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The North Face’s FUTURELIGHT is Changing The Game

The North Face just solved the waterproof/breathable problem.

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It’s a bright, cold morning in Aspen, Colorado, and Scott Mellin, a bigwig at The North Face (TNF), and I have just summited 12,392-foot Highlands Peak. The nearly 800-vertical-foot bootpack from the lift leads to Aspen Highlands’s premier ski terrain, the massive bowl below us. I’m normally sweaty upon arrival, but this time is different—because of something called FutureLight, a new waterproof/breathable technology developed by TNF.

Mellin, the Global GM of TNF’s Mountain Sports division, and team athlete Nate Rowland had tested early FutureLight prototypes at this same spot almost a year ago, and after five bowl laps that day, “I knew we had solved the problem of breathability,” says Mellin. That’s a lofty claim, right? But I think they’re on to something.

Fundamentally, all waterproof/breathable membranes work the same way: Microscopic “pores” in a membrane are so small that rain droplets cannot penetrate it, yet large enough to allow sweat vapor to escape. Most membranes are created by extruding polymer into a thin film. FutureLight, meanwhile, uses a process called nanospinning, in which a polymer is sprayed through thousands of tiny nozzles to produce a highly porous mesh of “nanoholes” that are air permeable but still deflect precipitation. A few other nanospun membranes exist, notably Polartec’s NeoShell and Ascent Shell from Outdoor Research. Stats from third-party testing, however (which TNF commissioned), reveal that none breathe as well as FutureLight.

“Feel this,” Mellin says as he hands me a FutureLight bib and shell to test during our day in the mountains. It’s incredibly supple—no crinkling or stiffness—and feels radically new. That soft hand and its four-way stretch are welcome byproducts of the new membrane. The mesh is so delicate that it required new face and backer fabrics, and TNF developed those entirely of recycled materials. A new lamination process came next, followed by a PFC-free DWR treatment that retains 80 percent of its effectiveness after 80 washings.

It was a huge effort, especially given that for 40 years, TNF has had a cozy relationship with the king of technical textiles, Gore-Tex. So why do it?

In February 2017, just after Mellin joined TNF, he was climbing Mt. Sneffels, a 14er in southern Colorado, with team athlete Andres Marin. “Wouldn’t it be awesome if we could keep our shells on all day?” mused Marin. Though it’s a thought we’ve all had, including Mellin himself, that comment resonated more deeply with him that day.

“The weather was inconsistent, with snow off and on, and the volume of transitions we made [with apparel] really slowed us down,” Mellin explains. “Plus, there was the risk created by [terrain] exposure every time we stopped.” So, Mellin asked the brand’s material science and sourcing teams to conceive a membrane so breathable that you wouldn’t have to fidget with layers over the course of an active day outside.

“I’m at the service of our athletes,” Mellin says. “And that fundamentally benefits every consumer.”

The North Face A-Cad Jacket
FutureLight at Outdoor Retailer 2019The North Face

Does it work? TNF athletes like Jim Morrison and Hilaree Nelson, who climbed and skied Himalayan peaks in FutureLight, think so. Third-party testers, including Underwriters Laboratories, which assesses waterproofing for firefighting gear, gave the product exceptional marks. Jeremy Dakan, co-owner of Pine Needle Mountaineering in Durango, Colorado, who’s tested samples, says, “I wouldn’t bat an eye to tour in this. It’s a game-changer.”

After my day in Highland Bowl, I concur. I didn’t feel sweaty after our steep hike. When Mellin loaned me an even lighter kit for a backcountry trip several days later, it was the first time in ages that I arrived at a hut without immediately needing to change my baselayers.

For Fall 2019, TNF will offer FutureLight in outerwear, gloves and mittens, and even single-wall tents. Going forward, all waterproof/breathable apparel in the company’s Mountain Sports line will use FutureLight or, on the price point end, their proprietary DryVent. TNF’s lifestyle apparel and accessories will still use Gore-Tex, though FutureLight will eventually trickle down.

“If you think about the evolution of jacket technology,” says Mellin, “we started with fur, then boiled wool, then plastic, then Gore-Tex, and now we have FutureLight. It’s not only a better product, but it’s also the next revolution in garment technology.”

Mellin can’t wait to see how FutureLight is received in the marketplace. “I’ve done a lot of fun things in my life,” he says, “and this is by far the coolest.”

Editor’s Note: This story originally ran in the inaugural issue of The Voice from our sister publication SNEWS for the 2019 Outdoor Retailer Snow Show. You can request your free, full copy of The Voice here.