The Ides of March has passed and race-entry fees have long been paid as we look to the upcoming season of long runs and races in our favorite places. In preparation for upcoming adventures, if you find yourself lacking in the lightweight ‘waterproof/breathable’ jacket department, the Ultimate Direction Ultra Jacket ($180) is worth a serious look.
Along the spectrum of ‘superlight wind shirt‘ to ‘fully featured waterproof shell,’ the Ultra Jacket fills much of the gap in between. The women’s jacket weighs in at 5.3 ounces (men’s is 5.9 ounces), which is heavier than many of the three-ounce wind/water resistant jackets out there, but it’s packed with more features and provides greater peace of mind when the precipitation moves in.
On the wind jacket end of the spectrum, I found that I preferred the jacket in temperatures less than 50-degrees Fahrenheit with winds at 15-plus-miles-per-hour wind, which prevented significant interior condensation while running. The jacket retains heat nicely in this situation thus allowing me to decrease my layers beneath by one. This would be very useful in the latter stages of an ultra where night and temperatures have fallen. It’s an easy layer to pull on over or under your pack to stabilize the core temperature and focus energy output where it really matters.
Where I really appreciated the Ultra Jacket’s wind-resistant capabilities was during the truly blustery (30-plus-mile-per-hour winds) days when sleet was swirling intermittently. It has well-placed underarm vents with soft, large-pore mesh in place that aid significantly in the movement of air through the jacket without allowing moisture from outside in. At those wind speeds, the sleet I encountered did not have a chance to soak into the fabric at all, and I stayed perfectly dry even after two hours of variable weather.
As a ‘waterproof’ jacket for highly aerobic activities, it’s one of the better jackets I’ve tried, but it still wetted out after 40 minutes of a steady rain where winds were light and the temperature was around 45 degrees. I realize this is one of the tradeoffs for breathability, so it’s not a complaint but merely an observation.
For the record, the jacket is constructed with Ultimate Direction’s Fastbreath Ultra fabric which has a waterproof rating of 13,000 mm/24 hours and a breathability rating of 26,000 grams/square meter/24 hours.
These ratings exceed the mandatory waterproofing and breathability requirements set forth by UTMB for a shell. Perhaps Ultimate Direction will create the Ultra Pants and thus make it simple for one to fulfill the outer-layer kit requirements for UTMB and similar races.
One of the pros of this fabric is that even once it’s saturated, it dries relatively quickly as soon as air movement increases. If weight savings trumps bomber protection for you, this jacket is a worthy option. However, in truly harsh, wet alpine conditions, I’m still going to reach for my GORE-TEX because my penchant for hypothermia is real and 35 to 45 degrees Fahrenheit plus rain is when it happens for me.
Where the Ultimate Direction Ultra Jacket really shines is in the attention to detail demonstrated in three particular features: the patent-pending TunnelEffect hood, the patent-pending FlipMitts, and the overall cut of the women’s-specific jacket.
There are many other features that are noteworthy. The internal chest pocket is big enough for the iPhone 6 plus a gel or two (with headphone port). The fully taped seams are also self-bound for durability. The ergonomic shoulder construction means that even with a pack on, you can reach in all directions to star in that perfect jumping photo or scramble up a rocky section without feeling restricted or hearing the dreaded r-r-r-rip. The durable material also has withstood a few friendly attacks by my talon-clawed hound.
But I digress. My three favorite features:
I love hoods on my jackets, and this one rocks. When the wind is roaring and I’m fighting to hold my forward direction, I pull up my ‘cone of protection’ hood and feel like all is right with my world again. The brim is formed by a very thin, flexible plastic dowel of sorts that is completely encased which prevents any irritation of your forehead. The brim extends almost two inches from my forehead, thus providing excellent protection from whatever precipitation is falling. There is a thin elastic bungee connected to a pull cord at the back of the head that provides gentle cinching at the forehead, which allows the hood to follow the movement of your head just like a visor, thus allowing full range of motion and vision while remaining snugly protective. There are also two other pulls near the neck which allow you to cinch the hood around your face. Anyone can obtain a custom fit. The, the interior of the hood has a mesh lining insert that sits against your head and vents out an overhanging opening at the rear of the hood near the pull cord. What does this mean in real life? Your head gets less sweaty.
I’ll note that there is no hood-stowing option on the jacket, which doesn’t bother me as the hood is a little heavier than most very light jackets in this category and doesn’t blow around as much. It would be very easy, however, for Ultimate Direction to create a hood roll-up tab or similar for those who prefer to stow their hood when they aren’t using it.
The attached mitts on the Ultra Jacket are another favorite feature of mine because of my tendency towards frozen hands in the first 30 minutes of any run below about 55 degrees Fahrenheit. These attached mitts, made from the same fabric as the jacket, are brilliant because they allow me to wear a thin wool glove, enjoy the benefits of the waterproof mitt until my hands warm up 30 to 45 minutes into the run, and then slip the mitt off for the rest of my run without worrying about losing an expensive pair of shell gloves. The mitts also work well for the squall that comes in when you’re less prepared. The sleeves on the jacket are long enough that I can still pull my hands up inside the sleeves, but now with the mitts, I don’t have to. The mitts tuck back up into the elasticized cuff of the jacket when not in use or can act as a windshield if you leave them out but not over your hand.
The soft feel of the slightly stretchy Fastbreath fabric coupled with the relatively quiet crinkle makes for an unobtrusive jacket-wearing experience whether you have the straighter-cut men’s version or the women’s-specific jacket. That being said, I love that this women’s jacket is not a ‘shrinked and pinked’ version of the men’s. It has a short band of elastic gathering in the lower-back area, which gives the waist a slight taper without reducing volume uncomfortably over other layers. I appreciate the single pull-cord option to snug up the bottom of the jacket as well, but I find I don’t need to do it as it slides over my hips and prevents updrafts just fine as is. There is ample room in the chest area for many different sizes of ladies or even for layering over your front-soft-bottle-carrying hydration pack if ‘size accommodation’ is not an issue. Note on sizing: my measurements indicated I would be a small in this jacket, but I sized up to a medium to ensure long arm length and ability to layer over a thin synthetic puffy. I think ultimately, this jacket is true to size based on their measurements.
Overall, the Ultimate Direction Ultra Jacket is an excellent option if you’re looking for that lightweight waterproof/breathable layer designed for high-output activities to add to your adverse weather mitigation gear stash. This jacket packs easily up into its chest pocket without deforming the fabulous hood’s brim, and it certainly disappears into your pack if you choose just to stuff it in and around the other contents. It’s not too crinkly and has a soft feel against your skin while still sliding easily over other layers. All in all, at 5.3 ounces, it’s a no-brainer to throw in my hydration pack when the weather is looking iffy but not torrential and I’m planning on spending some hours on the trails. Thanks, Ultimate Direction, for your outstanding attention to detail in the design of the women’s Ultra Jacket.
Call for Comments (from Meghan)
- Have you tried either the men’s or women’s versions of the Ultimate Direction Ultra Jacket? Leave a comment to let us know your thoughts about it.
- If you have tried the UD Ultra Jacket and some other very light waterproof/breathable jackets, how does this jacket compare in its waterproof-ness and breathability?