Buffalo Active Lite Shirt (long-term review)

prod_active_lite_shirt_slate-565x785The Buffalo Active Lite Shirt comes from one of the main proponents of the DP, pertext-and-pile, clothing system.  Based in Shefield, UK their clothing is based around a Pertex outer layer over a pile inner layer and has a well-regarded status.  This clothing system requires a different mind-set when compared to a membrane shell-based clothing system – most notably, none of their garments contain a water-proof membrane and as a result you run the risk of getting ‘wet’, but I won’t be discussing this aspect of their clothing.  This is what Buffalo say about the smock:

A milder weather alternative to the Mountain Shirt, when less insulation but maximum wicking is required. PForm shell fabric with its technical unique weave gives a highly breathable and windproof performance making this garment ideal for low level hill walking and trekking, climbing, mountain biking, running and general outdoor activities.  This garment works most efficiently when worn next to the skin.

Materials

The outer material is a tightly woven polyamide.  Now when I first purchased this, I think it was known as Pertex 5, but I’m not sure where this falls within Pertex’s new fabric names – possibly into their Microlight range.  That said, the point is moot as Buffalo now describe the fabric as:

PForm high performance mini ripstop outer shell

…so yeah, that.  The key point is that it’s not waterproof (ie. it is water permeable) but is very wind resistant.  The issues of fabric permeability/breathability /water resistance is a tricky issue.  The subject isn’t helped by the natural variability in people’s bodies, so actually saying anything useful here is very difficult.  For me (I consider myself to ‘run hot’), this is a suitable outer layer, in conjunction with a base layer, for active wear in mild-(UK) winter temperatures (5-10C) with little-to-no wind.  Add significant wind chill (more than a light breeze) and I need another layer on.  At the other end of the scale, it works as a single layer, worn against the skin with no base-layer, in cool summer temperatures (10-15oC) with no wind.  In practise I regularly use this as a winter cycling layer, general autumn/spring walking layer, and occasionally in cool summer temperatures.  I also wear it as general work clothing a lot.

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Pile: 100% polyester. Shell: 100% polyamide.

The fabric is soft and supple, with more of a brushed finish that the classic Special 6 shirt, which is Pertex 6 (now known as Pertex Classic), but there is no stretch to it.  It’s very tough and hard-wearing but will suffer the usual fate when faced with a sharp pointed protruding object.

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Outer ‘Pertex’ fabric

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Inner ‘pile’ Teclite micro-pile lining

In light of a recent article by Mike Parsons this smock falls into the denier gradient fabric category.  The micro-pile lining designed to be worn next to the skin promotes wicking (rather than evaporation) whilst the Pertex outer creates a direction gradient aiming to promote the evaporation of water once it reaches the outer layer, and inhibit wicking of water inwards.  So you will be kept warmer because wicking rather than evaporation is taking place, but you should also be kept dryer because the water transport through the garment is easier and quicker than with membrane based layers.

Even when temperatures drop well below zero, this will usually be part of my clothing system, either as a base layer or mid layer.  Clearly with very low temperatures, wicking clothing is essential.  Despite good advice to try to ‘not sweat’ in very cold conditions, the reality is not as straight forward.  For me, this type of clothing is an essential component to regulating your body temperature.

After 4-5 years of use, some parts of the inner micro-pile are starting to show signs of wear.  The outer Pertex is pretty much the same as it was when it was first bought, although it’s definitely not as clean.  Bear in mind that frequent washing of your technical clothing is mandatory to maintain their optimum performance.

Worn section of the inner lining

Worn section of the inner lining

Fit

The fit of this smock, in all honesty, is basic and functional.  In part this is defined by the significant zipped sections, particularly along either side (also see next section), which makes the cut square and boxy.  The most recent version does look like is has had some changes, which may have improved the cut, and fortunately Buffalo do a Women’s specific version of this shirt as well, but I would describe it as ‘easy fit‘.

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Square sides of the garment. Zippers run from the bottom hem, to under the armpit. Also notice the slightly scooped back.

This relaxed fit is mitigated slightly by a strip of webbing inside the full-width hand-warmer pocket which allows you to cinch the waist in, and does much to improve the fabric-skin contact.

The fit of the cuffs are also basic, with no differential cut between the top of bottom.  On me at least, they are not so tight that they couldn’t be rolled up my arms.  They are finished with a simple velcro style closure, which has remained (impressively) in one piece, unlike the EOC APS Smock.

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Square cuff style, with simple velcro closure. The cuffs are not so tight, that they can’t be rolled up your arms.

As with off-the-peg clothing the fit around the shoulders and arm-pits can be less than perfect.  For me I find it OK – not great but OK.  As the shirt is designed to be close fitting you are encourage to buy the smallest size that reasonably fits, but this makes the quality of the shoulder fit all the more important.  Clearly, the fit issue with close fitting garments that are not made-to-measure is always going to be a compromise between mass-produced body sizes and your own.  Normally manufactures overcome this with liberal application of stretch fabric, and indeed versions of PP-clothing by other manufactures (e.g. Rab) include just that.  So in this product, people that don’t conform to the Buffalo template might not find the fit acceptable.  As usual, find a shop and try it on first.

Features

The features this garment has are common to most smocks, including the large chest pocket and full-width hand-warmer pocket.

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Zippered chest pocket

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Chest pocket easily fits an OS Map.

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The hand-warmer pocket also easily accommodates an OS Map, with space to spare.

The pockets of smocks, to me, are one of their best features and in this the shirt doesn’t disappoint.  There is plenty of storage space, but you run the risk of looking distinctly lumpy if you over-load them.  The width of the chest-pocket zipper is very decent, and the zipper of the hand-warmer pocket doesn’t quite extend to the bottom of the pocket, and so prevents any accidental loss of pocket contents.  However, this does make the accessing the pocket with gloves a bit difficult.  I guess you can’t have it all.

The full-width nature of the pocket also allows you to fasten your rucksack hip-belt through it.  This is more useful than it sounds: firstly you don’t need to tighten the hip-belt as much to compensate for all the layers of clothing between it and your hip-bones, which reduces extraneous rubbing, and secondly you still have the use of a pocket.  I imagine for some people this is no big deal, but personally I find the hip-belt of a rucksack a lot more comfortable the closer I can get it to my body.

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Hand-warmer pockets. The black webbing tab on the inside of the pocket is a simple webbing loop. The pocket also contains the webbing strap for cinching the waist of the shirt.

Venting wise, there are two double-zips on either side of your body running from the bottom hem, to just under your armpit.  In this case, personally I prefer the design of the EOC APS Smock (which extend along your forearm as well) as the top zippers can be difficult to grab hold off.  The zippers have a baffle on the inside, but recently I’ve started to find that baffle is getting folded back which ends of letting cold air in.

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Double zips on either side of the body give ample venting when required.

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Close-up of side zip.

I find the zippers stick outrageously on the both the chest-pocket and side vents.  This is undoubtedly the biggest annoyance, as what should only require only one hand, requires two and quite a bit of patience.  Having checked newer versions, they have changed the zips, but I can’t comment on their longevity.

The nature of the chest pocket limits the size of the collar zipper, but personally I find it just about long enough to provide useful ventilation when needed.

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Although the length of the collar zipper is limited by the chest pocket, it still provides a useful ventilation option.

There is also a basic elasticated adjustment on the rear hem to help keep cold air out.

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Elasticated rear hem adjustment.

Other Notes

Build quality in general is excellent, but in this version it is let down by poor zippers.

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Hem finishing is very good.

There is no hood option, or (unlike other Buffalo products) any fastening options to accommodate one.

Conclusion

As a clothing concept, I am totally convinced by the effectiveness and comfort of these types of garments.  The Buffalo Active Lite Shirt is far and away the most adaptable piece of clothing I own and has seen a lot of use without showing much sign of wear.  However, personally I feel Buffalo are at risk of being left behind.  Whilst they proudly maintain that they will only ever change a garment to improve it and refuse to be drawn into the whims of seasonal outdoor fashion (very commendable to be sure) I feel that other manufactures have similar products that are starting to provide a real alternative to the Buffalo Double-P range.    I have great affection for this shirt – it has been with me through many experiences which is a testament to its quality.  Their range of Pile and Pertex products (to the best of my knowledge) is still the most extensive of any manufacture, but with new fabrics come new prospects which at the moment I’m not convinced they are realising to their fullest potential.

Would I buy this agian: Probably, but not without a good look at the competition.

(This review is based on a product bought in mid-2008.  If you get the chance, always view products first hand, as some features may have been updated or modified.)

Availability

This is a British manufacturer, and most British outdoor retailers stock some Buffalo items.  Outside of the UK, availability is very limited. The concept is very British, so I imagine store buyers in the rest of the world don’t feel it appeals to their markets.  Big British outdoor retailers will often post overseas.  Try Cotswold or Needle Sports for starters.

Anything you want to know that I haven’t covered?  Get in touch below!
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5 comments

    • hedsoutdoor

      Whilst Montane certainly produce competing products for some of Buffalo’s range, in this case i think Rab’s Vapour-rise range is a more direct competitor. Products like the V-R Stretch Top have a similar Pertex outer with drop liner micro-fleece inner and in this case I think incorporating Power Stretch is a good move. Snugpak also appear to produce a similar product.

      That said, as fabric technology improves, the use of drop liners seems to be becoming obsolete. With new generations of ‘soft-shell’ fabrics the distinction between traditional PU membrane-based shells and non-membrane garments becomes blurry. Most of Polartec’s Shelter range of fabrics seem to draw on the utility of matching a fleece-like inner with a woven outer, but they also insist on keeping a membrane sandwiched between the two and in this case the fleece just becomes a fancy tricot. Products like the Montane Viper Stretch Jacket also start to encroach on the territory typically occupied by Buffalo. They’ve managed to build a garment that still incorporates a denier gradient, fundamental to the wicking properties we expect from double-P garments, and from what I can tell it doesn’t include any sort of membrane. I haven’t seen this particular product in person, but it looks to be providing the same set of benefits, albeit in a single layer of fabric.

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