When I discuss waterproof-breathable fabrics, a category that was invented and has been defined by GORE-TEX, I admittedly get worked up. In an early draft of yesterday’s post, for example, I called outright its marketing department know-nothings or liars, or both. And in multiple places I have forcefully explained the technological flaws of GORE-TEX and other branded and proprietary waterproof-breathable fabrics.
Why do I ride GORE-TEX so hard? Let me explain:
Because GORE-TEX is not satisfactorily waterproof or breathable
When the name of a product category is an oxymoron, we have reason to be suspicious. Seriously, how can a material prevent the transmission of moisture through it (“waterproof”) while also allowing the transmission of water through it (“breathable”)?
According to some questionable technical standards, GORE-TEX may be waterproof and breathable. But it’s completely disingenuous to describe GORE-TEX with the same adjectives that we use to describe glass and rubber, or my cotton pajama pants and running singlets.
Moreover, the fabric really only meets these technical standards in a lab. In the field, which is the only test that I care about, GORE-TEX and other WP/B fabrics fail, especially with long-term use and in prolonged wet conditions. While wearing them, I have gotten wet from the outside and the inside, via precipitation and perspiration, and sometimes both simultaneously. To understand why, read my best technological explanation.
Because GORE-TEX is the King of Hype ™
Few products are flawless. My 2WD Pontiac Vibe, for example, lacks sufficient power and all-weather performance for Colorado’s mountain roads. But so long as the manufacturer is honest and upfront about the shortcomings and limitations of its products, I’m willing to cut it some slack — at least I knew before I bought. I don’t think Pontiac would ever have claimed that my Vibe was as powerful as its GTO or that the AWD Vibe wouldn’t perform better in snow.
Despite the flaws of its fabrics, for decades GORE-TEX has taken the opposite approach: it is the King of Hype ™. I’ll use the marketing copy of its new Active fabric as an example:
GORE-TEX describes it as being “the most breathable GORE-TEX® products available.” Since the old Active fabric is described as “extremely breathable,” and since the product page features a GORE-TEX-clad mountain runner with the headline “FAST PACE, HIGH INTENSITY,” I can only conclude that the new Active fabric is even more suitable for such applications.
These claims are hilariously exaggerated, to the degree that I think GORE-TEX must set aside money to defend false advertising lawsuits. In the only first-hand report I’ve seen about this fabric, Stephen Regenold, the Founder and Editor-In-Chief of Gear Junkie, shares his experience: “By the end of an hour-long trail run I was soaked with sweat. My base-layer top under the jacket could be wrung out” (italics added).
Okay, so this is just one review, and the conditions were challenging (39 degrees and raining). But I’m sure that other users will have an identical experience. You can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig.
Because other media fail to tell the truth
Too often, a product “review” is simply a regurgitation of a press release, and offers no critical analysis or insights from long-term use. This Gear Patrol post is typical — a review about a waterproof-breathable shell with no indication that it was tested during a rain event. And in this Q&A on Backpacker.com, its long-time gear editor reinforces the fallacy on exactly how GORE-TEX works — the story is less simple and convincing than the fabric having “holes too small to let water in, but large enough to let sweat vapor out.”
If you told me these articles were in Outside or another leading outdoor publication, I’d have no reason to not believe you. I get it, kind of: a pile of gear to test, publishing deadlines, uncooperative conditions, complex technologies, etc. But, still, do your f’ing job.
Personally, I’d rather only publish content in which I’m deeply confident. Thankfully, some other bloggers have a similar approach. For examples, read “When is a hiking rain jacket like a wet suit?” by Philip Werner of SectionHiker, and Dave Chenault’s “Shit that works” series.
Because consumers believe GORE-TEX is a panacea
With a multi-million dollar marketing budget and a relentless, long-term, and aggressive marketing campaign, it’s possible to convince consumers of many things, including falsehoods. In this respect, GORE-TEX has been an undisputed success.
Their cause has been helped by at least two other factors. First, there has never been a strong counter argument, like by another fabric manufacturer with an entirely different solution. Second, consumers want to believe there is a panacea for wet conditions, because being wet when outside is uncomfortable, and sometimes dangerous. GORE-TEX has capitalized on this fear.
Ironically, as a company I think more highly of W. L. Gore’s marketing prowess than I do their fabric technologies. Heck, it even convinced my own wife that she needed to spend $350 on a Patagonia Triolet jacket to keep her safe and comfortable while skiing in Colorado. At least to date, hype has won.