Sure, when I’m out on the town in my home city or driving somewhere with loads of room in the car, I love to wear the best-looking jacket in my closet. Bring on the leather, the wool, or the thick layers. When I’m traveling with a carry-on suitcase or backpack though, the requirements quickly change. Then I want something that does the job required while taking up as little space as possible.
Back in 2010 our former reviewer Kara sang the praises of the original Helium jacket from Outdoor Research and before that I gave the thumbs up to their Fanatic jacket. It took me through a tour in the Galapagos in fine form and is still looking good three years later.
With all of these, the concept is simple but effective: make a jacket that keeps away the elements when you need that, but packs away into a a little pouch (its own pocket) when the sun comes out again. Great performance, with very little burden.
The Helium II is an improved version of the original. Here’s the official word: “6% lighter and 10% more breathable than its predecessor. An ultra-compressible piece you’ll never leave behind, it offers 30% more waterproof protection than the original.” If I remember right the original version was also touted to be around 6 ounces, but I guess when you get down that low, it doesn’t take much to get “6% lighter.” Not like you could tell the difference anyway: a mild gust will blow this thing off your lap.
This is no wimpy windbreaker though. To give it a real test I took it to San Francisco, where the weather is as unpredictable as Mitt Romney’s convictions and you can often see fog, sun, wind, rain, and calm on the same day. I got everything but the fog, so I was able to see how this Helium II jacket held up in varied conditions.
It kept the rain off, it didn’t hold everything in when I sweated my way up a hill, and I didn’t feel the wind coming through it either. In short, a good all-around jacket for above-freezing conditions. When it was time to go home, it packed into its own pocket and took up so little room that I thought I’d lost it when I got back and started unpacking.
There are some minor downsides to it, like the swishy-swishy nylon sound it makes, but some of the gripes that came up about the earlier version have been addressed. There’s a second pocket now inside (good for anything expensive, or a passport) and the zippers seem to be a little more robust. There are some nice touches to separate this quality jacket from the cheapos, like a good cinch strap system at the bottom, wrist elastic, and a stretchy hanging hook.
Get more info on the Helium II jacket at the OR site, but I can tell you in comes in four sizes, multiple colors, has Pertex Shield waterproofing, and the adjustable hood is big enough to go over a helmet when spring skiing. The list price is $150, but you’ll find it for less on the real or virtual racks.
Unlike some other things we’ve reviewed here, this is not a difficult item to find. You should be able to buy it at your local outdoor gear store, or you can check prices online at Backcountry or Summit Hut.