What I Use: Apparel Edition

This coming January will mark seven years of The Alpine Start. If you’ve been following along all these years, you would have noticed a significant slowdown in the posting frequency in the past three years or so. Most of this can be traced back to December 29, 2016, when I broke both my ankles in a fall — it’s been a slow road of both physical recovery and regaining my lead headspace. I am finally back to where it feels fun to hike up to the crags and climb again, so I’m looking forward to returning to regular climbing this coming season!

In the meantime, I’ve continued trying to stay on top of the latest and greatest gear and keep getting the same question “what’s your favourite kit, and what are you using now after all these years?”

So without further ado, here goes. The most complete list of my current kit I can come up with, Apparel Edition. The rest coming as soon as I can write this stuff.

Base Layers – Uppers and Lowers

I used Merino-based base layers for a few years before switching to Arc’teryx Phase synthetics and I’ve never looked back — in fact, I haven’t even bothered trying anything else as I absolutely love these. I use the SL version in Boxer Shorts, Long Bottoms and T-Shirts. I find these breathe extremely well and dry fast, plus even after six years of regular year-round use, they still keep odour to a minimum. I also have an AR-weight zip-neck that is my go-to long-sleeve.

In terms of socks, I have a couple of dozen various weights and brands and pair them with different boots. My absolute favourites are from Lorpen, which combine Merino with Primaloft fibres for a soft and warm sock with excellent cushioning.

Mid-Layers and Active-Breathable Synthetics – Upper

This is where things get more complicated. There are so many good synthetics available these days that blur the lines between ‘warm base layer’ to ‘breathable mid’ to ‘windproof and burly outer’ to ‘practically a belay jacket’ that it is sometimes hard to choose which combination works best. That said, I do have a few favourites.

Patagonia Nano Air Light Hybrid Hoody

Patagonia’s Nano Air Light Hybrid Hoody is my all-around go-to. The Nano Air insulation on the front provides adequate wind-resistance and warmth for mid-winter approaches, while the open-knit mesh on the back breathes well under a pack and dries quickly. The hood is head-compatible only which works fine on approaches but I find too warm underneath a helmet for climbing — which reminds me, I need to get a Jacket version of this piece! (In between starting to write this, I ordered one and it arrived and I love it as much as the Hoody: these things are phenomenal!)

Mammut’s Rime IN Hybrid Flex Jacket follows the time-tested concept of insulated front, arms and back, with breathable side-panels. The outer is Pertex Quantum Air for good wind-resistance and durability, while the insulation is synthetic Toray 60g. The Rime is noticeably warmer than the Nano Air so I’ll pack this along when expecting windier or colder conditions.

Staying on trend of breathable-insulated pieces is my trio of Arc’teryx Proton Hoodies. This is the most frustrating lineup of jackets from a design perspective as they are all in the same ‘family’ however each has very different features.

Arc’teryx Proton AR Hoody

The Proton AR was first to market and is the warmest of the trio (and apparently discontinued as of Sept 2019). It uses 90g Coreloft Continuous insulation which is very warm, rendering it unusable for me on all but the coldest days — unless I use it as a lightweight belay jacket, that is. The design is excellent with dual chest pockets, two hand pockets and a helmet-compatible hood.

The Proton FL came next and is a much lighter weight, utilizing a lightweight Octa loft synthetic for the fill. The pocket configuration is the same but frustratingly the hood is an under-helmet instead of over-helmet design. This is such an awesome piece with a great cut and superb breathability spoiled by a useless — to me, anyway — hood.

The newest of the line, the Proton LT strikes the mid-way between the AR and the FL. The cut is looser than the FL’s but not quite as generous as the AR. We now have a helmet-compatible hood but have frustratingly lost one of the chest pockets (why?!). The insulation is a mix of Coreloft Compact 60 and 80 which is quite warm but also decently breathable, making the LT useable as a stand-alone jacket on cooler days.

Rant ON: I really wish Arc’teryx would take the features of all three Protons and make just one: the Proton UL (Ultimate) version. It would have the roomy-but-tapered cut of the LT; the large hood of the AR; the low-profile dual chest pockets of the FL; the insulated hand pockets of the AR; a helmet-compatible hood using the hood material from the FL, lightly insulated with the Octa Loft; under-arm, torso-side and back from shoulders-down insulated with Octa Loft; front insulation the Coreloft Compact 80; shoulders and arms in Coreloft Compact 60. Oh, and it would come in bright colours only — who buys outdoor jackets in black or grey anyway?! END rant.

RAB’s Alpha Freak Pull-On is one of the most unique pieces I have ever used. Made from a ‘naked’ version of Polartec Alpha Direct 200 it is incredibly warm but also unbelievably breathable for such a warm layer. The under-helmet hood uses Power Grid for warmth but layers it under Pertex Quantum for superb wind-blocking, which also carries with it the downside of being rather crinkly underneath a hood, and also cutting out most of my hearing. Fit is superb and I love the long sleeves, extra-deep and stretchy hem and long chest zipper. Unique and ideally suited to extremely cold days but irreplaceable when the temps drop below -30C.

RAB Alpha Flux

Much less specialized, RAB’s Alpha Flux is my most often used mid-layer in mid-winter. Fit is excellent thanks to a long torso and arms, and it threads the line between warmth and breathability that lets me use it across most conditions. Alpha Direct 90 is the main insulation, though the side panels and side of the hood are of stretchy fleece. The hood is not designed to go over a helmet but it will stretch enough to do so. Dual hand pockets keep your hands warm on the approach and the abrasion-resistant outer face is durable enough for the occasional bushwhacking session.

Softshells – Upper

I sometimes still find this hard to believe, but I am down to two pieces that I’d classify as softshell: these days I mostly climb in Gore-Tex, but more on that below.

Arc’teryx Acto FL

Arc’teryx’s Acto FL rejoined the lineup in Fall 2018 and immediately replaced all my other lightly-insulated softshells. Fit is somewhat on the odd side — I had to go up a size to a Large from my usual Medium — but once that was sorted I haven’t looked back. Features include Arc’teryx’s typically excellent helmet-compatible hood, two large chest pockets, hand pockets, adjustable hem with HemLock inserts, superb DWR and excellent breathability. Love, love, love it. (Yes, that much.)

RAB Borealis Pull-On

RAB’s Borealis Pull-On is a lightweight, uninsulated, stretchy piece designed as a wind-resistant layer for warm rock climbing days. This makes it a superb layer for cool-weather dry tooling and breezy approaches. It stuffs down into its own pocket and is hardly noticeable until you need it. An excellent choice for multi-pitch rock days when you can just clip it to your harness. It has only one downside, and that is the lack of a helmet-compatible hood.

Hardshells – Upper

As I mentioned above, I can’t quite believe that most of my climbing these days is done in hard-shells. Modern Gore-Tex is breathable enough that I can climb in it without freezing to death from sweat build-up, and the latest and greatest is even stretchy!

Mammut Nordwand HS Flex Hooded Jacket and Pants

Mammuit’s Nordwand HS Flex Hooded Jacket is — as far as I am aware, anyway — the pinnacle of Gore-Tex fabrics and design. This is the first jacket to introduce the concept of fully-waterproof and breathable but stretchy Gore-Tex panels and it has literally changed how I layer for climbing. I have other waterproof jackets, sure, but none afford the freedom of movement that the Nordwand Flex provides. Add in that this newest Gore-Tex is even more breathable than previous iterations and you have a shell that I put on outside the car and wear all the way through the approach, up the climb, and back down the descent. This is also the first hardshell which has a hood I put on and forget about: the stretchy panels allow such freedom of movement that I don’t even notice it’s on. I’m even content to ignore the not-so-optimal pocket configuration (two hand pockets where I would prefer two chest pockets). Superb, and currently unmatched.

Patagonia Ascensionist Jacket

Patagonia’s Ascensionist Jacket has a different first to its name: it’s the first 100% recycled Gore-Tex shell. Featuring Gore-Tex Active with C-KNIT backer, this is an ultralight, highly-breathable shell designed with climbers in mind. Fit is good but not great: the torso and sleeves are long, and the helmet-compatible hood roomy and in-obstructive, but fit through the torso is, let’s just say, somewhat roomy. This could be due to it being Patagonia’s ‘Regular Fit’ so I’d prefer to see it in a more athletic, form-fitting, ‘Slim Fit.’ Fit aside, the breathability is excellent and this is another example of an all-day Gore-Tex jacket that breathes well enough to slog uphill in. Plus it comes in Patagonia’s typically bright and joyful colours.

Finally, my just-in-case hardshell is the Arc’teryx Alpha FL. It’s one of the lightest Gore jackets available, fits superbly with long arms, trim torso and that excellent Arc’teryx hood. One chest pocket and one internal pocket keep weight down, and because this is my mostly-live-in-a-pack shell I don’t even mind the lack of pockets. Plus mine is a bright, bright red!

Hybrids – Upper

The breathability of the latest synthetic fills and waterproof outer shells has given rise to a new wave of functional hybrid shells that blend waterproof fabrics with synthetic insulation to create jackets that work equally well for climbing as they do on belays.

Arc’teryx Alpha IS Jacket

Arc’teryx’s Alpha IS Jacket is the one that introduced me to this genre, and I absolutely love it. Pairing 2-layer Gore-Tex with 90g ThermaTek, this is a jacket that works equally well on approaches, while climbing, and on belays. Matched with the right base layer (and mid, if really cold), this is a piece you can put on and leave on for the whole day. Though the price of admission is steep, I haven’t talked to anyone that has used the Alpha IS who doesn’t rave about its versatility and functionality. Dual-zip with hem snap, helmet-compatible hood, hand pockets, interior drop pockets, chest pocket, Arc’teryx’s typically excellent fit — what more could you ask for? Superb.

Mammut Nordwand HS Thermo Hooded Jacket

Mammut’s Nordwand HS Thermo Hooded Jacket is a mouthful but so is its range of functionality. Whereas the Alpha IS has a nylon interior, the Thermo’s brushed inner is soft next to skin, making this a jacket you can wear over just a t-shirt, expanding its useful temperature range. Pertex Shield Pro keeps it water- and wind-proof, while the breathable Primaloft Gold Active insulation in 100g and 80g breathes well enough to make this an active-climbing layer. Fit is trim and athletic to the point that I can barely zip it up when wearing several other layers; I tend to use this as a climbing layer rather than a belay jacket as a result. The hood is great, there are hand pockets, a chest pocket and two inside drop pockets. Another superb piece.

Patagonia Stretch Nano Storm

Patagonia’s take on all this comes in the form of the Stretch Nano Storm Jacket. Patagonia uses their own 2-layer H2No shell fabric, which is as waterproof as any others I’ve used, but I do feel it isn’t quite as breathable as Gore. Insulation is 60g Full Range, which is stretchy and breathable, and not too-warm. The interior is soft next to skin, as well. The hem is long, and fit is somewhere between the Alpha IS’s looser-cut and the Thermo’s body-hugging tightness. Like the others, there are hand pockets and inside drop pockets, but the Nano has two chest pockets for extra storage. However, the Patagonia is the odd one out as it doesn’t have a dual-slider zipper, somewhat hampering its functionality as a belay jacket, though it does have pit-zips, greatly expanding its useable temperature range. And besides, you could pick up a Nano Storm AND a Micro Puff Storm for the same price as one of the other two…

Closing up the hybrids, Arc’teryx’s Alpha Comp Jacket is long discontinued but I just can’t seem to let it go. Honestly, it doesn’t see all that much use anymore as I feel that the newest Gore-Tex is almost as breathable as this Gore-and-softshell hybrid without the downside of not being fully-waterproof. That said, I’ll still take it along for those days where I’m expecting a long walk in mild-precipitation and don’t require full waterproofness. And I just can’t get rid of it for sentimental reasons.

Insulation, Synthetic – Upper

Arc’teryx Dually Parka

My least used but also most treasured and favourite belay parka is the Arc’teryx Dually. This thing is insanely warm and goes over any other layers, has huge drop pockets, dual-slider zipper with hem snap, and is also incredibly durable. Dual layers of ThermaTek 90g insulation stay warm even when wet: the fibres are treated with DWR as the insulation is spun into shape. To further enhance lofting and eliminate shift, the insulation layers are laminated to the backing fabric. If you were to have only one belay parka — and assuming you regularly spend time at -30C or below — this should be it.

Patagonia Micro Puff Storm

Patagonia’s Micro Puff Storm is quite possibly the best designed belay parka — and save for one small detail I’d call it perfect. The cavernous cut easily accommodates other layers, while the clever internal ‘snow skirt’ keeps drafts out and heat in. The hand pockets are huge and, thanks to mesh backing, double as vents in case you end up overheating. There are two internal drop pockets, and the hood easily fits over other hoods for those really chilly belays. Insulation is Patagonia’s own 65g PlumaFill, which replicates the structure of down but in a synthetic fill: warm enough for most winter days. The outer shell is waterproof 2-layer H2No in a durable 12-denier weight. The dual-slider zipper is a welcome feature, though the jacket lacks that crucial little bit to make the dual-slider truly functional: a snap at the hem. Easily solved with some thread, but a curious omission on what I’d otherwise call a perfect belay parka design.

Filling out my synthetic belay jacket lineup is the newly-arrived but already much-loved Arc’teryx Nuclei FL (Spring 2020 model). Pairing an ultralight outer shell with 65g Coreloft Continuous, this is a perfect shoulder season piece: light enough to take everywhere and warm enough to ward off that unexpected chilly breeze. Fit is loose enough to go over a couple layers, and the helmet-compatible hood is a welcome change from the previous Nuclei FL incarnation. Two hand pockets and dual interior drop pockets keep your hands and gloves warm between burns. One downside: no dual-slider zip. Fix this please Arc’teryx!

Insulation, Down – Upper

I’ve used dozens of lightweight down jackets over the years, and most of them have been great pieces that have kept me warm from mountain tops to city streets, but RAB’s newest Microlight Summit Jacket stands out above them all. The Summit is identical to RAB’s long-running Microlight Alpine but with one key difference: the fabric is a pre-baffled, seamless, version of Pertex Quantum called Infinity Weave. This unique weave eliminates the need for stitch-through baffles, resulting in a warmer, more wind-resistant, lighter and more durable jacket. Fit is excellent with long sleeves, trim torso and generous hem. The hood is, of course, helmet-compatible and even the front zip has dual-sliders for versatility.

On the other end of the spectrum is the Arc’teryx Ceres SV Parka. This is what I wear when the thermometer drops below -35C and for some, often stupid, reason I am still heading outside climbing. The last time I used this parka was back in 2016 exploring the insides of the Athabasca Glacier with Will Gadd — we had a shooting schedule, so we were going out there weather be damned. It was around -40C on the surface yet the Ceres kept me toasty during those long, cold, day. Stuffed with 240g of 850fp down, it’s encased in a Gore Windstopper outer fabric. As you’d expect, fit is Expedition-style, aka it goes over all your other layers and is long enough to keep my butt covered. The hood is massive, and the cuffs will go over large gloves, too. Two insulated hand pockets, dual inside drop pockets, one outside chest pocket and one inside chest pocket keep stuff from freezing. There is a dual-slider zippper, too, and even a hem snap. Perfect.

The middle ground has been occupied for a few years now by a jacket whose name completely eludes me, though I do know it is an adidas Outdoor. It might be the Climaheat or Climawarm or some other random name: adidas has quite possibly the worst naming chronology in the outdoor gear universe. Regardless, this one has staggered baffles for additional heat retention, dual-slider zip (with my home-added snap), dual interior drop pockets, hand pockets, and a chest pocket. The hood is roomy and warm, and the cuffs are the best I have ever seen on a jacket anywhere: stretchy, snow-skirt like openings that keep spindrift out and heat in. I love this thing, and after six years have yet to find a better mid-weight down jacket, anywhere.

Softshell – Lower

While I use a lot of hard shells on the upper these days, I still prefer the breathability and stretch of soft shells over my lower half. The swish-swoosh of hard-shells while walking also annoys me so much I’d rather approach in soft shells and swap to hard shells for the climb. (Exception to this are the Arc’teryx Alpha Comp 2013 hybrids and the Mammut Nordwand HS Flex, which have a trim cut that doesn’t rub.)

For years I climbed in various versions of Arc’teryx Gamma pants (MX, AR, LT) but have switched to the Sigma series as they’ve become available. The Sigma FL seems to strike the sweet spot for me: light and breathable enough to cope with the amount of heat I dump out on approaches, but also windproof and durable enough to withstand typical, wet, ice climbing conditions. I really appreciate the trim cut, but do wish they had two thigh pockets not just the one.

Less weather-resistant but a bit stretchier and even trimmer, the Mountain Equipment Ibex Pant is my hands-down favourite pant for upside-down drytooling and other rock-based antics. The cut is super-slim which is ideal for those moments when your fruit-boots, tools, rope, feet and arms all seem to need to be in the same small space. They’re stretchy, and the brushed waistband is soft and comfortable next to skin. There are two hand pockets and one rear pocket, all zippered, and two zippered thighs pockets, though these have a vertically-oriented zipper which is great when seated or prone, but somewhat awkward to access when upright. Love them regardless.

Hardshell – Lower

Mammut’s Nordwand HS Flex Pants are (obviously) the companion pants to the Flex jacket. Similarly, they utilize the latest stretchy version of Gore-Tex to create a phenomenal waterproof climbing pant. With a trim cut and stretch in all the right places, these pants let you focus on the climbing and not worry about picking the driest line. They have two hand pockets which are low enough to be out of the way of a harness, but I do wish they had a couple of thigh pockets to add some proper storage space.

Aside from that, I have one other pair of fully waterproof pants: the Arc’teryx Alpha SL. These are a lightweight Gore-Tex pant with full side zips. They pack up small and don’t weigh much and only come along “just-in-case” and generally then only on longer overnight trips.

Hybrid – Lower

Arc’teryx Alpha Comp (2013 model)

Arc’teryx Alpha Comp Pants were first introduced in 2013 and updated in 2018. I have both models: both utilize Gore fabrics and technologies for the waterproof portions, and Arc’teryx’s own light softshell material elsewhere. Where they differ is the cut and distribution of fabrics. The 2013’s are mostly softshell through the crotch and upper back thighs, with Gore placed primarily on the front of the legs and on the seat. The cuff are quite tapered, and the fit has a more ‘climbing’ feel to it. The 2019’s address my main issue with the 2013: windproof Gore over the sensitive-bits area (I got into the habit of wearing windproof boxers with the 2013’s). However, the cut is now much looser, feels more ‘ski’ to me. A friend has characterized this fit as ‘Euro’ aka more body-hugging vs ‘American’ aka loose and flowy. In a perfect world, the next version of the Alpha Comp Pant will have the cut of the 2013 version, the Gore patterning of the 2019 and the pocket configuration of the Gamma AR (that is to say dual thigh pockets, not just one). All that said, I use both and just tailor their individual advantages to the conditions. Or, ever since I received them, I just take the Mammut Nordwand Flex instead.

Arc’teryx Alpha Comp (2018 model)

Insulated, Synthetic – Lower

Insulated pants are one of those luxuries of life that you don’t ever think you’d want until you try them — and then, all of a sudden, you can’t imagine life any other way. Such was my initial introduction to the Arc’teryx Kappa Pant when a friend pulled out a pair on a particularly cold day out mixed cragging and we swapped them during belays. I’ve had a pair of these pants ever since (and as Arc’teryx don’t make these anymore, I’m never getting rid of mine!). Full-length side-zips make these easy to get on over crampons or fruit boots, 140g Coreloft insulation is very warm, while the Windstopper outer is both tough and windproof. There is even a ‘belay fly’ so you can access your belay loop with the pants fully done up. Love these.

Worried that my Kappa Pants would someday get destroyed, I sought out alternatives and finally settled on the RAB Photon Pant. Insulated with 100g Primaloft Gold these are plenty warm, and match the functionality of the Kappa with full-length side zips, zippered fly and reinforced knees and seat. Add in two insulated and zippered hand pockets and the balance starts to shift towards RAB. The included stuff sack is another plus, but it’s the slightly lower weight that tips the scale in favour of the RAB pant: these are my go-to warm pants that come along on cold cragging and multi-pitch days alike. (I will freely admit that there have been times when I’ve not wanted to take off my belay pants and keep climbing — they’re that good.) Oh, and did I mention that these are about half the price of the Arc’teryx, too? Superb. (Though, the Kappa Pant is, to my legs, noticeably warmer.)

The Not-so-technicals

Aside from all these, I have a few technical jackets that I use for non-technical pursuits, each for a different reason.

The OR Ascendant Hoody is quite possibly my most-worn Polartec Alpha piece — however, I never wear it for ‘technical’ uses. This is my go-to piece for chilly mornings driving to work, cool evenings by the campfire and as a phenomenal mid-winter tent sleeping layer. The hoody is warm and cozy, and the brushed inner is soft next to skin. The pockets are an awesome place to stash chilly hands. But I absolutely won’t use it for approaches or climbing: the entire piece is 95g/m Alpha which for me is simply too warm to be comfortable in while putting out as much heat as I do when moving. Also, I hate that the hand pockets are not zippered. However, stay somewhat sedentary and this piece rocks.

The Crux Magma Parka somehow made it from being one of my favourite belay parkas to being my favourite around-camp fortress of warmth. The Magma is incredibly warm, with 225-grams of 800fp down stuffed into it, and unbelievably durable: the 80g/m eVent outer shell is fuly waterproof and has so far resisted sharp rocks, bushwhacking adventures, fire-embers and basically just being treated as my beat-the-shit-out-of-it parka. The fit is great over other layers, and the long hem easily covers and keeps my butt warm. There are two hand-warmer pockets and two huge inside drop pockets. The hood is warm and helmet-friendly, and all the zippers are massively over-sized. It doesn’t pack don’t very small, which is probably why it has been relegated to winter camping duty rather than climbing.

Mammut’s Meron IN Hooded Jacket is an ultra-light 900fp jacket that I bought specifically for city use. Yes, I know that sounds crazy but I wanted something super-light and stupidly-warm for use around town. At 330-grams the Meron certainly doesn’t feel like you’re wearing anything at all, and the 110-grams of 90/10 goose down make it more than warm enough for our often-frigid Alberta winters. There are two zippered hand pockets and an inside chest pocket. The sole reason it’s not in my climbing collection but a really damn expensive city puffy? It doesn’t have inside drop pockets. (Call me crazy but I consider that a necessity in an insulated outer climbing layer.)

That sums it up for Apparel. Gloves and Footwear or Climbing Gear coming up next, and there’ll probably be a separate post just for Packs (yes, I know I have a problem).

And, for anyone (aka me) keeping track, the count is:
Adidas: 1
Arc’teryx: 14
Crux: 1
Mammut: 5
Mountain Equipment: 1
OR: 1
Patagonia: 5
RAB: 5

10 thoughts on “What I Use: Apparel Edition

  1. Chris says:

    Thanks for the great read, Raf! I’m excited for winter (as I bet you are, too) and I look forward the old days of the ‘Start!

    • Raf says:

      Thanks — as far as sponsors, there aren’t any. Thanks to readers like you, this site generates sufficient readership for brands to send me gear to write about.

  2. jojoo says:

    Thanks for this in depth review. After all, this is way more meaningful than some review w/o context.

    Looking forward for the next Articles of this series.

    Cheers from the Black Forrest, Germany

  3. Sam says:

    Great write up Raf, thank you!

    Earlier you reviewed the nano-air light hoody, how do you find that hoody compared to the nano-air light hybrid hoody? I guess the hybrid would be even stretcher and more breathable whilst being less warm and wind resistant? Is there much difference in the fit and hood if any?

    Cheers
    Sam

    • Raf says:

      The Hybrid is much more breathable, and definitely stretchier through the mesh on the back and under the arms. It isn’t as warm, but I would say wind resistance is the similar as the outer shell fabric is about the same. The hood on the non-hybrid is also a bit bigger and warmer. (I’ve passed on the Nano Air Light to someone else as I prefer the Nano Air Hybrid much more for the way I use them.)

    • Raf says:

      I’d say they’re about the same, with a slight edge to the Alpha IS for absolute static warmth. However, the Micro Puff Storm has a roomier cut so is better suited to belay duty.

    • Raf says:

      My girlfriend has appropriated the RAB Zero G — which she absolutely loves — while I’ve decided I wanted something more robust than the Infinity G so have stayed with the adidas down.

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