Ice Age Trail: Alan wearing the Northern Lite vest on a crisp morning. The elastic arm openings help seal in warmth.
In our opinion, the Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC) Northern Lite pullover and vest are the best values in lightweight synthetic insulating garments. They retail for nearly half the price of similar garments but have first-class performance. Both are simply designed, well constructed, and use premium PrimaLoft PL1 insulation. PL1 insulation has better performance when wet than many of the non-premium insulations used in some lightweight garments. In addition the microfiber shell fabric of these garments is water resistant by the nature of its tight weave which increases the wet weather performance. This wet weather performance is not surprising since MEC is located in the cool and wet Northwest. At 12.1 ounces (343 grams) for the pullover and 8.5 ounces (241 grams) for the vest, they are slightly heavier than some high-end garments with similar loft.
- Super bargain in a high performance insulated garment
- Premium PrimaLoft PL1 insulation. Good performance when wet
- Water resistant microfiber shell
- Good ventilation: deep 3/4-length front zipper on pullover and full length zipper on vest
- Chest pocket on pullover and side pocket on vest are actually large enough to easily stuff the garments into their self-stuff sack
- Minimalist design for pullover
• Garment Style
|Non-hooded pullover with 3/4-length, 16 in (41 cm) zipper||Full-zip vest|
• Fabric Description
|Shell fabric: KT336 30d windproof naturally water-resistant microfiber polyester. Lining fabric: 30d nylon taffeta||Shell fabric: KT336 30d windproof naturally water-resistant microfiber polyester. Lining fabric: 30d nylon taffeta|
• Insulation Description
|1.8 oz/yd2 (60 g/m2) PrimaLoft PL1||1.8 oz/yd2 (60 g/m2) PrimaLoft PL1|
• Other Features
|Single external chest pocket with 7.85 in (20 cm) zipper, serves as stuff sack, stretch binding tape on waist and cuffs, 2.4 in (6 cm) high collar||Two zippered hand warmer pockets (left pocket has two-way zipper and serves as stuff sack) non-adjustable elastic hem, 2.4 in (6 cm) high collar.|
|12.1 oz (343 g) as measured size men’s medium (manufacturer specification: 340 g (12.0 oz))||8.5 oz (241 g) as measured size men’s medium (manufacturer specification: 260 g (9.2 oz))|
|0.4 in (1.0 cm) loft for a single layer||0.4 in (1.0 cm) loft for a single layer|
• Model Year
|Fall 2003||Fall 2003|
|$79.00 Canadian (approximately $60 U.S.)||$68 Canadian (approximately $52 U.S.)|
Carol wearing the Northern Lite pullover in the Weminuche Wilderness, Colorado. Note the sleeves are plenty long enough for her 32 inch arms
The MEC Northern Lite pullover and vest have 1.8 oz/yd2 PrimaLoft PL1 insulation which is quilted to the liner fabric and lofts nicely even after being subjected to an all day rainstorm. The pullover neck fits closely and the cuff and waist use simple stretch binding tape to seal in warmth. The sleeves are long enough on the pullover that I could pull my hands (with my 32 inch sleeve length) completely into the sleeves to warm them up.
I tested the Northern Lite pullover on a trip with lots of precipitation along a Colorado section of the Continental Divide Trail. Alan tested the vest along the Ice Age trail as well as other locations. To keep warm while hiking, I need to wear more clothing than many backpackers. The Northern Lite provided welcome warmth on the last day of my trip as I began to hike down hill towards the trail head in a hail storm at freezing temperatures. The pullover did a good job of sealing in warmth. Once I started hiking uphill, it became too warm and I needed to take it off. Both vest and pullover kept us warm on cold nights and mornings in camp, and at windy rest stops. As expected, the vest needed a shell thrown over it during windy periods and in the rain. The vest proved an excellent way to increase the warmth of a minimal sleeping bag when Alan weathered a sub-freezing night in a windy and exposed bivy. A bonus – the vest did not steal much space in an already tight sleeping bag.
Both of us found the microfiber shell fabric of the Northern Lite breathable enough for moderate exertion in cool weather (approximately 40 °F). Nonetheless as we increased uphill activity, we needed to make good use of the garments’ zippers for ventilation, and I eventually needed to take the Northern Lite pullover off to keep from overheating. Alan found the vest with its full zip and natural underarm ventilation did much better with temperature regulation and internal moisture accumulation.
The Northern Lite has a windproof, naturally water-resistant microfiber polyester shell according to the MEC web site. The weave of the fabric is very tight and slows the rate that water seeps through it as compared to a regular weave fabric. I had a chance to test this as I hiked several hours in a constant and heavy rain. The sleeves of my poncho did not cover the lower sleeves of the pullover which were constantly exposed to the rain. Although the pullover shell wet out fairly quickly under the hard rain, water did not make its way through the PrimaLoft PL1 insulation to my base layer, and my arms never felt wet. The pullover dried quickly on my body once I got under a tarp and out of the rain. Alan wore the vest under a very light windshirt in a cold rain. The microfiber shell did a good job of holding water at bay but eventually the PL1 insulation did get wet, mainly around the shoulder seams. He didn’t notice a huge difference in warmth once it was wet and like me was able to dry it out once he got under shelter at the end of the day.
The Northern Lite pullover fits my long slender torso nicely with room for base and mid layers underneath. The bottom hem is just below hip length and there is enough room to bend over and touch my toes without the bottom hem lifting. The sleeves are long enough to tuck my hands into and the shoulders have good articulation. The hem does not rise when arms are raised to shoulder height and only rises about half an inch when arms are held straight overhead. The pullover does not bind across the back when arms are crossed or held forward. The very large napoleon pocket has plenty of room to carry lots of small items. It is one of the few chest pockets that claim to be a stuff sack that easily contains the garment without straining the seams. Sleeves and waist are not adjustable, but both fit closely enough to keep drafts at bay, while being loose and stretchy enough to go on and off easily. The neck opening fit my slender neck closely and comfortably. People with large necks may find the opening too constricting. The guard at the top of the center zipper is a nice touch. As expected, Alan had great mobility in the vest. He liked the handwarmer pockets both for keeping his circulation impaired hands warm at rest stops and for the extra pocket storage space. The pockets were great for keeping small items like a lighter, tent cord and stakes, stray stuff sacks, TP, and headlamp readily available in camp.
The Northern Lite pullover costs less than half of the other lightweight insulated jackets that we tested, and the vest costs more than $30 less than the other vests in our review. Both use quality construction and materials including premium insulation and a water resistant microfiber shell. Their only drawback – they are just a bit heavier than some garments with similar loft. They are both a terrific value!
Recommendations for Improvement
It’s hard to find fault with these excellent garments, especially when they cost so little for the performance they deliver. If MEC could find a way to shave a few grams off of both garments they would be at the top of their class. Finally, while PL1 is an excellent insulator we feel that Polarguard Delta performs slightly better when wet. We’d love to see a Northern Lite with Polarguard Delta insulation and a lighter liner fabric.