Kathmandu XT Alopex – $899.98
Buying a rain jacket can be a mystifying process as you scan the racks at an assortment of jackets that are all variations of a theme and variations of a price. That’s before you even start trying to decipher the jargon used to describe the features. You’ll no doubt notice that the price gets quite hefty at the top – or even middle – of the range. So it’s an important purchase to get right. I’ve owned three or four raincoats over my hiking career, going a little more hi-tech each time. Starting with a good old oilskin in my youth, graduating to a basic nylon number, which did me fine so long as it didn’t rain too much, then moving into the waterproof line with a compact but stuffy black jacket that kept the rain out and the sweat in, and now, to Kathmandu’s XT Series Alopex Gore-Tex Pro jacket. It’s quite a step up.
The Alopex is marketed as an elite rain jacket, and it’s not hard to see why. Yes, you pay a bit more for the Gore-Tex tag, but its selling points go far beyond that. It’s fully waterproof, seam-sealed and undeniably user-friendly. It’s a jacket that appears to read the mind of an experienced hiker/mountaineer/skier and gets most things right when it comes to functionality. Why then, it would not come with its own bag to stuff away into I can’t work out. It’s the one major oversight in what is overall a very likeable and near-flawless product.
The Alopex fixes all those little whines you had about previous rain jackets. It has a reliable main zip that is nearly impossible to stick and does up easily even when under tension from the waist drawstrings. It has generous chest pockets with decent-sized toggles, covered with an extra panel and a flap over the zip to deflect any water trying to get in through the opening. The sleeves are long enough to not ride up when you stretch your arms, even when your body shape is distorted by a heavy pack, and the velcro that tightens the cuffs is simple and effective. It comes in a bright colour, easily spotted in the mist. The hood offers hours of fun, if that’s the right word. At first I thought it was a dog of a design: loose, ill-fitting, vision-obscuring, dorky-looking. But after a bit of experimenting I worked out the secret, namely that I was doing it all wrong. You need to enter a sort of zen understanding that only comes from discovering the adjustable drawstring on the back of the hood. Pulling the front cords will pull the Gore-Tex over your eyes, but to remain sighted and snug you need to work from the back. What you end up doing is pulling a little at the front, a little at the back, and before you know it your face has disappeared into swathes of crumpled orange, hidden safely from whatever godforsaken frozen hell you happen to be ensconced in. With its stiff, jaunty cap (called a ‘wired storm peak’ in the marketing material) it’s still not a particularly flattering look (unless hiding your face is an improvement on the alternative) but for the purposes of serious outdoor activities the Alopex hood is an impenetrable fortress of protection. I found that the cleats used for fastening the drawstrings to be a good, simple idea, but they take a while to get used to, and I was still having to visually sight the cleats to work out which string to pull and where to fasten them for longer than I would have liked if they had been more intuitive. It’s a fiddly undertaking with heavy gloves on, too. There is very little else to complain about though. My mantra with rain jackets is, ‘Keep things simple, get things right,’ and the Alopex does the basics with ease, ticking boxes for durability, waterproofness, comfort, functioning zips, breathability and well-positioned pockets. But it also features a whole lot more. It has an embedded Recco reflector, which I gather is a bit like the little microchip your cat has inserted under the skin on its neck; the idea being that you emit a searchable signal to rescuers at ski resorts should you ever plan on being buried in an avalanche. If you’re considering this move though you might want to do it in New Zealand, as the Recco rescue system has yet to make its way to Australia.
It’s not the only modern day innovation this jacket boasts. As if to illustrate how rain jackets have moved with the times, the Alopex comes with a cord port in the internal chest pocket for a ‘media device.’ Other nifty offerings are a removable snow skirt, a dinky sleeve pocket (curiously on one sleeve only), a ‘goggle-wipe cloth’ attached to an inside pocket and ‘two-way pit zips’ for ventilation. It was these zips that intrigued me most. The idea here is that you can undo the zips and create an opening under your armpit for air flow. It’s a novel sight; a waterproof jacket with a gaping hole under the arms; but on a humid day I can see the zips getting regular action. It’s a bit like driving a convertible I guess. Features like this show that the manufactures are thinking like hikers. It’s a bit like how an ocean-going yacht must be built to withstand the worst tempest, yet the majority of the time it will experience light winds and fair weather. A rain jacket can’t just defend against the rain, sleet and wind, it must also be functional in benign conditions, and the Alopex gives a lot of thought to this.
The jacket passed the practical test with flying, bright orange colours. My worst fear with a rain jacket is that it will get impaled on a sharp tree branch and puncture. You’d have to find some mighty evil branch to penetrate the Alopex. The rain beads right off, it’s light for what it offers and it promises to last a long time. If you’re serious about staying dry and need a traditional, compact rain jacket then the Alopex is hard to go past.