Gear Review: Montbell Versalite

Rain gear is never perfect.  It is a matter of compromise.

Over the course of my backpacking “career,” I’ve tried many different types of shells for winter, on-trail use, every day hiking, etc.

I’ve yet to find the perfect piece of rain gear. Because, well, it does not exist.

Call it my inclination, or perhaps some cultural legacy, but I believe different environments, activities, and trip goal call for various pieces of gear. A different tool for a different job.

Rain gear and shells are no exceptions.

What I wear in winter is different from what I wear when covering mileage on a maintained trail or when bushwhacking off-trail.

For years, I used DriDucks for most of my hiking out West.  They are inexpensive, are suitable for when encountering tundra walks or maintained trail, and for occasional use vs. wearing quite frequently.  Considering how cheap the jacket and bottoms are, they breathe remarkably well.

But they are a compromise.   The DriDucks it is as my standard item for my typical three-season backpacking that sees more off-trail fun than straight up bushwhacking.

However, if I encounter any rough terrain of any type, they are toast. And the DriDucks durability is of course not good in the long run. The zipper comes undone, or holes and tears appear more than even duct tape can handle. No problem at home after a weekend. I can order another $20 jacket and pants. On a long hike or even an extended road trip? A bit more problematic, of course. I’d be at the mercy of whatever the local outfitter has available in their shop. It could be a perfectly reasonable Marmot Precip type jacket.  Or some over-engineered and priced monstrosity that looks good when posing by the Welcome to The Cool National Park sign.

I took DriDucks on my extended Utah trip, but I wore the jacket a total of zero times. I’m more lucky than good!

After the trip, I gave a presentation at Montbell on the walk.

Since 2006, I’ve been using their gear starting with a Thermawrap that I picked up in Boulder, CO for the last half of the CDT.

Friends hiked out with me to Diamond Lake in the Indian Peaks. Pictured with my (at the time) brand spanking new Thermawrap.

Simple, effective, and well-designed gear that may be more expensive than budget options, but is not as expensive as similar premier offerings from other companies.

In short, if you purchase a high-end item, I think Montbell clothing is an excellent choice.

I wear an older version of their hooded Superior Down jacket that I received for volunteer work.  And their Frostline Parka is the deep winter mainstay that I purchased over two years ago. Their wind pants served me well for almost a decade! And though I don’t use it as part of my hiking system as much, I did use their light shell jacket (lined windshirt) for quite a few years and break it out occasionally on day hikes.

Montbell Twinsies! Rachel and I sporting our Frostlines during a cold snap when I was visiting in Boulder. PCO Rachel B.

So, when Montbell presented two rain jackets for me to test not quite a year ago, I gratefully accepted them.  Since I paid for other Montbell gear myself, the rain jackets are something I knew I’d like and make use of quite a bit!

The jacket I ended up using the most is the newer version  Montbell Versalite. And the jacket I took on my Great Divide Trail thru-hike. The new version is redesigned with 2-Layer Gore Windstopper and is an improvement regarding moisture protection, durability,  and breathability versus the older Versalite model by all accounts.

The raw specs themselves for the jacket are very impressive with a Water Pressure Resistance (WPR) of over 30,000mm and breathability of 43,000g/㎡ ·24 hrs per the Montbell website. As a comparison, the classic Marmot Precip with NanoPro, a baseline comparison jacket for any rain gear, in my opinion, has specs of 10,000mm for WPR and 17,000g/㎡  for breathability.  Of course, when comparing between different manufacturers, construction, or technology, take the numbers as guidelines and not Gospel.

In Mt. Robson Provincial Park wearing a Montbell Versalite.

But how does the Versalite perform in the  the real world beyond lab specs?

The first third of my GDT hike consisted of a lot of rain and willow bashing.  Rainstorms rolled in, and I’d be wearing my rain gear constantly. Or if the rain did move out, the overgrown trail would be full of cold, soaking rain for hours on end. And I often had to navigate over many blowdowns also soaked with rain.

The Montbell Versalite proved up to the challenge. Not only did it keep my torso dry during all the weather, but it also held up for the occasional bushwhack that admittedly made me worry about jacket!  ( Now, if I had taken some “real” rain pants, I’d have been happier overall! 🙂 )

The jacket was reasonably breathable by itself regarding the material. And at 6oz, comparable in weight to the DriDucks.  But the best part of the jacket and what makes this jacket even more versatile than other light jackets?  PIT ZIPS!!!!!

Yes, old school, but effective PIT ZIPS.  You can vent the excess heat you generate very effectively. The pit zips are sized generously up and down the whole sleeve so thermoregulation can be finely tuned. Unlike other pit zips I’ve used in the past, the pit zips move up and down easily even while wearing shell mitts. Again, all in a six-ounce jacket! For that reason alone, I fell in love with the Versalite.

Other little touches added up to the elegance and functionality of the jacket such as a hood that cinches down and adjustable velcro cuffs versus just elastic cuffs.

In other words, the Versalite is an amazingly featured and effective piece of lightweight rain gear more functional and well designed than other jackets in this weight.

I’ll gladly continue to use this jacket going forward for my three-season needs when the jacket is mainly stashed in my pack, and I don’t expect heavy bushwhacking. Unlike the DriDucks, which I used similarly, I know the Versalite can handle heavier rain if need be and *some* careful bushwhacking.

And though $200 does not make the Versalite precisely budget-friendly, it is less expensive than offerings that are similar from other companies. And should last a while, too. The durability is better than what a person would expect out of a 6 oz jacket.   Of course, the Gore Windstopper will get dirty at some point and lose its effectiveness, too. (But, again PIT ZIPS! Did I mention I love the fact the jacket is 6 oz and has pit zips?!?!?!)

For sustained precip, esp. outside of three-season conditions, a more traditional Montbell 3-Layer shell is what I’ll take. (I’ll give a review on that jacket in a few months.)

In general, though, I expect the Montbell Versalite to be a mainstay of my shell use.

Overall thoughts?  The Montbell Versalite is a light rain jacket that is durable for its weight, keeps the rain out, and is breathable with such touches as pit zips, a cinchable hood, and adjustable cuffs. All in a remarkable 6 oz package. Take a different jacket however if you expect more bushwhacking or constant precip.

Disclosure: Montbell supplied the jacket at no cost to me in January 2018.

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