Thursday, 12 July 2012

Arc'teryx Venta Pant Initial Analysis

Jackets, smocks, gilets, insulating layers, base layers, mid-layers - the list goes on but they all have one significant feature in common: they all tend to deal with the upper part of the body - the torso, chest, neck and head. They're the high-profile superstars where kit is concerned. So little attention is paid to the bottom half of the body except our feet (for perhaps obvious reasons). Boxers, pants, trousers, even shorts - they all seem to be the poorer cousins when it comes to kit reviews and choices. Perhaps it's because we don't lose anywhere near as much heat from our legs as we do our upper body, or because wet legs don't feel anything like as uncomfortable as a wet torso, shoulders, back or head. Either way,  when Arc'teryx offered me the opportunity to test some new kit, I investigated their trousers/pants. 

When hiking in the UK in relatively warm weather, I tend to use Montane Terra pants. At 320g, they are lightweight, articulated and weather resistant - even when wet, I have found them to shrug off heavy wind and they dry very quickly indeed. For high-level alpine pursuits, I found the Mountain Equipment Liskamm pants to be superb. In fact, for the first time in a long time, I started to see the benefits to the new breed of soft-shell Schoeller fabrics. Not, however, in the wet. Get the Liskamm pant wet and they take a while to dry. I needed a pant that would cover me in lots of conditions and be comfortable in camp.

Browsing the Arc'teryx website, I liked the look of the Venta pant and Arc'teryx were keen for me to test some of their new range of products, so the choice was an easy one. The Venta is a lightweight, very breathable alpine mountaineering pant in a weather resistant DWR N72s Windstopper 3L soft-shell fabric which is 62% nylon, 37% polyester, 2% spandex comfort stretch, a 3-layer plain weave nylon face Windstopper textile with a micro check backer. It also has a DWR finish. They are billed as 'shedding snow', so Besseggen in June would be a good test for them.

In summary, they take the best elements of a soft-shell - the wind resistance, some of the stretch and all the comfort but are light enough to compare with the Terra pants (at 383g) and are quick drying too. Thoughtfully featured with some astute innovations, they sit well in the Arc'teryx range filling a gap between a lightweight summer pant and a heavy-duty mountain pant. Also, like most Arc'teryx products, they are perhaps most importantly, very, very comfortable.

Made from a lightweight, breathable, weather resistant and snow-shedding Windstopper fabric, the Venta's principle facet is its simplicity. Each and every feature of this alpine pant is carefully reasoned and nothing unnecessary has been retained. There is no thigh pockets as you'll find on the Gamma LT pant, nor is the articulation so pronounced - they are articulated to aid mobility, the crotch area is gusseted (i.e. a small diamond is added to the crotch area) and the seat and knees are articulated - all to permit full range of movement. However, unlike the Gamma LT, they are not just for walking but climbing and alpine pursuits and the design takes this intended use forward. I find this balanced articulation essential in a mountain pant (rather than simply a walking pant), especially if I am going to be scrambling on occasion as sometimes planes of movement are called for that aren't quite the same as one foot in front of the other, or simply climbing over a stile. I don't have the time, or the will, to be worried about whether my pants will allow me to put my foot, or knee, where I want to put it. 

All of the zippers are Watertight zippers. A note on this: anyone familiar with any medium to high-end outdoor kit will have seen watertight zippers by now - almost every product we use where wind or water is to be shut out these zippers are ubiquitous. Well, Arc'teryx developed the laminated, watertight zipper. Micro-taped seams - Arc'teryx. Laser-cut fabrics - them too. And, since 2004, their highly acclaimed LEAF program has provided kit for those most likely to need it functioning perfectly - Law Enforcement and Armed Forces. They continue to innovate to this day and this is precisely the reason I am enjoying working with them. 

Back to the Venta. The interior fabric of the pant is a soft, smooth almost velvet texture. It's frankly luxurious. Unlike other soft-shells, this is the sort of thing you expect on expensive nightwear with a four figure price tag. It's a guilty pleasure this, and I love it. In the photograph below, the seam-sealing is evident. The Venta is halfway between a waterproof shell layer and a complete soft-shell combining some of the best elements of both but in a 380g package rather than a 500 or 600g package. Balancing is what this pant is all about, but, surprisingly, not compromise.

The simplicity continues: posterior zipped vents don't have fussy webbing or mesh behind them - they vent the skin of your legs directly into the air. The vents are long and easily reached. As we've seen, the inside seams throughout are sealed using Arc'teryx finishing tape which aids both wind resistance and snow shedding.  The hems have both a small gaiter clip to attach to the laces of your boots or shoes as well as shock-cord adjustment. This is intended to ensure wind resistance even when climbing in the pant, as well as preventing riding up in snow. I'd probably still add a small mid-gaiter like the Rab Latok Mid in snow, but this a great idea for those using this pant in the snow. There are two good sized hand-pockets with zips. The waist is comfortable unlike the Montane Terra pants which I find can drift down under the belt during periods of activity and be uncomfortable unless your base layer is tucked in. Not the same here, nor with the similarly constructed Palisade pant.

Nuts and bolts - machine wash without fabric softener. What a great thing - not to have to worry about nikwax each and every time you wash although I would probably consider doing it once every so often. In terms of sizing - I am a 34" waist, and 6ft with a 40" chest and 21" torso. My inside leg is 33". I went for a large and it is just about right, perhaps a tiny bit too big. However, the leg is slightly shorter than I would want (probably 32"). Arc'teryx don't do separate leg lengths in the one waist size - this is a flaw in my view and Arc'teryx should perhaps consider their policy on this but bear that in mind when looking at these pants. It's a trim fit which means, even with my large thighs there is a little play around the buttock and thigh area - perhaps a few inches.

The Venta pant is not likely to be as warm as the Liskamm pant, as the fabric is significantly thinner but I do think that if you are looking at a general walking pant where weight and weather resistance are crucial, these fit the bill as much as the Montane Terra with the added advantage of better water resistance/snow shedding, better wind resistance and a more comfortable fit and interior fabric. I think the Terra is quicker drying but the Venta is going to dry sufficiently quickly for almost anyone's needs.

In Jotunheimen, the snow-shedding DWR was good enough to bead moisture in the rain and it did indeed shed snow as we sometime went knee deep in the drifts on the ridge. The wind resistance is excellent and the smooth inner fabric does not feel cool even when the outer is exposed to severe convective heat loss. The vents were good when ascending - a quick zip down and I was able to expose a great deal of skin to the open air allowing me to vent effectively. I was a little frustrated by the length on occasion but not enough to shelve the pants - they'll be my first choice mountain pant from now on. Comfort, performance and weight - all in one package. I'll update as I use them.

Friday, 6 July 2012

Icebreaker Quantum GT260 Hoody Review

The Nature Shop in New Zealand contacted me about testing some of their wares. After some discussion about which kit I would genuinely use, they sent me an Icebreaker Quantum GT260 Hoody. This, I reasoned, would be a good winter base layer and competition for the Patagonia R1 Hoody I am currently using - pitting merino against synthetic in sweaty, cold weather activity environments like winter and like mid-Norway in June.

First, a little bit about the Nature Shop, which is something I write about on my own terms and not something I have been asked to do by them. I am often asked to review kit on behalf of retailers rather than manufacturers and usually I tend not to. With the Nature Shop, from whom I have bought before, I decided to take a different tack as I genuinely support the attitude of this Kiwi company. First port of call to demonstrate what I mean is their webpage about their Values. Sure, you could be cynical and take this to be a marketing ploy and perhaps it is. That said, charities still benefit from the relationship with Nature Shop. As does the environment. With CarboNZero certification, they take their commitment to having an impact on climate change seriously. Have I verified all of this? No, of course not, but I have certainly looked into as much of it as I can and if, as on the face of it seems to be the case, it is all genuine, I am happy to purchase from them. Do your own checks and tell me what you think. The Quantum can be found on their Icebreaker page.

So, onto the Icebreaker Quantum GT260 Hoody. I am a tremendous fan of merino wool and I prefer it to synthetic base layer materials. This is a personal choice based in part on effectiveness and in part on comfort. I have yet to find a base layer made of synthetic fabrics which performs all round as well as merino wool. Merino has its flaws - of course it does. Everything requires a cost/benefit analysis and, on the downside, as a consequence of the way in which natural fibres work, merino tends to get saturated and heavy when wet. It does not dry as quickly as synthetic fibres. It can be scratchy when first bought, despite the fact that merino itself is a superfine wool but I normally obviate this by washing it first. That said, my personal love affair with merino finds it roots in comfort and olfactory positivity. It simply does not smell after days of long, hard use. Every synthetic fabric I have ever used, even treated fabrics, reeks after more than 2 days of use. After a week of use, merino simply does not. It may sound trite but this really is a consideration which is important to me as staying in alpine huts with smelly base layers is not much fun. 

Additionally, I find merino base layers cool in the warm, and warm in the cold, even when wet, depending on what you are doing and the thickness of the fabric. There is much greater flexibility (a range of effectiveness, if you like) to it as a base layer than synthetic fibres. It does not dry as quickly, of course, but in reality this means little to me. A 150 weight base layer t-shirt dries overnight - that's good enough for me. Anything else is sufficiently dry for me to wear in the morning and, with that proximity to human body, anything made of merino will dry quickly enough to keep me warm (the only effectiveness issue with wet clothes next to the skin, although see my analysis later about wet merino and warmth).

There has been lots of debate about sourcing and quality of merino wool. Icebreaker say this about their own wool:

"Is all merino created equal? Nope. We buy the world’s best merino wool from the Southern Alps of New Zealand. New Zealand produces the longest, strongest, purest, whitest merino fibre on the planet, which means it’s more durable, stays softer for longer and is less likely to pill. Our long-term contracts with the world’s best merino growers create a win/win situation. The contracts allow us to take responsibility for every step of the process, from the quality of the wool to how the animals are treated. And growers can lock in long-term price security, which gives them a certain future. Our three-year-contracts with growers are the biggest long-term merino contracts by a single brand in the world. When you’re in Icebreaker merino, you know the sheep felt as good making it as you do wearing it."

True or not? Anything to say about that claim - comment below. Otherwise, I will take it at face value. I encourage debate (not vitriol). This is what Chocolate Fish have to say about their own merino, and they've been getting rave reviews online over the last year or so at least. In short - make up your own mind and know what you are wearing:

"We only use 100% merino fabric - MAPP merino - that we buy from Designer Textiles, Auckland and which uses Zque accredited NZ merino. We believe, having looked at the evidence and tested it for ourselves, that adulterating merino with any other fibre only serves to lower the quality and reduce real performance.  It does however lower production costs substantially as genuine superfine grade merino is very expensive, and mixing in other fibres can mean it's possible to use lower grades of wool as well as using less wool."

So how does the Quantum compare to other merino products, by Smartwool in particular? Favourably, I would say from a completely subjective, uncontrolled standpoint. I have 125, 150 and now 260 weight Icebreaker products and several 200 weight Smartwool products. All seem much of a muchness to me but Icebreaker products seem more robust and more carefully considered. Each of my Icebreaker tops seem more durable than their Smartwool equivalents - not by much, but there is definitely a discernible difference. The 125 and 150 weight Icebreaker tops have lycra woven into the fabric which enhances the athletic cut, gives them a stretchy quality and also makes them quicker-drying. This continues with the Quantum 260. It gives the whole fabric a more robust, springy feel which I find lacking in my Smartwool tops. This reduces what I'll describe as the 'drag-factor' associated with merino when it gets wet and begins to sag.

The Quantum is a thick merino midlayer or, as I use it, a winter base layer. With thumb loops, a close fitting hood, stretch eyelet side panels to assist breathability and raglan sleeves to increase articulation, it seems at first blush to meet all the criteria for a winter base layer. It weighs 428g in a size large (which fits me perfectly - not too tight but tight enough to be a base layer - I measure 34" waist, 39-40" chest and 21" torso). It features a zipped pocket at the small of the back - this is utterly pointless for me but it does not interfere with the back of whatever pack I am wearing either.

All the high quality YKK zips run smoothly, and the main zip has a windbreak construction. Each has a good size grip, shaped and bevelled to assist locating it with your cold fingers and tugging at it to adjust your ventilation. There is, of course, the ubiquitous Napoleon pocket which is so small as to be almost pointless for anything I might want to put in there other than a credit card. On a base layer, I simply do not see the point but if you were to use this as a mid-layer, then perhaps it has some application. Not for me.

The hood is two layer merino which enhances the warmth protecting your head and makes it more comfortable. It is a close fitting hood but it does in intrude on the eyeline. The zip extends comfortably to over the chin if necessary.

I have worn the Quantum hillwalking on several multi-day trips - three in total - as well as some short but hard day walks. On each overnighter, the Quantum went on at the start and only came off back at the car at the conclusion of the trip. In short, I wore it constantly for 48-72 hours on trips with hefty milage and ascent as well as changeable weather and temperatures. On some occasions, I would be lazy with my layering and either leave a shell layer on unnecessarily when ascending or not put one on when I should have done. I'd overheat a little with the shell on, but not overly - the Quantum would breathe well enough - and it would stop enough of the chill wind that I was not feeling sufficiently cold to stop and pull on a shell. That sort of versatility is useful, especially in winter when stopping to change layers is not something I enjoy doing. 

Sure, I sweat in this top but certainly no more than any other, including the R1 Hoody. They both dry quickly enough to keep me warm. Yet, even when wet, merino, and the Quantum in particular, keeps me warm and here vive la différence! Synthetic tops, in my experience, are simply not as warm when damp or wet. In fact, when it comes to keeping ourselves warm, we have yet to beat natural fibres like down and wool when compared to their man-made equivalents. Synthetic fibres are breathable as a consequence of their weave, not their innate nature. Not so, wool. Woollen fibres themselves soak up moisture which then evaporates - hence the temporary weight change in damp or wet wool. Wool works in symbiosis with your body in a way only natural fibres can, adapting to your environment because that's what nature constructed it for. Don't believe me? Go speak to someone who uses this stuff in conditions where risk takes on a new meaning.

The thumb loops are great as winter base layers often go (hand-in-hand) with gloves and a shell. However, in Jotunheimen, where the weather was hugely varied and there was a great deal of ascent (over 1000m), I would find that I'd often be rolling up my sleeves. The cuffs retained much of their shape but there was some sagging. Not so much that they became useless, but enough that it was noticeable. It's inevitable without some elastication in the cuff.

All in all, I loved the Quantum. I was surprised by just how perfect was the fit, the cut, the lycra/wool weave, the warmth it offered me throughout the trips I took it and above all, the comfort. Andy Kirkpatrick, a man I respect, once drifted into what I thought was new-age hippy nonsense, when he said (several times) that merino felt more a part of him when outdoors than synthetic fibres but having tried various base layers, and always crawling back to merino with my tail between my legs, I know what he means. And the Quantum feels part of me more than most.