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Reviews > Clothing > Jackets and Vests > MontBell EX Light Down Jacket > Test Report by Richard Lyon
MontBell EX Light Down Jacket Men's
October 13, 2008
PERSONAL INFORMATION AND
I've been backpacking for 45 years on and off, and regularly in the Rockies since 1986. I do a weeklong trip every summer, and often take three-day trips. I'm usually camping in alpine terrain, at altitudes 5000 to 13000 ft (1500 - 4000 m). I prefer base camp backpacking, a long hike in with day trips from camp. Though always looking for ways to reduce weight, I'm not yet a lightweight hiker, and I usually choose a bit of extra weight over foregoing my favorite camp conveniences. I'm an avid skier who does most of my backcountry winter traveling on telemark skis.
PRODUCT DESCRIPTION AND DETAILS
Last year MontBell promoted its U.L. (for Ultra Light) Down Inner line of products as a lightweight and highly compressible alternative to fleece as an insulating layer. Those fine jackets are going strong, but Extremely Light (EX Light for short) has superseded Ultra Light as MontBell's lightest weight down jackets. The EX Light Down Jacket is now the "the ultimate in minimalist design," providing "ultra-light, space saving, versatile, sweater-weight warmth that defies the term 'Seasonal Usage.' The EX Light Jacket is the lightest weight down garment I've ever seen. MontBell has one-upped itself.
The EX Light comes with a stuff sack in the same fabric and color as the outer shell. The manufacturer's name, in its alternate montbell spelling, is sewn in silver on the left breast.
MontBell Co., Ltd.
True to its name, this jacket is extremely light, thanks to paring away all but the basics and using the highest grade of down fill I've found anywhere. (The fill number refers to the volume in cubic inches of one ounce of down. The higher the fill, the denser the down, the more insulating power it provides, and the more expensive it is.) The only listed "Features" are DWR treatment, a full-length zipper, and light elastic at the cuffs things I usually take for granted. The jacket has a 2.5 inch (63 mm) stand-up collar. There are several items I'm used to that are absent, most notably pockets but also a means of cinching the waistband, collar lining, and a storm flap for the zipper. The same fabric covers the inside and outside of the jacket with rectangular sewn-through down chambers that are narrower along the zipper, hem, and collar. MontBell's "minimalist" is indeed an apt word to describe its design approach to the EX Light.
Construction appears to be flawless, with the down chambers carefully stitched and of relatively even depth. The 7d Ballistic Airlight nylon shell fabric is, as might be expected, extraordinarily light to the touch, with a soft and cottony hand. A hangtag that accompanied the jacket warns against exposing this fabric to "sharp objects, high abrasion situations, or the occasional campfire spark." MontBell recommends hand washing and air drying the EX Light.
Consistent with my past experience with MontBell garments, the EX Light runs true to size. My usual XL gives just about a perfect fit. The sleeves come just past my wrists and the EX Light is snug but not confining across the chest. The bottom panel of down chambers tapers to a point in the middle of the back that's 1.4 in (35 mm) longer than the front, but all below my waist. When wearing the EX Light over a mid-weight merino base layer I had full arm motion and no bunching at the chest, and simulating various skiing motions didn't cause the EX Light to pop up above my belt line. I put an unlined shell over the EX Light and didn't notice any friction or static adhesion. The hem of the shell was several inches/centimeters below that of the EX Light.
MontBell's Down Inner Parka made me a believer that a down garment can substitute effectively for fleece or wool as a mid-layer without unwanted overheating. I plan to wear the EX Light primarily as an insulation layer, under a shell or insulated jacket. I'm cold-prone and I always pack a down sweater, vest, or jacket whenever the temperature's expected to approach freezing. I regularly wear a down sweater as a cover-up at rest stops on winter trips and as an insulating layer in camp. The jacket looks to be ideal for use with my down quilt as part of my sleep system. Depending upon where this winter finds me backpacking I'll examine how well it works in those capacities at different temperatures and exertion levels.
Lack of pockets may limit my backcountry use of the EX Light as an outer layer, though it will serve in that role on early morning Constitutionals near home with my dogs. The quilted look and handsome dark blue color promise additional around-town time too, particularly in the Rockies.
I'll look at the EX Light's weather-worthiness when occasionally exposed to wind, sleet, and snow when hiking or skiing, but my most important criteria will be insulation and durability. Insulation is the primary function of any down garment. As with any ultralight gear the EX Light's ability to withstand the wear and tear associated with packing, stuffing, and the other ordinary hazards of backcountry hiking and skiing will be crucial. Most of my in-bounds skiing is done at areas with patrolled terrain requiring traverses, boot packs, or hikes for the better runs, off-piste skiing easily accessible from the resort, or a combination of these. Even in-bounds I usually ski with a beacon, shovel, and pack, and I regularly climb and traverse for desired runs. Skiing use will thus mean constant contact with a holstered avalanche beacon and suspenders and a wide range of arm motion all of which should be a solid test for this super-ultralight fabric. Even if I don't think it's necessary I shall hand wash the EX Light to determine if that process impacts shape or performance.
Let's cut the suspense and get one thing established early on the MontBell EX Light Jacket is a terrific insulating layer. You may quote me on that.
Day hikes. I have worn the EX Light on several day hikes around home, with temperatures between 30 and 60 F (-1 to 16 C), and no precipitation. On colder days I occasionally started the hike wearing the EX Light over a merino or cotton long-sleeved top, with the zipper pulled about half way up, and would then stuff it into my pack and replace it with my eVENT rain shell as my core temperature rose with the exercise. If the temperatures exceeded 50 F (10 C) the jacket started the day in my pack, usually in its stuff sack, but I'd slip it on at every rest stop. North Texas is windy prairie and I'm cold prone, so I welcome a second layer even in moderate temperatures.
Backpacking. Two trips in the past two-plus months:
In late November I took a two day, one-night trip to Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Pine Springs, Texas, about 100 miles (160 km) from El Paso. At the base of the mountains, altitude about 5700 ft (1800 m), we spent the first day hiking the McKittrick Canyon trail. Winds gusted up to about 20 mph (32 km/hr), and temperatures were in the low sixties F (~15 C). After camping overnight we started early in the morning up the Guadalupe Peak Trail, a ten-mile (16 km) out-and-back hike to the summit, at 8749 feet (2667 m) the highest point in the Lone Star State. The temperatures never got above 40 F (4 C) until we reached the sunny final descent early in the afternoon. This hike winds through forests and one relatively wind-protected canyon, but most of the route left us exposed to West Texas's ferocious winds, estimated that day by the Park Service to have reached 50 mph (76 km/hr) at times. I wore the EX Light at every break (water stops, lunch, photo ops) over a merino shirt and EPIC wind shirt. I also wore it around camp at night and in the early morning before the hike, over the merino shirt and under an eVENT rain shell, and, over a merino top, as part of my sleep system with my Nunatak Back Country Blanket, a quilt-style sleeping bag.
On New Year's Eve I did an overnight ski tour in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. We set up camp after a relatively flat three-mile (45 km) ski amid snow squalls and unseasonably warm 20 F (-7 C) temperatures. Next morning we skied about five miles (8 km), completing a loop back to the trailhead, through similar conditions. Both days we had constant wind that occasionally gusted to an estimated 25 mph (40 km/hr). While skiing (mostly kicking and gliding, cross-country style, on my telemark skis) I wore the EX Light as an insulating layer over a lightweight merino hoodie and under my EPIC wind shirt, adding an insulated ski parka at rest stops. I did not use the EX Light in my sleep system.
Skiing. My first ski trip of the year was to Alta, Utah, in mid-December. Alta's base is at about 8500 feet (2600 m), rising about 2000 feet (600 m) at the highest inbounds point. Most of the time it was very cold, with temperatures between 0 and 10 F (-17 to -11 C), and snowy, with moderate but occasionally gusty winds. I wore the EX Light over a lightweight merino base layer and under a lined ski parka.
I wore the same three upper body layers skiing January 5 (yesterday!) on a calm day at Bridger Bowl, Montana, temperatures between 15 and 20 F (-9 to -7 C).
Other use. At home any time the morning temperature dipped below 50 F (most mornings since mid-November, it's been cold this fall) I donned the EX Light for my early morning walk with my dogs. I wore it over a cotton shirt, and topped it with a rain shell if it looked like rain.
Following my overnight trip in Yellowstone I attended a two-day first aid recertification course at the old Buffalo Ranch in the Lamar Valley in the Park. Here we had more typical Yellowstone midwinter temperatures, daytime highs about 7 F (-14 C) and down to -24 F (-29 C) at night. During outdoor scenarios I wore the EX Light over a merino base layer and under my ski parka (no wind shirt), and I slipped the EX Light over my base layer whenever I had to make a nighttime trip from my cabin to the community bathhouse.
Fit. The most noticeable design characteristic of the EX Light has been its close yet non-confining fit at the extremities. After multiple uses I have noticed that the collar has a closer fit than any other fleece or down sweater that I've worn recently. Similarly the cuffs seem to hug my wrists, even though they don't have much elastic. I believe that this is a part of MontBell's minimalist philosophy, to block the wind without adding even a small amount of weight with zippers or grippy elastic bands. Whether or not intentional, it's worked beautifully for me, keeping out the gusts when used as my outer garment, and keeping body heat in at all times. The EX Light has also been very effective as a wind shield, though when wearing it as an outer layer a real gust can make it drafty at the seams.
The body fit has also been excellent. I haven't had the waist ride up when walking or skiing, even kicking and gliding in Yellowstone, and so haven't minded that the EX Light is a bit shorter than a jacket intended as an outer layer. (The reader will note in the photo from Guadalupe Peak above that the EX Light is an inch/centimeter or two shorter than my wind shirt.) Occasionally a cuff will pull up, exposing some skin, but I have very long arms and have never found an off-the-rack jacket or sweater that hasn't done this once and awhile. Otherwise this jacket might have been custom fit for me. I'm long in the torso and not exactly svelte, so readers might take that into account in selecting size.
Comfort. The EX Light gets my highest possible marks for insulating ability. It REALLY keeps me warm. The EX Light has insulated as well as no, I'll say better than - any fleece mid-layer that I've ever worn. Maybe I can do better with an extra-heavy loden sweater but that piece is at least five times as heavy, packs the size of a ski parka, and is too hot to wear when engaged in any aerobic activity. I'm guessing the dense 900-fill down is the reason for this superb performance, together with the slim fit mentioned above, but whatever the cause I'm truly impressed and really pleased. I'm not an ultralighter and I don't measure weight-to-warmth or other insulating ratios, but this seven-ounce (198 g) sweater that stuffs down to water bottle size really packs a wallop. The jacket's performance at the Buffalo Ranch was especially praiseworthy. Much of our outdoor time was spent standing around in the cold and the wind and I was much warmer than expected.
The full-length zipper works well as a means of adjusting insulation level and for venting when I don't need the jacket to be a cocoon. As noted, it's effective at shielding me from the wind as well, far better than any other lightweight down sweater that I have worn. And with its sewn-through construction it has breathed well enough that I haven't overheated when engaged in hard aerobic activities, notably ski touring, when wearing it.
Lack of pockets hasn't been an issue when wearing the EX Light. Usually it's been underneath an outer layer, and when not my trouser pockets have been sufficient to keep hands warm.
Durability. In this category, though, the EX Light has been a disappointment. The featherweight zipper frequently caught on the fabric underneath, several times to the point where I couldn't work the zipper free without removing the jacket and carefully tweaking it loose. This task required two bare hands, a very unappealing option in the field when I need the jacket and my gloves for insulation. Once at Alta when I yanked on the zipper pull to close up the EX Light the pull and metal tab came off the slider, leaving a thin strip of wire. That's not the worst of it; three of the zipper teeth have come apart, so I can't zip up the jacket more than two-thirds of the way up. I telephoned MontBell's US Customer Service department in Boulder, Colorado, and will be sending the EX Light in for evaluation. MontBell's representative was very friendly and helpful over the phone, advising me to wait until after my Yellowstone trip rather than risking a delayed turnaround during the Christmas season.
On the plus side, the thin fabric was withstood the rigors of hiking and skiing without a rent or a loose stitch from constant abrasion with suspenders, avalanche beacon, beacon harness, or parka zipper. It's not down proof, however; I've noticed an escaping feather or two or three after each wearing.
Care. If I'm not camping I take care to let the EX Light air dry flat after each day's use, to allow the loft to return to normal and any retained perspiration to evaporate. The following morning I hang the EX Light on a hanger or peg. In other words, I've treated this garment much like any other jacket or sweater moderate care but no babying. This report is being filed just after my return from Yellowstone, and the EX Light is scheduled for its first bath, which it will receive before I send it to Customer Service. I'll report on that in my Long Term Report.
Long Term Report
I now have a new EX Light. Five days after sending the jacket to MontBell USA's Customer Service Center in Colorado, a service representative phoned me to discuss the necessary surgery. The entire zipper needed to be replaced, a very tedious and time-consuming process on a down garment, so I was offered a replacement jacket at a substantial discount off the list price. I agreed, and three days later a new jacket (same size, same color) arrived. I'm not sure this prompt turnaround is typical, or if the MontBell rep tried to accommodate an upcoming trip I had mentioned; either is evidence of excellent customer service.
Throughout the four-month testing period I have worn the EX Light 22 days in the field and many more around home. Since filing my Field Report I have worn the jacket while inbounds and backcountry skiing at Snowbasin, Utah, and Jackson Hole and Grand Targhee, Wyoming (eight days total). Temperatures ranged from 10 to 50 F (-13 to 10 C). My use has been in the same manner as during the first two months: as a mid-layer, between a merino wool base layer and waterproof ski parka. The EX Light was my outer layer only at rest stops when skiing in the backcountry and on walks around home. At home I will occasionally don the EX Light for my walks in foggy or misty conditions, but never when it's raining.
That Pesky Zipper. The replacement EX Light has performed comparably to its predecessor. That regrettably includes more of the same zipper problems, though the latest didn't reach the level of damage to the zipper or fabric. Often the zipper will snag on the adjacent material, usually at the neck point, about two or three inches (5-7 cm) below the top exactly where an adjustment is needed when the wind comes up. Sometimes I could nudge it free with gloved hands, but more often the operation (as before) took two bare hands carefully to remove the zipper pull. Once burnt, twice shy; I have paid more attention to opening and closing the zipper after my mishaps with the jacket originally supplied. But that hasn't solved the problem.
Still Keeps Me Warm. The EX Light's insulating ability continues to impress. In fact it may sometimes insulate too well on two ski days in bright sunshine and warmer temperatures, and when boot-packing uphill in the backcountry, heavy perspiration dictated removal. That's not a problem with the EX Light. I replaced it with an EPIC wind shirt and simply crammed the EX Light back into its stuff sack and placed the grapefruit-sized bundle in my pack. Can't do that with fleece! In the wind, snow, and cold I stayed warm to the core thanks to the EX Light.
The 7 denier fabric remains intact, though a down feather (or two or three) will pierce through (not always at the seams) after each ski day. This may not be a fault in the fabric but a consequence of the dense down under stress. Tighter compression makes it easier for a tiny quill to stab one of the shell layers. Whatever the cause the problem is manageable, though a bit annoying. In mist and fog this fabric has resisted moisture without fail. I have avoided (and intend to continue to avoid) exposing the EX Light to rainfall.
Durability and care. It's not possible to update my earlier comments on durability, as I have the same two months' use of each jacket. I can say that loft is restored quickly after a few hours on a counter followed by placement on a hanger. As promised in my Field Report I washed my original EX Light before returning it, and I washed the replacement after my week in Wyoming, even though it wasn't really necessary. Following instructions on a tag inside the jacket I hand washed the jacket in down-specific fabric and air dried it flat after kneading out any down clumps. In my dry climate the EX Light dried completely in 36 hours, looking smart and with loft as fluffy as new.
WHAT I LIKE
Customer Service. Prompt (very prompt!), attentive service from a knowledgeable human being from start to finish. I consider the charge for a replacement consistent with MontBell's warranty, as the damage was done as much by the user as defective materials or workmanship.
Insulating Ability. Truly remarkable in so light a jacket. 900 fill down is tough to beat.
Packability. Seven ounces (198 g) and smaller than a water bottle means I can afford to take a cozy down jacket on a day hike. I don't even feel guilty doing so purely as insurance, even when the forecasted temperatures suggest I won't have to wear it.
Great fit, one that doesn't leave much dead air space but isn't confining.
ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT AND SUGGESTIONS
The older I get the more I appreciate shaving weight. A lighter pack makes me a happier camper. But as with any other good thing it's possible to take weight-cutting too far, and I think MontBell crossed that line with the EX Light, for a marginal saving. After all, a medium weight fleece sweater with less insulating ability weighs three times as much as the EX Light. I'd suffer an extra ounce or two for a reliable zipper and a down proof fabric.
Half-zip, anorak-style pullovers are my preference. If the EX Light could be thus configured without compromising venting I could recapture the extra weight of a more robust fabric and zipper.
Hoods are another preference. A version of the EX Light with an unlined, closely-fitting hood that stowed away when not needed would be welcome. Unlined because the 900 fill down would overheat my head; stowable for convenience. I believe this would be consistent with use of the EX Light as a layering piece. Yes, there I go adding more weight, but here again I'd pay that for the extra wind proofing.
I'm hoping that MontBell will offer an EX Light vest or half-sleeve jacket soon.
The only problem with no pockets is that there's no obvious place to stow the stuff sack. After I've stored the jacket at home I've more than once had to search for that small, easy-to-disappear item. Maybe a small fabric pocket inside the jacket could be added to assist the absent-minded. And this really would add negligible weight.
Rising temperatures and melting snow won't end my packing and wearing the EX Light. In fact I'm looking forward to including it as part of my quilt sleep system this spring and summer. Superb performance at its intended task keeping me warm - trumps my minor criticism of the zipper and my dreams, listed above, for an ideal garment. The MontBell EX Light Jacket Men's is a great addition to my skiing and year-round backpacking quivers.
My Test Report ends here, with thanks to MontBell USA and BackpackGearTest.org.
Read more gear reviews by Richard Lyon
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