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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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Demystifying the Modern Rain Shell

By: Goatman

Autumn hiking: the trees blazing from inside out, the air purified by chilled winds, the campfire smelling like it should. Autumn seems a beautiful time to spend your time wandering around the woods. And then the rains come. Unlike a nice, refreshing summer shower, the rains of fall don’t play nice. They bite and they seep into your bones and set teeth to clacking around. Getting caught in the wrong storm this time of year can be dangerous. Enter the rain shell, an autumn hiker’s best friend. Not to disparage the storms of other seasons, of course.

Much like the shell of our turtle friends from whom we take much advice, a rain shell means protection from harm. Whether it be rain, snow, wind, or cold, modern shells are designed to keep you alive, dry, and moving. There are times when staying in the tent, playing cards, and drinking hot cocoa sounds marvelous. The reality of the situation is that hikers don’t often have that sort of luxury. Hikers gonna hike and, more often than not, moving through a storm means moving to safety. So we throw on a rain shell and move, down the ridge, away from the menacing black clouds and the lightning on the balds.

When you hike (or bike or kayak or whatever you’re doing out in the wild) you sweat. So what’s the use of keeping the rain off if you’re just going to swim in your own slop? So, waterproof, yes, but breathability is also a major issue when choosing a rain shell. The purpose of this blog post is to help you find the right shell for the right purpose. This process can be confusing for a few reasons:

1: “Waterproof” does not mean waterproof. Confused? Good. A little confusion is good for the brain. Makes for good learning. A truly waterproof shell would be a terrible choice for the trail. To be truly waterproof, the material would have to be impermeable, meaning that no water can get in, but no water escapes either. That’s no good. That’s a sweaty plastic sack. So what we’re looking for is more accurately called “highly water resistant” but “waterproof” sounds shorter and sweeter so that’s what they call it. And there are levels to this, of course. To be called waterproof, a material must meet certain criteria. The measure of waterproofing is called Hydrostatic Head, which is fancy talk for how much water they can stack on top of a material before it starts to leak. 1,000 mm = “waterproof”. Will a 1,000 mm rain shell keep me dry if Zeus decides to unleash his fury on poor Goatman for looking crossways at a thunderhead? No. Serious weather rain shells rate more along the lines of 10,000 to 20,000 mm (that impermeable sack we spoke of earlier would be 40,000+). That’s about as technical as this article is going to get. I’ll throw some links down at the bottom for those who want to delve deeper into the science behind it all. What I’m getting at here is that a tag that says “waterproof” on a jacket can mean a variety of different things. Gore-tex vs eVent vs Pertex Shield+ vs H2NO? Here at RRT, we can tell you the difference in waterproofing between our styles of rain shells. Come in and ask. I dare you.

2: But can we tell you about breathability? If you liked the slightly complicated nature of waterproofing, you’re going to love the absurdly complicated nature of breathability! At least in this case, breathable means just that: allowing the passage of air and moisture. You hike, you sweat. Best case scenario, your sweat evaporates and, water vapor being smaller than raindrops, escapes from your rain shell through the tiny holes in the “waterproof” fabric. So there must be some way to test how much water vapor escapes from the material. Of course there is. There are a few ways actually and not one standardized test across the industry. Different companies, different materials, different tests. Do different tests test the same thing? Sort of. They all tell you how much water vapor passes through material. Do any of them simulate wilderness conditions in which you are bouncing off of trees and rubbing bellies with granite and sweating at different rates, in different humidity, on a different mountain, in a different country? No. Nature isn’t a controlled laboratory (thank goodness). So we leave the lab and go out in it and let our skin do the testing. And the companies would agree. They all have their labs but they also have their athletes out in the bush, getting it done.

As I mentioned before, we carry a variety of rain shells at RRT. Below, I will break down the differences, similarities, and various uses of each shell. Remember: these are words on the Internet. If you really want to experience the thing itself, come in and talk to one of us, try on a couple of styles, and see what is going to work for what you want to do.

rab-latokCompany: Rab Style: Latok Alpine

Waterproofing: eVent   Layers: 3   Weight: 18 oz.

 We’ll start with the big boy: Rab’s Latok Alpine, store favorite for keeping you dry in the worst conditions. Designed, as the name suggests, for protecting you on exposed alpine climbs, the Latok Alpine is serious protection. It boasts the highest breathability and is rugged to boot. Going on a mountain-climbing trek where you’re guaranteed to get dumped on for days and want a shell that won’t give out on you, no matter how much punishment you put it through? This is it. At 18 oz., this is also the heaviest shell we carry. Perhaps overkill for an afternoon hike with 50% chance of rain.

 

rab-xiomCompany: Rab   Style: Xiom

Waterproofing: Pertex Shield +   Layers: 3   Weight: 15 oz.

We go lighter from there with Rab’s Xiom. Great jacket to throw in your pack on a long backpacking trip. It’s still Rab and still 3 layers, so the durability is there, but at less than a pound the Xiom won’t weigh down your pack when the sun comes out. Added pit zips make this a highly waterproof and breathable design. Pertex Shield + is Pertex’s highest end fabric for weight and performance.

 

 

 

bergenCompany: Rab   Style: Bergen

Waterproofing: eVent   Layers: 3   Weight: 19.6 oz.

Think of the Bergen as the Latok Alpine’s big brother. It weighs more because it’s bigger and more roomy for more fully fleshed out individuals. If you find the athletic cut of modern rain shells restrictive, fear not! The Bergen is here. All of the advantages of breathability and waterproofing of the eVent liner are still apparent in this jacket. For a couple of ounces more, you simply have more room to be comfortable.

 

 

 

 

zetaCompany: Arc’teryx   Style: Zeta LT

Waterproofing: Gore-tex   Layers: 3   Weight: 11.8 oz.

Arc’teryx doesn’t mess around. A three layer shell at less than 12 ounces, cut to fit the body in motion, with heavy duty Gore-tex lining. Arc-teryx construction is unmatched in the business and, despite its low weight, this shell can take a beating. Though not as breathable as eVent or Pertex Shield, this shell is still a contender for lightweight backpacking in any condition you can throw at it. If you’ve never tried on an Arc’teryx piece, do yourself a favor. These guys know exactly what they’re doing and they do it very well.

 

 

 

or-forayCompany: Outdoor Research   Style: Foray

Waterproofing: Gore-tex   Layers: 2.5   Weight: 16.3 oz.

OR makes some great gear and the Foray is no exception. Gore-tex is big papa when it comes to waterproofing. They were there first and they still do it like they mean it. Sheds water as well as the Latok Alpine and, while losing a bit of breathability, also loses a few ounces. Any advantages to that? Sure. A bit warmer of a jacket can be a good thing in the cold. This is another shell meant to handle whatever you throw at it. They add two way pit zips to compensate for the loss in fabric breathability.

 

or-aspireCompany: Outdoor Research   Style: Aspire

Waterproofing: Gore-tex   Layers: 2.5   Weight: 13.7

The Aspire is the women’s specific OR shell that is much like the Foray for men, but fit specifically to a women’s curves. Gore-tex knows not gender, so you’re still getting a heavy-duty severe weather jacket with the Aspire.

 

 

 

 

or-heliumhdCompany: Outdoor Research   Style: Helium HD

Waterproofing: Pertex Shield +   Layers: 2.5   Weight: 9.1 oz.

We are dropping ounces here. The Helium series from OR, much like the noble gas for which it is named, floats compared to the beefy shells we’ve been learning about. This is a long-distance backpackers’ jacket, truly: extremely breathable, lightweight, and immensely packable. Able to shrug off all but the most extreme rains, this is the sort of jacket you throw on when you’re in for the long-haul, need to keep moving rain or shine, but can then forget about on the nice days. While not the jacket I would choose for alpine excursions or deep winter treks.

 

 

or-helium2Company: Outdoor Research   Style: Helium II

Waterproofing: Pertex Shield +   Layers: 2.5   Weight: 6.4 oz.

I have eaten candy bars that weigh more than the Helium II. A stripped down little brother in the Helium series, this is a minimalists dream. Ultra-light, ultra-breathable, ultra-packable. If you’re the type of backpacker that cuts your toothbrush in half, removes your zipper pulls, and doesn’t bother cooking food on the trail, here you go. Also a great shell for trail-running, mountain biking, or any other high-intensity outdoor activity where you might run into unwelcome rain.

 

 

patagonia-torrentCompany: Patagonia   Style: Torrentshell

Waterproofing: H2NO   Layers: 2.5   Weight: 12.2 oz.

The stylish choice, Patagonia’s Torrentshell is not as waterproof as eVent or Gore-tex and not as breathable as Pertex Shield +, this one lands right in the middle on every scale. Great for everyday wear, in town or on the trail, the Torrentshell will keep you dry as you go about your business. Not an alpinists shell and a bit heavier than our lightweight options, this one is a good all-around jacket with Patagonia backing it up, so you know it is greener than grass (in the environmental sense).

 

finderCompany: Mountain Hardwear   Style: Finder Jacket

Waterproofing: Dry Q Core   Layers: 2   Weight: 14.3 oz.

The most affordable jacket in our line up, Mountain Hardwear’s Finder Jacket is a great starter shell. Though a bit heavier than our lightweight options, this jacket will breathe better than some of the sturdier Gore-tex options, though will not take quite the soaking. Great jacket for layering or to shrug off quick storm, not as useful in serious weather when staying dry is crucial. For the price, however, the Finder is a good all-around jacket.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Helpful, technical links for your perusal:

www.evo.com/waterproof-ratings-and-breathability-guide.aspx

www.ellis-brigham.com/advice-inspiration/guides-and-advice/buying-guides/waterproof-fabrics-buying-guide

 

Links to the companies mentioned above:

www.patagonia.com

www.outdoorresearch.com

www.mountainhardwear.com

www.us.rab.uk.com

 

Technology Links:

http://www.gore-tex.com/remote/Satellite/content/our-fabrics

http://pertex.com/fabrics/shield-plus/

http://eventfabrics.com/technology/

 

RRT’s Live Inventory now on Locally.com

 

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