Review of the New Rohan Spark Top
Review of the Rohan Spark Top by Peter Clinch
In brief: lightweight insulated pullover top, windproof, water resistant
Weight: 220g claimed, 222g for Medium on my scales (in other words, a fair claim)
Packed size: 620 ml claimed, looks about right stuffed in my measuring jug (in other words, a fair claim)
What you get:
The Spark Top is a very light insulated pullover top. It’s reversible with different colours each side so you get two colours for the price of one. Unlike reversible shelled fleeces there is not really any functional difference in how warm or cool it is when you turn it inside-out so it’s mainly cosmetic, though there’s a small chest pocket which will either be hidden inside or easily accessible outside according to which way out it is. There is a single hang-tag the same side as the pocket which will either be in or out accordingly.
There is a deep neck zip, a slight drop-tail (from waist length at the front), a stand-up collar and the sleeve cuffs are bound with an elastic tape. And there’s nothing else, the driving philosophy apparently being that light weight and low packing bulk should be prioritised over e.g. pockets, drawstrings, side vents etc.
The shell fabric (identical each side apart from the colour) is a thin nylon/polyamide treated with a DWR coating, and those layers sandwich some of Rohan’s own “Insuloft” polyester insulation.
Although Rohan started up making pioneering lightweight kit for the wilds, their subsequent diversification in to travel clothing means they’re sometimes overlooked for that sort of thing these days. The likes of the Elite waterproof, Ultra base layers and Ether trousers have given plenty of evidence that Rohan are still cutting the mustard in this area though, and the Spark Top is another piece in this vein.
Tipping the scales at 220g it’s clearly light, but just how light needs a bit of pause for thought. A technical lightweight base layer T generally comes in at about 125g (65 for Rohan’s Ultra, which they reckon is the lightest going). A plain Pertex windshell with a zip neck is just under 100g, a more fully featured wind jacket like the Windshadow or Rab’s Alpine is around 220g, the same as our insulated Spark Top. In other words, considering you’ve got two layers of windproof shell material and a bit of insulation too it’s reasonably as light as you might possibly get, and packing it away also results in an impressively small package that’ll take up rather less pack space than a spare fleece, even a thin one.
There are two things that make this possible. First is the materials selected, and as Rohan have a long pedigree of finding and developing good stuff we can rest fairly well assured that this is around the best going for the job at hand. Second is the decision to leave out just about anything that could reasonably be left out while still giving a useful bit of kit. Previous light kit from Rohan has tended to hang back a bit from aggressively chopping stuff off, so for example the Ether trousers and Elite waterproof still have “proper” hand/cargo pockets, and with the Spark they’ve gone a bit further, and thus got a bit lighter. It should be stressed that in my opinion they’ve not gone too far: the cut isn’t compromised and the features you do get (the slight drop tail, stand up collar, deep zip and a chest pocket (that doubles as a packing bag) make it an item that’s not just for emergency use or comfort-eschewing weight-weenies.
When it comes to putting it on it’s soon evident that one of the good things about fine nylon shells is they slide on and off very easily, and they also slide past their adjacent layers as you move which adds up to better freedom of movement and less rucking-up. This makes up for no stretch in the garment, except in the binding at the cuffs which let you roll up the sleeves (past the elbow with a little bit of a struggle). The slight drop tail is enough to stop you getting a cold back bending over a bit or on a bike, at least if you’re not in a speed-crouch. The zip is a good deep one and lets you vent the front quite well, and of course it makes it easier to take it on and off. Do it up all the way and the stand up collar will keep a cold draft out of your neck quite well. There’s no elastic at hem or neck to fine-tune draft exclusion but the cut is sensibly close to not really need it (at least on me, obviously others will need to try one on for themselves but there’s no obvious plan to leave loads of room there), but also not too close as to be awkward.
The chest pocket is big enough to stuff the whole garment inside and Rohan have given the zip a puller on the inside too (with a “Packpocket” tag, just in case you forget what it’s for) to help [un]stow it that way, and it’s also usefully big enough for a hat, thin pair of gloves, compass, phone or other such small items you might want to hand.
Back in the 80s Rohan ran a series of ads comparing radical to conservative clothing. Radical Bags versus traditional jeans. Radical Olfio versus traditional Arran sweater. Perhaps the Spark would come in here as the radical sweatshirt? It’s usefully warm but you can’t get something for nothing and part of being very light is not using much insulation, so it’s warm rather than hot. That it’s wind-proof extends its range of how it can be warm (as owners of light windshells will know, cutting out the wind chill can make a bigger difference than adding another jumper), and the DWR coat means it’ll shrug off dreich and light showers reasonably well too, keeping another source of unwanted cooling at bay. Like a sweatshirt you can use it as the main insulation piece or as just another layer, though you’d probably not want it next to your skin (that DWR and the overall construction means it won’t be a great wicking layer) so the analogy isn’t all it might be!
I’ve been using it teamed up with a Microgrid and thin base layer at around freezing, or just over a base when it got to around 6-10 C (but gloomy and windy with it). It’s had quite a bit of drizzle hit it, which has just beaded up and run off. If you get Proper Rain (TM) you’ll be wanting a proper shell if it’s for longer than a few minutes though. Being lightly padded it’ll keep you dry a little longer than a Windshadow or similar DWR coated windshell, but expect miracles and you’ll get… wet. If you do get it soaked it should dry quite fast though, as there’s not really much to hold water.
There isn’t that much out there you can directly compare the Spark Top to. Insulated tops tend to be more towards the warmer end of insulation, one stop before down jackets, but the increasing spread of insulated jackets and pullovers in to milder use to take advantage of their relatively low weight and bulk has meant they’ve now started to displace fleece a bit. In the Spark Top’s case it’s now microfleece territory. Montane have the 280g Fireball and after an (admittedly not truly exhaustive) hunt I can’t really see anyone else playing at this so it is a case of something that really does appear to be new, though evolutionary more than revolutionary as synthetic insulation has developed and been available in lighter fills. The combination of a light fleece’s moderate warmth with wind and shower-proofing at a lighter weight makes it a pretty compelling tool to add to the rucksack.
So can we throw away our fleeces? You can, but I don’t think you should… A microfleece might be a little heavier and bulkier, but in being substantially less wind-proof it’s a lot more breathable. Weather resistance remains a two-edged sword, and aside from the plain air permeability side of breathability the upside of a DWR in preventing easy penetration by raindrops is the flip-side of preventing easy penetration and subsequent wicking, spread and evaporation of liquid sweat. In other words, a Spark Top is going to get clammy inside a lot more readily than a fleece, so while it’s a great light combination of mid and outer, if you’re using a mid layer all day under a hard shell a microfleece or similar is probably a better idea, and shelled micropile/fleece might be better for bouts of higher activity using a single garment. And compared to a fleece the Spark isn’t the sort of thing to slounge around at home or the pub in, it’s for outside (and I don’t just mean the looks, it’ll reduce the DWR’s effectiveness if you use it for everyday).
Rohan say “durable”, and while I couldn’t sensibly test that in a formally destructive sense and I’ve not yet had anything from them that wore out quickly, we’ve got to face the facts that a very light nylon shell isn’t going to, say, let me thrutch up granite chimneys with quite the same confidence of it coming out the other side I’d apply to my old Ultrafleece cragging jacket.
These relative shortcomings are nothing to do with the Spark being a bad design, rather it’s a consequence of design choices meaning it does some things better than others, and the others being the sort of thing where you might do better with alternatives. In other words, just as with any other bit of outdoor kit, you choose, you lose…
Reading through this review so far I doubt a reader will have much idea of how good I think the Spark Top really is. I’ve listed a pile of facts and noted its reasonable limitations, but in use it’s one of those things that effectively disappears, and there’s actually little you can say of this sort of thing that amounts to higher praise. Its slick material and very light weight means it doesn’t limit or hold you so you can just get on with what you want to do, feel sensibly warm while you’re doing it, and that’s it… Look elsewhere if you want lots of adjustment, venting options, cargo pockets etc., but for very light, low bulk, usefully weatherproof moderate warmth this is a really great piece of kit. Just remember when you look it over that a lot of what you’re paying for is the degree to which there’s hardly anything there! Trying it on gets you straight to the fact that being very light maps to more comfort, and it’s comfortable in your pack as well compared to carrying something heavier and bulkier.
This is a very good piece of kit that, to my mind, hits its goals tremendously well. Chapeau, Rohan!
Note from Rohantime: It is the intention that all first reviews of new Rohan gear on Rohantime will be undertaken by Rohanists who have an understanding of outdoor gear, the fundamentals of keeping warm, dry and safe on the hills, an appreciation of Rohan’s core values and how they are expressed in the clothing and a working knowledge of similar products that are available. These reviews, will represent a fair and balanced evaluation.
Thank you Pete for producing this comprehensive review. A really big thank you to Chantelle Eisma-Clinch for the photo’s and Roos Eisma for talking the lovely photo of Pete and Chantelle.