Review: Black Diamond Helio Active Shell

All-Season Shell Jacket
Black Diamond Helio Active Shell
$400, 12 oz./340g (men’s medium)
Sizes: men’s S-XL, women’s XS-XL

The rain began before we hit the trail on the second morning of a five-day June trek in northern Spain’s Picos de Europa Mountains; by late morning, we reached the snow line, and the light rain turned to wet snow, accumulating several inches on the ground. The wind came from various directions, blowing 40 to 50 mph as we got higher and crossed a pass. It felt more like Scotland’s Northern Highlands than mountains in the north of Spain. For that entire day, most of it spent hiking through falling rain or snow, I wore the Black Diamond Helio Active Shell—and it basically saved my butt on a day when cold wind and wet precipitation could have tipped me into hypothermia.

Black Diamond bills it as a ski touring shell, but its low weight and simple but high-performance feature set make the Helio Active a shell for all seasons in the mountains—as it demonstrated throughout that Picos trek, when I also wore it in variable weather on other days, and on rainy and cool, windy days hiking elsewhere. (I also tested BD’s similar but slightly burlier predecessor, the Helio Alpine Shell, on days of backcountry skiing, but it has been discontinued.)

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Made with Gore-Tex Active three-layer membrane, Gore’s more breathable membrane, the Helio kept me from overheating even at times when we were protected from wind while hiking steeply uphill in the rain with temps in the 40s with the jacket’s hood up, while carrying a pack weighing 25 to 30 pounds. Still, the temperature never reached above the cool 40s Fahrenheit. As with many waterproof-breathable shells, many people would have to ease their uphill pace with a pack on to avoid getting overly sweaty in this jacket in temperatures above the mid-50s, depending on wind.

The Helio cuts wind as well as other moderately breathable shells—which is what kept me from growing hypothermic that day in the Picos—and certainly better than a soft-shell jacket (which, for instance, many backcountry skiers prefer when they don’t typically encounter severe wind). Gore’s C-Knit backer makes the jacket less stiff and more comfortable, ranking it among the quietest hard shells on the market.

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At five feet eight inches and just under 160 pounds, with a 38-inch chest and 30-inch waist, I fit in the medium very well with two base layers (one lightweight and one midweight) underneath, and definitely had space for an insulation layer. But the fit is also low-bulk: I easily pulled a puffy jacket over it for added warmth during a chilly lunch break in the Picos.

The fully technical hood adjusts with a single point of adjustment on the back side, closing neatly around the face to move with any turn of your head, and staying in place even with the jacket’s front zipper open at the top. The hood’s brim extends out far enough to keep blowing snow and rain off my face, and the hood fits over a climbing helmet. Hook-and-loop closures at the cuffs and an adjustable hem seal out wind and moisture.

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Black Diamond Helio Active Shell.
The Black Diamond Helio Active Shell.

Two deep, front pockets with waterproof zippers sit above the level of a climbing harness or pack hipbelt, and the one stretch-mesh internal pocket will hold a lightweight hat and a pair of three-season gloves. The pit zips extend from mid-tricep to nearly the bottom of the ribs to allow for ample ventilation, and their two-way zippers open and close smoothly, and are easy to reach and operate while wearing the jacket, compared to some other jackets I’ve used. In cool temps and wind, I didn’t need to open the pit zips because the jacket’s adequately breathable for those conditions.

For mild temperatures or only occasional rain, I’d get a lighter rain jacket. But at 12 ounces, it’s a bit lighter than many competitors in this high-end category, and it compresses to slightly smaller a liter bottle. That’s particularly impressive given all the features in the jacket, and the 30-denier fabric, which is much more durable—and better-suited to climbing and all-season use—than the 20-denier (and sometimes lighter) fabric found in many three-season rain shells.

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Black Diamond Helio Active Shell

Weather Protection

The Verdict

For hikers and backpackers, mountaineers, and backcountry skiers and riders who need a shell for extreme conditions in any season—particularly in cool to cold temps and wet climes like Alaska, the Northeast or Pacific Northwest (especially in shoulder seasons), and ranges like the Alps or New Zealand’s Southern Alps—the Black Diamond Helio Active Shell offers superior weather protection and comfort at a price that’s competitive with other top-performing hard shells.



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See “The 5 Best Rain Jackets for Hiking and Backpacking,” “5 Pro Tips For Buying the Right Rain Jacket For the Backcountry,” and all of my reviews of rain jackets and outdoor apparel that I like.

See also “5 Smart Steps to Lighten Your Backpacking Gear” and my “10 Tips for Spending Less on Hiking and Backpacking Gear.”

And don’t miss my popular reviews of “25 Essential Backpacking Gear Accessories” and “The Best Backpacking Gear” of the year.

NOTE: I tested gear for Backpacker Magazine for 20 years. At The Big Outside, I review only what I consider the best outdoor gear and apparel. See my Gear Reviews page at The Big Outside for categorized menus of all of my reviews and my expert buying tips.

—Michael Lanza

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