The Micro Belay Parka

The belay parka, as I posted about earlier, serves a tried-and-true overlayer purpose. It’s simple and it works. But the concept doesn’t only apply to frigid temps and big puffies, like the DAS Parka (disclaimer: I work for Patagonia, am most familiar with their products, and so I use their names most often). Many companies make a light-duty, three-season-style insulated jacket – call it a Puffy Jr., Lil’ Puffy, Micro Belay Parka, whatever. Patagonia’s is the Nano Puff, and I think it’s the best piece we’ve made in years, and everyone I know who has one loves it. It’s become so popular that it spawned siblings – coming next fall: a full-zip version, a full-zip hoody, and a full-zip hard-shelled hoody. It’s surprisingly warm for being so trim, too – perhaps due to the PrimaLoft, which I babble about in the comments field at bottom of my synthetic-or-down post. Other companies make good similar pieces, as well – friends have versions that they love from Arc Teryx and Mont Bell, to name a couple.

Scotty D in his Micro Puff at a lightweight bivy on Sulu Peak, Pakistan.

Soon I’ll post some thoughts on what to look for, like full-zip or pullover, hard or soft shell, and down or synthetic (the only one with a yes/no answer in my book is the last: synthetic – more later).

I see these jackets as great transition pieces, having three overlapping uses:

1. Belay parka for relatively warm conditions (alpine rock climbing, for example), or winter/ice routes where you know you’ll be moving quickly. The downside to the latter, as opposed to bringing a full-on belay parka, is that if you get stuck at a long belay – say you encounter a harder-than-expected pitch that takes forever – you get cold. But if that happens, just keep it on and climb the next pitch in it (use #3, below) – something hard to do in the big full-on style belay parka.

2. Mid-layer insulation piece. They layer smoothly, and they’re toasty warm beneath a shell (layered under a shell traps even more heat) – typically too warm for me. I seem to heat-up quickly when moving (but cool off rapidly when stopped, so I quickly pull it on). We typically think of fleeces, like the R2, as mid-layer insulating pieces. These are just too warm for me for 99% of the climbing I do. I rarely wear my R2, though it’s an awesome fabric and I know lots of people love it. Just too warm for me. I’d get a Nano before an R2, because the former can do what the latter does, but not vice-versa.

For winter/ice/alpine climbing, I typically go with a base layer (Merino 1 or 2, short or long sleeve, depending), my omnipresent R1 Hoody, a pullover fleece vest if it’s cold, and then a shell. That system, varied in base layer and vest depending on temps, cover me for practically everything.

Jim Earl, climbing in his old Puffball pullover, over his shell, on the Andromeda Strain, Canadian Rockies.

3. Insulated shell – just climb in it. Even if you’re wearing it over top of your normal shell, since it’s trim enough to still see your feet. I find myself in this “just climb in it” situation more often when swinging leads (versus leading in blocks) because you end up standing around belaying for two pitches in a row (after finishing your lead, then belaying your partner’s pitch). So, pull on the Lil’ Puffy after your lead, even if you’re still warm, to trap some heat before it escapes. By the time your buddy finishes his lead, if you’re cold, just keep the Lil’ Puffy on and climb in it.

This overlayer/light-belay-parka combo system works especially well in places with huge temperature swings throughout the day. I’ll sometimes dress for the warmest part of the day, but bring a Nano and a DAS (not overkill when you consider that the Nano replaces the standard mid-layer fleece, in which you’d overheat half the time). In Alaska, for example, even in a “warm” place like the Ruth Gorge – come to think of it, I’ve used this system there, on our routes on Thunder Mountain, and on attempts at the North Buttress of Hunter – in the middle of the night you might be climbing (and belaying) in sub-zero temps. Here, I’ll likely be climbing – lead and follow – with my Lil’ Puffy over top of my shell. Then, the day heats up and if you’re in the sun, you’re sweating like a whore in church. So I’m climbing in my basic system, not overdressed, and just pulling on my belay parka (either the micro/Nano or DAS), if even needed, when we stop. The alternative simply doesn’t make sense to me: add/subtract a mid-layer fleece midway up a climb. No way. I’m not going to partially disrobe midway up something, tuck in/out my layers under my harness, put the fleece in bottom of my pack where it’ll never again serve any purpose (unless I’m stuck out another night, in which case I’ll have to partially dis/re-robe again). It’s too much hassle, too slow, and you know that the minute you strip off your shell a torrent of spindrift will hit, reminding you that you should be rock climbing.

Which reminds me…one year ago right now I was at an incredible adventure cragging area called Frey, near Bariloche, Argentina. (And now I’m in Cody, Wyoming, about to get cold, wet, and scared ice climbing…nobody thought it possible, but indeed I’m dumber than I look.) We climbed for five straight days, amazing rock, and on our final day my friend Morgan Boyles and I climbed one of the best rock climbs anywhere: Siniestro Total. Nine pitches of perfect granite, cold in the morning shade, chilly at some belays, hard enough that you didn’t want to climb with a pack. I had a prototype Nano – it’s the yellow thing in the photos, packed down to nothing and super light clipped to the harness, then good enough warmth for belays, and trim enough to climb in. So good, ahhhh, Frey. Shit, anybody know if they have direct flights from Cody to Bariloche?

20 thoughts on “The Micro Belay Parka

  1. Fantastic piece. It’s always good to hear about different layering system from people climbing in different places; you learn a lot.
    Now, on 3) I did get a bit confused. You climb with the base layer, the hoody and a shell on top and then add the puff jacket on top? That’s the idea?
    Thanks again for a good post.

  2. Thanks, Uri, and sorry ’bout that — I was afraid I might not have explained that very well.
    Yeah, on 3), indeed, I climb with my standard system — base, R1 hoody, maybe vest, then shell; and over top I’ll pull on the puff (like a Nano). if we’re moving fast, or it’s not super cold, the Nano serves as a light belay parka. but it’s trim enough that i can just keep it on and climb in it, too, like if its colder than i expected. if it’s a place like AK, where it can go from warm to crazy cold, i’ll do the above (using the Nano), but *also* bring my DAS. in this case, you can think of the Nano as replacing a warm mid-layer piece — except it’s way more versatile, b/c its location isn’t “mid” but over top (i.e. you don’t have to disrobe to put it on/take it off as the temp fluxes throughout the day). like on a 24-hour push on an aspect that gets sun at times, i’ll spend time with each of these scenarios: just climbing in my standard system (when it’s relatively “warm”); climbing (and maybe some quick belay duty use, too) with the Nano over top; having the DAS on at belays (middle of night, when it’s so cold that you want everything on at belays).

    • Great! Thanks for the explanation. Now I got it. Basically base layer and R1 are your basic gear. Then a shell on top. If it gets cold or on a warmer belay use the nano as a “mid-but-ontop” layer. Makes sense. My only concern is condensation in the shell (i’m assuming is a soft shell) from having the puff on top of it… hmmm, i have to try this next weekend in New Hampshire.
      I bought a Nano a month ago and I love it. that little PO is amazing.
      Anyway, thanks again for the tips! Have a good marg!

      • 10-4, Uri. good concern on the condensation — let me know how it goes if you try it in NH. that can be a bit of an issue on occasion, thinking back on some of my experiences, but that’s a point where the synthetic (vs down) becomes key. it generally hasn’t caused a problem in my experience.
        yes, enjoyed a fine marg after climbing today!

  3. great piece kelly. I have the das and a MHW compressor jacket. I use both when I am standing around and guiding (and bring em both when I think the temps will go below zero). I want a Nano to have the flex you’re suggesting for ice and alpine. i am hoping the nano will have enough give to climb in. I am hoping the new hoody is coming out soon!

    • howdy carolyn, thanks. just a quick online look, the compressor looks great. maybe a little heavier than the Nano, but i think it has a hood, and is full zip, which some people like would account for some weight. probably just as warm, i’d guess. seems like a comparable piece, and they make good stuff. the Nano doesn’t have any stretch, but it’s “slick” enough, with the shell material, that i haven’t had any problems with binding or anything. i’ve climbed footworky slabs fairly near my lead limit with it on, as well as steep ice, and though of course it’s more trim without it, it’s not bulky enough to cause problems.

      the new hoody — next fall. doh, i know, seems like a long time!

  4. I’ve been eyeing the Nano since it’s release, but hesitated to buy it because it lacked a hood. I’m glad to hear a hooded version is in the works, but why the wait? Would you not agree that hoodless belay jackets (no matter their weight) are uncomplete without a hood? I know that the hood might not sell well to non climbers, but come on! We need the hood!


    • ha, great comment, kevin. well, generally i do agree on the importance of a hood, for sure — for real belay jackets, especially. i view the Nano like a transition piece — can be a micro belay parka or a climbing shell, or even a mid-layer. since i have a real hood on my shell, when i pull this over top, indeed it might not be super ideal b/c this one’s over top of where you’d pull up the hood, but in my mind i take the superlight pullover deal and accept that trade-off. i do hear you, though — in fact, i’d love a hooded pullover, but they always have to balance the reality of those pieces (which don’t sell) with the handful of people who want them. so, in the line for fall, a full-zip hoody. i have a proto, and though i prefer pullovers in this weight of a piece, the thing is super nice, and i’ve been using it lots.

  5. Some nice write ups on this blog Kelly. Thanks.

    How does the Nano Puff compare to the old Puffball Pullover. I use my Puffball Pullover all the time, but it’s getting pretty worked–tears and patches all over it. Realistically, it still has more years of service left and I generally use things until they are fully used up; but I’m still interested in how the new generation (i.e., Nano Puff) compares. Lighter I assume. Warmer? As warm?

    Thanks. And keep up the good posts.


    • thanks, Brian. hmmm, hard to say in the comparison, b/c i’m just going from memory, but i’d say pretty comparable. the Nano is most definitely lighter — on my home scale, mine (size S) is 8.8 oz. the insulation is more efficient, though. it’s not warmer, but i’ts probably as warm. one down side to synthetics is that they lose their insulation abilities a little over time — down is more resilient. given that yours is well-loved (i.e. beat to hell — awesome!), it might not be quite as warm as when you first had it. btw, putting it in the dryer helps restore loft in those pieces.
      take care, kelly

  6. For those who can not wait for the hooded nano MEC in Canada has a hooded pullover that looks very simmaler. 60gm Primealoft1, hood, pullover, and kinda waterproof. Packs down into its own pocket too!

    One question I have about the nano though is how warm is it? I have a seriously beat up micropuff that I love but I’m worried that the nano is not nearly as warm, Kelly I was wondering what your thoughts are?

  7. I assume the new puffs will have pockets? I’ve got a micro puff but I also have chronically cold hands. I understand pockets bring extra bulk, but they’d be worth it in my opinion.

    • If the new puffs have pockets–and, really, I’m of two minds about whether they should–the pockets should be inside the insulation. That is, the hands should end up between your belly and some insulation, unlike the current micro puff vest, where having your hands in the pockets really means just having a thin sheet of nylon, no insulation, over your hands.

  8. Along these same lines, I’ve been using an Arc’teryx Atom LT Hoody over just a baselayer as a sort of ultralight super breathable midlayer/softshell hybrid. It climbs super well with its stretch panels under the arms. I still take a warm puffy for belays and other less active times, but just the two layers have been plenty warm for active use well into the single digits. Durability is my one concern, as the shell material seems a bit flimsy. Time will tell.

  9. Nice write up Kelly, as always. I just wanted to chime in to agree with you 100% for using the Nano as a mid-layer or a micro belay layer. My nano has been my goto piece for the last year now and has maybe more days of use than any other piece in my collection.

    Kate and I just got down from a quick climb of De La S down here in Patagonia and as always the Nano got worn almost the whole time. I use the same layering system as you, Wool 1 Tee, Wool 2 zip-neck, R1 hoody and then usually a Houdini. The Nano goes over the houdini most of the time but I do find myself reversing that when I know I’ll be wearing both pieces all day, like our climb a couple days ago. Last year when the weather was even worse down here I layered the Nano underneath my hard shell and then a hooded Puff Jacket as my belay piece.

    Hope the weather is better in MT than down here!

  10. Great write-up, similar to my system (though non-Patagucci based). Actually, I really enjoy the whole blog…

    I had a question on footwear – on these AK climbs in say Ruth Gorge, do you go with plastics (or maybe new modern double boots like Spantik) or do you climb in insulated single boots (if that is the case, how insulated)? Obviously, lot harder to “layer” footwear… trying to figure out which boots to take to Ruth Gorge. I only have previous Denali experience (plastics) and then just lower 48.


  11. Hey Kelly,

    I finally buckled and purchased a women’s Nano Puff pullover. I had been planning on waiting for next years model with a hood but was itching for a light weight insulation layer for a trip to Red Rocks. I also usually try to find sales and/or pro deal products but I decided the reviews on this item justified paying full price.

    I bought the NP in women’s XL after trying on the Large and deciding it might not fit over my full winter climbing action ensemble. This was a compromise as I assumed I would end up with a large unflattering fit. I got the jacket at the end of March and didn’t get to climb in it. It fit really well over my winter layers and I was surprised to find I liked the fit of it just over a t-shirt and R1 — perfect for early april in Vegas. Mega props to Patagonia on sizing and fit. I am hoping for some snazzy softshells in XL for next year (hint, hint). I also got the Puff in Geko Green and it looks dynamite.

    Red Rocks weather was all over the place last week. Temps fluctuated but I ended up needing the NP every day I was out there. The Nano puff compressed well into its own pocket perfect attached to a biner on my harness or in my alpine pack. The jacket also looks like new after being compressed it doesn’t seem to loss its loft at all.

    The one problem I found with the jacket is the stitching. on the first day out a friend and I headed to the Ragged Edges Area for some single pitch warm up on a windy cool day. The base of Ragged Edges has lots of little bushes but plenty of room to chill out too. Unfortunately the threading on the sleeves of the jacket kept getting snagged. By the end of the day I had snagged it twice on each arm and I was being careful after I caught it the first time. The stitching only broke once but the other three places, the thread hangs off the jacket at about half an inch.

    I spoke to Patagonia and they are asking me to return it for replacement or repair. So I am going to send it back. I have to say I am now worried about its functionality as a performance piece while guiding rock this spring and fall in the Gunks. Still psyched to have this one for next winter even if I have save it for the cold days, keeping it under my shell.

    cheers, Carolyn

  12. Why are you guys climbing around these cold inhospitable places?
    There must be some routes to the places you are going that don’t require so much impractical climbing or hiking in the dead of winter. Maybe you could look at the areas you guys are visiting in Google Earth and scout out an easier route.

    But I guess if you are for whatever reason left with no other option, it’s nice that climbing gear has gotten so small these days.

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