The North Face FutureLight Summit Series | First Look - Outdoors Magic

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The North Face FutureLight Summit Series | First Look

We head out to the arctic island of Svalbard to see if FutureLight really can perform as claimed

There can be few places on the planet more unforgiving than Svalbard. At 78 degrees latitude, this windswept archipelago in the Arctic ocean is home to the most northerly human settlement on Earth, as well as roughly 3,000 polar bears. As we motored into the shore of the remote fjord where our ship was moored each morning, the zodiac had to crunch its way through icebergs. The first people off the boat were two guides armed with old bolt action rifles – just in case one of those bears mistook the party of disembarking ski-tourers for a Deliveroo order.

It was certainly the most extreme start to any day’s ski touring I’d ever experienced, but then that was precisely the point. I’d come here with a party from The North Face (TNF) to test its brand new “FutureLight” range of ski touring jackets and pants, which the company is billing as “revolutionary”. And what better place to put these pieces through their paces than this – arguably one of the most challenging environments on Earth?

“Home to the most northerly human settlement on Earth, as well as roughly 3,000 polar bears”

The concept which drove the development of FutureLight was a simple one. “It’s not a new idea,” says Hortense Carlier, TNF’s product and merchandising manager, “but there hasn’t been a solution to it until now.” Essentially, the brand was seeking to answer the age-old question asked by ski-tourers (and indeed everyone who’s ever done high-intensity exercise in low temperatures): “Why can’t I have a jacket that I don’t have to take off and put on again the whole time?” 

“Every brand has been working so far on waterproofness,” Hortense says. “But in the end if you want to improve your level of comfort, you should be working on improving the breathability of the jacket.” So instead of worrying about the amount of water coming in, they concentrated on the amount of perspiration the jacket lets out. “That was the starting point of FutureLight.”

Photo: Tristan Kennedy

TNF focussed their R&D efforts chiefly on the membrane that provides breathability in Gore-Tex style fabrics. “A typical Gore membrane is kind of a teflon sheet that’s stretched, which weighs on average 40 grams per square metre,” explains Hortense. But with nano-spinning, a process that utilises an electromagnetic field to weave a super-fine mesh of polymer fibres, The North Face managed to create a similarly porous, breathable membrane that weighed a fraction of traditional stretched ones. “It’s about three to six grams per square metre,” says Hortense. “So it’s a lot lighter”.

As well as the weight saving, FutureLight’s other key USP is its versatility. The North Face can tweak the density of the fibres and the thickness of the membrane in the nano-spinning process, allowing them to create FutureLight garments that are highly specialised for specific subsections of the backcountry market. “If you go ski mountaineering you’re likely to be against rocks etc. so you need a higher level of durability,” says Hortense. “If you’re freeriding, and sitting in the snow more often for instance, you need higher waterproofness, compared to ski touring, where weight is the most important”.

“It’s about three to six grams per square metre, so it’s a lot lighter”

This winter TNF is releasing four different jackets and pants, each offering different degrees of waterproofness, breathability and durability – from the tougher, heavier, Steep Series garments designed for freeriding, to the supremely lightweight Summit Series models, made with more purist tourers in mind.

None of them, it’s safe to say, come cheap. But if they deliver on that initial promise, and can save you valuable time putting on and taking off layers as you go about your day, then they’re surely worth it. So do they work?

Photo: Tristan Kennedy
Photo: Tristan Kennedy

The North Face Summit Series L5 LT Jacket First Look

In Svalbard, I principally wore the Summit Series L5 LT jacket, the lightest in the FutureLight snow range, which tips the scales at just 340 grams. And the first thing I noticed, pulling it on in my cabin on board the MS Nordstjernen, was the weight. I was expecting it to be light, but this was ludicrous – the fabric just felt far too flimsy for a proper skiing jacket. Could this really be waterproof?

It’s not just the fabric keeping the weight down here of course. In this ‘LT’ model, aimed squarely at tourers, The North Face have stripped out everything that’s not absolutely essential. Unusually for a ski jacket, there’s no powder skirt here, and no storm flap over the zipper. There are no internal thumb loops in the sleeves and just a single, exterior pocket on the front with another on the inside. Most tellingly, there are no armpit vents – the implication being that this jacket is breathable enough without.

“We climbed between 900 and 1,200 metres each day”

Over the course of three days we tested that assumption extensively in a range of conditions – from light snowfall to blazing sunshine. Temperatures hovered around minus 5 degrees C, with wind chill on top, but the jacket did an admirable job of keeping the Arctic breezes at bay. We climbed between 900 and 1,200 metres each day, and despite the exertion and the sweating involved, I found I could wear the same layers almost from start to finish – base layer, with the L5 LT jacket over the top.

That’s something I’ve never been able to do with the Gore-Tex shell I usually wear, which I’m constantly unzipping the vents on or removing entirely, only to then have to put it back on when I stop.

Photo: Tristan Kennedy

I did add an extra layer when taking skins off at the top of each climb, and standing around waiting to set off each morning. But whereas normally this would involve removing my jacket and putting a mid-layer underneath, the lightweight fabric of the L5 LT meant I could just pop a down jacket over the top – saving time, and ultimately allowing us to get more riding in.

I tested the waterproofness of the fabric by rag-dolling a couple of times on the descents (intentionally, of course) and was pleased that it passed with flying colours. I did notice the lack of a powder skirt when falling however, and as a photographer, I found that I missed some of the extra pockets on my normal jacket – which I usually stuff lens caps, outer gloves and spare lenses in. It didn’t take long for me to adjust my packing however, and the time saving made by not having to add or remove layers every 20 minutes more than made up for it.

“Despite scrambling over rocks at various points to shoot from different angles, it showed no sign of ripping”

The L5 LT’s fabric might feel flimsy to the touch, but despite scrambling over rocks at various points to shoot from different angles, it showed no sign of ripping (although the constant climbing in and out of boats did discolour our yellow, sample jackets somewhat).

For longer term use, I might opt for something more rugged with a few more features, like the non-LT version of the L5 Summit Series jacket, or one of the FutureLight Steep Series jackets, which are slightly heavier with extra pockets, and powder skirts. But if you’re after the ultimate in weight and breathability, you’d be hard pushed to beat this. It really is an impressive piece of engineering.

Photo: Tristan Kennedy

The North Face Summit Series L5 LT Pants First Look

If anything, the Summit Series L5 LT Pants are even more ridiculous than the jacket, weighing just 260 grams. Once again, The North Face have stripped out as many features as possible to keep the weight down, including boot gaiters, all but one thigh pocket, and any sort of belt. Instead, the pants have an elasticated waistband, which when combined with the soft fabric, made me initially think that I was pulling on pyjamas, rather than a fully-waterproof pair of technical ski-touring pants.

As with the jacket, these are made using the most breathable version of the new FutureLight membrane currently available. Hortense explains: “There is definitely a sacrifice in terms of waterproofness, but the fact is you don’t need a 20,000mm water column [for touring]. The biggest pressure you can have on is sitting on a chairlift with snow on it. Then you probably need to go up to 10 or 12,000mm. But if you’re not sitting down in the snow then you’re fine.”

“The Summit Series L5 LT Pants are even more ridiculous than the jacket, weighing just 260 grams”

In actual fact, as a splitboarder and a photographer, I spend more time than most sitting down in the snow than most. But as with the jacket, I didn’t find any water seeping in, and the breathability – which Hortense estimates at an incredible 80,000g/m2 – really was remarkable. My usual kit when touring in subzero temperatures would involve a pair of Gore-Tex shell pants which I have to open and close the leg vents on constantly. But there’s no need for that here. Like the jacket, these just seemed to let sweat out like nothing I’ve ever worn before.

A couple of minor criticisms: The lightness of the material means the pants have a tendency to flap about noisily in the wind as you descend. This takes some getting used to if you’re accustomed to the crisp rigidity of Gore-Tex (although on the plus side, it’s far more comfortable rubbing against your legs as you climb). As with the jacket, I personally might have preferred a few more pockets. But then there are options for that – including bib pant versions in the Steep Series Futurelight range.

Having only tested them for three days (albeit intensively) it’s hard to make a judgement on the long-term durability of Futurelight. But I was impressed by the fact that ski mountaineer Jim Morrison, who accompanied us to Svalbard, had worn it on his recent expedition to the Himalayas, where he and his climbing partner Hilaree Nelson had achieved a world first: skiing the couloir down from the 8,516m high peak of Lhotse, the world’s fourth-highest mountain. Certainly, although it felt a bit thin, I saw nothing to suggest that this lightweight material wouldn’t withstand some pretty serious abuse.

Whether or not Futurelight will revolutionise the outdoor industry like the invention of Gore-Tex did remains to be seen. What we can say is that on the evidence we saw in Svalbard, The North Face are onto something pretty special here. If you’re likely to be spending even a few days out ski touring this winter, then you could do a lot worse than take a closer look at Futurelight.

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