Waterproof and breathable – enough is enough?

Lately I’ve been experimenting with different jackets for cycling/living after spending years trying to disregard the over-engineered shortcomings of ‘technical’ jackets.

I’m talking about the holy grail of outdoor outerwear here – ‘waterproof and breathable’. Since the advent of Gore-Tex and its host of followers, it’s become the must-have feature of outdoor jackets, of which cycling jackets are a subset.

Now I’ve owned a fair number of such jackets at all price points and without exception, in all but freezing conditions, I’ve ended up clammy and uncomfortable on the inside after a fairly short, fairly moderate ride. From my £50 Altura Nevis jacket to a £200 plus Berghaus Gore-Tex Jacket, every one has done an admirable job of keeping the rain out but a similarly sterling job of keeping the sweat in.

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Really?

The bare facts of this have been eloquently voiced by ‘lone voice of sanity’ Grant Petersen in ‘Just Ride’, in his essay ‘The Breathability Ruse’ – how can a jacket with a micro-porous membrane on the inside hope to cope with the level of moisture that an average rider produces on an average ride, let alone a high velocity athlete on a high octane ride?

All of this pondering has led me to largely ditch my stable of technical jackets for everyday commuting and look for alternatives. Regular readers of this blog will know that I’m (a) a staunch advocate of looking normal on my bike and (b) a closet fan of militaria. So lately, by means of a popular auction site, a US Army M65 jacket has come into my possession.

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The M65 Field Jacket – if it’s good enough for a tour of duty it’s good enough for the daily commute.

The M65 jacket was a staple of the US armed forces from its birth in the jungles of Vietnam in 1965 (hence it’s name) right through to the late eighties. The jacket is a polyester cotton mix, with a tight weave, a DWR (durable water repellent) treatment on the surface, a poly cotton drop liner and most tellingly of all – no bonded Goretex style membrane.

I’ve worn this jacket through the last few weeks which, coincidentally, have been some of the chilliest, wettest weeks the UK has seen for some time, with widespread flooding. I’m pleased to say that the M65 has done an admirable job of keeping out the worst of the rain out on rides up to about an hour, whilst never once feeling clammy on the inside. Never before have I been able to arrive at work feeling as comfortable, despite the jacket not being totally waterproof – I’ve arrived at work with a better level of ‘net dryness’ than when wearing technical outerwear. I generally team the coat with a merino base layer/t shirt and a mid layer if it’s really cold and it’s just dandy.

Cut wise, the M65 is as far from a proper cycling jacket as you can possibly imagine – and for these reasons it’s an instant winner for the cycle commuter who wants to look normal. The jacket comes down to the upper-mid thigh but the zipper stops at waist level, therefore not hindering the pedalling movement or bunching up. This combination is excellent as it allows free pedalling but also keeps the lap and lower back covered. The arm/shoulder joint is superbly tailored with a concertina style ‘bi-swing’ back, meaning that the cycling position is easily achieved. The arms are long with extending cuffs which come into their own when on the bike and slightly stretched out. There’s a popper-fastened storm flap over the chunky brass zip and drawstrings for the waist and hem. The jacket also packs a useful zip-away hood which is great for off the bike situations.

The whole design, in my opinion, oozes utilitarian cool. It’s a real American design icon, as worn by thousands of Vietnam vets, Al Pacino in ‘Serpico’, Robert de Niro in ‘Taxi Driver’ and Sly Stallone in ‘Rambo’ (OK let’s forget that last one – the first three are stonewall cool). There are lots of versions out there from the £100 Alpha Industries original down to the version I got, which set me back just £37 plus shipping.

If you are a looking for a great on/off bike jacket that looks good, rugged, non-technical yet, in real world situations, outperforms ‘performance’ jackets for commuting purposes, then the M65 is well worth a look. Moreover, its made me redefine what constitutes a ‘performance’ jacket.

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27 thoughts on “Waterproof and breathable – enough is enough?

  1. Banesto PRO

    Hiya, I “had” to wear these for years in the US Navy (and the Army) – so here’s some tricks from an old PRO…a) spray these with Scotchgard (get it on Amazon…use the ‘outdoor fabric’ version)…2) go to a Army surplus store and buy a BDU (blouse, or shirt – in other words…) in the same material style (khaki or camo); then take to a seamstress and have them cut off the TWO large bottom pockets and one top pocket – then have them sew the two large pockets on either side in the back of your M-65 – and the smaller pocket in the middle – you call it a cycling jacket..we called it a “M-65 3 day-pack variant”…3) buy parachute cord (ebay or Amazon), tie it to ends of M-65 hood cords – yank them thru, instant better, forever cord- tie knots in end, heat with match – no fuss, no muss…4) Go online to “Silvermans” (in London..) and hunt yourself the WINTER HOOD…which fits not only the wekk-known snorkel jacket..but also the M-65 (or hunt for “M-65” winter hood on web…
    Finally, what I use (right now, but may be hard to find!) is a WINTER weight BDU (US 1980s style, last old style multi-colour camo), then buy a SPRING/TROPICAL weight RIPSTOP BDU top. Do the same as for the M-65 e.g. strip the pockets of the lighter weight TROPICAL and put onto the back bottom of the WINTER weight, then, take the remaining material and make a light weight “Rambo” permanent style hood that can be sewn permanently (or if you have a good seamstress nearby!), or snap/velcro on…piece de resistance? take the REMAINING bit of tropical material,have the seamstress sew them inside the FRONT of the WINTER weight BDU top with VELCRO open/closure along the vertical side to the centre of the top…in winter, you can stuff extra bits of material to protect your chest…in warmer weather, use as pockets for nibbles…Also note that BDU tops of the 1980s are cut tight at waist and flare out for the backside-which is again, good for cycling..for those of us “in the field” it meant easier carrying of the ammo/field harness..enjoy and well spotted! Oh, spray the suckers down with Scotchgard every time after you wash them!

    1. theeverydaycyclist

      Excellent tips and so pleased to know that I’m not the only one who has contemplated the M65 as a ‘cycling’ garment. The paracord hood mod is my first upgrade. I’ve already used Nikwax TX Direct wash in water repellant on JT which makes the water bead off beautifully.

      1. Banesto PRO

        Gentlemen, go here: http://www.silvermans.co.uk/Products/tabid/54/Department/Military/Category/JACKETS+++SMOCKS/id/1/Text/80/Default.aspx
        and if you ring them all tell them you want an ALPHA INDUSTRIES M-65 – they’re a bit expensive, but it’ll be the last one you ever buy…I have my older brother’s jacket from Vietnam (a real “Gomer Pyle” green one) and my old US Navy one is now…hmm..28 years old – the ALPHA’s are milspec and SOLID BRASS (wax the zippers gentlemen, they’ll love you for it..) – the ALPHA’s have the high zipper for better leg movement (never know when you need to leap from the steed into a foxhole;-)….)

      2. theeverydaycyclist

        The alpha industries one does look the business. I’ll get one when my cheapie wears out. I’ve found the winter hood too. One for the Christmas list… The thing I like is the breathability of the thing. No more boil in the bag.

  2. I used to own that very jacket, but used it in my pre-adult riding days. Good to hear that it works. I love old military gear, and have a nice set of wool army pants from Germany that I converted to knickers. They get a lot of play in this season.

    1. theeverydaycyclist

      There are many items of old military gear which make great cycling and general outdoor gear, without the branding, hype and price-tag of cycling specific or labelled goods. I’ve owned a number of army packs which way outperform expensive packs from outdoor retailers in terms of durability, function and, in my opinion, looks.

      Once you break out of the Lycra stranglehold there’s a whole world of options out there.

  3. Hey – really interested to read about this. How do you think this jacket would stand up for touring – i.e. how long does it take to dry out and how small can you pack it down? I’m doing some camping touring next year in the states, and a jacket that offers more comfort and warmth off the bike for camping as well as on the bike would be a big plus.

    1. theeverydaycyclist

      Hi Alan. It dries pretty quick. The one I have is polyester or poly cotton and dries very quickly. Pack size is a lot bigger than a cycling jacket and a little bigger than a walking jacket. It’s so much more comfortable than either though and much more appropriate for blending into your environment and wearing off the bike.

      1. Banesto PRO

        Hi Guys, just back from a quick visit to London for a chat with the fellows doing the “Change Cycling Now!” conference…I forgot to add one more trick you can do and if you read my post on how to make the “perfect” M-65 (lite) for cycling, this is the post-script…and this answers exactly your question Alan…

        In Afghanistan 1.0 (e.g. 2001), we got dropped into Afghanistan with our “milspec” foldable Montague mountain bikes (they were orig built for US Spec War and Army use)…since I has been a cyclist etc. I had made several “M-65 lites” (see my post about using a “winter”
        weight bdu, with pockets put onto the rear by robbing a “tropical” bdu top (and making a hood from the left overs)…SO, the sequel was, I forgot about the high altitude and severe cold – SO (stay tuned here Bat-fans!)…I went to Supply got myself an M-65 quilted liner (you can get them at Silvermans.co.uk as well…), cut off the arms at the reinforced armpit/shoulder joints, then sewed buttons on the interior of the BDU winter/tropical/3 pocket hood jacket…I also had a parachute rigger make me a quilted hood liner with velcro tabs to fit inside it…the arms of the line I had “cuff” elastic (like on a flight jacket) put on at the tops for arm warmers…thus, I had a fully tune-able combat cycling jacket – less cold? take out the quilted liner..more cold, put in the liner and quilted hat…REALLY cold? put in the arm warmers…best part..and I finally get to Alan’s question…is that by removing the quilted liner/vest you made (and/or other parts of the quilt system, the “M-65 litE” can be rolled into a very tight roll…you simply can’t do that with a M-65, unless you take out the permanent jacket liner AND the M-65 jacket material is STILL heavier that the “M-65 lite”–all I can say is that in US Army/Navy/Marine Corps, wher if you ain’t riding (plane, tank, bike, Hummer) you’re W-A-L-K-I-N-G a lot…and light is VERY good…we all hack together an M-65 lite (using the required current camo scheme of course!)…and just stuff it away when back home! One last point…the NEW Alpha Industries quilted M-65 liner has pockets so when put in an M-65, the pockets are on the INSIDE of your jacket-remember that for if you get a BDU top to make the M-65 lite – you have to sew on the buttons into the BDU jacket to match up with the quilted liner – in other words, the M-65 liner is designed to be worn BY ITSELF, with pockets on the outside (handing for touring on your bike!) – but when you put it into your BDU/jacket or M-65 coat-the pockets are on the INSIDE between the quilted liner and the M65 liner (confusing, and its a non-milspec mod by Alpha, the US mil never spec’ed it, but nice, still!) – so the button holes gota be sewn on the right place…I think I should photo some of my mods for you guys?

      2. theeverydaycyclist

        Yes. Photos please! Fascinating the mods that you’ve done for a military context seem so applicable to cycling too, if like me you think out of the box.

        Also would like to hear more about your Montague experience.

  4. Banesto PRO

    Hi, I’ll try sending these to the “comments” reply email – there’s four images; also per your post about MOLLE gear – get a Molle vest bdu (e.g. BDU material with all the attachment loops) – then get the 3 day pack (MOLLE) version that will strap to the back of the vests – some are independent cargo pockets that can be done independently – othes no – cycling has the same prob we had in spec ops – keeping weight tight and close to the body to maintain balance and performance…let’s see if the photos go…wil chat about the Montague in another burst…

    1. theeverydaycyclist

      Thanks. I’ll let you know if anything shows up. The MOLLE pack is excellent. So robust and the tabs are great for attaching stuff to. Tripods. Forks. Lights. Locks. Love it.

      1. Banesto PRO

        Hi, if you want, email me at “thelastamericanflyer@gmail.com” and I can send the photos from there…BP…PS…this house “is a-rocking” in London with the “Change Cycling Now” effort…gonna be a “religious revival” there, I think…famous folks popping up right, left and centre!

  5. Gary McKay

    Ooh, ooh, style/usefulness tip…you can find yourself some jeans that are faded really bad (like heavy duty Levi’s or such), cut the back pockets off, then dye them with some olive drab colour (or contrast if you like!) – then sew the pockets on the outside of the armsleeves, just above the elbows (or higher if you like!) – you can also cut some of same jeans material (non-pocket), dye and sew over the elbows for additional “urban warrior” durability – never know when the taxi will get too close, or the faithful steel horse stumbles, casting you upon an unforgiving tarmac–the “jean pockets” are great places to stuff a pen light, clip on light, pen, or handkerchief…the “parachute” BDUs of WWII (US version) were all made like this…think the overpriced (say “more than Scotlands GDP for a year) Brooks riding jacket – go man go!

    1. theeverydaycyclist

      Funny you should mention the Brooks Criterion jacket. Was looking at it before in a combination of horror and amusement. More expensive than my bike! My new jacket? 20 quid plus a few quid for waterproofing spray and arguably more stylish too.

  6. Tim S.

    Another couple of tips (from someone who also thinks highly of items of military clothing for cycling, although no fan of their original purpose):

    – Look for military-surplus stores (ones that stock the genuine items, of course)

    – The caps made for wearing under infantry helmets in cold weather are perfect for under cyclist helmets, too: thin on top, so no problem with fit; side flaps come down and cover jaw line and cheeks when it’s really cold, and no problem with strap of helmet; washable. I bought a few surplus Bundeswehr ones years ago for a few deutschmarks a piece.

    – Practical cold-weather gloves, too

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