My new favorite jacket: Arc’teryx Acto MX Hoodie

Introduction

A little over a year ago one of my coworkers offered to sell one of his jackets to me and, being quite the gearwhore, I almost immediately said yes without giving it much thought. I like dead bird stuff. Don’t we all?

However, there was one not so small thing bugging me about this particular model from the outset: Sleeve length was spot on but the hem width was a little too much (should I do more squats?) Recently though, I bit the bullet and took it to a tailor I knew I could trust. After a bit of an argument – he didn’t particularly like cutting into the taping – he agreed to tailor the hem to my size so I could wear this baby without harsh winds cooling me down. An extra plus is that it looks so much better now!

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So, now that I’ve been wearing this jacket extensively I thought I should give it a proper overview. It’s an old model by now but Arc’teryx offers quite a few jackets which are similar in terms of functionality, fit and style so I thought I’d write one up anyway.

Construction

There are few outdoor brands that rival Arc’teryx in terms of sheer attention to detail and quality control throughout. Flatlocked and taped seams make this jacket look clean on the outside and in, and make it extremely comfortable to wear, with or without pack. The ends on both the sleeves and the bottom of the jacket are finished with a thin line of grey fabric, which seems to be glued on – no stitching visible.

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The face fabric is 100% nylon with a very thin layer of grid fleece on the inside, giving the jacket just a tad of warmth and a high degree of wind resistance and breathability. The fleece’s composition (96% polyester and 4% spandex) gives the jacket its slight stretch. Due to the taped seams it’s tough for chilling winds to creep through – although they don’t make the jacket waterproof or fully windproof. Don’t mistake this for a Gore-Tex jacket! That’s not to say it doesn’t shed water – it’s exceptionally water-resistant. Since picking it up from the tailor I haven’t put on another shell jacket, and I have not been soaked once – and let me tell you that it has seen some rain in that month! This is to be expected: MX stands for Mixed Weather; meaning garments from that range should be able to cope with changing circumstances. Even then, I have never worn a soft-shell more capable of repelling water than this one. And it is still breathable like a fleece!

True to Arc’teryx form, all features and details (more on those later) are carefully designed so they don’t interfere or stand out, making for a clean look and clutter-free jacket.

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Features

This jacket has been designed with climbing and trekking in mind. That means it’s a very clean jacket with only a handful of well-designed features useful for those activities. It’s a short jacket, just barely touching the hips – although it’s slightly longer in the back than at the front. It won’t interfere with a climbing harness or with a rucksack hip-belt, more so due to the fact that it does not have hand pockets. It only has two spacious Napoleon pockets on either side of the main zipper. These will hold your essentials such as maps, compass, GPS devices or gloves and other cold-weather accessories.

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The hood is spacious and adjustable so that it can be made to follow your head movements. The cut is generous enough for a helmet but I’m not a climber myself so I haven’t tried so far. It also has a brim stiff enough to block wind and rain while still providing ample peripheral vision. The drawstrings are minimal, saving weight and clutter.

The zipper pullers are large enough to grab them while wearing thin or waterproof gloves, but I suspect winter gloves and especially mitts might give some problems. Then again, you’d probably be wearing a different coat in such weather conditions.

Fit

The fit can be summarized in one word: generous. Granted, I’m not a big guy but with 1,78m at 70kg the sleeve length is spot on. However, the body size originally was a little… big, hence the trip to the tailor. Now it sits perfectly on my hips with more than enough room to layer up underneath. The shoulder width is still a bit excessive but this also creates freedom of movement and room for layers without becoming annoying in the armpits so I’ll just say it’s a double-edged sword. Luckily, the cut is not annoying while wearing a pack (which I do almost every single day). Sometimes, a generous cut leaves too much excess fabric in the armpits, which bungles up while wearing a backpack or load-bearing equipment. This has not happened so far, which is good.

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Details

As far as functional trekking and outdoor jackets go, this is a very clean and minimalistic one so its details are few but well placed. No Velcro sleeve cuff adjusters here, just a slightly stretchy ending just tight enough to block winds but wide enough for thin gloves when needed. The Napoleon pockets have a mesh inner, so they can double as core ventilation ports when necessary. The main drawstrings of the hood lead to the inside so they don’t clutter the outside of the jacket. Finally, the zipper is designed to allow opening with one hand. That means it doesn’t lock very well in its fully closed position, which is annoying to some but a godsend to others (cyclists and climbers mostly) – don’t be afraid; it doesn’t come down on its own.  

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Usage

Being a shell jacket its primary purpose is to block the elements. It does so very well: it’s extremely resistant to moisture for a non-laminated jacket and it’s a quite capable windblocker. Due to the grid fleece on the inside it is able to give some warmth but don’t expect the world: due to circumstances I have worn this in a stationary position in cold, wet and windy conditions (+/- 5 degrees Celsius, not compensated for wind-chill) with just a tee underneath and it wasn’t pleasant… The upside was that even then I remained dry, meaning it is able to shed water even when worn directly on the skin. I intend to use it quite a bit this year: it has been the only (and I do mean only) shell jacket I’ve worn the last month in extremely varying conditions including quite heavy rain, and it hasn’t let me down once. It positively surprised me on a number of occasions, which is good. Its real test will come later this year, when I intend to go cabin trekking in the Slovenian Alps.

 

Pros

Beautifully simple

Attention to detail

Quite windproof

Extremely water-resistant

Well-placed details

Adjustable and roomy hood

 

Cons

Original fit off for me

No internal drawstring at hem

 

Overall

Overall this is a great jacket with only one major drawback that might not even be an issue for other people – its fit. After a bit of customization it has been greatly improved and now it’s one of my favorite jackets. Even more than my Fjällräven Keb Jacket it’s a jacket suitable for almost any situation and weather condition. Its water-repellent ability is the best I’ve ever seen in a non-waterproof jacket, and due to the taping the seams don’t diminish that. It has a nice clean look, which delivers on the streets as well as in the mountains. Thanks to a minimal amount of very well placed and thought-out details it performs extremely well without a large amount of clutter.

 

Further reading

www.arcteryx.com

http://www.backcountry.com/arcteryx-acto-mx-hooded-fleece-jacket-mens

http://thegemsstock.com/arcteryx-acto-mx-hoody-review

 

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The Importance of a Good Mid Layer

 Fall is approaching quickly and that means plummeting temperatures. In order to have fun outdoors in cooler and wetter climates, clothing becomes all the more important. Although almost no single piece of clothing is more important than the other, one garment is paramount to your outdoor adventure: the mid layer.

While a very warm winter jacket or parka is a good solution for everyday use, it’s less so for strenuous outdoor activities in colder temperatures because most of them are designed to keep you warm while sitting still or while engaging in low-cardio activities. If your activities are a bit more strenuous (say, tour skiing, mountaineering, trekking or walking in the mountains) they will be incredibly hot and heavy – heat stroke style. This is where the layering principle comes in, and the mid layer is an important part of that.

Basically, the mid layer is the layer you put on while resting, or sitting still for extended periods of time. Ideally, it is able to warm you up quickly and retain heat effectively. Together with the base layer, to wick away moisture and offer next-to-skin comfort, and an outer layer, to keep out wind, rain or snow – and in extreme circumstances a reinforcement layer for additional heat or weather protection – it provides you with a system of clothing adaptable to almost any situation.

So, what do these mid layers look like? They come in various shapes and sizes, each with its own pros and cons. One might be warmer than the other, while the other could be better able to cope with moisture, for example. There are two main groups of mid layers: sweaters and puffies, each with a number of sub groups. We’ll look at all of these in turn and close with a look at their combined usage. Let’s look at sweaters first.

Sweaters

Sweaters, or pullovers or jumpers, as they are known in some parts of the world, are fairly straightforward pieces of clothing. They come in various thicknesses and materials. The two most widely seen nowadays are wool sweaters and fleeces. They both come in a number of form factors: with or without hood, with half zips or with full zips, or as plain sweaters without any of those features. In essence, they all do the same: they retain heat within the weaving of the fabric and by creating an extra layer of air between the user and the garment. However, they do so with varying results.

Wool is a very natural fabric, with some excellent and less excellent qualities. On the upside, it is a very good insulator and a very durable fabric. Furthermore, it is naturally moisture wicking, resulting in a highly breathable garment. Also, it is still capable to retain a great amount of heat even when damp or wet. It is a favorite among survival enthusiasts because it is very resistant to fire as well.

However, it also is relatively heavy, and gets more so when wet – also, it takes forever to dry (do not let your wool garment dry in a badly ventilated space, as that could result in a severe case of mildew). Some people might find the texture of wool annoying next to the skin, resulting in an itching sensation (very fine weaving or certain types of wool such as Merino alleviate this somewhat, resulting in excellent base layer fabrics). Overall, wool is a great fabric with some less awesome characteristics. It is great for certain types of users, such as survivalists. But for mountaineers or trekkers its downsides might push them over the edge.

Fleeces provide somewhat of a mirror image to wool. Traditionally, fleeces used to be 100 per cent synthetic, in most cases polyester. Polyester fabrics are light and hard wearing. The major downside to polyester is that it might be a bit difficult to keep fresh and clean due to its washing restrictions and the fact that bacteria seem to be quite fond of it. Also, traditional fleeces are somewhat boring and ugly due to its reliance on a soft and uneven surface to retain heat.

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Modern day fleeces look a lot better, with innovations such as Powerstretch, Polartec and polyester/wool/elastane blends creating better looking surfaces with more comfort and better heat retention abilities.

The major upsides to synthetic fleeces are that they are lightweight, comfortable and quick drying. Also, they retain a lot of heat even when wet. The major downsides however, are that some (especially cheaper or thicker weave polyester fabrics) might be less able to wick away body vapor and moisture resulting in a sweaty feeling, and that they are very susceptible to fire, being 100 per cent synthetic.

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Due to these characteristics, fleeces are very suitable for strenuous outdoor activities such as trekking or mountaineering, but might be less suitable for bushcrafters, survivalists and camp fire enthusiasts…

Footnote: obviously, there are also cotton sweaters. These are very comfortable. However, for serious outdoor activities involving sleeping in the outdoors I seriously recommend you shun these. Cotton takes forever to dry and offers very little warmth when wet. It’s not unusual to suffer serious hypothermia because of the use of cotton base- or mid layers. Cotton kills. 

Puffy Jackets or vests

Air is the best insulator known to man – or any other species for that matter. It’s why polar bears, huskies and polar foxes all have a thick winter fur. The thick layer of air this creates is what makes them capable to cope with extreme cold.

Humans don’t have this ability, but we have come close to creating something as good as (if not better than) those arctic naturals. Puffy apparel relies on a large pocket of air within the garment itself to retain heat. That is why they look so ridiculously large and why the extreme versions of such jackets make us look like marshmallow men.

In essence, puffy jackets come in two varieties: loft-filled versions, and down-filled versions. Similar to the various materials used for sweaters, they come with their own pros and cons, which makes them ideal for certain circumstances, while being less so for others.

Although down comes in various grades of quality it is hands down the lowest weight/highest warmth insulator available (pun only noticed after writing). It is incredibly light and comfortable to wear (depending on the inner fabric of the jacket, which is usually some form of polyamide known as Pertex Quantum). It’s like putting on a good sleeping bag but still being able to, you know, do stuff. You barely notice it being there but it creates incredible amounts of heat.

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Down has one major, and I do mean major, negative point: it is rubbish when it gets wet. Moisture makes the down fibers and feathers needed for the pockets of air cluster close together, which makes it lose nearly all its insulating ability. Also, like wool, it takes ages to dry. This harnesses the potential to ruin an otherwise awesome outdoor season such as autumn. Down is great in the dead of winter when cold is much dryer than during the fall months. Puffy down jackets are in their element when the snow starts falling, not when the rain is pouring. However,  a down vest can be a great reinforcement layer over a fleece when autumn slowly starts to change into winter. Just remember to keep it dry.

Loft puffy jackets, again, form somewhat of a counterpoint to down puffy jackets. They are not nearly as warm or as light as down-filled jackets, but they do offer the ability to retain heat even when damp and they also dry a lot quicker. Also, they are more affordable. This is why most outdoor brands, from The North Face to Arc’teryx and Fjällräven to Patagonia, have some form of loft-filled jackets, each with their own name of filling, but all relying on the same principle: synthetic polyester down emulators. It looks different from down on the inside. It’s very similar to cotton candy instead of goose feathers.

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The fact that it’s much more similar to such a fiber is also what creates its major pro: it cannot cluster when wet. It also creates its major con: much more actual stuff is needed to create its insulating effect, resulting in a larger package and a heavier garment than a down equivalent. This is why these types of jackets are often thinner and more geared towards autumn (when temperatures are higher than in the dead of winter) than their down counterparts. Again, these are great for severe usage due to their ability to retain heat when wet, especially in wet and cool climates. They are less suitable for severe usage in dry, extremely cold climates, although they can work in such climates when combined with a down-filled vest as reinforcement, to heat the body core.

Combined Usage

While each mid layer is great for their intended use, they can also be combined to get the most out of them.

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While sweaters and fleeces serve as great mid layers in the warmer months of the years (in which they are mostly only used as a layer to put on while resting or during the evening by the cabin or tent) they could actually be needed to keep the body warm during strenuous winter activities. While tour skiing, or on snow shoeing hikes, you start coolly, because the body core heats up quickly resulting in less clothing needed to keep warm. However, warmer layers are needed to keep warm during rest stops: enter down jackets or vests. These are then often pulled on over fleeces.

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By combining various mid- or reinforcement layers, you never run the risk of heat stroke or hypothermia due to either heat, cold, or moisture. Just remember to adjust clothing accordingly the moment you get cold or hot.

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Also, it is paramount to protect your clothing from the elements. Use a proper shell garment (either water resistant or waterproof, depending on weather; for a discussion on these see one of my earlier posts) to protect the clothing you are wearing, and pack your clothing properly into your backpack when not in use, preferably in a waterproof pack bag to keep rain or snow out. This will result in much better times spent outdoors!

Further Reading and Watching

http://leaf.arcteryx.com/product.aspx?language=EN&gender=mens&category=Mid_Layer&model=Atom-LT-Hoody-LEAF

http://www.mammut.ch/store/BX/en_BX/B2C-Category/Men/Jackets-and-Vests/Insulation-Jackets/Mercury-Jacket-Men/p/1010-14940-5535

http://www.fjallraven.com/pak-down-vest-34395

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NubocNM6Gag

http://www.fjallraven.com/keb-fleece-jacket

Outdoor Gear Review: Fjällräven Keb Jacket

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Full disclaimer: I currently work for Fjällräven as a sales advisor. However, that does not mean critique is a foul word in my book.

Overview

Named after Kebnekaise, Sweden’s highest mountain, the Keb series of garments is Fjällräven’s most technical line of clothing. It is meant for demanding treks in high mountain regions, and as such focuses on freedom of movement, ventilation, a high degree of comfort and the ability to deal with almost any weather. The Keb Family, as almost any other family in the Fjällräven collection, is designed to be used as a system of garments, with the inclusion of base, mid, reinforcement and outer layers. This jacket is meant to be used as an outer shell for active outdoors activities such as trekking in the mountains, or mountaineering in dry but demanding weather.

Construction

As most Fjällräven jackets are, the Keb is largely constructed out of G-1000, the company’s tough and durable 65-35 per cent polyester-cotton blend. While often understood as a Gore-Tex alternative, G-1000 is not actually completely waterproof. While its wind- and water-resistance can be improved upon by applying Greenland Wax (which is a soap-like substance made from paraffin and beeswax), you’ll still need a hardshell or poncho for those torrential rains, while it will suit you well for anything from a light drizzle to a short shower. The upside to this is that G-1000’s ventilation is unparalleled and that its durability is incredible, meaning that you won’t destroy your precious hardshell with a heavy backpack when you don’t actually need that 30K water column jacket because of unexpectedly good weather.

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A very large part of the Keb Jacket is made from four-way stretch material, mostly on the sleeves and the back. This adds extra freedom of movement and ventilation at places where you need them most. This stretch also covers a part of the front, although Fjällräven was smart enough to make this only cover the outside of the front pockets, meaning the user still enjoys the benefit of G-1000’s weather-repellant abilities on the entire front side.

As far as stitching goes, this is where you’ll notice that this is still a human’s job… For those obsessed with small imperfections that might be a deal breaker as some of the end stitching might show some loose threads. These are mostly leftovers from production, however, and cutting them loose should not result in any major unraveling or breaking. As you might expect from such a major outdoor equipment manufacturer, Fjällräven has quite a well-organized and generous warranty policy so any imperfections and major malfunctions should be dealt with.

Features

Feature-wise this is one of the most well rounded jackets I have ever used. Its hood, for example, might come across as ridiculously large the first time you put it on. But then you discover all the Velcro and draw-cords used for adjustment and it becomes one of the best collars cum storm hoods ever. It is fully and snugly adjustable so it follows any head movements to the tee. No more lost peripheral vision! Also, it is large enough to fit a helmet, or if you’re like me, the hood(s) of one or several mid layers, without it feeling stuffed. Also, due to the large collar, the tunnel hood acts as a snow deflector due to the few centimeters of space between the brim and the user’s face.

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Other smart features are the stretch panels covering the chest pockets, so they are incredibly expandable. They are roomy enough to fit items such as GPS devices, gloves or other cold gear as it is, but with the stretch the jacket makes sure they don’t bother the user while they’re full of useful items.

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As you might expect from a jacket like this, it has an elastic draw cord at the hem to make it sit nice and snug on the hips. This ensures no wind will come through to cool the wearer down. I have this one in permanent use due to the fit of the jacket, which brings us to the next point.

Fit

While I am, as most people, tempted to buy a jacket which looks super nice and tailored to my body, that actually is a costly mistake with most outer shell jackets, whether they are hard- or softshells (unless of course, you have a money tree growing in your back yard). Per definition, such jackets are designed to be used as a system garment, meaning the user has to have enough leftover space for a base and mid layer – in extreme circumstances even a reinforcement layer. Nowadays, most insulation layers are filled with either down or loft fibers, which means they rely on the principle of air pockets. This means the user needs extra space to hold on to that precious warm air. With a tight-fitting jacket, the user will smother the mid layer, ruining its insulating effect – meaning he or she will eventually have a very cold body core.

So much for theory.

In practice, this means that I have opted for one size larger than I would have chosen from a fashion standpoint. I chose a Medium. It still looks quite nice on my shoulders, but on the main body it looks a tad bulky when I’m wearing just a t-shirt underneath. But this is more than just a summer jacket. I want to be able to wear this year-round. That means being able to pull this over a thick sweater or even bulkier loft or down jacket. And then, all of a sudden, that Small becomes incredibly tight and weird looking, while the Medium is super comfy.

From a functionality and insulation standpoint, extra space is a necessity.

Details

Always the simplicity enthusiasts, Fjällräven has opted to keep this jacket as undetailed as possible. Of course, there’s the usual, such as the hood draw cords, which are integrated in a subtle and clean way. Another one is the (apparent) lack of hand pockets, which I personally think is not a lacking feature but a feature in and of itself, because a smart user will notice that the ventilation zippers at the sides (core ventilation instead of arm pit ventilation) double as a way to access the pockets on any mid layer worn under the jacket. Hand pockets are inaccessible when wearing a heavy pack or climbing equipment anyway, and this construction helps keep the weight and bulk of the jacket down.

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On the left sleeve there’s another pocket one could use for stuff such as GPS devices or flashlights I guess. I personally tend to keep as much gear in my trousers as possible because I want to be able to switch from a soft- to a hardshell jacket as quickly as possible when the weather turns and having a large amount of small items in my jacket pockets makes this impossible so I doubt I’ll use it much.

Usage

Since obtaining this jacket about a month ago I have used it almost every single day. For me, it perfectly fulfills the role of an everyday jacket suitable for most weather conditions. While some might think that it looks a little too sporty and hardcore (it does), I actually like that look – a lot.

G-1000 makes sure I’m good for most weather conditions, meaning my extremely expensive rain jacket will only come off the hanger when actually needed (resulting in a longer lifespan!). I am looking forward to testing this jacket in a proper outdoor situation very soon. Next month I will take it to a weeklong trip to Ireland. To be sure, of course I will also pack a hardshell. Lord knows I’ll probably need it (but don’t tell my girlfriend…).

Pros

Very good-looking

Natural feel

Simple

Well-adjustable tunnel hood

Freedom of movement

Durable material

Well-ventilated

Weather protection on exposed areas

Cons

Stitching details are off here and there

Tunnel hood is extremely large

Hem draw cords have no vertical orientation

Stretch not as weather resistant as G-1000

Overall

All in all this is one of my new every-day favorites, which, for me, works as well on the streets as it does in the mountains. It’s adjustable in all the right places, and well thought through with some very useful features and details. It offers just the right amount of weather protection to be useful on almost every day short of those featuring Biblical precipitation. Its cut is tight enough to be good looking without mid-layers, but generous enough to wear them when necessary and do so comfortably.

It does have some features and details that some people might find annoying, such as the overly generous tunnel hood. While this used to be an issue for me, after a month of use it no longer bothers me and I have grown to like it quite a lot due to its excellent double function as a very wind resistant collar.

I do, however, have a small issue with two details, one being the stitching details and the other being the hem draw cords. The cords could have been stowed away a little more elegantly. But this is nothing a small knot can’t fix. The stitching details do not negatively affect the functionality of the jacket in any way. It’s just something which, when done better, would have elevated the jacket from a very good looking, to an extremely good looking jacket.

All in all, I really like this jacket and it only has some very minor caveats. Buy when you’re not a stitching-obsessed person, and you’re looking for a very good general purpose, technical trekking jacket!

Further reading

http://www.fjallraven.com/keb-jacket

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wTwmJIgAlGQ