A small company from Connecticut is producing innovative cold weather products in a big way. All products are based on vapor barrier (VB) technology, in which a vapor-impermeable (and waterproof) membrane is placed between the surface of the skin and the clothing’s insulation. RBH Designs’ inaugural product line focuses on insulated VB handwear and footwear.
We received a handful of samples from RBH, including heavily insulated (Polarguard 3D) expedition mountaineering mitts with a VB lining, fleece-insulated “trigger mitts” (i.e., like mittens but with a detached index finger) with a VB lining, VB-lined fleece socks, and VB sock liners.
We had the privilege of testing RBH’s flagship product, the Polarguard 3D-insulated Vapor Mitts (Figure 1). During an Arctic cold front that passed through Montana this winter, we were pleased to test the mitts during a front-porch bivouac at 27 °F — below zero. I donned an expedition down jacket, slid into a winter-strength down sleeping bag, and cinched it up around my armpits so that my hands and arms would remain free. I slept on a closed cell foam pad and sealed myself up in a Pertex Endurance bivy sack. Thus, the only insulation between the skin of my fingers and hands and the brisk outside air was that provided by the Vapor Mitts. I lasted about six hours in the cold before the ice on my face mask began to interfere with my breathing, so I called it a night. However, the Vapor Mitts kept my fingers comfortable and they never went numb or even felt cold.
Figure 1. Vapor Mitts
In contrast, I completed the same test in similar temperatures on the following night using the industry gold standard expedition mitt–the Outdoor Research Pro Modular Mitt with its double pile liners. I lasted about two hours before my fingers became numb, so this comparison was hardly a contest. However, instead of calling it quits, I warmed up my fingers and returned outside with RBH’s Vapor Triggs (Figure 2) with their Vapr-Thrm fleece liners. These gloves, although not as warm as the Polarguard-insulated model, were able to get me by for four more hours before I had to withdraw my hands into my sleeping bag, as my index fingers were beginning to get cold. Thus, it appears that both RBH’s Polarguard 3D and fleece Vapr-Thrm liners provide serious protection from the cold. Because the Vapor Triggs were a bit thinner than the Polarguard-insulated mitts, they are more appropriate for activities requiring more hand mobility, like skiing or climbing. In fact, the mitts are so bulky, that they serve little purpose other than as emergency bivouac gear, unless one enjoys the feeling of slogging up the side of a very, very tall mountain on a very, very cold day with a piolet in hand.
Figure 2. Fleece Vapr-Thrm insulated Trigger Mitts (“Vapor Triggs”) and liner
While our biggest compliment for the Vapor Mitts and Triggs is the warmth and weight of the liners (e.g., 6 oz for the Polarguard 3D mitt liner pair), our biggest complaint is the weight of the shells (e.g., 6.5 oz for the mitt shell). Granted, this handwear is designed for expedition use, but for the weekend warrior interested in keeping his digits and not necessarily needing supreme durability, a much lighter shell could be offered. In addition, not everyone needs a mitt that requires so much insulation, and thinner versions of Polarguard-insulated mitts (or for that matter, down-insulated mitts!) with ultralight shells would be a fantastic alternative for the lightweight winter traveler. The bottom line is this: RBH has developed a VB technology that seems to be very functional, and in stark contrast to VB technologies of the past–very comfortable. The possibilities for market development are endless.
We used RBH’s fleece Vapr-Thrm socks (advertised as a “boot liner,” 5.0 oz men’s size 9, Figure 3) all winter long while climbing, snowshoeing, and skiing in temperatures down to -15 °F. They outperformed any combination of fleece or pile sock technology we’ve ever tried, and not once did our feet get dangerously cold, despite the fact that nearly all of our activity was performed in single leather mountaineering boots that were only lightly insulated (Scarpa Freneys).
Figure 3. Fleece Vapr-Thrm Socks
The only thing we missed with the RBH fleece socks vs. other wool and fleece socks we use is the lack of stretch in the fleece material. As such, it becomes very important to “nail the fit,” so to speak, as the seams in the socks are substantial enough to cause problems and binding if the fit is incorrect. Our socks fit perfectly, and we hardly noticed the seams.
We’ve also been experimenting with RBH’s VB sock liners (1.2 oz men’s size 9, Figure 4) which are manufactured from a 4-way stretch vapor barrier that has a wicking lining. We found these to be ideal when worn in combination with the RBH fleece Vapr-Thrm socks, as they assisted in both moisture dispersal and comfort. In addition, we wore the sock liners in milder conditions (10 °F to 35 °F) in combination with either traditiional wool socks or waterproof-breathable socks (Seal Skinz) and found them to be very effective at retaining warmth. I think RBH’s VB liner material is tops on the market, and very comfortable next to skin. I sincerely hope that they will explore a product line based on this technology. For the lightweight backcountry traveler venturing into colder climes, VB shirts, pants, glove, and sock liners using RBH’s technology would be a comfortable, lightweight addition to the pack.
Figure 4. Vapor Barrier Sock Liners
Note: All of our tests with RBH socks and sock liners were performed with the RBH system on one foot, and a traditional wool sock system on the other.