The holy grail of rain gear is breathability. For years, the breathability argument focused on the membrane itself, whether it be Gore-Tex, eVent, Polartec NeoShell, or Columbia’s OmniDry. Even if you could objectively determine which membrane is more breathable, it’s only one piece of the waterproof-breathable puzzle. Rain gear works through a synergy of many elements—membrane, face fabric, inner fabric, seam-taping, and durable-water-repellent (DWR) finish, to name a few. The key to a high-performance piece of rain gear is to get the construction of all of these elements correct.
At this point, arguing about whose membrane is magically more breathable is a bit of a futile exercise. So instead, Columbia decided to focus on completely changing rain gear construction with the new OutDry Extreme.
Waterproof-breathable jackets generally use a construction featuring a waterproof-breathable membrane sandwiched between an outer fabric and inner fabric. The inner fabric absorbs and wicks away moisture to aid the breathability process, while the outer fabric looks good and protects the membrane from water, dirt, oils, and abrasion. This outer fabric is treated with a DWR finish so it won’t wet out.
This DWR treatment can and will eventually fail, allowing the outer fabric to become saturated with water and therefore impede breathability. DWRs fail due to a number of factors (not to mention the environmental issues)—dirt, body oils, and abrasion. Often they can be revived by a washing and a few minutes of tumbling in a dryer set on low heat. With heavily used jackets, DWRs eventually need to be reapplied by a spray-on or wash-in product. However, consumers are often hesitant to wash their expensive rain jackets and it’s not something you can exactly do out in the field.
To eliminate the possibility of your jacket wetting out, Columbia decided to ditch the outer fabric all together with OutDry Extreme. Instead, the membrane sits on the outside of the jacket with a simple durable print overlay to protect it–much like a 2.5-layer jacket turned inside out. Now, you theoretically have nothing to impede the breathability of your rain jacket.
Chris Araujo, a lead designer at Columbia Sportswear, gave us a compelling demonstration in Colombia last week. Taking a standard 3-layer hard shell, he scratched the face fabric with his finger nail, thus damaging the DWR treatment. We then watched as the face fabric soaked up water poured on the jacket. By contrast, the same exercise repeated on the OutDry Extreme jacket saw the water bead up as normal.
OutDry Extreme looks almost like the original rubber jackets used by fisherman or even leather. The jackets are seam taped on the outside, with a moisture wicking and soft fabric on the inside for next to skin comfort.
OutDry Extreme jackets will come in three levels –Diamond, Platinum, and Gold–all part of the premium Titanium line but with varying levels of feature sets. The Diamond jacket gets the best of the feature set with pit zips, hood adjustments, and Omni-Wick EVAP fabric on the inside.
After hiking through a torrential downpour in the high Andean rainforest of Chingaza National Park last week, I have no doubt OutDry Extreme is bomber waterproof. And if you get home covered in mud, simply hose yourself down and the rain gear is as good as new. Columbia doesn’t publish stats on breathability and as there is no industry standard anyway, the breathability level of OutDry Extreme is going to be subjective at best. I personally did not have a problem with moisture buildup when hiking with my OutDry Extreme jacket in 50-60 degree F temps and rain.
Another stat not published is the air permeability level of OutDry Extreme. Not to be confused with breathability, air permeability refers to whether a fabric or membrane allows air to flow through. You don’t need air permeability to be breathable. In theory, virtually all waterproof-breathable hardshells are windproof—however, Gore strongly believes that you can’t be windproof and air permeable at the same time, while Columbia, along with Polartec and even eVent tout the air permeability of their membranes.
I could definitely feel the cold wind through the OutDry Extreme jacket–something to keep in mind when you consider your layering strategy or the proposed activity. Variable exertion activities like climbing or even biking might leave you chilly at times, where constant pace activities like hiking make for the perfect conditions.
The material is definitely loud–you can hear people walking in the rain pants. A small tradeoff if you are looking to stay dry in a torrential downpour. And while you would think that ditching the face fabric would make the jacket lighter, the jackets weigh between 11- and 15-ounces, comparable to other 2.5-layer rain jackets on the market.
Columbia’s OutDry Extreme gear (19 styles including pants and jackets) will range in price from $150-$400, available for Spring ’16. Both Mountain Hardwear and Columbia have been coy about exactly if or how Mountain Hardwear will use the new technology but I expect to see an announcement from them soon.