Ultralight Hybrid Shell Jacket
Outdoor Research Helium Hybrid Hooded Jacket
$145, 8 oz. (men’s medium)
Sizes: men’s S-XXL
Just as the first waterproof-breathable membrane, Gore-Tex, did four decades ago, and soft-shell fabrics did nearly two decades ago, today’s hybrid outerwear let us rethink the role of rain jackets—or more broadly, weather protection—for everything from hiking and climbing to trail running and biking. Many of us find ourselves trying to stay warm and reasonably dry while exerting in wind and light precipitation more often than we’re trying to stay dry in heavy rain. In the small field of versatile shell jackets described as “hybrid”—because they’re made with more than one type of fabric—OR’s new Helium Hybrid Hooded Jacket ups the ante. Its combination of fabrics delivers unparalleled performance for almost any outdoor adventure when you’re on the move in variable weather, as I discovered wearing it on various outings lasting from an hour to several hours this spring.
I wore it for everything from trail running and mountain biking to rock climbing and bike commuting in town. To give a few examples of how it performed:
• On a three-hour, spring mountain bike ride on a mostly sunny day in the 50s Fahrenheit with light winds, I pedaled uphill for two hours—getting my long-sleeve wool base layer quite sweaty—and then put the Helium Hybrid on for the 30-minute descent. The jacket not only cut the wind, it breathed well enough that my base layer was nearly dry when I got home.
• On an eight-mile dayhike of Idaho’s 12,662-foot Borah Peak, the jacket cut the strong, chilly wind enough to keep me warm, while helping me avoid perspiring because of its breathability.
• Throughout several hours of rock climbing on a mostly cloudy day in the 40s with steady, chilly wind (with light layers underneath), it cut the wind nicely and breathed when I warmed up climbing.
• Mountain biking up-and-down terrain on a damp, blustery, overcast April day, including pedaling hard on flatter stretches and a 10-minute climb on single-track, it repelled spitting rain, blocked wind, and breathed well enough that I didn’t feel clammy on the climb; the inside behind the shoulders was barely damp when I got home, but certainly less than most waterproof-breathable rain shells would have been.
• Biking around town through a wet April snowstorm, I stayed completely dry.
• On a long mountain bike ride, I got caught in a violent thunderstorm and downpour for 20 minutes of wind-driven, hard rain and hail, riding downhill; I rode with the hood up (under my helmet). After the storm passed, my base layers under the jacket were only damp from sweat—the rain hadn’t penetrated it.
The Helium Hybrid blends waterproof-breathable Pertex Shield fabric and taped seams throughout most of the jacket with the highly breathable, water- and wind-resistant, stretchy soft-shell fabric used in OR’s Ferrosi jackets and pants in the side panels and undersides of the sleeves. The result is solid protection from precipitation where it tends to hit you—on the front, back, and head—with superior breathability where your body needs to dump it: in the core, underarms, and forearms.
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To compare it with other jackets in its weight class, it’s more breathable than ultralight rain shells—although I expect that it won’t keep you dry through sustained rain as well as they will, because water would eventually penetrate the soft-shell fabric—and it delivers better protection from rain and comparable or better breathability than ultralight wind shells. In that sense, it overlaps both of those categories.
It’s light enough to pull on in wind or light precipitation in warm temperatures, while blocking wind and trapping heat well enough to wear in temps as low as the 40s and 30s Fahrenheit—as long as you’re actively producing body heat and wearing appropriate layers underneath it. The trim fit leaves enough space for a couple of lightweight to midweight base layers underneath, and means the jacket does not get in the way when you’re active. Plus, the stretch fabric in the sides and under the arms lets the jacket move with you rather than ride up; it never inhibited me while rock climbing.
The hood, adjustable via a single drawcord in back, stayed on in wind, moved with me when I turned my head, and has a shallow wire brim that’s adequate for the light or intermittent rain in which you’d wear this jacket. I wore the hood both over and under a climbing helmet; wearing it under a helmet gave better wind protection but made it a little difficult to hear my partners through the fabric.
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The zippered chest pocket and two hand pockets have mesh linings for breathability, and the jacket stuffs easily into the left pocket, with a carabiner loop for clipping to a harness when stuffed.
The lightweight, 30-denier ripstop nylon fabric throughout most of the body and hood compares with many lightweight rain shells, and is reasonably durable; the soft-shell fabric is more susceptible to tearing, but it’s also located in areas that aren’t likely to scrape against rock or sharp objects. While simple, with few features, the Helium Hybrid gets small details right, like the low-profile, elasticized cuffs, which stay put at your wrists or slide up over your elbows when desired.
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Outdoor Research Helium Hybrid Hooded Jacket
While it’s not a full-on rain shell—I would take it on a multi-day trip only when there’s little or no chance of sustained rain—OR’s Helium Hybrid Hooded Jacket has raised the bar for versatility and comfort in shell jackets made for almost any active endeavor, from under an hour to a full day, in any weather short of steady rain.
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See my review of “The Best Ultralight Hiking and Backpacking Jackets” and all my reviews of ultralight wind shells, ultralight rain jackets, trail-running apparel, hiking apparel, and outdoor apparel at The Big Outside.
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 categorized menus of all of my gear reviews at The Big Outside.