I’m standing in a jungle a couple of hours outside of Bogota, Columbia praying for rain. Our guide, an older man who speaks exactly seven words of English, seems pretty confident I’ll get what I’m hoping for. He’s wearing big rain boots and a plastic, yellow poncho. Apparently, where we’re hiking, rain is pretty much guaranteed, which is exactly why we’re here.
Columbia Sportswear (the company) sent several gear writers to Colombia (the country) to test their brand new Spring 2016 line of technical wear, which includes a groundbreaking waterproof/breathable technology called OutDry Extreme. So, yeah, we’re all hoping for rain, and that’s exactly what we get as we hike a muddy, black piece of singletrack into the jungle, the rain coming down in thick, heavy drops.
When I say “jungle,” I mean jungle. You know that scene from Romancing the Stone, when Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner are hacking their way through a thick, lush forest with a machete while the rain soaks them to the core? Picture that, but put it at 11,000 feet above sea level, and you’ll get a sense of what I’m talking about. The forest floor is covered with dense, bright green moss and ferns, which creeps up the skinny trunks of the trees. Moss hangs from branches. Vines connect one piece of canopy to the next. Everything I touch is wet and soft, like a sponge. Occasionally, there’s a well-placed board bridging a creek, but mostly, we’re slogging through black mud, and climbing big roots up steep slopes like ladders. The rain is constant. Locals call this area the Water Machine. The reservoirs that supply Bogota with drinking water are filled from these high slopes.
If you’re gonna test raingear, these are the kind of conditions you want.
Columbia is positioning their new OutDry Extreme tech as a paradigm shift in the world of raingear, which has been dominated by Gore-Tex for the last 30 years or so. People started going out into the rain on purpose when some dude in Scotland invented the rubber rain jacket in the 1800s. It kept the rain out, but it kept your body heat in. Ever worn a rubber suit while hiking? Rubber doesn’t breath. It gets swampy on the inside of that rubber jacket. More than a century later, Gore-Tex was invented, directly addressing the breathability issue. Gore-Tex is a membrane that keeps water out, while letting heat and sweat escape. It’s a pretty good system that quickly became the industry standard. Gore-Tex is great, but the membrane itself is fragile, so you have to sandwich it with two layers of textiles—an inner layer that’s soft to the skin and protects the Gore-Tex membrane from your body, and an outer layer to protect the Gore-Tex from the world. That’s the way rain jackets have been made for decades. Even new advancements in rain tech, like eVent, have adopted the three-layer system.
Columbia’s new OutDry Extreme is the first two-layer system, employing a wicking fabric on the inside and a super-durable waterproof membrane on the outside. There are a few reasons why this is actually important for you and me. First, the problem with a three-layer system is that the rain proofing wears out. It takes a while, maybe a couple of years, but eventually, that jacket doesn’t keep the rain out anymore. It’s called “wet-out,” and it sucks. That’s why if you have a favorite rain jacket, you’ll probably end up re-applying a waterproof spray at some point, which will seriously inhibit the breathability of that jacket. Traditional rain gear is fragile, too. If you scratch the surface of that three-layer jacket, that point of contact is compromised, and water can seep through (try it at home if you don’t believe me). Also, three-layer waterproof jackets are usually pretty stiff.
Columbia promises that OutDry Extreme tackles these limitations head on, and you can tell the jacket is different just by looking at it. The new jackets look a bit like the rubber jackets invented in Scotland a couple hundred years ago; they’re shiny and slick and honestly, don’t look terribly breathable. The jackets definitely look waterproof, but in a swampy, “that’s gonna give me heatstroke” sort of way.
After testing the jackets for a week in Colombia in a variety of different situations, I can confidently say the similarities with rubber stop at the slick exterior. Yes, this jacket is waterproof, but it’s also supremely breathable. The inner layer is soft to the skin and wicks well (I wore it over short sleeves once and was perfectly comfortable), and the outer layer seems to move that moisture out at least as well as Gore-Tex if not better. I did my best to beat this jacket up, but never “bruised” the waterproof membrane. Columbia says it will stay waterproof for the life of the garment—up to 70 washes.
But here’s the best part of the new OutDry Extreme jackets—they’re stretchy as hell. Like, balloon art kind of stretchy. This stretch gives you more mobility while you’re hiking or riding bikes, and allows Columbia to give their jackets a more athletic cut. It’s easily the most comfortable rain jacket I’ve ever worn. Ditto the rain pants, which offer enough stretch and mobility to be considered cycling pants. They also have zippers all the up the side of the legs so you can put them on without having to take your muddy boots off.
Columbia is making three different levels of OutDry Extreme jackets—Gold, Platinum and Diamond, running from $150 to $400 in that order. The waterproof/breathability is the same in all three levels, but you’ll get more stretchiness and a couple of cool bells and whistles if you go with the higher end Diamond jacket.
I tested the Platinum jacket and the Diamond jacket in Colombia, both of which kept me dry. I stripped my rain gear after that long, wet hike in the jungle and was completely dry except for my feet and ankles, and that’s because we had to cross a river twice. There wasn’t even that clammy, swampy feeling on the inside of the jacket or pants, which means they moved moisture away from my body while keeping the rain out. And I appreciated the added stretch of the Diamond, not just while hiking, but while sitting on the bus and riding bikes in the rain too. Stretchy is better—ask any yoga instructor.
The implications of this new waterproof/breathable breakthrough are pretty exciting. Eventually, by eliminating the third layer, Colombia could create a line of super light weight rain gear (this first line comes in at typical rain jacket weights). They could also apply it to their winter line, offering really breathable and stretchy ski pants and jackets. I’d be into that. Maybe even a line of waterproof backpacks in the future. The sky’s the limit.
Keep an eye out for Columbia’s OutDry Extreme raingear to hit the market in time for next spring’s rain showers. I have a lot of rain jackets in my gear closet, but I can’t see myself reaching for anything but Columbia’s OutDry Extreme the next time it rains. If it can handle the jungles of Colombia, I’m pretty sure it can keep me dry during the ubiquitous afternoon thunderstorms in the Southern Appalachians.