Hands-on Gear Review
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Street Price: $450 | Compare prices at 3 resellers
Pros: Windproof and highly water resistant, long length stays under harness, comfortable hood, very ergonomic and comfortable, versatile, perfect zippers.
Cons: Front interior hood pull cords are harder to adjust than external cords, more chin coverage would be warmer, very expensive.
Best Uses: Alpine skiing, ice and alpine climbing.
The Venta MX is the ultimate softshell for ice climbing. It's more breathable and more comfortable than a hardshell, and its windproof and highly water resistant Windstopper membrane keeps you warm when the wind hammers and icicles drip. This jacket has a near perfect blend of features that make it fantastic for ice climbing. Over two years, seven people tested this jacket on trips throughout six US states. Our conclusion from scores of pitches of climbing, miles of walking, temps down to -36 F, and side-by-side comparison with other jackets is: if you climb a lot of ice and have the cash for a luxurious jacket, the Venta MX can't be beat.
However, the Venta MX is not great for use around town because it doesn't have handwarmer pockets. If you want a climbing softshell with handwarmer pockets consider the Patagonia Knifeblade. Check out our comprehensive Softshell Review to see how the Venta MX compares to all the other shells tested.
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OutdoorGearLab Editors' Hands-on Review
Intro to Windproof Softshells
The Venta MX uses three-layer construction:
This design creates the most weather resistant type of softshell. We've found that windproof softshells are best for use in very windy conditions, such as ice and alpine climbing, and downhill skiing. However, unless it's very cold, this type of jacket is too warm for most high output activities that softshells are typically used for.
Windproof softshells are very similar to Hardshell Jackets. The differences between the two are: hardshells are waterproof and lighter, softshells are more breathable and can have more durable face fabrics. In most cases we recommend purchasing a hardshell and a wind jacket before a softshell. See our Softshell Buying Advice Article for more information on the different types of softshells and how they compare to other types of jackets.
The Venta MX's Gore Windstopper membrane makes the jacket best suited to activities in windy conditions. The Venta MX can be too warm for high output activities when it's not either cold outside (<20F) or not windy. It performs best if it's cold and windy. For example, if you're slogging up a snow slope in 20 mph winds, hiking above treeline, or climbing when spindrift is pouring down in your face.
Like all Windstopper and Polartec Powershield Pro softshells, the Venta MX is highly water resistant. Our testers have been caught out in several rain storms in this jacket. It kept us dry for about 30 minutes. After that, we were soaking wet and chilled to the bone. This lack of weather protection is one of main reasons why softshells are a niche, luxurious apparel type; they are designed for a very narrow set of activities and conditions.
The inside of the arms, hood, and lower part of the chest have a brushed backer that's commonly found on many Windstopper jackets and pants. The inside of the Venta MX's upper chest area and the entire back are insulated with a lightweight grid fleece. This combination of materials makes the jacket best for cold and windy conditions. It's far too warm for aerobic activities in warmer winter temperatures.
The Venta MX is slightly more breathable than a hardshell jacket. We consider this type of softshell to be a "hardshell style softshell" becuase it uses a membrane. In side-by-side testing with the Arc'teryx Alpha FL hardshell, we found the Venta MX to be more breathable, i.e. we could wear it longer without unzipping the front for ventilation. We very much appreciate the improved breathability compared to a hardshell.
However, this is one of the only softshells we've tested that has pit zips. The inclusion of this feature shows that the jacket is not very breathable compared to other softshells. We believe the pit zips are a design error on Arc'teryx's part; since the jacket is best for ice climbing (an activitiy in which your arms are above your head almost the entire time-- in this postion snow can easily enter open pit zips) the pit zips are completely unnecessary. The six or more people that used this jacket during our testing never felt a new to open the pit zips (venting throught the main zipper was sufficient).
The Venta MX is incredibly comfortable for its weather protecdtion. It's not crinkly and crackly like hardshells, it stretches slightly, and ergonomic patterning (the elbows are wonderfully articulated) lets the jacket move with you, rather than you move within the jacket. Lifting your arms above your head barely lifts the waist hem up at all. In contrast, many other softshells lift 4-6" when you raise your arms. The Venta MX is also slightly longer than average, which keeps you warmer when climbing because it stays tucked under a harness even when your arms are above your head. The arms are also longer than average, which helps to prevent snow from getting in to the wrist area when climbing with gloves that don't have gauntlet closures. These features offer a tremendous advantage over the majority of the softshells we've tested.
Weight and Packed Size
The Venta MX weighs 19.9 ounces on our scale and packs down to moderate size. It's smaller and lighter than many other fully featured, hooded Windstopper softshells we've tested. An inherent drawback to all softshells is that they're considerably heavier and pack larger than hardshells. For reasons stated in our Buying Advice Article we do not believe that softshells are the ideal layer for multi-day trips of any kind.
The Venta MX has nearly the same feature set as the Arc'teryx Alpha SV, the company's top-tier expedtion style climbing hardshell; The Venta MX's features are nearly perfect. The chest pockets are large enough to easily stuff gloves, a camera, and some bars inside. While climbing, some of our testers like to store lead gloves in the chest pockets to keep them warm. Other top rated softshells— including the Arc'teryx Gamma MX, Patagonia Northwall, and Outdoor Research Lodestar— have much smaller pockets that make it harder to store things. Critically, the Venta MX's chest pockets are harness and pack compatible and their crossover design is faster to open and keeps your arms in closer to your chest, which helps to keep you balanced while climbing.
The hood is another exceptional feature on the Venta MX. Like the Alpha SV, it's very large and is comfortable to wear over a helmet. It adjusts in four places: two front adjustments pull the hood in around your face, the top rear cord reduces the volume for use without a helmet, and a bottom rear cord pulls the hood brim back away from your face, which is excellent when looking up hill or when climbing. Through testing over fifty hardshells and softshells we've seen a wide variety of hood designs and, of all of them, we believe the Venta MX is the second best. The only drawbacks are (1) the two front adjustment cords pull from the inside of the hood, rather than the outside. This is not as easy to adjust on the go because you need to unzip the jacket and reach inside. Arc'teryx should use the same external pull cord design as the Alpha SV hood. (2) We also would prefer if there was more coverage for the chin, like on the Alpha SV. These are just a minor drawbacks to an exceptionally well featured jacket.
All of our testers found the Venta MX to be very attractive. But the crossover chest pockets add a technical aesthetic that's not ideal for use around town. Beyond the fact that it's difficult to put your hands in the pockets while walking, our testers believe that less complicated chest areas look better. For example, many casual softshells (like the Patagonia Adze and North Face Apex Bionic) don't have chest pockets, which makes them look better in more formal urban environments. The Venta MX is a technical softshell for ice climbing; it's not intended for urban use. If you have oodles of cash and want to give it to Arc'teryx for stylish apparel made with technical fabrics check out the company's Veillance line.
The Venta MX is best suited to ice climbing. It also works very well for alpine skiing, but other softshells like the Arc'teryx Venta SV performs better for skiing (as do all of the jackets in our Ski Jacket Review.
This is our highest rated softshell jacket!!
Although our testers very much enjoyed climbing in the Venta MX, we all agree that this the Ferrari of ice climbing softshells-- it's very specialized and very expensive. However, if you have the cash for a fantastic jacket, we suspect that you'll LOVE IT.
The majority of our testers use a hardshell for ice climbing (and always for alpine climbing) because hardshells are lighter, more versatile, and a better value than a softshell. Hardshells do everything well and softshells generally do one thing very well. Check out our Hardshell Jacket Review if you don't own one already.
The Arc'teryx Gamma MX Hoody - Women's, $350, is the stretchiest, most breathable, and most luxurious feeling of all the softshells we evaluated. It is the epitome of what a softshell should be.
Also check out the Arc'teryx Atom LT Hoody or the Arc'teryx Atom LT Hoody - Women's, which are breathable mid layers that are great for heavy activity on chilly days.
— Chris McNamara and Max Neale
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OutdoorGearLab Member Reviews
Most recent review: March 16, 2014
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