Keela's Belay Smock
As always, we're looking at the Keela Belay Smock from the point of view of long distance trekking over tough terrain.
Test subject: Chest 42", Waist 33", Height: 5ft 8"
Test item: Size = Medium
Kit Tests: Winter (multiple)
Disclaimer: None required (item not provided by manufacturer)
|Outer fabric: Flylite Ripstop (Nylon)||100%|
|Synthetic Insulation: Primaloft Gold (previously called Primaloft One)||133 g/sm|
|Weight (Size Medium)||705 g|
|Product Sizing Reference: 42" Chest =||Medium|
Introduction: A Utilitarian Overachiever
In our view, meaningful insulation for a static body is achieved with around 60 gsm of high quality synthetic fill. This is the light end of the insulation spectrum and is well represented by a good number of brands (see our lightweight insulated jacket review). At the heavier end, there are less options (presumably because not enough people enjoy miserable icy conditions), and specialist belay jackets like Montane's Spitfire One and PHD's Zeta Belay contain around 200 gsm of Primaloft Gold and weigh north of 800g.
The Keela Belay smock sits right between these two categories; it contains 133 gsm of Primaloft Gold (generally regarded as the premium synthetic insulation currently available, in terms of warmth, water resistance, softness and compressibility) in both the body and arms, though not in the hood (we'll get to that later) and, as its name suggests, is meant to keep you warm when you're not active.
Keela's Belay Smock will comfortably handle the wintery sides of Spring and Autumn on its own; when it drops below -5 / -10℃ (depending on other conditions) we pair the Mountain Equipment Compressor (size Large) under Keela's heavier Belay Smock (size Medium - see image above), and this combined (193g Primaloft Gold) core insulation (40g in hood, 173g in arms) provides sufficient warmth around the tent/bivvy in very harsh Winter mountain conditions (more on this here).
The Belay Smock is a well thought out, no-nonsense, utilitarian thermal jacket, designed originally for special forces (not mountaineers) its stark, unflashy, style-free appearance is the result of a profoundly functional design aimed at keeping its owner warm in miserable conditions.
Warm When Wet
Over the 7 days of the most recent (2017) Winter Kit Test I noted approximately 10 hours of daylight where there was no precipitation. Wales is known for its wet weather, we passed through the wettest part (the stretch between Blaenau Ffestiniog and Capel Curig) of a wet country at one of the wettest times of year, but even the locals were surprised by the sheer relentlessness of rain, hail and snow (mostly rain). In those conditions, no amount of skill will keep you dry. Even when it was "dry" the air was dank and mizzle drifted in coating what was once dry, until eventually everything was wet, and stayed wet.
In this saturated environment, especially near the peaks, where drying off wasn't possible, the Keela Belay performed superbly. I was able to dry out my baselayer (with a little shivering) from under the Belay Smock and Compressor Jacket and once that layer was dry I was soon very comfortable. Over the seven days of putting on wet clothes in the morning, getting wetter then warming up under the Belay Smock in the evening, what was impressive was that the insulating properties of the smock didn't noticeably diminish and that evaporating moisture beneath the smock was able to escape into the dank air.
This is what Keela say about Primaloft Gold:
"PrimaLoft Gold microfibers are engineered for permanent water resistance and create tight surface tension that resists moisture penetration, resulting in an insulation that dries faster than goose down. Ultra-fine fibres mimic the compressibility of goose down and are breathable, allowing moisture vapour to be transported through the fibres and away from the skin."
Well it looks like the Primaloft in Keela's Belay Smock is doing just what it claims.
Hoods for Protection; Hats for Warmth
Keela have made sensible decisions not only about how much and what type of insulation to use, but also what not to insulate, namely the lightweight, windproof, water-resistant, roll-away hood:
Opting for a light, windproof hood saves weight and lets more versatile headwear combos do the thermal heavy lifting. What you want from a hood is protection from wind and precipitation and that's exactly what the roll-away hood provides.
The hood rolls up into the neck section and is secured by two hook and loop attachment points.
The neck can be cinched tighter to trap in the warmth via a neck baffle - one of those set and forget features, but quite welcome.
Everything in its right place
As we mentioned previously, this is first and foremost a static insulation piece. I don't quite know how low the temperature would have to be before I considered exerting myself while wearing this (-30℃ ?). At -10℃ when active a combination of two lightweight (non-thermal) softshells and a merino baselayer is sufficient for me. That said, it's quite possible that conditions could turn out nicer than expected, and the Keela Belay may get too warm even when just sitting around. For such situations, Keela have provided very generous and effective venting options (from hip to elbow !):
With two zips, one at the hip and one at the elbow, the Belay Smock can be opened a little or a very lot, from top to bottom and vice versa. Cooling down in this smock is not a problem.
By choosing a smock design Keela have eradicated the need for a front zip and a zip baffle to trap the warm air. This allows for an extremely roomy chest pocket, which is approximately 40cm deep and 20cm wide - more a bucket (or Kangaroo pouch) than a pocket and occasionally useful when gathering up items one could lose to the undergrowth. Additionally, the smock can be packed into the chest pocket (though this is not an advertised feature as the zip isn't accessible from inside out) and used as a pillow with the approximate dimensions: 30 cm x 20 cm x 15 cm.
With no central zip, the two fleece lined (on the back-face only) hand-warmer pockets need not be separated and come in quite handy when needing to warm up and dry off ones hands.
We really like the velcro adjustments Keela have used on this jacket. The hip adjustments are very much set and forget, the cuffs however get much more use and Keela have used a generous amount of high quality hook and loop. Both adjustments work extremely well and trap warm air inside the jacket. Nothing to complain about here:
We're generally fans of Keela, but they're also an infuriating company. It's almost as if they're afraid of perfection. In the design process they must say to themselves, "well that's pretty much nailed it, now what can we screw up?" In this case (and it's not the only case), it's the zips. Keela seriously need to go to zip school and retake those exams and we'd suggest they make friends with Mountain Equipment while they're at it and simply copy Mountain Equipment's work.
The chest pocket zip, and the neck zip are the two biggest offenders, probably just because they get the most use. They snag a great deal. The only redeeming feature is that the fabric can generally be easily freed without ripping or causing damage, but it's so annoying that something so small, which can be frustrating as hell (especially when tired) isn't being addressed (across multiple Keela products). I'm certainly not the first to complain about this, I just wish Keela would take note and look at a Mountain Equipment garment (like the Compressor), study and then copy their zips.
Generally, I'd pay £10 more for a Keela product with Mountain Equipment's zips. We're going to dock one and a half points for the zips from the function score.
Keela use high quality components in their product line and have won innovation awards for some of their fabrics, but it's small things like zips (and not providing high quality product images) that will keep them from competing with the better known, top quality brands. A costly mistake and one so easily fixed - infuriating indeed.
Conclusion & Rating
When you have a jacket this good, the negatives are almost amplified, because it could have been close to perfect (at least for Scramble's purposes). That said, we think Keela have come up with a super jacket. At the end of a cold and wet day, in very harsh winter mountain conditions, there's something almost reassuring about sliding on the Belay Smock.
For arid, cold conditions like those in the Himalayas or the snow-free valleys of Antarctica a down jacket is the way to go, but for the often wet and cold winter climes of the UK and northern Europe, synthetic insulation is a must. The Belay Smock will keep you warm when wet and when you're wet will help you get dry.
Opting for a mid-weight insulation piece provides the flexibility of pairing it with a lightweight insulation jacket when encountering very low temperatures and eliminates the need for an extreme option (which may see less use than its price warrants).
So, to sum up, Keela's Belay Smock is a starkly functional, no-nonsense, utilitarian insulated jacket. It may not make the catwalk, but if you want to survive challenging conditions in the mountains, you'll forgive its looks and appreciate its excellent design and impressive thermal properties. The Keela Belay Smock is Scramble's top pick in the Midweight Insulated Jacket category.
Now Keela, please give Mountain Equipment a call and ask for their zip department.
Rating (out of 10)
* The value score is derived from two factors:
1) Competitive Market Price (CMP). This represents our judgement of a competitive online price point if we were to stock the item. e.g. if we feel we would need to sell an item at 40% off (i.e. 60% of its full RRP) to be competitive, then our CMP score will be 6/10.
2) Customer Value Price (CVP). We then make an honest appraisal of the maximum price we would be willing to pay for the item (and we're mean). So if we'd pay 80% of its RRP our CVP score would be 8/10.
We then average the two scores to get our final value score, which in our example would be 7/10.
Last Updated: 15/04/20 (new images)