NUGGET: NERDY, UNSOLICITED, GREAT GEAR ENDORSEMENT / TIP
For total transparency, I will mention straight away that one of my contacts at Patagonia (the company, not the place) asked me recently if I would mind making another one of my nerdy gear posts, highlighting my favorite Patagonia gear. However, the pieces of gear that I am recommending in this post have been chosen purely by me. Being a sponsored climber sometimes presents minor obstacles to my neurotic obsession with honesty and accuracy. Fortunately, all of my sponsors are family-owned companies that I genuinely believe make great equipment, and it is pretty rare that I am asked to do anything I am uncomfortable with – and when I am, my sponsors have always been understanding of my personal needs to maintain total integrity, allowing me to bow out from some requests. So, my motivations for making this post are the following:
- Of course I am happy to do something that Patagonia appreciates. Patagonia is my main sponsor, and they have been helping me pursue my climbing ambitions since 2007. Different “athletes” are able to contribute to their sponsors in different ways, and these nerdy gear posts are, I think, one of the best ways that I can give back to a sponsor, particularly because I can say exactly what I want, in as much detail as I want, without compromising my integrity at all… and luckily my fellow gear nerds out there seem to appreciate these posts! I think also that more and more people order clothing online these days, and even for very experienced climbers/mountaineers it can be hard to tell which pieces are the most useful just based on the website descriptions.
- I am eager to promote/recommend certain products simply for my own selfish gear needs. Very often the products that I most appreciate get discontinued because they don’t sell well enough. I think this is usually because a really good product often takes a couple years to catch on within the climbing/mountaineering community by word of mouth, and often by the time it is starting to catch on, someone on the business side of things has already crunched the numbers, realized that it is losing a bunch of money, and determined that it has to go. I have already heard that some of the items in this post are at risk of getting the chop, so hopefully making this post will keep some of my favorite Patagonia pieces in production!
In this post I will talk about the following Patagonia pieces:
- Airshed Pro Pullover
- Nano Air Vest
- Houdini Pants
- Altvia Light Alpine Pants
- Houdini Jacket
- DAS Light Hoody
- Capilene Thermal Weight Bottoms
- Ascensionist 55L Pack
1: Airshed Pro Pullover
A few years ago I wrote about the Airshed Pullover, and why I really liked using it as a baselayer (even though it wasn’t designed to be used as a baselayer). The Airshed Pro Pullover is an evolution of the Airshed Pullover that I like even more. I have no use for the Airshed Pro Pullover in mid-winter, or in other scenarios cold enough that I always have multiple layers on (in those scenarios I just use a normal Capilene baselayer). I find the Airshed Pro Pullover to be extremely useful on days when for significant portions of the day I am wearing just a baselayer on top. So, obviously I use it a lot for mid-summer conditions, but also when on sunny glaciers, where, if there is no wind, it can feel very warm even if the actual air temperature is below freezing.
When a baselayer is one’s only layer, the “Airshed” fabric offers some significant advantage over a traditional baselayer fabric. The main advantage is that, in still air, it is less hot than a traditional baselayer fabric. Obviously sometimes you can just take off your shirt if you are too hot, but a lot of the time for a lot of people, especially at high altitude, being shirtless for much of the day results in way too much sun exposure/burn. For me it is impractical and slow to put sunscreen on large parts of my body, and I don’t think it’s particularly healthy to lather oneself in chemicals, so in recent years I have been more and more using physical methods of sun protection rather than chemical methods. The biggest reason that I use the Airshed is to protect myself from the sun while not overheating.
Considering that I find the Airshed fabric advantageous for keeping cool, you might be surprised to hear that I also find it advantageous compared to traditional baselayer fabric for staying warm as well! A relatively common experience in the mountains is to be slogging up a sunny glacier in still air, getting very hot and sweaty even though the actual air temperature is cold. Then, the instant that a breeze picks up you are suddenly freezing cold. Because the Airshed fabric blocks the wind somewhat, I find that, compared to a traditional baselayer I am more protected from getting cold in addition to being more protected from getting too hot.
Like its predecessor, the Airshed Pro Pullover has a long zip in front. This is quite handy for getting more ventilation. Depending on the scenario, I can often get away with having the zipper open for quite a bit of time without getting sunburned (especially because we climbers are usually facing into the terrain, and get much more sun on our backs). A big difference between the Airshed Pro Pullover and its predecessor is the addition of a hood made from ultralight, stretchy fabric (called “Capilene Cool Lightweight” fabric). Also, the fabric on the forearms has been changed from the Airshed fabric to the same ultralight stretchy fabric used on the hood. Personally, I really appreciate both of these changes. I really like the addition of the hood because it completes the sun protection that this shirt offers. I really like the fabric change on the forearms because it makes it very easy to push my sleeves up to past my elbows – something that I really like to do for cooling off, and also something I like to do for more difficult sections of rock climbing. I have heard some other Patagonia ambassadors complaining that the fabric change on the forearms results in worse durability (particularly when stuffing your arms in fist cracks and offwidths), and I have no doubt that they are correct, but to me the durability tradeoff is well worth the ease with which I can push my sleeves up. The Airshed fabric is not very stretchy, so on the old version I could not push the sleeves up my forearms (although trail runners, with skinnier forearms, probably could).
There are only two minor “problems” with the Airshed Pro Pullover in my mind. One is a small pouch on the back of the hood that is meant for stuffing the shirt inside. I don’t find it a useful feature and don’t appreciate the extra bulk there, but fortunately it is very easy to remove in a couple minutes with a pair of scissors (but be careful if you do so, because it is easy to accidentally cut the main hood fabric!). The other minor “problem” is that, unlike the predecessor, there is no longer a chest pocket. This shirt is designed with trail runners in mind more than climbers, and I can see why you wouldn’t want to use a chest pocket for running. However, for technical climbing chest pockets are super handy. Maybe at some point I’ll take the time to add a chest pocket or two onto mine…
All in all, I find the Airshed Pro Pullover to be an extremely useful piece of clothing. It lives in a drawer all winter, but I use it constantly the rest of the year. FYI, I use it in size M, which is my typical size.
2: Nano Air Vest
I am a major fan of vests because they are very efficient at providing insulation where it is most needed, while not compromising at all what you are able to do with your arms. Many jackets reduce the fluidity with which you can move your shoulders/arms, and even with a jacket that is very well designed and well fit, having more material on your arms gets in the way a bit more, especially for technical climbing. I very often have a vest as part of my clothing system, to be as unencumbered as possible while climbing, while still being warm enough.
The two vests that I have used a lot are the Nano Air Vest and the Micro Puff Vest. There is no doubt that the Micro Puff insulation package provides a better warmth/weight ratio than the Nano Air insulation package. On the flipside, the Nano Air insulation package is quite breathable, while the Micro Puff insulation package is not. However, the main reason that I prefer the Nano Air Vest is that it fits better, and I think that is mostly because the Nano Air material is stretchy, while the Micro Puff material is not. If I wear the Micro Puff vest in size S, it is uncomfortably tight in my shoulders/armpits. If I wear the Micro Puff vest in size M, it is too loose and drafty around my torso, therefore not providing optimal insulation. The Nano Air Vest in size S fits me very well – not restricting me at all, but snug and not drafty. My typical size is M, so consider getting the Nano Air Vest in a smaller size than you might use in other pieces.
After the Houdini Jacket and Houdini Pants, the Nano Air Vest is probably the item of clothing I use most often, for everything from sport climbing to multipitch rock climbing to ski mountaineering to alpine climbing. My only gripe is that the chest pocket is too wide/tall – If I am laying on my back at a bivouac and have a small item such as a lighter in the chest pocket, the lighter slides up to near my collar bone over time, which is a bit annoying.
3: Houdini Pants
The Houdini Pants are a super lightweight and minimalist wind-breaker pant, designed mostly with trail-runners in mind. While the Houdini Jacket has been utilized by climbers for already a long time, the Houdini Pants are only just starting to catch on with climbers. The Houdini fabric is definitely not waterproof, but it provides at least as much wind and weather protection as any soft-shell fabric, if not more, at a fraction of the weight. The downside compared to a soft-shell pant is much, much less durability. Compared to a waterproof-breathable hardshell pant, the Houdini Pants are much less weather resistant, but lighterweight and more breathable. I find the Houdini Pants incredibly useful and versatile, and they are one of the items of clothing that I use most often, for hiking, trail-running, spring-skiing, multi-pitch rock climbing, and alpine climbing.
Since using an ultralight wind-breaker pant is already fairly well-accepted for hiking and trail running, I will focus more on climbing and mountaineering. Traditionally, for climbing and mountaineering, people use either a hardshell pant with a membrane (“waterproof breathable fabric”), or a woven “softshell” pant. Both of those more traditional choices have their place, and Houdini Pants are definitely not appropriate for all scenarios, but in many cases they are a lovely alternative. In many mountain scenarios one has a high-degree of confidence that one can get by without a waterproof layer (usually based on an excellent weather forecast, or because temperatures are well below freezing), but it is almost never a good idea to be in a mountain environment without clothing to block the wind. On a big granite rock climbing route with lots of chimneys and offwidths, one could destroy a pair of Houdini Pants (or any hardshell pant) pretty quickly, and a softshell pant would be a wiser choice. On a full-on alpine climb in wintery conditions, with blowing snow and spindrift, Houdini Pants would not offer enough protection, and a full-on hardshell pant would be a wiser choice. But what about climbing the NE Ridge of Mt. Sir Donald with a good forecast? Or skiing up to Camp Muir on Tahoma on a sunny June day? Climbing the Nose-in-a-day in mid September? A long sport-climbing route in the Verdon Gorge on a breezy day? Climbing the Frendo Spur in early July? Basically, for these scenarios when a full-on hardshell pant is overkill, and when most people use a softshell pant, I choose the Houdini Pant instead (except for a rock route with lots of chimneys and wide cracks).
For me, one of the most important qualities of any piece of clothing that I use for athletic activities, especially technical climbing, is unencumbered freedom of movement. The Houdini Pant is designed for trail-running, has a relatively slim fit, and the fabric doesn’t stretch at all. For me, my standard size (M) works just fine for hiking or running. However, for climbing it is absolutely critical to size up. In my case that means size L, which may seem funny considering that I use the Nano Air Vest in size S, but it works wonderfully. It gives a baggy fit, which combined with the ultralight, slippery fabric, makes high-stepping and stemming totally unencumbered. Fortunately there is a draw-cord on the waist (but you have to add your own cord-lock – something Patagonia should update), so sizing up does not create a pant that falls down. Also there are snaps on the cuff for cinching down the size of the cuff, so sizing up never results in stepping on your pants, even if you are barefoot.
People are often surprised to hear that I usually wear the Houdini Pants next-to-skin. Of course if it is cold I wear a base-layer underneath, but for summer conditions I wear them with just underwear underneath. Contrary to what you might expect, it is very comfortable! It is not too hot (so, like the Airshed, a good way to protect yourself from the sun without melting), but also good protection from getting cold when a breeze picks up.
I have two gripes with the current iteration of the Houdini Pant. The first is that the pockets are just open pockets, like on a pair of casual pants, rather than pockets with zippers. The Houdini Pants don’t necessarily need pockets, but a pocket without a zipper is basically useless to a climber. On the lower leg the cuff opens up with two snaps, which is handy because you can easily take them on or off over rock shoes, running shoes, or approach shoes. However, if you are using the Houdini Pants for snowy mountaineering (which I do fairly often), the cuff closing with only two snaps lets snow in. One could very easily sew the cuff closed (a modification which I plan to try once I am reunited with my sewing machine), but for now it is a significant limitation for how snowy of a place you can use the Houdini Pants in.
All in all, the Houdini Pants are an incredibly useful, versatile piece of clothing, that I use a ton. They are so lightweight that using them for climbing and mountaineering feels foreign to people. However, they aren’t very expensive, so if you get one pair (a size larger than your usual size!), and start trying them out (in climatically-appropriate scenarios), I think you will likely start to love using them. Of course they aren’t very durable, but it isn’t really a problem if you keep a supply of good repair tape at home (which you should, and some day I’ll make a post about the best kinds of repair tape!).
4: Altvia Light Alpine Pants
Compared to most climbers, I don’t use softshell pants very often. Compared to hardshell options, softshell pants almost always offer far less weather protection, and are always much heavier. However, there are some climbs, particularly rock climbs on rough rock with chimneys and offwidths, that would destroy hardshell pants too quickly. For climbing wide cracks in a cragging scenario (like Indian Creek, or Arch Rock), most people, including myself, would choose some kind of cotton pant, and I think that a cotton pant provides better friction with the rock than a synthetic pant. However, even just for climbing El Cap, wearing cotton pants is a bit risky, let alone for climbing in the Bugaboos or alpine rock routes in the Alps or Patagonia. So, for rough, thrutchy rock climbs (or mixed climbs), in scenarios when cotton is too risky, softshell pants have their place.
In addition to the fact that softshell pants are heavy, another reason that I generally don’t like them is that most of them give poor freedom of movement, especially for high-stepping. You might be surprised to hear me say this, because softshell pants are generally advertised as being good in this regard. Because softshell pants are made with stretchy fabrics, they are generally made with a trim, fashionable fit, not a baggy fit like a well-designed hardshell pant. In theory that should work, but in reality I find it doesn’t. I find that in most softshell pants I can highstep, but I have to expend additional energy to do so, because every time I high step I have to stretch the fabric. Over the course of thousands of moves on a long climb, stretching the fabric over and over is tiring, and a waste of energy. Over the years I have come to the conclusion that any good climbing clothing is either baggy enough to allow good freedom of movement without any stretch, or has to be properly stretchy – way more stretchy than 90% of the softshell fabric on the market.
Like a bunch of other Patagonia climbing ambassadors, I was very pleased when I first started testing a sample of the “Altvia Light Alpine Pants.” For my purposes they are for sure the best softshell pants that I have used in many years. The first thing to note is that they are extremely simple – For example, the cuff is just like a pair of jeans, so they are totally incompatible with ski boots. This doesn’t bother me at all, because for any scenario when I am wearing ski boots I would for sure be wearing either a full-on hardshell with a membrane, or at least a Houdini Pant. There is an elasticized waistband with drawcord, but the waistband isn’t separating, nor is there a fly. So, they are much simpler than most softshell pants – reminiscent of Patagonia’s old “Simple Guide” pants, but with quite different fabric.
In addition to the fact that they are very lightweight for a softshell pant, the main thing that makes these my softshell pants of choice is that the fabric is very stretchy – much more stretchy than any other softshell pant I have used – and therefore the freedom of movement is good. To accomplish this the fabric is made from 86% polyester and 14% elastane. This exceptional stretchiness comes at a cost though – the elastane is much more water absorbent than the polyester. If you get these pants soaked in a rain shower, you will notice that they are relatively slow to dry compared to other synthetic pants. However, they are of course still massively faster to dry than pants made with natural fibers, and in my opinion it is a worthy compromise to make them climb really well.
These are my by far my favorite softshell pants, and I wore them for most days of my Yosemite trip last spring. My only gripe is that, even despite the really stretchy fabric, I would’ve preferred a baggier fit for even more unencumbered movement. Because of this, I sized them up a bit (I use size 31, even though size 30 fits fine for hiking), and then trimmed the cuffs by a couple centimeters to accommodate. When I order another pair I think I will even go up to 32 (and trim the cuffs by a couple more centimeters). Sizing up is made reasonable by the draw cord on the waist, but, like the Houdini Pants, you’ll have to add your own cord-lock. Of course you can just tie a knot if you want, but I don’t have the patience to tie and untie a knot so often.
5: Houdini Jacket
The Houdini Jacket is an ultralightweight windbreaker, designed primarily with trail runners in mind. It is an incredibly versatile piece of clothing, however, and very useful for climbers as well. Over the course of any year, the Houdini Jacket is the article of technical clothing (as opposed to underwear, socks, and cotton t-shirts) that I use most often. Like for the Houdini Pants, there are so many times when a full-on hardshell with membrane is overkill, but being able to completely block the wind makes a huge difference for staying warm. In addition to being much more lightweight than a full-on hardshell, a Houdini is much more breathable, and because the fabric is so lightweight and slippery, it moves over other layers very easily, allowing for very unencumbered movement.
My standard size is M, and I use the Houdini in M for hiking, trail-running, ski touring, and as a belay windbreaker on relatively-warm multi-pitch rock climbs. However, more and more I have been using the Houdini Jacket also for more full-on alpine climbing scenarios. In those more full-on scenarios I have more layers under the Houdini, so I size up to L to maintain good freedom of movement in my shoulders.
I have two minor complaints with the Houdini. The first isn’t really a complaint, but more of a wish, that Patagonia also made a non-hooded version. The hood is really nice a lot of the time, but for technical climbing, where I often carry slings over my shoulder, I find the hood can be annoying, and I would appreciate to have a non-hooded version for certain scenarios. The one that is actually a complaint is that the cuffs have elastic on only one side, whereas older versions of the Houdini had elastic around the entire cuff. Patagonia has experimented with this cuff design on a few recent jackets, but I find the more traditional cuffs, with elastic all the way around, to feel nicer. Hopefully the next iteration of the Houdini Jacket will revert to these more traditional cuffs.
6: DAS Light Hoody
I would be lying if I claimed that Patagonia makes the best of every type of mountain clothing, and at the moment some areas could certainly use some improvement. However, the category in which Patagonia has truly been kicking ass in recent years is puffy jackets. The current versions of the DAS Parka, Fitz Roy Parka, and Grade VII Parka are all really good, and I could’ve easily chosen to include any one of them in this post, at the risk of making it even more ridiculously long than it’s already becoming. But, I think the most exceptional of Patagonia’s currently awesome selection of puffy jackets is the “DAS Light Hoody,” and if there is any one puffy jacket from Patagonia that I would really recommend to try, it is this.
A few years ago I already wrote a bunch about the Micropuff jackets – very lightweight puffy jackets that have the reliability of synthetic insulation, but with a warmth/weight ratio that rivals even many down jackets. The Micropuff jackets are just as good as ever, but the DAS Light Hoody has gone one step further, creating an even better warmth/weight ratio. The Micropuff jackets are made with some high-tech synthetic insulation (“PlumaFill”) sandwiched between two ultralight layers of shell fabric (Pertex “Quantum”). There is a bunch of quilting sewn through the jacket which serves to “stabilize” the insulation. I’m sure the exact details are a bit more complicated, but in essence the DAS Light Hoody is the same construction, except the quilting goes through the insulation and inner shell fabric, but not the outer shell fabric. The result is that the insulation is just as “stabilized,” but the jacket becomes warmer – partly because more trapped air pockets have been created, and partly because the jacket is more windproof. The other main difference between the Micropuff and the DAS Light is that the outer fabric on the DAS Light is a bit more weather resistant (and that is likely why the DAS Light is a bit heavier). Overall, the DAS Light and the Micropuff are very similar jackets, but the DAS Light is warmer, and I think has a warmth/weight ratio even slightly better than on the Micropuff (which was already exceptionally good for synthetic insulation).
The DAS Light is now my favorite puffy jacket, and I prefer it over the Micropuff, even though both are exceptionally good. I do wish that it was also available in a non-hooded version (as the Micropuff is), but I have heard that so far it hasn’t been selling very well, so I will be happy just to see it stay in production! I also would have personally preferred two chest pockets instead of one, but that is my opinion on just about every jacket. If you are gonna try one lightweight puffy synthetic jacket from Patagonia, try this one! Oh, and for climbing I like to use it in my standard size, M, but I can easily use S for things like hiking or skiing.
7: Capilene Thermal Weight Bottoms
This is the weight of long-john bottoms that I use most often. This weight has changed names a few times over my years with Patagonia, from “R 0.5” to “Capilene 4,” and now “Capilene Thermal Weight.” Under the “Capilene 4” name it was for a while a smooth-faced fabric that many people would call “powerstretch fleece,” and then changed to a grid-faced fabric, that is called “regulator” fleece. The most recent, current iteration of “Capilene Thermal Weight” is a grid-faced fabric, so at first glance it looks like exactly the same fabric from a couple years ago. However, it is quite different.
This current version of “Capilene Thermal Weight” is 8% spandex (and 92% polyester). Like in the “Altvia Light Alpine Pants,” that added stretchiness comes at a cost of added water retention (slower drying time) compared to a fabric that is 100% polyester. However, in my opinion the slower dry time is a worthwhile compromise for a fabric that is now super stretchy, and feels very easy to move in. Of all the different iterations I have used of this weight of long-john, this one is definitely the most comfortable, and the best for technical climbing.
By the way, I didn’t bother also writing a section about it for this post, but this weight of fleecy insulation (“Capilene Thermal Weight”) is also what I wear on my upper body for almost all colder-weather climbing and skiing that I do. I use the “Capilene Thermal Weight Zip-Neck” constantly. I wish it came with chest pockets though, so sewed my own on.
Since I am usually wearing them underneath a shell pant, I don’t have any good photos of the Cap Thermal Weight Bottoms in action – sorry!
8: Ascensionist 55L Pack
I am very picky about my backpacks, have an embarrassingly large collection, and use a lot of them. However, if I had to pick just 4 backpacks to use for all of my activities, the Ascensionist 55 would make the cut into those 4 most essential packs (as my largest backpack). The overwhelming majority of the time, for me a 55 liter pack is an approach pack, not a climbing pack. So, even though it often has ice axes and/or skis strapped to it, it is essentially a backpacking pack. However, all the weight always adds up, and packs that are actually designed for “backpacking” are too heavy for my taste. And while the Ascensionist 55 isn’t super light, it is light enough to be reasonable to bring on an actual multi-day climbing route.
Of all the different gear out there for climbing and mountaineering, backpacks tend to be most often over-designed and full of stupid gimmicks. A well-designed pack, like the Ascensionist 55, is really not drastically different from a well-designed pack from the 1970’s, and doesn’t need to be. As an aside, on the subject of gimmicky, over-designed backpacks, this parody video is absolutely hilarious (and, no, the irony of putting a link to that youtube video in this blog post is not lost on me!). It is worth being skeptical of any “revolutionary” backpack technology!
There is no one single thing about the Ascensionist 55 pack that makes it awesome – more just a solid list of features (or lack of features):
- The frame is easily removable (and I never use it).
- The foam in the back panel easily comes out to form part of your bivouac sleep system.
- The “compression straps” work well for things like skis, but easily detach and attach using girth hitches (so the backpack is left clean and light when they are not used).
- The ice axe system is simple, and I find that it works well. I think that the velcro tabs for holding the ice axe shafts are not the best, but those are easily swapped with whatever you like to use.
- Like the “compression straps,” the lid is easily removable with girth hitches, without leaving any excess straps or buckles on the pack. Having a removable lid is important on this size of pack.
- The padding on the waist belt is easily removable, which is important if bringing the pack on an actual climbing route and wearing it with a harness.
- The shoulder straps and sternum strap are well-shaped and comfortable.
- The overall shape of the pack is good, so that it doesn’t get in your way too much when forced to climb with such a large pack on.
One last thing that I really appreciate about the Ascensionist 55 will not be relevant to very many people: It works very well with my tump line. Several years ago Patagonia briefly sold a tump line, and I ordered one thinking that I might as well try it… I don’t think a lot of other people ordered them! Patagonia isn’t selling them now, but it is also something relatively simple to make yourself if you have a sewing machine, or know someone who does. I actually modified mine because it wasn’t quite long enough to use with my biggest backpacks. By this point in this paragraph a bunch of you are probably completely confused. At some point I might make a full blog post just about my tump line, but there is not a pressing need, because Yvon Chouinard (the founder of Patagonia) already wrote an excellent article about it 42 years ago! Anyways, the ice axe attachment system on the Ascensionist 55 also doubles excellently as a spot to rig the strap of a tump line!
My only “complaint” about the Ascensionist 55 is that it could be lighter. However, making it lighter would of course come at a cost of durability, so it is not obviously a better choice. Although Dyneema (AKA Spectra, AKA high-density polyethylene, AKA ultra-high-molecular-weight polyethylene) has been an awesome technology advance for climbing slings and ropes, I so far have not been convinced that it actually makes for a better durability/weight ratio in backpacks.