Outdoor Research Helium Rain Jacket Review
Cons: Average breathability, minimal hood, only one pocket, not as versatile in the traditional sense
Manufacturer: Outdoor Research
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Our Analysis and Test Results
An extremely lightweight and compressible shell, the OR Helium is ideal if you're after a rain layer that is light and takes up as little space as possible. Whether for use as a just-in-case layer while out on an afternoon hike, a long-distance backpacking trip, or a challenging alpine climb, this jacket disappears in your pack like no other.
This jacket kept us dry in several short downpours, and the fabric resisted wetting out reasonably well. As you might imagine, it wouldn't be our first choice for trips where you expect rain all day, day after day. The DWR treatment applied to the Pertex Shield+ fabric held up pretty darn well during our field and side-by-side testing and outperformed several thicker, heavier models in its price range.
The main shortcomings with the Helium's stormworthiness are the wrist/cuff design and its minimal hood. There's only elastic on half of the wrist opening, and no means to tighten it; this means water can run down your forearms when reaching overhead into rainy weather. The hood offers respectable peripheral vision and cinches down nicely to help it stay on in the wind. The hood barely covered our entire head and didn't hang over our face or forehead. This means that almost always our face would still get rained on during storms, even if our body stayed dry. While a bummer, it's not a dealbreaker, and we were impressed with its performance, especially considering it weighs about the same as two energy bars.
Breathability & Ventilation
This jacket does not have any ventilation features, save the loose-fitting wrist cuffs (if you can call that a ventilation feature), which fit our lead tester's wrists with some room to spare, and thus let some moisture escape.
It does boast respectable, albeit average, breathability when compared to other models in the budget-friendly range. Its fabric is more breathable than several of the coated 2.5-layer fabrics like TNF's DryVent or Patagonia's H2No. The Pertex Shield+ fabric was breathable enough to keep us comfortable when generating some heat and sweat, but we had to be diligent when layering; this included stopping and adjusting what we were wearing to make sure we didn't overheat.
The Helium is breathable enough for cold or drizzly early morning runs and can be a great option to carry in your trail vest. However, because of the lack of venting options and average breathability, if you're a sweaty person or looking for something you can regularly run in, we'd recommend something more breathable, though it's difficult to match its weight.
Comfort & Mobility
Despite a truly minimalist design, the Helium doesn't give much range of motion or mobility. For "comfort" in the traditional sense, it's a little lacking compared to most of the jackets in this review, as it doesn't feature small nods to comfort, like a micro-fleece chin patch, and its thin fabric was slightly more on the clammy feeling side than most.
It delivers a hood with an excellent fit, albeit a little on the minimalist side as far as coverage goes. The toggle on the back of the hood (to take in or release slack) was easy to operate, even with gloves on. It features a single toggle on the rear of the hood, which connects the crown-line elastic-cinch to two half-length pieces of internal elastic, which are located near your cheeks.
The Helium seals out weather without taking away peripheral vision. In fact, despite its minimal design, it offered decent peripheral vision. While it's a popular alpine or rock climbing model, it does not fit over a bike or climbing helmet, though you can always wear the hood underneath the helmet if you are desperate and it's storming.
A Note on Fit and Sizing
The Helium runs snug and is one of the slimmer fitting jackets in our review. However, for most people, we still recommend your usual size — unless you find that you are typically in-between sizes. In this case, we would recommend sizing up. Our 5'10" 175 pound tester had a medium size (and also wore a size medium in every jacket we tested), and it fit comfortably; however, it's worth noting that it was a little tight with a puffy jacket underneath, though a thick base-layer like a Patagonia R1 Hoody fit great. Our size large test jacket fit our six foot, 185 pound tester nicely. Thought it was slightly snug, the torso stayed put when climbing and reaching overhead.
Continuing with the minimalist design, the Helium offers one Napoleon-style chest pocket. This isolated pocket is very functional and fits a larger than average smartphone or similar sized item. This stuff pocket now reverses and becomes a stuff sack for the jacket, complete with a clip-in loop for climbers to hang from their harnesses on multi-pitch routes. While not having a pair of pockets to put your hands in is a small disadvantage, we think folks looking for the insanely low weight and minimal packed size won't find this missing feature to be a dealbreaker. It also makes this jacket very comfortable to wear with a waist belt, as there are no zippers to pinch your hips.
At 6.3 ounces, this is the straight-up lightest model in our review, and as a result, has countless applications. Since most people end up carrying their rain jackets in their packs, this model's minuscule weight makes it even more inviting. It provides average stormworthiness, and no other jacket can touch its weight and packed volume. It's simply hard to beat for almost any application, like summer alpine climbing, multi-pitch rock routes, and trail running.
The lightweight 30D ripstop nylon face fabric stood up to abrasion better than expected, but to call it durable would be a stretch. We wore it while rock and alpine climbing for several months, and the forearms are just starting to show some wear from the rough granite. After using it for a summer and fall guiding season and not expecting much from the superlight fabric's ability to withstand abuse, we were impressed that it held up as well as it did. However, we'd take care when wearing it.
The main benefits of this jacket are its weight and packability — and they do come at the expense of durability. The bottom line is the Helium is less durable than some in our fleet, though not by a significant amount. For folks who are day hiking or backpacking, the Helium is more than durable enough.
This model packs away in a reversible chest pocket, which turns into a stuff sack, and is easy to compress down. Outdoor Research did a great job of sizing this pocket, making it small enough to actually compress, without being so small that it was a pain to stow it.
Since it packs down so tiny, it's the perfect model to keep in the bottom of a hydration, daypack, or multi-pitch pack — so it's always there. Unexpected rain, wind, or cooler than anticipated weather; this little secret weapon handles them all. The latest version of the Helium has a clip-in loop to facilitate attaching to your harness (where previous versions lacked this feature).
As one of the lightest and most compressible jackets on the market, this thing remains reasonably priced. This makes it a stupendous value, as no other model weighs less or is more compressible for the same or less cost.
Fine-tuned for light and fast activities that take advantage of its tiny size and minuscule weight, this jacket simply disappears in your pack. It's the perfect piece of foul-weather protection for trips where every ounce matters or as a just-in-case layer on more casual outings. The Helium Rain fits a lot of people's needs, but is not for everyone. On trips when you aren't using your rain jacket, the Helium is hardly noticeable in your pack or clipped to your harness. While it might not be as durable, well-ventilated, or versatile as some options, it's our top choice for ultralight.
— Ian Nicholson