Ultralight Shell Jacket
Black Diamond Distance Wind Shell
$140, 3.5 oz. (men’s medium)
Sizes: men’s S-XL, women’s XS-XL
Obvious first impression: The Black Diamond Distance Wind Shell passes the test of being so light that there’s no reason to not carry it. But a shell this packable becomes truly invaluable when you can use it in a variety of situations, and the more I wore it over the past several months, the more I liked it and threw it on my body or in my pack. Those outings ranged widely, including running the Grand Canyon 42 miles rim to rim to rim in one day in early October, a five-day June trek through Spain’s Picos de Europa Mountains, a September weekend of rock climbing in cool temps and gusty wind at Idaho’s City of Rocks, an October hike on a windy ridge in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, autumn trail runs from Boise to the Boston area, and mountain biking through a sudden downpour.
Perhaps best of all, this shell’s construction not only ensures superior durability, but it may be the greenest ultralight shell on the market.
In circumstances where you’d expect an ultralight shell to demonstrate its value, this one shined—fending off cool wind while rock climbing at the City of Rocks, and on a nearly 6,000-foot descent through chilly gusts and fog on our last day of trekking through the Picos de Europa.
Like most non-laminate, ultralight shells, the fabric doesn’t have the degree of weather protection or breathability of a heavier, two- or three-layer rain jacket: The Distance Wind Shell gets overwhelmed by sustained rain, and certainly isn’t designed for extreme conditions. But extreme testing still offers a yardstick, and the Distance Wind Shell’s performance surprised me at times.
I pulled it on when a thunderstorm interrupted a September mountain bike ride, pouring cold rain onto us as we pedaled toward home. Although the fabric got soaked on the exterior and clung wet to my bare arms under the sleeves, I got home and discovered that my T-shirt was dry underneath the shell—meaning much less loss of body heat.
Similar to many shells in its weight class, I found it somewhat slow to move moisture, although it breathes well enough to dry out a damp base layer when my exertion level decreased, such as on a long descent in the White Mountains, when my light, wool T-shirt that was wet with sweat dried out completely; that ability to let layers underneath dry out makes a big difference in your comfort on longer outings. On a November trail run in temps in the 40s and a cool breeze, I didn’t overheat in the shell. But it was pushed to its breathability limit when I wore it to stave off cool air and a breeze on a 13-mile trail run in my local foothills: The jacket quickly got quite damp inside when I perspired heavily.
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The Distance Wind Shell stuffs easily into its one zippered chest pocket, packing down to smaller than a baseball, and has a carabiner loop for clipping to a climbing harness. It has a basic, utilitarian feature set: elasticized cuffs, an adjustable hem, and an adjustable hood that fits under a climbing helmet.
The best news, though, may be the technology behind it.
Traditional DWR (durable, water-resistant) fabric treatments are applied to the fabric’s surface and eventually get worn off, requiring a chemical spray or wash-in treatment, or the heat of a dryer cycle, to revive their water resistance.
Need a full-on rain shell? See my picks for “The 7 Best Rain Jackets For Hiking and Backpacking.”
But Green Theme International’s new Breathable Water Protection tech employs a PFC-free, water-repellent finish that gets permanently hyper-fused to the fabric fibers. BD says it will never need a chemical spray or wash-in treatment (polluting water) or a dryer cycle (using electricity) to revive it. Applying the water resistance directly to fibers, instead of coating both the fibers and the spaces between them, also improves breathability through the spaces between fibers. BD says this is achieved without using any palm oil or water in the process.
While tighter environmental regulations have resulted in poorer performance in PFC-containing DWRs, GTI steps in with better and greener technology. BD reports that it is phasing out PFCs from the brand’s apparel line, and expects to accomplish that by 2020.
Black Diamond Distance Wind Shell
With respectable breathability and protection from light rain, plus an adjustable if minimalist hood, all in a jacket that’s under four ounces and packs down smaller than a baseball, the Black Diamond Distance Wind Shell has emerged as one of the most versatile—and possibly the greenest—ultralight wind shells out there today.
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See my review of “The Best Ultralight Hiking and Running Jackets” and all of my reviews of ultralight wind shells, ultralight rain jackets, trail-running gear, hiking apparel, and outdoor apparel at The Big Outside.
NOTE: I tested gear for Backpacker Magazine for 20 years. At The Big Outside, I review only what I consider the best outdoor gear and apparel. See my Gear Reviews page at The Big Outside for categorized menus of all of my reviews and my expert buying tips.