Hot on the heels of my diatribe about the words 'Waterproof Breathable' we have the Outdoor Research Helium II - a lightweight shell that promises weather protection coupled with breathability. So, does it deliver?
OR's claimed weight for a Men's large is 180g and our Men's small tester clocked in at a pretty svelte 164.4g. This puts the Helium II firmly in the ultralight category. To hit that weight, certain features didn't make the cut. You won't find any hand warmer pockets here which is a plus for activities involving a harness or pack, but might be missed by light hikers and technical dog walkers.
really light. 164.4 grams light.
The Helium II actually only has two pockets - a small chest pocket that will fit a wallet or a couple of bars and an inner velcro pocket that you'll never use because it's right at hip level (okay, it might work for an audio player or something as long as you don't have a pack or harness). The real purpose of the inner pocket is that it serves as a stuff sack and has a carabiner loop for attaching it to your harness. I honestly wish the chest pocket was the stuff sack - while the hip level pocket never bothered me, I could see it bothering someone if their pack hit things the right way.
Another feature sacrificed in the name of weight is hook and loop wrist closures. The sleeve openings are half elasticized and half smooth. OR isn't the only company going this route and I actually quite like it and don't miss the hook and loop. The sleeves are cut so the portion of the sleeve resting against the back of your hand is smooth while the inside of the wrist, is elasticized. I like that you can just shove your sleeves up and there is no messing around with hook and loop tabs getting snagged on stuff. I'm sure some people will hate it, but I like this style of wrist.
A DWR layer on the outside (we all know how well those last) combines with Pertex's Shield+ waterproof breathable coating to keep you dry.
Zipper duty is handled by YKK AquaGuard zippers. They work great but they're super stiff.
A final thing that I really like is that all logos and branding are reflective. I like reflective.
All in all, it looks on paper like a pretty ideal layer for multi-pitch climbing or scrambling. Light enough to bring as a 'just in case', and free of pressure point causing pockets in the hip belt zone.
The fit of the Helium II is OR's Standard Fit. The result is that on my 5'10, 150lb frame, the small fit with enough room to layer up underneath. If you are smaller than me, it'll be a sail and there's no XS. Baffled. I'm just not that small a dude.
Despite practically turning into a storm chaser, I struck out at finding a convenient rain storm to test things out (it's still mostly snowing), so I turned to the Mountain Wagon Severe Weather Simulator. By which I mean I sullenly stood in the shower while wearing a jacket.
Results of testing is that yes, it's waterproof. (edit: since publication, I was lucky enough to get rained on while wearing the jacket - lucky me - but yes, it's plenty waterproof)
One thing we noticed pretty quickly is that this jacket is SHORT. When climbing, it repeatedly pulled out from under a harness which resulted in mid-climb drafts - which suck. Also, get ready to have your layers hanging out under the bottom of the jacket which looks dumb and means your insulation can get wet if it's pissing rain.
the body is shorter than a t-shirt which is a major fashion faux pas (also comes out from your harness)
and my ape index positive arms would like sleeves an inch or two longer.
Additionally, my ape index arms would appreciate an extra inch in the sleeves.
Sleeve width is pretty close to perfect - wide enough to layer, but not giant floppy things. I hate floppy sleeves. The wrist opening could be a little more snug though - but then I have tiny girly wrists.
The helmet compatible hood has a bit of a stiffened brim and a draw cord at the back which makes it light and packable while minimizing weight. You might think it is missing some adjustment, but seriously, it doesn't need anything else. Without a helmet, the drawcord keeps the hood planted and your peripheral vision clear. With a helmet, the hood draws down low, almost entirely covering the vents of my Black Diamond Vapour Helmet. This is the hood everyone else should copy.
The YKK AquaGuard zippers work really well, but they're stiff - really stiff. The problem is exacerbated by the light weight. When the chest pocket is open, it takes two hands to close it - one on the zipper pull, the other holding the jacket down.
Breathability is where the OR Helium II struggles a bit. Like most PU coatings the Pertex Shield+ had me feeling a little sweaty during the approach to a climb. That said, this is a rain layer and I was only wearing it for the purposes of this review - normally I'd just wear a light wind layer and save the OR Helium II for when the rain starts and then it seems to get the job done.
The Bottom Line
While it isn't perfect, the Outdoor Research Helium II combines light weight, performance and an extremely aggressive price point into a seriously compelling package. It'll keep you dry when it's wet out and it's light enough that you'll probably have it shoved in your pack when that unexpected storm hits.
- Lightweight at 164g in Men's Small
- Excellent hood that works with or without a helmet
- Comfortable under a harness or pack
- Super packable
- Inexpensive at $220CAD
- Short torso - I wish it was two inches longer
- Pertex Shield+ coating isn't the most breathable
- Zippers are stiff
The Outdoor Research Helium II makes for a great alpine rain shell. Thanks to its packed size and weight it disappears into your pack until you get caught in a storm. It's breathable enough, plenty waterproof and stops the wind.
Mountain Wagon Rating: Dirtbag approved - it's way cheaper than a Gore-Tex jacket and it gets the job done at half the weight.
Grumpy, cantankerous, wildly opinionated and so much more! Getting really tired on skis is what makes me happy.