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Reviews > Clothing > Jackets > MontBell PermaFrost Light Down Jacket > Test Report by Kurt Papke

MontBell Permafrost Light Down Jacket

Test Series by Kurt Papke

Initial Report - December 1, 2008

Field Report - February 10, 2009

Long-Term Report - April 7, 2009

Tester Information

Name: Kurt Papke
Age: 55
Gender: Male
Height: 6' 4" (193 cm)
Weight: 220 lbs (100 kg)
Email address: kwpapke at gmail dot com
City, State, Country: Minneapolis, Minnesota USA

Backpacking background: mostly in Minnesota - I have hiked all of the Superior Hiking Trail and Border Route.  My preferred/typical backpack trip is one week, mostly in the Spring/Fall seasons, but doing more in the winter as of late.  I do periodic day hiking in Michigan, Wisconsin, Utah, Colorado and Oregon.  I do a fair amount of winter snowshoeing and cross-country skiing, so keeping warm in cold weather is important to me.

Tester Measurements & MontBell Sizing Chart Germane to Jackets

Tester Measurements
MontBell Sizing Chart
(body size, not garment dimensions)
For XL (size tested)

U.S.
Metric
U.S.
Metric
Neck
16 in
41 cm
Not listed
Sleeve Length
36 in
91 cm
36 in
91 cm
Waist
38 in
97 cm
37-40 in
94-102 cm
Chest
44 in
112 cm
44-47 in
112-119 cm
Torso length
23 in
58 cm
Not listed

As can be seen from the table above, I am very long-waisted.  A U.S. "large-tall" size normally fits me best, but many manufacturers do not sell men's tall sizes so I often have to opt for an extra-large.

Initial Report

The MontBell Permafrost Light Down Jacket (hereafter referred to as the Permafrost) is a lightweight down jacket with a GORE-TEX WINDSTOPPER membrane laminated beneath a 30-denier nylon shell.  The intent is to combine the insulating properties of 800 fill power down with the wind-blocking capability of the WINDSTOPPER membrane to prevent both conductive and convective heat loss.  The product labeling indicates "When winter conditions prevail, but a full on expedition parka would be overkill, the Permafrost light makes a lot of sense"

Product Information

Manufacturer: MontBell Co. Ltd.
Year of manufacture: 2008
Size tested:
Size XL (U.S.)
Color tested:
THYM (Thyme)
MSRP:
US $ 249.00
Manufacturer website: http://www.montbell.us

Listed
(Product label)
(Men's Medium size)
Listed
(Website)
(Men's Medium size)
Measured
(Men's XL size)
Jacket Weight

13.8 oz
(391 g)
13.8 oz
(391 g)
16.3 oz
(462 g)
Stuff sack Weight
Not listed
Not listed
0.35 oz
(10 g)
Stuffed Dimensions
5.1 x 9.3 in
(13 x 23.6 cm)
5.1 x 9.3 in
(13 x 23.6 cm)
5.25 x 11.5 in
(13.3 x 29.2 cm)
The size and weight discrepancies are easily explained by the difference between a men's medium and extra-large size jacket.

Product Description

Jacket Layers

From the outside-in, the jacket is constructed of:
  1. A 30-denier ballistic rip-stop nylon shell.  The fabric has just a bit of a "crinkly" feel and sound to it, and a nice sheen.  The color is attractive.
  2. A GORE-TEX WINDSTOPPER shell.  This fabric is designed to allow essentially zero wind penetration, yet still be breathable.  It is a water-resistant layer, but not water-proof.
  3. Down specs 800 fill down.  In fact, the label on the garment indicates 90% goose down, and 10% goose feathers.
  4. A 15-denier ballistic Airlight rip-stop nylon lining.  The lining is a gray color, and soft to the touch.
  5. The collar adds a perforated micro fleece lining, also in gray.  The pockets also have a non-perforated fleece lining on the outside, also in gray.

Features

Zipper
Zipper
: the front zipper runs the length of the jacket, and is described as an Aqua-Tect design.  It supposedly repels water and snow, and thus MontBell chose to not include a storm flap.  There is an inner flap that is protected by an additional layer of stiff fabric to prevent the zipper from catching on the shell.  This flap should prevent air leakage, and keeps the cold zipper away from the body.  The zipper color is slightly darker than the fabric.  There is a corded zipper pull with a plastic pull tab.  At the zipper top is a triangular piece of fabric to protect the chin from scratching on the zipper.

The zipper operates smoothly, but not effortlessly.  It does offer substantial resistance when pulling.

The Aqua-Tect zipper design is quite interesting and can be seen in the above photo.  When closed, the seam is almost undetectable and appears indeed quite water-resistant.

Collar: the collar is approximately 2.75 in high (7 cm), and as previously mentioned is fleece-lined.  At the base of the collar is a hanger loop, as can be seen in the first photo in this report in the sizing section.

Pockets: there are two pockets located just above the hips with zippered closures similar to the one on the jacket front.  As previously mentioned, they are fleece-lined on the outside of the jacket.  They are a very generous size - big enough to get my whole hand plus a good portion of my wrist inside.

Hem adjusterHem adjusters: there are two hem adjusters, one on each side of the jacket.  These can supposedly be operated with one hand, but so far in my limited trials I seem to need two hands.  These are tethered to the jacket as can be seen in the photo at left.  The adjusters operate smoothly.  The cord in the hem is very elastic.


Cuffs: have Velcro adjusters and are also elastic.  There is not a lot of elastic in the cuffs - when tightened over my glove cuffs, it wasn't easy for me to get the cuffs back on again without releasing the Velcro, though there is enough "give" to it to allow me to get the jacket on with my hands passing through the cuffs without releasing the Velcro.  The Velcro tabs have a bit of extra fabric on the ends to allow them to be gripped with the fingertips, though field use will show how easy this is to do with gloves and mittens on.

Articulated elbows: the website and labeling claims the elbows are slightly articulated for increased freedom of movement.  The articulation was not obvious to me from a quick visual inspection.

Trial Walks

Test Conditions
Date/time
November 26, 2008 7:15AM - 9:15AM CST
November 30, 2008 8:00AM - 9:45AM CST
Location
Minnesota River Valley in Chanhassen, Minnesota
Trip distance
About 6 miles (10 km)
Altitude
750 to 875 ft (230 to 267 m)
Temperature
18 to 25 F (-8 to -4 C)
23 F to 24 F (-5 C)
Winds
calm
5 to 12 mph (8 to 19 kph)
Humidity
Near 100% -- some ice fog
100%
Precipitation
None
moderate to light snow
Worn underneath
Long-sleeve lightweight polyester T-shirt
Short-sleeve cotton T-shirt

A pity my first use had no wind to stress the WINDSTOPPER, but this winter will see plenty of that... A few observations:
  • I was toasty warm immediately at the outset of the walk.  Normally on this same walk in similar conditions with my Polartec Windbloc fleece I'll be cold for the first 30 minutes or so.  Not with the Permafrost, I was warm from the moment I stepped out of the car.
  • After an hour of walking I was too warm and had to unzip the jacket 2/3 of the way, even though the temperatures were still in the low 20's F (-5 C).
  • The sleeves rustle a bit when walking and swinging my arms, but not objectionably.
  • The elastic in the hem adjusters makes the jacket ride up my butt if they are tightened too much.  After I loosened them a bit, the problem went away.
The purpose of the second walk was to test performance in snowfall and somewhat warmer conditions.  Observations:
  • The insulating properties of the Permafrost were such that I had almost no snow melt - the precipitation simply bounced or slid off the shell.
  • Conditions were a bit warm for a down jacket.  I was able to vent quite a bit by unzipping the front of the jacket, loosening the cuffs and the hem adjustors.  This was quite effective at regulating the temperature.

Initial Impressions

Initial quality

A close inspection of seams and fabric turned up absolutely no flaws.  I could not find a trace of a loose thread anywhere.  The construction of the garment is impeccable.

This jacket oozes quality: the sheen and feel of the fabric, the operation of the zippers and cuff give the impression of attention to all aspects of design.

Fit

FrontSideBack
I had some concerns before the garment arrived that the XL size would not fit my long torso, but those concerns turned out to be pretty much unfounded.

Length: about right, though I would have liked to see a just a little more length in the back.  My kidneys could get a little chilled if I am squatting or sitting.

Sleeves: perfect

Torso: the labeling indicates that the jacket is "Generously cut to accommodate a variety of winter layering systems".  The chest was sized well, but I felt I had a little too much bulk in my lower back.  When layered over a fleece it was a little more snug.

Packing

Stuff sackThe Permafrost stuffs nicely, but not very tightly into the supplied sack.  I suspect that under pressure from other items in my backpack, the sack will compress quite a bit more than what is depicted in the photo at left.

Some jackets are now designed with the stuff sack integral to the jacket fabric.  This is not the case with the Permafrost, so the sack will have to be stowed in a pocket when in use.

There is a special slip packed with the jacket that states "Because this product is using highly wind proof materials for the outershell, the air within the product may not compress quickly.  Please compress slowly or you may rupture the down compartments."  Indeed, I found when stuffing the jacket into the sack I had to do so quite slowly to allow the air to gradually come out of the baffles.


Concerns - Things I'll be Looking For

This is a jacket, not a parka.  Protection below the waistline is minimal.  I'll be looking to see if I get a cold butt or groin in windy conditions.  This concern is exacerbated by the fact that the jacket is not really sized for a person like myself with a long torso.

The jacket collar is not particularly high.  I have a fairly long neck, and I'm very sensitive to a chill on my throat.  I may have to use a neck gaiter with this jacket in very cold temperatures -- time will tell.

This is a down jacket, and the WB membrane is on the outside.  I'll be watching to see how much loft is lost due to perspiration, or just extended use in cold conditions.

The Aqua-Tect zippers look like they'll shake off water nicely, but I have some concerns about how stiff of a pull they are.  I'll be looking to see how easy it is to zip/unzip the jacket in bitter cold with mittens on.

Pleasant Surprises

This is a very attractive garment.  I'll be wearing this jacket most every day this winter.

Field Report

Trip One
Dates
December 8-10, 2008
Brrrr
Location
Superior Hiking Trail near Silver Bay, Minnesota
Trip distance
About 14 miles (23 km)
Altitude
750 to 1250 ft (230 to 380 m)
Temperature
-2F (-19 C) to a high of 15F (-9 C)
Winds
calm to 16 mph (26 km/hr) gusts in the night
Dew Point
6-11 deg F less than the temperature
Precipitation
Light snow on day 3
Worn underneath
Powerdry LS pullover, 200 wt Polarfleece

This trip pushed the temperature limits of the jacket, but did not demonstrate the wind-blocking properties of the Windstopper barrier as it was quite calm.

Author in the Permafrost

OK, so I looked a little foolish with the balaclava and headband on, but the picture of the thermometer above was taken just before this self-portrait -- it was chilly!  Observations:
  • I found the Permafrost to be most useful in camp or on breaks and not as useful while in motion.  Even at temperatures around 0 F (-18 C) I was just too warm while hiking to wear the jacket.
  • This jacket was a blessing in camp.  Its hard to describe the instant warmth I felt even at these cold conditions as soon as I put the jacket on in the morning.  It was really nice to have the jacket in camp in the evening when I could cook dinner and make camp without feeling cold.  At 0 F (-18 C) I was warm enough with light activity (as in the above picture) to not require major additional insulation.  In fact, in the above picture my Polarfleece pullover is visible in the lower left corner - I wasn't wearing it underneath the jacket.
  • The jacket served a second purpose at night: I used it as extra insulation in the SuperShelter system of my camping hammock.  I placed it beneath my torso in between the SuperShelter OCF pad and the Exped MultiMat, and it kept me very warm at night.
  • Packing in the stuff sack was easy.  The stuffed jacket fit nicely in the lid of my backpack where it was easily accessible on breaks.
  • The jacket takes a few minutes to re-puff after being compressed most of the day.
  • The collar height was adequate when used with a balaclava.
  • I would occasionally get a draft up my back when sitting down or bending over.  I had the hem adjusters pulled pretty tight, but the jacket would still ride up enough to give me a momentary draft.
  • When I put the Permafrost on during a break or when I arrived in camp, if my fleece pullover was damp quite a bit of the moisture would migrate into the Permafrost within minutes.  After the first time this occurred I was careful to remove my damp clothing before donning the Permafrost to avoid getting moisture in the down, which is difficult to get back out at these temperatures.
Trip Two
Dates
January 11-13, 2009
Location
Superior Hiking Trail near Finland, Minnesota
Trip distance
About 10 miles (16 km)
Altitude
1322 ft to 1726 ft (400 m to 525 m)
Temperatures
High of 15 F, low -27 F (-9 C to -33 C)
Winds
Calm to 25 mph (40 km/hr) gusts in the night
Terrain
Forested with lakes and rivers
Rolling hills with no steep ascents
Worn Underneath
Merino SS T-shirt, Powerdry LS pullover, 200 wt Polarfleece pullover

Permafrost in campI wore the Permafrost in the evening of night one of this trip and the morning of day two (pictured at left).  It was much colder the second night, but I elected to wear a large parka that evening to stay warm.

My hiking partner and I arrived at our camp at 3:30PM on January 11, and I immediately put on the Permafrost to stay warm during camp setup.  We chose our camp location behind some fir trees to protect us from the wind whipping across Egge Lake.  The temperatures were dropping rapidly, but despite the 10 F (-12 C) temperature I was plenty warm.

Once camp chores were completed I added another layer: my Marmot Precip rain jacket, on top of the Powerdry shirt but underneath the 200 wt Polarfleece.  This was in preparation for sleeping that evening, and to keep me warmer during the more sedentary evening activities.  The strategy was to use my Marmot Precip jacket (and pants) as a vapor barrier layer.  This proved very successful.

During the evening I kept my beverage warm in my 1 L (1 qt) Nalgene bottle by tucking it into my jacket pocket.  I was very pleased that I could easily fit the bottle in the Permafrost pocket.

Sean and I cooked dinner, then sat around outside and chatted until about 9PM.  We had no fire or other external heat source.  I was plenty warm all evening until just before retiring.  Temperatures by this time dropped to about 5 F (-15 C).

Just before climbing into my sleeping bag I took off the jacket and once again used it as insulation under my back in the SuperShelter.

The next morning I wore the jacket during morning camp chores when the temperature was about 0 F (-18 C).  The photo above shows me wearing the jacket while melting snow and filling my hydration reservoir.  The Nalgene that fits into the pocket can be seen with the blue cap tucked into the snow on my left in the picture.

On the second night I used the jacket again as insulation beneath my hammock, but this time augmented with my 30 F (-1 C) down sleeping bag.  It was bitterly cold that night, -27 F (-33 C), and I appreciated the extra down underneath me during the night.

Day Hikes

I used the jacket again on many dayhikes during the Field Report period, I'll comment on just a few of the exemplary ones.

Walk: Monday December 15, same location as listed in Trial Walks in the Initial Report.  Temperature -7 to -5 F (-22 to -21 C), winds were brisk at 10-20 mph (16 - 32 kph) so this was a good test of wind chill performance.  Worn beneath: midweight Powerdry LS shirt.

Walk: Wednesday December 17, Minnesota Landscape Arboretum in Chanhassen, hiked about 6 miles (10 km).  Altitude: 980 to 1100 ft (300 to 335 m).  Environment: 1 to 5 F (-17 to -15 C), light winds 0 to 7 mph (0 to 11 kph), sun was shining brightly.  This hike was notable in that I was carrying a daypack, which I found fit well over the jacket.  I was comfortably warm throughout the hike, just slightly overly warm.

Walk: Monday December 22, same location as listed in Trial Walks in the Initial Report.  Temperature -14 to -5 F (-26 to -21 C), winds were negligible.  Worn beneath: midweight Powerdry LS shirt.  Same daypack.  In these very cold conditions I noticed a chill at the front of my armpit, and around the base of my ribcage.  The pack straps were drawing the jacket taut across my chest.  My torso was warm, in fact the jacket was pretty damp with perspiration at the conclusion of the hike.

Walk: Monday December 29, same location as the week before.  Temperature hovered around 24 F (-4 C), but this was the windiest conditions so far with NNW winds from 7 to 25 mph (11 to 40 kph), mostly at the high end of the range.  I felt no wind penetration of the jacket during the walk, and had to vent periodically at the neck starting after about 30 minutes of activity.

Observations from these dayhikes:
  • The jacket performed exceptionally well.  Even in the cold, windy conditions I was warm.  The wind did not penetrate the jacket.
  • In the extremely cold conditions and in moderate cold with high winds I did not overheat, i.e. I did not need to open the jacket to vent.
  • The jacket performs well with a daypack, though in extreme cold in the environs of -14 F (-26 C) the pack straps do compress the loft at the front of the jacket enough to feel the cold.
  • Cuffs: I prefer elastic cuffs rather than the Velcro design of the Permafrost.  I find elastic faster and easier to re-tighten after removing my gloves.  That said, the wide Permafrost cuff and the large amount of adjustability do give me the option of going over or under my glove cuffs.  Going over the glove cuffs worked the best for me.  When I wore them under the glove cuffs the slippery fabric of jacket caused the gloves to work their way loose over time.  The jacket cuff Velcro tabs were large enough to grip with gloves on (to adjust the second glove after the first one is put on), but it felt awkward.
  • Pockets: the deep pockets are great for storing gloves unfolded.  The stowed gloves did not cause the belly of the jacket to puff way out as often happens to me when I need to fold gloves in half.
  • My headgear had difficulty keeping pace with the performance of the Permafrost.  I longed for a hood on the jacket.
  • Collar: the collar seemed too short in windy conditions.  I noticed this more on the dayhikes because I was not wearing a balaclava as I do in-camp when backpacking.  I often added a neck gaiter for warmth, which worked well but the collar was too tight to zip over the gaiter.

Summary

I really like having this jacket on cold weather hikes.  If someone wants to take this jacket away from me, they'll have to pry it from my cold, dead hands.  I appreciated the instant warmth in-camp, and I have been pleasantly surprised at how I have been able to multipurpose the garment as under-hammock insulation at night.

Likes:
  • Toasty warm!
  • The WINDSTOPPER membrane is very effective at blocking cold winds
  • Ability to layer a fleece underneath
  • Easy to pack
  • Multitasking use as under-hammock insulation at night
  • Deep pockets store gloves without needing to fold them and can hold a 1 L (1 qt) Nalgene bottle comfortably
Opportunities for Improvement:
  • Could be a little longer in back
  • Readily absorbs moisture from underlayers
  • The zippers can be a little reluctant
  • A hood would be wonderful, but at a minimum I'd like to see a taller collar to avoid wearing a neck gaiter.
  • I prefer an elastic cuff to the Velcro
This concludes my Field Report on the MontBell Permafrost Light Down Jacket.

Long Term Report

Usage conditions

Dates
February 12-14, 2009
March 6-8, 2009
March 28-April 4, 2009
Location
Porcupine Mountain Wilderness in Michigan's Upper Peninsula
Eagle Mountain in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness of northern Minnesota
Ozark Trail in south-central Missouri located in the Mark Twain National Forest
Altitude
778 ft to 1600 ft (237 m to 490 m) 1700 ft to 2297 ft (520 m to 700 m) 925 ft to 1650 ft (280 m to 500 m)
Temperatures
Nighttime lows of around 15 F (-9 C), daytime highs of 30 F (-1 C) Nighttime lows of 15 F to 20 F (-9.4 C to -6.7 C), daytime highs of 25 F (-4 C) to 32 F (0 C) Coldest nighttime low was 26 F (-3 C), warmest daytime high was about 70F (21 C)
Winds
Light during the day, 15-20 mph (24-32 kph) at night
Mostly light, except blowing snow at 10-15 mph (16-24 kph) on the morning of March 8
This was the windiest trip I've ever taken.  They blew consistently at 10-20 miles/hour (16-32 km/hour) with gusts up to 40 miles/hour (64 km/hour) on top of Bell Mountain
Terrain
Forested with lakes and rivers.  The trail was along an escarpment with some steep grades. The first section was on rivers, lakes and creek beds, then a scrambling steep ascent of Eagle Mountain, followed by a gradual descent on a Forest Service trail Heavily forested with oak and hickory.  Many streams, one lake.  Continual climb & descent of Ozark mountains.

Porkies
Porcupine Mountains from the Escarpment Trail

Observations

Porcupine Mountains

Once again the Permafrost did an admirable job of keeping me warm in-camp.  This time I did notice considerable loss of loft by the morning of day 3.  I attribute this to the near-constant snowfall during the trip and the high humidity which can be seen in the photo above of the escarpment view of Lake of the Clouds; also the warmer temperatures caused me to sweat profusely.  I believe the moisture got into the down from the inside, when I put the jacket on during breaks over wet clothing.  The falling snow was mostly "pellet" in consistency, and simply bounced off the jacket outer shell.

When I arrived home I turned the jacket inside-out and hung it up to dry.  By the next morning it had completely dried out and once again demonstrated its usual high loft.

Eagle Mountain

The Permafrost accompanied me into my sleeping bag for the first time on this trip.  We slept with our bags on the ground with no cover over us at all.  The first night was on a frozen river bed with no possibility to hang a tarp, the second night was in a forested campsite.  Days were warm and sunny, so there was lots of snow melt during the day which created very damp conditions on the ground at night.

On the first night I woke up around midnight shivering, despite the warm 25 F (-4 C) air temperature and my 0 F (-18 C) rated sleeping bag.  I put on the Permafrost, crawled back into my bag and warmed up immediately.

On the second night I put the jacket on before climbing into my bag.  It thought it was going to get colder that night, and indeed it did.  I woke up again around midnight shivering, but this time it was due to a poorly adjusted draft collar and mummy face closure.  Once I properly sealed up my head, I immediately warmed up and went back to sleep.

My take away from this trip is that the Permafrost jacket can be very effective nighttime insulation in a sleeping bag.

Ozark Trail

Spring morning in the OzarksThe weather called for nice spring weather with cold nights, so I thought I would pack the Permafrost just in case.  Good thing.  The first morning I woke up to 4 inches (10 cm) of snow as shown in the photo at left with temperatures around freezing.  The night before I left it got down to 26 F (-3 C).  I used the jacket to keep warm in camp, primarily in the mornings when the temperature was lowest.  I did use it in the evening on Bell Mountain which despite the relatively balmy temperatures of around 45 F (7 C), the wind made it feel much colder.  The Permafrost kept me toasty.

Every night save one it resided underneath me in my hammock.  On the last night I did not expect it to get quite so cold, but got out of my shelter shivering at around midnight and wrapped the Permafrost around my hips and thighs as that's where I felt the cold the most.  The result was instant warmth.

This was the only trip with the Permafrost where I had to be concerned with it getting wet from rain, and rain it did.  Fortunately I had a spare 4L dry sack in my car that the jacket fit perfectly into.


Summary

I wonder whether the Permafrost would not benefit from waterproof lining.  This would prevent interior moisture from degrading the down's insulating properties on multi-day backpacking trips.  I would argue that with the WINDSTOPPER membrane on the jacket exterior, moisture will not really vent to the ambient air anyway, but most likely be trapped in the down where it freezes.

My bottom line after 4 months of Minnesota winters with this jacket has not changed from the Field Report: this is a terrific piece of outdoor gear that I intend to wear for years to come.  The combination of light weight, compactness when stuffed into its sack, warmth, and wind resistance is a winner.  I was pleasantly surprised how useful it was even on my spring hike to the Ozarks; its light weight, compact size and wind resistance have made it my jacket of choice even in the shoulder seasons.

Many thanks to MontBell Co. Ltd. and BackpackGearTest.org for the opportunity to test this product.


Read more reviews of Mont Bell gear
Read more gear reviews by Kurt Papke

Reviews > Clothing > Jackets > MontBell PermaFrost Light Down Jacket > Test Report by Kurt Papke



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