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Rab Photon Pro Jacket Review

A midweight synthetic insulated jacket aimed at Scottish winter, the Photon Pro has the ideal fit and feature set for belay duty. If you're balancing warmth with weight saving for hill walking days, fast moving mountaineering, or easier climbs where you're not anticipating a lot of hanging around, then it's got plenty going for it. But when progress slows to a crawl, is there enough oomph in this jacket to stave off the shivers? For longer belay sessions I think it's borderline. The verdict: it's great in its niche, but depending what you're doing with it, this may not be the only winter belay jacket you need.

Reached the belay - time to get on the Photon Pro  © Dan Bailey
Reached the belay - time to get on the Photon Pro
© Dan Bailey

Fit

Rab describe the fit as 'regular', but as you'd expect from a belay jacket designed to be easily slipped on over all your other layers, the Photon Pro is in fact very roomy. When you're swaddled up in loads of clothing you don't want a restrictive fit under the arms, and in the Photon Pro my customary size Large fits well over the top of everything when I'm wearing a base layer, fleece (or similar) and shell. The sizing is ideal for belay duty, in other words, but this does make it excessively baggy for stand-alone use. Until someone invents a collapsible belay jacket there's no way around that!

At the wrist, the roomy cuffs can be pulled easily over a bulky insulated glove, and they adjust neatly with a simple hook and loop (generic Velcro) tab. There's plenty of length in the arms, and a good length in the hem for maximum body coverage. If I did want to climb in the Photon Pro (I've not yet been cold enough to) then that shouldn't be a problem, since I find the cut is free enough to rule out significant hem lift when the arms are raised.

Making a chilly belay bearable... just  © Kevin Woods
Making a chilly belay bearable... just
© Kevin Woods

Weight

I make the Photon Pro 568g in a size Large (Rab say 593g, but I don't know what size they're referring to). On the scale of synthetic jackets it's very much a midweight, and feels similar in weight and thickness to, for example, the Mountain Equipment Fitzroy, which I'd consider something of a benchmark in this category. Warmer belay jackets can weigh upwards of 800g, and that's worth bearing in mind when you're judging what the Photon Pro is suitable for. This leads me neatly on to...

Insulation and warmth

We're used to seeing Primaloft fill in jackets like this, but of course it's not the only game in town. For the Photon Pro Rab have gone with something called Stratus, a recycled polyester insulation of their own. Unlike the free fibre fill of a down-like synthetic insulation such as Cirrus, Stratus is a sheet insulation which doesn't need baffles to hold it in position - an advantage in terms of both weight saving and windproofness. The fill has been zoned to give you more warmth where it's most needed and to save weight and bulk where insulation is less important, with 140g/m² in the torso for core warmth, and 80g/m² in the sides and under the arms. I have to admit I struggle to tell the difference in thickness/weight between the two zones.

It's compact enough to hang from your harness  © Dan Bailey
It's compact enough to hang from your harness
© Dan Bailey

For use outside of winter there are lots of lighter synthetic jackets out there, but if you reduce the insulation much below this level then you're generally going to end up with something less suited to standing around on an icy belay. On the other hand you could go far heavier and warmer with something like the ME Citadel, which has nearly twice the weight of fill. Rab's own Photon X, now discontinued, had a Primaloft Gold fill in a weight of 133g/m², 170g/m² and 193g/m². Helen Rennard, no stranger to long cold belays, reviewed that for us in 2018, and concluded that for harder routes where you might be belaying for hours at a time, she'd have preferred something heavier still:

So is the Photon Pro warm enough for Scottish winter? I don't climb nearly as hard as Helen, but even in the bimbly grades you can't rule out the occasional unexpected long belay - and I had one such recently. It was a day of little wind, but it felt pretty cold (-4 back at the car later, and I'd guess a few degrees lower on the crag). On reaching the belay I added the Photon Pro over the base layer, thin softshell and waterproof shell I'd been climbing in. I was a little under dressed beneath - if it was windier or colder I'd have worn a thicker mid layer. Though comfortable at first, by the time I'd been stationary for an hour I was really beginning to feel it. I don't run particularly hot or cold as a rule - I guess I'm about middling in terms of my cold tolerance. Ideally I would prefer a little more insulation than this in a belay refuge.

There's a snug high collar  © Dan Bailey
There's a snug high collar
© Dan Bailey

For me the Photon Pro seems just adequate as an all-round Scottish winter belay jacket, but you may need to make allowances in your choice of midlayer. In the event that you were immobilised by injury - one of the main reasons I think all winter hill-goers, not just climbers, should carry such a jacket - then the Photon Pro might save your life, but a warmer alternative would give you more margin. Its advantage though is that it's light and packable enough to comfortably hang off your harness, and won't weigh a ton if you're carrying it winter hillwalking or on a fast-moving mountaineering day - and hence you might be more likely to bring it along in the first place. However if anticipating serious minus temperatures, or particularly long belays, then it would be worth the weight to carry a warmer, bulkier alternative.

Also good for summit stops when winter walking  © Dan Bailey
Also good for summit stops when winter walking
© Dan Bailey

Fabric

Again Rab have been a bit different, using an outer fabric called Atmos Pro made from 100% nylon. I'd not heard of this, but Rab describe it as windproof and water resistant, and having had a chance to test both attributes on slightly unpleasant winter hill days I'd say that's a fair summary. Though it flaps a bit in the wind on account of its relative thinness and lightness, the Photon Pro does keep out a lot of the breeze. It also shrugs off light mizzle and snowmelt, which is just what you want in a jacket that's designed to go over your (possibly already damp) shell.

The ripstop fabric seems tough for its light feel, but you probably wouldn't want to show it the inside of too many chimneys. It's worth mentioning that you don't have to dress like a ninja - more photogenic colours are also available (just not in my size at the time we organised this review).

Spacious cuffs fit over bulky gloves  © Dan Bailey
Spacious cuffs fit over bulky gloves
© Dan Bailey

Glove-friendly zip pulls  © Dan Bailey
Glove-friendly zip pulls
© Dan Bailey

Features

The most important feature on any belay jacket is a hood that properly works with a helmet. Rab have done a good job here, with a hood that's roomy enough to comfortably swallow a bulky helmet and still allow full freedom to move your head even with the zip done right up. With three points of adjustment the hood also cinches down snugly onto a helmet-free head (which some climbing-oriented hoods fail to do well). The small stiffened brim is adequate to hold the hood's shape in the wind.

If you like pockets then you're in luck here, with four zipped pockets on the outside. The lower two are big enough for bulky gloves or a map, and positioned high to remain usable with a harness or rucksack hip belt on top. The two chest pockets are pretty roomy too. I guess you could carry a cereal bar or head torch here, but for me just two big external pockets would probably have been enough. Inside you get another belay jacket staple, a pair of stretchy mesh pockets. These are a good place to keep your climbing gloves warm if you swap pairs on the belay.

Rab have used reassuringly robust YKK Vislon zips throughout, which I definitely like, and the oversized zip pulls work well with clumsy gloves or mitts. The main zip also has a big draught-excluding strip, and the obligatory second zipper for easier access to the front of your harness if you're wearing the jacket over everything else.

One-handed hem drawcords, a stuff sack (with clip loop) and a nice snug little back-of-neck baffle complete the very winter-worthy feature set.

Summary

Rab describe this as the 'definitive winter belay jacket' but to my mind the Photon Pro is a little under-powered to compete for warmth with the heavier alternatives out there. For harder climbers who are routinely spending hours on belays, it may not be enough. What it does better than the heavyweights, though, is to offer a reasonable level of insulation in a lighter, more packable form, squishing down small enough to comfortably carry on your harness or stash in the rucksack just in case. You could also climb in it on colder days without instantly boiling. This makes it pretty versatile - good for winter hill walking summit stops or faster moving mountaineering days, and well suited to lower grade winter routes where you can generally expect shorter stints on belay. The £200 price tag puts the Photon Pro mid way between two obvious competitors, the Montane Flux (£160) and Mountain Equipment Fitzroy (£250).

Rab say:

Photon Pro prod shot  © Rab

Made with Atmos Pro™ outer fabric and filled with Stratus™ recycled insulation, the Photon Pro Jacket is built to withstand the harshest conditions. Cut to fit over multiple layers, the Stratus™ recycled insulation is zoned to reduce bulk in the side panels and underarms, while maximising core warmth in the torso.

The Photon Pro Jacket features a fully-adjustable, helmet-compatible hood with a wired peak, an insulated neck baffle and YKK® zips throughout. All adjusters and zip pulls are designed for easy use with gloves. Highly durable, warm and water-resistant, the Photon Pro is the definitive winter belay jacket.

  • Sizes: S-XXL (men) 8-16 (women)
  • Weight: 568g size L (our weight)
  • Insulation: Stratus™ recycled polyester, zoned with 100g/m² throughout, 80g/m² side panels and underarm for reduced bulk and a total of 140g in the torso
  • Atmos™ lightweight ripstop lining
  • Atmos Pro™ Windproof and water resistant outer fabric
  • Fully adjustable helmet compatible hood with wired peak
  • Concealed hood adjusters
  • 2-way YKK®® VISLON® front zip with insulated internal zip baffle and chin guard
  • 2 large YKK® zipped Napoleon chest pockets
  • 2 large YKK® zipped hand warmer pockets
  • Glove compatible zip pulls
  • 2 internal open mesh pockets
  • Insulated baffle in back neck
  • Part elasticated cuffs with anti-snag hook and loop adjustment
  • Hem drawcord
  • Stuff sack

For more info see rab.equipment

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27 Dec, 2019

Glad this popped up as we were literally going to grab a womens version of this tomorrow but this review has put us off. Wondering how members rate the Montane flux. I have a Fitzroy but she keeps pinching it off me so this buy is as much for me as her. Shame that only Rab do the womens cut, the other brands spec their jackets down for women. Thanks for the write up.

27 Dec, 2019
In the first half of the review you call it a Phantom Pro the second half a Photon Pro. ( And once a Photo Pro ) you may need to sort this.
27 Dec, 2019

Interesting in that this is a similar beast to the old Generator Alpine which had all the same great features re. good design, pockets, cuffs etc but was pretty lightweight in terms of fill. That was never really warm enough for serious belay duty in my experience and I ended up with a heavyweight one instead.

27 Dec, 2019

Sportpursuit have the Women's Photon X (The one Helen Renard reviewed, that Dan mentions in the course of this review) on sale just now for £99...

27 Dec, 2019

What is the alternative?

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