Review: Inov-8 Race Ultra Shell HZ
Introduced to the mass public at the ISPO 2015/16, the Inov-8 ‘Race Ultra Shell HZ’ instantly become a ‘must have’ piece of gear for a whole lot of folks around the world. Initially, and still to some degree, the ability to acquire this shell was/is rather difficult, both in Europe and here in the USA.
One of my readers, who lives in Alaska, was able to acquired one from a store in Europe. After using and not finding it to work out for him, he contacted me and asked if I would like to have it, to which I said yes and a week or so later it showed up at my house — so many thanks to him!
Before I talk about how this shell performs, I think it is important to really address what this shell was designed for. More so than many other pieces of gear I have used over the years this shell has proven itself to me, and others that have reviewed it, to have a rather narrow POU (Purpose of Use) and in many ways, the POU that Inov0-8 seems to have designed this shell for is not where it seems to be performing all that well at. But that is far from saying it does not excel at other POU’s, or in different climates, because it surely does.
In the product video that inov-8 released for the ISPO they had this to say about this shell:
This is a waterproof and breathable jacket for athletes racing over all distances, keeping them dry and protected in even the wettest of conditions. We believe the race ultra shell is the number one choice for athletes wanting to race fast and light. — Helen Stuart – Inov-8 Apparel Product Manager
So let us take a look at this statement explaining how they see this garment:
- Racing Garment
- Used for short and long distances
- To keep you dry
- For moving fast
If I am to review a product based on how the company expects their product to be used, it would not be a very pretty review based on my useage so far. My long time readers know that I tend to not write reviews that are negative about a product, yet I find myself having to question some of these points that they state are the highlights and POU of this jacket.
Waterproofness: This garment is not very waterproof. Yes, it has an impressive 10kHH rating – and that is getting up there pretty high. However in my real world testing, it seemed as if it seeped rain significantly faster than what a 10kHH garment should – and faster than other other garments I have owned with a lower hydrostatic head rating. The fabric has stayed relatively clean, and has not suffered any surface damage, leading me to ponder on why this has been the case.
Breathability: Again, the fabric has a very good rating. But like with its waterproofness, this garment falls well short of actually being breathable. I live in an area that is typically in the f50° (c10°) range for about 300 days a year. Extremely consistent weather in the Redwoods of Northern California. Not hot by any means, and that is much of what keeps me living here, a nice cooler weather climate. Most of the time I am faced with garments not keeping me warm enough, the Ultra Race Shell, however, has caused me thermoregulation issues every-single-time I have had it on and went out for a run. More on this below in my POU section.
Lightweight: At 125 grams (4.4 ounces) this shell is on the lighter side of this level of performance garments. My extra-large size of this garment weighs in at 137 grams (4.83 ounces), so that makes the XL an additional 12 grams / 0.42 ounces heavier than the medium size – which is what the industry uses for baseline weight measurements. Just to note, if I were to buy one I would have gone with a medium or a large, the extra-large is a bit too big for me, but hey, you kindly accept what is offered to you, and I am grateful for the chance to have gotten this without buying/shipping it across the pond.
- The 4-way stretch fabric is amazing. Usually when moving fast you tend to be a bit more unnatural in form while putting on and taking off garments. The stretch and give of this fabric makes it so you really do not have to stop at all, or even slow down, in order to take it off or put it on. The first few times I was worried I might damage it, but having done so hundreds of times, it is no longer even a brief concern.
- Pack Volume. As my readers know, I place a high importance on the pack volume that any specific piece of gear consumes. When you are out on the trail, be it for a day or a weekend or even a few weeks to months, pack volume becomes all the more important the smaller your pack (be it a vest or a full on backpack) gets, obviously. On my first extended 2015 adventure I did 400 miles (~640km) in 12 days with a sub 4 pound BPW and an 11 liter Ultimate Direction PB Vest Gen 1. At these super low pack volumes, it is beyond important that every piece of gear compacts down as little as possible. The Inov-8 Race Ultra Shell HZ ends up being a bit on the larger-than-expected-size, a result of the extra long back-side length – which is both great and a bummer. I will usually take extra long garments over volume size.
- Transparency. One of the features that Inov-8 highlights about this garment is that it is designed to be transparent so that race bibs are able to be seen through it. Uhhh, all I can say is that the machine that made mine must have squirted a bit more colouring into the fabric when mine was made, because it is almost impossible to see through it. Yes, next to skin layers can easily be seen, but any logos or bibs are just not discernable.
- Double Zipper. At first this surprised me as I really did not expect a double zipper on a shell like this. Over time, I cannot remember a single time I have used the bottom half of the double zipper.
- Tape Bonded Seams. To be expected on a shell of this caliber and price. They have held up very well with no fraying.
- No bottom hem tightener. Bad!! It does have a shock cord along half the bottom, but shame on inov-8 for not including a tightener.
Purpose of Use, My Style:
With all of the above explained about what it is intended to be used for, and how I feel it does or does not perform in those areas, I want to share how I have been using it.
The first thing I experienced with this garment is that it builds up heat, and really fast. On my first outing using it, an 8k run I have around my neighborhood, within the first quarter mile I had already overheated and was forced to take it off. Temperature was f54° (c12°) and there was no wind or rain. A few days later I went out when it was f47° (c8.3°) and again within the first quarter mile it forced me to take it off. For a night run it got down to f42° (c5.5°) and it took about a half-mile before I overheated and had to take it off.
All three of these times the only other top layer I had on was a Mountain Hardwear ‘WickedCool Tank’, my prefered running top these days, and something that should not cause heat build up warrant of overheating.
After that I just gave up wearing it while running. I have to be honest and say I really do not know just how cold conditions have to be to not have thermoregulation issues while wearing this garment and running.
Having given up on it for running, it went into my garments box and sat there for awhile. Eventually I grabbed it for a colder morning hike (hike, not a run) figuring I could always throw it on and use it as a wind jacket.
And that is where it started to show itself as a useful garment for me.
It has, at this point, become my to-go wind / light-rain garment while hiking. While it is about 50 grams heavier than my Montbell Tachyon Wind Jacket, it offers me something the Tachyon does not – extended use in heavy fog (common in the Redwoods of Northern California) and longer wear-time in light rain before I have to take off the Tachyon and slip on a rain jacket. In essence, an extended wear wind jacket. It has, in many ways, become a missing link in my gear setup – one that I did not even realize that was missing, but has since revealed itself to me.
As A Wind Jacket:
I have already talked enough about wind jackets in previous articles, but I know most of you are going to want to know how it compares, or what my thoughts are, when compared to wind garments likes the Montbell Tachyon, Patagonia Houdini, The North Face ‘Verto’, ZPacks Ventum, all of which are popular wind garments.
Based on my hundreds of days of wearing the Montbell Tachyon, I would put the Inov-8 Race Ultra Shell HZ slightly ahead of the Tachyon for the extra long length and much better wet weather use, however the 15-denier Ballistic nylon that the Tachyon is made from is noticeable better at keeping the really cold wind out.
I cannot comment on the other popular wind jackets as I have not used any of them.
As A Rain Jacket:
The Inov-8 “Race Elite Stormshell HZ” is a much better option for those wanting a shell that is more waterproof. They make both a men’s and women’s version of it. It offers a 20KHH versus the 10kHH of the Race Ultra Shell HZ.
With it, the seeping that tends to happen with the lower hydrostatic head (HH) would probably be greatly extended. Obviously, as we all hopefully know, there is no such thing as a waterproof garment – eventually all ultralight rain fabric is going to become saturated and begin to seep.
The Elite Stormshell is an additional 25 grams (0.88 ounces) of weight compared to the Race Ultra Shell HZ. However in order to gain the extra waterproofness of the Elite Stormshell you are going to have to compromise and loose the amazing 4-way stretch Soft Tricot fabric, the transparence (what there is of it) and the Elite Stormshell has one of those stupid chest pockets that seems to be all the craze these days.
My thoughts on all of this though, is that if all you are after is a rain jacket, the ZPacks Challenger is only 6 grams heavier, and it provides even better MVTR ratings than both of the Inov-8 shells – plus you can add pit-zips, have them remove the chest pocket (if you are like me and despise those things), and if you really want the extra length, go for their “40-inch” version.
The glaring issue with this garment is the fact that, for me, it has a very poor performing Comfort Rating, or RET rating. Inov-8 states it has a RET of 11.1, for me, while running, I would put it at least double that, into the high 20’s range. I should note that I would put the Montbell Tachyon in the mid 20 RET range, while running, just to give a baseline for where I tend to have thermoregulation issues at. I simply cannot wear this garment while running in the ~f54° (c12°) temperature range that exists here in the Redwoods of Northern California. We usually get a few days of sub-freezing temps here in the Redwoods, so I will be sure to give the garment a try while running in sub-freezing temps, but at this point, it just has not been a shell that I can use while running.
Putting aside the issue of overheating while running in this garment – at what I tend to consider to be lower range temperatures – the Inov-8 ‘Race Ultra Shell HZ’ has some very impressive things going for it! It has allowed me to carry, most days, a single garment instead of two. The four-way stretch of the Polyester Soft Tricot is absolutely amazing. The longer back length keeps my shorts drier when there is heavy fog or light rain – plus when sitting down. Oh, and did I mention I have slept with it on a few nights when it got colder than expected? Yep, been there done that. Worked good. I am disappointed that it is not transparent as they make it out to be. But overall, at 137 grams (4.8 ounces) it has become an integral part of my gear that goes with me when I leave the house.
In accordance of USA Federal Trade Commission 16 CFR, Part 255: I hereby declare that at the time this article is published that I am a sponsored hiker of Black Rock Gear, Montbell US, Suluk46, Sun Precautions.