Review: Montbell Frost Line Parka

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Montbell’s Frost Line parka is a light duty winter parka, well suited to use in milder climates like coastal areas during the winter months, or for extending the hiking season into late fall and early spring in colder regions. With 6.7oz of 800 FP down and a box baffled construction, it’s about twice as warm as most down sweaters out there but still not a jacket for Minnesota or the Rockies in January.

Montbell introduced the Frost Line parka several years ago, but the original 24oz jacket was too feature bloated to be a serious backcountry tool. For 2014/2015, Montbell took a critical scalpal to the Frost Line and shaved 5oz of features off without sacrificing core functionality. Most significantly, Montbell switched to a lighter 20D fabric for the internal layer (from 30D) and reduced the fleece lining which used to cover large tracts of the internal hood. Fleece lining remains around the color and hand pockets, but it’s much reduced. Both the original and revised Frost Line contain 6.7oz of 800FP down, but with the weight shavings for 2014/15 the down now constitutes 35% of the garments weight instead of 27%.

The revised 19oz Frost Line now compares well with similar jackets from other manufacturers, but stands out by offering a much lower price. The key specs (total weight, fill weight, fill quality) are very similar to jackets like Patagonia’s Fitz Roy Parka, but at half the MSRP ($219 vs $449). For 2015/2016 the jacket will go up in price $20, but remains a great bargain.

Fit
Montbell typically makes jackets that are cut short in the torso and sleeves, yet boxy in the torso. This works well for people with high girth:height ratios. Thankfully Montbell has taken a different approach with the Frost Line. It’s described as “oversized with a longer torso” and “cut for layering”, both of which are true. The result is that the Frost Line fits slimmer “athletic builds” much better than most Montbell produces. The torso is 30″ in the back, compared to 26.4″ for Montbell’s otherwise similar Alpine Light Parka. The sleeves of my size medium Frost Line sleeves are easily longer than my size large Montbell Alpine Light Parka. At 5’11” and 170 lbs, the Frost Line sleeves naturally lay half way down my fingers and I can easily pull my hands inside. For a winter parka, the 30″ torso isn’t abnormally long, but merely average. It’s a huge improvement for Montbell however and an entirely workable length for all but the lankiest of users. Most people should to order their normal size which will enable light-modest layering, such as a 100wt fleece. If you want to layer heavily or want a baggy fit then size up one. Two sizes up would be nuts.

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Features
The Frost Line has a pretty standard feature set. There’s velcro adjustable cuffs, shockcord adjustable hem and hood, two external hand pockets and two internal stash pockets, one of which contains a small zippered pocket. The external hand pockets likely contribute substantially to the total jacket weight due the fleece lining, and because the zipper leads to a pocket sandwiched front and back by box baffled jacket, rather than leading to a fabric bag inside the jacket like most hand pockets. Having your hands within the down instead of inside the down is nice but perhaps not worth the 4 layers of fabric required.

The internal pockets can be valuable to some, as they are good place to toss items like mitts or climbing skins. However, I rarely use the pockets so I cut them out. The right stash pocket weighs almost nothing (0.1oz) so don’t bother, but the left pocket is much heavier due to the additional zippered small pocket sewn onto it. Removing this drops 0.6oz. The shockcord adjustable waist hem works well, although the lighter 1/16″ shockcord I swapped in also works just as well. The hood helmet compatible but cinches up quite nicely for non-helmet use. It still looks huge because there’s a lot of down in there, but with cinching it grips the head well enough to function well.

One minor complaint is that a two way main zipper is not needed for a down jacket. Because both ends can slide, the zipper is slightly harder to start for no real advantage. Montbell should ditch the two-way functionality but keep the beefy #5 tooth zipper which is weight well spent. Overall, the Frost Line has a good feature set. It could be a bit lighter but everything works well enough.

Weight
My size medium arrived at 20.2oz / 575g. With the internal pockets removed and lighter waist hem shockcord that dropped to 19.2oz, before rising to 19.6oz when I added a zipper stiffener.

Problems and Suggestions
A significant issue with the Frost Line is the lack of a stiffener on the main zipper draft flap. As a result, the main zipper snags constantly on the thin 20D fabric. It’s a shame because otherwise the large #5 toothed zipper would be a delight to use. This can be remedied by snipping the draft flap off entirely, or by adding a stiffening material to the flap. I sewed on a strip of 3/4″ grosgrain, which eliminated the problem entirely. Hopefully Montbell does something similar for next year.

3/4" grosgrain added to stiffen the main zip draft flap
3/4″ grosgrain added to stiffen the main zip draft flap

In terms of suggestions, the Frost Line is clearly built to a price point so I won’t suggest more expensive 900FP down or exotic fabrics. What I’d like to see Montbell do is add a stiffener to the main zip and nix the two-way functionality. They should also shave 1-2oz off by simplifying the hand pockets, reducing the fleece lining further and by using an even lighter 10-15D fabric inside the jacket (keep the 30D outer shell). The 14/15 Frost Line has already been hugely popular and is seemingly sold out everywhere. If Montbell can make these changes while keeping the price point, they’ll have another great seller next year.

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11 thoughts on “Review: Montbell Frost Line Parka

  1. Great review Dan, thanks! If possible, could you measure the loft at the shoulder? Curious to compare it to the Mirage, Permafrost, Fitz Roy, and the MH Phantom. Frost Line is tough to get measurements on, as it’s sold out everywhere…

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    1. I’m a strong believer that the best metric for comparing the warmth of down jackets is looking at the fill volume (i.e. ounces of down, adjusting for different fill power if need be). Contrary to popular wisdom, research shows that compressing down moderately doesn’t hinder insulation very much, as down compressed to half the thickness is nearly 2x as warm per inch, so the total warmth is very similar. You can’t lay on down without losing most of the warmth, but you can compress it by a factor of 3 or even 4 and still get only a small loss in total insulation. In some cases it’s more weight efficient to compress the down moderately as you don’t need as much fabric.

      Loft thickness metrics aren’t that good for comparison because the density of the down, and thus warmth, can vary a lot. Manufacturers chasing these metrics are producing very minimally filled garments which can be much less warm than a more densely packed but similar lofting jacket.

      But to answer your question, if I lay the jacket on the floor and measure the total thickness of the jacket (i.e. double layer loft) it’s about 3.5″ in the shoulder area. If you’re referring to how much loft is on top of the shoulders, as in how much loft gets squashed by pack straps, then that’s pretty close to 1″.

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      1. Thanks Dan. Having read Dr. Niseley’s research and findings, I agree fill weight is a better comparative metric than volume. The loft measurement is more to give me an idea of the garments’ fit. I find super lofty jackets to be a hindrance at times, as they don’t fit well under a shell, and their bulk makes them more susceptible to damage. Sounds like the Frost Line isn’t too bulky, but maybe still too voluminous for a shell over the top.

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  2. The Frost Line is on the borderline of fitting under a normal shell. If you’re normal shell fits semi-generously then it’ll fit. You could always carry an oversized shell, but I generally don’t like buying such a niche shell.

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  3. I’d have to disagree with you on the two-way zip. I’m considering this jacket for spring and fall alpine climbing, and the two-way zip is a must on a belay parka so that it is possible to throw the jacket on over top of everything, and then slide the bottom zip up a little ways to access the belay loop. At this point in my search, any jacket without this feature is immediately ignored.

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  4. I’m considering buying a Frost Line Parka. Your posts and review have been very helpful and informative, as it’s always difficult to make a decision about something like this without trying it on first. I initially intended to get something lighter (like the Alpine Light Parka), but I’m thinking the extra weight for comfort is a worthwhile tradeoff. Now that you’ve had the parka for some time, do you have any additional thoughts about it? I’m specifically interested in temps it can be comfortably worn while stationary. My intended use is to keep warm during rest stops, at camp, and while sleeping. Thanks.

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    1. I’m still using and liking it. It’s quite a bit warmer (~7oz down) than the Alpine Light Parka (~5oz down), whereas one jacket warmer from Montbell (the Permafrost, ~9oz down) is nearly double the price, so I think the Frost Line hits the sweet spot for weight, price and warmth for winter use in places that don’t get super cold, or for shoulder season use in really cold places (Rockies, Minnesota). I’d be happy using this jacket to lounge around in temps as low as -10C to -15 C (~10F). If you might hit – 20C (0F) weather or colder, you’ll need to bring something warmer or not take long rests.

      Too bad the price of the Frost Line has now risen to $289 (from $219 three years ago).

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  5. Thanks Dan. Just for comparison how cold of a temp would you feel comfortable lounging in the Alpine Light Parka? I don’t plan on being in temps below mid 20’s F.

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  6. It’s been a few years since I had an Alpine Light Parka, but for extended lounging (>30 min) I wouldn’t want it to be much below 30F. I’d say 25F is roughly the lower limit for lounging, whereas the Frost Line could lounge down to 15F, if not 10F.

    If mid-20’s is your likely coldest scenario, you could make the Alpine Light work, particularly if you had a few other layers inside and don’t find the occasional chill to be a big deal. Last week I was out with the Frost Line in 25-35F weather and it was a cozy jacket – no worries at all about being cold, whereas the Alpine Light would have just been sufficient. Kinda depends if you want to be cozy at 25F, or just get by.

    Another reason I like the Frost Line is the longer torso cut. It works better under a hipbelt and is just all around more cozy, but it is quite a bit heavier. I’m not sure if Montbell has modified the torso length of the Alpine Light since I owned one, but it was pretty short yet boxy 5 years ago.

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