by Ryan Jordan | 2006-03-16 03:00:00-07
The MontBell UL Thermawrap Parka is a synthetic-insulated full zip hooded parka, one of only two on the market that weigh less than a pound (the other is the Patagonia Micro Puff hooded jacket).
The key specs, as measured, follow:
I've used the MontBell UL Thermawrap Parka on two trips: one wet and sloppy winter ski tour in Yellowstone National Park's NW corner (Montana), and a cool winter trek into the desert canyons of Escalante (Utah).
In Montana, my normal mode of use was a severe test of the parka's insulating integrity. While ski touring, I wore a base layer (merino wool), a wind shirt, and a rain shell. At rest stops, I would add the parka. Usually, it was snowing and near freezing, so the outer shell of the parka would get quite wet in short order - DWR can only do so much to resist moisture penetration when it's snowing heavily and the water content of the snow is high. Upon resuming the tour, I would stuff the parka into the upper section of my pack. Arriving in camp, it would go on my body and stay on. By the time I went to bed, the parka's insulation would certainly be damp (as evidenced by feeling moisture in the insulation when squeezing it). Since the parka would be part of my sleep system (matched to a pair of synthetic pants), I was certainly hoping that it would dry out by morning - which it did, indicating that the performance of MontBell's proprietary (branded) insulation is not so different from the behavior of Polarguard or Primaloft used in similar garments.
In Utah, I had colder temperatures, less humidity, and drier precipitation, resulting in less moisture stress on the parka. Consequently, I mated it (with synthetic insulating pants) with a lighter down bag than the bag that I used in Montana, counting on the drier insulation of the sleep system to maintain its integrity and keep me warm in spite of colder temperatures. With a light down hoodless quilt (two inches of single layer loft), the parka kept me warm at temperatures down to the upper teens.
The hood of an ultralight parka such as this negates the need for a detached insulated hood when mating the parka with a hoodless bag as part of a sleep system. Consequently, a hooded parka combined with a hoodless quilt provides a simple (two pieces), flexible (separation of parka as both clothing and sleep gear), and warm (combination of parka and bag for sleeping) setup for backpacking in conditions near or below freezing. A parka hood greatly extends the cold weather range of a torso insulation piece. Being able to completely seal drafts with a hood means that even a thin jacket with a hood can be more appropriate than a thicker jacket without a hood in colder conditions.
The MontBell UL Thermawrap Parka embodies the simplicity required of an aesthetically pleasing ultralight garment. Two simple handwarmer pockets, a hood with a simple adjustment mechanism (velcro tab volume adjuster combined with a drawcord to adjust the face opening), a drawcord hem, and a full zip round out its simple feature set. Lycra-hemmed cuffs, hood opening, and waistband are light and functional, sealing out drafts without having to cinch drawcords very tight.
However, simplicity also assumes effectiveness and the MontBell UL Thermawrap Parka has a gaping weakness: tiny (#3) concealed coil zippers for both the pockets and the front zip. Coil zippers are not the best choice for cold conditions. I found the front zip coil and one pocket coil to absorb moisture (precipitation) into the chain, freeze, and make the zipper difficult to use while in Montana. Granted, this only occurs at very cold conditions (less than twenty degrees Fahrenheit), but it's a notable observation.
Worse, the front zip coil is secured by a pin and box that can be considered nothing more than an utter failure in design and engineering. Designed for aesthetics rather than function, the side-entry box combined with the tiny size of the zipper is difficult to join, far from second nature to master, frustrating to accomplish with cold hands, nearly impossible to join with thin gloves, and all but hopeless with winter gloves or mittens. Granted, we're expecting cold weather performance beyond (perhaps) what MontBell intends for this jacket, but it's not a stretch to say that this jacket's front zipper needs to be seriously reconsidered.
In spite of the front zipper weakness (and it's no small weakness, reminding you every time you zip and unzip the jacket in cold conditions), the MontBell UL Thermawrap Parka should warrant attention by those looking for a versatile hooded parka with a solid warmth:weight ratio.
NOTE: MontBell has put new unconcealed zippers into the Spring 2006 Thermawrap series. In the fall, the UL Thermawrap series will be updated with a women's line and a few minor updates to the men's line. Both series will keep the improved zippers.
The parka length, fit, and general sizing should be considered trim. If you are looking for a more generous fit, size up. If you are looking for a belay parka intended to layer over fleece and a stout rain shell, size up two sizes.
"MontBell U.L. Thermawrap Parka SPOTLITE REVIEW," by Ryan Jordan. BackpackingLight.com (ISSN 1537-0364).
http://backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/montbell_ul_thermawarp_parka_spotlite_review.html, 2006-03-16 03:00:00-07.