Tuesday, February 7, 2012

NWAlpine Fast and Light Pant

I was finally able to get back on ice again after almost a month.  Unfortunately, extremely busy schedules mean that 3am departures for ice cragging sessions before work and school are one of the only ways for me to get out. 
Phil on Malan's waterfall at 4am; Ogden, Utah

The climbing was great, though I fell asleep in classes and struggled to stay awake at work. When I was packing my gear, I noticed that I have many different jackets for many different uses.  Some are waterproof hardshells, some softshells, some primaloft, some down, and some fleece; each has its specialty, and each one I take for different climbs.  Pants are a different story for me.  Though I have 3 different models of softshell pants, I really only use one; the NWAlpine Fast and Light Pant.  I use these for winter hiking, snowshoeing, ice and rock climbing, etc.  They are the best softshell pants I have found.

NWAlpine Fast and Light Pant

I’m picky about pants.  There are certain features on pants that I feel are key for climbing and other winter activities in the mountains.  There is a certain fit that I look for in a climbing pant, and I won't use the pant for climbing if it doesn't have that fit.  First of all, grommets. Grommets at the hem of the pants can turn a pant into a gaiter, allowing for better breathability around the leg, a lighter and more comfortable fit, and it looks better in pictures J.  Also, heat from your boots will move out the top of the boot and up the leg, helping to keep the pants dry and your legs warm.  Gaiter often trap this heat exchange around the lower leg and mostly build up sweat, the opposite of what you want to happen.  I love gear that can pull double duty and allow me to lighten my pack.  Anyway, grommets=gaiters.  Some pant companies sew nylon loops at the hem of their pants instead of grommets.  This works too.  It’s not as easy to secure and probably not as durable, but it works.  I have had pants, however, that I have put grommets in, but the pant wasn’t long enough or stretchy enough, and the pant impeded movement.  I couldn’t high-step in them.  I only use those pants now for skiing because I never worry about having a gaiter while skiing.  Another thing I am picky about is having a good fit in the waist.  If a pant is too big in the waist, it will either fall down or come out from under a belt and look/feel horrible, especially under a hipbelt.  Most pant companies will either fit me in the waist and be too short in the leg, or fit me in the leg and be to baggy in the waist (though my waist is getting bigger, now that I’m married L).  The only pants I have found to fit well are the arcteryx gamma lt in a medium long and the NWAlpine Fast/Light Pant.  The gamma lt in med long is about the equivalent of  a 32 waist and 34 length.  But the gamma lt’s don’t have grommets.  Therefore, my pick for the best softshell pant:  The NWAlpine Fast and Light Pant.
NWAlpine Fast and Light Pant

These Pants are perfect, almost.  I decided to try out the NWA Fast and Light pant because they are designed specifically for alpine rock and ice climbing.  To be honest, the feature that convinced me to try them is the grommets around the cuffs of the pants.  I went through a stage where I put grommets in all of my winter pants (with some successes and a few big failures).  Now I prefer to buy pants that already have them.  I also like the pocket and waist design on the pants.  First of all, there is only one pocket on the pants; on the right thigh.  This is just low enough that it is not covered by a harness and just high enough that you don’t feel it on your knee.  It is also big enough to securely carry most topo maps, a few snacks, etc.  No other pockets mean they are great for climbing, but not real great for around town.  That’s what levis are for anyway.

Single thigh pocket with items for scale
The softshell material is very stretchy, so even though they are a bit short on me in the leg, they don’t restrict movement while climbing, even with the pants tied down to my boot as a gaiter.
 I got these pants in a large for extra length but was afraid they would be too big in the waist.  They have sewn in stretch panels on the waist, however, which pulls in the extra fabric nicely.  The waist really does fit perfectly, with a belt.  This is the only pant that fit this well in the waist with a variety of layering options (the pant alone, one baselayer, and even two baselayers underneath). 
Fast/Light Waist with stretch panels
note: these pants are a low-rise fit

 My arcteryx gamma lt pants fit very well in the waist too, but do not grow to accommodate a lot of extra layers underneath like the NWA pants.
The material is also fairly water resistant, though the gamma lt’s do have a better DWR.  These pants dry quite quickly, though, which helps if they wet out.  I have used these pants now for about 8 months and the DWR has pretty well worn off.  While ice climbing in December in fairly wet conditions, the pants wetted out after about 10 minutes on a drippy waterfall.  But, they were dry again in about 10 or 15 minutes of hiking after I got off the climb.  I’m sure if I re-treat them with a DWR, they would be almost as good as new.
Fast/Light fabric wet out after 10 mins, but dried again in with about 15 mins of hiking.
The DWR was great for about the first 6 months of use.

I have only two complaints about these pants, but one of them is really my fault.  First of all, they have a double layer of fabric on the instep for protection against crampons.  That is nice, but I put a crampon point through one of the layers and had to patch it.  I would prefer that they put a more abrasion resistant layer of material at the instep.  But, if you just don’t stick your crampon through the instep, you won’t have any problems.  Don’t know if it’s so much a design flaw as user error.  I do like gear though that is designed for my own stupidity.
Repaired instep

  My Gamma lt pants don’t have instep protection either, but their fabric has a little more stretch and a tighter weave, I think.  When I caught the instep of the gamma lt pants with the same crampons, nothing happened.  No tear.  No mark.  Nothing.
The other complaint is that, though they put grommets in the hem, which is a big thing for me, the fabric around the hem is quite stretchy.  They even put in an extra stretchy section in the hem.  If you’re post-holing in snow for a while, snow will work its way up through the stretchy hem, even when it’s tied to your boots gaiter-style.  I would prefer that they sew in a no-stretch material around the hem so that I can get a really tight seal around my boot and no snow will get in if post-holing for hours.

Stretchy hem (bad design, imo) with grommets (good design)

Even with these complaints, these are still my go-to pant for every winter trip.  I would probably choose my gamma lt pants if they had grommets, but they don’t, so the NWA Fast and Light pant gets my choice.  They retail for about $110, an absolute steal, especially compared to many of the other softshell pants on the market (usually between $150 and $300).  The Gamma lt pants retail for $170.  The Gamma Lt pant is my choice for the best all-seasons softshell pant.  They are cool during the summer, plenty water-resistant for winter, and very comfortable.  They just need grommets.
Check out the NWAlpine Fast and Light Pant here: http://nwalpine.com/fastlight-pant
Make sure to check out the other cool offering from NWAlpine too!
Check out the Arcteryx Gamma LT Pant here: http://arcteryx.com/Product.aspx?EN/Mens/Pants-Shorts/Gamma-LT-Pant#


  1. Semi-related question. In the picture, I see you've got head blanks on your Cassins. Are they DIY or are they from Cassin?

  2. The tools in the picture are the old Cassin X-dry tools, which are the x-all mountains with a different grip and hammer. The hammers on the x-dry were just a thin plate. http://www.camp-usa.com/products/cassin/cassin-technical-ice/x-dry-plate-3012.asp
    They have a real hammer that comes stock on the x-all mountains but, to save a little weight, you can swap the hammer out for the x-dry plate.

  3. "I went through a stage where I put grommets in all of my winter pants (with some successes and a few big failures)."

    I have the urge to head down this route myself. Care to comment on what contributed to success or failure? I'm curious which fabrics can handle grommets well enough and any techniques that might be helpful.

  4. Grommets work well in pants that are either very stretchy or plenty long to accommodate for knees bending. My failures were in pants that were not stretchy and too short so that when my pant was tied down to the boot, I couldn't lift my leg all the way.

    Also, it's not really good to have a stretchy fabric where the grommet is being added. It's possible that when to stretch the pant at the grommet, the grommet could come out. This has happened to me. I'd try to reinforce that part of the pant with a non-stretch fabric.

  5. I too have been putting grommets on all of my winter (and summer!) pants. I've used a soldering iron to burn a small hole through the hem of my pants. This provided a non-fraying hole for the grommet to sit in before smashing it into a grommet. I used grommets that accomodate 4mm cord. Bigger grommets = more surface area = more holding power. All have held so far.

    Personally, I've preferred the Arc Gamma MX, but mainly because they make a Long version! V. few companies do (and have good fabric/design at the same time!).