Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Gear Review: Montbell U.L. Down Jacket

Montbell UL Down Jacket

For years, synthetic fleece has been a standard material in almost every backcountry enthusiast’s gear repertoire. Jackets, sweatshirts, hats, gloves, socks, pants, there is almost no piece of clothing safe from the material, except for perhaps underwear briefs.

The popularity of the material is reflected in the multitude of different types of fleece invented, ranging from Polar to Windstopper. That the material is made of polyethylene terephthalate, the same plastic used to make soda bottles, often appears to be lost on almost everyone.

Despite the versatility and popularity of fleece, I have all but abandoned the material in my own backpacking during the warmer months, with the exception of the extremities, like gloves, hat and socks. Instead, my fleece sweatshirt endures the loneliness of my dresser drawer now, replaced by a jacket that is just as warm, but with a fraction of the weight and eminently more packable.

This product is the model of functionality, with a judicious use of lightweight materials. It goes by the name of Montbell U.L. Down Jacket.

According to Montbell, this jacket was purposely designed to replace the bulky and heavy fleece used by the average backpacker. The jacket is super lightweight, weighing in at only 7.6 ounces (in the medium size), which the manufacturer says is less than a cotton t-shirt. This comparison with a cotton t-shirt appears odd, as no respectable backpacker would carry such a dangerous piece of clothing these days, especially given the expression about cotton’s murderous ways.

The jacket is well constructed with some of the finest materials. According to Montbell, the insulation is 800 fill powder goose down, providing optimal warmth during those cold Adirondack mornings that sometimes appear even during the height of summer. The outer material is a 15-denier Ballistic Airlight nylon shell. Despite sounding like a high-tech material covering the Stealth Bomber, this nylon is super light and thin, yet both abrasive and tear resistant. Hopefully, it is up to the challenge of keeping the precious down inside the jacket where it can do some good.

In addition, the outer shell is coated with Polkatex® DWR treatment. Polkatex is not some futuristic version of central European dance music, but a Montbell water-repellency innovation. The company claims this treatment provides permanent water-repellency, thus protecting the down from becoming wet and losing its insulating ability.

The down insulation combined with the lightweight fabric create a highly compressible jacket, leaving ample room in one’s backpack for other necessities, like nutritious foods, a digital camera and dehydrated beer. When fully compressed into the included stuff sack, the U.L. jacket is only about 4.3” by 7.3”, which is smaller than a 32-ounce Nalgene bottle!

This down jacket can make just about anyone look stylish. It comes in five different sizes: small, medium, large, extra-large and XX-large. Unfortunately, anyone larger than XX-large is out of luck, but their massive bodies should make the need for an extra insulating layer superfluous.

The jacket is available in a rainbow of five different colors, including Sunset Orange, Gunmetal, Khaki Green, Paprika, and Pure Indigo. For those of us lacking a marketing panache, that translates to orange, gray, green, red and blue. The larger folk are once again out of luck in the color department, as the XX-large size is only available in Gunmetal.

This jacket never fails to accompany me on my warm-weather backpacking adventures, including bushwhacking throughout both the Five Ponds and Pepperbox Wildernesses. Unfortunately, I cannot take credit for this wise purchase though, as a friend offered it to me at a slightly reduced price when he found the medium size too small. My jacket, being an older model, has some slight differences from the newest style, for example, mine does NOT have zippers on its pockets.

A warning to those finding special care instructions abhorrent, the tag on my jacket indicates commercial dry cleaning with petroleum solvent only. Whether this is true for the newest style of the jacket is unclear, but assuming so would be a prudent assumption.

The Montbell U.L. Down Jacket is made in China, and retails for about $155 dollars.

If in the market for a new insulting layer, or looking to replace the bulky and heavy fleece currently hogging space within your backpack, the Montbell U.L. Down Jacket just might be what the doctor ordered. It is lightweight, eminently packable and provides just enough insulation to get one through those cold early morning hours.

Photo: Montbell U.L. Down Jacket courtesy of mont-bell Co., Ltd.

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Dan Crane writes regularly about bushwhacking and backcountry camping, including providing insights on equipment and his observations as a veteran backcountry explorer. He has been visiting the Adirondacks since childhood and actively exploring its backcountry for almost two decades. He is also life-long naturalist with a Master of Science in Ecology from SUNY ESF and 10+ seasons working as a field biologist, five inside the Blue Line.

Dan has hiked the Northville-Placid Trail twice and climbed all 46 High Peaks but currently spends his backpacking time exploring the northwestern portion of the Adirondacks. He is also the creator of the blog Bushwhacking Fool where he details his bushwhacking adventures.

13 Responses

  1. zyxw says:

    I love my down, but I have found in the past that very shortly any garment that lightweight gets ripped and dirty. A roll of duct tape becomes a necessity to keep the down in, and there goes your stylish jacket. The beauty of fleece is that it is much more rugged, and you can just toss it in the wash after a muddy weekend. I find that Adirondack clothing is near worthless if it requires special cleaning care.

    • Dan Crane says:

      I’ve had this jacket for 5-7 years now and have seen almost no sign of wear on it. Then again, I take great care with my gear, doing all I can to ensure it lasts a very long time. As far as the special cleaning care is concerned, I just avoid it all together (I know – ick).

      • zyxw says:

        I’ve got some gear like that–so difficult to clean it never does get cleaned. Gets a nice patina after awhile…

  2. Wren Hawk says:

    I’m sure it is a nice jacket Dan. The question is are you comfortable with the fact that Montbell…like most down jacket makers who source products made in China require massive numbers of geese that are kept in small pens to grow feathers and then be plucked by hand? Being plucked alive is terribly painful and bloody for a bird…in case folks don’t think birds feel pain, ask a wildlife rehabilitator. I’m not saying you are a bad guy for liking a down jacket. Goodness knows plastics/synthetics have their drawbacks too. But I’m hoping that thoughtful folks will trend toward synthetics and buy well made jackets at a reasonable price point, wear them for the rest of their lives…or if they must buy another, make sure that last jacket goes to someone else who needs it. In other words, consume consciously, only when physically necessary, without harming other beings, and recycle when possible.

    • Dan Crane says:

      One has to balance all competing concerns when purchasing any product. Well-made down products, properly taken care of, can last decades, which unfortunately cannot be said for many of the alternative materials I have tried during my backpacking career. Unfortunately, we live in a realty where death and suffering go hand in hand with living and consuming, where each individual needs to determine for themselves whether a product meets a whole host of competing requirements.

      That being said, these issues are way beyond the scope of this gear review, but thanks for bringing them up, as too often we act as mindless consumers never considering the impact of our purchases.

    • dave says:

      Consumerism doesn’t always have to involve suffering. We make that decision as consumers.

      Patagonia is making a solid effort to address the cruelty of down. I recommend checking them out:

  3. Paul says:

    “except for perhaps underwear briefs”

    No, you can get em! Try LL Bean.

    I wish could wear down. It makes me sneeze. The synthetic versions are pretty good. But for pack-ability down is hard to beat. You can probably fit this baby in your pocket if you had to!

    • Dan Crane says:

      I would hate to have to clean those down underwear briefs on a regular basis!

      • Paul says:

        No they are the fleece ones. I think you said that maybe they didn’t make fleece undies?

        I actually have seen down briefs also. They make a special kind that you can wear when cross country ski racing in very frigid conditions to keep the family jewels intact! Any guy who has ever skied in a racing suit at 5 below knows what I am talking about.

  4. LDP says:

    Patagonia stuff is pricey but their products are well worth it. Been buying their jackets, ski pants, vests for 30 yrs plus. I still have a ski jacket I bought in 1985, only had to replace the zipper, still use if for working around the house, working on cars in cold weather, stacking wood etc. I find that fleece is nice but doesn’t hold up over the long term.

    • zyxw says:

      I guess it depends on the fleece. I have a Patagonia jacket that is the first piece of fleece I ever bought, I think back in the late ’80s. Still in perfect condition and I would use it more if I hadn’t gained a size over the years. I also have a hat from that era that I still wear when working outdoors–the fleece part is fine, but the knit outer layer is a bit frazzled. On the other hand, I have had bargain store fleece wear out in short order.

      • LDP says:

        zyxw, My mistake, I meant to write “down is nice but doesn’t hold up over the long term”. My fleece from Patagonia is bullet proof, have a pullover also from the mid 80’s still in use. The company is great, had a pair of ski pants for years, zippers on both legs gave out eventually. I sent them back to Patagonia for repair for a small fee, when they got them they notified me that they were sending me a brand new pair at no charge instead of repairing the old ones. Great company.

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