One of the most important things to have on big mountains or for winter in the White Mountains is a good parka.
First, a little bit on what these are and are not used for:
- Parkas ARE NOT meant to wear while hiking or climbing, unless conditions are extreme or for short distances over easy stretches. You should overheat quickly if wearing one while exerting much effort
- Parkas ARE used for low activity, short or long breaks, sitting or standing around camp, gearing up at the trailhead, etc. Don’t plan on stopping for long? Imagine an emergency situation in which you, someone in your group, or someone you come across on the trail is immobilized – you’ll likely be spending hours or an entire night in one spot
I try to minimize the amount of gear I buy (believe it not) for a few reasons – money, my lack of storage space, the environment, money, and money. I went through a long Gear Geek phase when I started out, but grew out of it eventually. Now I research like crazy before I buy, and durability is a huge factor in what I eventually purchase.
After my research and some saving, I went with the Patagonia Fitz Roy Down Parka and I’ve never regretted it. I definitely got the right piece for my needs.
I purchased mine new (often I buy used) at the very end of 2012, and I should mention Patagonia discontinued this for a year and then brought it back in 2 forms. The Fitz Roy down JACKET is without an integrated hood and is therefore not suitable as the type of parka I’m talking about here. An integrated, well insulated hood is a must.
All right, on to my Fitz Roy. It’s 800 fill goose down with a nylon shell, coated in Patagonia’s DWR (Durable Water Resistant) finish. I went with 800 fill because this baby was headed for some big, cold mountains. It’s extremely warm. I wouldn’t recommend less than 600 fill or the synthetic equivalent for winter in the Whites, and definitely go with 800 if you’ll be out there overnight.
When I started hiking, I went with synthetic for everything, as I was aware that down does not function (hold its loft) when wet, and the Whites are often cold and wet. While I do still prefer synthetic for just that reason in much of my middle-weight (warmer temps) or mid-layer (I sweat like a pig) tops, down is the way to go for the parka – hands down.
Why? These things are meant for true cold, where water is in the form of snow or ice, not rain. Down also compresses better than synthetic (that gap is closing), and this is a relatively and necessarily bulky item in the pack. As well as better compression, it also springs back or regains its loft after being compressed faster and more times than synthetic will – it lasts longer if well cared for. It’s also a lot of bang for the buck in terms of weight to warmth, it’s super light.
The thin but tough nylon holding it all together has handled some serious abuse, including a month on filthy Aconcagua. It’s been smashed down into packs with stray crampons, stepped on, dragged through dirt and rocks, and caught on too many sharp branches to count. When I eventually do rip this thing, it will get the duct tape treatment (I keep meaning to learn how to sew), which I’ve found will hold well in some testing. Repair things! Don’t replace.
The baffles that hold the down spread evenly throughout the parka and the stitching in general have done their jobs very well. In case it does start to rain, or more likely the snow that falls on it starts to melt from your body heat, the DWR has held up extremely well through 2 years of heavy use in dirty, dusty, windy, wet and cold conditions, and a handful of washings. That’s right, a handful, three times actually, over more than 2 years – I don’t wash my mountain gear unless absolutely necessary. Water still beads off of it and runs down onto my hopefully equally great pants.
The Fitz Roy is a great length. A parka should come down well below the waist to prevent heat loss from this often exposed area, and this one does. They seem to have found the sweet spot on that. Drawstrings on both sides let you pull it tight and haven’t loosened on me unintentionally yet. Same for the sleeves which have worked well with heavy to light gloves and elastic ends to seal things off.
The all-important hood mentioned earlier is super warm, fits well over a hat or helmet, and it turns with my head. It’s annoying and can be dangerous to look to the side only to find a macro view of the pretty material on the inside of your hood. It also has a nice drawstring to adjust for whatever you are or aren’t wearing on your head. At the top of the main zipper, a nice fleece material comes in to keep the zipper off your face. All of the drawstrings mentioned here are adjustable with all but the heaviest mittens, and I’m all thumbs.
Pockets. Well positioned, and nothing unnecessary. Too many parkas (and packs, pants and everything else) have too many pockets, which means extra zippers, more weight, and lost heat. A zippered hand-warmer pocket is on each side of the front, and these are large enough for gloved hands, which also means they’re large enough for a balaclava, heavy hat, snacks and many other things. A vertical zippered chest pocket on the outside left is only slightly smaller, with another vertical zippered pocket of the same size directly behind it on the inside. I’d prefer this inside pocket on the other side as the outside one.
Finally, my favorite pocket – the water bottle pocket on the lower right inside of the parka. I spent one of the most miserable nights of my life freezing in the Guyot Shelter in the Pemigewasset Wilderness with a bottle of hot water continuously falling out of my previous parka, my body and the water cooling with each drop, while I fired up the stove and tried to make dinner. On the Fitz Roy, this pocket exists, and it’s also huge. A Nalgene sits down deep, right against your core where you need it most. It actually fits 2 Nalgene 1 liter bottles comfortably, horizontal or vertical – I just checked.
To wrap it up, I couldn’t be happier with my Fitz Roy. It’s never failed me, and I expect it to last many more years. It is warm, light, durable, and for those who care, it looks great, too. People often ask to try it out on breaks and has more than once been described as “the perfect puffy” by those who got a taste. I agree.
Here’s a real treat for you that should sum up my feelings for the Fitz Roy in a less fact-based manner – a haiku written on January 16, 2014 at 18,000 feet, oxygen starved and freezing, crammed between two dudes in a 2 person tent while someone used my Fitz Roy to wander around camp:
Patagonia Fitz Roy Parka
Blue, color of ice
Ice, the cold you keep at bay
My pillow at night