Late last spring, I flew to Alaska for a top-secret preview and gear test of Columbia Sportswear’s latest thermal technology innovation. Called Omni-Heat Helix, soft pods made from closed-cell foam have been positioned inside a garment to keep you warm, dry and comfortable in cold weather. Debuting in a collection of base and mid layers this fall, Omni-Heat Helix is just the latest evolution of decades of thermal technology innovation from the Oregon brand.
The Omni-Heat R-evolution
Over ten years ago now, Columbia introduced its first generation of Omni-Heat thermal technology. The original reflective thermal technology was based on NASA’s space blanket concept which relied on an aluminized material lining inside a jacket to direct your body heat towards you, keeping you warm. The challenge for Columbia, however, came in figuring out how to retain the breathability of the garment.
According to Dr. Haskell Beckham, Senior Director of Innovation at Columbia, “A [solid] the foil wrap inside your jacket wouldn’t let your moisture out and you’d end up starting to cook and sweat like crazy,” he said. “What Columbia’s innovation team figured out how to do 10 years ago was to take the foil and apply it to fabric in the form of little dots. The stitches themselves reflect heat and the spaces between the stitches have the same properties as normal fabric, allowing it to breathe.
Even after the great success of the original Omni-Heat collection, Columbia continued to improve the technology. Following the mantra of the brand’s late founder and One Tough Mother, Gert Boyle, “It’s perfect. Now improve it.
Since the first Omni-Heat jacket was released 10 years ago, new and better iterations of thermal technology have since hit the shelves. For example, Omni-Heat 3D added vertical fiber pods next to the skin to create a layer of warm, trapped air; Omni-Heat Black Dot placed heat-absorbing dots on the outside of the jacket; And last year’s Omni-Heat Infinity launch relied on a mix of small and large gold reflective dots that allowed for a greater coverage area for heat reflection without compromising breathability. One of the biggest benefits of Omni-Heat Infinity is that it helps produce a lightweight jacket that stays warm. The Platinum Peak Hooded Jacket is the latest addition to incorporate such technology.
For the upcoming Fall and Winter 2022 season, Columbia has focused its attention on base and midlayer innovation. With new Omni-Heat Helix technology, closed cell foam pods are applied to the inside of knits and fleeces. Although closed-cell foam is known to be a great insulator – you can find it in insulated sleeping pads, for example – it wouldn’t help you fully cover yourself in the material because it’s not breathable. To circumvent this, the pods are applied in a discontinuous pattern inside the garment, allowing the underlying fabric to breathe.
The pods work by retaining heat longer than the underlying base layer material, and they also add a three-dimensional texture to the construction of the garment that helps trap air for increased heat retention and breathability. Layers are ideal for cold weather sports such as skiing, hiking or climbing when you are very active with periods of rest. They retain heat when you need it and release it when you don’t, without leaving you feeling wet and cold. .
How did Omni-Heat Helix perform in the Alaskan wilderness?
Our destination was Spencer Glacier, a short scenic train ride south of the state’s largest city, Anchorage. Rising 3,500 feet in a towering ramp from a glacial lake studded with royal blue icebergs in the Chugach National Forest, the glacier served as the testing ground for a collection of new Columbia gear, including clothing and shoes.
The task for the next few days was to hike across the scrub plains to the glacial moraine, kayak across the lake (and swim!) to the upper icefield, and sleep under the stars each night while enjoying wild salmon and a sip or two of whiskey.
My outfit consisted of the Bliss Ascent Long Sleeve Shirt and Titan Pass Helix Leggings, along with the OutDry Ex Mesh Shell and Platinum Peak Hooded Jacket. With temperatures hovering between the 40s and 50s during the day, I stayed toasty warm in just my base layers and shell. Once dinner time arrived, I put on my puffy jacket as the sun began to set and the temperature dipped below zero.
As a next-to-skin garment, base layers play a key role in wicking moisture away from your body and trapping air to keep you warm. What I’ve noticed is that unlike merino wool which tends to absorb moisture, the Omni-Heat Helix base layers don’t retain sweat. This meant that when I stopped moving and stood in the cold, my core stayed warm because I wasn’t wet.
The soft foam pods felt soft against my bare skin, almost like a layer of fleece. This is a big improvement over the Omni-Heat base layers of 10 years ago which felt a little clammy every time you stopped moving due to the silver dot liner.
Polyester base layers are infamous for getting stinky quickly, but Columbia has added something to their fabric to help capture and neutralize odors, and while they may not be as effective as merino wool at fight odors, you can get away with wearing the diapers several times before washing.
Columbia’s new Omni-Heat Helix thermal technology can be found in a variety of men’s and women’s base and midlayer styles, priced from $55 to $90. I plan to wear mine for many cold seasons to come.