An ultralight insulated jacket with high loft down, very light shell fabric, minimal features, and weight under 14 ounces is an essential part of an ultralight or lightweight backpacking kit for summertime backpacking in the mountains or shoulder season camping most anywhere. Down insulation provides the most warmth for its weight, so it’s the insulation preferred by backpackers and mountaineers in all but very wet conditions.
The hoodless North Face Thunder Jacket is part of their Summit Series intended for alpine use. According to The North Face, Summit Series products "are built to endure extremes of weather and terrain while delivering the highest level of performance from base camp to summit." In that context, the Thunder Jacket is designed as a midlayer; for alpine use the shell is not durable enough as an outer layer.
The hoodless North Face Thunder Jacket is insulated with 800 fill power down, has a Pertex Quantum shell and lining, and weighs an average of 14.2 ounces.
Semantics aside, the Thunder Jacket is currently TNF’s lightest down jacket, and is well suited for three-season lightweight backpacking where temperatures are expected to plunge down to freezing. From the perspective of a lightweight backpacker, this jacket can definitely be used as an outer layer. Its 20-denier 0.9 ounce/square yard Pertex Quantum shell is, in fact, one of our favorite fabrics, noted for its tight weave, durability, and light weight.
The Thunder Jacket has sewn-through construction. Overall quality is excellent. Compared to other lightweight down jackets I have tested, the sizing of the Thunder Jacket is roomy, with lots of room inside (including the sleeves) to layer over another jacket. The length of the back is 28 inches (size Large), which is 1 to 2 inches longer than many other jackets in this class, and covers the bum very well, as shown in the photos.
The Thunder Jacket goes a little beyond the spartan feature set of lighter down jackets. The hand pockets are zippered and it has an adjustable drawcord in the hem. The YKK Vislon zippers are a step heavier than the #3 zippers used on other jackets. And the elastic binding on the cuffs is a bit heavier, and the inside seams are bound. Overall, the Thunder Jacket is more ruggedly built compared to other ultralight down jackets like the Western Mountaineering Flash Jacket or the Montbell Alpine Light Down Jacket. The former North Face Flash Jacket (Flight Series), insulated with 900 fill down, is a closer comparison to the other jackets mentioned, but unfortunately it has been discontinued.
Although the Thunder Jacket weighs 14.4 ounces (size Large tested), and is a bit more durably built as described above, it is also a bit warmer than other ultralight down jackets. Although the amount of down in the jacket is not specified (only a few manufacturers provide that information, bless them), the Thunder Jacket with 2 inches of double layer loft is at the warmer end of this class of ultralight three-season down insulated jackets.
I am very impressed with the Thunder Jacket’s Pertex Quantum shell fabric. It’s very light weight, soft as silk, and very strong. The DWR treatment is superb. On several occasions I walked in rain or snow to test the jacket’s water repellency and found it to be very wind and water resistant, but eventually wetting through at the seams. I verified that the fabric is also quite durable; it survived several unintentional brushes with tree branches while camping or bushwhacking.
Unlike other ultralight down jackets, the Thunder Jacket has zippered pockets. The left pocket doubles as a stuff sack. There is a drawcord pull inside each pocket allowing you to tighten the hem drawcord with your hands inside the pockets.
The Thunder Jacket is a good choice for summer backpacking in the mountains and shoulder season backpacking, where nighttime temperatures can get down to freezing. A down-insulated garment gives the most warmth for its weight, and the Thunder Jacket provides plenty of warmth for chilly mornings, as well as extending the warmth of a 30 F sleeping bag in below freezing temperatures. The Thunder Jacket saved my bacon several times on spring trips when nighttime temperatures dropped down into the 20s F.
While many hikers use a lightweight down jacket for only three-season use, I find it to be much more versatile than that. I am a devout believer in the layering system, so rather than carry a heavy down parka for winter backcountry skiing or camping I prefer to take two lightweight insulating jackets so I can wear them separately or together. An ultralight down jacket worn as a midlayer under a shell is sufficient for backcountry skiing on a cold day, or to don during breaks to prevent a chill. On winter camping trips I have stayed toasty warm at -16 F wearing a heavy wool baselayer, a lightweight synthetic insulated jacket, and an ultralight down jacket over that. As needed, I wear a shell jacket over one or more of the underlayers.
Although the Jacket’s Pertex Quantum shell is very strong and durable, it is not completely downproof. I observed occasional feathers coming through the fabric itself as well as through needle holes in the seams.
The real question is – how much warmth do you need? My personal preference is an ultralight, spartan down jacket in the 9-10 ounce range, like the Western Mountaineering Flash Jacket (hooded, 9.5 ounces size Large) or the PHD Designs Ultra Down Pullover (hoodless, 9.1 ounces size Large).
Many lightweight backpackers may prefer the extra durability and warmth of the North Face Thunder Jacket, in which case it is a good choice. The closest comparison to the Thunder Jacket, and perhaps a better choice, is the Western Mountaineering Flight Jacket (850+ down, 11.5 ounces size Large, $250). It costs a bit more, but it’s loftier and weighs nearly 3 ounces less. However, it’s less durable.
Overall, I found the North Face Thunder Jacket to be very warm, durable, wind/water resistant, and versatile. It’s not the lightest down jacket to be found, but it’s an excellent balance of warmth and durability, and will be useful the year around as an outer layer or midlayer.
Specifications and Features
|The North Face (http://www.thenorthface.com/)|
|2009 Thunder Jacket|
|Full zip hoodless jacket|
|Outer shell and lining are 20 denier 0.9 oz/yd2 (30 g/m2) Pertex Quantum with DWR finish|
|800 fill power down|
|Measured two layer loft is 2 in (3 cm)|
|Sewn through construction with 3-inch horizontal quilting, down filled collar, full front zipper with fleece chin guard and storm flap under zipper, two zippered hand pockets, elastic cuffs, drawcord hem with two in-pocket adjustors|
|Measured Weight Men’s Large: 14.4 oz (408 g)|
Manufacturer Specified Average Weight: 14.2 oz (402 g)