A huge misunderstanding about breathability in waterproof jackets is that high breathability will keep you from sweating. If you are working hard, your body is going to sweat as a way to dissipate internal heat, even if you are wearing nothing at all. The key is how quickly can your jacket process the moisture vapor from your sweat and how to keep the rest away from your skin so you don’t feel clammy and cold.
With traditional waterproof jackets, there is an exterior face fabric that is treated with a DWR coating to keep rain from soaking through and hitting the membrane–an extra layer of protection if you will. But when this layer wets out, and it will eventually, the membrane has a tougher time shifting water vapor through to the outside at the same rate–you start marinating in your own sweat and since the face fabric looks visibly soaked, you perceive that your jacket is failing (though it is technically still working to keep rain from getting inside your jacket).
To eliminate the discomfort and perception problems of your jacket wetting out, Columbia ditched the face fabric all together with OutDry Extreme. Labeled a “fabric with a waterproof barrier” in the company’s patent application, OutDry Extreme starts with a base fabric that is either wicking or treated with a wicking agent to draw sweat away from your skin and cut down on that clammy feeling. A hydrophobic, waterproof barrier is then coated or laminated on the outward-facing surface of this fabric. Waterproof tape is bonded to the outside of the waterproof barrier to protect the seams in your jacket from any water penetration. In some applications, Columbia adds an abrasion resistant coating and perhaps on occasion a DWR treatment for further durability and waterproofing.
So back to breathability. The key here is water vapor transmission rate (WVTR). Within the patent, Columbia claims a WVTR that is faster compared to other commercially available products. For example, up to 70% faster than Hyvent from The North Face and roughly 15% faster than Gore-Tex Paclite.
I have worn the OutDry Ex Platinum Tech Shell Jacket for almost a year now, for everything from hiking through downpours in Colombian rainforests to ice climbing in Iceland. Is it more breathable than a traditional waterproof jacket on a cold, dry, windy day? Perhaps. But it definitely does the job to keep you warm in those conditions which a shell is also supposed to do. Is it more breathable than a traditional waterproof jacket after you have been hiking in the rain outside for hours? Of course. Does it provide bomber protection from the elements at all times? Absolutely.
Some features of the OutDry Ex Platinum Tech Shell Jacket ($250) include an adjustable hood which fits snuggly over my climbing helmet without cutting off my range of vision or head movement. The drop tail is nice to keep rain from running down the back of your pants and won’t ride up when worn under a backpack hipbelt or even harness. If you do start to work harder than the jacket, two huge underarm vents (with two way zippers!) come in handy for a quick heat dump. The two zippered chest pockets and hand pockets also provide extra venting options in addition to plenty of storage space to keep your phone and other items safe from the rain.
I was initially curious about durability issues with the waterproof barrier being essentially on the outside of the jacket. But after a year of heavy use, I have a few dirty scuff marks but no tears or holes to report. And much like any shell jacket, you will still need to wash this jacket to keep the waterproof barrier performing in tip top shape, but not as much as you would to reactivate a DWR treated face fabric jacket.
The entire Columbia OutDry Extreme collection is available now.