It’s mid-October in western Norway. The wind whistles past our ears as we make our way through a dense field of ferns. As the driving rain turned to hail, we grabbed mountain bikes to add even more adventure to our outdoor experience. The trails in the fjords around Alesund gradually turn into creeks, denying our tires the little traction they had left to offer – it was an uphill push from here.
If the image in your head now features a bunch of outdoor enthusiasts, thoroughly drenched, you only got the first part right. Because thanks to our local host and his advice, we followed the Norwegian saying ‘there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing’. Armed to the tooth with waterproof gear, we set out to discover the area’s breathtaking nature.
While navigating the challenging terrain and weather, we gratefully pondered one important question: how does waterproof gear actually work? What makes it waterproof? We sat down with some of the developers and designers in the On Lab to answer this question. They took us on another adventure – through powerful materials, ingenious design and clever engineering.
1. It all starts with materials
When wind and water are supposed to remain outside of your gear, the material barrier between your skin and the elements needs to do the heavy lifting – while remaining lightweight. And that’s no easy task. Because it’s one thing to keep water and wind out. But adding breathability to ensure you stay fresh and comfortable? This is where engineering approaches magic levels of ingenuity.
The first step towards waterproofing could be a treatment on the garment’s surface. That way, light rain simply runs off instead of passing through to the layers below. And with a more sustainable, PFC-free DWR-treatment (durable water-repellent) like in the Waterproof Anorak, this feature also comes without chemicals that could harm the very surroundings we set out to explore. For our waterproof shoes, this type of treatment isn’t only applied on the shoes’ surfaces, but also on the laces to prevent excess water soaking them and weighing you down.
But like during our stay in Alesund, heavy rains can transform every outdoor journey in the blink of an eye. In that case, your gear needs to step up to the next level of waterproofing. Introducing the waterproof membrane: a hydrophobic material that can be combined with the water-repelling top layer and other breathable layers below.
The key here is to choose a membrane that achieves more than just keeping water out. Many of us spent the rainy days of our childhood in thick, heavy rubber boots – but they mostly resulted in hot, sweaty feet and ankles. So, to maintain your thirst for adventure, you need a membrane that’s waterproof but still breathable and lightweight. That way, you can stay as active as you were before the downpour started – while staying just as fresh and light on your feet. For some apparel pieces, like the Parka, we even use a PTFE-free membrane with the environment in mind.
To summarize, rain gets repelled by a DWR-treatment on your gear’s surface. And if it makes it past that first barrier, the waterproof membrane does the rest.
2. Designed to show rain the door
Materials can be considered the muscle behind powerful waterproof gear. But muscle without smarts doesn’t get you far in heavy rain. Well, during our stay at the Storfjord Hotel we vowed to embark on a true outdoor adventure, regardless of the weather. That’s why we needed gear that wasn’t only powerful, but also cleverly designed to match the seasonal rain of the Norwegian fjords.
One of the first factors to influence the design of our waterproof gear is where the water actually comes from. As you walk or run, rain usually hits your front and some areas are less affected than others – like under your arms or the back of your legs. These are good spots to place additional openings for ventilation. So, instead of just waterproofing different parts of one piece in the same way, our engineers equip each apparel piece or shoe with the right features in the right areas.
Talking about shoes…
When it comes to footwear, you need all-round waterproofing. Our feet aren’t only exposed to moisture from above, but also from below. That’s why we equip all of our waterproof shoes with a 360° membrane that wraps around your feet up to the ankle. That, in combination with a DWR-treatment on the shoe’s surface and laces, enables lasting adventures in any condition.
With dry bodies and feet, we were able to fully shift our focus to the nature around us. And there was plenty to feel and see – from breathtaking fjord views to technical yet accessible trails. But we aren’t done lifting the curtain on the details behind waterproof gear. Let’s keep moving. Next up: waterproofing constructions.
3. Constructed to counter rainfall
We have covered materials and the design that makes waterproof gear waterproof. But there’s even more to it than these two factors. Imagine the most amazing waterproof materials in a cutting-edge design and now take a needle and put holes in it. What sounds irresponsible is actually what has to happen in order to sew together cuts of material to create a jacket, a pair of pants or shoes. The end result of that process is all too common on every piece of clothing in your wardrobe: a seam.
These seams need to be just as waterproof as the rest of the piece. Otherwise, all those previously mentioned efforts to keep water out would be pointless. To counter water seeping through the holes into the garment, all seams must be sealed with waterproof tape from the inside. And to get a step on wear and tear, the seam placement needs to be well thought-out.
Outdoor gear is commonly used with backpacks or vests for additional storage. But traditional seams sit along your shoulders. Adding the pressure of backpack straps along that seam wouldn’t only result in a compromise on comfort, but also on the longevity of your waterproof gear. With that in mind, you might not find the seams of our gear in the usual places, but where they fit best to achieve both comfort and lasting waterproof comfort.
One final thing to keep in mind is how you get in and out of your waterproof gear. Or how you create additional ventilation. The answer in both of these cases are zippers. And in the spirit of waterproofing gear down to the last detail, they must do their part to keep the elements out, too. You could achieve that with regular zippers, sealed with a water repellent overlay. But this might not be the ideal solution.
For starters, this would require more materials, which means more weight. In addition, despite the name, even sealed zippers don’t guarantee total waterproofing during really wild runs or hikes. Instead, we use waterproof zippers to avoid this issue entirely. These are the same as regular zippers, but manufactured to be waterproof without additional sealing.
Phew. What a journey, right? From our hotel base through thick green forest terrain before taking a curious detour through the materials, designs and constructions. All this movement, fresh air and most of all newfound knowledge has us reeling for some well-deserved downtime.
Back in the cozy comfort of our warm rooms, we switch back to pause mode in our less waterproof yet highly-comfortable downtime apparel – recharging for new adventures in even wetter conditions. And who’s to say we won’t even get into the water for an uber-refreshing experience? After all, the fjords around Alesund offer a plethora of natural beauty – and even more water.