There are big-name brands in the outdoor clothing market that turn out lustworthy, cutting-edge shells, baselayers and insulation pieces season after season. But every once in a while, we stumble upon a small brand doing things a little bit differently yet equally well. One of those is NW Alpine, based in that outdoor playground, Portland, Oregon.
Rather than trying to be all things to all people by selling board shorts and running shoes, NW Alpine focuses only on making minimalist, durable mountaineering and rock climbing clothing. Its lineup is small but covers the basics of base, insulation and shell layers with a theme of brutal minimalism — less pockets, toggles and elastic, all of which means there’s less to break, rip or snag when you’re facing an overhang 1,000 feet off the deck. We’d like to think that this is how the big brands used to be: climbers making gear for climbers with an obsessive eye for function and quality. NW Alpine also makes all of their clothing in Portland, benefitting both the local economy and our confidence in the quality of their products.
We got to test out three pieces of NW Alpine gear in the mountains this fall: the Black Spider Hoodie, the Fast/Light Pant and the Simplicity Jacket.
Black Spider Hoodie
Cut from light and warm Polartec High Efficiency Power Dry fabric, the Black Spider ($110) is the staple piece in NW Alpine’s lineup. The humble base layer’s job is to wick sweat away and insulate even when it’s damp; NW Alpine decided to make it a more functional piece, adding a small chest pocket, balaclava-style hood and thumb loops, bringing it well beyond mere long underwear. We put it on at the beginning of a three-day hike in the White Mountains and didn’t take off until we stepped out of the woods. The PowerDry material is just the right weight on its own for comfort in the 40-60 degree temperature range during high-exertion activities. It pulled sweat away effectively and warded off the chill above tree line. The pocket was perfect for an energy gel and the hood was great when the mountain breeze picked up and while sleeping at night. It will be perfect under a shell this winter for cross-country skiing, too.
Soft shell pants are possibly the most versatile piece in the active wardrobe, and once you find a pair you like, it’s tough to unseat them in your go-to kit. But the Fast/Light Pant($160) is one of the best we’ve tried. Sticking to the “less is more” philosophy, NW Alpine keeps things simple. There’s a single large pocket on the right thigh and a fitted cut that borders on “tights” fit. With so few bells and whistles the wicking and water resistant synthetic fabric shines: it’s comfortable across a wide range of temperatures and incredibly stretchy, making scrambling over boulders a cinch. The double-reinforced knees have a slick material between the layers (the first time we’ve seen this), allowing the knee to slide without the usual chafing. Grommets on the adjustable cuffs accommodate a set of spring gaiters. A second thigh pocket and an integrated webbing belt would have been welcome, but we learned to live with less.
When you’re just looking to cut the wind a bit, a hard shell is overkill and most soft shells breathe fine but trend toward too heavy. While we really don’t like the idea of carrying yet another jacket, the Simplicity ($120) is so light and minimalist, it was hardly a penalty; in fact, it ended up being the jacket we wore most on a series of fall hikes where cool breezes could have brought on a chill. The Simplicity is, as its name suggests, entirely straightforward: one zip pocket on the chest, no elastic at the waist or sleeves and a breezy light material that weighs next to nothing. It stuffs into its smallest pack pocket, which made it easy to pull out on breaks and put on over a base layer. While the DWR-coated ripstop nylon won’t keep you dry long in a deluge, it also won’t keep you soaked in your own sweat since it breathes like a fiend. The cut is baggy and unflattering, but we assume you’re not out there for the looks.