The Montane Alpha Guide Jacket is designed to insulate your core while giving greater freedom of movement for your arms. It is insulated with Polartec Alpha, a highly breathable and compressible insulation that was designed for soldiers to eliminate the need of shedding or adding layers while on the move. The jacket is intended to be used as a combination mid-layer and softshell outer garment, saving the need for frequent layer breaks, since the insulation is designed to dump excess heat and prevent perspiration buildup.
The jacket’s torso is covered with a DWR coated Pertex Microlight Stretch fabric which provides excellent arm mobility and it has two zippered side pockets, high enough that you can access their contents when wearing a backpack hip belt. The hood is not adjustable but is small enough to fit snugly around your face, and the arms have thumb loops at the wrist. There’s a two-way front zipper with a zipper garage at the top to protect your face, and a mesh liner inside the jacket to help wick sweat away from your base layer. Side hem adjustments round out the feature set preventing wind from blowing up and sides and robbing heat. Add up all these features and the Alpha Guide Jacket comes in at 20.5 ounces in a men’s XL.
I’ve been virtually living in the Alpha Guide Jacket over the past four weeks, using the jacket as an outer layer over a thin Merino wool jersey in dry and cold weather from 30 degrees fahrenheit down to 0 degrees. The jacket is sufficiently warm in that range, provided you’re moving, but never too warm that you sweat noticeably or feel cold while wearing it. However, while the breathability of the Alpha Guide Jacket is excellent, even for highly aerobic activities like cross-country skiing, the jacket accumulates significant perspiration when covered with a backpack.
For example, when I vigorously cross-country ski for two hours on a tracked course, I stay nice and dry, even with the hood up to block the wind. But when I put on a backpack my back sweats noticeably, soaking the rear hem of the jacket, wetting the rear of my pants and underwear. It takes about 60 minutes of heavy exertion, climbing about 1000 feet of elevation per hour, for the jacket to become noticeably damp, with the cascading failure to my pants and base layer.
This isn’t all the surprising I suppose – cover a breathable jacket with a backpack – what do you expect? But the claim is that Polartec Alpha was developed for special forces who can’t stop to delayer, even though they are presumably wearing backpacks to haul the 100+ plus pounds of gear they need to carry. My expectation was that I wouldn’t have to delayer either and the “hyper-breathability” of the jacket would dissipate the extra heat and sweat that I generate during periods of sustained exertion.
I wouldn’t mind so much if my pants and underwear didn’t get wet, but chafing down there is a showstopper and even worse in winter. I think the moisture transfer is the result of the jacket’s long rear hem, since I can also soak a 100 weight fleece pullover in similar circumstances, but not soak my pants since a fleece sweater doesn’t drop as low over my butt. In other words, the Alpha Guide Jacket would probably be a lot better if it wasn’t a jacket, but just a sweater with a hood.
Garment care is a little inconvenient since the jacket does stink up, particularly under the pits, with use. Montane recommends washing the jacket with soap that does not have a fabric softener, drip drying it, and reproofing the DWR on the Pertex shell periodically.
Given how comfortable the Alpha Guide Jacket is, I’m heartbroken that this jacket didn’t perform as well as I’d hoped. I’ve always been skeptical about garments that eliminate the need to layer and delayer, since it is such a simple and inexpensive way to manage perspiration during heavy periods of exertion. But I was willing to give the Alpha Guide Jacket as chance to prove me wrong. Give it a pass however for winter hiking and backpacking.
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