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Traveler's Gear Box: Columbia's "Omni-Heat" Line Looks to Lessen Your Load

Columbia's reflective Omni-Heat technology is intended to keep you warmer without so many layers.

Columbia Sportswear is trying to take some of the bulk out of your winter wardrobe. But is that a good thing?

The 72-year-old clothing company whose best spokesperson long was its chairman of the board, "Ma" Boyle, this fall will offer you a wide range of "Omni-Heat" garments intended to keep you plenty warm while removing some of your layers. From ski parkas to plug-in boots, the line revolves around reflecting your body's heat back to your body.

At the heart of the technology are tiny silver-colored reflectors that line the garments' interior. As it was explained to me, these shiny dots are akin to small mirrors with a metallic content. The metal draws heat out of your body when you overheat, while the mirrors reflect your body's heat. It would seem like this technology would work against itself -- battling to both draw off and reflect your body's heat -- but the folks at Columbia say the drawing off of your heat doesn't occur until you overheat and start to sweat; the humidity essentially is conducted away through the fabric.

According to the company, this technology increases your body's heat retention by 20 percent. When this technology is combined with a relatively minor layer of insulation, the result is like wearing a down parka with 650-fill. As a result, you don't need as many layers when you head outdoors in cold weather.

Additionally, the material "breaths" and so theoretically regulates your comfort as you go about hiking, skiing, snowshoeing, or whatever outdoor activity you're involved in.

As for the "electric" boots -- the men's Bugathermo Techlite, and the women's Snowfall Thermo Boot -- Columbia not only has lined these with the reflective fabric but also wired them for electric heat via a carbon fiber heating element (yes, you plug them in to charge them up before you head out), and put down a layer of 200-gram Thinsulate under the footbed.

In all, there are nearly 100 pieces -- jackets, parkas, boots, ski pants, gloves, hats, and softshells -- that employ the Omni-Heat technology in a bid to keep you warmer. Retail prices are expected to range from $120-$325.

The Titanium shell jacket I've being demoing since winter, the Thermodynamic Softshell (MSRP $140), has pluses and a minus or two. In the plus category, along with the Omni-Heat technology, it employs a water repellent fabric to help keep you warm and dry, and a collar that is higher than most, but not so high that it rubs you the wrong way. It's a nice touch to help battle drafts around the neck.

At 7,000 feet and 30 degrees, the jacket kept me warm with just a single layer beneath it while I was hiking.

However, the jacket does not have pit-zips. As it's easy to quickly build up heat while you're hiking uphill or snowshoeing, additional ventilation under these circumstances would be a plus. The outer breast pocket seems a tad small, but it easily can hold a cellphone or mp3 player...though there's no pass-through for earphones.

Finally, unless you do a little warming up inside to get your body temperature up, you could be a little cold when you first head outside with this jacket.

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