As we were flying home from Europe last winter, the overhead monitor announced that we were at 39,000 feet with an outside temperature of –74 degrees F, headwinds of 56 mph. Reminds me of conditions we often experience while climbing peaks during our backcountry skiing trips. After a long ascent, you behold a pilot’s view of the world — and bask in winds that pierce your core like a contrail ripping through the blue.
In the old days, I’d stay on top just long enough to take in the 360 degree panorama, retreating quickly to a lower shelf for shelter. I often whined about the cold. But no longer, thanks to modern gear. Lately, for state-of-art clothing I’ve been testing a variety of Mountain Equipment torso layers.
Mountain Equipment sent us four jackets to evaluate:
Xero, hooded down jacket, 432 grams
Trojan, hooded soft shell jacket, 464 grams
Bastion, hooded Primaloft jacket, 432 grams
Hispar, fuzzy fleece jacket, 316 grams
My two favorites were Xero and Trojan.
For our hut trip in the Austrian Otztal Alps, I choose the Xero down jacket over the Bastion hooded Primaloft. They are close in weight but with 750+ fill, the Xero offers a better layer of insulation.
Whether to pack down or synthetic insulation is always a dilemma. Down is light and compressible, ideal for stowing away if you’re not wearing it much. Synthetic stays warm when wet, often eliminating the need for a protective waterproof shell. I like to have a jacket in my pack that warms me up quickly when temperatures dip. Weather changes quickly in the mountains, and when its freezing, it’s pure luxury to wrap yourself in a cozy jacket. Since aerobics of ski touring raise my body temp, I’d only need a warmer layer for breaks or bivies, so I choose the small stuff sack that held the Xero.
The Xero has a long waisted, tapered bodice and vertical pocket zips in a contrasting color, all of which enhance a slimmer look. I didn’t look like a rotunda and found the cut of the jacket fit nicely under my outer shell. (750+ fill is more expensive than lesser fill powers but for a compressible jacket, it’s well worth the investment. I might be stating the obvious here, but for anyone new to the game, fill power is a measure of the fluffiness of down. You get higher loft and better insulation with 750+ compared with the same weight of 550 fill. It’s more compressible as well.)
Like popcorn on a hot burner, the Xero poofed up as soon as I pulled it from its teeny bag. And I was as comfortable as if I was snuggled in bed, with a big bowl of double butter Jiffy Pop, watching a movie.
Many of the expensive down jackets on the market enhance compressibility by using light weight fabric to encase the down. The drawback is durability. The Xero finds a happy medium by using Helium 30. This fabric is lightweight, didn’t snag on pine twiggies, and DWR (durable water repellency) finish allows light snow to fall off without soaking.
Other features I like:
Hood big enough for a helmet
High neck making the zippered hood almost a balaclava
Hood bungee pull placed down the front so the end doesn’t whip face
Stitch-through construction ensuring down won’t shift
Full down padding in front of pockets to enhance hand warming
Inner zip chest pocket
Simple elastic cuffs
Feature I missed: Large inside mesh pockets.
Another jacket I took on our hut trip was the Hispar fleece, which I used mainly for hut lounging. Hispar is light and chases away a chill without overheating. Comfy enough to sleep in, I also wore it as an insulating layer on super cold days. I especially liked the length of the sleeves which adequately covered my long arms.
Bastion jacket is a mid-weight Primaloft layer that I use as an outer piece when hiking or touring on cool days. It is not waterproof, but water repellent enough for drizzle. Strategically placed soft shell under the sleeves make it highly breathable. It’s warmer than a soft shell, windproof, and easy to move in, with a hood large enough for a helmet. Two Bastion features I especially like are the placement of the hood’s bungee pull inside the jacket, and an outside hang loop in back of the hood.
Feature I miss: Again, two large mesh pockets inside the jacket would be handy.Trojan soft shell is my fourth pick for this review. I love its pretty shade of lilac, my favorite flower — and it brings up fond memories of what happens after the popcorn (I had to go there. Who names this stuff, anyway?). On warmer ski days, when all you need is a thin layer, this jacket does a terrific job of balancing breathability and weather protection. Roomy chest pockets clear a waist belt. Articulated sleeves don’t bind. It’s windproof and water resistant but seams are not sealed. The hood is big enough for a helmet, with a back drawstring to make it less bulky and a visor that fits nicely over goggles or sunglasses.
Features I liked:
GORE® WINDSTOPPER® X-Fast 230 fabric: stretchy, windproof, water-resistant
Simple, elastic cuffs
Dual-tether hem draw cords
A water-resistant, breathable Trojan, what more can I say?