The North Face's Futurelight Fabric Finally Makes Raincoats Feel Less Like a Plastic Bag

I’m never going to suit up in a highly-engineered spacesuit that NASA spent millions of dollars developing, but heading out into a thunderstorm in a jacket made from The North Face’s new Futurelight material genuinely made me feel like I was wearing an engineering marvel. It’s a waterproof fabric that feels nothing like the rubbery materials typically used to make raincoats. It’s light, breathable, comfortable, and promises to keep you dry both inside and out.

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First revealed earlier this year at CES 2019 in Las Vegas, Futurelight is The North Face’s latest attempt to create the perfect outdoor garment: one that keeps the elements like wind and water at bay without trapping you inside an uncomfortable cocoon of body heat and sweat. It seems like an odd innovation to reveal at a trade show that focuses on consumer electronics like TVs and bendable phones, but to create its Futurelight fabric The North Face says it developed a new manufacturing process it calls nanospinning. It involves extruding ultra-thin fibers to create large sheets of a complicated web-like structure.

The process sounds about as technical as what NASA has to go through to make suits that can survive the rigors of space travel, but the results are a fabric perforated with millions of nano-scale holes that allow air molecules to escape while preventing water molecules from getting in. On paper, it sounds impressive, but there are a lot of companies making outdoor gear that promise the same thing. I’ll admit to rolling my eyes when I first read The North Face’s claims almost a year ago (it’s a promise I’ve seen before) but the moment I actually tried on a Futurelight jacket at CES I realized the company had actually created something worthy of the hype.

Several years ago, Columbia revealed its OutDry Extreme technology which took a similar approach to The North Face’s Futurelight. It featured a waterproof fabric with microscopic pores that kept larger water drops out while allowing moist warm air to escape. That outer layer was paired with a nylon lining that wicked moisture away from the wearer’s body, promising they wouldn’t overheat.

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The North Face Freethinker Futurelight jacket (left) versus the Columbia OutDry Extreme jacket (right). The Columbia has a glossier and more rubbery appearance and doesn’t hang as naturally while wearing it.
Photo: Andrew Liszewski (Gizmodo)

It worked great during our brief hands-on, but despite using just two thin layers of fabric (the industry standard Gore-Tex relies on three) Columbia’s OutDry Extreme still felt like you were suiting up in a rubber drybag. It kept you dry, as promised, but it was the kind of jacket you’d only want to wear when it was actually pouring down rain, and would quickly swap with something more comfortable when the conditions got dry again.

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The North Face’s Futurelight is the exact opposite of that. Like Gore-Tex, it relies on a three-layer fabric sandwich, with the waterproof membrane sandwiched between a tear-resistant outer layer and a softer inner core, but the Steep Series jacket we tested feels nothing like a suffocating coat made of plastic or rubber. It’s soft to the touch and extremely flexible like a thin windbreaker and feels like any other light jacket you’d throw on in the Fall. I’ve been wearing it for the past couple of weeks as the thermometer has finally started to drop, but not only when it rains. It’s as comfortable as all the other lightweight jackets in my closet, but with the added benefit of being able to shrug off a downpour.

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The past week has not only been rainy here but also unseasonably warm and humid. It’s the kind of weather that makes you think twice about throwing on a raincoat when you head outside because while it might protect you from the downpour, you know it won’t take long to find yourself soaked in sweat underneath. But even after spending an hour walking in the pouring rain, I was surprised to find I was still completely comfortable, and more importantly, completely dry, underneath the Futurelight jacket.

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That being said, despite being soft and flexible, no one is going to mistake the Futurelight material for an ultra-breathable fabric like cotton. It still feels synthetic, and can still trap heat underneath depending on the weather, and your level of physical exercise. Not realizing it was in the high 70s one night I threw on a sweater and the Futurelight jacket before heading out for a walk in the rain, and after about half an hour at a brisk pace, I needed to open up all of the coat’s zippered venting to stay cool. You’ll still need to dress appropriately for the conditions and your activities, but the Futurelight material means that you won’t necessarily have to pack multiple jackets to be adequately prepared for what Mother Nature throws at you.

So, a waterproof fabric that makes raincoats feel nothing like raincoats, and one that’s engineered so that it can be incorporated into a wide range of garments, whether they’re for a quick morning run, or an Everest summit attempt—there has to be a catch, right? There’s a good reason you might not want all your clothes made of Futurelight: the price. Coats featuring the new material start at $450 for a lightweight women’s running jacket (and go all the way up to $750), $400 for waterproof pants, and $165 for mittens that promise to keep your hands warm and dry. It will be a few years before The North Face ramps up production on the Futurelight material with enough output to bring the cost down and make it available on the company’s more affordable offerings. Until then, unless the forecast for your trek up Everest next week calls for horribly wet conditions, you might just want to stick with a $10 umbrella the next time you have to run out in the rain to get milk.

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Correction, October 8, 10:34 a.m.: A representative from The North Face has reached out to clarify that the least expensive pieces featuring the Futurelight fabric are the $280 Flight Jackets which are designed specifically for running.

README

  • One of the rare times when a new product lives up to the hype. The North Face has succeeded in making a waterproof fabric that doesn’t feel like wearing a plastic bag.
  • The Futurelight material can be incorporated into a wide variety of garments, from light jackets, to warm parkas, to gloves.
  • Makes your raincoat feel like something you’ll still want to wear when it stops raining.
  • Very expensive at launch, expect to pay over $500 for a jacket that will adequately protect and keep you warm on a weekend in the woods.
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