The two questions I get asked most regularly via this blog involve either cordelettes or belay jackets - the cord ones about ‘how thick’, ‘how long’ and ‘how best to use’, which is funny when really a cordelette is just - well - a length of string. The belay jacket questions tend to come thick and fast as the nights draw in, as people think about sorting out winter kit for the season, or replacing stuff that’s worn out. Having a lot of articles on here about belay jackets is one reason why people end up here, but also maybe because what I’ve written in the past gets referenced a lot, the reason being that I guess I’ve been writing about this subject from the start - well that and the fact I use belay jackets a lot.
And so, I thought maybe it was time to update what I’ve written on the subject, so I can point people in the right direction.
The father of the belay jacket concept has to be Mark Twight - a true legend of the alpine - writing about the idea in his book Extreme Alpinism, the bible for many climbers, and one that’s yet to be surpassed. His idea was not really that revolutionary, in fact, it was almost a backward step, being about depending on less refined clothing, on cheapish nylon shelled Polarguard jackets versus gore-tex shelled down. The idea was you carried some form of insulation with all the sophistication of an AK47, but also equally robust and reliable. In the past climbers tended to wear quite a lot of clothes in winter, more so than they do now, and it’s often surprising we got up anything when you consider the weight, the cut, and the density of those clothes (Taslan Gore, Polartec 300 fleeces, heavyweight Javelin pile, wool jumpers and Helly). The belay jacket concept was for a more Sportif approach, dressing more like a cross country skier than a bearded hardman - Twight’s focus always being one of speed, conditioning and equipment. Here the climber would shed all that weight and bulk and restriction - all there primarily as insulation - and outsource that warmth to one super thick - but light - layer, thrown over the ‘action suit’ as soon as you stopped.
Now this belay layer had been around for decades in the form of the down jacket, but early on most down jackets were saved for best, and were not robust enough to deal with heavy Scottish style weather, or suffered from being easily torn to bits (you would never climb in a down jacket). The belay jacket, on the other hand, was far more robust, and you could literally tear it to pieces and it would still work, as well as get it soaking wet, grubby, frozen and it would still provide 90%+ of its insulation. The early jackets were also not so insulating as a full weight down jacket, meaning you could actually climb in it. This final part is where the real strength of the idea comes in, in that really it’s not a belay jacket - anything can be that (and often is when you look at what companies pass off as ‘belay jackets’), but actually what this is is a ‘shit just got serious’ jacket.
I’ve lost count of the times I’ve had to stave off hypothermia with my belay jacket, often the last man standing when it comes to staving off hypothermia. When things slow down, stop, or go tits up very often my first thought - after ‘we’re going to die’ or ‘get a brew on’ - is ‘where’s my belay jacket’.
In such situations, at the mild end sticking on a big chunk of insulation helps you relax and buys you time. Things don’t seem quite so bad when you get your hood up and you have the wind battering a few inches of wadding. At the far end, when you’re shaking like a bastard, it can seem like having such an item of clothing just tips the balance between life and the other.
And so overnight it seemed climbers saw the need to dress for sport and began to use belay jackets of various sorts that fitted the idea (both down and synthetic - the market very open). Mark Twight’s go-to jacket was the Patagonia DAS (Dead Air Space) parka, which remains to this day the template for all such jackets, even if most companies just build up from this most simple of clothing - sort of like a coat your mum would buy you for school really.
The DAS parka was quite a rare and expensive item in the UK back then so most people didn’t have one. I was working for Patagonia as a kit tester at the time (often wearing funny clownish clothes sewn out of opposing materials) so managed to get one, and used it a lot, and it probably saved my young stupid self several times over. It was around then - doing some moonlighting - that I helped PHD come up with their Zeta belay jacket, which went on to be used on some of the most groundbreaking climbs at the time (Kenton Cool, Jules Cartwright, Ian Parnell and others had one). The Zeta stuck to the simple idea but had a larger hood and a more water-resistant shell on both the inner and outer. Other companies came up with other jackets but most suffered from either being too light and low insulating, or too thick and heavy and complex. Jackets appeared with a mix of down and synthetic, with shells that were fully waterproof, or with every bell and whistle you could imagine, but few hit the mark.
Never the less the idea of this static layer did catch on, and the belay jacket, in one form or another caught on - from pimped up car coat to the genuine article - and found its place on the backs of both super alpinist and picnicking hill walker, a single layer that both helped you thrive and survive.
A Reappraisal Of The Concept
A lot of the emails I get seem to be from able people who don’t really understand just what it is they want, or what this thing called a belay jacket should do. In these emails I see people asking about top of the line Arc’teryx jackets and super weight Rab or ME coats, the spectrum of warmth, cost and practicality an indication they just don’t know what they want. This is often the problem, in that people get bedazzled by all the background stuff and so miss out on just what it’s meant to do in the first place. For example, if I said ‘buy a condom’, you’d no doubt ignore the fruit ones and the ribbed ones and just buy a packet of condoms. Simple. But if I said buy me a paraglider, or a pair of ski bindings, or a stealth bomber, you’d be a bit more easily distracted by the ‘ribs’ and the ‘fruit’. But really all can be condensed down to what is 80% perfect (without ribs or taste), rather than 50% with both ribs and taste.
And so - what do you need to get to 80% perfect?
So here’s a list of the things I think you should consider.
Weight & Warmth
Weight is important as, as long as you’re getting a simple design, it should have some bearing on the warmth of the jacket, as most of the meat will be in the insulation. One of the biggest issues I have with non-belay belay jackets is designs that are too light and with low insulation. For example, every time I climb El Cap with someone who’s never done it before I always say “bring a belay jacket - and I mean a warm one”. In almost every case what they bring is a hooded synthetic fleece, not a synthetic duvet, and come day 3, when the wind picks up, or a cold front moves in, they’re bloody freezing. So how warm or heavy/light are we talking? Well, I think it has to be less than 1kg (heavyweight jacket) and more than 500 grams (fleece), so between 700 grams and 800 grams. This weight of jacket tends to work just as well on cool summer evenings when the sun goes down, or on winter faces when layered up (it is not designed to be a survival pod - like a down suit - that’s the job of your sleeping system). I’ve used this weight of jacket down to -50 degrees and have never needed a classic down jacket (if you look at Steve House on Nanga Parbat wearing a DAS parka then you get the idea).
Having been a poor climber - and no doubt I will be again several more times - and having worked in a climbing shop, the cost of such a jacket is important, but this should also be offset by its function as if you divide the cost for such an item by the times its worn it tends to work as very cheap indeed (compared to fancy ski boots, surfboards, smoothy makers). The cost of the jacket must be affordable enough that you can buy one, and cheap enough that you aren’t too precious about it (you can get an AK47 for less than a cheap second-hand iPhone for example, while a Lockheed Raptor costs $339 million, which one would you leave to get rusty in the rain?). For example, the Arc’teryx Dually belay jacket retails for around £600, which I think makes it a raptor, while the Alpkit Apogee Jacket is only £160, so which one will cause tears to be shed when you burn a fuck off hole in the sleeve with your reactor stove?
So what’s the right price? Well, I think around £200 is a sweet spot that you should be looking at, as cheaper jackets than this tend to be lighter jackets, where more this (£250, £300 etc), tend to have prices that reflect more complex construction or higher-end fabrics (the belay jacket does not need taped seams, welded on bits etc).
I must admit I kind of turn off these days when people talk about new fancy insulations, as it seems that after a month of hard use they all seem about the same (although new synthetics like PrimaLoft® ThermoPlume do actually stand out as something new). Some are softer and some are stiff and boardy, but as long as they’re thick and do the job then I don’t get bogged down on what the fibre is branded this year.
The aim of all your kit should always be what you can take away, not add, and I think this should be your focus. So what features or non-features do you need/not need?
Cuffs: Go for simple elastic cuffs and avoid velcro, as this will both pick up ice and make it harder to whip the jacket on and off. Elastic cuffs also dry faster, are cheaper, lighter, and tend to wear less (you have no stiff edge to rub).
Pockets: You need two pockets to stick your hands in when knobbing around as well as to hold mitts, day food (keeping food in belay pockets helps you keep eating) and other bits. I also like a chest pocket or two, where - on multi-day routes - I tend to keep my toothbrush, mini toothpaste, flint and steel, spare camera batteries and spoon. Low pockets are fine with this kind of jacket as it is always worn over a harness. I also like to have an internal pocket big enough for a 1 litre Nalgene bottle, as I often use the belay jacket to keep water from freezing - and this should ideally have some way of securing it shut, so the water bottle doesn’t fall out when taking the jacket in and out of your pack.
Hood: The jacket should have a really good - but simple - hood that will fit over your helmet to keep out spindrift/wind etc. The job of the hood is not to seal up around your face, but simply to boost the protection of the storm layers underneath.
Fabrics: You want lightweight fabrics that allow all the meat of the jacket to keep you warm, and also dry fast and be climbable in. Pertex style fabrics always work really well, and avoid anything taped or waterproof as all you’re getting is a car coat!
Sizing: Always buy one size bigger than you normally would, so that it will layer up over your shell and insulating layers below. Having a tight belay jacket is no good, plus a larger jacket will fit more people, meaning it can be handed over to someone in need more easily (larger is also good if you use it as a blanket in your sleeping bag).
Colour: I like bright colours in belay jackets as it makes things feel a bit more cheery!
So What To Buy?
Well, the aim of this article has really been about giving you some idea of what to look for yourselves. There are lots of good jackets on the market, but few great ones, most slipping either side of what I consider the sweet spot in terms of insulation, price or function, but Rab (Photon X), ME (Citadel) and PHD (Zeta), plus some others, stand out from the crowd (and are most often the jackets people ask about).
Personally - well I work for Montane and put everything I know about this kind of jacket into the Spitfire jacket, which for me is pretty much perfect, and has seen me right down to below -20, in sunshine and storm, and the stuff in between, and even if I didn’t have the perk of a free one, I’d still not be too fussed about wrestling a wolverine in it. The only issue I have is that it’s black*… but then you can’t have everything.
*Other colours are available.