Lightweight softshell jackets are a summer staple for both walkers and climbers. We compare 11 models here.
Combining a weatherproof/breathable outer layer with a lightly insulating inner of pile or fleecy material is no new thing - Rab's well established Vapour-rise system and the trusty Buffalo are two examples that spring to mind - but in the spirit of reinventing (and ideally, improving on) the wheel, softshell garments based on this principle have become more common recently. OR's take on it makes use of Polartec Alpha Direct. A popular choice of late, this fluffy stuff is a good example of 'active insulation', designed to be comfy when you're on the move but warm (within reason) when you stop.
This isn't my first brush with Alpha Direct - last year I reviewed Rab's Alpha Flux. As fleecey/pile type materials go, I think it's brilliant stuff - more on that below. In the Alpenice OR have paired this insulation with two different high quality shell fabrics. The overall result is a really versatile and innovative jacket that's weatherproof, breathable and warm for its weight.
Compared to the light and close-fitting Alpha Flux, the Alpenice is much more of a jacket - thicker, warmer, roomier and with a more weatherproof outer. Its relatively high weight (532g in size L, on my kitchen scales) reflects this. I'd hesitate to call it lightweight (though OR go as far as saying it's ultralight), but for the warmth and features on offer here the weight seems well justified. In use, the Alpenice feels like it offers a similar level of insulation to an old school 300-weight Polartec fleece, and at a roughly equivalent weight. The difference here is that it is more weatherproof on the outside, and if anything (so far as I can establish in use) rather more breathable on the inside, making this a highly versatile piece of clothing. It's not just marketing fluff to say that you can put it on in the morning and wear it all day, both when you're working hard and hanging around stationary. Whatever I've been up to - from autumn and winter hillwalking to cold weather crags - I've practically lived in this jacket for the last couple of months.
The tailoring of the Alpenice is quite roomy, rather than close-fitted. As a result it accommodates a couple of under-layers (a base layer and micro fleece, for instance), and while it is perhaps a little baggy when worn directly over a baselayer in milder weather I think the roominess is an advantage for winter use.
Length in the body is about middle of the road, coming just below the waist and not dropping lower at the rear. Personally I'd have preferred another couple of centimetres at the front and more still at the back, both for the added weather protection and so that the jacket pairs better with a harness. As it is, despite the addition of 'dynamic reach' underarm panels, raising your arms does result in a bit of hem lift. That's partly a result of the relatively short hem, and partly due to the tailoring in the arms, which I think could have been done more effectively. We are all built to different proportions, but on me the Alpenice does unfortunately tend to ride up out of a harness when climbing. For this reason, and this alone, I'd prefer to use it for hillwalking and mountaineering days than multipitch climbing.
On a positive note: there's sufficient length in the sleeves to prevent them riding up when you raise your arms; the cuffs are wide enough to fit over bulky gauntlets; and the elastic-and-velcro-tab cuff fastener works well if you want a closer fit at the wrist.
The pairing of two outer fabrics with different properties helps make the Alpenice a versatile wee beastie.
On the upper side of the sleeves, the hood and shoulders, OR have used their own proprietary AscentShell, a 2-layer, 20 denier, waterproof/breathable nylon fabric with a micro ripstop pattern for durability. Putting this waterproof fabric only on the areas most exposed to the weather gives you protection where it's most needed from rain, spindrift and meltwater. But it's also breathable (ie. water vapour can pass through) and air-permeable (air can pass through), so you don't get the trapped-in-a-bag feel of a traditional hard shell. If you need to know, AscentShell is an 'electrospun membrane' that's said to be built a bit like candyfloss on a microscopic level. Typically, breathable membranes can only start to transport water vapour when the inside of the fabric is more humid than the outside - but AscentShell works even without this difference in pressure, according to OR. I can't speak for the science, but in use I'd say it definitely breathes well.
The main body, meanwhile, is Pertex Microlight, a softer-feeling 20 denier nylon. This doesn't seem quite as tough as the AscentShell, and it's not waterproof. Instead it is stretchier, to aid freedom of movement, and more breathable and air permeable to help keep you cool and dry inside when you're working hard. It has a bit of water repellency, but does soon begin to wet out in real rain.
For mountain use, whether walking or climbing, I've found this combination of zoned fabrics works really well. From fine to moderately poor weather, the Alpenice functions as a stand alone outer. Drizzle and spindrift are no problem, for instance, and in my experience it has proven pretty windproof too. You'd probably only want to add a shell on top in prolonged rain, or wilder winter weather.
One last observation: the outer fabric of the Alpenice is soft to the touch, and thin, and although it doesn't have the crisp packet sound of a typical hard shell, the jacket does still rustle as you walk, and snap a bit in the wind. It's noisier to wear than many softshells.
The original Alpha is designed to be used as an insulating fill between two layers of face fabric, but with the Direct version Polartec have removed the inner fabric to expose the fluffy stuff. This is a very light, open weave pile - so open, in fact, that you can see light through it. To keep you warm, air is held in the spaces between each tuft of insulation, yet the low density of the knit allows moisture to move out freely. Quick drying and highly breathable, Alpha Direct hardly seems to get damp at all when you're working up a sweat, and in cooler conditions I've found it comfy to wear even steaming uphill.
To maximise warmth and breathability where they're both most needed, Outdoor Research have zoned the Alpha Direct in two different weights - 125 g/m2 in the main body, and a noticeably thinner 95 g/m2 on the hood, side panels, forearms and a strip along the lower back (which also serves to reduce bulk under a harness or pack belt). I think this combination works perfectly for the 'active insulation' role that the Alpenice is designed to perform.
Like pockets? The Alpenice has plenty: two chest pockets, large enough for a smartphone or similar, and two medium sized hand pockets, each big enough for a ski glove. To be picky, four zipped pockets is too many for me, and on this jacket I might have preferred to have just two slightly larger and higher-placed hand pockets. As it is, the hand pockets are positioned a bit too low, so a harness does rather interfere with being able to a use them. On the plus side they are fleece lined and really snug. The upper pockets feature chunky YKK Vislon zips, but the lower pair have much lighter gauge zips. If anything I'd say this is the wrong way round, since I'm more likely to use the hand pockets and abuse them by stuffing them full. All zips are backed with an anti-snag strip, and all the zippers come with a glove-friendly pull tab. Inside is a single large stretch mesh sleeve (a 'Shove-It pocket' in product blurb speak), which works well for drying damp gloves and the like.
The main zip is a reassuringly chunky YKK Vislon, backed with a little storm flap. You also get an elastic waist drawcord. With a single adjustment toggle located to the rear (presumably to keep it out of the way), this can be tightened with one hand but it's a bit fiddly to loosen without using both hands, and hard to operate at all wearing gloves. One of those modern stitched-into-the-hem toggles would be better.
Hoods are hard to get right, and the Alpenice's is only partly successful. With plenty of room and a helmet-friendly shape, it moves well with your head and doesn't restrict vision when you're wearing a helmet. Remove your helmet though and things are less good. Three points of adjustment allow you to cinch in the volume around your bare head, but without the bulk of a helmet to stretch it out the oversized, unstiffened brim becomes a bit of a liability, hanging down over the top of your field of vision and flapping about in the wind. Worn under the hood of a hard shell, this brim is still an annoyance. I'd be tempted to cut it off if I thought I'd do a decent job. The side adjustment toggles on the hood are easily operated, but I'd defy anyone to loosen the rear one, while wearing gloves, in a blizzard; it's even a bit of a fiddle with warm bare hands sat at my desk. To get the best from this hood you need to be wearing a helmet under it - but even climbers have to walk to and from the crag, so that level of specificity is a bit of a drawback in my eyes. As part of a winter outfit, I can't help wondering if a hoodless version of the Alpenice might in fact be better, since most microfleeces, shells and belay jackets already have hoods.
The Alpenice is a 'concept car' of a softshell. There's a lot to like about it, from its snug Polartec Alpha Direct lining to the clever combination of waterproof AscentShell and stretchy Pertex Microlight outer fabric. As a winter or alpine softshell is has some big advantages, being reasonably warm for its weight, highly breathable, quick drying, and far more weatherproof than your average fleece or softshell. The well considered use of new of materials in the Alpenice is worth applauding. However a couple of design details let this jacket down, namely hem lift, pocket positioning and the fit of the hood on a helmet-less head. None are show stoppers - I've been happily climbing and hillwalking in this jacket for several months, and will continue to. But without these niggles the Alpenice could have been a really stonking mountain jacket. So sad (to borrow a phrase). These's one more thing to criticise of course - the price. For a softshell, even a bit of a cutting edge one, £300 seems steep. After I had begun reviewing this jacket, Outdoor Research announced that as of later this year the Alpenice will no longer be available. Perhaps it proved too expensive to produce? However if the general principles behind this jacket are a sign of things to come from OR, then I'll be watching with interest.
Alpinists search for objectives that require all their skills, and for them, we built a jacket to match that ethos: If you want to make the best thing possible, you have to use the best ingredients. The Alpenice combines three technologies in an ultralight package for alpine pursuits: AscentShell on the sleeves and shoulders, Polartec Alpha insulation, and Pertex Microlight fabric for breathability on the torso.
For more info see outdoorresearch.com
Lightweight softshell jackets are a summer staple for both walkers and climbers. We compare 11 models here.
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