I get cold very easily. I’m not sure why, but compared with many of my climbing partners I really do suffer the cold, so for me a piece of kit that can stave off the chills and yet not cause any encumberment when I’m climbing is going to be high on my list of favourite items, and to this end I own two such items – primarily known as belay jackets.
The principle is simple, I want something that isn’t going to get in the way when I’m climbing (so something that I don’t actually wear to climb, but can quickly and easily put on at belays and rest stops, the times when you actually get cold – hence the term ‘belay jacket’), is super warm and goes on on top of everything else I am wearing. There are a vast range of products on the market nowadays that can fulfil the belay jacket type role, and I’m not going to get into the who’s who and what’s what of it all, I will simply talk about the garments I own and have used (extensively).
Firstly, once we’ve gotten into the concept of a jacket you can just throw on over the top of everything else (the last thing you want is to have to take off your shell, put on your new insulation layer and then put your shell back on – this is a faff and a great way of getting even colder, and if it’s snowing or raining, a great way of getting everything else wet!), we get to the question of ‘what type of insulation is best?’, with the two options basically being down or synthetic.
- Super warm (if you buy something with high quality, high fill down)
- Very high warmth to weight ratio
- Very small pack size
- Next to useless when the down gets wet (saturated down loses something like 90% of its insulating capability, but most jackets nowadays have a water-resistant outer of some description to try to prevent this)
- Can spew feathers everywhere if damaged.
- Hard-wearing (and no feathers to come out if you rip the outer material)
- Retains most of its insulating properties even when wet
- Less packable and a lower warmth to weight ratio than down
I’ve probably missed a few point from my lists, but I shall summarise my view of the two types of insulation: down is best when you need to be as small and light as possible, it is also much warmer than synthetic (or should I say, my down jacket (Rab Neutrino Endurance) is much warmer than my synthetic one (Rab Belay Jacket)), but not so good if you anticipate things being particularly cruddy and wet, i.e. when Scottish winter climbing.
My Rab Belay Jacket has been used on many occasions in Scotland and has been a real god-send – it’s big enough and slick enough to literally yank out of the bag and throw on in a matter of seconds – minimal faff. It has good pockets to stick gloves and snacks in, and a huge hood to fit easily over a helmet – the zip also does up to above your nose, essentially sealing you into a cocoon against the elements. Superb. I have even climbed in it when it has been really cold (I also wore it on my ascent of Mont Blanc where it performed admirably).
My super lovely, snuggly, sexy purple Rab Neutrino down jacket is a fairly new aquisition and as such got its first real testing (other than cragging in North Wales and the Peak District) on my recent trip to Norway, and I must say it was fabulous. Ok so ice climbing isn’t exactly the driest of activities (but with it being permanently sub-zero out there the typically British type dampness was not a problem for the most part), with some icefalls still running water in places, but its water resistant Pertex shell meant that the down stayed dry and the jacket stayed snuggly warm. It packs down to be really rather tiny considering its impressive performance (and yes, it does actually pack smaller and is lighter than my synthetic Belay Jacket, despite being massively warmer).
So in short, a belay jacket is something I heartily recommend to anyone heading out climbing in cold or wintery conditions. Oh, and down jackets are pretty much essential if you want to look cool when out bouldering in winter (don’t forget the beanie hat!).