The North Face launched FUTURELIGHT in January 2019. It's the most advanced breathable and waterproof technology for outdoor clothing worldwide. A textile that will turn the current market for waterproof and breathable fabrics upside down. A hefty claim. But is it really the future or is FUTURELIGHT just a marketing hype? During my first meeting at the ISPO I am healthily critical. I have been around for a while and have seen a lot of 'innovations' come by. I'm curious. There are some jackets in the booth and an ingenious arrangement in which they show how FUTURELIGHT keeps the water out and lets the air out.
To raise the bar of breathable and waterproof textiles, The North Face borrowed a production process that was developed by science earlier this century and is already used in electronics and the medical world: nanospinning. In the nanospinning process, a polyurethane solution is sprayed from over 200,000 nozzles onto a surface. The solution is then collected in a random manner to turn it into a membrane. This material is then used to create a breathable and waterproof film that is applied to the front and back of the garments. This way you create a nano fiber that is small enough to allow air to flow through the membrane but still keep water out. Or in plain English: lots of little holes that allow the textile to breathe and leave water out.
According to The North Face, an additional advantage of this production process is adaptability. With the help of nanospinning the weight, the stretch, the breathability and even the durability can be adjusted. “For the past couple decades, we have worn apparel we need to adapt to. Now, we have apparel that adapts to us.” That is not just a claim.
What you do not see on the above ISPO photos is how light and thin the material is. Where GoreTex and other hardshell jackets are often somewhat stiff, FUTURELIGHT is wonderfully soft. During the ISPO I put on a jacket and I am a bit shocked by it. It feels incredibly light and soft, but it also feels vulnerable. Would I dare to spend hundreds of euros for this?
In the conversation I then have, there is some confusion about durability and sustainability. According to The North Face, this is the most sustainable textile ever used by The North Face. It consists of 90% recycled material and has a Non PFC DWR treatment. Or a water-resistant coating that is a lot less bad for humans, animals and its environment (read more about the risks of PFC DWR). Recycled and fewer chemicals sounds good, of course, but if that means that a jacket lasts substantially less, production can be more sustainable, but buying a new jacket every year is certainly not. Hence the confusion about durability and sustainability.
In the spring of 2019 I receive a phone call asking if I want to come and test FUTURELIGHT in an extreme environment. Destination: Svalbard. In May when the day lasts almost 24 hours with a boat around the island, moor it off the coast, go ashore with a small rubber boat, hike up and ride down. Halfway through May I pack my winter gear for the last time. Before departure I compensate the CO2 emissions of my flight from Amsterdam via Oslo to Longyearbyen by transferring some money to trees for all.
On departure the weather is pretty good in large parts of Europe, but when landing in Svalbard it becomes clear what we are dealing with. An active storm is located south of Svalbard and will determine the weather in the coming days. Big waves at sea, wet and later also cold snow, from mild to very cold, from none to a strong wind, from cloudy to plenty of sun. I would say ideal for testing, but a challenge for the guides and also for us.
During the trip I get a FUTURELIGHT test set in yellow-black. I look a bit like Big Bird. All those days I wear a Summit L5 jacket and a Summit L5 LT pants. The Summit Series are slightly thinner, but in addition there are also the Steep Series made of a somewhat thicker and heavier FUTURELIGHT version. I did not test this, but some other people did.
I have already had the opportunity to test a lot and dare to state that this is the best thing I've worn so far in such conditions.
I am not going to say that FUTURELIGHT is perfect, but it is impressive. I deliberately kept my shell on and kept the zipper of the jacket and chest pocket closed. Also with FUTURELIGHT moisture will appear on the screen of your iPhone, but the difference is huge and immediately visible. In advertisements and conversations about 'breathable and waterproof', it is mostly about the water column and the amount of air that the textile lets through. They are then expressed in numbers and you have to get a sense of what this means. In practice, it often turns out differently than I thought. The lack of breathability in particular is killing. You may have a phenomenal water column, but on a wet day you get wet with your own sweat. I have already had the opportunity to test a lot and dare to state that this is the best thing I have worn so far in such conditions.
It is brave what The North Face is doing. Investing millions, releasing the old and trusted GoreTex and stepping out of the existing textile chain is one, but also presenting a product for a target group that values sustainability and reliability in the most extreme circumstances is two. I suspect that if you feel FUTURELIGHT in your hands for the first time and then compare it to a conventional hardshell, you are more likely to choose the latter. It feels more familiar and gives you more 'weight of jacket' for your money. But remember that first time you ignored the all-you-can-eat restaurant and fast food for that dinner at that fantastic restaurant. It takes some getting used to, especially when there's less food on your plate, but the taste sensation that followed was intense and even more nutritious.
Lighter, better breathable, more durable and waterproof. But you'll probably still sweat. Even with its impressive specifications, FUTURELIGHT cannot expel all sweat from the skin during extreme exertion. But it is clear to me that TNF has now raised the bar considerably. At the moment there is nothing comparable on the market and they see it as a step towards better. It is the first fulfillment of their dream to make a jacket that you never have to take off. And it must be said: they succeeded.
FUTURELIGHT becomes available in five different weights of the membrane. This allows them to "adjust" the breathability of a jacket (or glove or tent) to the goal. For example, the Steep Series is many times thicker than Flight Series. 90% of the production consists of the reuse of existing materials, they add a PFC-free DWR treatment to make the water run away from the textile more easily. Textiles with a slightly white color and 85% air. According to The North Face, FUTURELIGHT has a moisture transmission speed (MVTR) of 75,000 g/m²/day. For comparison: the highly breathable eVent material has a maximum MVTR of 30,000 g/m²/day. But what is really amazing is how well the material breathes. FUTURELIGHT also provides an air flow of 1.5 ft³/minute. For comparison, the most breathable fabric has a permeability of 0.2 ft³/min, and many waterproof breathable fabrics are even lower, in the range of 0.07 to 0.09 ft³/min. And that is precisely where FUTURELIGHT stands out: a textile that can still breathe on humid days.
The first FUTURELIGHT jackets and pants are now in the store. If you go freeriding and touring a lot, take a good look at all the jackets and pants from the Steep Series. If you want something lighter then the L5 jacket from the Summit Series is definitely recommended and also more than thick enough.
I would not choose the LT jacket and trousers, it was too thin and at high speed things started to flap quite a bit. In addition, I found the L5 pants a bit narrow at the bottom of the leg and a bit tight to fit a ski boot or snowboard boot. But it fits perfectly for a dedicated touring boot. If you buy a set, share your experiences below so that we get a good impression and you do not only have to believe my blue eyes.