Review: The North Face Men’s Apex Bionic Soft Shell Jacket

I love the idea of soft shell jackets – jackets which are nicer to wear and more breathable than traditional waterproofs, yet give you more protection from water and wind than a fleece. It is a combination that sounds brilliant, and I was finally able to put one to the test this month when I was sent a North Face Apex Bionic Soft Shell Jacket to review by Webtogs.  Can a soft shell replace a fleece / waterproof jacket combo?

[Disclosure – this jacket was provided by Webtogs for me to give my own personal opinions on it and they have no influence on these views and no editorial control.]

First impressions of the jacket were good – it looks great (I had the Asphalt Grey / Black one), and seems well manufactured (it weights in at around 837g). The main zip, as well as the zips on the Napoleon chest pocket and two hand pockets, seem well protected from the elements with easy to grab pulls. The outer fabric is slightly rubbery to the touch, but inside it is fleece lined to the back and sides, as well as the collar and the top of the pocket.

It is hard not to compare a soft shell jacket with either a waterproof jacket or fleece, in particular my treasured Mountain Equipment Men’s Touchstone Fleece Jacket. The jacket is certainly more pleasant to wear than a standard waterproof, helped by the inner fleece lining and softer fabric. However the rubbery exterior sometimes made me feel slightly like I was wearing a thin wetsuit, and it lack the cosiness of a fleece. The fit, described by the manufacturer as “regular, comfortable fit”, seemed a little short for my liking (I went for a large, which fitted nicely across my chest and shoulders) – although the jacket does have a hem cinch cord to pull the bottom of the jacket in. Slightly bizarrely, in my view, the hem cinch cord could also be tightened from a pull in either hand pocket which I found fiddly and an annoying addition.  The jacket has thin rubber velcro adjustable cuffs, however I found them a bit more fiddly than the wider fabric cuffs on say my Berghaus Paclite Shell Jacket.

I had hoped to put the jacket through it’s paces on a weekend trip to Dartmoor however, instead of the showers and strong winds I had expected, we were treated to glorious sunshine and a much needed cooling breeze. Instead I had to content myself with wearing it around the camp site, and this gave me a chance to compare it against other soft shells worn by our group. Two noticeably missing features were a hood and under arm vents. The month of May this year, unfortunately if you are testing a soft shell jacket, was unusually warm and dry – even on the slightly colder and windier days, I found myself quickly overheating and sweating – there is no doubt that the Apex ClimateBlock Fabric blocks out all the wind (it is rated at 0 CFM) but certainly in these conditions it did not seem particularly breathable, and I wonder whether under arm vents would extend the amount of the year the jacket can be used (or whether they reduce the wind protection too much).  Talking of wind protection, whilst I did find the fabric blocks out most (if not all) the wind, the collar seemed too wide and low cut and let a significant amount of wind blow down my neck.

I was going to conclude this review by saying that whilst I am unsure of the merits of the jacket, it would be unfair to not give it a second try in the colder months of the year….. but then it rained!

As soon as the rain (fairly heavy showers) started, I grabbed the jacket (and the dog) and did a three mile walk around the local fields and the nearby forest. Overall the exterior of the jacket kept me mostly dry, although towards the end of the walk I felt some slight dampness on my arms. The short cut of the jacket meant that more of my upper legs and bottom got wet from the run off, whereas my waterproof jacket offers more protection. Worst of all though is that the wide low cut collar and lack of hood meant the rain ran down my neck soaking the top of my t-shirt underneath and the fleece inside the collar. Even when the rain had stopped, I had the unpleasant sensation of wet fleece against my neck.

That to me is the final nail in the Apex Bionic’s coffin. It cannot protect me sufficiently from showers on a short walk, so I would need to always have a backup waterproof jacket (especially on longer hikes). If I have a backup waterproof jacket, then I may as well wear my lighter, comfier, and similarly priced Mountain Equipment Touchstone Fleece Jacket (which has a hood, is also stretchy and offers sufficient wind and brief shower protection).  Even as a casual jacket, I found myself opting for the fleece over the soft shell (despite my best efforts to give it a go!)

I have not completely written off the idea of soft shell jackets – but in my opinion the North Face Men’s Apex Bionic Soft Shell Jacket is not good enough to replace a fleece / waterproof jacket combo.

Price: £79.99 from Webtogs

6 Replies to “Review: The North Face Men’s Apex Bionic Soft Shell Jacket”

  1. I got this jacket (tbh) to be mostly a smart but still outdoor jacket for usually cycling to work.

    I also think it’s meant to be worn next to the skin and be a tight fit..? (Certainly North Face sizes are very on the small size generally).
    I found it good for cycling, but then doesn’t really have any benefits over anything else you’d wear. I have to change coats if it rains or if there are high winds and cold. So really, at best it’s a smart outdoor jumper with a brand name and high price tag.

    What I wear all the time now instead, is a Berghaus water proof (completely waterproof), Sprayway stretch waterproof trousers and a Regatta wollen zip up top.

  2. Thanks for the comment. Not sure it is soft enough to wear against the skin – I had a baselayer underneath most of the time. Agree with what you say about the Berghaus waterproofs – went out today in similar conditions with baselayer, fleece and Berghaus Paclite on a 6 mile hike – did not overheat and was mostly dry at the end!

  3. Great review…I had a friend who showed up with this jacket for dinner one night, I thought it looked really cool. I had wanted to get one, but apparently the only area it seems to really excel is in the looks department.

  4. I have had this jacket for just over a year now. It is excellent as a reasonably fashionable jacket for around town.

    It is waterproof up to a point. I wore it for half an hour in driving rain while out running and by the end of this I could have wrung the jacket out, there was that much water in it. It had started to leak across the shoulders but thinking about it now this might have been rain going down the neck of the jacket.

    A nice jacket but it will not protect you from a really heavy constant downpour. It would be more lght rain/ showerproof.

  5. I have a White Rock Tangent jacket which we used to sell and is much the same thing but (I think) better with good fit and foldable hood. I agree with you about over-heating in a SS jacket, but as a casual jacket and total windblocker I cannot fault mine – I have even worn on the back of a motorbike (not advise) at 70mph and it performed exceptionally well. Worth a try Phil?

  6. I think having a hood would reduce a lot of the problems I found with this jacket, but I am still not sold on soft shell jackets. I recently invested in a wind shirt (for something so light they are quite pricey) which gives me wind and shower protection, but works nicely with my base layer to avoid overheating (with a waterproof jacket on standby if conditions worsen!)

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