Belay Jackets and Belay Parkas…what are they and who are they for? What makes a good one and why do we need one? Well picture this…
You’re three pitches up and lashed to the crag, the wind is howling, impregnating your clothing with damp snowflakes. From above, constant avalanches of spindrift pummel your back, head and shoulders. You’ve been here a while now, your partner is doing battle with the pitch, approaching the second hour as he battles with the technicalities. You’ve been stood still, but rather than being a frozen lump, you’re warm and still reasonably comfortable. Do you want to know how? Then read on…
Winter climbing involves extended periods of high exertion where your body gets hot, sweaty and damp. This is usually followed by equally long periods where you are stood around in the cold, belaying. Choosing a clothing system to cope with this can be tricky, you don’t want to wear too much whilst climbing because you will overheat, but then when you stop the moisture from your body will cool you down more quickly too, causing you to be cold and uncomfortable during your belaying stint.
So what is the solution?
I’ve tried out many different systems and configurations of clothing for my winter climbing exploits over the years. I now climb in a few thin layers with a weatherproof shell layer over the top. This generally consists of:
- Legs: midweight merino or powerstretch tights, 4 season softshell trousers.
- Top: midweight base layer, another insulation layer such as a powerstretch top, over the top of this I wear a weatherproof and lightly insulated softshell jacket with a big helmet-friendly hood.
I rarely use a hardshell (fully waterproof shell system) for winter climbing, even in Scotland as I’ve found that modern softshells are generally weatherproof enough to combat the dampness, and the breathability and flexibility more than outweigh the cons here. This of course, is a subjective choice as I feel I can cope with the damp in return for the flexibility that softshells offer. However we have other reviewers that like to climb in hardshells – it’s all a matter of choice.
So, this clothing system is what Mark Twight dubbed, in his book Extreme Alpinism, “the lightweight flexible action suit.” It is warm enough for when I’m stood around for short periods, such as map reading, drink stops etc, but flexible and breathable enough that I don’t overheat when I’m climbing. I prefer to set off on a day feeling slightly cold and letting the movement help to warm me up. However, when stood around for longer periods, for example belaying, my “action suit” just isn’t enough. This is where the belay jacket comes in.
What is a belay jacket?
For the purposes of this article I’m going to refer to 2 different types of belay jacket. The lightweight variety, usually a simple jacket or even pullover, which may or may not have a hood and featuring 60 to 80 grams of synthetic filling. Good examples of products that fall into this bracket can be found at the end of this article.
The other type is the belay parka, a fully featured and heavier piece which offers more warmth and protection and would usually feature 100 to 200 grams of synthetic insulation. Again, good examples can be found at the bottom of this article.
The lightweight examples are great for those quicker moving missions where stops are shorter and less frequent whereas the parka is better suited to more technical climbs where longer belay stints are required or you may need to bivi.
Regardless of which one you go for you need to make sure it is sized sufficiently to fit over the top of the “lightweight flexible action suit.” Insulation in these jackets can be from down (fine in cold dry climates) and many companies are making hybrid down/synthetic jackets as well as the new hydrophobic down products, but from my experience of climbing in the UK in winter, a modern synthetic equivalent such as Primaloft, is the best choice as it retains its insulating properties, even when wet. Many manufacturers are now beginning to develop and use their own insulating material and these can perform as well as the major branded versions.
So, for the purposes of this article I am going to concentrate on synthetic belay jackets as these are the ones you would want to choose for UK or damp climbing conditions.
Many companies make and market products, which they call belay jackets and like anything, some are better than others. There are however, certain key things to consider when you are looking for a belay jacket.
Is it big enough to go over the top of your other layers?
The jacket should be big enough to go over the top of everything you are wearing. The hood should comfortably fit over the top of your climbing helmet. This is extremely important so I’d go as far as trying the jacket on in the shop, whilst wearing a helmet! A longer cut at the back to insulate your glutes, is also desirable.
Does the jacket have a 2 way zipper?
Whilst not as important in the lightweight versions, a proper belay parka needs a 2 way zipper and it’s amazing the number of products that are marketed for this purpose, that don’t have one. A good belay parka benefits from a slightly longer cut, particularly at the back and the addition of a 2 way zipper means that the jacket doesn’t have to be rolled up for you to be able to access the belay loop on your climbing harness. You simply unzip the zip a short way from the bottom.
Does it have big handwarmer pockets?
A good belay parka will hopefully have a pair of deep zippered handwarmer pockets. These should be large enough so that you can fit your gloved hands inside.
I like my belay parka to have a chest pocket with zippered access, so that I can stash sweets, gels and other necessities in there. This pocket may allow you to stash the jacket inside so you can clip it to your harness whilst climbing but I prefer to use a small stuff sack and many proper belay parkas, already come with these provided.
For me, stretchy mesh internal pockets are a must too as these allow you to store and dry spare gloves etc. Another smaller, zippered internal pocket is handy for stashing valuables but not crucial.
In the lightweight jacket, many of these pockets are not necessary. Although I still like mine to feature zippered handwarmer pockets.
Any other features?
Adjustable cuffs, drawcords on hems and hoods and also hood volume adjusters are a must for me on a parka. As is a neck, that zips high enough to cover my mouth. Glove friendly zippers are a pre requisite, whether it be a lightweight jacket or a parka.
Outer and inner fabrics?
Outer and inner fabrics should ideally be windproof and water resistant, but they don’t need to be waterproof. The fabric should be lightweight and ripstop with a full on belay parka not weighing more than 700 or 800 grams.
Warmth is very subjective and depends a lot on the wearer, but generally the more filling the jacket or parka has, the warmer it will be. The warmest belay parkas tend to be filled with 200g of synthetic insulation and should keep most people toasty warm on an average winter’s day in Scotland.
What’s on the market this winter?
We’ve picked some of the top belay jackets and parkas on offer this winter…
Patagonia Nano Puff
Windproof and water-resistant, the full-zip Nano Puff® Jacket is made with warm, incredibly lightweight, highly compressible 60-g PrimaLoft® ONE insulation, and is ideal as an insulating layer or outerwear in cold climates.
- Lightweight ripstop recycled polyester shell fabric has a Deluge® DWR finish
- Lightweight 60-g PrimaLoft® One insulation provides excellent warmth and compressibility
- Brick quilting pattern with horizontal quilt lines on side panels uses durable thread for improved abrasion-resistance
- Center-front zipper has wicking interior storm flap and zipper garage at chin for next-to-skin comfort
- Two zippered handwarmer pockets have clean finished zipper garages; zippered internal chest pocket doubles as a self-stuff sack with a reinforced carabiner clip-in loop
- Drawcord-adjustable drop tail hem seals out wind
- Shell and Lining: 1.4-oz 22-denier 100% recycled polyester with a Deluge® DWR (durable water repellent) finish. Insulation: 60-g PrimaLoft® ONE 100% polyester
- 335 g (11.8 oz)
CGR says: “A cult piece these days. Simple, reliable and compressible warmth. Read our review here. We love it!”
Arc’teryx Nuclei Hoody
Lightweight, compact, trim-fitting belay jacket with a high warmth-to-weight ratio.
- Packs up small for easy travel storage
- Great warmth-to-weight ratio
- Low profile
- Compressible and packable
- Micro-seam allowance (1.6 mm) reduces bulk and weight
- Anatomical shaping for fit and comfort
- Articulated elbows
- Gusseted underarms
- Insulated hood
- Hood fits under helmet
- Full front zip with chin guard and wind flap
- Adjustable hem drawcord
- Internal stow pocket with attachment point
- Two hand pockets with hidden zippers
- Included mini stuff sack with drawcord closur
- Coreloft™ 80 g/m² insulation. Made with highly crimped multi-denier siliconized polyester yarn, this lightweight, breathable, and thermally efficient, 100% polyester staple fibre it is very compressible and has excellent loft retention.
- Coreloft™ 60 g/m² insulation. Made with highly crimped multi-denier siliconized polyester yarn, this lightweight, breathable, and thermally efficient, 100% polyester staple fibre it is very compressible and has excellent loft retention.
- Airetica™—100% nylon, 34 g/m². Tightly constructed, high tenacity, 20×10 denier ripstop nylon with a smooth hand.
CGR says: “Lightweight and compressible, a sexy and simple piece of insulation with all the quality you’d expect from Arc’teryx. Love the internal stuff sack. Jury is still out on the under the helmet hood.”
The North Face Thermoball Jacket
Warm, lightweight and fast-drying hooded ThermoBall™ jacket for cold and damp conditions.
Designed to provide phenomenal warmth, the revolutionary ThermoBall™ replicates the insulation and compressibility of down but also dries rapidly and keeps warm when wet. Inner and outer fabrics are 100% nylon (bluesign® approved) with a durable water repellent finish.
Sizes: S, M, L, XL, XXL
Fabric: body: 100% recycled nylon 20D, 20D recycled DP taffeta lining.
Insulation: Primaloft® Thermoball™
- Two hand pockets
- Elastic binding at cuff and hood
- Hem cinch-cord system in hand pockets
- Stowable into hand pocket
CGR says: “A nice piece from TNF using innovative insulation. Simple but effective.”
Marmot Isotherm Hoody
Our award-winning Isotherm Hoody is evolution at its best. Ideal for active insulation – necessary for ice climbing or backcountry skiing – the state-of-the-art Polartec® Alpha® insulation cuts the need for impervious fabric faces. Rather, we used an abrasion-resistant Pertex Quantum face and lined the hoody with hyper breathable mesh. Reinforced softshell shoulders, an attached hood and a free-moving fit – it’s a new species of light, warm of breathable.
- 20 Denier Pertex Quantum Fabric
- Softshell Shoulder Reinforcement
- Polartec® Alpha® Insulation
- Attached Hood with Peripheral Cord Adjustment
- Zip Chest Pocket
- Zip Hand Pockets
- Elastic Bound Cuffs
- DriClime® Mesh Lining
- Elastic Draw Cord Hem – For Adjustability in Serious Weather
- Angel-Wing Movement™ – Allows Full Range of Motion in Arms so Jacket Doesn’t Ride Up
CGR says: ” Very light and using innovative Polartec Alpha technology we like this one for fast moving pursuits in the mountains.”
Patagonia DAS Parka
For full-on alpine conditions, the DAS Parka is our warmest insulated jacket; it’s made with high-loft 120-g PrimaLoft® Synergy insulation throughout, additional PrimaLoft® ONE insulation in core areas, and a lightweight, PU-coated nylon ripstop shell that is durable, highly water-resistant and windproof.
- Lightweight PU-coated nylon ripstop shell is durable, highly water- resistant, windproof and treated with a DWR (durable water repellent) finish
- Insulated throughout with high-loft 120-g PrimaLoft® Synergy and an added layer of heat-trapping 60-g PrimaLoft® ONE in the chest, abdomen and back for core warmth
- Helmet-compatible hood with visor and single-pull drawcord to adjust overall volume and peripheral vision
- Full-length 2-way zipper with internal, insulated wind flap and fold-over zipper garage for chin comfort
- Two zippered, insulated handwarmer pockets; two large interior mesh drop-ins; one exterior zippered chest
- Elasticized cuffs and discreet drawcord at drop-tail hem
- Stuffsack included
- 1.2-oz 20-denier 100% nylon PU-coated ripstop with a Deluge® DWR (durable water repellent) finish. Insulation: 120-g PrimaLoft® Synergy 100% polyester; torso additional layer: 60-g PrimaLoft ONE 100% polyester
- 669 g (23.6 oz)
CGR says: “So far we’re loving this newest incarnation of the Rolls Royce of belay parkas. A cosy haven on damp cold days.”
The North Face Prism Optimus Hoody
For base camp to summit comfort choose The North Face® Men’s Prism Optimus Hoodie for a helmet compatible down insulated mountaineering jacket. Welded box wall baffle construction keeps the heat retaining 700 fill down in place and eliminates cold spots. Primaloft® insulation on the shoulders and arms stays warm when wet or compressed. The adjustable, wired peak hood is baffled for belay snugness aided by the thick draft proof yoke. A polyurethane (PU) kiss coating on the resilient Pertex® Endurance ripstop shell adds all-over moisture resistance. Sleek pre-cinched cuffs and pockets inside and out complete the specification. Burly, baffled and built from athlete input, The North Face® Men’s Prism Optimus Hoodie is a Summit Series™ down insulated mountaineering jacket for cold climbing.
- 700 goose down fill offers superior warmth yet remains extremely compressible
- PrimaLoft® One synthetic insulation over the shoulders and arms remains warm when wet or compressed
- Welded baffle construction eliminates cold spots and weak points that accompany needle holes
- Updated hood baffle construction increases warmth
- Adjustable hood is fully baffled for reliable warmth and zero cold spots
- Thick, warm draft yoke around neck and shoulders seals cold out and warmth in
- Pre-cinched cuffs are sleek and hold the elements at bay
- Generous zippered chest pocket and handwarmer pockets
CGR says: “A super warm down and Primaloft jacket probably best suited to cold and dry Alpine climates.”
Haglofs Barrier Pro II Belay
A very packable, lightweight wind resistant hooded synthetic insulated jacket. With the new Quad Fusion+ insulation material made from 100% recycled Polyester, which allows moisture to be drawn away from the body. The hood has a reinforced peak, and is 3 way adjustable. 2 mid mounted torso pockets, and one chest pocket. Includes a stuff sac.
- PFOS/PFOA free DWR treated surfaces
- Reinforced shoulder and sleeves made from a 30D fabric
- Three-way adjustable hood with reinforced peak
- Hip length cut for more core warmth
- Full length, Two-way front zipper with chin guard
- Two spacious chest pockets
- Two zippered mid mounted torso pockets
- Elasticated cuffs
- Integrated single hand hem draw cord
- Articulated sleeves
- Rear hanging loop
- Stuff sack included
CGR says: “A great jacket from Haglofs. We love the simplicity, cut and warmth to weight ratio. Perfect for Scottish winter climbing.”
Millet Belay Device
Ultra-light, water-repellent and compressible thermal protection with PrimaLoft® Sport insulation. For year-round technical mountaineering in cold conditions.
- Long jacket with integral hood
- Two-way centre zip
- 3 zipped outside pockets
- 1 inside pocket
- Adjustable hem
- Preformed elbows
- Supplied with compression bag.
- Pertex® Microlight Rip Stop
- Insulation : Primaloft® Sport 100 g
CGR says: “Another great piece of kit from French company, Millet. A perfect package for frigid belays on Scottish mixed routes. Everything you need.”
Most of the above are available in Male and Female options. Look out for reviews of many of these featured jackets over the coming winter.
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