I’m always skeptical when companies set out to ‘improve’ a product, especially if that item is already a favourite of mine. So when Arc’teryx replaced the Solo Hoody — my favourite and most-used belay jacket — with the Nuclei AR, needless to say I was curious to try it out and compare the two directly.
Much has changed in the transition from Solo to Nuclei. Fill is now Coreloft 100 g/m instead of ThermaTek 92g/m, and the outer shell has gained a Windstopper membrane. The jacket is fully seam-taped for near-as-I-can-tell absolute wind resistance, and exemplary water-resistance: the Nuclei AR is almost waterproof. The cut has been substantially altered as well, now noticeably longer in the hem, with longer sleeves and what feels like a roomier body, as well.
The Nuclei AR is surprisingly thin and light given how warm it is — and it is warmer than the Solo it replaces. I suspect much of this has to do with the Windstopper outer as it lets absolutely no wind through and is in fact so impermeable to air that it often balloons when stuffing into a pack or stuffsack (one is included with the jacket, in a matching colour no less). The only downside I can see to the new fabric is that it’s ‘loud’ and tends to ‘crinkle’ a fair bit when moving around. Not a deal breaker but a bit of an annoyance during quiet belays.
I don’t know what Arc’teryx does to their fabrics but the outer shell is, from my experience anyway, impossible to tear. I’ve managed to put holes into several items this winter including a couple synthetic puffies, a down parka or two, and a couple of midlayers, but the Nuclei AR has yet to even show any signs of wear. It still looks as good as the day I first put it on (so does my three-year-old Solo, by the way, and I’m not exactly the most careful person with my gear).
Fit is typical Arc’teryx — which is to say perfect for my build — with a little extra room to fit over layers. This is the most substantial difference as compared to the Solo, which when compared directly to the Nuclei AR feels a touch too tight. The Nuclei’s hem is deep, the shoulders roomy, the sleeves long. Naturally, the hood is the unsurpassed StormHood, easily sliding over a helmet but providing uninhibited mobility while up. The cuffs are finished with a stretchy fabric that creates an almost gasket-like seal over a bare wrist yet still stretches enough to fit over glove cuffs.
The fit is good enough that you could use the Nuclei AR as a stand-alone outer climbing layer in really cold temps. I’m not sure how cold it would have to be, but I think it’d be a fantastic piece for active use somewhere very cold, and very windy.
The two hand-warmer pockets are the best I’ve ever seen, and I do not say that lightly being the pocket-freak I am. They are high up on the waistline, roomy and out of the way of a harness or pack straps. But their best feature is the soft fleece lining along the outer (back-of-hand) side — these pockets are a warm, cozy spot to tuck in a cold, wet pair of hands. A rather tiny water-tight zipper closes each pocket, but thanks to a really nicely-designed, reinforced, laminated section around the zipper, it slides smooth and snag-free. Additionally, the lower section of the zipper sits around 9cm higher than the bottom of the pocket, so if you happen to forget some lip-balm or a bar in there, it will not fall out. Very cool, and I love when there’s this much attention paid to little details!
The biggest downside I can think of is the lack of a dual-slider zipper at the hem. It is also not, somewhat disappointingly, roomy enough to fit over a harness full of kit, though it will easily slide over a harness with just a few items of personal gear. The Solo did not have a double-slider either but it was also a bit wider and shorter at the hem: just enough to stretch over a harness of stuff, I guess. A conspicuous omission in what is otherwise a superbly put-together jacket.
Among other features, there’s a single internal drop-pocket (on the right side! So glad someone is finally over the whole all-pockets-on-the-left thing!) It’s not huge but it’ll fit a water bottle or pair of gloves. There are the usual hood-adjustments, wind-flap, etc but those are all pretty common features on every jacket of this type.
My size medium weighs in at 458 grams, which is pretty remarkable for how warm it is. By comparison, the Solo weighs in at 502 grams but is not quite as warm. The stuff sack adds another 6 grams (the Solo’s stuff sack weighs in at 12 grams).
So, the big question: is it better than the Solo? Yes, I think so (and trust me, I did not want this to be true, I love my Solo!). It’s lighter, warmer, longer, and much more wind and water resistant. It is also more expensive ($470 vs $400 Canadian MSRP) but I think you’re getting what you pay for — a world-class belay jacket, and one that could also be used as a shell layer in very cold, windy conditions.
Pros: warm, light, windproof, highly water-resistant
Cons: fabric is ‘crinkly’, pricy
Overall: My new favourite everyday synthetic belay parka, with superb fit, excellent fabrics and exemplary performance.
Arc’teryx provided The Alpine Start with a review sample, but of course this doesn’t influence our opinion.