Over the last two month I’ve been testing a new fabric. Again, it’s an innovative fabric, and again brought by Helly Hansen. I’ve taken it ski touring, climbing, on alpinism, ice climbing, skiing in the resort and hiking. I have worn it in the Pyrenees, Picos de Europa, in the Norwegian arctic and ranging from proper winter days to proper sticky warm days. Well, Lifaloft: let’s see what it’s all about.
One of the best seller fabrics by Helly Hansen and strongly appreciated by the public is their Lifa fabric, the one they use for making their baselayer range. I know what I’m talking about as In my norwegian summer, fall in northern Spain and Pyrenean winter, I’ve been putting the lifa range and all its variations to test.
Summing up, the Lifa fabric has an achieved ratio of heat performance and breathability coming at a great weight. Moreover, can go for a long run before starting to absorb moist, and when it does, it doesn’t really get soaked while you keep your layering strategy a bit on point. Such characteristics make it a great options for long activities involving endurance in the cold.
Where do I want to come up with this? Well, there is a tendency lately with manufacturers from stepping aside the typical three layer strategy and invest in developing hybrid solutions or even seeking completely new base proposals. Lifaloft is a a proposal by Helly Hansen that seeks combining the lifa fabric with primaloft; hence the name. Bringing in the one side the heat generating power of primaloft with the lightness and breathability of the Lifa for creating a sort of hybrid in between a base layer and an insulation layer.
In their inner studies they have achieved 20% higher ratio of insulation/weight from their previous fabric, positioning the Lifaloft as a legit candidate in the category of insulating layers at a super reduced weight. This category is now dominated by the Mountain Hardwear ghost whisperer, the Patagonia micro puff and the Rab microlight summit.
When we choose a layer, the fabric should not be all. We must consider the construction and the technical details of the layer according to the activities that we have in mind for the fabric. This reasoning made my job interesting this time. Pretty much, I got the prototype and not much more information. I don’t have a product description, neither much engineering details; in fact my mission is to test it to it’s limit and figure out where it worked for me, where it didn’t, what I would change according to different situations and how it can fit on the Helly Hansen range. Fancy, that’s the kind of job I like, destroying fabrics.
I’m 1.80cm high, quite broad shoulders, long arms and I’m using the size M, the one I normally use for Helly Hansen. Here we have to work on the fit. The prototype is too square, there is too much loose fabric towards the sides. A more athletic fit is needed, in the lines of the Odin Veor jacket, or even more aggressive, considering that in this category weight and compressibility is key.
When I wear the Lifaloft generally I wear under it a technical t-shirt or a light long sleeve baselayer. If I know the weather should be full winter, the Lifaloft is not my first option. However, every time I’ve been tricked and ended up with it on days with constant temperatures around minus five degrees, it has worked surprisingly well as a mid layer, even on days on the ski resort. Yes, that means that I did not froze on the lifts.
When I use it as the shell it works really well blocking the wind, even cold winds. It has been a good ally on those spring ski touring days that I want to have a t-shirt or light base layer under as I know it will be warm towards mid day, but at the same time I know it’s going to be cold on the first hours, north faces and ridges, so I want to roll with a light insulating layer and be protected from the wind. Moreover, using the lifaloft as windbreaker and midlayer I can still carry a hardshell, so I don’t need to make a bet with variable weather.
On the last trip to arctic Norway I took the Lifaloft and the Odin Veor jacket and I realised they worked very well together. Quite many days we had proper winter conditions, so while crossing the valleys and climbing till two thirds of the mountains I was going with a baselayer and the lifaloft. Then cold winds started to raise, so I was putting the Hardshell on, and finally as soon as we reached the summit and temperatures dropped significantly, I would get the Odin Veor over everything. In that case I would not loose hit while grouping together, make photos, do the transitions to ski mode, pak everything, figure out the strategy for the descent and finally ski down.
THINGS TO IMPROVE:
I miss a hoodie big times. I like my mid layers to have one, even though when I may not need them, they still protect your neck area. In case of going for a hoodie, it has to be a technical hoodie that can take an alpinism helmet, that fits accurately and that does not take much bulk when not in use, otherwise it’s better to not have a hoodie. It’s true that if you combine the Lifaloft with the Odin Veor jacket and a hardshell as I commented before, then everything would line better without a third hoodie.
When skiing on the resort or doing light hiking this construction does the job, but on demanding ski touring days, alpinism or climbing missions I would definitely go for a stretchy side panel similar to the one used on the Odin Veor jacket. However, I would bet for a different fabric, something thinner and more breathable. That would surely compromise the windshield ability of the layer but on the other hand we would improve the performance on athletic and technical activities. One last thing I would suggest is to put a panel resistant to abrasion under the wrists so it doesn’t get damaged while climbing and scrambling.
Summing up, I have been positively surprised by the fabric and I believe there is a big potential behind the Lifaloft, especially coming up with a technical proposal on the super reduced weight thermal insulation category. I also find positive that the more brands and the more concepts that scratch a place in that category brings more diversity. The more and more we are going to start realising that not everything is which puffy jacket is lighter but as well we will start considering things as which fabric works better against the wind, the rain, better for climbing, skiing…. Even though I’ve been happy with this prototype I still believe Helly Hansen should not just get confident and must still put a lot of work here to come up with something worth the five stars.