New out this spring, the Arc’teryx Norvan SL is a radical new lightweight waterproof jacket aimed primarily at runners and using a brand new Gore-Tex fabric which is claimed to be the lightest, most packable and most breathable waterproof material ever from the brand.
It weighs just 115g in a men’s medium – there’s also a women’s version – and packs down into a ball the size of an apple.
And here’s the thing, based on our experience so far, this is arguably the best lightweight waterproof we’ve used, even though it’s a triumph of functionality over aesthetics and the nature of the fabric means it’s only really suitable for use without a pack – in other words runners and cyclists.
New Wonder Fabric
The key to the Norvan SL is that new Gore-Tex fabric. In all honesty it looks a little odd, with a slightly rubbery, vinyl-like outer – if you’re familiar with Paclite, imagine that fabric turned inside out. There’s a reason for that: while conventional waterproof fabrics are a sandwich with a face fabric on the outside, the new material has done away with that.
Instead, the outer surface is the waterproof layer itself, as we understand it, the membrane with some sort of PU compound bonded to it. The big advantage of that is that you no longer need a water-repellent (DWR) treatment on the outside of the garment to stop water soaking into it.
Distinctive new Gore-Tex fabric does away with the conventional face material – ‘Bird’ badge is an bonded patch.
On paper, that has all sorts of advantages: although the D in DWR stands for ‘durable’, in reality outer fabrics not only need regular reproofing, often with questionable chemicals, but in use, give up the ghost allowing the outer fabric to ‘wet out’ becoming cold and clammy and reducing breathability at the same time. Most of us will know the feeling…
In theory then you should get better breathability, faster drying, reduced maintenance and consistent performance. It also neatly side-steps the issues surrounding fluoro-chemicals used in conventional DWRs which have attracted the attention of Greenpeace.
Does It Work?
In short, yes it does, incredibly, improbably well. In the dry – for the first week we had the jacket it simply refused to rain – it’s one of the few lightweight waterproofs we’ve used that’s close to a decent windproof in breathability.
Yes of course you sweat, hit a steep hill and your baselayer will damp out, but what’s impressive is that there’s never that overwhelming, furnace-like heat build-up and, once activity levels drop again, your inner layers dry astonishingly fast.
Over a 15-minute coffee and chat break on one occasion. And you can feel the moisture on the surface of the jacket as it makes its way outwards and evaporates. Impressive stuff. It also helps that you can roll the sleeve up to around halfway up your forearms – scrawny runners may get further.
WaterTight zip has proved to be reliable so far .
And then, finally, we got to use it in proper rain. First, yes it’s been 100 per-cent waterproof for us so far, next it’s not just that it’s very breathable, it’s that it’s consistently breathable. Rain drops land on the outside of the jacket and bead there, they don’t roll off as dramatically as with a fresh conventional DWR fabric, but you can simply wipe them off as you go or wait for them to roll.
And because the surface is hydrophobic and won’t absorb water, you don’t get the cold, clammy, wetted-out sensation, and when it stops raining, the jacket dries off incredibly quickly.
Yes, you will still sweat if you work hard enough and yes, your baselayer will get damp, but our experience is that it’s start to dry off as soon as your output levels drop and the jacket stays relatively comfortable even with sustained, all-day use.
Jacket is precision made in Canada with ultra-narrow seam tape reducing bulk and weight.
Cut And Fit
As you’d expect from Arc’teryx the Norvan is beautifully put together with super skinny – 8mm we think – seam-sealing tape in a Canadian factory and cut slim and sleek down to about mid-hip length. Ideal for wearing over a baselayer and maybe a skinny microfleece and for minimal flappage when things get windy. Still room for wider shoulders though.
We found it stayed neatly in place when walking, running and cycling and despite the lack of adjustability, cuffs and hem sealed well enough and the WaterTight zip worked fine.
Fit is close and functional but true to size. There’s a drop tail round the back too.
If you’re expecting lots of features, look elsewhere. There are no pockets and Lycra-bound cuffs and hem. There is a hood with minimalist stiffened brim and a few millimetres of value adjustment and while it’s not super close, it works well enough and can be tabbed down using the rear adjuster cord and the minimalist hanging loop inside the collar.
You also get a selection of reflective strips, like the Arc’teryx Bird badge patch-bonded industrial-style to the fabric, presumably because you can’t print directly onto the material.
If we were being hyper picky, we’d have liked a small pocket to take an emergency fiver and a key, maybe doubling as a stuff-sac.
Packed in the 4g stuff-sac supplied the jacket is around the size of an apple.
One last thing, the brilliantly light and breathable Gore-Tex fabric also defines the look of the jacket and it’s not a thing of conventional beauty with the rubbery black texture and snug fit giving a slightly gimp-like / Catwoman feel.
To be honest though, it’s all about functionality over function and we suspect anyone considering a Norvan is going to be more interested in how it works rather than how it looks. And of course, beauty is famously in the eye of the beholder, so your personal mileage may vary.
A starkly minimalist, brilliantly performing, lightweight running-specific waterproof that treads the fine line in breathability that means in many situations it’ll also happily double as a windproof, which is arguably the Holy Grail of waterproof jackets.
Not only does it keep you dry from the outside, but it breathes well enough to avoid furnace-like internal fugs and, if your baselayers do get damp from exertion, we found they dry out amazingly quickly once the pace drops.
Finally, because the Permanent Beading Surface technology doesn’t absorb water – you can simply wipe the droplets off – you never get that awful, cold, soggy feel of a saturated waterproof and the whole garment dries super quick as soon as the rain stops. Not only that, its breathability and comfort stays consistently high no matter how much it rains or how long you’re out for. Result!
It’s not all good news. The reason the Norvan’s a running shell and the use of packs isn’t recommended is because that thin fabric simply isn’t as tough as conventional lightweight materials. You might just about get away with using a non-abrasive fabric like the one chosen by Montane for their pack straps, but frankly with the price at £240, we wouldn’t risk it.
That said, it’ll be interesting to see if the technology develops into a more durable form suitable for walkers and mountaineers. Columbia’s OutDry Extreme uses similar principles, but isn’t anything like as breathable or as feathery light, even though it’s significantly tougher.
Finally, cutting edge technology from one of the most innovative outdoor brands out there comes with a matching price tag of £240 in the UK, that’s a smidgeon over £2 per gramme of prime shell. That’s a lot for sure, but if you move fast, run hot and don’t carry a pack, the Norvan SL is unbeatable.
Very light, impressively breathable, sustained performance with no wetting out, fast drying, very packable, sleek, athletic cut, precise manufacture, rollable sleeves.
Function over aesthetics, not recommended for use with packs, no pockets at all, premium price.