Introduction & History
Hiking in Paramo Pajaro jacket and Cascada trousers on a cold windy day.
Paramo (http://www.paramo.co.uk) is a UK clothing company that makes a unique form of waterproof clothing without coatings or membranes. Paramo also makes base layers, mid layers and windproof garments, but it is the waterproof clothing that I am interested with here and that lies at the heart of the range.
Paramo was created by Nick Brown, the chemist behind the Nikwax range of proofing and cleaning products. Back in the 1980s Nick had the idea for a new type of waterproof clothing using water repellency and wicking to keep the wearer dry rather than barrier technology. He thought this system should be far more breathable, comfortable, and versatile than conventional rain wear. His prototypes worked as expected, but no outdoor clothing companies were interested in taking up the idea, so in the early 1990s Nick started Paramo Directional Clothing Systems to make and market the garments.
Paramo is the name of a cold, wet area in the Andes, lying above the timberline and below the snowline where Nick Brown first tested prototype Paramo garments.
The Theory of Directional Waterproof Clothing
Wearing Aspira Smock and Alta trousers on a bitterly cold snowy day in Yellowstone.
Paramo waterproof garments consist of two layers of material: a windproof water repellent polyester microfiber outer and a very thin polyester fleece lining, known as the Nikwax Analogy Pump Liner. The inside of the pump liner, facing the body, is smooth; the outside, facing away from the body, has fine V-shaped ribbing, with the open end of the Vs away from the body. This liner is designed to mimic animal fur and push water away from the body, hence the name directional. It works because water molecules form spheres. As there isn’t enough space to do this at the base of the V ribbing, water moves outwards to where the diameter of the space between the ribs is large enough.
The pump liner on its own isn’t windproof, and water can easily be forced through it by pressure, so an outer layer is needed to deflect wind and break the force of rain. Even so, the two layers combined don’t meet hydrostatic head tests, as there is no solid barrier to the pressure of a column of water. However, garments have been tested on a dummy in the rain room at the Leeds University Textile Department in the UK, where they withstood the equivalent of hours of heavy rain.
To work, both layers need to be non-absorbent, so they are treated with Nikwax water repellency. In fact, the whole of a garment is treated like this, including zippers. This water repellency can be restored when necessary, making the garments very long-lived.
The lack of a coating or membrane means that Paramo garments are quite breathable, far more so than any other rain wear, and can transmit liquid water as well as moisture vapor, so sweat will pass through. Seams don’t need to be taped or sealed, and punctures or tears are not a problem, as there’s no barrier to damage.
Paramo in Use
Alta/Aspira trousers provided good protection for my legs whilst igloo building.
The theory sounds great, but the key question is how well garments work in practice: while carrying a pack in the wilds. When I first heard the idea, I was skeptical, unable to see how a garment without a waterproof barrier could keep me dry. Then Nick Brown sent a set of very basic prototype garments – a zip-fronted hooded jacket and pull-on trousers – and asked me to try them. I took them up into the Cairngorm mountains in typical Scottish cold rainy weather, and was somewhat surprised and very pleased to find the garments kept me dry and were free from condensation. Since then, I have used Paramo garments frequently in cold and wet weather, finding them far superior to anything else, whether hard shell or soft shell. The breathability and comfort is the same as that of soft shells without membranes. Wearing Paramo, I don’t feel like I’m wearing rain wear. Indeed, I have worn Paramo trousers all day, every day for three week long trips, only removing them for sleeping (and I’d sleep in them if I was cold).
Occasionally, I have gotten damp in Paramo garments. They certainly aren’t perfect; just the best answer yet to staying comfortable in cold wet conditions. Once the water repellency starts to fail, the garments start to absorb moisture and can get damp inside. Keeping garments clean and renewing the water repellency whenever it shows signs of fading is necessary, but of course you can’t do this while out on the trail. However, even when wet, I’ve found Paramo garments comfortable. On one long day of skiing in heavy rain (it happens!) in some early Paramo trousers without shaped knees, the fabric stretched tight over my knees with every stride, and I felt cold wet rain against my skin. As soon as the tension was released, I felt dry again, and at no time did the wetness spread or my legs feel generally cold.
If soaked, Paramo dries fast, too. On another ski tour, I forded a river in temperatures of -4 F/-20 C (the river was open because it was fed by thermal springs), and discovered too late that the water was much deeper than I’d thought. I’d unzipped my Paramo trousers and rolled them up to my thighs, but the water washed over them and they were soaked when I climbed out on the far bank. My bare, wet legs felt painfully cold in the freezing air, but once I’d rolled down the trousers and started skiing again, they quickly warmed up, and within half an hour the trousers were dry.
Paramo garments cope with a wide range of conditions. I’ve found them comfortable in dry cold at -31 F/-35 C and in very high humidity at +35 F/1.6 C. However the garments are quite warm due to the two layers, especially the inner one, and the air trapped between them. I find the warmth equivalent to a medium weight base layer and full weight rain wear. As I run hot and like to hike quite fast for fairly long periods at a time, I find the garments too warm in temperatures above 40 F/5 C, unless it’s very wet and windy. I know other hikers who find Paramo comfortable year round.
Because Paramo garments are quite heavy and bulky (the lightest jacket weighs an average of 25 ounces/720 grams, though new lighter ones will appear in 2009 – see Garments below), I don’t use them unless I will wear them virtually all the time. I don’t want them in my pack. This means I only wear Paramo garments in conditions where the temperatures are unlikely to rise above 40 F, which means late October to early May in my home country of the Scottish Highlands. Of course, temperatures can be higher than this even in winter when the sun shines. Then, I unzip all the vents and sometimes wear the jacket next to the skin.
Wearing the Aspira Smock on a cold, snowy day in Yellowstone.
Paramo garments are neither hard shell or soft shell but combine the best properties of both, being waterproof, windproof, highly breathable, and comfortable. I just wish I could wear them in warmer weather. Despite the heavy weight, Paramo waterproof garments can fit into a lightweight system if worn all the time. On trips where I wear the trousers, the only legwear I carry is long underwear, as there is no need for rain or wind pants. With jackets, I leave one warm layer behind due to the extra warmth and don’t pack a windproof top, which I do when using a conventional rain jacket.
Paramo garments don’t need special care on the trail. In fact, they need less care than conventional rain wear, as there’s no need to worry about getting holes in them. Small punctures don’t affect the rain resistance, and can be ignored. To show this, Paramo sent me a jacket that had been damaged in manufacture and had a mass of tiny needle holes in one shoulder. I soon discovered that these holes made no difference to the performance. Larger tears need repairing of course, but this can be done by sewing the edges together or else stitching a patch on. I have damaged garments during trips – the most serious when I brushed against a hot stove in a hut and melted part of the outer pair of trousers, and when a fall while skiing ripped a jacket arm on some jagged ice – and each time a crude makeshift repair (sewing is not my strong point) was adequate until I was home and able to send the garment to Paramo for a proper repair.
Paramo garments should be kept clean if they are to work properly. Dirt impedes breathability and can reduce water repellency. Because detergents can damage the water repellency, garments should be washed in pure soap products. Paramo, unsurprisingly, recommends Nikwax Tech Wash, a liquid biodegradable soap, and this does work well. I have used alternatives successfully, however. Paramo suggests washing garments after every four to eight weeks of regular wear. I wash them when visibly dirty, or if the outer wets out quickly. If garments are really filthy or badly stained, they can be washed in detergent, which is a more effective cleaner than soap, but must then be washed in soap to remove detergent residues and reproofed with Wash-In TX.Direct.
Paramo says garments should be reproofed with Wash-In TX.Direct every six to twelve months, depending on amount of wear or when the garments wet out even after washing. My garments are reproofed annually, which has proven adequate.
Paramo Ethical Manufacturing
Since 1992, Paramo waterproof clothing has been made in Bogota, Colombia, continuing Nick Brown’s association with South America. This overseas manufacturing is not done to reduce costs, but to provide work and training for "at risk" women as part of the Miquelina Foundation social program, now a charity. Miquelina has since gone from relying on donations to making profits that are reinvested in equipment and training and used for other projects, such as a housing cooperative.
The first of Paramo’s new lightweight waterproof clothing – the Velez Adventure Light Smock.
Paramo makes nine different waterproof jackets and three different pairs of waterproof trousers in men’s and women’s sizes. In men’s medium size, weights range from 25 ounces/720 grams (Velez Adventure Smock) to 35 ounces/985 grams (Alta Jacket) in jackets and 20 ounces/572 grams (Cascada Trousers) to 32 ounces/904 grams (Aspira Salopettes) in trousers. Even given the two-layer construction and the warmth, these weights are quite high. In autumn 2008 Paramo launched the Velez Adventure Light Smock, with a lighter weight outer shell. Weighing 21 ounces/591 grams, this saves a little weight. I’ve been testing this garment and can find no diminution of the performance. Initially, only a small number of the Velez Adventure Light Smocks have been made, and they are only available from one store in London, England. However, Paramo says that more lightweight garments will be launched in the spring of 2009, and these will be more widely available.
Paramo garments generally have good ventilation options and protective features. Jackets have big adjustable hoods with wired brims that will fit easily over helmets (or cover your face!). Most jackets also have plenty of pockets, including ones accessible when wearing a pack hipbelt. Rather than underarm zippers, some jackets have upper arm vents, which are easier to use, while smocks also have twin two-way front zippers that can be used as vents. Trousers have full or three-quarter length two-way side zippers. On many garments, there is a popper fastened storm flap inside the zipper. Except in storms, the zipper can be left open and just the poppers used to fasten the garment, which allows for good ventilation while still providing protection.
Jacket cuffs are usually wide so that sleeves can be rolled up in warmer weather and airflow in the sleeves is excellent. Removable foam strips are found in the backs of some jackets. These are said to be for comfort when wearing a pack and for "better removal of perspiration." I’ve never found any advantages to these, and they feel uncomfortable, so I always remove them. Some trousers have foam pads in the knees and seat that I also don’t like and remove, though I can see that if you’re likely to be kneeling or sitting in snow or on wet ground, then they could be useful.
The Paramo garments I have used most are the Aspira Smock (30.6 ounces/868 grams), Alta II Jacket (30 ounces/839 grams), Pajaro Jacket (31.2 ounces/885 grams), Alta Trousers (now replaced by the similar Aspira Trousers – 30.5 ounces/864 grams) and Cascada Trousers. For ski touring, snow hiking and camping, my favorites are the Aspira Smock and Trousers.
The Smock has an excellent protective hood, arm vents, twin front zips, a huge kangaroo pocket into which I stuff hats, gloves, maps, ski wax, and more, and two internal pockets useful for items that need keeping dry or for drying and warming cold and damp gloves. The Smock is quite short, which isn’t a problem as I always wear it with the trousers, which I like when skiing, as it isn’t restrictive. The trousers have built-in elastic braces (suspenders) that cleverly only fasten to the front so the seat can be lowered by unzipping the sides without unfastening them. Having struggled uncomfortably in storms in the past with braces that needed to be undone before trousers could be lowered, I really appreciate this design. I like braces, as they keep the trousers up without need of a belt and help prevent any gaps appearing at the waist.
The trousers also have chunky reversed side zippers, reinforced thigh linings for increased water shedding (helping avoid the problems with an earlier design I described above), tough abrasion resistant fabric on the seat, knees and ankles for greater durability, wide adjustable hems to fit over plastic boots and internal snow cuffs that mean gaiters aren’t needed. The ankle reinforcements are particularly welcome, as they protect against cuts from crampons and ski edges.
Paramo hoods are large enough to fit over helmets – and for providing maximum protection!
When there isn’t deep snow and I’m not using skis or crampons, I prefer the lighter weight Cascada Trousers, which have three-quarter length side zips, a double seat and shaped knees. For hiking, these are comfortable and easily vented. With the Cascadas, I wear either the Alta II or Pajaro jacket. The Alta II has arm vents, an internal poppered storm flap, lower handwarmer pockets and chest pockets. The Pajaro is designed as a general "country lifestyle" jacket and has arm vents, internal poppered storm flap, huge chest pockets and two large bellows pockets above the hem.
It’s the pockets that make the Pajaro attractive – I can carry hat, gloves, map, compass, compact camera, mini binoculars, DSLR camera lenses, and more in them. However the advent of the much lighter Velez Adventure Light Smock – basically a less specified version of the Aspira Smock with twin front zips and big kangaroo pocket – means that the Pajaro and Alta II jackets will now be used only for day hikes and overnight trips. For longer trips, I’ll save weight by taking the Adventure Light.
There is one curious and interesting Paramo top that I haven’t tried, the 3rd Element (27 ounces/765 grams). This can be split into vest and arms/hood, allowing for excellent ventilation and the option of just wearing the vest when it’s not too stormy or in camp. The 3rd Element was used successfully on the 2008 Challenge crossing of the Scottish Highlands by ultralight hiker Colin Ibbotson, who found the ventilation meant he could wear the jacket virtually all the time. A lighter weight version of the 3rd Element could be the Paramo jacket for year round lightweight backpacking.
Paramo waterproof clothing is the most breathable and comfortable rain wear by far. In wet, cold conditions it performs superbly. Garments are designed to be worn all the time rather than carried in the pack and are warm enough to replace two or even three layers, which somewhat mitigates the high weight and packed bulk.