friction GTX Vibram Dolomite.jpg

Hanwag Friction GTX Rubber Brim.jpg

The Friction GTX is equipped with a brace point for crampons on the front and the back, so in theory it should be possible to step into pretty much any model. Do make sure that yours fit before buying a pair though!

Hanwag Friction GTX Crampon Front.JPG

Insulation wise they’re far from the warmest boots, but I wouldn’t say that they are suitable for just about any summer outing either. I would say they are good enough for temperate climates, where temperatures can range from anything from -10 Celsius to about 15 to 20 Celsius. Insoles make a lot of difference here, though. I used them with a felt insole we tested for Woolpower. It was nice for winter use, but way too warm for 15 Celsius and above.

I especially like the Click-clamp lace-lock system halfway up the boot. This ensures that you can adjust the forefoot part of the laces to your liking and don’t have to fiddle around with that part of your laces every time you put them on. This saves valuable time and energy, especially in difficult terrain and weather. If you have a high forefoot, like I do, this also ensures that you can create enough space there without compromising on heel lock, because you can still pull the rest of the laces in really tightly.

 Hanwag Friction GTX Crampon Back.jpg

Fit

The Friction’s have a normal, if slightly roomy, fit. This is mostly done to accommodate foot swelling in warm weather and double-socking in cold weather. I have found that these boots are most comfortable while double socking with one thin and one thick sock. This creates an extra cushion, as these shoes are quite stiff and hard without it. This might be an individual issue, but if I only wear one sock I get a sore point at my left big-toe joint. That is quite peculiar, but totally manageable. The fit is also carefully worked through to make sure the boots stay comfortable during long crampon use.

Details

Most of these I have already mentioned, although some are worth going through. The boots are equipped with ventilation holes on the shaft, assisting with dumping excess heat (as much as possible though, these are obviously and understandably still covered by the Gore-Tex liner). They also feature multiple pull-tabs to assist donning and doffing: two on the tongue and one on the back of the shaft. The leather heel cap is protected by highly durable PU-coated leather, so crampon locks will cause less damage in the long run. All of these features make these Hanwag boots very durable and very usable. As for durability: all Hanwag boots feature a cemented construction, enabling resoling and prolonging their lifetime. The Friction GTX is no exception. This really makes them worth investing in and essential to maintain properly.

Usage

So far I have used them in difficult terrain in Sweden and tarmac in the Netherlands. I will not put them through much tarmac use anymore as that puts them up for a resoling job way sooner than my wallet would like – that said, for a D/C Category mountaineering boot they’re not half bad on the road.

During a winter trek in Skuleskogen, Sweden they were in their proper element. Scrambling up hills, navigating snowy and icy trails, plodding through bush… They have saved me from nasty falls multiple times. The Vibram Dolomite outsoles are beasts, providing grip on pretty much anything but ice. Wherever the trails were more like ice-covered slip-and-slides (all the time, more or less…), the Friction’s basically just became tanks, making sure I could traverse alternative routes over rock, snow and scree – it was awesome.

In June I will take them with me on a Via Ferrata trip to Germany. I hope they will perform as admirably there as they did in Sweden.

Pros

Built to last

Bright red – instantly recognizable

Grippy on anything but ice

Reasonably warm but not ridiculously so

Stiff but comfortable

High protective brim

Resolable

Click-clamp lace locks ensure custom fit

Cons

Vibram wears down quickly on tarmac

Only really comfortable with thick or double socks

Overall

So far I really like these boots. For such a stiff boot the Hanwag Friction GTX still feels quite comfortable while walking in flat or slightly angled terrain, but they can handle the rough stuff as well. Thanks to the Click-clamp lacing system the fit is somewhat customizable and it saves the lace eyelets as well. They also play nice with various crampons and gaiters. The outsoles are replaceable and have traction on pretty much anything except icy trails and ice-covered rocks. The look is nice and bright, and the technical details make them stand out. All in all a very well rounded boot suitable for difficult treks and entry-level alpine excursions.

Hanwag Friction GTX Overview.jpg

One caveat though: due to the fact that Hanwag is about to release an update this particular version will be difficult to get. The revised version will be slightly different in look, and will feature Hanwag’s Alpine Wide fit, which features a wider toebox to accommodate wider feet and to enable the use of thicker socks. If that’s your thing you might want to wait for a couple of months!

Further reading

http://www.hanwag.com/friction-gtxr

http://scottishmountaineer.com/hanwag-friction-gtx-boot-review/

 

 

 

 

Book review: The Power of a Cautionary Tale

Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer

During our recent hiking trip though the Julian Alps I was amazed by the sheer beauty of rock. I have been an avid hiker and trekker as well as an occasional scrambler for about five years now, but walking on small ledges, climbing short rock routes and the very sense of accomplishment reaching a high vantage point gave me, has kindled my interest in alpine mountaineering. I think it has to do with the fact that climbing in such a way is very much a thinking man’s game: while hiking up a steep hill can be tough work, it takes nothing more than perseverance and stamina. Technical climbing is slower, yes, but that has to do with the fact that every step has to take into account the next one.

9781447200185.jpg

So since we came back from Slovenia I have done a few things: first, I have started gearing up for a Via Ferrata trip. It’s obviously not the most technically demanding form of climbing but I figured that would be the most logical next step. Also, as we saw in Slovenia, it adds just a bit of safety to otherwise very exposed sections of some trails. I have some experience using this type of gear and the rope work it demands so I think this should be my entry into the vertical world.

Second, I like to read, so I acquired a copy of Jon Krakauer’s mountaineering classic Into Thin Air.

Krakauer likes to go into detail – supposedly he is still obsessed with the exact cause of death of Christopher McCandless, the main subject of his other bestseller Into The Wild. That same amount of rigor is applied here.

Into Thin Air chronicles the writer’s own experience while taking part in a guided expedition to the summit of Mt. Everest in 1996. That year was a particularly unlucky one for Everest climbers.

As the highest mountain on earth, Everest was first officially summited in 1953 by Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary. Its peak is at 8848 meters above sea level. While there are more technically demanding mountains, the fact that it is the world’s highest point attracts many climbers – experts and relative novices alike. Especially since the advent of commercial guided expeditions and the invention of supplementary (bottled) oxygen, the technical capabilities of the climber in question have become less important to success.

Indeed, according to Krakauer, climbing mountains in that way has become exceedingly controversial in the professional mountaineering world due to the fact that to many purists, it takes the sport out of it. That may be a subjective feeling but the fact is that it has become much easier, and a lot more popular, to get into mountain sports in general. One of the negative effects is that this also attracts a fair amount of underprepared individuals – in the high alpine as well as your local hills.

At its core, Into Thin Air is a gripping personal account of a complicated disaster chronicling the terribly bad luck befalling the 1996 Everest Expedition organized by Adventure Consultants, led by Rob Hall. The writer was present for Outside Magazine, commissioned to report on the growing commercialization of high altitude mountaineering. During the expedition, extremely bad weather, slipping time frames, a number of underprepared or overzealous climbers, a short climbing season leading to a lot of traffic, some regretful decisions, and extreme altitude created a situation in which something, at some point, had to go wrong. At such great heights, even the smallest mistake may lead to complete catastrophe.

Even though the reader will have a rough idea how the book ends – it chronicles a disaster after all – Krakauer’s writing style and attention to detail grabs one’s attention and doesn’t let go. That year, Everest was inhabited by a group of colorful and often very different personalities. One of the book’s strong suits is that it doesn’t play the blame game – while some individuals made strange or bad decisions, this is always presented in the context of the extreme environments they were made in. Most importantly, Krakauer is not above second-guessing his own actions – were they slightly different, maybe the events would have been less disastrous.

While the book is not exactly new, it was an interesting read for me personally. To me, it read as a cautionary tale. Mountaineering at any height is an inherently risky pursuit. A 40-meter drop has the same effect at 4000 meters, as it has at 1000 meters. But at extreme altitude weather gets worse, temperatures drop and most importantly, a human’s mental faculties go down due to oxygen depletion and ailments caused by extreme altitude. This all played a huge part in the events laid out in the book.

Climbing is an inherently crazy pursuit. But the main lesson of this book, for me, would be to pick your battles carefully. If you want to go vertical, be sure that you have the necessary skill and experience for the task at hand. This may sound like a no-brainer but history is full of people neglecting this simple truth.

Stay safe.