Gore-Tex and eVent have been the dominant forces in outdoor shell fabrics for decades. Although there have always been others, gaining a foothold in the marketplace has traditionally been an almost futile exercise as both companies battle for supremacy and that has engendered continually improving products. This year, the composition of that marketplace may well be about to change with a revolution in the breathable, waterproof membrane fabric industry imminent.
For some time, however, another option has existed, far more entrenched in the psyche of us Brits. Páramo is not well known in the US, but very popular in the UK – it would perhaps be fair to describe it as having a cult following, but the most significant statement about the efficacy of Páramo products is a simple analysis of the individuals and organisations who comprise that cult – mountain rescue teams, guides, instructors and outdoor professionals in the UK are among the greatest proponents of the Páramo systems. That’s some endorsement.
I should point out, for the sake of those who might question my impartiality, that I am in no way affiliated with Páramo and whilst various manufacturers have, in the past, sent me test kit, Páramo is not one of them. I am completely nonpartisan.
Following the Tour du Mont Blanc in August of 2010, I decided to undertake winter hillwalking and mountaineering, both in Scotland and in the Alps. This was a progression for me and I was acutely aware that my 3-season kit would not afford me the protection I would need so, in October 2010, I began to investigate winter alternatives. A friend of mine, a keen ice-climber and alpinist for some years, suggested I consider Páramo. Ron Walker MIC, of Talisman Mountaineering with whom we have just completed an Advanced Winter Mountaineering Course, suggested the same. Two experienced mountaineers, with vast knowledge of the arctic tundra of the Scottish Highlands, both making the same suggestions, struck a chord with me. So I researched.
Perhaps the best way to introduce Páramo is to outline what they say about their own products. Started by the founder of Nikwax in the 80’s, Páramo say the following about their unique waterproof system called Analogy.
The Nikwax Analogy Pump Liner mimics the action of animal fur – pushing liquid water outwards to protect you from rain, condensation and perspiration, while protecting your insulation. This is combined with a Directional microfibre outer to deflect wind and rain.
- Two layer construction traps still air giving superior insulation to keep you warm.
- Outer layer provides Directional water-repellency while the Pump Liner actively pushes liquid moisture away from the body keeping you dry from precipitation, perspiration and condensation.
- Continues to work just as effectively even in high humidity or very cold conditions.
- Water-repellency can be easily renewed for the lifetime of the garment with Nikwax Aftercare.
- The fabric is soft, strong, silent and durable.
Nikwax Analogy got its name because of the way it mimics animal fur in providing both insulation and water-shedding which works in all conditions. In the same way that seals, otters and bears keep warm in very wet conditions, the Nikwax Analogy Pump Liner pushes liquid outwards to keep you warm and dry inside. Not only does this give superior waterproof protection from the elements – while both Soft Shell and conventional waterproof breathable fabrics can only cope with around 20% of the sweat you produce when working hard, Nikwax Directionality will pump away all of it. The special characteristics of Nikwax Analogy result in significant advantages over conventional waterproofs and Soft Shell:
- Warmth – providing warmth as well as waterproofing allows you to leave some of your insulation layers at home
- Works as effectively in all conditions – Both conventional waterproofs and Soft Shell fail in conditions of high humidity, while Nikwax Analogy continues to pump water away whatever the weather.
- Soft but very strong fabrics – because Nikwax Analogy doesn’t need coatings or laminates to work, the fabrics are much softer and more flexible but just as strong and tough.
- Silent – Nikwax Analogy is rustle-free, a pleasure to walk in or with.
- Not compromised by puncture – You could fill a Directional Waterproof garment with pins, take them out, wear the garment in the rain and still stay dry! Puncture of thnts outer or inner fabric will not lead to leakage.
- Renewable – The performance of Directional Waterproofs can be indefinitely renewed by caring for them with Nikwax products, while conventional membranes can eventually crack and cannot then be repaired
Three Short Reviews of Páramo Gear
I have, either by ownership or by access to, four Páramo garments: the Aspira Smock (a jacket without a full-length zip pulled on over the head), the Aspira Salopettes (similar to ski-pants with a bib and shoulder straps), the lightweight but warm Velez Adventure pants and the Torres Gilet (a light, sleeveless insulated jacket). My review of Páramo is therefore predicated on those four items.
I have used the Aspira Smock in the English Lake District – a region of mountainous terrain (Scafell Pike at 978m being the highest point) notorious for abrupt changes in weather and serious rain and snowfall – and in the Cairngorms in Scotland (Ben Macdui at 1309m being the highest point) which is described, quite rightly, as arctic tundra. On both occasions, in temperatures below zero degrees celsius, I wore a Patagonia R1 Regulator Hoody and the Aspira Smock alone and was perfectly warm 95% of the time in some very inclement weather, including heavy rain, snow and winds in excess of 60mph.
There are several advantages to the 868g Smock over the 841g Jacket – it is easier to vent, for one. This is useful for active pursuits, rather than simple walking, as the Páramo system engenders a warm outer layer which, as Páramo themselves accurately suggest, means an insulation layer is unnecessary, when compared to the traditional 3-layer system. Its breathability and venting options are, consequently, crucial to wearing the smock all day rather than taking it on and off. It also better suited to scrambling and climbing, and therefore mountaineering, because of the absence of a single zip all the way down the middle of the garment. Taking a look of the technical specifications asserted by Páramo, I would comment as follows:
The fully adjustable, wired roll-away hood fits over all types of helmets and is adjustable with cordlocks – this I found to be essential when climbing in the Aspira. Adjusting the hood to my helmet, or simply to my own head, and to no wind, some wind, or strong wind, was painless even with gloves on. Standing on a steep slope, with a tiny ledge for your feet, or only a handful of crampon points into the mountainside, uncomplicated adjustment is essential.
The two ‘fast access’ chest pockets allow me to keep my compass on a cow’s tail attached to the small plastic loop in one of these pockets knowing it will not be lost no matter what happens and I can find it swiftly and easily. Access is not impeded by the chest strap on a rucksack either. Easy access storage exists in the form of one large external chest pocket and handwarming/OS map storage is provided by two internal ‘dry’ pockets – these are dry on the basis that they are lined with Analogy fabric and so pump moisture away from them. This does not mean they are ‘dry’ in fact, but simply that moisture in them will be pumped away in the same way as moisture from the skin and from the weather outside. I have not found that items which would be damaged by moisture should be stored here without additional protection (I use a ziplock bag if necessary) but they certainly can assist with impromptu handwarming.
The removable foam inserts at the back provide some assistance in breathability when considering the use of a rucksack and, again, I found my back sweated far less than in a membrane jacket with an insulation layer.
The articulated shoulders and sleeves, with a double lining across the shoulder yoke, along with the Smock blueprint, meant I could climb my first Scottish Winter Grade I gully this winter in the Cairngorms without encumbrance or hindrance – I didn’t feel restricted by the smock at any stage so I think Páramo have got the cut just right.
I was very impressed by the Aspira Smock in terms of the weather it kept out, the perspiration it moved away from my skin and the cut and efficacy of the garment as a whole. Most significantly however, even when cold and wet, when I put the smock on the following morning, particularly after a few minutes of moving in it, it was reasonably dry and perfectly warm and comfortable. I find it to be a superlative winter outer layer.
I have used the Aspira Salopettes6 in the English Lake District and in the Cairngorms in Scotland. On both occasions, in temperatures below zero degrees celsius, I wore X-Bionics trekking shorts only underneath and was perfectly warm all of the time in some very inclement weather, including heavy rain, snow and winds in excess of 60mph.
The cut of the salopettes is far better than that of the equivalent trousers – the latter were baggy and the waist was too small for me – I required a larger size, making them even more baggy. The salopettes, however, have an articulated, active cut and fit me perfectly – although the length of the leg, even in ‘long’, could have been 1” longer (I am a 33” inside leg). Taking a look of the technical specifications asserted by Páramo, I would comment as follows:
Two increased volume chest pockets provide storage as well as venting – in reality, I did not store much here and did not need to vent either but, in warmer, milder weather it would have been useful to be able to do so. The alleged temperature control and improved fit from integral belt seems a little overstated because, although the belt enabled a better fit, it did not do much for temperature control for me.
Being able to ‘access all areas’, even during harness use, via drop seat and zip fly is a very useful touch as the salopettes will often be used with a harness and sometimes you just need ‘to go’. I don’t know any overpants that permit this degree of ‘access’.
The slimline removable knee foam inserts were very useful when kneeling to dig out a snow bollard, ice-axe belay/anchor or snow shelter, and increased abrasion resistance to the seat, knee and ankle area through reinforced fabric is essential for mountaineering.
Páramo suggest there is “rapid temperature adjustment via full length reversed side zips with new internal single storm flaps” – this is the main flaw with the Salopettes – the poppers keeping the salopettes together when the zip is undone are pathetic and I will be sewing velcro here as well. Venting also requires some forethought as, if you are wearing the smock as well, access is tricky. I did not ever need to vent them, however – they breathe so well.
I did not use the calf adjust cords as I wear Black Diamond Frontline gaiters, but the salopettes are articulated perfectly – perhaps a little baggy when used with gaiters – and it is easy to remove them without taking off boots (not that I can imagine a position where you would be doing this given winter is their primary use). I liked the tape loops for “optional underboot elastication” as I found the salopettes to ride up on occasion when using gaiters so I’ll be using those.
I found salopettes to be significantly better in snow than trousers – even those with braces. There is far less of an opportunity for snow to make its way into your underwear with salopettes! Although there were occasions, mid-way through a steep ascent, when they felt a little too warm, and venting them is not easy as the zips are at the top of the salopettes so require access through the smock, this is a minor niggle that is easily overcome with judicious planning, if indeed its necessary at all. In fact I found them hugely comfortable across a range of theatres – a steep ascent, standing in the cold getting tied into a harness or putting on crampons, sitting in a bucket seat, digging snow bollards or ice-axe belays – in all of them I was very comfortable.
The Torres Gilet7 is very good piece of kit. It is not waterproof but transfers moisture in the same way as the Analogy waterproof system. Given the way the Analogy system works, pumping moisture away from the skin rather than making it bead and roll away on a hard outer shell, wearing the Torres on top of the Aspira still succeeds at keeping you dry in rain. Yet it avoids the process of taking the smock off in order to add another layer which, in cold and wet weather, is crucial to remaining dry. It is also surprisingly warm for such a small garment – it does not provide as much warmth as a similar down gilet of the same weight but this is an item designed to be abused and worn anywhere without a care. Down does not have that advantage.
It is a truism that Páramo does indeed tend to be warmer than equivalent, membrane shell, garments. This is a characteristic, rather than a benefit, as whether it is a positive thing depends on your use of the garment and the conditions it is used in. It is often said that Páramo is a winter range of clothing and, as far as the Aspira gear is concerned, I would concur, although the lightweight Velez Adventure Range8 is warm, even in some winter conditions, yet light enough and completely waterproof as it uses the same Analogy system. In a warm summer, there are lighter and better alternatives to Páramo as a system (I would not personally use Páramo outside of winter), and this particularly applies to the Aspira garments. That said, it is still very effective at getting the body’s own moisture out, in comparison to membrane shell garments, when the rain falls. I also find Páramo more pleasant to wear than a membrane shell being a much softer fabric. Finally, and my closest friend has personal experience of this, when damaged by a tear, a quick and impromptu repair does not compromise the system.
The cost of wearing Páramo is weight – it is considered heavy and, as individual garments, that may be right. However, when considering the extras you don’t need to take, Páramo becomes much better value. An extra insulation layer is frequently unnecessary as the Aspira system is so good at providing and retaining warmth, and there is no need for waterproof overtrousers as the Salopettes do that job but breathe well enough to be a warm walking trouser. Compare a softshell mountain salopette and waterproof overtrouser to the Aspira Salopette and the weight comparison is favourable. The same can be said of a winter membrane jacket and 100 weight fleece with the Aspira Smock. Páramo is designed to be worn, not carried, and in winter, it excels. It engenders a level of confidence in the strength and efficacy of the fabric in the worst conditions that membrane fabrics just simply do not. Yet there is a trade off – a membrane fabric which is new or has been newly reproofed will be drier overnight than a Páramo garment but in my experience no membrane fabric performs well in continuous, heavy rain. Páramo tends to outperform membrane fabrics in heavy precipitation, not least because it breathes better in the wet and it’ll be dry enough after wearing it – that’s how the pump liner works. In cold winter, I won’t be wearing anything else.
Disclosure: The author owns this product and purchased it using their own funds.
Andrew Mazibrad’s Blog is The Jouneyman Traveller.
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