A Year with the High Tail Designs Flagship Shell
It was very strange backpacking this year; I did my best to find places that I could walk in solitude but it turned out to be harder than I expected. For the most part the people I ran into were very responsible for keeping distance and face holes covered. It was also challenging to really put the Flagship to the grindstone, so I’ll be treating this as a preliminary review of one of the most mind-blowing pieces of gear I’ve had the privilege to get my hands on.
A Few Words About High Tail Designs
I was initially drawn to this company by the eye-pleasing aesthetic of their insignia which immediately reminded me of my all time favorite novel “Watership Down”, and the fact that they were based in Christiansburg, Va, and the colorful painting-like designs that fit my hiker-trashiness perfectly. I since have taken it upon myself to collect them all, Pokémon style. The ordering process was a delight. I really felt like I was in one of those Italian suit maker shops of old and Conor was the artisan; together, he and I going over every measure to insure a proper glove like fit. This was incredibly important to me for a few reasons: first I had never spent that kind of money on any piece of gear before, I had no experience with DCF, I had no trust in breathable waterproofing, and finally, being a stick bug, fit has always been an issue. Conor instilled the confidence that I was in good hands. I was not disappointed.
The Materials and Design
The shoulders and 3-paneled hood are made from opaque gray DCF. This allows for abrasion resistance from your pack and more robust water proofing where it’s needed most...cause you know...rain falls down. There’s a thin elastic cord that runs the perimeter of the hood opening allowing you to adjust how the hood encloses on your face and is controlled by plastic hardware which sits on orange tape to prevent abrasion. This is run thru the nylon border of the hood. There’s also the same thicker orange tape like material (DCF?) on the top of the hood forming a kind of brim which gives the hood some structure. It’s finished with a very pleasing insignia badge of the same brim material behind the neck. Below the shoulders is where the magic happens. Through some kind of materials science alchemy engineering on Mt. Olympus, breathable DCF was conjured up. The real name of this skin like fabric is a string of numbers and letters that I don’t have the expertise to understand. This material has a wispy nimbus cloud color and is very thin. It’s not crinkly like the shoulders but pliable with an inherent softness to it. This material runs down the sleeves and body of the shell finishing at nylon cuffs on the wrists and waist. The cuffs can be adjusted with a riveted plastic snap which is reinforced by more of the orange tape. The waist is adjustable in the same manner as the hood perimeter, with a single pull above the tail bone. This all comes together with a really solid feeling zipper that moves with authority. The Flagship is fully seam-taped and total build quality is immaculate, there’s no messy seams or stickiness from the tape any where. For lack of a better description, and I quote; “you look like time a traveler man”... I feel like one.
It fits like it was made for me. This is because it was. I went for a sleek athletic fit because my furnace won’t allow me to layer.
This is really hard for me to put into words because in my 18 yrs of backpacking I’ve always been under the impression that, one way or the other, your always going to get wet when walking in the rain, it’s fluid dynamics...maybe (I didn’t major in physics). I’ve owned only 3 rain jackets for walking over the years: Frog Toggs (shredded by the time I made it to uncle Jonny’s), Marmot Precip (survived my thru and still kickin' to this day), and Antigravity Gear (like the function, didn’t like the fit, but I thought this was the best for me and still use it in cold weather). The Flagship's technology is on such another level it truly confuses my feeble monkey brain. It just doesn’t seem possible. I don’t get wet...at all! First it has no affect on what you were wearing before it started raining, you can just put it on without predictive de-layering for temperature control. It breathes like a rain forest, somehow releasing perspiration out into the atmosphere while keeping the falling torrent out. Even on days when the air is heavy with humidity and mist it breathes on, seemingly defying the concentration gradient of osmosis. On multiple occasions I’ve walked with my head in the clouds for miles after the rain has ceased, only realizing I still have the Flagship on once my head has remembered the body that it’s attached to. It doesn’t feel plasticky or clammy. It moves with you perfectly and doesn’t ride up down or around. The wrist snaps and elastic adjustments are exactly the type of minimalism I look for and want in a rain shell (I don’t like stretchy cuffs). It’s never soaked through, even in storms I’d consider dangerous to be walking in. It shows no signs of wear from my shoulder straps or hip belt but I haven’t, and wouldn’t, subject it to wild bush. The Flagship is very easy store in your pack; you can roll it up to about the size of a soda can or, as I prefer, fold it flat to take up as little space as possible in a “shovel pocket”. I swear it’s imbued with elf magic and was built in Lothlorien.
Criticism and Uncertainty
I’m not sure about the long term durability and can’t comment on it due to my lack of knowledge and experience with DCF and the 73 miles I was capped at due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The hood brim still requires one to wear a hat to keep your face rain free. I had to slightly adjust my layering scheme; in the past I’d rely on my rain jacket for being that last layer in camp for staying cozy, this wouldn’t work with the Flagship Shell because of its breathability (petty). Lastly and with a bit more pettiness, there’s a bump that the zipper creates when zipped at my mid section that catches my eye when staring at my feet, but to be fair I have the posture of an early hominid.
Dope! Best performing piece of equipment I own (sorry closed-cell foam pad but you’ve been dethroned). I really couldn’t be happier with the build quality, fit, and design. Also a huge sloppy pre-pandemic hug to the team at High Tail Designs, now of Philly Pa, for the hard work and person hours it must have taken to build this amazing technological artistic physics breaking rain shell.