I have long been a dedicated fan of synthetic insulation. The last 12 years of winter climbing in Scotland have taught me many things about surviving brutal winter conditions in the mountains. Among the most critical, is that if you want your insulation to fight with you to the very end as you do battle on a long hard route, it needs to be synthetic.
Don’t get me wrong, high performance down insulation has it’s place in the world of outdoor equipment and clothing. In very cold dry climates where warmth to weight ratio is the only real consideration, down still offers the best and lightest insulation available. But despite all the marketing noise and latest innovations, even the best down out there lacks the endurance to perform consistently well for days on end. As moisture slowly builds up in the feathers it hinders the down’s ability to loft and hence retain heat. Therefore, how long your down will continue to perform is completely dependent on the ambient conditions. I have made it through a couple days of good weather in the mountains and come away feeling like my down was still keeping me warm enough, but unfortunately it’s not always the case.
On the converse, I have been out climbing on particularly cold and damp days in Scotland where a large down jacket was completely saturated, to well beyond the point of no return, on the first belay. At the time this resulted in a lot of suffering for the rest of the day but it was ultimately survivable, if a bit unpleasant. On a multi-day trip with such compromised insulation it would be a different story, you would have no real option but to retreat in order to escape the cold. So what’s the answer then? Personally I wouldn’t shun down altogether as it still has a time and a place, you just need to know when to bring out the synthetics and you will always be happy you did.
For the last couple years I have been using a Black Diamond Stance Belay parka as my go to jacket for ‘goggle days’ or when I expect it to be particularly fierce. The BD Stance Belay Parka really stood out from the competition when it was first released, because it was one of very few jackets with a really significant amount of synthetic insulation it. As the performance of synthetic fibre insulation has increased over the years, there seems to have been a trend among brands to use less and less of it in any given jacket. On the one hand this means for a given level of warmth, jackets are getting lighter and more compact, which is of course a nice thing. However, personally I still feel that there is a place in the market for the big parka style belay jacket, that simply has a lot of high quality synthetic insulation in it and is therefore extremely warm in all conditions.
So I bought the Black Diamond Stance belay parka and it has been awesome. I have used it for everything from brutal Scottish winter days to 7000 metre peaks in the Tian Shan at -30C and now winter in Patagonia. In all cases I was extremely glad I had it and I was equally glad it was synthetic! The prim-a-loft insulation stays warm no mater what you throw at it and if the weather does improve, drys quickly and recovers for the next round of punishment. This level of enduring performance and recovery is something you simply don’t get in even the best down products and in my mind it’s what synthetics are all about.
I have been so pleased with the performance of the stance jacket that I have since bought the Stance trousers and they have been equally excellent. It might not be the absolutely lightest system around, but if like me you want to be warm and comfortable in the worst conditions imaginable the BD Stance is the optimal solution.
One of the great things about synthetic insulation is that it makes a great mid-layer. This is largely due to the fact it can be compressed more than down while still retaining most of is ability to insulate. This is an essential property for mid-layers which by definition tend to be sandwiched between shells and base layers much of the time. Most synthetic jackets are also made from more breathable face fabrics than their down counterparts, because they do not need to be coated to prevent the down clusters from escaping through the material. Add to both of these points, the aforementioned abilities to cope with moisture build up and dry quickly and it’s no surprise synthetics perform so well in the mid-layer role.
So having been very happy with the performance of the Stance parka and trousers, I was keen to expand my range of synthetic insulation with something lighter that could be used on its own or as a mid-layer. Black Diamond kindly offered to send me a First Light hoody for my latest trip to Patagonia in winter and given my experience with the stance, I was very excited to see how it would perform.
My first impression of the First Light hoody was honestly comfort. I put it on, zipped it up and was very pleased to find it was a perfect fit. As I have mentioned before, sometimes north american clothing brands seem to favour a wider, more boxy cut that does not always suit my tall and skinny build. With the First Light though, this was absolutely not the case. It felt perfectly cut and extremely comfortable from the moment I put it on.
After taking a minute to enjoy the fit I had a closer look at the jackets features. On closer inspection, I realised quite a lot of the feeling of comfort you get when you initially try on the First Light comes from its lack of ‘hard’ features. By this I am referring to all those hard plastic and metal components you get on jackets these days from draw-cord tighteners to bulky zips, stiff Velcro cuffs and wired hoods. In the right context all these features certainly have their place, however for the perfect mid layer I think it’s way better when they are used sparingly. Too many hard components can directly impact the comfort of the layer especially when hiking long distances with a heavy pack. Get one of those draw cord tighteners under your hip belt in the wrong place and you will certainly feel it by the end of the day! I find these sort of issues very irritating and they can drive me crazy when hiking for many hours, so I really appreciate comfort through simplicity.
For me the First Light hoody achieves this perfectly. It has simple elasticated cuffs, a soft hood, minimalist zips only one small tightener for the waist draw-cord. As a testament to how comfortable the hoody is, I wore this jacket day and night for a total of 14 days in Patagonia this winter. I used it both as a mid layer and outer layer and although it does not smell great now, it was always extremely comfortable. A little bit of cleaning and I am confident it will serve me well for many more adventures to come.
Moving on from features and general comfort of the First Light hoody it’s time to talk about warmth. Despite the several years of my life that I have spent working in outdoor shops trying to explain to customers how warm a given jacket is, I still feel it’s not an easy question to answer. There are a lot of variables that affect how warm the end user will feel in a particular garment and it’s beyond the scope of this article to address all of them here. I think the most important point to remember is that jackets work by insulating, that is trapping the heat your body produces to keep you warm. This means is that how warm you will feel at the end of the day is heavily dependent on how much heat you are actually producing in the first place. This varies a lot between people and based on the level of activity, how much you have eaten and also just how exhausted you are. Even if a jacket is functioning with 100% efficiency retaining all the heat you produce, you might find that after six or seven days of exhausting physical effort in the mountains with minimal food, you are not quite as warm as you want to be.
So how warm is the First Light? For me it’s the perfect level of warmth for a mid-layer. When you are up in the mountains in winter and using it with a shell, it gives you plenty of warmth if you are moving. Standing still in the shade you might be a little colder, but in my opinion this is ideal. If it was much warmer you would get too hot very quickly in the sun and would have to remove it often, which would be rather annoying.
For approaches or just wandering around town the First Light is great on it’s own as a light jacket. When wearing it without a shell you really appreciate the breathability of the face fabric. This makes it very versatile garment and it’s great for hiking when you are active and hence producing a bit more heat, but still feel you need some insulation. Like many of the best mid layers I have ever used, I feel like it’s a great all rounder that can do a lot of things very well.
What the First Light hoody not of course, is a full on belay parka. As impressively warm as this jacket is, when the weather turns against you in winter you will still be reaching for your BD Stance. In my mind it’s the difference between a bullet proof vest and a bomb shelter, they each have their place, but you need the right one for the right job. In Patagonia in winter, sometimes you need both!