Fuzzy longevity

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.

R0011101Two 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.

R0011115This 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.

R0011129Using 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.


16 responses to “Fuzzy longevity”

  1. I found a Strata on a good deal awhile back and grabbed one. I’ve only had it out a couple of times, but thus far, I’m liking it. The military evidently likes it (Alpha) as they have adopted it in their PCU Level 3A garments. Reading how quickly other synthetics would lose their clo after stuffing/unstuffing was an eye opener, sounds like Alpha is quite a bit ahead in this department.

  2. great article, thanks for the explanation. thats the first time i’ve seen what alpha looks like without the outer layers.
    alpha was developed for the military, they were looking for an insulation layer they were less likely to have to take off because of all the webbing straps and gear they have on.
    its an interesting technology. i’ve used a jacket briefly, i’ve ordered the strata vest hoping to put it to good use, i’ll get more use out of a vest than a jacket where i live in New Zealand, it doesnt often get cold enough for a full insulated jacket here and i’ve found primaloft and montbells exoloft too clammy.

    1. I reckon you’ll find it will complement a Swazi microfleece quite nicely.

      1. yeah, NZ gets pretty windy, hence wanting something that stops the wind better and packs down when i don’t need it. not a fan of Davey Hughes owner of Swazi and the way he tries to glamorise hunting, in NZ first and foremost hunting needs to be about population control. kill everything you see to save the vegetation, not let them grow till you can get your jollies taking a big set of antlers. there are no big apex predators in NZ apart from humans, deer do massive damage to our bush , a massive amount gets spent by the govt on population control with limited success.

        1. Makes sense to me. A lot of trophy hunting is artificially keeping the challenge up. Was impressed with materials in Swazi stuff in shops we saw this past winter.

        2. we’ve also got the macpac hiking brand here making micro fleece, but they are only sold in the major cities.

    2. so i have the rab cirrus wind shirt in a medium, its a borderline fit especially for layering. so i got a large in the strata vest, and its feels like a tent!

  3. the marmot isotherm alpha jacket uses different fabrics inside, the high sweat areas have the highly breathable knitted fabric, the less sweaty areas have woven fabric to hold warmth in …

    1. Could you expand on that? I looked at the Isotherm, but the info available said it was Quantum inside and out, which in light of Dave’s Strata review would seem to cancel out the advantage of Alpha’s breathability. Do you have the Isotherm? How would you say it breathes?

      1. I’ll correct myself: it looks like the jacket/hoody have a completely different design than the pullover of the same name. I was interested in the pullover.

  4. I was waffling between the BD Access Hybrid and the Nano-Air and pulled the trigger on the Nano-Air, largely because for a similar price, I think the Primaloft in the BD will break down more quickly. I’ll have to see how much the 60g in the Nano-Air can do, and how much warmth a windshirt thrown on top will add at rest.

    1. A good choice, I think. For me the stretch panel puffies are the worst of all worlds: extra weight and water retention with less warmth and little actual venting.

  5. How well do yall think Thermoball insulation in a jacket or vest will do over time compared to down or other Primaloft products?

    1. Certainly an interesting question. The assumption is that Primaloft struggles with warmth retention because while it is still a sheet of fluffy material, it doesn’t have the integral scrims with Climashield does (it’s hard to articulate the differences between the two to someone who hasn’t seen the materials in the raw). Thermoball is just bits of synthetic insulation, so the question has to be whether being in little pieces will take away the mechanism by which Primaloft degrades, or make it worse. Seems like it could go either way.

  6. Thanks Dave! Once again, excellent hands-on real-life information. I’ve had the impression of the high warmth/weight synthetics being short-lived and thus use my Primaloft kit sparingly. But I’ve had the idea that down, even the high quality stuff, would last a lot longer. At least it seems to handle the daily compression/packing of sleeping bags very well. Do you have good evidence on the life time of the 800fp+ down or is it just an assumption?

    But I guess that for now it’s always a trade of between weight and durability. If you live in the outdoors year in year out then traditional fleece and wool-mixes probably make more sense than one would think. They seem to last near forever.

  7. […] something like the Novak as an outright replacement for a light synthetic fill jacket (such as the Rab Xenon) in all circumstances.  The Xenon has an edge in weight (roughly a half pound lighter), packed […]

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