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Gear Review: Rab Alpha Direct

image000000No matter what winter outdoor activity you participate in, the main challenges are always to stay warm and dry.  It can be quite the struggle to achieve this equilibrium given the environmental conditions that are thrown at you on the mountain, the slopes, or even the trails at the Nature Center.  Everyone wants to be warm and toasty when they hike in winter, but if you become too warm, your body needs to start sweating in order to keep cool.  Of course, the first instinct is to shed a layer which helps if you’re slogging up the relentless uphill pitch of your favorite mountain or large hill. In other situations though, you just start to get doggone chilly! I have definitely been “that guy” on many a winter hike or snowshoe trip that has to stop every 5 minutes to keep putting on the layer I just took off the last time I stopped.  Ever since I was a young lad working on the potato farm on the Emerald Isle, I have long dreamed of a jacket that would be both breathable enough to expel the heat created while working hard and insulating enough that I would not freeze my fanny off when I stop to take a break.  Well, my fine feathered friends, do I have good news for you: I finally was able to experience such a magical coat this winter!  It’s the Alpha Direct Jacket from our good friends over at Rab.

The jacket gets its name from the Polartec Alpha insulation.  This is a synthetic insulation that is highly compressible, made of highly lofted knit fibers (almost feels like high pile fleece on the inside) that keeps moisture vapor moving freely throughout that increases overall air exchange and speeds up drying time.  This allows the insulation to keep from over saturating and turning into a sponge which I have experienced while using traditional synthetic insulation material.  It is definitely the most water repellent of any insulation material I have ever used.

Jacket at First Glance

-Maybe the best fit I’ve ever found in a synthetic insulated jacket. I’m 5’8”, 170 pounds with an athletic build and the medium fit me like a glove.  It is trim enough that it layers easily underneath a hard shell when needed, but not tight to the point that I can’t wear it out in public.

-One chest pocket on the16178743_10158003463420005_8905867791651398461_o outside with two hand-warmer pockets high enough to be used when wearing a backpack hip belt or a climbing harness.

-Insulated under the helmet hood. Great because over-the-helmet hoods look huge and barely stay on your head when not wearing a helmet (plus not everyone wears a helmet when doing winter activities!)

-Rab chose to forego an inside liner for this jacket. At first I was skeptical, but then quickly changed my mind after I noticed how soft and warm the Polartec Alpha material feels directly on the skin.  I think this helps expedite drying time and moisture release even more so!

-It may have the best length sleeve with thumb loops I have come across.  The thumb loops are fleece lined and great when putting sleeves through another layer or for extra hand warmth, but are still a good length that the sleeves don’t bunch up when you’re not using the loops.

-May seem silly, but I like the two tone blue that my jacket came in.  I really like blue and this made it seem less in your face

The Alpha Direct out in the “Field

I first used this jacket back in December on a three mile run on a windy day with temperature in the teens.  Beneath it I wore a short sleeve Ibex wool base layer that was all! When I first stepped out of the car I immediately feel the teeth chattering kind of cold creep into my shoes.  If only they made Polartec Alpha socks! (Heath, if that catches on, I’d like 1% of all sales worldwide.)  Anyway, despite not advertising any wind resistance, I found the Pertex Microlight outer fabric does a fine job with this.  I honestly finished the run sweat-free despite running at a good pace for all three miles.  A couple times I had unzipped the front of the jacket about halfway to let some heat escape, but overall I was very comfortable the entire run.

Over the course of December and January, I wore this for a good number of shorter day hikes, ranging from 3-6 miles depending on the day and what I had time for.  Most da16299599_10158003585010005_6874443317420259073_oys, when the weather was in the 20’s and 30’s, I was totally fine wearing just my short sleeve base layer underneath.  I prescribe to the hiking style of finding a sustainable pace that I can maintain with ease in an effort to just keep moving and to minimize breaks.  So when I would stop, it would only be for a minute or two, but even when on these short rest breaks, I never noticed any drop in core body temperature like you can find when taking a hike stop without adding any additional layers. Again, still amazed at how dry I would be when finishing up these short hikes. Even when hiking near zero degrees my body still finds a way to sweat if I work hard enough.  I would sweat some while wearing the jacket, but the moisture was always able to escape through the jacket and keep me from soaking through my base layer(s).

Now for the real reason I got this jacket: my winter trip to summit Mt. Washington with the University of Cincinnati Mountaineering Club! The three previous times I have summited this mamma jamma, by the time I reached the top, my base layers were either soaked, near soaked, or down right icy which is terribly dangerous in that type of winter alpine environment.  This time however, I was actually dry when I reached the summit! Like they always say, fourth time is the charm… I’m sure someone has said that.  I started my hike with my Ibex merino wool short sleeve base layer and a Rab long-sleeved Merino/polyester blend (MeCo) hooded base layer because I know that I needed to start cold to keep off sweating as long as possible.  When starting a winter activity in which you know your body will warm up after some from exertion, don’t be afraid to start a little chilly. You will warm right up.  Eventually, I needed a little more warmth, so I threw on the Alpha Direct Jacket and chose not to zip it up seeing as we were still hiking uphill.  Once we reached tree line, we met some icy winds so I threw on my Gore-Tex shell jacket and that layering combo kept me warm enough without overheating all the way to the summit! (If you are more interested in Mt. Washington during winter, I wrote a blog about it this time last year! It will be in the blog archives from February 2016.)

Since then, I keep wearing it on my little winter sojourns to commune with the trees and listen to the babble of the brooks in my free time.  Whether it’s near zero and I wear it with a hard shell, or it’s in the upper 40’s and I can get away with just a t-shirt underneath, there is such a wide range of conditions and acti16300059_10158005272260005_1705066003377294848_ovities for which I can wear the Alpha Direct jacket.  I plan on definitely continuing to use it as my go-to winter mid-layer and looking forward to chilly spring and fall days where I can use it as a standalone jacket.  This summer I am taking a 4 week road trip out west and I plan on bringing it as my “just in case” jacket if we run into any 40 degree or lower nights while in the mountains or on the chilly Pacific Coast.  The versatility of this jacket is what makes it worth its weight in gold (which is actually only about 17 oz.!) Given the right conditions, I think I will end up using this bad boy for about 8 months out of the year.  That’s pretty darn worth it in my mind, especially if the trend of having warmer winters continues and you find yourself reaching for that giant puffy less and less.

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Gear Review: Outdoor Research Aspire Jacket

by: Kayla McKinney

Gear Review: Outdoor Research Aspire Jacket

I first purchased my Outdoor Research Aspire jacket in 2014 and have worn it extensively since. I have taken it on many trips, in a wide variety of conditions, and therefore I feel credible enough to give you my review of the jacket!

*Note: The women’s version of the jacket is the Aspire, and the men’s version is the Foray. This review can be applied to both versions of the jacket. One main difference: the Foray has a zippered chest pocket, whereas the Aspire has a zippered arm pocket. There is also a shell pant version of the Aspire and Foray.

Let’s begin with a quick run down of the facts and features of the jacket:

Feature Facts:

This jacket is primarily meant to be a hard shell, meaning it is highly water, wind and weather proof. You want to use it as your outside layer to protect you from the elements.

Fabric: GORE-TEX® with Paclite® product technology 2L, 100% polyester 50D plain weave

Weight: 13.7oz / 388g (for size medium)

Awesome Features:

Fabric Performance: Waterproof, Breathable, Fully Seam-Taped, Laminated Construction, Windproof.

Design Features: Fully Adjustable Hood, YKK® AquaGuard® Zippers, Internal Front Stormflap, Hem-To-Bicep TorsoFlo™ Venting, Zip Arm Pocket (chest pocket for the Foray), Zip Hand Pockets, Left-Hand Pocket Doubles as Stuff Sack, Carabiner Loop.

Functional Details: Double-Separating Center Front Zipper, Pocket Placement Above Harness, Hook/Loop Cuff Closures, Elastic Cuffs, Elastic Drawcord Hem.

Personal Use and Favorite Features:

So yeah those are the facts but let me tell you about my personal experiences with this jacket and why I think it’s a good choice as a versatile, comfortable, completely dependable hardshell:

So protected while trekking across the Fimmvörðuháls pass in Iceland, June 2016

So protected while trekking across the Fimmvörðuháls pass in Iceland, June 2016

I have worn this jacket in every season, and in every type of weather condition. I am a small, light weight female, 5ft 6in, whose primary outdoor interests are backpacking and rock climbing. I tend to be more sensitive to cold, and don’t sweat as much as my peers. This jacket suits me perfectly because it has been reliable in all weather conditions, meaning I did not get wet to my skin when I hiked all day in the rain, nor did I sweat excessively inside the jacket because of the efficient and well placed ventilation zips! The jacket has zippers from the base of the armpit all the way to the end of the jacket, and can be unzipped from the top and/or bottom. Unzipping from the bottom up allows for “poncho-style ventilation” if you need more than just the armpits unzipped. It’s breezy without letting the rain/snow/hail/dirt/whatever come inside. The pockets are placed high enough that you can wear a harness and still have pocket access. The storm hood is highly adjustable and can be cinched on both sides, and the back, with a visor-like cover for comfortable face protection. They were so nice to even put a soft fleece layer near where the jacket rests on your chin. Basically, the jacket is versatile enough to maintain ideal body temperatures in varying conditions.

Protected in foggy weather in the Gosaukamm, Austria, August 2016

Protected in foggy weather in the Gosaukamm, Austria, August 2016

Another awesome aspect is that the jacket folds into it’s own pocket, on the left side, into it’s own zipped up bag with a carabiner loop. It is easy to stuff and can be stored in a pack easily.

Fit and Other Uses:

The jacket is also lightweight and comfortable to wear, and doesn’t feel like you’re wearing a thick trash bag as I’ve experienced with shells in the past.  It can be cinched on the sides for a closer fit, but is also roomy enough that I can fit several layers underneath the jacket as well. I wear it as a lifestyle jacket in the fall and spring as well because it blocks the wind and is fairly warm as a light jacket on its own. I also wear it on evening bike rides, or almost every time I ride my moped to protect me from the wind.

Long-Term Durability:

Olivia and I both rocking the Aspire on the summit of Mt. Marcy, in New York, late November 2015. Purple may be the coolest color version of the jacket, just saying.

Olivia and I both rocking the Aspire on the summit of Mt. Marcy, in New York, late November 2015. Purple may be the coolest color version of the jacket, just saying.

I have almost worn this jacket for two years now, and I have treated it with Durable Water Repellent, DWR, treatment twice. The jacket was initially created to be waterproof, but with excessive use, dirtiness and aging, this coating can fade. As with any waterproof clothing, I recommend treating your jacket after significant use. I have not seen any rips, tears, broken zippers, or any type of warranty related issue. The jacket is still in high quality shape. But if a problem ever did arise, Outdoor Research has an incredible warranty. It is known as the Infinite Guarantee, which insures and protects your gear forever and regardless of the issue. In my opinion, it is the greatest warranty in the outdoor industry and speaks volumes of the integrity of Outdoor Research as a company and gear producer. For more information and exact language of the Infinite Guarantee refer to this link.

Overall, I highly recommend this jacket to anyone in need of a reliable, versatile waterproof, windproof hard shell that they want to last them in many conditions and over many years.

I would share photos of the countless times I’ve worn this jacket in the rain, but I have never wanted to take my camera out for a photo in such conditions, so you’ll just have to take my word for it.

For more information on the Aspire jacket, visit the Outdoor Research website page: