Update Spring 2017: Ruffwear has come out with a new version of the Swamp Cooler that features a blue stripe down each side and is designed to be slightly lighter, more absorbent and shorter cut in the back. It also features a leash port in the back.
Price: $59.95 (I bought it for just under $50 during a sale, but have since seen it for much cheaper.)
Sizing and Colors: XXS (13-17″) – XL (36-42″) in gray
Robin has boundless energy in cool weather, but in the heat he’s a different dog. We purchased him a Ruffwear Swamp Cooler cooling vest for full back coverage on hot sunny hikes.
The Swamp Cooler uses evaporative cooling: it’s made of an absorbent material that after a soaking, slowly releases water to evaporation. The evaporating water takes body heat with it, keeping the dog cool in the same way that sweating keeps us cool.
The vest has three layers: a gray mesh lining, an absorbent core, and a tough, fine mesh shell. It’s cut for full coverage, and and fastens simply with one plastic quick release buckle on either side. As always, Ruffwear uses nice-quality buckles with smooth action, but they’re set deeply between two flaps of the vest to prevent accidental skin pinching, and it can be hard to get them fastened on an unhappily damp dog. There’s one small strip of reflective piping on the chest, which is sufficient since it’s rarely hot enough at night for a cooling vest.
The absorbent core soaks up a fair amount of water but doesn’t hold onto it as well as I hoped; any pressure on the vest causes drips even after it’s been thoroughly wrung. Somehow I expected it to be a highly technical layer that locked in and slowly released water, but it’s more like a big, sopping wet sponge. Oddly enough, the outer shell is water resistant, so water tends to run off during mid hike re-wettings.
The open weave of the shell and liner allows sand to become trapped inside the vest, which never seems to rinse out fully, although the shell is also surprisingly durable. The inner liner also picks up foxtails, which become lodged in the absorptive core and have to be threaded back out, leaving snags in their wake.
Ruffwear sizing is a tad inconsistent: Robin wears an XS Webmaster and his Climate Changer is snug, but his XS Swamp Cooler fits him loosely. The vest-style Ruffwear garments seem to run a bit larger than the sleeved-style. It’s cut for full range of motion with large leg openings, and has great back and side coverage, but because it’s long in the back, his curly tail sometimes gets caught underneath it. The belly panel is a little wide for his narrow frame, and water plus friction equals irritated skin: by the time we realized what was happening, he had scabs in both armpits. Fortunately, a temporary hair band fix works well to keep the vest away from his front legs that I’ve put off my planned sewn fix for two years. I do have to monitor the positioning of the hair band, which sometimes travels, leaving him with a new set of blisters.
Robin is usually fine with gear, but he’s never too happy to see this vest come out. He’s pretty dampness-averse and disappears when I start wetting the vest. Fortunately, he typically forgets about it as soon as we start hiking, so I like to carry it to the trailhead in a plastic bag and put it on once we’re ready to go. This also reduces the amount of water we lose to the floor mats, since water easily squeezes out of the vest.
While the Swamp Cooler doesn’t negate the effects of hot weather, it significantly cuts back on his panting, to the extent that I wouldn’t take him daytime hiking in summer without it. There’s no doubt that it works: his fur under the vest is actually cool to the touch. The jacket tends to get pretty dirty on hikes, but it rinses mostly clean in the sink afterward.
We get about 1 – 1.5 hours of wear before it’s mostly dry; the time would probably be longer in a humid climate but since the evaporation is the cause of the cooling effect, it would also be less effective. The biggest drawback is that it’s so difficult to re-wet. In this land of dust and rocks, streams are few and far between, and water dribbled from a hydration pack mostly just runs right off. Our best bet is to unclip the vest and hold the sides up to capture the water, but re-fastening the muddy buckles is a dirty task. I would love to see a redesign with a hydrophilic outer layer.
Build Quality: 5/5
The vest looks almost new after a whole summer of dust, mud and foxtails, except for some dust stains on the belly, and it rinses pretty clean no matter what Robin gets himself into. There are a few snags on the inside where foxtails were trapped, but each time I wash it up after a hike I’m amazed by how clean it gets. The stitching is thorough and tight and the buckles are very sturdy. I’d like to see some changes to the fabric, but the durability and quality are definitely there.
Despite its sand/foxtail and re-wetting drawbacks, the vest has become a can’t-live-without-it summer product for us. It’s been indispensable throughout this 90-110 degree summer and we’ve definitely done some hikes that would have been impossible without it. It’s on the expensive side at $59.95, but I have seen them on sale for closer to $30, and would begrudgingly purchase another at full price if I needed a replacement.
Good for: Indespensible for outdoor activities in warm or hot weather.
Not ideal for: May be less effective on very humid days.
January 2016: updated categories to current format and added new photos.
May 2016: added note about new release and made minor updates.