The relative importance of weight, bulk, robustness, warmth and cost of a belay jacket probably comes down to when these features seem the most important.
In the shop or when buying online, the cost will be a big factor as warmth and weight will be abstract ideas to you as you start typing in your PayPal password or parting with the cash. In a warm shop, dressed in a t-shirt it’s easy to be swayed by that extra £50, or sidetracked by some Gucci fabric and material, or even a tiny stuff size, but remember, primarily a belay jacket’s chief role is to boost your ‘survivability!’.
When you’re in the car park heading up into the morning gloom of a frosty Glencoe price will not be important anymore, but bulk, as you try and stuff the jacket away into a pack just a tad too small. Walking up to the Hornli ridge in January you may well be cursing that extra 500grams you bought in that heavyweight jacket as your unacclimatised body fights to push the blood around. How warm is too warm will not be a factor when you find yourself stuck on the summit of the Verte waiting for dawn in order to find your way down, as even the warmest coat will cool when static for long enough, with some puny supposed belay jackets being belayed in name only, and really no better than a thin fleece. As for robustness, when that storm hits you far from safety you’ll find the warmth - sometimes sweaty - of keeping that jacket on just helps you nerves enough to stay safe, this is when you find that gossamer shell rips to shreds as you move over the rock. So how important is each aspect? To come up with an answer you need to ask yourself a few honest questions:
- 1.How fit are you?
- 2.How slow do you climb?
- 3.Do you get cold easily?
- 4.What kinds of routes will you be using this for?
- 5.What’s your budget?
- 6.Do you understand what a belay jacket is for?
- 7.How strong as you mentally?
For decades people carried no real spare clothing, they just took clothes off, then put more clothes back on. If it was really cold you may carry a down jacket, but often this would be saved until things were either desperate, or you were out of danger (like walking to the pub, or sitting in the cafe so you looked like a gnarly alpinist). I won’t go into what a belay jacket should be (read my thoughts here) but just to recap:
- The jacket should be light, with an overall weight of between 600 to 700 grams total weight.
- This weight of the jacket, when added over your ‘action layer’ will keep you warm when static at alpine winter temperatures for an average winter pitch. On winter walls a jacket double the weight is needed, along with puff pants, down mitts etc.
- The jacket should feature a hood that will fit over a helmet.
- It should not be an insulated shell, as a shell adds unnecessary weight, and this weight should be formed from insulation.
- Bulk wise it should be small enough to fit in a stuff sack attached to your harness.
- Fabric wise needs to be water-resistant (snow proof), but more importantly tough enough to deal with rough use.
- Like most kit, I like this has to conform to the AK47 idea, in that you can chuck it in the mud, rain, snow, stamp on it, abuse it, and it will still work (unlike a down jacket).
Working for Montane I can’t really comment on other brands, but ME, Rab, PHD etc all make good belay jackets, and as for Montane, I think their Ice Guide jacket is pretty much perfect (but then I would say that!). Whatever jacket you buy make sure you wear all your normal kit when trying it on, as it needs to fit over all your layers.