The Arcteryx Nuclei jacket is a synthetic jacket with an incredible warmth to weight ratio and an unbelievable packed size making it the ultimate ‘puffy’ to stick on the back of your harness on almost any climb of more than one or two pitches.
What is it for?
Ever since lugging my heavier Haglofs Barrier Q II synthetic jacket on an overnighter on Mount Stuart one warm day in July, I realised I should be in the market for a much lighter, smaller warm layer for such outings where weight and packability were a crucial factor but the warmth of a heavier down or synthetic were not absolutely critical.
Its hard when reviewing insulation layers, since everybody has there own system for layering and runs at different temperatures so, in my opinion, there is no ‘bad’ insulation piece, it just comes down to personal preference. But for me, as a climber first and foremost, most of my needs for gear come from that activity and as I mentioned previously, in this instance my priorities were a jacket with a good warmth/weight ratio and something that would pack down really small. I had in mind a jacket that I could carry on my harness or that would take up minimal space in a backpack. I wanted something that I could carry while climbing alpine multipitches when I would need something a bit warmer than my Arcterxy Squamish hoody windbreaker. Yes, I own heavier stretch fleeces and Windpro/Polartec pieces that could probably give the same insulation but the problem with these is packability. Climbing specifically always produces two very different conditions which make it hard to regulate body temperature; you are either working hard and producing heat as you move quickly or you are stationary after that exertion whilst belaying. So for me the ability to quickly throw on or shed an extra layer is a high priority. On top of that – whilst a light down puffy would seem like it would tick all these boxes – (given that down inherently has great warmth to weight properties and packs down small) as an alpine belay jacket I wanted something that would save my bacon if I got caught out in bad weather and a synthetic jacket has that added resilience to wet weather that I was looking for.
More often than not I have embarked on long alpine climbs that can typically be done in a big push (under 24hrs) and even once topped out you move quickly on to the descent so an additional thin wind breaker and just more thinner layers whilst climbing has typically been a successful strategy for me. However after the Stuart experience I realised it would be handy to have something to fill in the middle ground between my Squamish hoody and my Barrier Q II, especially since my trip to the Cirque of the Unclimbables was up coming and our objective of climbing the Lotus Flower Tower could involve a cold night with minimal gear on the top of the tower or somewhere high on the route.
So as usual when looking to buy a new bit of gear I did some pretty extensive and geeky research to make sure I really was getting the best product for my money. I’ll spare you the extended version of all the jackets I looked at and why some didn’t make the cut and just share with you some quick comparisons on the two other jackets that I short listed; the Rab Xenon and the Patagonia Micro Puff Hoody (I added the relevant stats for the Atom too incase it is a useful measuring stick, note that the two have slightly different purposes so aren’t really directly comparable, the atom is much more durable and doesn’t have its own stuff sack).
As per the table the Nuclei is still the lowest reported weight and is the only jacket that packs 80gm of insulation into the core section of the jacket – on paper it looked to be the warmest and the lightest. I’m no scientist and I can’t tell you the objective difference between Arcteryx’s Coreloft insulation and the Primaloft in the Xenon, nor can I be 100% sure if the units are comparable – so I went to try a couple of jackets on to see how they felt.
Fit and feel
Often for me, once I’ve shortlisted a few products in the same category and know they roughly aim to give the same range of properties (in this case light-weight synthetic insulation) it then comes down to ‘how warm does it feel’ and ‘how does it fit’ because once you get down to the minutia, so many factors seem to go into making a jacket feel a little bit warmer than it’s competitor. The wind resistance and the snugness of the fit can make a jacket with theoretically less insulation feel warmer than one with more. Since these jackets were all pretty close on paper, the real life feel was going to be the ultimate test.
Firstly, I couldn’t get my hands on a Xenon to try on in my size, it turns out Alpine specific technical jackets for Women are not that easy to come by and none of the plethora of outdoor shops in Vancouver had any I could take a look at. On to Patagonia, where disappointingly and surprisingly, despite usually being a fan of Patagonia’s stuff the Micro Puff didn’t put up much of a fight against the Nuclei. The jacket would have ticked a lot of the boxes I was looking for but the overall fit was a little more clumsy and not as snug as I would have liked, the jacket didn’t feel like it would be that warm despite meeting the weight criteria.
When trying on the Nuclei my decision was made easy. The women’s medium was a perfect fit and was consistent with the sizing of the other Arcteryx jackets I own. It gave me the perfect balance of feeling snug to my body to feel warm and cosy yet still allowing freedom of movement during activity. The insulation in the mid body seemed to loft really well and despite being a super light weight jacket it felt like it would be really warm.
Since taking it home from the shop I have had over a year to field test the jacket and have gotten to know how it performs in all seasons and all types of environments. The first time it made it out with me was on a rather ambitious early season attempt to climb Harvey’s Pup on Mount Harvey on Vancouver’s North Shore. The outing was ambitious because despite being a June day of 30 degree heat, the route is North facing and would likely be wet, cold and probably still holding a lot of snow on the approach. I climbed most of the day in my Squamish hoody and despite being dripping wet by the end of the route the Nuclei stayed in my pack. I was super glad to have packed the Nuclei though since on the descent it seemed pretty likely at one point that we would need to spend the night and I was very glad to have a warmer, back-up jacket. Even though I did not wear the Nuclei it had already performed one of the main things I wanted it to – being so light and packable I didn’t need to question it’s necessity in my pack and knowing I had it as a back up layer eased my mind somewhat throughout the day.
Over the summer I took it on a few other alpine outings, sometimes in my pack if we had to carry one but often just clipped to the back of my harness with the handy stuff sack that comes girth hitched to the pocket.
Whilst I still have some issues with this design and I still don’t think Arcteryx have quite nailed the best solution yet – I much prefer this stuff sack over having to MacGyver a ‘fold into the pocket solution’ like the Atom SL – at least the stuff sack is purpose built and allows the pack size to remain optimally small. Climbing with the jacket on the back of my harness proved to be no issue and did not feel at all cumbersome or annoying.
As I have mentioned it is during climbing multi pitches and long alpine routes where the jacket really comes into its own for me but it has also has a strong place among my quiver of backcountry ski gear, as again its lightness and stuff-ability make it a no brainer to have it in the pack as that warm layer you throw on at the summit while you transition, or on especially cold days as a layering peice.
The face fabric of the Nuclei is made of Arcteryx Arato 10 which is the thinnest and least durable face fabric material compared to the Squamish hoody and the Atom series. Thats OK though – as long as you understand that the Nuclei is designed as an insulation piece primarily and not as a blue collar hard working tough piece to use while climbing off-widths or shwacking through alder. Using the less durable face fabric is one way that Arcteryx can keep the Nuclei so light and that is fine with me.
Despite this I have climbed in it on occasion when I haven’t been brave enough to take it off after the cold belay. I try to avoid any super abrasive moves (chimneying/wide crack) and so far the jacket has fared really well. I did discover one small tear in the arm a couple of months ago but that was easily fixable with some tenacious tape and I figured it was par for the course.
I’ve said this til the cow’s come home but the number one thing that makes this jacket so awesome is the warmth to weight ratio. It’s incredibly light, it packs into a neat bundle and it’s really warm. These are the most crucial things I want from a belay jacket/alpine insulation piece. It does what it says on the tin and I’m thrilled that it is so good at it’s job.
Other things I really like about the jacket is it’s snug yet non-restrictive fit. The jacket is pretty simple in many respects – no stretch side panels added in for extra comfort or any other frills that help jackets to be more versatile in their fit and potentially more durable. Yet despite this it still feels like it gives me a warm hug while letting me stretch up and start dismantling the hanging belay.
Lastly, for a jacket that sacrifices durability to save on weight, its still pretty damn tough. I’ve put it through the ringer for something that I was warned was not really meant for climbing in and its held up surprisingly well .
There are definitely several things I don’t love about this jacket but although there might be a few of them, they are much less important items than the the ones on my Pro’s list so don’t get the wrong idea, the summary is still that this jacket is awesome at what it does.
Firstly, lets not pretend I don’t look a little bit awkward in my bright yellow, slightly shiny jacket anywhere except high up there on a sweet summit in adverse weather. Even then the styling is definitely a little bit brash. Although I’m super pleased that Arcteryx introduced some brighter colors into their women’s range and would continue to encourage them to do so, they perhaps took this one a little too far. I guess I didn’t really realize quite how canary yellow it was when I ordered it!
All this ranting about color is more to say that the Nuclei is not exactly in the same league as the Atom when it comes to styling. It’s not as good at living the dual life of performing in the mountains while still avoiding looking like a total dink if you throw on an outdoorsy jacket to nip down to the pub in on a chilly evening. Even I have some reservations about throwing on my Nuclei for apres or making an early morning coffee run before the sun has come up. Yes, a lot of this has to do with color, but it’s not all the yellow’s fault. I’ve seen the jackets in other colors and while they are a little less garish the shinyness and the transparency of the Arato face fabric definitely hurt the eyes somewhat.
That being said, I don’t really care too much about this, after all, this is a pretty technical jacket that performs really well for its intended use, so who cares if it looks, well, techy? All I’m saying is, heads up, this is probably not the universal jacket for dog walkers and snow-shoers looking for something understated and versatile.
While were on styling ( I told you the Cons had significantly less weight than the Pros), one thing that irks me is the color of the zips – I know I know – I’m getting really pedantic, but the off white/dirty grey pocket zippers seem really out of place on the yellow jacket and just don’t seem intentional. This mostly only bugs me because usually Arcteryx are so hot on all of their detailing and all their products seem really well thought out, even down to the placement of the logo, that this just seems incongruous with their usually expetionally high standards. On top of this the main jacket zipper doesn’t even match the pocket zippers! Neither of these proponents help to drag the classiness factor up on the jacket but again, functionally there is zero issues with the zippers.
I couldn’t write a ‘Cons’ section without at-least touching on the stuff sack situation. Yes, stuffing the jacket into a purpose built bag is better than nothing and yes, its also better than stuffing it into its own oversized pocket and having it bloat out to that size so that it sits clumsily on your harness, but as I said I still don’t think this is the ultimate solution. I don’t know what that is yet either – but its not my job to (yet???). There must be some solution that avoids having to writhe around in your pocket accidentally grabbing a spare bit of fabric every time you search for that hidden cliff bar. And while were on the subject of the stuff sack; about that special little loop they added for clipping a caribiner to it – it’s an awesome idea, please Arcteryx, just make it a little more robust so that I don’t feel like I’m going to wear through it next time I’m thrutching in a chimney fearful I’m going to drop my jacket from the 10th pitch.
So in a nutshell, the Nuclei is a really great, light alpine belay jacket that doesn’t compromise its technical specificity for a stylish look.
Whats the deal with that Arcteryx??
Just before I finished writing up this blog post I found out that the Nuclei is no longer available in Women’s – it has been discontinued and the Men’s will cease to be continued after this year. Word on the grapevine is that the Nuclei just didn’t sell all that well and there isn’t a plan to replace it with another comparable jacket. My guess is that it couldn’t compete with the versatility of something like the Atom. This is all speculation of course, but it saddened me to think that this might be the start of the dumbing down of previously highly technical products to appeal to a more mass market. I have nothing against the Atom, in fact I think it is also an incredibly well thought out piece of outdoor apparel, but I get a little scared when I see companies like Arcteryx, who were known for so long for really pushing the boundaries in high-performance technical outdoor gear showing signs of favoring a more muted urban demand.
I wanted to continue to finish this review of the Nuclei, even if it may be somewhat obsolete, to show that it is still really important to us for companies like Arcteryx to keep a commitment to high performance niche gear. This is not meant as an abashment of Arcteryx for its growing assortment of urban wear, even my rudimentary understanding of business gets why it’s savvy to appeal to people beyond a niche community. However I wanted to share my concern for the potential direction the company could go in and to be a voice giving support to the continuation of Arcteryx’s roots in highly specific Alpine apparel. Oh, and bring back the Nuclei!