Consider the plethora of “active outdoor” clothing concerns. Some are re-bakes, or run by greybeards dragged down by corporate inertia, depending on designers who appear to listen only to themselves (or “sponsored” athletes with impractical or downright strange feature requests). A few companies remain exceptional, while others do what I’d term “ok” but mostly repeat the same thing every season.
Once in awhile, someone new comes along.
Enter, Strafe. Beginning with a limited apparel line in 2010, Strafe has grown to a full-fledged clothier with worldwide presence (ISPO for several years now) and a loyal following. Owners John and Pete Gaston are world class skimo athletes who, while still in college, saw a need for technical ski clothing that actually worked for highly athletic skiing, exemplified by the uphill hike culture that’s evolved at resorts such as Aspen Highlands and Bridger Bowl.
In what I’d call a fairly stunning achievement, from scratch, with no experience in the outdoor clothing business, the Gaston brothers put together a full-on brand. That’s everything from manufacturing and warehousing to a corporate HQ that goes way beyond providing the usual startup employee perks. For breaktime, instead of batting nerf balls around the office, they throw powder around up on the ski hill just outside their doors.
The Strafe line is tight and easy to shop, consisting of four categories: Highlands, Nomad, Strafe Women and Recon. Highlands is the lift-skiing oriented side, which we won’t concern ourselves with here except to say if you run cold, it’s worth a look.
Nomad is what I’d call their “freeride touring” line. All Nomad shells are built with a Strafe specified custom fabric, incorporating eVent brand waterproof-breathable membrane.
“We had a 3rd party mill make us a custom fabric for Nomad/Sickbird/Theo collections,” says John Gaston. “We liked the eVent membrane but didn’t think their face and backers were up to snuff, so we bought membranes and sandwiched them between a custom face and backer that we developed with a Japanese mill. The result is all the great qualities of the eVent air permeable membrane but with a significantly nicer face and backer, along with details like matching “tiny tape” to keep seam bulk low, and to make it all look a lot cleaner inside.”
In my view, the big issue with this sort of “freeride” garment-ology is how waterproof do you make it? Can you sit on a ski lift at Crystal Mountain in a drizzle, and stay dry enough not to catch hypothermia while driving home in your unheated 1982 Subaru? Or is it designed more the the aerobic side when your body heat is pushing moisture outboard?
“Water column on eVent is super high at about 30,000mm,” says Gaston. “Less air perm than NeoShell but significantly more waterproofness. I always say if you live in Colorado, go with NeoShell for anything aerobic, but if you live in the PNW, consider eVent. They’re really the only two suppliers investing heavily into air permeable technology, which for someone into ski touring is really the only the kind of membrane I’d ever consider.”
My WildSnow take? Nomad is clearly a multi-purpose freeride collection. If I was combining lift skiing with touring, it’s where I’d go. Clearly a bit heavy and non-breathable for full on “ski touring” however.
Or? I could skip the Nomad jacket as it’s way more than I’m used to, but I could see using the Nomad pant as my go-to for Colorado December through January. This is an excellent jodhpur, with a standard waist under an extended bib made of stretchy breathable nylon. “Pirate Black” would be my color, of course. Downside? The freeride fit is probably too blousy for my taste, though it looks perfect for those of you who want to deploy a bit more fabric — yet climb a skin track without your rubbing knee fabric causing so much friction your pants ignite.
Perhaps the best part of the Nomad collection is the Incubator Primaloft puffy. Well made, basic. More, Strafe didn’t forget baselayers. Tech Hoody is a full zip Polartec number along the lines of those hooded baselayer wonders that nearly every alpinist in the world seems to worship. (Basecamp version eliminates the full zip, nice as well).
Last but not least in our coverage of Nomad collection: For about 5 years Strafe has been setting the ski fashion industry forward (or backwards?) by selling their Sickbird “onesie” one-piece suit. Those of you with a few years under your feet probably remember, around two decades ago onesies were quite common both in alpinism and downhill skiing. Their appeal crashed when companies such as Bogner began outfitting wealthy snowplowers with shiny fringed sequin studded onesies that were so ugly your corneas melted if you looked for more than three tenths of a second. (Here in Aspen, the only exception to corneal damage was when you checked out a chick who went by the name Moguls and seemed to always be warm enough to keep her onsie partially unzipped.)
Onesies designed and used for alpinism have always been easier on the eyes. Strafe’s Sickbird version is more along those lines, though they did ask me if I wanted 20 centimeters of buckskin fringe under my forearms. Did I go for it? I’ll leave you in mystery, dear readers.
Okay, enough on the Strafe freeride items. Where we want to go is with their Recon collection. This is clearly where uber-athletes John and Pete have put the results of extensive real-world testing. Consider their CHAM2 jacket and pants. Polartec Neoshell truly is one of the best breathables you’ll experience. Jacket has waterproof zips, huge napoleon pockets, zippered cig pocket on arm (hey, anything called Cham has to be tobacco compatible!), and the endlessly controversial pit zips are there for you fans as well.
Strafe says their CHAM2 pants are “lightest, most articulated, minimalist, Neoshell…designed specifically for backcountry touring.” I like the zippered hamstring vents (better for deep boot packing), and the internal elastic boot gaiters. And yes Virginia, they come in Pirate Black as well!
Even though the CHAM2 jacket might be the “lightest Neoshell ski jacket on the market” it clearly too heavy for the Gaston’s normal day. Definition of “normal?” Oh, say three or four 4,000 vertical foot skimo training laps on Aspen Highlands. For that sort of thing, enter the Recon jacket and pants, lightweight softshell outers made from stretch woven fabric and DWR treated. Super specialized, the Recon jacket has venting perforation on upper back and underarms. Pants are a thin softshell — they appear perfect for hardcore winter uphilling, or spring ski touring days. If you’re aerobic enough to like this stuff, you know who you are, and that’s many of you.
I’m not sure any of you readers remember, but years ago I began challenging the industry to make some sort of useful pant cuff instead of the meager efforts most “ski” pantalons came with. Perfunctory efforts ensued here and there, but the boot-pant interface is still an issue. Strafe’s solution is a stretchy “Lycra” tube gaiter attached inside the pant cuff. You pull the gaiter over your boot, and cut pre-marked holes for boot cuff buckles you’ll use to change modes throughout the day. This is skimo race heritage, and if set up correctly it works. Is the Strafe cuff worthy of the Nobel Prize in tailoring? Jury out, but we be testing.
Strafe offers a few other interesting pieces as well, along with women’s category that mirrors their design philosophy (pockets you can actually use!). A browse of their website will reveal all. Excellent gear, designed by people who are operating at the top of our sport, at desks ten yards from the snow they ski on.
Shop for Strafe at backcountry.com
WildSnow.com publisher emeritus and founder Lou (Louis Dawson) has a 50+ years career in climbing, backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering. He was the first person in history to ski down all 54 Colorado 14,000-foot peaks, has authored numerous books about about backcountry skiing, and has skied from the summit of Denali in Alaska, North America’s highest mountain.