Sunday, December 29, 2013

Gear review - multi-pocket vests

I'm frequently asked about the gear I wear and why I wear it. I buy all my gear so I can give a truly honest, unbiased appraisal of the gear I choose and what makes me part with my money.

I'm a bit of a gear freak and I used to regularly review stuff (clothing, tripods, binoculars, scopes, books, etc) for Bird Watching magazine for many years. I've also been involved in birding kit innovation and development for over 20 years, primarily with Leica, but also with Craghoppers (pre-Risol buy-out and and attempted global domination) and latterly with Minox. So, apart from being a user I also know a wee bit about product development.

When it comes to clothing, I'm a long-time fan of several brands and my birding wardrobe is dominated in particular by Rohan and Páramo.

Multi-pocket Gear Vests
My use of multi-pocket vests (sleeveless jackets) has blown hot and cold over the years. This is almost certainly due to not yet finding the perfect one. I’ve tried several over the years (Panoramic, Regatta, Country Innovation) but the closest I’ve come to a usable vest is the old Rohan Cargo Vest. I’ve had mine for a few years and seem to fall in and out of love with. Why? Well, to be honest, this might be the best, but its still some way from being the perfect field vest. To be honest its nearly perfect. It has oodles of pockets that are bellowed cargo pockets and fits great. But the front zip is only a ¾ length and the collar is lousy. I cant wear my binocular strap over the slightly padded short collar, but have to wear the strap below it which just doesn’t work as well.

Two recent arrivals to the market, from my two fave brands Rohan and Páramo potentially offered me something better. Or did they?

Right: the old Rohan Cargo Vest. Nearly perfect with Velcro fastened bellow pockets and huge back pocket, but let down by zip and collar. I can carry up to 8kg of gear in this vest!

Rohan Freight Vest


Photo © Rohan |

Fabric: 100% polyamide with 100% polyester lining.
Pockets: 9 plus two pen slots (2 front chest pockets with Velcro fastener, 2 front waist pockets with
Velcro and popper fasteners; 2 hand pockets; 3 zipped internal security pockets; 2 pen slots)
Zip: Full-length single-way zip with chin guard sat behind stud fastened storm flap
Other features: high collar (unlined)
Weight: 415g

Rugged, durable and extremely versatile, our Freight Vest is ideal for the travelling professional or adventurous world traveller.It’s made from a lightweight, but very tough, polyamide in a rip-stop construction. It’s highly wind resistant but also very breathable so it’s perfect for both warm-weather and temperate use.It features four external cargo pockets and two hand pockets together with a selection of three internal security pockets and a couple of handy pen slots.The full-length front zip features a stud-secured protective flap.It’s very easy to wash – both in the machine or by hand – and will comfortably dry overnight. Needless to say, it requires no special treatment or ironing.

This vest looks and feels great. A real quality feel as you’d expect from Rohan. I take a medium in Rohan, and this fits like a glove over a couple of other layers.

Front pockets
The four front pockets are not cargo pockets! They are flat stitched against the jacket – no bellows or expansion for when you want to store stuff in them. This is fine for maps, slip books, etc. but it makes them feel tight when being used and once you’ve loaded the vest with gear, it feels lumpy and bulky. For instance, I have no problem in using one of the chest pockets on my old Rohan Cargo Vest for my sunglasses. I wouldn't dream of using the chest pocket on this vest for fear of squashing them because the pocket is so tight when I slip my glasses inside.

But why the stud fasteners? Gear vests like this are about quick and easy access to your stuff in the field. Velcro is great as it needs less unfastening and re-fastening than stud poppers. Leave these stud fasteners unfastened and the pocket flap loose and they clatter, which is just irritating. I know Velcro makes a noise when you undo it, but that’s a trade-off for easier access and closing and no noise when moving around and you haven’t snapped a pocket shut. And I for one very rarely need to access a pocket in a situation where noise is such an issue.

The two hand pockets are also oddly placed behind the lower waist pockets. Your arms aren’t naturally positioned when your hands are in the pockets, and the pockets are internally Velcro fastened which just rubs against your hands and wrists as you put your hands in and out of the pockets. Also, try stuffing your hands in the pockets when the front waist pockets hold anything bulky – not comfortable. Not well thought out. 

Other features
The collar is very good. It sits up and around the neck well but is not lined. The top of the zip is protected and kept hidden from your chin/beard. But what’s with the single-way zip? Can any serious field jacket not have a two-way zip? I don’t think so. I do love the 'vine' green colour though - best colour I've seen on any of these jackets.

Verdict - 6/10 as a gear vest | 8/10 as a traveller vest
Compared to my old Rohan Cargo Vest this vest has two obvious advantages: the full length zip and collar. But the rest is actually quite disappointing functionally. Stud fasteners on pockets are a no-no for me, and the cargo pockets are not bellowed/formed in any way and simply don’t work for anything that isn’t flat – fine for maps, slim books, Kindle and mobile phones, but lousy for photo equipments, speakers, thick books (like some field or site guides), etc. that I carry in the field. The name 'freight' suggests a serious gear jacket which is misleading. But in Rohan's own blurb (above - what Rohan say) they refer to it themselves as a 'traveller' jacket and not a gear carrier. As good a travel jacket it is, a gear jacket it ain't.

I own the Rohan Field Jacket (which I rate 9/10 as a travel jacket) - which effectively the long-sleeved version of this jacket with a few differences. It seems to me that just as the Field Jacket is a great travel jacket (its not a gear jacket in my opinion as it too lacks bellows pockets to carry serious amounts of gear) this vest is also a good travel jacket, just not geared up for cargoing gear.

As a very long-standing (20+ years) Rohan customer I do worry about who designs and test some of their recent items. They sure as hell wear and use things very differently to me thats for sure, as I find fewer and fewer of their garments fitting my needs as a travelling birder-cum-photographer. A test is more than just sticking on a jacket to see if it fits. I often turn up to shops with a bag full of gear to try with garments I buy - its the only way to truly see what you're getting before you purchase. 

Páramo Halcon Vest


Photo (right) © Paramo |

Fabric: Parameta A® Cotton+ (polycotton)
Pockets: 14 (4 front chest cargo pockets with stud fasteners, 2 front waist cargo pockets with stud fasteners; 2 waist hand pockets (behind waist cargo pockets), 2 large zipped pockets (behind chest cargo pockets); 2 zipped internal security pockets; 2 internal ‘drop’ cargo pockets with elasticated tops)
Zip: Full-length two-way zip with chin guard, no storm flap
Other features: cushioned shoulders; high collar with fleece lining; stud fastened side slits; draw cord waist
Weight: 420g

The Halcon Waistcoat can be worn over a baselayer or outer layer for comfortable load-carrying for all outdoor activities. The Parameta® A Cotton+ fabric is rugged but quick drying, quiet and lightweight. The 14 pockets/ compartments allow a range of equipment to be organised, transported and easily accessible – ideal for wildlife watchers, photographers, fieldworkers and overseas travellers.

Like the Rohan, this vest looks and feels great and is clearly a quality product. The medium was very tight on me but the large fitted brilliantly over a couple of layers.

Front pockets
The four main front pockets are true cargo pockets. They are bellowed and can easily take relatively bulky items such as camera lens extender, a bulky book, hats, scarves, etc - brilliant! Load up the vest and it performs brilliantly. The lumps and bumps are forward pointing and not digging in to you and feeling tight and lumpy like the Rohan. And, compare them to the Rohan pockets and these are cavernous.

But more stud poppers? Yep, not a fan of these front cargo pockets being poppered – Velcro works so much better in the field.

The two hand pockets are perfectly positioned behind the waist cargo pockets, and because the cargo pockets aren’t tight, your hands actually fit behind them. The draw cord for the wasit sits in the top of the pocket entrance and can be a little irritating, especially when its pulled tight so there is more cord end hanging down in to the pocket.

The two large zipped chest pockets are huge – great for maps and travel documents.

Internal pockets: I love the two ‘drop’ pockets. These allow you to have the bottom of the jacket open (thanks to a two-way zip) and access gear instantly. Great when switching between camera lenses, or extenders.

Other features
The collar is excellent. A perfect fit and that fleece lining just makes it so much more comfortable. The top of the zip is well protected and kept hidden from your chin/beard. Draw wasit cord is a nice feature to help improve fit, especially when the vest is loaded with gear.

Verdict - 9/10
Like my old Rohan Cargo Vest this vest is nearly there. If it wasn’t for the poppered front cargo pockets I’d say this would be my perfect field jacket. 

I'm also a long-standing Páramo user (15+ years). Over the last ten years I think they've cemented themselves as the number one choice for many birders and quite a few photographers. Their Pajaro and Halcon waterproof jackets and Taiga fleece are all seriously great bits of kit. I don't get on with their shirts/tops (I'm, not a fan of the Parameta A and S fabrics they use for these items). So you could say I have a marmite relationship with them as a brand. This Halcon Vest adds to their range of very usable items for birders and photographers.

I'm just back from a three-week birding trip in Peru and the Páramo Halcon vest was worn daily. It performed brilliantly! The only problem, as predicted, was those poppered pockets. They're fiddly and a hassle in the field and on a couple of occasions I didn't popper shut pockets securely only to have things tumbling out when I leaned over. But the cargo-capacity of the pockets, especially the external waist pockets and the inner drop pockets, is seriously good.