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George Fisher General Manager PATRICK TAYLOR-BIRD discovers ‘active insulation’

Written by George Fisher

Image for article SQUIRRELS, ‘NACKS’ AND WALKING UPHILL by Patrick Taylor-Bird

Starting a family is amazing. Being able to hold a tiny baby in the crook of your arm is daunting, exciting and enough to make the hardest heart melt; well mine, anyway. Fast forward a couple of years and having a toddler zooming round the house, into everything, going everywhere, with enough language to seriously embarrass their parents is also daunting and exciting.

The toddler presents another, sweatier conundrum. For those that like to get a decent walk in with their toddler, a child carrier is essential kit. Pop them in, protect from prevailing weather and off you go. It’s like going for a walk with an expedition pack; excellent training. Unexpectedly this turns out to be a great proving ground for kit; in this case the new Arc’teryx Proton LT.

Recall your last trip with a big multi-day pack. Hard work uphill. Sweaty, lots of adjusting. It’s the same picture when taking our son out in his carrier. What you’re wearing can seriously detract or improve your experience. Well-managed heat and moisture control is essential. What are you wearing? Fleece, soft shell? Windshirt? Waterproof? Clearly it depends on the weather. We’ve likely found a favourite. So, is there room for a whole new type of product?

Active Insulation is a category that’s been around for a few years and there is a myriad of options. Do you need one of these active insulation pieces? Let’s have a look: Arc'teryx proton LT George Fisher

What is active insulation? It’s a phrase coined when Polartec Alpha, a new type of breathable insulator, was introduced. It’s worth thinking about insulation as ‘active’ or ‘passive’; traditionally insulation and insulated jackets have been something that you either put on when you stop, to keep you warm, or layer up with and hope you don’t overheat. You can think of this as a ‘passive’ product. However, ‘active insulation’ is something you can wear while moving, it breathes so you stay comfortable over a broader range of temperatures.

Why was there a need for a new product category? The key issue with standard insulation is its ‘on again, off again’ nature. Whether it’s a big belay jacket or a mid-layer there is the inevitable fine tuning as you increase or decrease your effort and heat output. This constant adjustment is a fact of life, right?

Active insulation tries to change that paradigm by providing a far more breathable garment, whilst still maintaining a level of insulation. To understand how it does this, it’s worth looking at how traditional insulating materials work.

Down insulation works by using goose or duck down, a natural high loft material, that traps pockets of warm air next to the user. Its significant downside is that water leaves it with the consistency and thermal properties of porridge. Synthetic insulation works using the same concept of trapped air; not as warm or as light as down, but crucially it does insulate when wet.

The shared weakness of these insulators is they have thin, sharp and stiff ends; their sharp penetrating nature means the outer fabric has to be tightly woven to keep the insulator inside. The result is a jacket that isn’t very breathable. For an insulating jacket this isn’t a huge problem as it supports the trapping of heat, however it does create the need for constant adjustment based on activity and heat output.

George Fisher Polartech Alpha

Active insulation addresses these shortcomings by using a different insulating material. One that doesn’t suffer from the “pokey-out-ness”. Arc’teryx’s Proton series uses a synthetic insulator, crimped for loft and warmth, and captures the strands in seams. This allows Arc’teryx to marry the insulator to a very breathable face fabric, making a super-breathable insulated jacket.

Back to the toddler/explorer. I wasn’t sure what to expect when trying the Proton LT.

We set off on a walk with the man-cub; fast-forward 50 minutes and we’d been on a ‘bear hunt’, met a lion, spotted a squirrel, insisted on using the walking pole, found an ant, stroked a doggie, spotted a birdie, been a digger, looked intently at bluebells and asked for a ‘nack’ (snacks to you and me). It had been a busy morning.

What had I thought about the Proton? Well; nothing. I had put it on, zipped it up and just walked out the door. No messing, sleeve pulling, zipper yo-yoing. No sweaty back. Just a comfy jacket going slow or at a decent pace. This was novel.

It’s incredibly breathable compared to anything I’ve used before, from Montane’s Prism, the Atom series from Arc’teryx, or Patagonia’s Micropuff. These are all in the ‘passive’ family of insulators. The breathability results in a much more comfortable jacket when wearing it day to day. When the rain or wind came, I’ve put a waterproof over the Proton LT. Once again, I was pleasantly surprised. Normally the synthetic insulator under a waterproof is saved for much colder, more severe days out as it’s really easy to overheat. The Proton breathed so well I barely needed to use the pit-zips or open the front; another first.

When ‘nacks’ give way to a full blown ‘mick-mick’ (picnic), the Proton still performs well. It sheds crumbs, the odd juice spill, and pickle out of my sandwich. It definitely keeps you comfy, and retains a good amount of heat. However, the breathable nature of the face-fabric means it isn’t as windproof as many of the jackets I’ve name-checked in this review. It will keep you warm on the tops, but not for as long. It’s really designed for the ‘on the go’ user.

Some extra details. The face fabric is noticeably less noisy and shiny than many, making for a more liveable everyday feel. Given how much I wear it, that’s a real plus. A nice touch is in the top of the zipper; Arc’teryx has introduced a ‘speed bump’ every 5th tooth. This makes the top six inches stutter, but the bonus is it stops the zip slipping open. The grippy zipper stays where you put it. Result. And as with other Arc’teryx products, the cut and fit are where it excels. It moves with you beautifully. The overriding feeling is that of a product doing what it was designed to do without getting in the way.

Where does this leave the ‘active insulation’ category and the Proton LT? In my mind it’s now a category that surpasses a bunch of other kit. As ever, find the product with the right balance of benefits for your own use, but I’m confident you’ll be really pleased if you make this investment. It’s pretty much the first thing I pick up every day; it does the job of a fleece/windshirt/softshell all in one, with very few compromises. It’s a real game changer.

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