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Reviews > Clothing > Jackets > Montbell UL Down Inner Parka > Test Report by Richard Lyon
MontBell Men's U.L. Down Inner Parka
November 19, 2007
PERSONAL INFORMATION AND BACKPACKING BACKGROUND
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 camp conveniences. I'm an avid skier who does most of his backcountry winter traveling on telemark skis.
PRODUCT DESCRIPTION AND DETAILS
The Men's U.L. Down Inner Parka is a lightweight, hooded, down-filled jacket that belongs to MontBell's Ultra-Light Down Inner family. MontBell's markets the Down Inner Series as the "lightest and warmest insulation layer possible, without compromising on fit or features," and states that these garments are designed to replace fleece as a mid-layer. The Parka has two siblings that weigh even less, a Down Inner Jacket (looks like the Parka without a hood) and a Down Inner Half-Sleeve Jacket. The Parka comes with a stuff sack in the same fabric and color as the outer shell. The manufacturer's name, in its alternate mont•bell spelling, is sewn on the left sleeve in letters so small I missed them the first time I looked.
MontBell Co., Ltd.
One wearing convinced me that MontBell had made good on one of its marketing promises: The Inner Parka is definitely the thinnest, lightest weight down jacket intended for active use that I have ever worn or ever seen. And in a compression sack (but not the supplied stuff sack) it compresses down to a softball-sized bundle - the smallest I've seen. I attribute this to several design features:
· The fabric feels almost paper-thin.
· Less down. The listed fill is less than forty per cent of what's listed for my next lighter down jacket. The down chambers are noticeably thinner too. I measured one at 0.5 in/13 mm.
· The "single-quilt" construction, MontBell's term for sewn-through construction of the down pockets. Sewn-through means that the inner and outer layers of the Parka are sewn together to form pockets, rather than connected with a scrim of featherweight fabric to create small chambers of down called baffles. Baffled construction is slightly heavier and usually means a more expensive garment. Sewn-through construction is very common on insulated garments marketed to ultralight enthusiasts. With no down at the seams insulation is not quite as effective as baffled, but in my experience it's adequate on well-made down items.
· The absence of a cover for the zipper, inside pockets, zippers on the outside pockets, powder skirt, draw cords on the hood or waist, pit zips, or anything else that can be dispensed with to save weight. The Parka does have a full-length zipper backed with a small storm flap, two open hand warmer pockets, and elastic at the sleeve cuffs, pocket edges, and front sides of the hood (visible in a lighter green in the photo). This minimalist approach is consistent with use of the Parka as a mid-layer.
XL is the right size for me. The sleeves come just past my wrists and the Parka is snug but not confining across the chest. Length is just below my waist, shorter than I'd want in an outer parka but appropriate for a mid-layer. When wearing the Parka over a mid-weight merino base layer I had full arm motion and no bunching at the chest, and simulating various ski motions didn't cause the Parka to pop up above my belt line. I put an unlined shell over the Parka and felt similarly unconstrained and, as expected, the hem of the shell was several inches/centimeters below the Parka. Overall just about a perfect fit. One design feature I appreciated is a shirttail. The Parka is 0.6 in (15.2 mm) longer in the back than the front, which should help this tall guy keep the tail inside his bibs.
Construction and sewing appear to be faultless. The inside fabric looks like the outside except it's a silver-grey and not as shiny. The attached hood has the same lining and down chambers as the body of the Parka, and no means of adjusting fit, though the short pieces of elastic along the sides give some flexibility. Despite my overlarge head (7¾ hat size) there was room between the hood and my ears. It's a tighter but completely acceptable fit over my ski helmet. The hood doesn't impede peripheral vision.
The front zipper and wearing or not wearing the hood are the only means of regulating the amount of air inside the Parka.
The only difference between the Parka in the box and the one pictured on MontBell's website is its color. The real thing is a brighter, shinier green than what's pictured, definitely not government-issue OD. A bit too glossy for my taste; I actually like the inner grey better. But it's not garish or iridescent and it'll be under another layer most of the time.
I'm cold-prone and I always pack a down sweater, vest, or jacket whenever the temperature's expected to get down to freezing. I regularly wear a down sweater as a cover-up at rest stops on winter trips, as an insulating layer in camp, or with a down quilt as part of my sleep system. Since the Parka has pockets and a hood I should be able to put it to all these uses. Depending upon where this winter finds me backpacking I'll examine how well it works in those capacities at different temperatures.
I'm really interested in the Parka's ability to replace fleece as an insulating layer when actively involved in aerobic activity. Here I'm hoping that the lighter insulation will allow the Parka to do double duty – as a mid-layer replacing fleece and as an outer, insulating jacket or cover-up when it's not bitterly cold. I've found several down garments that work very well as an insulating layer (two of them are the subject of other reviews, linked below) but none that I can wear during active hiking or skiing unless it's really cold, below -20 F (-29 C). Down insulates so well, increasing perspiration that wicks through my base layer (almost always merino wool) to the vest or jacket, often resulting in dampness and stains. Testing will tell if the gossamer Inner Parka, with its limited means of regulating ventilation, can indeed do what its manufacturer claims and, if so, within what temperature ranges.
As with any ultralight gear I shall examine carefully the Parka's ability to withstand the wear and tear associated with packing, stuffing, and the other ordinary hazards of backcountry hiking and skiing. Skiing use will mean constant contact with a holstered avalanche beacon and suspenders and a wide range of arm motion. 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 regularly climb and traverse for desired runs. I'll wear a shell over the Parka, or an insulated shell when it gets really cold.
I'll examine weather-worthiness when exposed to wind, sleet, and snow if the powder gods come through this winter. I'll take care not to wear the Parka as an exposed layer when bushwhacking or its skiing equivalent, activities for which the manufacturer has not intended its use.
This concludes my Initial Report. Check this space for first results early next year when I post my Field Report. I'm looking forward to cold weather, snow, skiing, and my testing duties. Thanks to MontBell and BackpackGearTest.org for this opportunity.
I've given the MontBell UL Down Inner Parka a workout in December and January.
Grand Targhee Resort, Wyoming. I first wore the Parka when skiing at Grand Targhee resort, just west of the Tetons in Wyoming, in mid-December. The resort base is at 8000 feet (2500 m). Both ski days were overcast and windy, with snow showers throughout, and temperatures from 4 to 20 F (-16 to -7 C) at the ski area base, colder on top. I wore the Parka as a mid-layer between a merino turtleneck and a hooded and lined soft shell jacket. I also skied with a pack. While most of my skiing was in-bounds, I did plenty of hiking to get to the powder stash at the far north of the area and also crossed the area boundary to boot pack to a notch on adjacent Peaked Mountain.
Targhee National Forest, Idaho. Just after Christmas I took a three-day, two-night backcountry tour in the Targhee National Forest, Idaho, just to the north of the ski resort. Under snowy skies with temperatures at 8 F/-13 C we began with a 4 mile (6 km) ski along a road and then up a skin track, with a 1200 vertical foot (365 m) elevation gain, from the trailhead near Driggs to the Commissary Ridge yurt at 8000 feet (2500 m). This hut isn't near the better skiing, requiring us to take uphill hikes of 2-3 miles (3-5 km) to reach the steeper slopes on Beard's Mountain across the valley. On Friday afternoon, all day Saturday, and Sunday morning we hiked up the ridge, skied long powder runs, and then hiked back up to the yurt. We skied down to the road and hiked about four miles (6 km) back to our vehicle Sunday afternoon. Early snow flurries on Saturday deteriorated to a blizzard, with gale-force winds atop the ridge (about 9200 ft/2800 m) by mid-afternoon and the temperature at 1 F/-17 C and falling. The storm passed through Saturday night, giving us a sunny, mostly windless day on Sunday. I wore the Parka at hiking breaks and while skiing, over a merino base layer and under an insulated ski parka, stashing it in my pack for the uphill hiking except on the ridge walks on Saturday afternoon, when I needed it and a full-faced balaclava to stave off shivering even when hiking uphill.
As is true of many backcountry huts, the Commissary Ridge yurt has a woodstove. It also has some insulation, but not enough to retain heat for very long after the fire has gone out, which meant that after returning from skiing or a couple of hours after lights-out it was cold inside (though not nearly as cold as it was outside). With nighttime temperatures below 0 F (-18 C) it was too cold to wear the Parka as my only insulation when outside doing chores or visiting the privy, but it was a useful sweater over a clean merino tee inside once the woodstove heated things up a bit. I also used the Parka as extra insulation in my sleeping bag. We used bags that the yurt's owner had cached at the yurt so I don't know their rating, but with a silk bag liner, wool long underwear, and the Parka I was warm in mine at indoor temperatures cold enough so that I saw my breath in the mornings.
Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, Wyoming. In early January I spent a week's vacation at Jackson Hole, across the Tetons from Grand Targhee. Jackson's base is about 6300 feet (1900 m), with more than 4000 foot (1200 m) vertical rise to the top of Rendezvous Peak. As at Targhee, inbounds skiing involves some work hiking uphill and traversing for many of the preferred runs, especially now that there's no aerial tram. I spent one day in the Jackson area backcountry, one day inbounds at Grand Targhee, and five days mostly inbounds at Jackson Hole. I wore the Parka each day over a merino base layer and under an insulated ski parka, an insulated soft shell jacket, or a Thinsulate-lined one-piece ski suit. On all days but one I skied with a pack. Temperatures ranged from 8-25 F (-13 to -4 C), with snow showers or a full-blown storm most of the time. The big variable was the wind, which varied from dead calm to a hurricane of horizontal snow. On two days the wind made it bitter enough to require a full-faced balaclava and two hoods (on the Parka and the outer layer) to stave off frostbite.
Non-backcountry use has been in Texas on early morning and pre-bedtime walks with my dogs on perhaps a dozen days, at temperatures from 32-50 F (0-10 C), always on days when it wasn't raining. On most of these occasions I wore a fleece or wool sweater underneath, but once or twice it was only a long-sleeved cotton t-shirt.
My experience has confirmed most of MontBell's statements about the Parka's usage and set to rest the doubts I expressed in my Initial Report about the utility of a down garment as a mid-layer. My conclusion at this point is that this is an excellent and very lightweight layering piece, just as MontBell advertises.
Every day I wore the Parka when skiing I appreciated its insulating power. I wouldn't know how to measure this scientifically, but my experience in the Rockies' winters tells me it's as effective as a heavy wool or fleece sweater at keeping me warm. In fact I'd say it insulates better than wool or fleece, as I haven't been able to wear a soft shell at the temperatures I experienced at Grand Targhee with anything less substantial than a silk-backed (for wind-blocking) heavy wool sweater that is much bulkier than my usual mid-layer. The Parka's hood helps with this. I can wear the hood over my hat or ski helmet as a built-in neck gaiter. I weighed the sweaters I've previously worn in similar conditions and each carries more than twice the Parka's weight.
Except when hiking uphill for extended periods I never thought that the Parka made me too warm. Granted, my testing has been in really cold weather and worse wind chill, but this is the first down garment that I've worn without encountering almost immediate heavy perspiration during any aerobic activity, including downhill skiing.
Maybe because it's been so cold or maybe because I've been reasonably careful to remove the Parka before heading uphill in anticipation of overheating, I've had no sweat stains on the inside of the Parka even though MontBell makes no claim that the fabric or down has wicking capability. The inside of my outer layer has been damp on occasion, about the same as when I wear a fleece mid-layer, so maybe there is some wicking through the seams. I've not noticed any increased weight from condensation in the down. A weighing of the Parka after returning home from Jackson yielded a result identical to the out-of-the-box weight in my Initial Report, though I must note that the Parka had a chance to dry overnight in my hotel room and for several hours in the airplane's cargo hold.
I've experienced dampness on my skin only twice when wearing the Parka. After a full morning's skiing that ended with a steep, rocky, through-the-woods run (for those of you who know Jackson Hole, Saratoga Bowl), my friend and I stopped for lunch. For about half an hour after leaving the shelter of the café and returning to the outdoors I felt a bit clammy. The dampness seemed to evaporate after a couple of downhill runs, leading me to believe that sudden heat after a chilly morning warmed my core more than aerobic exercise in the cold. At the end of this day I carefully checked the Parka for dampness and stains, and there were none. On another powder day at Jackson the first few inches/centimeters up from the cuff of the sleeves got wet from snow that had slipped inside my sleeves from the hip-deep snow or the occasional spill, despite gauntlet-style gloves. This I attribute solely to my not sealing the sleeve cuffs of my ski suit. After air drying overnight in my lodge room the Parka functioned as well as ever the next day.
The Parka is easy to take off or put on and it compresses down to a grapefruit-sized ball in its stuff sack – small enough to store in my ski parka's inside pocket if I don't have a pack. Half or less the size of a compressed wool or fleece sweater.
As noted the Parka's use as an outer insulation layer in winter conditions is limited given its featherweight construction and lower loft than my other down sweaters and jackets. It will get wet, too, as I found out when I was careless with my outer layer cuffs. As an outer layer the Parka is not much of a wind protector either despite its hood, probably because of the sewn-through construction and no means of cinching up the hood, waist, or cuffs. Based on my morning walks at home I won't wear it without a second insulating layer if conditions include more than light wind or temperatures below about 40 F (5 C). This limitation means that if I continue to use the Parka as a mid-layer in the mountains in winter I may have to pack a second, more substantial down garment for the purpose for which I've heretofore used down – serious insulation. I did this on all my backcountry days in December and January. Perhaps the Parka can do double duty in warmer seasons.
Since my most frequent use of the Parka has been underneath an outer layer I haven't minded its lack of features. As stated in my Initial Report fewer frills mean less weight, and I can choose an outer jacket that has cuffs, waist, and hood that can be closed up. I think it's worth keeping the pockets for occasional use as a sweater, as in the yurt.
After returning home from Jackson I decided the Parka had earned a cleaning even though there was no noticeable odor or obvious soiled spots. MontBell's instructions for this on a tag inside the Parka are simple and straightforward: "Commercial Dry Clean Only." The company's website notes, however, that "If your care label indicates Dry Clean Only it may be incorrect. Please follow the online care instructions or contact customer service for more information." An email inquiry through the Customer Service link on the website brought the following prompt reply: "Do Not dry clean your down jacket. The tag in the jacket is wrong. MontBell is a Japanese/American company and dry cleaning in Japan is different than dry cleaning in the US." The email repeated the down cleaning instructions on the website: front-loading washer on gentle cycle with down-specific detergent, then tumble dry on lowest setting, taking care regularly to break up down that has clumped.
I followed these instructions with one variation prompted by several prior disasters when washing down garments and gear: I disabled the spin cycle on the wash. This meant a very wet Parka that one hour on the "Very Low" dryer setting didn't come close to drying. I left it (flat) to air dry, which took about forty-eight hours. I did check the Parka regularly during the drying process for down clumps but didn't need to knead any out. Once dry the loft had returned to its original volume. After hanging the Parka on a hanger overnight the few remaining wrinkles in the fabric had vanished, leaving the Parka looking like new.
Lightweight and packs down very small.
For its weight, considerable insulating power.
So far, remarkably durable, especially for a piece of gear designated "ultralight." The Parka hasn't suffered any tears or loose threads from constant rubbing against an avalanche beacon and its holster worn under it or suspender straps, climbing skins, or garment zippers rubbing against its outer shell. It handled seven consecutive days of hard skiing and hiking during my vacation with only air drying in my lodge room at night. I've yet to see a lost feather.
I like hoods on sweaters and I like the Parka's especially. It helps my ski helmet keep my head warm. When I wear the Parka as a mid-layer I don't need a neck gaiter or, unless it's raining, a hooded jacket.
I'd prefer a half-zip pullover to the full-zip jacket style.
The next two months should bring warmer temperatures in the mountains and in Texas; I shall see how well the Parka functions as both a mid- and outer layer on longer, warmer days. When back in the Rockies, I'll see if it insulates too well as a mid-layer on a bluebird spring day.
This concludes my Field Report. Check this space in two months for my Long Term Report. Once again I thank MontBell and BackpackGearTest.org for the testing opportunity.
LONG TERM REPORT
Since filing my Field Report I've continued to reach for the MontBell UL Down Inner Parka instead of fleece at every opportunity. By now that's more because of my satisfaction with its performance in nearly every respect than from devotion to this test.
Skiing. Two more ski trips: the Second Annual Cold Smoke Festival at Whitewater Ski Area near Nelson, British Columbia, Canada, in late February, and three more days at Jackson Hole, Wyoming in early March. Six more ski days in all, all but one with some backcountry time or ample hiking and traversing.
At Whitewater, very much spring skiing despite its still being February. Overcast with occasional patches of sun mixed with abbreviated snow flurries on Saturday and Sunday, with temperatures posted at -5 C (23 F) in the morning, rising to 2 C (36 F) by mid-afternoon, followed by a sunny Monday with temperatures about 5 degrees C (9 degrees F) warmer. Whitewater's base sits at 5400 feet (1700 m), with its highest ridge rising to about 6700 feet (2100 m). I wore the Parka on all three days (two in the backcountry, one inbounds), over a merino or synthetic base layer and under either a fleece-lined soft shell or a tricot-lined eVENT shell.
Jackson was slightly colder, especially in the mornings, with afternoon highs just below freezing. No precipitation, mostly sunny, and only mild winds. Again I wore the Parka over a base layer and under a lined shell. One evening I wore the Parka into town over a sweater as an outer layer.
The first backcountry day at Whitewater finally proved that the Parka could make me too warm, so after the misadventure described in the next paragraph I removed it each time our group skinned up to hike uphill. The first time I simply crammed the Parka into my pack. Later, though, I used its sack and with a bit more stuffing I could fit the sack completely into a front pocket on my ski jacket, then zipped up the pocket. This bulged some but didn't interfere with arm motion, skiing, or the hip belt on my pack. This is a great feature for a skier; it means I can safely stash my mid-layer when skiing inbounds even when not wearing a pack. I have never before found an insulating layer that can be stowed in my jacket. For comparison, the photo at left shows the Parka in its stuff sack next to a 0.6 liter (o.7 qt) SIGG bottle.
I began my first uphill hike with the Parka on, and quickly learned what happens when it over-insulates – the inner lining beads up with sweat. On this day with quite a bit of sweat. The Ballistic fabric with "standard DWR treatment" handled this with aplomb; no water penetrated the shell to create sogginess in the down, and the Parka had dried completely an hour later when I pulled it out to warm up during our beacon drill at the summit. Having learned my lesson, on subsequent backcountry ski tours the Parka came off as soon as I started uphill or on a long kick-and-glide traverse. Because it stuffs down so small I also was able to do this on a warmer inbounds day.
At our lunch break that first day I tried wearing the Parka without my outer layer for warmth, and as during my Field Report period I found it inadequate for this purpose. The temperature was right around freezing and we had some light wind, so I quickly donned my shell to warm back up. I am cold-prone, normally using a sleeping bag rated at least fifteen degrees F (8 degrees C) warmer than the expected low temperature and often drawing comrades' comments about overdressing. Still this day's experience leads me to believe that MontBell chose breathability and wicking performance over use as insulation when it designed the Parka. That is consistent with MontBell's advertising the UL Down Inner line as an ultralight alternative to fleece rather than as heavy insulation or direct protection against the elements. As noted in my Summary below I am pleased with MontBell's choice and philosophy.
Another skier's bonus: I normally attach my ski helmet to my pack when hiking or climbing, replacing it with a thin, wicking polyester beanie that's insufficient protection against heat loss at breaks. When I am wearing the Parka I don't have to put the helmet back on at rest breaks, just pull the hood up over my head.
After eighteen skiing days' use I rate the Parka as a great insulating layer for inbounds and out-of-bounds skiing and ski touring. It wicks well, it's far lighter and packs down much smaller than my fleece or wool alternatives, and the hood often lets me dispense with a neck gaiter. The fabric looks like new, promising continued use on many more snow days.
Backpacking. A two-day, two-night backpacking trip in Oklahoma, in pleasant February conditions: down to about 40 F (5 C) at night, 65 F (18 C) during the day, moderate winds, low humidity, and no precipitation. I wore the Parka as my outer layer over a merino base layer in camp and while fishing, adding a lined soft shell jacket when I started to get chilly from the wind.
I also wore the Parka as part of my sleep system, with my Nunatak Back Country Blanket (separately reviewed), a quilt that cinches up to a semi-rectangular bag when needed. In this service the Parka replaced a much loftier hooded down sweater that I normally use, over a base layer. Rather surprisingly given its performance in the yurt (described in my Field Report), the Parka didn't provide sufficient insulation at this temperature to keep my head and upper body warm enough in my tent. I had to add another wool tee shirt and a wool cap. I still have hopes of using the Parka for this purpose when temperatures in the Southwest warm up a bit in the spring.
The only daytime problem I met with on these days was soaking at the cuffs when I picked up a fish to extract the hook or to aerate the fish before releasing it. The elastic at the cuffs isn't strong enough to hold the sleeve on my forearm when I pushed it up before reaching into the water. The wet cuffs became uncomfortable as the day advanced, so I removed the Parka and hung it on a branch to dry in the sun so it wouldn't be soggy in the sleeping bag. The Parka dried in a few hours. This issue was of course caused by fishing, not backpacking, and didn't earn the Parka a demerit in my book, though it served as a reminder that the Parka is definitely not waterproof.
Day Hiking. The Parka has been a great addition to my day pack in North Texas and the Texas Hill Country this winter. It can still be chilly in the mornings, and the Parka is a welcome warming layer at rest stops in the shade. Here again I can pack an extra layer very easily where fleece won't fit.
At Home. Relatively mild weather in North Texas in February and early March meant frequent use of the Parka on my morning and evening dog walks. I wore the Parka whenever it wasn't raining and the temperature was between freezing and 50 F (10 C) – most February mornings and evenings, and a few more mornings in March. On these days I appreciated the Parka's pockets, either for keeping my hands warm or for storing small items such as house keys or plastic bags for picking up after the dogs.
The UL Down Inner Parka is just what MontBell says it is - a lighter weight, highly compressible alternative to fleece. But this compliment doesn't give full credit to an extremely functional mid-layer that I hope and expect to use often in all seasons in the future. The fact that I've worn the Parka on at least forty days (counting dog walks) over the four-month test period attests to my high opinion of it. Even a non-ultralight hiker like me can find many reasons to favor the Parka over alternative products.
I consider the following particularly praiseworthy:
· Packed size. I've mentioned this many times. It means that an insulating layer, and a down one at that, isn't a luxury on a day hike or in my fishing vest.
· No-frills design. No unnecessary weight and nothing much to go wrong. More importantly, during the test period nothing did go wrong.
· Remarkably durable. Repeat praise from my Field Report, redoubled after frequent use over two more months. I still haven't seen a loose stitch or escaping feather.
· The hood. Just as on a sweater, a real bonus. Compatible over a helmet or baseball cap.
My only suggestion for improvement, unchanged from my Field Report and much influenced by personal preference, is to offer a half-zip pullover (with hood) as part of the MontBell UL Down Inner family.
The Parka does have its limits. I need more insulation when temperatures dip much below 40-45 F (4-7 C). It's not especially wind resistant so I must add a shell when the north wind blows. It's not waterproof, though the Parka has done an admirable job resisting mist, light rain, and perspiration. It's more difficult and time-consuming to clean and dry than fleece, and it's useless when soaked.
I will gladly accept these restrictions – I won't call them faults – in return for a mid-layer that fits into my pocket when not in use. My minor criticism has nothing to do with performance:
· My opinion of the shiny green color remains unchanged from my Initial Report. I can live with this.
· I wish the Parka came with a compression sack, which would make it easier to compress it to pocket size.
· Using high quality down to shave weight has a price in dollars. I doubt I'll buy another Parka just to get a more pleasing color or to have a spare to use when one is drying. This mid-layer's MSRP is half again as much as that of the most expensive merino alternative in my gear closet. There usually isn't room in my day pack for that other sweater, however.
This concludes my test report. Thanks to MontBell and BackpackGearTest.org for the opportunity to test this truly useful garment.
Read more gear reviews by Richard Lyon
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