Rab Baltoro Extreme Soft Shell Jacket

[Short of time? Read the haiku review instead]

There are times when you splurge on accommodation and there are times when you keep as tight a rein on your hotel budget as you can. And then there are times when you have no choice, and on those times – you’d better be prepared with a decent wardrobe.

What jacket to take travelling? Hmm, a tricky one. One doesn’t want to be overburdened with jackets, but then one doesn’t want to be left out in the cold either. Wherever you’re going, a raincoat is a pretty sensible addition to the pack, or a poncho, but beyond that you can get away with just a fleece for warmth in hot countries. If your itinerary is a mixed bag of climates, India say, which ranges from fly-blown sweltering deltas to snow-capped Himalayan peaks, you’ll probably need something else.

Enter the soft shell – part fleece, part wind cheater, part raincoat, part stylish evening wear, all jacket. Sorry, that sounded better in my head. It doesn’t do any of those things perfectly but it does do them all pretty well: it cuts the wind to almost zero, sheds drizzle and snow effectively, keeps you toasty thanks to its Polartec Powershield lining that feels like you’re slipping into a gorilla’s skin (but inside out obviously, otherwise it would be all slimy and bloody, ugh!) and the stretchy face fabric looks pretty decent on the street. In a nutshell, it’s the one piece of outdoor gear everyone should own, outdoorsy or not.

The downside of the Baltoro is its weight; oh, and its hood. The two downsides of the Baltoro are its weight and its hood, its hood and its weight; oh, and its dodgy zip. No, not really the last one. But seriously, the only people who want hooded soft shells are climbers who, although the athletes for whom the piece was originally created, now probably only make up 10% of the soft shell market. Hence this is a jacket for mountaineers, and it does a bloody good job of protecting them as well, but for the rest of us – come on guys! The hood just flaps about looking awful and doesn’t even roll up properly.

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The jacket gets its revenge by swallowing the vehicle

It’s about time I segued into an anecdote about when I could have done with one of these, and I’ll tell you when – Corsica, 2001. For some inexplicable reason I was hopping from Tunisia to Nice in the middle of winter. What a poor decision that was. Who crosses the Mediterranean in winter? Idiots, that’s who. Idiots like me. Everything is closed, and budget backpackers have nowhere to stay at all!

I’d already had one close call in Cala Gonone, Sardinia, where the town’s only hotel had a note taped on the door, in Italian, saying it was closed for the season and to ring such-and-such number if you needed a room. I needed, but I didn’t have any change for the payphone. It was dark and the only place open was a pizzeria so I was forced, against my will mind you, to purchase their cheapest pizza solely to get phone money. [Don’t even get me started on Italian pizzas – worst pizzas in the world!!]. However I got my phone call and my room.

A couple of nights later though, I was really stranded. I was hitchhiking across Corsica (most of the bus services were suspended for the winter) and ended the day in a tumbledown village in the middle of the island. I didn’t see a soul as the sky darkened, the passing traffic dried up and my thumb wilted. There was only one hotel in this village and it was well out of my price range; I saw the menu outside and didn’t even bother to ask about rooms. I looked around for other options and found only one – the familiar outline of an abandoned truck on some waste ground at the edge of town.

Oh, that it should come to this! I looked around for witnesses and, seeing none, crept over and tried the door of the cab; it clicked open. It was surprisingly dry inside; maybe it wasn’t abandoned at all? Just waiting for its drunk and angry driver to return from an all-day pernod drinking session with his rugby-playing mates. It was a risk I would have to take, bitterly cold as it now was outside. I climbed in and lay down across the front seats, shivering. Thank God I had my Rab Baltoro Extreme soft shell. No, wait! This was ten years earlier. I only had a holed red jumper and half a block of chocolate to keep me warm. I’ve slept in many dodgy places on the road, from bus station floors to motorway embankments, but that rusty heap stands out as a highlight.

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