The first time I held a piece of aerogel was one of those reality-bending experiences that reorganizes the molecule of your brain a little. It was a block about the size of a Rubix Cube, it looked like a faint wisp of cloud, and it weighed nothing. Not literally nothing -- but so little that my body could not perceive its weight at all. So when I had the chance to test a jacket filled with the stuff, I jumped.
Aerogel, for those who don't know, is known as the lightest solid on Earth. It can be made of different materials (including graphene), but most often it's a silica gel that been subjected to a rather intense process that removes all the liquid from it. At that point it's almost entirely air, but it retains its physical structure. You can press on it, and it will bounce back, but give it too much pressure and it will shatter. It also conducts heat about one-per cent as well as traditional glass, which makes it an insanely good insulator. It's been used for everything from NASA spacecraft to gas pipelines, but it's only in the last few years that breakthroughs in material science has made it flexible enough for use in clothing (including space suits).
That is to say that Lukla Apparel isn't the first company to put aerogel into a jacket, but it's one of the more promising ones. Probably the most famous attempt was when Champion used aerogel to insulate the clothing of a couple climbers who were trying to summit Mount Everest. It was such good insulation that they ended up overheating rather badly.
Since then, the race has been on to find a way of making an aerogel jacket that would keep you warm in the coldest conditions but also breathe and keep you from sweating buckets, and we've seen entrants from smaller companies like Faction, S2V, and Shiver Shield. Full disclosure: I haven't tested those other brands, so my base of comparison is down and various types of synthetic insulation. Still, my experience with Lukla's Endeavour jacket was a pretty good one.
I had a chance to test the jacket on a two-day snowboarding trip in Colorado. The first thing I noticed was that the jacket is pretty damn thin. So thin that I was pretty worried I'd be too cold at night, but that wasn't a problem. Now, this was a spring trip, and the temperature only got as low as 27 degrees, so this was not an extreme test, but I found that my upper-body remained quite comfortable in the jacket while my legs below started getting very cold. I would say that my upper body was cool, but comfortable, and I was just standing still wearing a t-shirt. I'm sure if I'd been moving around I'd have been even warmer.
The next day on the slopes was the real test, not because it was icy and freezing, but because it was sunny and warm. The mountain was turning into a Slurpee. I thought for sure I was going to get heat stroke in that thing, but amazingly I didn't.
For starters, the jacket really does breathe quite well, despite it being waterproof and keeping me quite dry even when I wiped-out in a large slush-patch. But it's also made for this kind of active use, and it has gigantic pit-zips that open all the way up and let a huge amount of air in. Between those and adjusting the main zipper, I was able to regulate my heat more more effectively than I did the day before when I was in a high-end ski jacket from Obermeyer (which was also quite nice). I was shocked at how comfortable I was.
It has a bunch of other features I really like as well, including a powder-skirt that snaps out of the way when you don't need it, waterproof zippers, and a hood that's big enough for a very large helmet. But my favourite feature is that this thing is loaded with pockets. On the outside it has two deep ones for your hands, which has plenty of room for storing big gloves, a small breast pocket, and two smaller ones on the sleeves near the wrists. There are two more pockets inside which are easily big enough for a wool hat or a pair of goggles. It has velcro-adjustable wrists, too, and pull-cords for the hood and the bottom of the jacket. It really feels like a well-thought-out jacket made for the winter-sports crowd.
Aside from that, it actually looks really good. It doesn't have the big puffiness of a down jacket. Because the material is thin, and because of the way it's cut, it hugs the body's natural contours nicely (without being too tight) and doesn't look baggy. The colour patterns are simple but pleasing, and you wouldn't feel out of place at a high-end lodge, should you find yourself at one.
All that said, there are some caveats. The biggest is that this is currently a Kickstarter project, which always has some risk. Now, Lukla has already nearly tripled its funding goal, so there isn't any worry on that front, but y'know, shit happens. The other thing is that I was not able to test a finished product. I was sent a prototype jacket that's about three generations old at this point and I was warned there were some problems with it, such as bad velcro and zippers, which Lukla says they have replaced in subsequent iterations. Also, I think I was testing an XL version of the women's jacket, so the fit was a bit off for me.
The biggest red flag for me with this jacket was its weight. Everybody who picked it up was like, "Whoa, that's heavy." And it was. It came in at four pounds even, which is a lot compared to the 2.8 pounds on my already pretty bulky down winter jacket. Now, this is one of the things Lukla says it's fixed. Here's what one of Lukla's co-founders, Michael Markesbery, told me:
The weight was a mistake on our part in the earlier prototypes. There is a fleece liner in the jacket with the aerogel that has since been removed in the later editions. We were worried if you walked into a retail store and saw two jackets -- a thin, lightweight Lukla jacket and a big brand name bulky jacket -- you'd buy the brand name jacket because it's got a big name and the bulk subconsciously triggers you to believe it works and insulates well. You'd think there was no way this new Lukla jacket that's thinner and lighter than the competition could insulate as well as its competitors. We overshot on the weight with the fleece and have since fixed the issue.
Markesbery claims that the final jackets will be 25 to 33 per cent lighter than the prototype I tested, which sounds good, if they can do it while retaining its insulating properties. Obviously I wasn't able to make that determination from the early prototypes. There is a limitation of aerogel worth considering, though: It's a solid, and thus is not compressible. This won't be a big deal for everyone, but if you're hoping to be able to squeeze it into a little ball and cram it into a small backpack, well, there's only so small it can get.
The only other gripes I had about the jacket was that there is no insulation in the hand-pockets or in the hood. The hand-pocket bit is a personal gripe of mine as I don't always want to have gloves with me. Simply having the hands go in underneath the layer of aerogel would solve it. Also, the hood is so big that if you don't have a helmet on it's really loose and baggy on your head, even after you cinch it down with the drawstrings. Not the biggest of deals, but it's something to consider.
Overall, I was impressed with the early prototype. The Kickstarter expires in two days so if you want to get in on earlybird pricing, that's the way to do it. Know that it's still early days here, and we haven't seen the final product, but I'd say that early indicators are pretty good. I've been able to wear the jacket in cold and warm weather and it always seems to keep me right around the same temperature, which is a great feature. [Lukla]