Hands-on Gear Review

Black Diamond Alpine Start Review

This softshell design puts priority on its lightweight and breathable qualities without concern for weather protection.
Black Diamond Alpine Start
By: Jeremy Bauman ⋅ Review Editor  ⋅  Nov 21, 2015
Price:  $149 List  |  $148.95 at MooseJaw
Pros:  Highly breathable, super lightweight, packs into its own pocket, simple
Cons:  Seams don't stretch, not very durable, not weather resistant
Manufacturer:   Black Diamond
64
OVERALL
SCORE
  • Weather Protection - 30% 2
  • Breathability - 30% 10
  • Mobility - 20% 6
  • Weight - 10% 10
  • Features - 5% 5
  • Style - 5% 6
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5

Our Verdict

The Black Diamond Alpine Start is a jacket built for fast and light adventures. It is the most breathable jacket we tested and is a perfect piece if you need a lightweight jacket that'll slow down the wind on your next cold weather run or summer alpine climb. In fact, this jacket is so light that you can barely tell it's there. Unfortunately, you can also barely tell it's there when you get caught in a rain storm. The Alpine Start is best used in dry conditions when you're working hard and when you use it in conjunction with an insulated jacket. It fell behind the Best Buy winning Outdoor Research Ferrosi because it was less weather resistant and wasn't quite as mobile. Further, the Start feels less durable. Overall, the Alpine Start is a great jacket if you want to shave every last ounce and need a jacket that breathes extremely well. When combined with a lightweight rain jacket, you'll have a system that provides complete protection for any use.


Our Analysis and Test Results

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Hands-On Review


The Alpine Start is the lightest softshell we reviewed. It is super breathable but lacks in the water resistance category. We loved using it for high output activities like running when other shells would leave us a sweating mess.

Performance Comparison


If you've got the need to keep moving  the Alpine Start won't hold you back. It is very breathable and suited to very active endeavors.
If you've got the need to keep moving, the Alpine Start won't hold you back. It is very breathable and suited to very active endeavors.

Weather Protection


The Alpine Start stands up to weather as effectively as a cat could stand up against an alligator. Sure the cat might ward the gator off a bit, but we all know what would happen if the gator really dropped its jaw. This jacket resists some weather, but ultimately you'll need to reach for another layer when things get nasty. That doesn't mean that it isn't a useful piece of kit, but it does mean that if there's more than a trickle of water or a few snowflakes, you're going to get wet - plain and simple.

This shell is made with the thinnest Schoeller softshell fabric we've seen. This, combined with the lack of insulation, makes this jacket particularly vulnerable to cold winds and even small gusts. If there's a chance of precipitation or a prediction of strong, cold winds, then we'd recommend going with a different softshell. Both the Patagonia KnifeRidge Jacket and the Black Diamond Dawn Patrol Shell offer excellent weather protection. Like the Alpine Start, both the KnifeRidge and Dawn Patrol are uninsulated but are made with more substantial materials that block substantially more wind and water. Alternatively, you could supplement the Alpine Start with a lightweight rain jacket. Or if you need something that's just a little bit more weather resistant, the Best Buy winning Outdoor Research Ferrosi fits the bill.

Though it isn't as weather resistant as the other jackets, it's still is a great piece to wear over a light fleece or base layer for spring skiing, climbing, mountain running, and high output pursuits. Further, this jacket is so light, that it makes for a great piece to wear over a t-shirt to keep the sun off your shoulders in the summer. What this piece lacks in weather resistance it makes up for in breathability.

The Start was the least weather resistant product we tested. Almost as quickly as our reviewer entered the waterfall  he was soaked as you can see.
The Start was the least weather resistant product we tested. Almost as quickly as our reviewer entered the waterfall, he was soaked as you can see.

Breathability


If you typically overheat when working hard, this jacket is the one for you. When cross-country skiing or running, this is the perfect softshell to keep a just enough wind off you while you're working up a sweat. But the real beauty of this piece is that once you start working up a sweat, that perspiration will escape without hindrance. In fact, the Alpine Start blows the competition out of the water when it comes to breathability and earned a 10/10. If you want the most breathable softshell, go with the Alpine Start. Since you can always layer over it, we think this piece is an excellent layer to wear over your base layer to provide just a little more weather resistance. If conditions deteriorate, throw on an insulated jacket or hardshell jacket.

When the temperatures are warm  the Start does a great job of keeping the sun off your shoulders. It is very wearable when you're working hard.
When the temperatures are warm, the Start does a great job of keeping the sun off your shoulders. It is very wearable when you're working hard.

Mobility & Fit


The body material of the Alpine Start is quite stretchy, which makes it very comfortable to wear. Sometimes our reviewers forgot to take it off when stepping inside because it is so light and comfortable! One downside to the design of this jacket, however, is that the seams don't stretch as much as the rest of the fabric. Stretchy seams aren't necessary for a jacket to feel mobile, but if the shell is poorly cut, it can start to make a difference. Other jackets with better cuts and fits felt more mobile even though they were made with less stretchy fabrics. The Outdoor Research Ferrosi felt a little more mobile for this reason and the Patagonia Adze Hoody was the most mobile shell in the review.

Due to seams that don't stretch  the Alpine Start did not live up to the potential of the stretchy fabric. As you can see  it slips from the wrist when climbing.
Due to seams that don't stretch, the Alpine Start did not live up to the potential of the stretchy fabric. As you can see, it slips from the wrist when climbing.

Weight & Packed Size


When it comes to weight and packed size, the Alpine Start weighs a fraction of any other softshell in the review at just 8 ounces. The next heaviest softshell is the Outdoor Research Ferrosi, which tips the scales at 13 ounces making it a whopping 5 ounces heavier than the Alpine Start! If you're committed to reducing the weight of your kit, the Alpine Start is a smart choice. When combined with a lightweight rain jacket like Outdoor Research Helium II, you can have full weather protection and superb breathability for the low weight of just 15 ounces! That's less than the vast majority of softshell jackets we reviewed. The downside to this combo is that neither the Essence or the Alpine Start will be very durable and you will have to stop to add a layer if the weather kicks up.

The Alpine Start isn't just light, it's also small. The chest pocket features a double-sided zipper so that you can fold the jacket into itself and stow it on the back of your harness "just in case." This is super useful during multi-pitch climbs in places like the Rockies where the weather can easily change for the worse by the second or third pitch. Bottom line: if weight and packed size matter to you, this jacket is impossible to beat for a softshell jacket.

Features


This jacket is Spartan, featuring just one chest pocket that can be turned inside out to store the shell. The hood and hem adjust, but not as well as more fully featured jackets. If you opt for simplicity, this jacket is a prime choice, just don't expect your hands to be happy when they're looking for hand warmer pockets that aren't there.

The ability to clip the Alpine Start to your harness combined with its low weight make it ideal for fast and light climbing.
The ability to clip the Alpine Start to your harness combined with its low weight make it ideal for fast and light climbing.

Style


For alpine use, this jacket looks like it's ready to charge up that ridge to the summit. In four colors, you can be sure it matches your other gear. Around town, we can't see where this jacket would fit into our wardrobe. It is meant for performance and performance only. We give it a style score of 6/10.

Best Applications


The Alpine Start is best used for high output activities where you need to keep a little wind off of you, but are primarily concerned about sweating too much and overheating. It is primarily suited for spring skiing, summer alpine rock climbing, and as a running jacket.

For quick approaches on warm days  running  cross-country skiing  or when you need to keep the sun off  the Start is a lightweight softshell that is quite breathable.
For quick approaches on warm days, running, cross-country skiing, or when you need to keep the sun off, the Start is a lightweight softshell that is quite breathable.

Value


For $150, this jacket isn't a great value and we wish it was a little cheaper. Considering that you can purchase the Best Buy winning Outdoor Research Ferrosi jacket for $20 less and get a higher performing jacket, we think the Alpine Start is only a decent value.

Conclusion


The Black Diamond Alpine Start is an excellent piece to add to your alpine kit. When used in conjunction with an insulated jacket or hardshell, it performs as an excellent active layer for high output use. It is barely weather resistant compared with other softshells but is much more breathable than all of them. This makes it very wearable when you include it as part of a clothing system; just don't expect this jacket to keep you comfortable all by itself in less-than-ideal conditions. The Alpine Start earns a place on our harnesses for summer rock climbing because its ultra lightweight is a small price to pay for the comfort it provides. When combined with a lightweight rain jacket, you get a system that weighs less than many other shells in this review.

When the wind picked up at the top of the pitch  the Start blocked a little wind  but ultimately our testers were happier in more protective shells.
When the wind picked up at the top of the pitch, the Start blocked a little wind, but ultimately our testers were happier in more protective shells.

Other Versions


Black Diamond Dawn Patrol Shell
Black Diamond Dawn Patrol Shell
  • Softshell jacket
  • Boasts an excellent balance of breathability and water resistance
  • Earns our Top Pick award
  • $199

Black Diamond makes a slightly more protective softshell called the B.D.V. that is also very simple but offers more protection from the elements. It comes in both a hooded B.D.V. Hoody and unhooded version.

Jeremy Bauman

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Summary of All Ratings

OutdoorGearLab Editors' Rating:  
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