As a backpacker I have to admit that I have never really ‘got’ softshell jackets, I have never seen the attraction of them. For nearly two decades the tried and tested baselayer, microfleece and waterproof / or windproof system has served me well. For when backpacking, clothing needs careful thought into how one item compliments another. For example if it is cold I need to be able to wear everything that I am carrying, adaptability is key. I have therefore approached this review from a backpackers perspective.
The North Face Men’s Apex Elixir Jacket was supplied for testing by Webtogs, for transparency I get to keep items provided by them unless stated otherwise.
The jacket came in a rather fetching red / charcoal combo. The medium size fits me well, relaxed without being baggy, the Apex material being very stretchy. The North Face describe this material as their stretchiest and most breathable soft shell fabric and say that it is ideal for high-output aerobic activities in cold, dry climates. The fabric is finished with DWR to enable it to shed water. My medium size weighs in at 434 grammes on my kitchen scales.
The jacket is relatively short, sitting just above my backside. The arms are a good length and don’t ride up when reaching upwards. I really like the way the cuffs can be adjusted, velcro with a slightly rubbery tab. Much more preferable to elasticated cuffs.
The collar has a nice soft fleecy lining which although comfortable against the skin means that the collar does not stretch. I have to admit that I found it a bit too tight and restrictive when fully zipped up. I think that the best thing about this jacket is the pockets, they are large and sit above a pack hipbelt making them accessible. Each one is plenty big enough to fit a large laminated map in, a huge bonus for me on the hill. The inside is a soft mesh which is comfortable on the hands and which also serves as a good vent. The main zip is a standard ykk which for some reason zips up the wrong way round, as in female garments. This throws me each time I put it on! Finally the hem drawcord is tucked away nicely and is easy to use.
As you can see from the photo below the material really does have a great deal of stretch to it, with my hands resting in the well designed pockets.
So all in all a good jacket when standing around and fiddling with it at home, however conditions in my house are very different to that on the hills. How did it get on?
I took the jacket out to the hills on four separate occasions, and as much as I wanted to like it and enjoy wearing it I have to admit that I did not. The weather conditions that I encountered varied considerably considering it was only worn in July and August. I experienced warm and sunny, cold and dry, and cool damp windy weather. For backpacking in summer I usually wear a smartwool long-sleeved base layer with a pertex wind shirt over the top if there is a breeze. A lightweight microfleece at hand if the weather gets cool.
After a warm but breezy first day on the hills where the jacket kept me comfortable, the evening turned much cooler. I was soon shivering as the Elixir provided me with virtually no insulation. I had my microfleece at hand but underneath the jacket it felt bulky and uncomfortable due to the jackets fit. A day in the Moelwyns provided me with what could possible be called ‘typical’ British mountain weather. Warm and humid in the valleys and cool, damp and breezy on the summits. On the climb up into the hills I found I overheated too much, even with the pockets fully opened. I had to remove it and pull on my lightweight pertex windshirt, sort of defeating the object. On the cool windy summits I put the Elixir back on, it blocked the wind but I felt cold when stopping. On a positive note it did handle the damp claggy air well, moisture beading up on its surface.
For backpacking I feel that at the end of the day it is an over engineered, heavy and expensive wind shirt. It is well made and looks good but I feel that it is much better suited to other activities. A rock climbing friend thought that it would be ideal for a day on the crags. Its excellent stretch and durable fabric being suited for climbing. As a windshirt for high activity in cold and dry weather it may well be a winner. But for backpacking in the damp, changeable British hills it is less than ideal.