I’ve been reviewing outdoor gear for well over two and a half decades now, but never before have I been asked to walk through a car wash in order to test out some weatherproof clothing. Which basically meant that when the question was posed, I had to say yes. Just so I could tick this off my bucket list if nothing else.
These days I’m based in Devon, where I am lucky to have, virtually on my doorstep, Dartmoor, Exmoor and some particularly rugged sections of the South West Coast Path – all of which are liberally lashed by rain on a regular basis, not to mention blasted by unforgiving winds – so I don’t have any problems finding suitably testing terrain for putting stuff such as hiking boots and waterproof jackets through their paces.
One week in August, however, a research project took me to London. While I was there, Gore-Tex invited me along to the American Carwash on Great Eastern Street in the Big Smoke’s East End to try out some shell layers, boots and other apparel from various brands, all of which employed the original, well-known breathable, waterproof membrane in their construction. Suitably intrigued and further enticed by the promise of some good food either side of my potential soaking, I accepted the slightly odd offer.
So after showing up in Shoreditch – home of hipster culture, good coffee and, apparently, human-friendly car washes – I was pointed towards a rack of clothes and invited to climb into some garments of my choice. There wasn't much left in my size, but soon I was suited in some very high-end gear from the Norse Project Arktisk range (including a silvery-white 3-layer Gore-Tex jacket and trousers combo) and booted in a pair of mid-height hoofs from Adidas Terrex (both retailer links).
It was all lovely gear, but so incongruous amid my concrete jungle surrounds that I felt (and, indeed, looked) like one of those forensic experts that shows up at crime scenes in police dramas – a sartorial style sealed by the pair of clear goggles I was subsequently handed by the politely grinning PR people.
The day was mercilessly humid, and while Gore-Tex is demonstrably breathable, there are definitely limits to its powers. Funnily enough, these expensive 3-layer waterproof shell layers were not designed for wearing while standing in the full glare of the sun on a hot street corner in the middle of August, so I was very relieved when it was my turn to enter the manmade cascade.
Thankfully, I was not immediately bullied and buffeted by giant brushes coming at me from the sides and above because it was not that sort of car wash. (Apologies to any sadists out there who have only read this far in the vain hope that we were going to get thoroughly squished and squashed during some sort of painful Charlie-and-the-Chocolate-Factory style horrorshow, whereby the last one left alive would inherit the car wash.)
I was, however, subjected to the sustained onslaught of lots of waterjets, squirting at us from all angles, some of them pretty powerfully (hence the goggles). And, lo and behold, when I merged, my undergarments were as dry as a dad joke in the desert – although my face was shiny and clean.
The thing is, I know very well how Gore-Tex works. Last October, I spent four days fastpacking the West Highland Way, during which the Scottish sky did nothing but throw water at me (with the kind of energy that would make the car wash weep with envy) and the Haglöfs LIM ZT Shell GTX Pro Pants and Jacket (both retailer links) I wore throughout that adventure kept me bone dry, thanks to this marvellous membrane.
I also appreciate that there are various types of Gore-Tex – including Gore-Tex Pro – and that it can be applied in a number of ways, with different levels of layering, all of which can make the garment in question better (or worse) for wearing in particular conditions, locations and situations, and that almost none of those scenarios involve a car wash in the middle of a capital city.
But does that really matter? Obviously I’d much rather test outdoor kit in the hills, moors and mountains – and that’s what I do 100% of the time when I’m not walking through car washes in expensive jackets – but you definitely can use a manmade machine to assess the performance levels of a piece of kit; factories do it all the time. And I must admit, there were some advantages to this city set-up – not least, being able to get hold of a killer coffee straight after peeling my protective layers off instead of crawling into a damp tent and trying to spark up a camping stove.
And it gave me pause for thought, too. Because I’m nasty, I’ve spent years sniggering at people wearing high-end outdoor gear in urban settings, but for one day at least, I had joined them (albeit in the strangest of ways). But it turns out karma had been waiting for its moment to strike. As soon as I had given all the Gore-Tex gear back, the sky darkened, the day broke, and I had to walk around town in torrential rain, looking enviously at people in their nice breathable waterproof jackets.