Sun, May 20, 2018
Soon after purchasing my Sierra Designs Peakbagger Jacket, Chris and I decided that we really did want to make a serious attempt at extending our hiking and camping to all four seasons. Both of us had spent a considerable amount of time outside in winter, but we never actually made the commitment to make it officially winter camping. Winter camping holds quite an appeal for those of us in New Hampshire, as anyone who has spent a day recreating outside someplace other than a ski area knows. The crowds are gone, there are no blackflies, and one can travel most anywhere without much trouble.
In winter, even more than at any other time of the year, one needs really high-quality gear, because not only your comfort but your very life may depend on it functioning properly. The downside to this is that high-quality gear is generally expensive. It will normally last a lifetime if properly cared for, but the initial purchase can cost an arm and a leg. With this in mind, I began to tailor my purchases towards purchasing high-quality gear at reasonable prices, that would perform well in multiple seasons in order to maximize my investment. One of the first things I knew I would have to do is purchase a top-quality shell that would withstand all kinds of conditions from driving rain and snow to freezing fog and sub-zero temperatures. This is New England after all.
So I finally decided to fulfill my dream and purchase a North Face Mountain Jacket like I had wanted to do for years. I had no doubts about the quality of The North Face (TNF). But until this point, their products, and especially their technical outerwear has been very expensive. However, as I write this in early 2000, TNF has made some changes to the Mountain Jacket line, and older models are being heavily discounted all over the place. I took advantage of one of these deals and came away with my dream jacket for a steal.
When I first set out, I didn't absolutely have a North Face jacket in mind. Given the success Chris has had with his Storm-Tech jacket I figured that a North Face jacket was going to be priced well above what I was willing to pay. So, as usual, I set up some criteria for what I thought a good 3 season (Fall, Winter, and Spring) jacket should have. Now I've spent way more than my fair share of hours outside in sub-zero weather to know that little creature comforts can go a long way towards overall comfort, so I kept these things in mind. Here's my list:
I looked at jackets by Sierra-Designs, Columbia, TNF, and a couple others. I had always wanted a North Face jacket, but never wanted to pay the $300 - $450 that they typically sold for. But when I started finding last year's models of TNF jackets on sale for up to 50% off of regular retail, I decided that I had to buy one.
For those of you not familiar with the North Face Mountain series jackets, there are three in the line: the Mountain Light jacket, the Mountain Jacket, and the Mountain Guide Jacket. All three share common shell fabrics, construction details, and styling. They differ mostly in the liners and the length and weight of the jackets.
The Mountain Light jacket is, as its name implies, the lightest of the three. It is also the shortest and least expensive. It is really designed as a harsh weather 3-season (Spring, Summer, and Fall) jacket, although, as do all the jackets in this series, it will accept many other North Face garments as zip-in liners. This includes some heavy-weight down jackets, so the Mountain Light could pass as a winter jacket if necessary. The weight savings in this jacket comes mostly from it's shorter length (although it is still plenty long and covers the waist thoroughly) and mesh lining. This comes at some loss of insulation, but that can be remedied by appropriate layering underneath.
Next in line both weight and expense-wise is the Mountain Jacket. This is a fully-lined, slightly longer version of the Mountain Light jacket. It shares all of the Mountain Light features, but adds a couple of inches in length and an interior powder skirt to help seal out drafts.
The top of the line is the Mountain Guide jacket. This is the longest, heaviest, and most expensive of the three. It shares all of the features of the other two, and adds a heavier liner and a couple more inches of length. This all comes at the expense of weight. This is no light-weight climbing jacket. This is an expedition quality outer shell. Here are the features according to TNF:
After searching local stores (The Kittery Trading Post had an incredible sale), and the web (Gear.com [NOTE: they still exist, but like many dot-coms, filed Chapter 11 and sold out to Overstock.com. Too bad -- they were cool.] & Sierra Trading Post) I found a classic (last year's) Mountain Guide jacket in men's XL for only $199. I had to buy it, so I did. Gear.com's service was perfect, and the jacket arrived in a couple of days.
After wearing it for a while, through three or four daytrips, three snowstorms (including 3 hours outside in the "2001 Nor' Easter"), a snowshoing trip to Mt. Mexico and Big Rock Cave, and a three-day trip up Mt. Madison in some horrible weather (80+ m.p.h. winds and six hours of rain and fog), I have these observations:
I guess the bottom line is this. I believe this jacket lives up to its billing. It has all of the features that TNF advertises, and given their history and warranty, should withstand a lifetime of abuse and keep the owner safe and warm. But is it so special that you should rush out and pay $400 for it? No way. At $199, I feel this jacket was a good buy. Not a bargain, but a good price for a good name-brand with a good reputation. Is it worth $100 more than Chris' Pacific Trail Storm-Tech Shell? Like most things, that depends on what you're looking for. To be honest, the additional $100 I paid was for a few creature comforts and a name. My jacket is a little longer, a little heavier, and carries a W.L. Gore Extreme Wet Weather certification. In addition, I can buy many different liners with features that match my shell (such as pit zips that are in the exact same spot for full venting -- maybe the most important feature). I think that this coupled with the name is worth the extra $100. But, I doubt I would pay much more than that. Over the coming months and years we'll keep you posted on the ability of these jackets to hold up to abuse.
UPDATE: In early 2001, Chris' shell finally gave out, and guess what he replaced it with? That's right, a new Mountain Guide Jacket. His model is one of the newer ones, the most substantial difference being the "Core-Vent" system which places the vents right in the front of the torso, rather than in the armpits as mine does. In addition, the Gore-TexTM is one generation newer than mine.
As for the type of jacket that it is -- is it substantially better than the Peakbagger? After all, it's 2.5 times as heavy. I'll use the same analogy I used in that review. They're really in different classes. You better believe that I'll be wearing the Peakbagger when I'm climbing 4,000 footers from June through September. I can't think of a better rain/wind jacket. But when I'm tromping through 3 feet of snow from Labor Day to Memorial day, I'll have the Mountain Guide on and possibly a liner or two in my pack.
For now my final words are these:
If you want a good winter jacket though, and if you're budget conscious, buy a North Face jacket only on clearance or definitely get the Pacific Trail shell. If you don't mind buying a name and image, then I do highly recommend TNF.
This jacket is produced by:
Please note that anything I say here is simply my opinion. I am an expert (and a legend) only in my own mind. For the official corporate scoop, check out this product at The North Face's Website.You can click here or on the banner above.
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Chris Oberg & Robert Havasy