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Outdoor Research Realm Review
Cons: Few vents, hood is a bit too small with a helmet, DWR not very durable
Bottom line: The lightest and most affordable hardshell jacket is also a top performer.
Measured Weight (Size): 11.1 oz. (L)
Material: AscentShell 3L 100% nylon 20D mechanical stretch ripstop face with 100% polyester 12D backer
Manufacturer: Outdoor Research
The Outdoor Research Realm is a supremely lightweight hardshell that uses OR's proprietary AscentShell membrane paired with super light 20D stretch face fabric. This combination of an air-permeable (but still totally waterproof) membrane with a trim but very mobile fit make it one of the most breathable jackets in this review, and an excellent choice for highly aerobic activities like backcountry skiing. The other incredible benefit of using AscentShell is that OR can produce it for far less than they can purchase the rights to use a form of Gore-Tex, and thus the Realm retails for a very reasonable $279, the lowest MSRP of any hardshell we tested. With an incredibly light weight, excellent mobility, and impressive breathability, the Realm was the second highest overall scorer in our comparative rankings, and at the lowest price, it was a natural for our Best Bang for the Buck Award.
RELATED REVIEW: The Best Men's Hardshell Jackets of 2017
Our Analysis and Hands-on Test Results
The Outdoor Research Realm jacket is a bit of an anomaly in this hardshell review, as it turns the typical waterproof/breathable balance on its head. Where the majority of hardshells are incredibly waterproof while also offering some level of breathability, this jacket is supremely breathable while also adding on the waterproof factor. As such, we feel this is an excellent jacket for drier climates, such as Colorado or California, where the need for waterproofness is the exception rather than the rule. If we were shopping for a jacket that would need to protect us from pouring rain every day, we would probably opt for a Gore-Tex model, like the Arc'teryx Alpha FL, instead. The Realm's strongest attributes — its light weight, ability to pack down very small, superior breathability and mobility - readily lend themselves to high exertion activities where it may only be needed part of the time. Due to its very light weight, we would happily recognize it as our Top Pick for Lightweight if it wasn't also so affordable as to be the most logical choice for our Best Bang for the Buck Award.
When it comes to weather protection, we love the design features and fit that lend themselves to covering up all areas of the upper body. The hem is longer and lower than most jackets, and the sleeves are also very long. The Velcro wrist enclosures do an awesome job of tightly securing the wrist opening so that no water has the chance to leak in.
However, our downpour simulating shower test revealed a few flaws in the Realm's protective envelope. The fit of the hood we found to be okay without a helmet on, but when wearing our climbing helmet, the hood proved to simply be a bit too small. The wire brim is pretty tiny and only stretches across the very front of the bill, not stretching down the sides to channel falling water away from the face as well. When standing under a downpour with a helmet on, water ran over the front of the brim to hit us in the face and trickle down the collar. We also found that the face fabric wetted out very quickly, almost all over, calling into question the durability and performance of the DWR coating.
Interestingly, the Outdoor Research Axiom also suffered problems with its DWR coating, so this may be an OR related problem. Since we feel that this jacket is best suited as an active shell for drier climates, its struggles in a heavy downpour may not be too significant, but it in no way offers the same level of weather protection as The North Face Summit L5 FuseForm GTX, or even the Mountain Hardwear CloudSeeker. 6 out of 10.
On our independent scale, the Realm weighed in at 11.1 ounces for a size men's Large.
As you can see, this put it as the lightest jacket in this hardshell review, about one ounce lighter than our Editors' Choice award-winning Arc'teryx Alpha FL. It also packs down tiny, having the ability to stuff into a specially designed interior drop pocket, secured with Velcro, that is about the size of a Nalgene. Since it is very light and super easy to pack, it is hard to imagine finding a reason to leave this jacket behind, a far cry from some heavier and burlier shells, like the Rab Firewall.
Mobility and Fit
Our head tester is 6'0" tall, weighs around 160 lbs., and has moderately broad shoulders but a thin torso. We ordered him a size large Realm, and felt that it fit pretty much perfectly. We loved how the fit of the torso was trim enough to not ever get in the way but still left room for layering under. The hem and the sleeves were perfectly long to never ride up. That said, there are customer reviews online complaining about the trimness of the fit and recommending sizing up, especially in the larger sizes. If you typically struggle to fit into a trim fitting jacket, we would probably agree with this recommendation.
When it comes to mobility, we don't think there is any other jacket better. Using their proprietary AscentShell as the membrane, OR was able to pair it with a super light 20D stretch face fabric, which we loved. It was super quiet while moving about and didn't restrict our movement anywhere. This jacket felt much lighter and even stretchier than the other hardshells with stretch abilities, such as the Mountain Hardwear CloudSeeker or even the OR Axiom. 9 out of 10.
Venting and Breathability
While the results of our stationary bike breathability test were impossible to describe using numbers, there is still absolutely no doubt that the Realm was noticeably less hot and more breathable than its competition. We could even notice the difference in the gym, where the air was pretty much stagnant, so this effect would likely also be increased outside on a windy day.
The AscentShell membrane used in this jacket is made out of a "matrix" of super thin polyurethane fibers layered on top of each other. The effect is that it has billions of air holes that are large enough for air to pass through, making it air permeable, while still being far too small for water droplets to pass through. OR claims that allowing tiny amounts of air into the jacket's interior keeps sweat in a vapor form and helps it evaporate and breathe outside of the jacket easier, without even needing a large difference in relative humidity between the inside and outside of the jacket.
Our anecdotal testing seemed to back this claim up. That said, this jacket does not have the many venting options that are available in other hardshells, such as the back of the shoulder zips on the Dynafit Radical, or the standard pit zips found on the Arc'teryx Beta AR. It has one mesh backed chest pocket for ventilation purposes, and that's about it. With the best breathability, we gave it 9 out of 10 points.
The Realm does not have as many features as the Mountain Hardwear CloudSeeker, and at the same time, they also don't perform as flawlessly as those found on the Patagonia Pluma.
It has two cross-over chest pockets, one of which is mesh backed with a hanging cell phone pocket, but curiously no media port to allow headphones to pass along the inside of the jacket. It does not have handwarmer pockets but does have a single interior chest pocket that doubles as a stuff sack with a clip-in loop.
When it comes to adjusting and tightening up the hood, we found the buckles and pull-cords to be less impressive than those found on the Arc'teryx Alpha FL. The pull-cords on each side of the face reside inside the collar, making it annoying to open the collar to keep adjusting the right fit. The buckles on the outside and back of the hood work fine but are not the now top-of-the-line standard Cohaesive buckles. On the hem, there is a single drawcord that leaves a loop dangling below the waistline, which we wish companies would avoid. Overall, the performance of the features will be just fine for most people, but compared head-to-head against some of the other fine jackets in this review, are a bit lacking. 5 out of 10.
The Realm is a fully functional hardshell that will be best utilized by folks who want to take advantage of its very light weight and great packability. Alpine climbing, backpacking, or highly aerobic single day sports like backcountry skiing or peak-bagging are great uses of this jacket. It will keep you dry in the rain, but will not be as comfortable or as durable in frequent rain as a Gore-Tex shell will be.
The Realm retails for $279, making it the most affordable jacket in this review. Since it was one of the highest scorers, we awarded it our Best Bang for the Buck award. Since it uses a thinner membrane and face fabric than any other jacket we tested, it probably will not live as long, but regardless we feel that this is a top quality piece of equipment, and presents an excellent value.
The Outdoor Research Realm was the second highest overall scorer in this review due to its very light weight, excellent fit and mobility, and awesome level of breathability. It was also the most affordable, presenting a fantastic value. Its attributes lend themselves perfectly to a "light and fast" ethos, making it a great choice for alpinists or backpackers alike.
— Andy Wellman
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