An epic fat biking and packrafting adventure through the wet and rugged coast of Southeast Alaska served as ideal proving grounds for the Outdoor Research Realm. This new lightweight hardshell jacket took a beating but we came away extremely impressed with its performance. In making the Realm, Outdoor Research stripped away excess, and the result is a jacket offering top-tier protection from the elements with just a 10.9-ounce weight. All in all, the Realm is a versatile jacket that we heartily recommend for uses like backcountry skiing, alpine climbing, backpacking, and, yes, biking and packrafting in Alaska. Below we break down the Realm's AscentShell waterproofing, features, weight, fit, and more. To see how it stacks up to the competition, see our comparison table and articles on the best rain jackets and best hardshell jackets.
From the outset, it’s clear the Outdoor Research Realm isn’t a typical hardshell. Much of the credit goes to its AscentShell fabric, which feels a lot like a stretchy softshell but with 3-layer waterproofing. In selecting a shell, it’s usually a choice between freedom of movement or weather resistance, but the AscentShell nails both. This design translates to excellent range of motion—when raising an arm to climb over some impenetrable Alaskan deadfall, the jacket stayed in place and did not leave our midsection exposed to the pouring rain.
Additionally, the fabric is touted to be waterproof, breathable, and air permeable. We have no objections there and were consistently testing in all three elements while riding in torturously soft sand into a relentless headwind and driving rain. In particular, breathability was fantastic through these long and grueling high-output days. The fully seam taped Realm kept us dry and reasonably comfortable on the inside, on par with what would be expected from a far more expensive performance hardshell like the Arc’teryx Alpha FL. The brushed inner material of the Realm is comfortable against bare skin and doesn’t cling like the fabrics on most sub-$300 waterproof jackets, including OR’s own Foray.
We have continued to test the jacket’s waterproofness under a few more downpours since arriving home from Alaska. On a recent bike commute from the office in Durango, heavy winds blew rain sideways on the final descent to the house, but upon pedaling into the garage my dry work shirt was dry. More, a follow-up test of the AscentShell OR Skyward ski jacket and pants has only increased my confidence in the fabric's capabilities.
The Realm is intended for use in harsh mountain conditions, and has a feature set that reflects this. It starts with a long cut for added protection at the waist. Designed for keeping you dry for skiing and other snow sports, we also found it beneficial for biking since our behind was covered when pedaling. Furthermore, the sleeves are long enough to provide complete protection, and half elasticized cuffs accommodate lightweight gloves or bare hands thanks to easily adjustable Velcro closures.
In terms of pockets, the Realm sticks to the basics: two outer pockets at the chest and one inner pocket. The outer pockets sit high enough so they don’t interfere with a harness, although this does mean you lose out on traditional hand pockets for everyday use. Their YKK water-resistant zippers work smoothly and are easy to operate even with gloves on or with cold hands. The chest pocket on the right is larger than the left and made out of mesh, which can be opened when it isn’t pouring to help with breathability. Inside is another smaller stash pocket, which securely holds a cell phone. And as with some other OR shells we’ve tested, the inner pocket doubles as the jacket’s stuff sack.
A feature we really like is the helmet-compatible hood. It not only works well with climbing helmets, but bike helmets too. The simple three-point cord lock system makes the hood easily adjustable to give it a secure feel with or without a helmet. Additionally, the moldable wire brim is a nice touch that was useful for helping keep rain out. It even protected me from mud as we bushwhacked under a massive root ball on a prolonged bike push.
Weighing an impressively low 10.9 ounces, the Realm hits a great middle ground between ultralight rain jackets and burly hardshells. Its 20-denier face fabric is far more substantial and breathable than emergency shells like the 6-ounce Outdoor Research Helium II or 5-ounce Montane Minimus 777 (see our in-depth review), but undercuts other alpine shells like the OR Axiom by a few ounces. Keeping weight down still makes it suitable for fast and light adventures in the alpine, but the fabric and construction is substantial enough for backcountry skiing or ice climbing missions.
Considering its weight, the Realm’s compact stuffed size isn’t a big surprise. It’s easy to pack the shell away into the interior pocket—which is smaller than a Nalgene—and the sewn-in carabiner loop means you can clip it to a harness or pack. Again, the packed size can’t compete with an ultralight rain jacket, but it’s plenty small enough that we wouldn’t leave it behind on a backpacking trip in the temperamental shoulder seasons.
As we touched on above, the jacket is meant for high-output mountain adventures and has an athletic fit to match. There is no unwanted fabric to bunch up at inopportune times or in unwanted places. And despite the form-fitting feel, the stretch of the fabric allows for layering. We did this nightly with a light puffy underneath while sitting around the fire. For sizing, we do not recommend sizing up for the jacket unless you intend on exclusively wearing the shell over a heavyweight or very puffy midlayer. I got my normal size (a large) and it works perfectly for my needs.
What We Like
- The Realm performed as billed under some of the most rigorous conditions we have ever tested gear in.
- Its low weight and small packed size for a hardshell makes the Realm great for extended treks, but it’s burly enough for backcountry skiing or ice climbing.
- AscentShell is the real deal. It has fantastic stretch without compromising on waterproofing and breathability.
- We love the athletic cut, which is tailor-made for alpine use but can accommodate a midlayer just fine.
What We Don’t
- Barely anything. A slight annoyance was that upon tunneling through yet another muddy root ball to escape some of Alaska’s devious Devils Club, we emerged from the other side with a mud stained Realm. With repeated washings we still haven’t been able to lose the ruddy tint from our lemongrass colored jacket. C’est la vie, I guess, as the jacket is still performing as it did before all of the abuse from the Alaskan bush.
- The lack of lower hand pockets isn’t ideal for daily wear.
|Outdoor Research Realm||$279||10.9 oz.||3L AscentShell||20D||No||Yes|
|Arc'teryx Alpha FL||$425||11.1 oz.||3L Gore-Tex Pro||40D||No||Yes|
|Patagonia M10||$399||8.1 oz.||3L H2No||12D||No||Yes|
|Arc'teryx Beta SL||$299||11.1 oz.||2.5L Gore-Tex Paclite||40D||No||No|
|Montbell Storm Cruiser||$259||10 oz.||3L Gore-Tex C-Knit||20D||Yes||Yes|
With a weight just under 11 ounces and stretchy construction, the Realm blurs the lines between jacket categories. Its alpine performance, however, puts it squarely into the hyper competitive and pricey hardshell market. Compared with stalwarts like the Patagonia M10 and the many offerings from Arc’teryx, Montane, and others, the Realm holds up really well and its $279 price makes it a standout value pick.
Arc’teryx is one of our go-to brands for almost any type of performance jacket, and their closest competitor is the Alpha FL. The “FL” stands for fast and light, and weighing 11.5 ounces, it’s nearly dead-on with the Realm. Both target alpinists and the stretchiness of the Realm does give it a leg up in mobility. The Alpha FL’s 40-denier Gore-Tex Pro shell offers better durability and all-around weather worthiness compared with the Realm, but at $399, it’s unfair to measure them up as true peers. And the almost-there performance of the Realm makes it a great budget option.
Another direct competitor to the Realm is the aforementioned Patagonia M10, a long-time favorite for alpine climbing. The jackets share a streamlined design with minimalist features and low weights (the M10 is lighter at 8.1 ounces) but their paths diverge in construction. The M10 is a 3-layer ultralight hardshell, while the AscentShell and underarm stretch panels give the Realm a softshell-like feel. If weight is your highest priority, go with the M10. But we really like the durability and stretchiness of the Realm, which make it the more versatile jacket.