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Reviews > Clothing > Jackets and Vests > MontBell PermaFrost Light Down Jacket > Test Report by Thomas Vickers
MontBell Permafrost Light Down
I grew up in the piney woods of southeast Texas. Camping was a quick trip into the mosquito-infested woods behind the house. My style has evolved and over the last 4 or 5 years, I have begun to take a lighter weight approach to hiking gear (I still use sleeping bags and tents, just lighter versions). While I have flirted with lightweight hiking, I feel that I am more of a mid-weight hiker now. My philosophy is one of comfort, while carrying the lightest load possible.
Year Manufactured: 2008
Available colors: Thyme, Gunmetal, Red brick
MSRP: $ 249.00 US
Fill: 800 fill power hypoallergenic goose down
Shell: 30-denier Ballistic rip-stop nylon
Lining: 15-denier Ballistic Airlight rip-stop nylon
Weight (size medium): 13.8 oz (391 g)
Fill weight: 4.0 oz (113 g)
Compressed size: 5.1 x 9.3 in (11 x 24 cm)
(all measurements approximate)
Weight (jacket): 13.93 oz (395 g)
Weight (stuff sack): 0.4 oz (10 g)
Stuffed size: 11.5 x 5 in (29 x 13 cm)
December 3, 2008
Initial tester expectations:
The MontBell website was easy to navigate full of information and photographs which gave me the impression that the Permafrost jacket was going to be a big fluffy down parka. I was also expecting it to be generously cut to allow me to layer underneath it. I like the ability to see the different colors of the jacket, not just color swatches and to have the technical data handy as well. The MontBell website was easy to navigate and full of useful information about this jacket.
"The Permafrost Light Down Jacket is a no-nonsense alpine tool. When designing this product we were struck by the fact that Windstopper technology is not commonly found on lightweight down jackets. We believe this Windstopper membrane to be an ideal match to such garments. By integrating this time tested technology we have greatly enhances the insulating properties of the Permafrost Light while protecting the 800 fill power goose down against moisture accumulation. This is accomplished with minimal weight penalty allowing it to weigh in well under a pound at a scant 13.8 oz. When winter conditions prevail, but a full on expedition parka would be overkill, the Permafrost light makes a lot of sense. No gimmicks here. Just your old stand by puffy infused with a little modern technology. Generously cut to accommodate a variety of winter layering systems."
When I pulled the Permafrost Light Down Jacket out of the box I was pretty amazed by its weight. Right away I found out that it lived up to its lightweight billing and as I inspected the jacket I was equally impressed by the quality of its construction. To make a long description short, the Permafrost is a lightweight down jacket. It has a fleece lined collar and two large fleeced lined pockets that are located on the front of the jacket and in the perfect location for hiding my hands in while wearing the Permafrost. The pockets and front of the jacket are secured/closed using zippers.
The inner lining and outer shell are made from different weights of rip-stop nylon and both are fairly slippery to the touch. The fleece that lines the interior of the collar and the pockets is extremely soft and comfortable to the touch. According to the attached hang tag, there is inner lining of Gore Windstopper fabric underneath the outer nylon shell of the Permafrost. The jacket is also quilted to prevent the down fill from shifting or moving out of position.
Velcro closures seal off the wrist areas of the Permafrost and are easy to cinch or uncinch depending on my mood or needs. The hem of the jacket is adjusted (tightened) by one handed toggles located on either side of the jacket at waist level. They are not really visible when the jacket is on and I have to reach under the hem a bit to pull the drawcord and cinch the jacket's waist down.
I was expecting a big FLUFFY down jacket, but the Permafrost is not that fluffy. It is well constructed and I am very impressed with its lack of fluff and weight in what appears to be a well designed and constructed garment. I guess one of the benefits of using down is that it is not as bulky as a synthetic fill. I also like the Thyme green color of the outer shell when I got to pull the jacket out of the box. I hate garish colors on hiking gear and this green was not too drab or too bright for me.
The zippers on the pockets and front of the jacket are stiff, but not to a point that bothers me. I have to exert pressure to get the zippers closed, but this is not a bad thing. I have never felt that I was in danger of ripping the jacket or damaging it in anyway due to how much force I have to exert on the zippers.
One thing that really sticks out in my opinion is the fleece lining of the pockets and collar. This material is soft and almost silky. It is a pleasure to touch and I literally had to pry the jacket out of my wife's hands once she found the fleece lining on the collar. She has been asking when her Permafrost is arriving after trying it on and feeling the fleece in the pockets as well. The pocket openings measure 7 in (18 cm) long and this is another plus for this jacket. Not only are the insides of the pockets warm and soft, but the openings are large enough to get my hands inside without any trouble.
After a close inspection of the seams and quilting I was very happy to discover no construction flaws in this jacket. MontBell has really surprised me by putting together great construction and an eye opening jacket.
The one thing that jumped out at me on the negative side is that the size medium that I requested (according to the MontBell sizing charts) is a lot more snug fitting than I expected. The jacket fits me, but I am not sure how much layering will be possible underneath it. This will be something that I pay a lot of attention to during the test period. I was also surprised to find that there is no internal pocket on this jacket. It was not a huge deal, but an interior pocket is always a nice plus for carrying items you want to keep warm.
Other than that, I am definitely impressed with this jacket. It is far less bulky than I imagined it would be. The pockets are large and almost oversized and great for sticking cold hands into. Everything else from the zipper pulls to the Velcro on the wrists works great. I am even impressed by the fact that this jacket actually fits really well into its stuff sack and relofts quickly after being stuffed.
Things I like:
1. The color is good
2. Pockets are LARGE
3. Fleece lining on collar and pockets is great
Things I don't like:
1. Fit is a bit snug
2. No internal (breast) pocket
February 10, 2009
Sam Houston National Forest
W.G. Jones State Forest
Other locations in Southeast Texas
Total days use: 15
Total nights use: 10
Daytime temperatures: 28 - 65
Night temperatures: 28 to 70 F (-2 to 21 C)
Precipitation: Freezing rain, light rain, and mostly no rain.
Wind: 0 - 15 mph (0 to 24 kph) steady wind (gusts up to 20 mph/ 32 kph)
Testing this jacket turned out to be a bit more of a challenge than I had originally expected. I was hoping that I would be able to hike in this jacket, especially when the temperatures ranged between 28 and 35 F (-2 to 2 C), but I quickly found out that putting a pack on and moving at a decent rate (2-4 mph/ kph) was enough to overheat my body while wearing the Permafrost. It was not just a case of my back getting warm or sweaty under the pack and jacket, but I got HOT over my entire upper body and sweated profusely. I learned very quickly to wear the jacket to the trail head, keep it on while I got my gear and pack situated, then take it off and stuff into the top of the pack. When I stopped moving for any reason, I would drop my pack and put the Permafrost on. While I think vents of some sort might have helped with this, I am not at all upset by the jacket's performance. This is the same issue that I have run into with synthetic fill jackets and backpacking. I can and will heat up and it is easier to save the jackets for when I am not generating so much body heat via movement.
I was able to have some success on day hikes because I either wore a lumbar pack on my lower back or over my shoulder as a shoulder bag. When I day hike I tend to move much slower, poke under rocks and logs, and just amble along. In no way could I consider my day hikes as high energy activities and this was when I really loved having the Permafrost available. I did sweat a bit under the lumbar pack, but that happens no matter what I wear and is in no way an issue only with the Permafrost.
One issue that I have had with the jacket is that once I get it on, I tend to cool off quickly and on several occasions I got cold right after putting it on. Part of me blames the lining. It is a slippery nylon and tends to have a very cold feeling to it. The other part of me knows that I am cold natured, but I hate to wear long sleeved base layers. I much prefer to hike in short sleeves (even in cold weather) and when I put the jacket on over a short sleeved shirt I tended to get chilled during the first few minutes of wearing it.
Layering underneath the Permafrost was the answer to me being cold in this jacket. When I wore a long sleeved base layer with a short sleeved shirt over it, I started off warm and stayed warm in the jacket. With this set up I did tend to get hot and sweat when exerting myself too much, but that was something that I expected. One thing that I also noticed was that no matter how much I sweated, the jacket itself never got wet. The inner lining resisted any sweat that came out of my base layers. This was nice because I expected to get warm when I exerted myself and I was worried that at some point the jacket was going to get wet and as a result so would the down insulation.
I was worried about layering under this jacket because the fit/cut seemed rather tight to me. I did not wear anything heavier than a long sleeved wool base layer and a short sleeved shirt under it, but the fit was fine. I really think I could have added a fleece layer if needed, but other than to prove it would fit under the jacket, I never had any reason to try. If I got the jacket on with a long sleeved shirt under it, I was toasty and happy.
The short hem of the jacket had also caused me concern when I first tried it on. I am very happy to report that it has never been an issue. The jacket has not ridden up my back at all and stayed put and did not allow drafts even when used with a lumbar pack.
There was also some concern about the outer shell of the jacket being a bit slippery. This was not a problem at all with my regular pack or lumbar pack. Once I got the pack on my back and cinched down, it did not slip beyond what a pack normally does. The only issue I had at that point was that it was just too hot to wear this jacket under a pack for any prolonged period of time. I imagine there are places where it is cold enough to backpack with the Permafrost on, but 28 F (-2 C) in south Texas is not one of them.
Another thing that I discovered about the Permafrost that I really like is the cuffs. Due to their construction with elastic and hook and loop fastener, I can cinch the wrists down really tight so that they will not slip or ride up. It does not matter what I am doing or how much of a range of motion I utilize, the cuffs stay put. The only downside is that I have to go to some effort to loosen the cuff to check my watch, but that is okay with me. I would rather have a cuff that stays put and does not allow drafts than quick access to my watch.
As I stated earlier, I had trouble keeping warm when stationary with just a short sleeved shirt on under this jacket. The addition of a long sleeved base layer helped a whole lot. One aspect of the Permafrost that is absolutely excellent is its ability to keep the wind off of me. No matter if I was standing stationary or moving, this jacket did not allow the wind to get through and chill me. I am not used to wind here in Texas, but I have experienced the coldest windiest winter that I can remember. The Permafrost has made being outside much easier on me and made hiking much more enjoyable.
The lining of the collar and pockets are another plus to keeping warm. The fleece that lines both of these areas is extremely soft and warm. Plenty of times I have stuck my hands into the pockets and gotten them warmed up quickly. The surprise of actually getting snow here this winter was a shock, but being able to make snowballs and then warm my hands in the pockets after tossing one was great. The lining is soft and warms my hands up quickly. The collar is just as warm and it is one area that people who see me in the jacket are drawn to. The mesh-like construction of the fleece lining looks strange and most people reach out to touch it and are surprised by the softness of the fleece lining. I have to agree that it is the softest fleece that I have probably ever felt and it works wonderfully to keep my neck warm.
Sleeping in it:
While I have backpacked or day hiked on several days, the jacket has seen a lot of use during the night as part of my sleep system. I use a hoodless down sleeping bag that I pull up to my chest, then I put the Permafrost on and zip it up over the bag. Since the jacket does not have a hood I cover my head with something else, but that is not a drawback. The collar comes far enough up on my neck that a head covering is just fine. I also like the lack of a hood because it allows me to decide on the size and weight of my head covering. I am not tied to or limited by what MontBell felt was an appropriate hood for this jacket.
Under the jacket I wear a long sleeved base layer and I have slept down to 28 F (-2 C) in my hammock very comfortably. On a couple of occasions my hands did get cold, but I either put on my gloves or stuffed them in the pockets on the jacket and went back to sleep. I can honestly say that the Permafrost has kept me much warmer than I expected. I always seem to get cold sleeping in extreme weather in my hammock and this jacket really helped make many nights comfortable and warm.
On one night the temperature was at 70 F (21 C) and despite having carried the Permafrost in my pack that day, I draped it over my torso when I went to sleep. I was perfectly fine using it like a quilt or throw and it kept me comfortable. I was not too hot considering the temperatures which is no surprise since I tend to sleep cold. I woke up later in the night the temperature had dropped into the 50's F( 10 C) and I was still comfortable. Just to be safe I put the jacket on and zipped it up. I slept wonderfully for the rest of the night.
On several occasions I stopped in mid afternoon for lunch on a day hike and fell asleep in the jacket while leaning against a tree. The temperatures were as high as 65 F (18 C) and I was very toasty and comfortable in the Permafrost without any other covering.
Overall, I like this jacket as part of my sleep system. It does not inhibit my range of motion and I do not worry about getting too cold or even too warm. Once I get settled into my sleeping bag and hammock, the Permafrost is the icing on the cake and I doze off to a great night's slumber. This says a lot since I have always found it difficult to stay overly warm in a hammock during the winter, but the Permafrost has gone a long way towards making cold nights a thing of the past. I also enjoyed the fact that the trim cut/fit of the jacket meant that I did not have to use the drawcord at the bottom of the jacket. The jacket fit tightly against the sleeping bag and did not allow a draft in.
One thing I would like to see on this jacket are vents. Maybe zip vents in the arm pit areas or along the sides of the chest area would make wearing it while active much easier. When the temperatures rose above 60 F (18 C) I had some issues keeping the Permafrost on while active. This is to be expected with a jacket as warm as this one, but I get cold easily and would love to have been able to keep it on all day.
I have not stuffed the jacket in its stuff sack since the test started. On the few occasions I was not wearing it, I simply shoved it into the top of my pack. That made it easier to get on since as soon as I stopped moving on warmer days, the first thing I did was get it out and put it on. This is where I think the vents would have worked out better and allowed me to keep it on all the time.
I am happy that I was able to wear it a lot more than I carried it. The winter weather has cooperated greatly during this portion of the test. I am also happy that the outer shell of the Permafrost sheds moisture very well. I wore it on several days where there was light rain or mist and the water beaded up and ran off rather than wetting out the jacket. One evening I was even treated to playing in a little snow in the jacket and it melted and rain off without any problems.
Overall, I am really impressed by this jacket. I have encountered moments when it was a bit warm to wear, but as a cold natured person it has been the perfect piece of gear for this winter. I was initially afraid that a down jacket was going to be too fragile to wear, but the Permafrost has proven to be durable as well as warm. So far it has it has proven to be a very impressive peace of gear.
Things I like:
2. Fleece on collar and pockets
3. Keeps wind out
Things I do not like:
1. No vents
2. No inside breast pocket
Long Term Report - April 13, 2009
Sam Houston National Forest
Other locations in Southeast Texas
Total days use: 13
Temperatures: 28 to 70 F (-2 to 21 C)
Precipitation: mist to heavy rain
Wind: 0 - 15 mph (0 to 24 kph) steady wind (gusts up to 20 mph/ 32 kph)
Knowing when to wear it:
One thing that has become very clear to me over the course of this test is that this jacket is not something I can wear while undertaking any serious activity. No matter how low the temperatures are outside, any type of serious activity causes me to quickly overhead in the Montbell Permafrost Light Down Jacket. I have experimented with long sleeve base layers and short sleeve base layers while trying to undertake different activities and the only difference was in the length of time it took to overheat. I am not disappointed with this issue because I have yet to find a good jacket or parka that works any differently. If it keeps me warm in low impact activities, then it is probably going to far too warm to hike in.
What I have found this jacket to be excellent for is moving around camp and sleeping. In cold weather I use a jacket of some sort as part of my sleeping system. I have tried everything from fleece to synthetic parkas and so far this down jacket is by far my favorite. It has kept me warm in temperatures below freezing and when the temperatures got too warm at night (65 F/18 C or above), I simply took the jacket off and draped it over my torso. Either way, the Permafrost was very comfortable. It kept me warm and did not inhibit my range of movement in any way. I toss and turn a bit in my sleep and prefer to sleep on my side in my hammocks and the Permafrost never got balled up or kept me from getting comfortable.
Moving around camp at night or in the morning was when I was most happy with this jacket. No matter how cold or damp it was, the Permafrost was just great at keeping me warm as I piddled around cooking or eating my meals. I was able to get out of my hammock warm and stay warm no matter what I was doing around camp. This is a vast improvement over how I have spent many evenings or mornings. The ability to keep warm without much hustle and bustle was a huge bonus. Once I broke camp and got ready to move it was always time to put the jacket into my pack and get on the trail.
I have tried all sorts of base layers with this jacket. I prefer short sleeve shirts, but I was usually a bit chilly and it took longer for me to warm up in the Permafrost when I was wearing a short sleeved base layer. A long sleeved base layer kept me warmer and allowed me to warm up much quicker in this jacket. The inner lining of this jacket is rather slick and cool and I feel that this is one reason that I was usually more comfortable in a longer sleeved base layer. The one thing that did not seem to matter was whether I wore a synthetic or natural fiber as a base layer. Both worked fine under this jacket and the major difference was always due to the long or short sleeved issue that I mentioned above.
I also only used light weight base layers with this jacket. There was obviously room for thicker layers (I zipped the Permafrost up over my sleeping bag), but I never saw the need to use a thicker layer. This jacket is warm enough as it is and I cannot fathom a time when I would want a thicker and warmer base layer under the Permafrost. It is just too warm a jacket to need any serious or thick base layer underneath it.
Wind and rain:
With the bizarre weather that Texas has had this winter I had tons of great weather for testing this jacket. I saw several nights/days with rain and many more with rather intense wind. While I did not spend prolonged amounts of time (no longer than 30 minutes) out in any type of rain, the Permafrost held up rather well. The moisture beaded up and ran off the jacket and the down fill never got wet. There were many nights and mornings where the humidity (due to the rain) was a worry for me, but the fill never got damp or wet in any way that I could detect. While I would never want to spend long periods of time in the rain with this jacket on, I do feel that it is more than up to the task of keeping me dry in the occasional short down pour or until I could get to shelter.
One thing that I really loved about the Permafrost was how well it kept the wind off of me. I spent several afternoons and many late night trips out of the hammocks in very windy conditions. No matter how hard or steady it blew, the Permafrost kept the wind off of me. I am still very impressed with the ability of this jacket in the wind. It is very obvious that the Windstopper layer of this jacket does the job that it was designed to do. I find it amazing that a jacket that is this light in its construction works so well in the wind, but obviously the folks at Montbell knew what they were doing.
This jacket has taken a lot of wear and tear. It has been stuffed in its stuff sack, stuffed in a pack, slept in, and worn around camp. No matter how I have worn it or carried it, the Permafrost has never failed to loft up or keep me warm. While it may not be the jacket that I want to wear while on the move, it is the jacket that I have no problem carrying in my pack till it is needed. The way that it keeps me warm while moving around camp, on day hikes, or while sleeping is simply unbeatable. To make it even better, it stuffs down very small and is not too much weight to put in my pack at a mere 13.93 oz (395 g).
I love the fleece lining on the collar and the height of the collar itself. Both of these features contribute a lot to keeping my neck warm and making this jacket very comfortable. They are also just two more items on a long list of things that make this jacket so complete and well designed.
I can keep going on and on about what makes this jacket so great and functional. It is warm, it keeps me dry, the cuffs tighten and stay tight, the zipper works well, and I can keep going on and on. There is very little downside to using this. Other than it being too warm at times, I cannot really find anything that I do not like. Adding some sort of zippered vents might enable me to use it more with a backpack or when doing more high impact activities, but at this point I am happy with how I am already able to use it. I do not know if I would really want to trade off extra venting options for more weight on this jacket.
Overall, I am very happy with the MontBell Permafrost Light Down Jacket. Not only has it kept me warm, dry, and wind free, but it has also held up very well to the wear and tear I put on it. The construction has held together and I can see this becoming a standard piece of my cold weather gear. The light weight, functionality, and durability are all things that I look for and appreciate in a piece of gear and the Permafrost impresses me on all these fronts.
This concludes my test series and I am going to close out with my final list of likes and dislikes.
Things I like:
2. Excellent wind protection
3. Does not wet through easily
Things I do not like:
1. No interior pocket
2. Too warm to wear under a pack