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Reviews > Clothing > Jackets > MontBell Plasma 1000 Down Jacket > Test Report by Coy Ray Starnes
MontBell Plasma 1000 Down Jacket
Test series by Coy Starnes
Initial Report: November 26, 2013
Field Report: February 4, 2014
Long Term Report: April 8, 2014
I live in Northeast Alabama. I enjoy biking, hunting, fishing, canoeing/kayaking and most other outdoor activities, but backpacking is my favorite pastime. I enjoy hiking with friends and family or solo. I hike throughout the year and actually hike less in the hot humid months of summer. My style is slow and steady and my gear is light. However, I will sacrifice weight for comfort and durability. A typical 3-season load for me is around 20 lb (9 kg) not counting food or water.
The MontBell Plasma 1000 Down Jacket claims to be the lightest down jacket in the world compared to other garments of equivalent warmth. This is a pretty lofty (pun intended) claim but I am inclined to believe it after holding one in my hand. My XL weights 0.6 oz (17 g) more than the listed weight but this is not unexpected since an XL uses more fabric and requires a little more fill material. Regardless, the jacket feels incredibly light and I have tee-shirts that weigh a little more than this. The low weight is achieved through the use of incredibly high fill power down and a fabric that only weighs 25 grams per square meter. The 7-denier Ballistic Airlight Nylon is said to be highly wind resistant yet durable enough for the rigors of normal use of an inner layer. I take this to mean it is not designed to be worn as a shell if there is much chance of encountering brush or briars. The manufacturer says the material has a cotton like feel. I would not go quite this far but it definitely has a soft feel to it. It sort of reminds me of crepe paper but of course much more durable.
The Plasma 1000 utilizes sew-through construction. However, the manufacturer did this in a way to save weight and increase loft by not closing off each square. Imagine a road with lines coming from the edge to the middle every ten feet (3 m), now move to the other side and do the same, only these are offset five feet (1.5 m). Now remove the center line. The baffles also run around the jacket and not vertically. This should help ensure that the down stays evenly distributed. Maybe this photo tells the story better.
Sew-through quilting pattern
The Plasma 1000 features a full-length zipper in the front and elastic cuffs but does not have a hood or pockets. I can understand leaving off both since the jacket is designed to be layered much like a mid-weight sweater. I like the pockets on my other down jackets but since I plan to wear this as a mid-layer most of the time I probably won't miss them too much.
The Plasma 1000 comes in a stuff sack that appears to be made of the same 7-denier Ballistic Airlight Nylon of the jacket. It is bigger than stated on the website but I'm not sure if this is because I have an XL jacket or they just got it wrong. Having said that, the jacket stuffs easily into the stuff sack and no doubt could be squished into a smaller one. Here is a photo of the jacket in the stuff sack compared to a 32 oz (1 L) Nalgene bottle.
The care instructions are printed on a tag on the left side of the jacket down near the bottom hem. Instead of copying it I just took this photo.
The Plasma 1000 is said to be cut trim to work more effectively with outer layers. I would have to strongly agree with this assessment. I am a pretty hefty guy at 6 ft (1.8 m) tall and weighting in at around 250 lb (113 kg). I have broad shoulders and a long waist but I consider my arms about average length. My chest measures 46 in (117 cm) and I generally were XL shirts and jackets. I say all this to say that the XL Plasma is pretty tight on me but does not in any way feel like it is restricting my movement. The size seems to be about halfway between an XL and a Large. On the other hand, the arm length is quite generous. If I let the jacket arm hang fully extended it goes about halfway down my hand. If I make a fist my knuckles are just inside the cuff. This could come in handy if I ever get caught out without gloves.
Trying it out
I wore the jacket on a short 1 mile (1.6 km) day hike with the temperature around 36 F (2 C). It started a sleet/rain mix before I went as far as I intended and since I was not wearing a shell I turned around and headed home. I was going slow to avoid any brush and also scouting for deer sign but stayed very warm. I did have on a medium-weight wool sweater under the jacket. I took the jacket off long enough to stuff it in the stuff sack for a photo and I could immediately feel the difference, I think mainly because it was cutting the fairly strong breeze that was blowing. I saw mention of a DWR (Durable Water Repellent) treatment on the jacket material and I was pleased to see that the light sleet/rain mix was beading up on the surface and did not appear to soak into the material.
Summary so far
It is hard to draw many conclusions but so far I am impressed with the warmth of this jacket. It is so light that there should be no excuse not to pack it along when I am out and about as well as on backpacking trips when I need additional warmth in camp or in my hammock sleeping setup. I also remember (and not all that long ago) when 750 to 800 fill power down was considered the ultimate in lightweight insulation. MontBell has certainly upped the ante in this category of jackets. This concludes my Initial Review of the Plasma 1000 Down Jacket.
Field Report: February 4, 2014
Author out day hiking with the MontBell Plasma during
one of the colder days (notice ice in background).
Testing Locations and Conditions
All testing took place near my home in North East Alabama. This has been one of the coldest winters on record in our area. However, being this far south has meant a good mixture of cold and not so cold weather. The coldest testing of the MontBell Plasma was on a cold morning when the low was 2 F (-17 C) but I waited until it warmed up to 5 F (-15 C) before heading outside for a short one hour day hike on a local trail. I'm not sure what the warmest temperature I encountered was, but I wore the Plasma on several day hikes when temperatures were below freezing as well as other times when it was near 60 F (16 C). On the warmer hikes I often took the jacket off before long. I used the jacket on one overnight hike when the low temperature was 41 F (5 C).
Field Test Results
I have worn the jacket mostly just out and about getting some exercise or walking to a neighbors,etc. Most of the time I was not wearing a day pack but did wear it with my Mountainsmith Day (a fanny pack) several times when taking longer walks and wanting to carry some water and perhaps a camera. I also wore it under my Gregory Keeler backpack but it was not fully loaded. However, I do use a shoulder strap with my Mountainsmith Day (see photo above). I mention this because even though the Plasma is intended as a mid layer, I wore it as an outer layer several times and it really was the most logical choice of what to wear when I wore it that way. I did wear it as a mid layer several times, especially during some of the bitter cold we experienced. On one morning I went for 2 mile (3.2 km) walk and had on four layers total which consisted of a medium weight thermal, a light wool sweater, the Plasma, topped off with a light rain jacket. The temperature at the start of this hike was 5 F (-15 C) but it did warm up to a balmy 8 F (-13 C) by the time I got back home about an hour later. This was the only hike on which I did not need to remove any of my layers.
On one of the days when the high was in the upper teens (around 18 F/-8 C) and I wore the Plasma while riding my 4 wheeler (side by side) checking on some of my elderly neighbors. It does have a windshield and top but the cab is still very open. It was around 15 F (-9 C) and I actually had on several top and bottom layers, thick gloves and my best winter boots. For my head I wore my ColdAvenger face mask, a watch cap and the hood of my outer jacket. I stayed warm but I'm sure this was mostly because I had so much on that I was unrecognizable. I stood inside one neighbors house several minutes talking to them before they realized who I was. I then joked that I could have been a crazy ax murderer on the loose but they said no ax murderer would be crazy enough to get out in weather like this.
On the overnight hike I did not wear the Plasma at first because it was 55 F (13 C) when hiking to my campsite and only dropped to 50 F (10 C) by the time I turned in around 9 PM. I did use it as a pillow during the night and it worked OK for that, however, I suppose a thicker jacket might have worked better. It was 41 F (5 C) when I got up the next morning but since my hammock was a little damp I decided to leave it up for a few hours. I hiked home wearing the jacket under my Gregory pack which was pretty light since it just held my sleeping bag, a little left over water and a few other odds and ends. I returned a couple of hours later when the temperature had actually dropped several more degrees to pack up my hammock. This was the only time I wore the Plasma under a backpack. However, as noted earlier, I did wear it under a day pack that has shoulder straps on several occasions. This has not seemed to bother the Plasma at all but I honestly think it would be better to use it as a mid layer if I planned to put a lot of miles on it while wearing anything with shoulder straps. In fact, I would probably look for another alternative if I was planning a long hike with a heavy pack. Of course the beauty of the Plasma is that I could still carry it with very little weigh or space penalty.
I really have not had any major issues with the Plasma. I was a little concerned about possibly damaging the jacket by wearing it in the woods as my outer layer but so far this has proven to be a non-issue. I would invariably brush against something even when being careful. The only slight hiccup was on one hike when I needed to remove the jacket and got the zipper hung on the draft seal. I was fortunate that I had already gotten it nearly half way un-zipped before the hangup occurred and I just pulled it off like I would a pullover. I put it in my day pack and waited until I got home to wrestle with the zipper because I wanted to be very careful and not tear the draft seal. It took several minutes of carefully tugging to get it unstuck but I have not had this problem since.
Thoughts so far
The MontBell Plasma has proven to be a very efficient insulation layer. It is hard for me to imagine any other item of clothing that ounce for ounce could provide this much warmth. I do wish it had hand warmer pockets because I needed to wear gloves several times and would have to take them off to grab my phone or camera. Insulated hand pockets could be added for very little weight penalty, and certainly for less than what my gloves added. Fortunately, on the colder days I often had on a light rain jacket and could use the pockets on it. However, they were not all that warm and I ended up needing my gloves on most of the time. One other possibility would be just adding two zippers where the hand pocket openings would normally be located and thus allowing me to slide my hands inside the jacket when needed. They could also be opened when a little venting is in order. Of course adding real pockets would be better in my opinion as one pocket could then double as a stuff sack for the Plasma.
I have not had the opportunity to use the Plasma in the way I likely see it shining. That would be in conjunction with my down half bag (a sleeping bag that only comes up to just above my waist) for an ultra-light sleeping system in my hammock. I am testing a much heavier sleeping bag at the moment but I do plan to try this arrangement out at least one night and report on my finding.
I have continued to wear the MontBell Plasma as often as possible but the warm weather the past month or so has started to limit my opportunities. I did carry it on two more overnight trips but only wore it on one of those. I wore it at times during a trip to Kentucky as well as a trip to Arkansas. The coldest testing during the long term phase was about 25 F (-4 C) on a late afternoon walk around the Air Force base with spitting snow and a strong wind blowing. I did wear it on several mornings before it warmed up, but after such a cold winter I was happy not to need it when the afternoon temperatures climbed to around 50 F (10 C) and above. I was fine in a long sleeve wool sweater or flannel shirt I usually had on under it.
Long Term Test Results
I have really been impressed with the warmth of this jacket. I can't imagine anything any warmer for the same weight. In fact, I found it warmer than many of my jackets that probably double the weight of the Plasma. I was a little concerned at the beginning of the test about the durability of the jacket. I mean, when the company comes right out and says to take precautions against rough treatment, there probably are limits to the abuse the jacket can take. I was a little more careful about exposing the jacket to snagging limbs or scrubbing it against rocks, etc but I still wore it as my outer layer a lot of the time, both in the woods and around the house (yard) or to town. I have not washed the jacket yet but when the time comes I will wash it using the delicate cycle of my front load washing machine using some down safe detergent.
On my last overnight trip I basically wore the jacket the entire time. Well, not during my hike to camp but I did put it on shortly after getting my hammock set up because it was windy and cooling down fast. It had dropped to 55 F (13 C) by the time I turned in for the night. The sleeping bag I had been using was in the shop for repairs (zipper issues) so I took this opportunity to test the Plasma as a sleeping top. I wore it over a tee shirt and hooded sweatshirt (see above photo). I also had on a watch cap and some winter-type gloves. For my legs I had on a pair of sweat pants with some cheap insulated ski pants over them. I wore thick wool socks and a pair of insulated booties for my feet. I stayed pretty warm for most of the night. When I woke up at 1 AM the temperature was showing 50 F (10 C). I was not cold, but in anticipation of dropping temps I did take the time to put on a light weight rain jacket. I went back to sleep and slept soundly until 4 AM. This time I woke up feeling pretty chilly on my back side, but interestingly, my chest, arms and lower legs were fine. In other words, I only felt cold at my butt and back right where most of my weight was pressing against the hammock. This was pretty much the opposite of what I experienced on previous colder nights when I was using my sleeping bag but also using two sleeping pads. Anyways, I checked the temperature and it was 46 F (8 C). I decided I was not sleepy enough to go back to sleep so I packed up and headed home using my headlamp. I wore the Plasma on the hike home and my back felt fine. In fact, it was warm pretty much as soon as I got up from lying in the hammock which tells me the jacket would have sufficed if I had taken another sleeping pad. However, my light weight summer packs don't lend themselves well to carrying two pads so I will probably limit using the Plasma as my sleeping top (no sleeping bag at all) for those times when I don't think it will drop any lower than around 50 F (10 C). I did not wear the Plasma on the other overnight trip but did use it as my pillow.
While my review has been mostly positive, I do have one major gripe pertaining to this jacket. That would be the lack of pockets. I know it would add a little weight but I can not count the times I was standing around in the jacket wishing it had pockets. As a matter of fact, it would not have to be pockets. Simply adding some slanted zippers where my hands would naturally fit would allow me to place my hands under the jacket. The puffiness of the sleeves should keep the zipper slots sealed when using in this manner and my hands would get the warmth the rest of my body is enjoying. Another slight improvement would be adding a hood. Again, I know this would add weight, but when it was cold enough to need this jacket I usually needed some type of head gear as well. So, I would make the pockets mandatory and perhaps offer a hooded version as an option. The hood could be detachable so the user could pick and choose when to take it along but I would not mind if it were not. I'm sure that using the same type materials and high loft down would result in a much warmer jacket since keeping the extremities (hands and head in this case) go a long way in keeping me warm and happy!
To say I have been impressed with the MontBell Plasma 1000 would be an understatement. I know that back during the bitterest part of winter I was able to layer the jacket with a wool sweater and light rain jacket over it and remained comfortable as long as I was moving around a little. The Plasma packs away so small that I feel like I can carry it with me at any time so it will be a staple of my late fall, winter and early spring day hiking kit. I look forward to more use as an overnight top when it warms up a little more. With the addition of some similar down pants I think I would have the perfect three-season setup for my hammock camping.
This concludes my testing of the MontBell Plasma 1000. I hope my findings have been useful! I would like to thank MontBell and BackpackGearTest.org for this testing opportunity!
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