Monday, April 11, 2011

Gear Review: Columbia Heat Elite Jacket

Columbia Heat Elite

The Stats:
Price: $170
Insulation: Omni-Heat Liner & Synthetic Fill
Weight: 28oz (1.6 lbs)
Waterproof: No
Windproof: Yes

Pros: unbelievably toasty, massive pit-zips, athletic cut, breathable, compresses well, low-bulk, great pockets,

Cons: too warm for high energy activities, not weatherproof, vulnerable to snags, bulky cuffs

The Full Story:
Omni-Heat Liner
The silver Omni-Heat liner performed about 20% warmer
as advertised.

The Columbia Heat Elite is warm, really, really warm. It's hard to tell if it's the synthetic insulation, or the new Omni-Heat liner but the end result for the Heat Elite is a fairly low-bulk insulation layer which compares well with much bulkier down puffy coats & parkas yet still keeps you warm when wet. Remarkably the biggest concern with this jacket is how quickly it builds up heat only making it a good choice for high energy activities like hiking or snowshoeing when it's biting cold.

The Omni-Heat liner performed as advertised and provide a nice boost of additional warmth. It breathes nicely and actually feels nicer next to the skin than expected. The jacket can get a bit humid but some big 12" pit zips help vent the jacket out and regulate it well. I've been very pleased with how smoothly the zippers run especially because I've found myself fidgeting with the pit zips on this jacket more than any other. (because it heats up, like woah!)

Omni-Heat Liner
The rubber cuff adjustments are bulky and
the fabric likes to bunch up.

For a Columbia product (which tend to run large) the jacket has a fairly athletic cut, nice and snug without any billowing fabric. It would have been nice to see a little more taken out of the belly of the jacket which is the only place it seems a bit cavernous. For a bigger guy the jacket might be perfect though. The cuffs are slightly disappointing though, the fleece on the arms bunches up in sort of an uncomfortable way and the large rubber cuff adjustments seem bulky.

The Heat Elite seems to be at its best after a wet and cold evening trail run, or back at camp after a chilly hike. I'll wrap myself in the jacket and get toasty fast. In a normal fleece I'd be freezing, in down, i'd just be too sweaty. In fact the Heat Elite has kept me a smidge warmer than my REI Antifreeze puffy down jacket which is comparable in price, but much bulkier and not a good option as a mid-layer. The micro-fiber lined pockets are great too and have a posh feel which is especially nice after a long day on the trail.

The "weather-resistant" Omni-Shield is a bit deceiving because it only covers the top half of the jacket and anything but the very lightest mist is going to sink right in to any of the jacket's fabrics. I pulled my jacket out in an on-and-off light rain and found the fleece on the bottom got wet and heavy while the top simply didn't keep anything out. Additionally I was a bit surprised to find how easily the Omni-Shield lining snagged and tore, just a couple sharp branches left small holes and loose threads in the jacket.

Columbia Heat Elite
The Heat Elite is most at home as a toasty camp jacket.

At first I also wanted to knock the jacket for it's low pockets which are covered by a hip-belt of a backpack, however because I mostly use the jacket without a backpack on I've never found this to actually be an issue. In those cases I have had a backpack on the Napoleon chest pocket and internal pocket have been sufficient to store a cellphone, compass, or any other small item I might need to dig out and use.

Napoleon Pocket
The seam-taped napoleon pocket and interior pocket are sufficient for most needs.

All in all the Heat Elite is a surprising jacket, it's far toastier than it looks, it's much more comfortable than expected, and I was even surprised to see how small the Heat Elite packed down. In fact when everything adds up it's a nice option to replace a cheaper 600-fill down jacket since the weight, warmth, and compressibility seem to be similar while the Heat Elite is more versatile as a mid-layer on super cold days and continues to insulate on wet ones. Always, always, always pair with a strong wicking base layer though because heat, and sweat build up fast.

Note: Columbia provided us with a sample of the Heat Elite for the purposes of this review.

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