Let’s get this out the way – you’re gonna get wet. If you’re outdoors, especially in the UK, for any length of time sooner or later it’s gonna rain. It’s a question not of “if” but “when”. The next question is how will your clothing system deal with it?
I’m not going to go into too much detail on specs or the science of the Buffalo approach to outdoor gear, if you’re not familiar with Buffalo Systems and the Pertex/Pile approach check them out here for the theory/science behind the system. If you’ve heard a little and are wondering how it works in practice, read on…
So it’s raining, I decide to head out for a walk along the North Downs, I don my Buffalo Teclite smock and hit the trail. The Pertex outer has a water repellent coating that ensures the initial rainfall beads off but eventually under heavy or constant rainfall the outer “wets out” and lets some rain in. It’s at this point though that if worn as intended (next to skin, no base layer), the magic happens and rather than walk around in a soggy, clingy shell, your body heat works with the pile lining to wick away and evaporate the moisture.
Admittedly at first this feels a bit odd, as those initial trickles of rain water seep in, its a little cold and unpleasant, similar to the sensation of immersion whilst wearing a wetsuit. But (and here’s the catch), just like a wetsuit, as you continue to move you create a microclimate, warming and pushing the water back out. At no point (and despite constant rain and cold wind) did I feel cold or get that horrible sensation of skin pressing against damp, soggy and cold base and mid layers.
Carry on moving, producing heat and (assuming it stops raining or you find shelter) the Buffalo will dry out in around 15 minutes. (Really!)
A hard shell waterproof on the other hand will take a lot longer and whilst it may keep the water out for longer, eventually it will let some water through (even if only through the big neck and arm holes), leaving you with damp/wet mid and base layers which will take a lot longer than 15 minutes to dry out. Those soggy mid and base layers will likely also not be performing to their best in terms of insulting properties whilst wet. So now you’re wet and cold, a potentially killer combination when out on the hills.
Even if your hard shell waterproof keeps the rain out, I’ll bet it’s a lot less breathable than Pertex/Pile, meaning that any slight exertion will have you sweating and that sweat will have nowhere to go, leaving you wet and (potentially) cold again.
I guess the wetsuit analogy works well if you think of Buffalo as a wetsuit, yes you get wet but you stay warm and functional. Think of the traditional layering system (with a waterproof shell) as a dry suit, you may stay dryer for longer but have you ever tried to swim in a dry suit? Not very functional.
Buffalo gear is designed to work, rather than to look good. That’s not to say it looks bad per say, it just isn’t going to win any style awards. It’s functional kit that does a job.
It’s designed to be worn next to the skin in order to work properly and as such should be close fitting without being uncomfortable. For smocks, measure your chest and buy accordingly.
As it’s a one piece clothing system you can’t take layers off to cool down, for this there are two-way zippered vents down each side of the smock. Open a little to let off steam or, if you’re really working, you can literally open up each side which provides plenty of draft. I must admit though that doing this in driving rain is less than appealing.
Of course if it’s cold, you can always layer over the smock with a windshirt (also provides additional rain barrier) or another smock or Buffalo jacket.
Most comments on outdoor forums tend to be along the lines of “Buffalo is too hot for anything other than winter“. This may be true of the thicker smocks like the Mountain shirt or Special 6 but the Teclite or Activelite ranges are a lot cooler and for me see active use for all but the hottest days. In summer the Teclite comes along but stays in the rucksack for those occasional chilly nights/mornings.
The rest of the year it’s my primary walking top and as it gets colder I’ll simply pair it with my Special 6 shirt or my newly acquired Alpine jacket.
I do love my Special 6 shirt for those really cold days but chances to wear it as a primary layer/system are rare and now that I have the Alpine jacket it will be much easier to throw this on over the Teclite, rather than trying to squeeze into two smocks!
It’s heavy. Yes compared against single items of the latest and lightest elements of a layered system, even a Teclite is quite heavy and bulky. Worn correctly however (no base layer, no shell), it effectively reduces the need for base, mid/insulating and shell layers, one item does it all. Add up the combined weight of those three items and I’ll bet it’s somewhere in the region of the Buffalo.
You’ll look a bit silly in the pub – you’ve finally made it down from the mountain after a hard days hiking/climbing etc and retire to the pub for a well earned pint. The pub’s packed and the fire is roaring, you go to take your Buffalo off only to remember that you’re not wearing a base layer. Oops, maybe order a cider and ice?
What happens if you stop moving?
This is something I’ve asked Buffalo, e.g. It’s raining, you’re stopped for a long time, not moving and not producing heat. As outlined above, their advice is to add more layers – a windshirt for extra rain barrier or another smock or jacket for added warmth/rain protection. Unlike down or some other insulating clothing, the Pile in Buffalo continues to insulate well even when wet.
In an emergency situation you’d likely be in your bivvy bag or you could keep a lightweight poncho in your pack for monsoon conditions (also a lot more breathable than a shell jacket on account of the big hole at the bottom!).
Is it perfect? No, the system/approach has it’s niggles and it certainly isn’t going to be for everyone but if you’re serious about being comfortable and warm whilst exploring the great outdoors, then in my mind the Pertex/Pile approach is hard to beat. It’s not cheap but certainly comparable to a decent Goretex or Event waterproof (and a lot less than some!) especially factoring in the reduced need for separate base, mid and outer layers.
I’ve used it hillwalking in Knoydart, lowland walking at homecoming, all season bivvying, kayaking and sailing and so far it’s never let me down!
As a brand/manufacturer I’d also have to note that the Buffalo customer service/advice is second to none. Having been recommended Buffalo by a friend I was interested but initially dubious, an email to the company with questions about the system was quickly answered in some detail and I’ve had similar response for every purchase/enquiry since.
As an added bonus for those UK based outdoorsy folk, Buffalo Systems make all their kit from their factory in Sheffield.