Gear Review: Rab Alpha Direct
No 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 the 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 days, 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 activities 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.