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Reviews > Clothing > Jackets > Merrell Atlas Fleece > Test Report by Greg McDonald

MERRELL ATLAS FLEECE
TEST SERIES BY GREG MCDONALD
LONG-TERM REPORT
April 22, 2009

CLICK HERE TO SKIP TO THE FIELD REPORT
CLICK HERE TO SKIP TO THE LONG-TERM REPORT

TESTER INFORMATION

NAME: Greg McDonald
EMAIL: gdm320 AT yahoo DOT com
AGE: 22
LOCATION: Boynton Beach, Florida
GENDER: M
HEIGHT: 6' 0" (1.83 m)
WEIGHT: 225 lb (102.00 kg)

I have been camping for 17 years, 12 of them have been spent hiking in the backcountry. My hikes are almost exclusively in Florida and generally range between one and three nights. My all-time favorite hike was a 10 day expedition in the Philmont Scout Ranch in Cimarron, New Mexico. I consider myself a lightweight but comfortably equipped hiker, with a pack averaging between 25 and 30 lb (11 and 14 kg).


Merrell

INITIAL REPORT -- 12/15/2008

Product Information & Specifications

Image Courtesy of Merrell
Image Courtesy of Merrell
Image Courtesy of Merrell
Image Courtesy of Merrell
Manufacturer: Merrell
Model: Atlas
Year of Manufacture: 2008
Manufacturer's Website: http://www.merrell.com
MSRP: US $149
Size Tested: XL
Listed Weight: None Listed
Measured Weight: 24.9 oz (705 g)
Color Tested: Putty
Materials: 100% Polyester, blended orbital and jersey fabrics
Made in China

Sizes Available: S - XXL
Colors Available: Putty and Dark Olive





Initial Impressions

The first time I picked up the Atlas I was surprised in pretty much every way. Merrell classifies the Atlas as a fleece but from the moment I first touched it, it really struck me more as a jacket than a fleece.

A visual inspection yielded the first surprises and observations. The first thing I noticed was the unique appearance of the jacket. The expectation I had from my initial research on the Merrell website was two fabrics, the orbital and jersey fabrics, separately used in the construction of the jacket. In reality, the jersey and orbital fabrics are laminated back to back then reversed in different areas. Frankly, I'm not really sure what the point of this is. Based on my initial assumption, I expected the rotation of fabrics would serve a functional purpose... but that idea doesn't make much sense to me now. All I can really think is that it's a fashion statement more than functional design decision. I will be paying close attention to see if the design that appears cosmetic affects the performance of the jacket either positively or negatively. While the jacket is visually a little odd, I have to admit that I like it. Sure it's different but I'd like to think of it as cutting edge and fresh.

The other visual speed bump was the color. There is nothing wrong with it but it is not what I had expected from the photos on the Merrell website. If I was in love with a particular color the jacket is offered in and was willing to accept nothing else I can't say I'd be pleased with the difference. I supposed I'd advise that "buyer beware" and be open to some color variation.

After getting past my initial visual shock I was able to give a closer inspection. The construction of the Atlas is well done and complete. Out of the box I was only able to find one loose thread on the hemline, which I was able to neatly trim with no other issues. This prompted me to give a more thorough visual inspection to the outer and inner seams and I was unable to find any additional loose threads, pulling, or missing stitches. I ran all four of the zippers a few times and found no kinks or binding spots.

The main zipper is full-length and runs from the collar to the hem and is backed by a storm flap made from the jersey fabric. The top 4.25 in (11 cm) of the storm flap is a brushed tricot material which is typical for a jacket like this to be easier on my neck, chin, and mouth if I have the jacket zipped all the way up. The jacket is apparently designed to have a stand-up collar although it does appear possible to fold the collar down, at least to some degree.

Stand-up Collar
Zipper garage with tricot fabric for comfort.

The Atlas sports a chest pocket and two hand pockets. There are also two small touches that I like about the Atlas which are a small loop above the tag on the back of the neck for hanging the jacket up and dual draw cord hem adjustments on the hemline.

The last thing I noticed right off the bat was that the jacket was heavier than I was expecting. Given the name and the somewhat limited information that I had, I was thinking I would be testing a redesign of a traditional fleece. My assumption is to blame for this. If I was expecting a jacket I would be writing about how pleased I was with how light it is. A little bit of perspective goes a long way I suppose.

Trying It On

The Atlas fits pretty well. Part of the problem is that I am not the prototypical XL size. My chest size, neck width, and torso length are right there for an XL but sleeves tend to be a little bit long on me. This is true for pretty much all of my long-sleeve clothing and the Atlas is no exception. While the sleeves are a bit long, they are still comfortable and the length is completely manageable even without tailoring or other adjustments. I don't feel constricted in the Atlas, which is important to me especially considering the fact that if the temperature dips I will need to layer to keep warm. If I need to layer, having a bit of extra room is a good thing. Besides, I like my clothing a little loose anyway.

I will say the jacket feels nice. The fabric stretches nicely which keeps it from being restrictive in the elbows and shoulders. I like that the fabric is orbital-side in on the underarms, on the wrists, and the collar. It seems to me that it adds a bit of comfort to those areas. The only spot that bothers me slightly is the jersey fabric on the inside on the elbows. My elbows are a little rough and they chafe a little bit. It feels a bit awkward but not necessarily uncomfortable.

The zippers are all easy to operate, even with only one hand. I haven't had any issues with snagging on the storm flap or binding in the zipper to date. The full-zip front zips up into the upper zipper garage and the stand-up collar forms up nicely around my neck to seal out the draft. The zippered hand pockets are fleece lined and feel very nice. I am able to easily get my hands in and out of the pockets through the open zipper and there is plenty of room inside for my digits to wiggle around freely. There is enough room in the chest pocket to slip my hand in to fumble with my iPod or a map and compass.

The hem adjustments are easy to grab and both tighten and loosen with the jacket on. I really like the slightly curved pull tabs. Most of my fleece jackets only have a single adjuster and I usually have problems with bunching that way. So far the dual tabs seem to reduce that but only time will tell.

The cuffs are comfortable and ride part of the way down my hands with only a t-shirt as a base layer and without gloves. I only have one pair of gloves, which are basic Polartec fleece, and I've found the most comfortable way to wear them is to tuck the glove beneath the cuff.

There is one big feature of the Atlas that I have only been able to casually test thus far, which is the AeroBlock. Merrell claims that AeroBlock "protects you from comfort-robbing wind". On one of the cooler nights since I received the Atlas I rolled my windows down on the highway coming home from work. At approximately 70 mph (120 kmh) I was impressed by the wind resistance the Atlas offered. Obviously, I plan on a bit more conventional backpacking testing in the months to come but it was a nice glance into what I may expect. Unfortunately I haven't had the opportunity to test the jacket's water "resistance", but I need something to look forward to.

Down the Trail

It took me a little bit of time to adjust my expectations of the Merrell Atlas Fleece. It's not what I expected, but I don't mean for that to be interpreted in a negative way. It struck me as a bit heavy and bulky initially after I expected a true fleece and I had to start thinking in terms of a lightweight jacket before I could appreciate what the Atlas is offering.

So far I like the fit and the comfort of the jacket and I find myself wondering how these thoughts will hold up while on the trail. Generally speaking, a jacket of this weight is pretty much the warmest thing I carry during the Florida winters, and I am very anxious to get this jacket out into the field and test all of its features and push its boundaries.


FIELD REPORT -- 2/16/2009

Field Locations and Conditions

The trail locations where I have had the Atlas along include day hikes in Jonathan Dickinson State Park and the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge, as well as overnight trips on the rim trail of Lake Okeechobee and the Ocala National Forest. The majority of the time I've spent wearing the jacket the entire time I was on the trail were on three dayhikes over the last few weeks when the temperature in South Florida plummeted.

Temperatures have ranged between 33 and 80 F (0 and 27 C) over the course of the field testing period with only mild precipitation on one occasion. Winds have been especially high in the recent weeks with the cold snap, and I have been trekking through winds ranging from about 10 to 18 mph (16 and 29 kmh) which have dropped the "feels like temperatures" as low as 23 F (-5 C). Humidity has swung between 40% and 80% during the hikes.

Field Observations

I've got to say that I'm very much enjoying the Atlas. Honestly I've been a bit surprised at how well the jacket is performing. On the coldest hike that I've had the jacket out on, the temperature was down at 33 F (~0 C) with 15 mph (24 kmh) winds that dropped the "feels like" temperature down to around 23 F (-5 C) according to the National Weather Service. This is Florida, and I'm hardly used to temperatures that low while I'm on the trail and was almost positive I'd end up feeling like a popsicle when I first set out that morning. I zipped the jacket all the way up, put on my skull cap, pulled on my gloves, and braced myself. I was immensely pleased with how well the Atlas kept me warm and cozy for the entire hike. I didn't expect that the Atlas as my only layer other than midweight long underwear and a t-shirt would keep me warm at such a low temperature with high winds but I've happily been proven wrong.

The AeroBlock technology has done a very good job at keeping the winds that I have encountered at bay. One of my hikes left me exposed in the open on the dyke around Lake Okeechobee with shifting winds of 18 mph (29 kmh). Those are the highest winds I've encountered during conventional "on the trail" testing and didn't notice any air bleeding through the jacket.

Another part of the design that has proven very nice in the testing process is the dual hem adjustments with crescent-shaped pull tabs. Generally I leave the hemline fully extended so the jacket can breathe a bit, but when I stop moving or get cold I can easily find and pull the drawstrings in to snug the jacket up and improve the warmth a bit. The crescent tabs are easy to grab even with gloves on, which is certainly a plus.

Different approach for different gloves.Over the course of the winter I've added a lightweight pair of liner gloves to my outdoor wardrobe to compliment the Polartec fleece ones that I've had for years. I mention it because since my Initial Report I have refined the way that I wear gloves with the jacket. The lightweight gloves go under the cuffs like I'd originally figured I would. However, on my coldest dayhike in the early morning I found that it was more effective if I gathered up the sleeves and pulled the heavier Polartec gloves over. I've found that this pretty much eliminated the air from flowing through the gap and it kept my forearms warmer.

The pockets are handy and, in my opinion, well designed. The two front pockets are lined and have been a toasty haven for my digits when it isn't quite cold enough yet for gloves or when I'm wearing my liners around camp and start to cool down too much. When I'm not wearing my hat or gloves but still want them along the front pockets are plenty large to keep them close by. The chest pocket has been the perfect size for my iPod Nano or my BlackBerry (which generally accompany me on dayhikes).

To date the durability of the Atlas has been very good. I noticed a few loose threads inside the chest pocket that got hung up in the zipper, but I trimmed them away and they haven't continued to unravel or compromised the integrity of the stitching as far as I can tell. Even with all the time I've spent in it in the recent cold weather we've been having I haven't had any issues with rips, tears, snags, runs, or permanent stains. Even when a plume of embers was blown onto from a campfire on a recent outing I wasn't able to find any damage or singed spots when I inspected it the next morning. Overall, excellent durability so far.

The thing that disappoints me a little bit about the Atlas is the packed size since it is a bit of a space hog in my pack. On overnight hikes with my 70L Gregory Reality pack I don't really notice it too much since I have excess space in that pack, but it is pretty noticeable in my Gregory Z25 daypack. I wouldn't gripe about the space that the Atlas takes up if I need the additional temperature range that it offers compared to a basic lightweight fleece, but I don't think I could justify carrying it if the temperatures figure to be more mild.

Down the Trail

My fiancée asked me the other day if I'd buy the Atlas, were I not already testing it. I told her given my experiences so far with it: absolutely. Although I don't personally agree with Merrell's branding of this jacket as a "fleece", it has really done a fine job. So far the Atlas has been keeping me toasty warm, has done a good job at keeping the wind from cutting through, and has been comfortable to wear both in and out of my pack's harness. The only bummer that I've stumbled across is the packed size.


LONG-TERM REPORT

Trail Locations and Conditions

Unfortunately, the winter season started to come to a close right around the posting of my Field Report. The Atlas has only seen an additional two days of usage on dayhikes in John Prince Park and on the rim trail of Lake Okeechobee. Temperatures have bottomed out at around 40 F (4C) on those two occasions, winds have ranged from a dead calm up to around 15 mi/h (24 km/h), and humidity has ranged between 40% and 80%.

I must admit that I am disappointed that Mother Nature has given me so few testing opportunities over the final two months of the testing period. Fortunately for me, I have still had an abundance of opportunities earlier in the testing phase to form a pretty fair opinion of the Atlas.

Likes and Dislikes

The Atlas has a number of very good qualities going for it, which I covered above in my Field Report which I would like to summarize. Merrell's AeroBlock technology, for one, has performed very well and right up to my expectations. I like the ease of use of the hem adjustments, the smooth track and action on the zippers, and the well situated and sized pockets. I am also very pleased with the jacket's durability even during rough off-the-trail (not backpacking related) activities. Additionally, I have also noticed that I am able to move around quite well in the jacket and it does not overly restrict my range of motion to any noticeable degree. Perhaps most importantly, the Atlas has kept me toasty warm throughout all my testing.

Over the course of the test period I have noticed one thing about the comfort of the jacket that I'd like to change. I mentioned in my Initial Report that the rough spots on my elbows rubbed somewhat on the jersey fabric inside the sleeve. I wasn't too concerned about this initially, but over the course of the testing period it has proved to be a bit of a nuisance. If I had my way, I think I'd make some sort of a change to the fabric in certain key rubbing spots to avoid this irritation against my skin. While the jersey fabric isn't the most comfortable thing I've felt against my skin, I only really see the need to add an additional layer of soft fabric in a few key spots rather than all over.

One thing that has just stuck like a fly in my ointment is that the Atlas is certainly not a fleece (sorry Merrell). In my opinion, calling the jacket a fleece set an incorrect expectation in my mind as to what I was to expect. If I think fleece and pick the jacket up, I'm thinking it is waaaaay too heavy and bulky. What I needed to do was adjust my expectations to consider it as a jacket. When I did that, I was able to appreciate the Atlas for what it really is.

The branding goes hand in hand with the packed size and weight of the jacket. Going forward, I don't think I'll be carrying the Atlas unless temperatures are forecast to drop below the 40 F (4 C) range. I say that because down to around that temperature I get by fine with just a fleece and I layer on my rain jacket if necessary. If temperatures climb out of that temperature range, the Atlas becomes overkill and I have to take it off because I warm too much anyway. Because of the packed size I just can't justify packing the Atlas as an "all the time" jacket. However, I would absolutely not hesitate to bring the Atlas along if temperatures were set to dip down towards freezing or if conditions looked to be cold and very windy. I think these are the conditions in which the Atlas really shines.

The Last Word

The Merrell Atlas is a solid jacket. It has kept me warm, sheltered me from the wind, and proven to be durable and versatile over the course of the testing period. As I said before, given the appropriate conditions, I would not hesitiate to pack the Atlas along again and expect that I will continue to do so when my trek demands a jacket that will stand up to the wind and the cold. Merrell has some room for improvement for the Atlas, but overall I'd say they've done a good job.

This concludes my Test Series on the Merrell Atlas. I would like to take one final opportunity to thank Merrell and BackpackGearTest.org for the opportunity to test this jacket.

This report was created with the BackpackGearTest.org Report Writer Version 1. Copyright 2009. All rights reserved.


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