What Is GORE-TEX and Is It Worth It?
Why exactly is there so much hype around GORE-TEX? Read on to find out what this wonder fabric is, its pros and cons, and whether it might be a good fit for you.
As an avid snowboarder and a resident of western Washington State, it should go without saying that I am no stranger to riding in EXTREMELY wet conditions. Living in a place where the difference of two degrees can be the difference between two feet of delightful snow or two inches of drenching rain, you learn a thing or two about GORE-TEX and waterproofing. Interestingly enough, I have found myself at my very coldest and most miserable at positive 30 degrees—not negative 30 degrees. When it is very cold, it is much easier to remain warm and dry with proper under-layering. Once wet, it is extremely difficult or impossible to dry out fully over the course of the day and the importance of a solid waterproof shell becomes obvious.
You cannot talk about waterproofing without GORE-TEX in the conversation, the two have nearly become synonyms within our winter sports community. It is held in high regard, and, of course, I am a big fan. It’s hard not to love the feeling when you’re wearing a new waterproof jacket, and you look down just as the precip starts to pick up and see the moisture just beading right off of that fresh new gore.
I’ll explain what GORE-TEX is, how it's made, and its importance to outdoor recreation, and we’ll take a brief look back at the history and story behind it. And yes, this material does sound like a miracle, but there are both pros and cons for us to consider. I’ll explain waterproof ratings, take a look at alternative waterproof options, and give a few product examples. Ultimately, it's about helping you decide if GORE-TEX is the right choice for you.
GORE-TEX: What It Is ‘n What It Do
GORE-TEX fabric has become the gold standard for waterproofing in the winter sports industries and most of us have become familiar with it, or at the least heard of it. GORE-TEX is essentially nothing more than a membrane, and it is worth us reading and writing about it because of its ability to allow water vapor to pass through it but not actual liquid water. This membrane provides outerwear that will keep us dry out in the elements while allowing for perspiration to ventilate through it. Another key element is that it is a lightweight material that works well for a wide array of garments and uses.
GORE-TEX is, of course, world-renowned for its water repellency and breathability, but what exactly is it? Well, it’s made from heating rods of polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) and stretching them to form expanded polytetrafluoroethylene (ePTFE). Polytetrafluoroethylene is a versatile and high-performance fluoropolymer made up of carbon and fluorine atoms, which is generically referred to as Teflon. Fluoropolymers are a type of plastic with many beneficial properties. This type of plastic is the same material used in non-stick frying pans, but when heated and quickly stretched, it expands about 800%, which forms a microporous structure of about 70% air. That change in composition creates a lightweight material that air can permeate but water cannot.
GORE-TEX membranes are layered, and the microscopic pores allow the water vapour molecule to escape from the inside. GORE-TEX’s outer layer is coated with a Durable Water Repellent referred to as a DWR treatment, which helps prevent the main outer layer from getting wet. With the outer layer dry, the fabric maintains its breathability and allows for the evaporation of sweat, avoiding dampness within the jacket’s liner.
History of GORE-TEX
GORE-TEX fabric was co-invented by Wilber Gore and his son Bob Gore in 1969 and first trademarked in 1976 by W. L. Gore & Associates. Initially created in a moment of frustration, Bob ripped apart the ePTFE, but the massive potential of the material's new form quickly became apparent. Commercial orders for the material began in 1976, and GORE-TEX became the first breathable, waterproof, and windproof fabric on the market.
Before its introduction, the standard rainwear consisted of a two-layer sandwich, the outer layer typically woven nylon or polyester for structure and the inner layer being polyurethane. Polyurethane is waterproof but certainly not breathable, and when GORE-TEX emerged, it allowed for the introduction of much better-performing outdoor gear.
In 1979, Gore-Seam’s tape-sealed protection was introduced, adding another level of waterproofing. Since then, product development and technology have continued advancing, and today there is a wide range of GORE-TEX products, including ski jackets, pants, gloves, boots, and more.
GORE-TEX’s Pros and Cons
At this point, the pros should be pretty apparent: waterproof, windproof, and breathable. Plus, the lesser-known facts are that GORE-TEX requires that every garment made using its fabric has taped seams and that the product it makes up has a lifetime guarantee.
But sadly, there are some less-than-favorable qualities that I feel that I must mention. Probably the most obvious drawback that a consumer will be faced with is when glancing at the price tag. Yes, there are some absolute bomber three-layer GORE-TEX shells and bibs on the market today; however, you can expect to pay handsomely. This combo can easily exceed $1000.
Next, the fabric needs to be clean in order for it to be waterproof. Not to mention, over time, as it gets dirty from environmental factors on the outside or evaporating sweat that escapes from inside, the buildup can drastically reduce the waterproofing’s effectiveness.
Another major drawback is that no matter how hard GORE-TEX may try, it is by no means an environmentally-friendly product. For one, the material is indeed so durable that it will literally take centuries for the fabric to biodegrade. More importantly, plastic-based products and the natural world are not compatible with one another. The pollution of our environment and the threat it poses to living organisms on this planet is something that, as consumers, should be on our minds.
Alternatives to GORE-TEX
As the demand for more sustainable and environmentally friendly products continues to rise, more and more companies are creating viable alternatives to GORE-TEX with significantly fewer negative ecological impacts.
Today plenty of highly waterproof fabrics, made of recycled materials and free of plastics exist. The prices of these alternative options can vary, Quality outerwear maker Fjallraven uses a material called Eco-Shell. It is made using recycled polyester and said to be waterproof, breathable, and sustainable. Airblaster crafts their waterproof pieces from a highly waterproof and breathable material called EcoVortex also made from recycled polyester.
An item's waterproof rating is measured in millimeters, ranging from 0 to 30k. The higher the number, the more protection it will provide. For skiing and snowboarding, you are probably going to want to have at least 5k outerwear, which should be enough for you if you ride in relatively cold, dry conditions and take ample breaks in the lodge. Some of us, however, are going to test the limits of our gear's waterproofing. Spending long days riding hard and hiking in wet snow or powder is going to challenge the most technical outerwear. If the latter situation sounds like you, it is best to aim for at least 20k or 30k; 3-layer GORE-TEX should keep you drier than 2-layer.
Is GORE-TEX Worth It?
Keep in mind that no fabric suitable for riding in regularly is going to be completely waterproof. Active outerwear is water-resistant to different degrees, but all will leak at some point with enough water, time, and pressure.
The question of whether or not GORE-TEX is going to be worth it for you depends on exactly that—you. Where you ride, what type of riding you normally do, and, of course, your budget are all important factors to be considering going into an outerwear purchase. With so many options on the market, it is never an easy decision to drop in on that new kit, so doing a little bit of research may behoove you. It's your best bet to learn what to wear when skiing and snowboarding.
For me, adorning myself in the finest 3-layer, 30k material from head to toe is an obvious 'yes.' I spend enough time outside during the winter in harsh conditions and recognize the value in feeling comfortable out there. I will say that I’m not technically wearing GORE-TEX, yet my Airblaster Beast Bib and Beast 3L Shell Jacket provide comparable protection, and I am extremely happy with their performance.
My general recommendation to all active skiers or boarders is to shoot for at least 10k waterproofing just to be safe, no matter what specific waterproof wear you choose. The more powder you ride, the more hiking through snow, and the longer your days in the mountains are, the more you should think about shooting for a higher rating. If still unsure what is going to be the right option for you, make sure to reach out to a Curated Winter Sports Expert.