By JASON MAGNESS
The grainy YouTube video below in this column, shot in 2008 and hack-edited together with available footage and still photos, reveals a misadventure led by my brother, Andy Magness, where a small group of adventurers (myself included) set out on a “mission” to trek deep into the Montana wilderness, climb a peak, descend off the backside, float a class V river, then bike back to civilization. . . all with no tent, no sleeping bags or pads, only five pounds of food, pack-rafts, break-apart paddles, and, well, perhaps you get the picture. Watch it when you get a sec. There’s some powerful youthful energy here I still love.
Getting to the point of this column: On ultra-light, extreme trips like this (which I am known to concoct) we bring very little gear, almost nothing at all. But we do always bring a few items, and today I want to dissect the piece of the kit we call the “suffer suit.”
Ultra-endurance feats require suffering. Often times, in the depths of it, we’re wet and cold and exhausted. But our “suits” — synthetic-insulation-filled jackets and pants — allow us to suffer through almost anything with a modicum of warmth and protection from wind.
Even when wet, these outerwear products offer some warmth. When dry and under a shell jacket, they are toasty as can be. In short, they are indispensable for any deep wilderness adventure in my opinion. I never leave home without them.
Originally Montbell, with its Thermawrap garments, was the go-to. Now, there are a few different brands to choose from, including Rab and Montane. All the pieces in this category share a few key points: They are ultra-light and packable, windproof, they use synthetic down (PrimaLoft or proprietary insulation), and they maintain their warmth wet or dry.
In some cases we’ve even eschewed the use of wetsuits for our “suffer suits” on backcountry whitewater trips. Wetsuits are too heavy to carry deep into the mountains, but the synthetic insulation can give a layer of protection, even if it’s matted against the body after an icy swim.
It dries out once you get moving on land again, though that takes some serious effort to generate body heat while moving to push moisture away from the fibers. And these products are durable enough to survive real wilderness use, including week-long adventure races in Chile, among other wild times in the great outside. In short, these pieces are highly versatile and, for me, a must-have for survival on extreme trips.
They also work wonderfully in any normal circumstance outside. Light, puffy, packable, somewhat breathable, and resistant to wind, they make great companions through a range of temps, from about 10 degrees F and above, depending on layering.
Over the years I’ve tried several brands of these kind of jackets, but the pants are more difficult to come by. Montbell stopped production of its Thermawrap Pant in 2008, and like many outerwear brands seem to focus on heavier backcountry ski gear now.
The exception is UK-based Montane with its Prism Pants, which are PrimaLoft-insulated pants that cost $160 and have a DWR coating so rain beads up on the fabric face. They weigh just 9.5 ounces and pack down super small in a backpack.
Pants are nice. But the jackets are mandatory. As noted, our original tops in this category came from Montbell with its Thermawrap line, including the namesake jacket. It costs $155, uses a light outer fabric that’s tear-resistant, and it weighs less than 10 ounces. This jacket is durable and has been tested all over the globe by me personally, from Patagonia to New Zealand, to adventures in my backyard here in the Bend, Ore., area.
RAB makes a similar item with its Xenon jacket, $245, which uses PrimaLoft for insulation and a shiny, light Pertex outer fabric that seems frail but in fact can survive a serious beating outside, including even bushwhacking. Its hood fits close like a hat. It weighs about 12 ounces packed up, and there are three pockets (chest, two hand) for stashing some essential goods.
Finally, Montane has its Fireball Smock, $192, which is a pullover piece I’ve been testing this year. It again uses PrimaLoft insulation and weighs about 9 ounces in a size medium. There’s a chest pocket, reflective trim, articulated arms, and DWR treatment for water resistance.
If you’re the kind of person who may find yourself deep in the wilderness, perhaps cold and wet and suffering some, I highly recommend you pick up one of these jackets. They inspire confidence. They work. You won’t look back. You’ll trace a line on a topo map, chart a remote course, and with confidence in your outerwear and small kit of gear, you’ll think “I can do this, let’s go!”
—Jason Magness is a contributing editor and a founder of the YogaSlackers, a group described as “an eclectic mix of extreme endurance athletes, master yogis, rugged adventurers, and talented slackliners who all share a passion for environmental education and awareness.” Magness and others in the group compete in endurance events as Team GearJunkie/YogaSlackers.