When looking at typical two and three layer membranes, you’ve got to take into account three characteristics: backing fabric (not present in a true two layer), membrane, and face fabric. Your waterproofness and breathability rely on how well these layers interact to keep precipitation out and push sweat through. In most cases, when you’re planning for extreme weather, you get to choose to either have a very waterproof jacket, or great breathability – not both. However, I’ve found that GORE Active (yes, there is more than one version of GORE, more on that and other outerwear tech article soon) tends to be a great middle ground membrane for all conditions. It breathes well for three season use (I wouldn’t bring it out on a hot summer hike), and its waterproof ability won’t be compromised no matter how hard you’re moving on the trail.
So if GORE Active is the “do anything” membrane, it needs to be paired with a jacket that can handle everything. I picked up the Outdoor Research Axiom ($389) earlier this year for a couple backpacking trips in Utah’s Uinta mountains. The Uintas are a high alpine environment, and you can count on afternoon thunderstorms more often than not during the summer monsoon season. I also wanted to see if I could find a true all-use jacket that could handle winter conditions as well. With that in mind, I needed the Axiom to be both packable and versatile. Weighing in just over fourteen ounces in a large, it definitely fulfilled the first condition – and fit nicely into an outer stretch panel of my pack for quick access. How do you measure usefulness and versatility though?
For an ultralight shell, it has a good set of features. The hand pockets are oversized – perfect for dumping sunglasses and extra fly fishing gear in a hurry. They’re also set a little higher than I expected, which made them easily accessible when worn under a backpack waistbelt and climbing harness. The hood is helmet compatible, fitting over both climbing and ski helmets with ease. I also liked that the cord lock adjusters sit on the outside of the hood so they are within reach while the hood is up and fully zipped. Finally, the wrist cuffs’ hook and loop closure is wider than most I’ve tried, making it easy to manipulate over a pair of winter or shooting gloves.
Performance-wise, the Outdoor Research Axiom shines in all conditions. We took it to ten thousand feet in August and December and it kept up with aerobic output while hiking and backcountry skiing without issue. If you tend to run a little hot, carry an extra heavy load, or spend a lot of time in high heart rate zones, this might not be the best shell as it will get overwhelmed if you completely soak through your baselayer. However, I was surprised how well the membrane plays catch up once we stopped. More than once I hit summits and ridgelines to strip climbing skins on my skis and I was dry – even seeing condensation bead up and freeze on the outside before I was done packing my gear for the downhill.
If there is any downside, like with many three layer membranes, when used in high temperatures you will immediately be clammy and soaked. The use of a 20-denier ripstop (as opposed to 40-denier used by many competitors for Active) as well as a brushed polyester liner helps here with wicking and moisture transport, but I still wouldn’t recommend it for temperatures above seventy degrees or for running or strenuous activity. Again, this makes the Outdoor Research Axiom a high performer for mountain use, which was exactly our aim.
For fit, it’s a pretty standard athletic cut. I am 5’10”, 170 pounds. The medium fit nicely when just wearing a baselayer, but moving to a large was my choice, as I was able to fit a lightweight down puffy under it with ease. Plus it gave me some extra length in the shoulders and arms that was useful under a pack and when I was on more strenuous scrambling and climbing areas on the trail.
My one gripe was the bottom hem. It is plenty long and hit me below the hip and just slightly longer on the back. When under a harness or pack, it had an annoying tendency to ride up above my waistbelt. Uncinching the hemline shock cord helped quite a bit as it allowed the bottom to spread out a little against the belt.
So what’s the bottom line? The Axiom is a three season (four if your summer is a high mountain affair) shell that can withstand both downpours and blizzards. If you’re looking for a one jacket quiver that will handle everything from rainy range days to serious thunderstorms on the trail, then the Axiom is what you should be saving your pennies for. At $389 the Outdoor Research Axiom isn’t cheap, but if you take care of it right, this shell will outperform all conditions for many years to come.