Mountain Equipment's big launch this spring is the brand's new range of own-brand Drilite waterproof shell clothing as a more affordable alternative to its well-regarded Gore-Tex range.
We've already run 'Just In' previews of two of the new range of jackets, but we popped over to ME HQ yesterday for an inside line on DriLite and a few other new developments.
What Is Drilte?
It is, says ME, a Monolithic Polyurethane Membrane. We didn't know what that meant - Stonehenge anyone? - and we'd bet you don't either, so we asked.
Apparently while most waterproof breathable fabrics work on the principle of having microscopic pores which allow vapour to escape but keep water droplets out, Drilite instead works by a process called 'chemical infusion'.
It's a bit like a baselayer. The inner surface attracts water strongly, then structural differences in the membrane move the moisture outwards towards the surface where it can evaporate.
The plus points are that it isn't as vulnerable to contamination as pore-based fabrics and it's less dependent on a temperature humidity difference between inside and outside to work so works well across a range of environments.
The downside is that it's not as outright breathable as the top-name fabrics particularly air-permeable ones like Gore-Tex Pro, eVent and NeoShell. It's still not bad though, our experience so far is that it works pretty well.
ME has three versions of Drilite in different weights: Ultra-light, which is very light; Stretch which is stretchy and straight Drilite which is a sort of in-between weight. The Stretch and Ultra-light versions use a strengthened fabric with a reinforced weave going one way and a standard thread the other to increase durability without adding too much weight.
All of them are 2.5 layer, which means the inside of the jacket uses a protective print with a pleasant 'dry touch' finish to it. No sliminess, which you sometimes get with 2.5 layer materials.
All the jackets come in both men's and women's versions.
Ultra-light Drilite - 12D with 50D reinforced weave
Micron Jacket - £140
We have a Micron Jacket on test right now and so far we're impressed. It's not ultra lightweight at a real world 224g for a medium, but it seems like a really nice balance between lightness and protection. So while it may not be as feathery as a super-packable race-type shell, the fact that it has a fully-adjustable mountain hood with stiffened peak, adjustable hem, drop-tail, thumb-loops, decent length and, doesn't feel fragile, means it's reassuringly useable rather than just impressively light.
It's also cut really closely - we asked ME's Rich Bailey to take a photograph of the fit of our test jacket to show what that means. And it really is close fitting. Other potential downsides are that there's just a single, smallish chest pocket, but then we rather like that.
It retails for £140 and is more aimed at runners and bikers than all-round mountain use, though we don't see why you shouldn't also rack it up for fine-day stand-by use and for multi-pitch mountain rock routes.
Lattice Jacket - £150
The Lattice Jacket uses the same fabric and Active Fit as the Micron, but has two ventilated 'hand-warmer' pockets instead of the single chest pocket. Those pockets will cost you an extra tenner and based on sample large-szed jackets, around 35g in weight - the Lattice is 250g claimed in a large. As with the Micron it also has YKK water-resistant zips, Mountain Hood and comes with a stuff-sac for storage.
So the big question is how many pockets do you really need when you're moving fast and light, eh?
(Just) Drilite - 40D fabric
Vector Jacket - £160
Made from the middle ground fabric in the Drilite range, the Vector Jacket is a proper UK hillwalking shell with two hand-warmer pockets and a full, normal, Mountain Hood. It has ME's slightly less snug, but excellent new Alpine Fit as used on the new Gore-Tex shells like the Lhotse jacket plus adjustable hem and cuffs.
Looks like a reasonably light, nicely cut, all-round UK hill-walking jacket complete with a proper wired hood.
It's still light too at a claimed 280g for a men's large.
Aeon Jacket - £160
Same fabric as the Vector, the Aeon Jacket has one obvious stand-out point: the hood rolls away into the collar for a smarter, cleaner look, but the clever bit is that you still get a proper mountain hood complete with wired peak and - unlike most roll-away hoods - decent chin and lower face protection.
The Aeon again user the new Alpine cut and water-resistant YKK zips, but adds in pit-zips and a chest pocket. It looks really neat and is, says ME, the most popular jacket in the range.
The weight is around 50g more than the Vector, but thats still only 330g - looks like a really good, reasonably light but still decently protective UK hill and mountain-walking jacket.
Also available are Aeon Pants in the same fabric again, they have the same 'reasonably trim' fit with articulated knees as the existing Firefox Pants and have 3/4-length side zips for ease of use with boots. Weight is 210g and price a very reasonable looking £100.
Stretch Drilite - 40d fabric with 70D reinforced weave
Gryphon Jacket - £190
We've recently run a Just In on our own test Gryphon Jacket and we're impressed. It runs a neat, stretch version of the Drilite fabric with a distinctive, slightly crinkled face fabric finish - due to the cross-woven reinforcement - that we really like.
It's a full-on ME mountain shell complete with wired, helmet compatible hood, pit-zips, full adjustability and the excellent new Swiss-designed 'Alpine Fit' that manages to be really close fitting and neat, but without restricting movement when you're scrambling, climbing or just moving about.
Add in the stretch of this version of Drilite and a tough-feeling but light fabric - total weight of the jacket is a claimed 385g in a large - and you have a really neat sub-£200 mountain shell jacket.
Of course £190 isn't exactly cheap, but it would cost around £100 to buy a similar ME Gore-Tex Pro shell and while the Pro would be more durable and more breathable, the Gryphon is still a very nice mountain jacket full stop.
There are a couple more development, notably an uprated Fire Fox Jacket for spring - more about that tomorrow - but Drilite really ME's biggest development for this spring. What we'd say after using a couple of the jackets already and seeing the rest, is that while it's more affordable than ME's Gore-Tex shells, the cut and features are on a par.
You're losing a little bit of durability and breathability for sure, but in classic Mountain Equipment fashion, these are no-nonsense, UK-friendly, mountain-capable shells with a fantastic cut and thoroughly thought-through features. Watch this space for full reviews of both the Micron and Gryphon Jackets.
More information at www.mountain-equipment.co.uk.