Can the new Alpha Direct from Rab knock the Vapour Rise of the top soft shell roll of honour?
Our new Alpha Direct Jacket is truly defined by our decades of experience in mountain environments.
I remember reading an Andy Kirkpatrick article a while ago – in it he discussed the attributes of soft shell materials. His belief that it was impossible to remain dry during high activity so what you were looking for was a material that kept you warm when damp (and in the UK you spend a lot of time damp!). The conclusion of that article was the Pertex shelled micro fleece jacket and I’ve been a fan ever since. I have never got on with the ‘full metal jacket’ versions of this system like the Montane Extreme or the Buffalo Special 6 as they are just too warm and they feel bulky, I’ve been much more of a fan of the Rab Vapour Rise. They are without doubt my soft shell jacket of choice for mountaineering work and recreation in UK conditions.
I own all three models in the current range of Vapour Rise jackets (I’m not that keen on the trouser versions). My favourite is the Alpine jacket for summer work and the standard for all Autumn and most winter climbing. I use the Guide for Artic trips or mostly when I’m standing around with groups during the winter. So, let’s just say I’m a big fan of shelled fleece soft shells and get on with the review.
The Rab Alpha Direct is a lightweight, shelled microfleece style soft shell jacket that uses the new Polartec Alpha as the insulation. The jacket is a fully featured jacket that is suitable for all mountain environments except perhaps very warm summer conditions (it would probably be too warm for summer alpine in August). It is lighter than a Vapour Rise and sits somewhere between the standard and the Guide model. The cut is athletic but not overly tight, I tested a size Medium and it fitted my 38-40” chest size well without feeling too tight around the lat muscles. I could easily raise my arms without any rise in the torso for rock climbing. I particularly liked the sleeves that didn’t have wrist straps but just relied on the cut and length, at no time during the test have the sleeves been a issue. They pulled up a little for climbing and stayed in place. The bottom of the sleeve is finished off with a stretchy microfibre insert which had a vertical thumb loop to help keep wrists warm.
The styling is finished with three well placed pockets. Two hand warmer that were placed high enough to be mostly accessible (although not high enough to be completely accessible) and the chest pocket was easily placed for packing energy bars, phones, cameras, etc. All the zips worked fine and the main zip was two way so nice and easy to tuck clothing as well as go to the toilet. The helmet compatible hood is excellent, Rab have replaced the heavy and bulky peak wire with a much thinner and flatter one as well as adding a little stiffness to the peak. The hood has no adjustment so you get what you get and I found it a problem in windy conditions when using the jacket for hiking. But generally the hood was warm and cozy and fitted over my helmet OK when I needed it to.
The Polartec Alpha insulation is what the Alpha Direct is about, we have been very impressed with Polartec fabrics recently, I have tested the Neoshell on the Jottnar Bergelmir, the Alpha on the Marmot Isotherm and both have been excellent. The Polartec Alpha is warm, light and wicks away moisture very fast due to its fluffy like construction – it almost behaves like down and is as warm in damp conditions. The insulation was design for the US Special Forces, say no more!
The beauty of shelled microfleece soft shells is their ability to wick away moisture quickly and dry out fast. The Pertex Microlight shell is super light and shredded the odd light shower. It stood up to a little rain and then began to wet out. I was, however reasonably dry inside and soon dried out as soon as any breeze got up. This type of soft shell excels at the ability to breathe on the way up to your route and then dry out quickly once you start climbing keeping you warm. The Rab Alpha Direct didn’t disappoint at all I have found it great for all my mountain activities and I’ve been using it professionally all through the late winter and into spring. I have never needed to wear a long sleeved thermal when wearing it as if the wind really got up I just put a lightweight hard shell over it and I was always warm enough.
So will the Rab Alpha Direct replace my Vapour Rise? Yes, it definitely will! The Pertex Microlight outer shell isn’t as abrasion resistant as the Pertex Equilibrium on my Vapour Rise so I don’t think it will be as durable in the long run but the Alpha Direct is feels much lighter, warmer and the cut is superb for climbing and mountaineering. A top jacket with the only improvement I could suggest is to make the hood a little bigger and add an adjuster to the back for hiking. It deserves to stay in the Rab range as long as the iconic Vapour Rise has.
The Alpha Direct comes in sizes S – XXL and 3 colour options Merlin (blue), Cayene (red) and Ebony (black). There is also a Women’s specific version in sizes 8 -16 and three colour options Merlin, Ebony and Nightshade (pruple)
Dave Sarkar has tested and reviewed climbing, mountaineering and outdoor equipment for over 10 years. He works as a qualified MIA both in the UK and Internationally: working as a mountaineering instructor and expedition leader for his company Wild Spaces. When he isn’t working in the mountains he’s playing in the mountains and enjoys all aspects climbing and mountain sports whether bouldering at his local crag or ice climbing; as long as he’s going upwards he’s happy!