Normal “breathable” shells have three great failings. The worst is that they’re just not that breathable, especially in rain, and extra-especially for people who carry on high-energy activities when it rains. This is because they’re based on a pored membrane that works by letting water vapour go from dryer to wetter air, so when the air outside is wet you’re stuck with living with your own sweat. Their two other failings are that repairing rips with a needle is disastrous, because water flows through the holes the needle makes in the membrane, and that getting dry once you’re soaked – whether by your own sweat or a fall in a river – takes forever. Softshells try to get around some of these problems, but at the cost of letting in moderate to heavy rain.
A company that has found the answer is Paramo with their “Directional” shell fabrics. Instead of using a membrane they use a “pump liner” that sucks water away from the inside of their shells. So sweat is still expelled in the rain, needle holes don’t matter because water trying to enter via them is pumped back, and if you get soaked under your shell when you fall out of your kayak your baselayers will dry out faster with your Paramo on, sucking water away, than if you took it off.
In other good news: Paramo is rustle free, completely windproof (it’s a popular choice of Antarctic exploration teams), is easily washed and re-proofed in a washing machine, and the average hard-used shell seems to last about a decade.
The downside of Paramo shells has been that they combine a shell with a midlayer, making them too warm for many people except in winter, and slightly bulky to carry. However the latest Paramo Velez Light has fixed this problem with lighter insulation and excellent venting. You simply put it on a over a baselayer and work the venting (and roll up the sleeves – something you can’t comfortably do with a normal shell) as needed – the shell stays on all day. Because sweat transport and venting are so good this works in all but summer weather. The Velez Light also has an exceptionally good hood that keeps goggles and spectacles dry in the rain but provides more than adequate side vision even for cycling in traffic.
The bad news is that although discussed excitedly on ultra light-weight hiking lists from time to time, Paramo doesn’t seem to be stocked widely – if at all – in the US. However, ordering from the UK is hardly the adventure it was before the invention of the steamship and wireless telegraph.
How good is Paramo? Good enough so that I can crank a cyclocross bike at maximum speed cross country in heavy rain and ice cold wind and my torso is as warm and dry as it would be if I was cycling on a summer day wearing only a wicking tee shirt. In short, ***astoundingly*** good.