Yesterday I finally retired* my Rab Xenon (*cut up for parts and usable scraps of material). I received this jacket in early 2012 for a BackpackingLight project, and for the better part of two years it got the snot beat out of it. Starting last spring it stayed in the closet more often than not as there was not all that much warmth left in the Primaloft. It had plenty of ember holes in the sleeves, and the main zipper gave out, and this spring I have it a bit more life by cutting the sleeves off to make a vest, but the fact of the matter is that synthetic insulated jackets have a limited lifespan under hard use circumstances.
Two years of very frequent use (and another year of occasional duty) is really not bad, but had I not gotten the Xenon for free I think I’d still be disappointed. 250 dollars is a lot of money in my world, and worse than not getting max mileage out of those funds is a piece of gear that is in essence semi-disposable. The Xenon is one of five synthetic puffy coats I’ve ever owned; two were sold, and the other two I still have and use. Maximizing longevity of these pieces is a priority, as until Dri Down gets a lot better I do not see it as a viable alternative most of the time.
This is what 80 grams/meter Polartec Alpha looks like, in case you were curious. It’s half doily, half carpet, or to use a more relevant analogy halfway between Primaloft and fleece. After a year and a half of frequent use, my Rab Strata seems as warm as it ever was, which is encouraging. It still isn’t warm enough (windproofedness aside) for stand alone use outside summer, but the moisture transport and apparent durability have me taking Alpha ever more seriously.
Using the experiment with the Xenon as a template, last night I cut the sleeves off the Strata and turned it into a hooded vest. Which should I hope get the more frequent use it deserves. As a slightly lighter and more compact alternative to fleece, with a decent bit of windproofing added, the numbers on the Strata make more sense.
This seems to be the dirty, unspoken secret of all high-loft insulations: as the warmth/weight ratio goes into the upper echelons, durability goes down. This is the case with synthetic fills, >800 fill down, and even with hi-loft fleece. It probably shouldn’t be a surprise that this last 10% edge in theoretical performance may not make that much sense in field conditions, long term. The art is finding a good compromise.
Rain gear, windshirt, and baselayers I’ve got pretty dialed, but I’m still looking, and often, for more ideal insulation pieces.