Hands-on Gear Review
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Street Price: $200
Pros: Lightweight, durable, adjustable cuffs, good features, great overall value.
Cons: Doesn't stuff into own pocket.
Best Uses: alpine climbing, skiing, backpacking, around town
The MontBell Frost Smoke Parka is a great all-around down jacket at an affordable price. This is the only lighter-weight down jacket we tested that features heavier and more durable shell fabrics on the high wear and tear areas of the shoulders, elbows, and upper back. The Frost Smoke is similar in warmth to the Patagonia Ultralight Down Hoody, the Westerm Mountaineering Flash XR, and the Outdoor Research Transcendent. At 12.6oz the Frost Smoke is heavier overall than the Ultralight Down Hoody, and other superlight down jackets, but this is the sacrifice made for extra durability. Overall it is a very well rounded, and well-designed jacket making it a great value at $200.
Unfortunately the Frost Smoke is in short supply at online retailers. If you can't find the one you are looking for you might want to consider the Mountain Hardwear Hooded Ghost Whisperer which is slightly more expensive and earns our Editors' Choice Award.
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OutdoorGearLab Editors' Hands-on Review
The best description of the Frost Smoke is this – Balanced. In a sense, what you have here is a Goldilocks jacket. It’s not too light, not too heavy, not the warmest, not coldest either. It’s designed with long-term durability and active use in mind – and for $200 the price is about right too. At 12.6oz overall with 3.5oz of 800 fill down it’s both warmer and heavier than the super-light down layers we tested, like the Mountain Hardwear Hooded Ghost Whisperer, but much lighter and sleeker (and less warm of course) than a full fledged parka. It’s most defining quality is the shell construction which features two different materials to save weight yet increase durability where needed.
Like all the other jackets in this review, with the exception of the Mirage, the MontBell Frost Smoke is made with a sewn-through construction. The down is 800 fill, which gives the jacket good warmth for its relatively light weight. If you’re looking for a light down jacket that’s a little bit warmer than the super-light jackets out there the Frost Smoke is a good option.
Weight and compressibility
The Frost Smoke’s greatest attribute – what we are calling its “balanced” design – is also its greatest weakness if you’re looking for a down jacket that super-excels in any particular aspect. If you can sacrifice durability then there are much lighter jackets. If you can handle a few more ounces then there are many warmer jackets. Heavier fabrics don’t compress down as well as lighter-weight fabrics so the use of heavier fabrics on parts of the Frost Smoke slightly lessens its compressibility overall. That being said the jacket weighs about 12.6oz in total making it a relatively light down jacket. When compressed into its provided stuff sack it measure roughly 11inches long and 4.5inches across.
The balanced design of the Frost Smoke Parka is most evident in the shell construction, which features MontBell’s lightweight 15 denier Ballistic Airlight nylon for the main body while reinforcing the elbows, lower arms, shoulders, upper-back and hood with a very durable 40 denier taffeta. In other words this shell design invites wear and tear in a way that other light down jackets do not. Many of the down jackets tested in this review here are constructed with a single extremely light shell material for the purpose of saving the most weight possible. The Frost Smoke design is intended to balance weight savings with durability, and we find it to be successful.
For weighing only 12.6oz overall the MontBell Frost Smoke is a very featured jacket. Durability can be considered a feature here - the Frost Smoke is the only lighter-weight down jacket we tested that features shell fabric reinforcements on high wear areas like the elbows and shoulders.
The Frost Smoke and Mirage are both from MonBell and have similar but not identical features. There are well-designed cinch cords for both the front of the hood and the waist. As on the Mirage, the waist adjustment cinch cord is routed into the hand pockets. The benefit is that the excess cord is stashed inside the pocket when you cinch the waist tight. There is no annoying loop of cord sticking out from the bottom of the jacket getting caught of things like gear on your climbing harness or anything else. The cinches on the front of the hood are similar. The elastic cord excess is routed into the inside of the collar, keeping the cord inside the jacket and not flapping in the wind. The back of the hood features a small Velcro patch which allows for slight adjustment of the hood front to back. When the hood is up and tightened this enables you to keep the top of the hood a bit more off your face for better visibility. Like on the Mirage there is a small portion on the front of the hood that has been stiffened into a slight brim, keeping the hood a little more off your face.
Like it or not, this is and the MontBell Mirage are the only jackets in the class tested here with Velcro adjustable cuffs. The advantage to Velcro cuffs is the adjustability – you can keep them loose and comfortable when its not too cold, and you can secure them tight over, or under, the cuffs of your gloves when need be. Some of our testers dislike Velcro cuffs in general however because of the tendency for snow to build up on the Velcro, freeze, and then render the Velcro useless. We find this to be a bigger issue with hard and softshell jackets, which are more likely than a down jacket to be worn in a situation where you are actively messing around in the snow, like skiing or climbing.
The Frost Smoke comes with a stuff sack and does not stuff into a pocket and then clip to your climbing harness, however it is also slightly warmer and heavier than jackets that do. The two hand pockets are fleece lined, large, and comfortable. There is no chest pocket for storing small items, a small drawback that saves a small bit of weight.
Style and Design
The Frost Smoke only comes in three color options (one of which is black/grey) but the two toned style resulting from the use of two shell fabrics gives the jacket a good look.
The balanced design of the MontBell Frost Smoke makes it a great all around insulating piece for most applications and its durability means that it can hold the wear and tear of continual use. Again however, we are talking about a piece that falls in the middle of the road in terms of weight and warmth relative to other lighter-weight down layers. If you live and play in a very cold environment you might be better served by a jacket with a higher down fill weight like the MontBell Alpine Light, MontBell Mirage or an even heavier true parka. If you’re looking for a light-insulating layer to take on a multi-pitch climb, you might opt for a lighter, self-packable jacket like the Mountain Hardwear Hooded Ghost Whisperer. The Frost Smoke would excel as a lightweight belay jacket in dry, semi-cold climates.
For $200 we think the MontBell Frost Smoke is a really great value. The shell design offers durability that other similar jackets like the Patagonia Ultralight Down Hoody do not. In addition you get 3.5oz of 800 fill down which means it is warmer than the super-light down layers on the market yet lighter (and less warm) than a bulky and boxy parka style jacket. The jacket also has many convenient features.
— Chris Simrell
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Most recent review: July 6, 2013
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