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Omni-Heat outdoor clothing from Columbia Sportswear caught my attention recently, but not because I’m cold. I always want to like new ideas like the Omni-Heat Squall Line Insulated Fishing Jacket, and clothing enhanced with the best synthetic fabrics and insulation plus a new approach to thermally reflective foil certainly seems like a good idea. Omni-Heat clothing from Columbia even includes outerwear with built-in battery-powered heating, a great concept if you spend time sitting around out in the cold or if you participate in high-speed and extreme windchill sports.
I’ve been interested in insulating foil ever since the Space Blanket came out, during the Apollo Program. I bought a Space Blanket right away and went out to a stump in the middle of a snowy field and wrapped myself up in it expecting to be warm. Manufacturers of Emergency Survival Blankets still make the same claims, that the reflective foil reflects 90 percent of your body heat back to you and keeps you warm in extreme emergency situations.
I found it hard to detect much benefit from that Space Blanket when sitting on that stump. As a reflective backdrop for a campfire they work fine, and a good space blanket makes a great tarp or groundcloth. I’m sure there’s some added warmth, but condensation soon counters much of that benefit when you try sleeping underneath one. I’d rate it higher than an empty trash bag and lower than a big pile of dry leaves. Probably others disagree with me, but I’ve tried foil blankets many times, wanting to believe the advertising pitch, and I’d say they’re definitely worth carrying but fall short of the claims. I always carry a pocket-sized mylar blanket in my pack, but I always check when packing to see if it unfolds into a useful sheet or somehow mysteriously dissolved into a compact, useless mylar foil sandwich. You learn to do that if you’ve ever needed one and found out it’s just a lightweight blob.
Experience has taught me to be skeptical of claims about space age foil insulation, and Columbia’s Omni-Heat clothing did not automatically get extra points from me for including this material in their outerwear design. However, Columbia’s concept seems practical enough, dealing with the condensation problem by breaking up the foil liner into thousands and thousands of small foil dots. Breathable fabric in the spaces between these reflective dots allows Columbia’s outerwear to vent the moisture a space blanket traps. I believe Columbia’s claim that the dots reflect back 20 percent of your body heat might be accurate. Omni-Heat clothing with the space age micro-dot inner lining performs well and looks great, but I would still prefer a more natural lining. I’ve never found foil to be comfortable. Something like wool or fleece, that traps warm air close to your body and prevents cold drafts from reaching under your clothing, feels better than reflective foil. If you’re concerned about your rep on the slopes, go hi-tech with Columbia and wear a fleece hoodie underneath. Columbia also produces many fine fleece products such as the Steen’s Mountain men’s sweater.