Westcomb Switch LT Hoody
Fabric: Polartec NeoShell
- 3-point adjustable storm hood
- Adjustable waist system
- High collar with Velour lined chin-guard
- 2 Napoleon pockets
- 1 Biceps pocket
- Internal media pocket
- Velcro cuff closure
- Pit zippers
Days worn: ~20
The Westcomb Switch LT Hoody is made of air permeable Polartec Neoshell for exceptional breathability, and has a few features that make it a bit more 4-season friendly than the other two jackets I’m reviewing in this test of new waterproof / breathable technologies, the Arc’teryx Beta FL, and the Rab Viper.
This high-performance fabric and solid design is complemented by Westcomb’s unique aesthetic to make a jacket that is as fashionable at the top of the tram at Jackson as it is functional when through-hiking the Appalachian Trail.
The Switch LT Hoody has a slim fit; it’s not quite as slim as the Arc’teryx Beta FL, but it is definitely slimmer than the Rab Viper. The size medium Switch LT has enough room under it for a medium- to heavyweight puffy insulator, but there’s not room for much more than that.
The sleeves are cut generously long, and the hood is plenty large to fit over a helmet. It does not come down as far as the Arc’teryx Beta FL in the hem, and it tends to drape a bit more because the NeoShell is much more flexible than the other fabrics in this review. The jacket fits me very well. It is a comfortable, natural fit without the bulk that is traditionally associated with winter shells.
Polartec Neoshell is an air permeable fabric, or air perm for short (for more info on air perms, my Outerwear 201 article). This relatively new technology allows waterproof breathable fabrics (WPBs) to be especially breathable by allowing a tiny amount of air to pass through the porous membrane. Long story short: this fabric is super breathable while still maintaining a 10K waterproof rating.
10K and You
And in case that 10k rating sounds low to you, know that the fabric is waterproof.
It’s rated at 10K, and a 10K waterproof rating is all that is needed for 99.99% of the activities that even the most seasoned, hardcore outdoorsmen and women will encounter—including me and you.
You will not be able to tell any difference in the waterproof-ness of this fabric versus its Gore-Tex or eVent competitors. I guarantee it.
And if you think that you can tell a difference, well, you’re wrong. (Again, you might want to check out our Outerwear 201.)
Breathability and “Feel”
Where you might be able to tell a difference, however, is in the breathability. When I first got the Westcomb Switch LT Hoody, I didn’t know what to expect it to feel like. I had read a lot about air perms and about their supposed advantages, but I didn’t know how that would translate in terms of real world use.
One of the first things that I noticed was that the face fabric of this Neoshell Switch LT Hoody is very supple and quiet for a hard shell jacket. It is very comfortable to wear.
Another thing about air perm fabrics is that they tend to feel cold; they have practically no insulating value. The air that is usually trapped in the jacket and kept warm by body heat actually passes right through the fabric. In the specific example of the Westcomb Switch LT Hoody, it feels like I’m not wearing anything, at least at low activity levels.
At high activity levels, the jacket breathes extremely well; it feels more like a modern soft shell than a hard shell.
However, there is still an activity threshold at which the jacket cannot breathe as fast as I can sweat. I still found myself taking this shell off, albeit less frequently than I would a Gore-Tex Active Shell or Pro Shell jacket. But on (a) long, strenuous hikes or (b) shorter hikes in warm weather, I personally needed to take the Neoshell off.
As a rule of thumb, the Neoshell fabric breathes better than any non-air permeable hard shell alternative. But that hot, muggy, sweaty feeling that happens in any shell during high-output activities is unavoidable (…at least for now, at the current state of technology).
Brass Tacks Questions
Is the Westcomb Switch LT the most breathable hard shell I’ve ever worn? Absolutely.
Does Neoshell live up to all of the hype? Just about.
Is it a perfect solution? That depends.
It’s important to be clear that even though I find that I have to take the Switch LT off during periods of high-exertion activities, I also have to take off traditional softshells in similar conditions.
In high-output situations, sometimes a light breeze and a bare chest can still get clammy and wet. Any clothing that you put on acts as a vapor barrier to efficient breathability. Neoshell is a smaller vapor barrier than other non-air perms, but it is important to remember that there is a lot more at play in the mountains than just the membrane in your hardshell:
Layering schemes (including backpacks/hipbelts) and weather (humidity, temperature) play a huge role in your comfort at any given output level. There is no formula for saying, “On hike or skin X, I will have to take my shell off because the temperature is Y and the humidity is Z and I am in shape T and using equipment W and the cloud cover is R and…” What I can say though, is that if I start to sweat hard (i.e., my skin is damp, even dripping is some places) I have to take off this shell.
The bottom line is that Neoshell is a fantastic hard shell, but it is still a hard shell—and offers the outstanding protection of a hard shell. “Waterproof” and “Breathable” are two goals in direct opposition to each other, and NeoShell does a remarkable job of achieving both. But you may still have to take your NeoShell jacket off if you start hiking hard.
The Switch LT has three exterior pockets: two main pockets on the chest, and one stash pocket on the left sleeve. The pockets are where I have had the most problems with this jacket—not big problems mind you, and as I’ve said, this is still more versatile than the Arc’teryx Beta FL and the Rab Viper.
The main pockets have a uniquely “Westcomb” construction; no other company makes pockets like this. The waterproof zippers are hidden below a flap in the pocket, and are not exposed to the outside. This has two consequences:
First, these pockets are deceptively large. Huge actually. The flap that covers the pocket acts as a cargo pocket expansion. It is a very clean and simple way of making a cargo pocket, and it’s a really great idea.
The only drawback is that the zipper cannot sit flush with the back side of this pleat. That means that when I go to put my hand in the pocket, more often than not I end up with my fingers on the wrong side of the zipper, and not in the pocket at all. I can still typically get my hand in the pocket without having to use my other hand, but access to the main pockets is a slight trick.
Another small point to keep in mind is that this is the only jacket in the test where the main pockets cannot act as handwarming pockets due to their placement.
Stash Pocket & Pit Zips
I also have found the pocket on the sleeve difficult to get into. It is a simple stash pocket with a waterproof zip, but the angle at which the zipper is placed makes it nearly impossible to open the pocket with one hand. I always have to hold the bottom of the zipper firm in order to unzip this pocket.
This jacket features pit zips with PU laminated waterproof zips, and there is also a zip pocket on the inside of the jacket that is perfect size for a phone/music player.
Hood & Zipper
The hood adjusts four ways for a perfect fit regardless of application, and the main zipper features an interior placket to eliminate any air penetration into the coat.
Like the other jackets in this test, the Westcomb is rather minimalist. But its heavy duty main zipper, harder-wearing shell fabric and multidisciplinary fit make it the most versatile jacket of the bunch—it has the constructional oomph to hold up to hard winter conditions.
It is also the most breathable hard shell I have ever worn. It is not worlds better than the Gore-Tex Active Shell of the Arc’teryx Beta FL, but it is better.
For a year-round, versatile shell to use in moderate conditions for ski touring, climbing, mountaineering and backpacking, I would pick the Arc’teryx Beta FL because it is incredibly light and it packs very small.
But for everyday ski touring, I would pick the Westcomb because of its enhanced breathability and slight edge in protection in harsh conditions.