Review: Columbia Ultrachange Jacket

Have you seen the video of the cat in the tiny waterproof jacket? Columbia’s Compounder Shell (that’s the name of the cat’s jacket) has been all over the internet this spring and summer as part of the “Trying Stuff” campaign. The Omni-Wick EVAP tech on this shell was interesting and for Autumn-Winter 2012 they are coming with more products using it, one of which being the Ultrachange Jacket.

The Ultrachange is a 3-in-1 jacket consisting of a waterproof breathable shell and an insulation liner that can be worn separately or combined depending on the conditions. It is no surprise that it comes in the higher end of Columbia’s range as they both pack most of the Omni technologies of the brand in one versatile package.

Out of the box the Ultrachange looks very nice with a definitive quality feel to it. It’s light, comes in a bright yellowish green (or greenish yellow maybe?) and has a very streamlined design.

The Shell

The Shell surprises by its weight for a 2.5 layers construction. 278g (9.8oz) on our scale for the women size S, one of the lightest we’ve been given to use. The face fabric, the first layer, is soft and flexible but tend to keep fold marks a bit. It is so thin that you can also see the pattern of the membrane underneath it. I wouldn’t say it is fragile but walking through bushes didn’t go unnoticed and the shell would not cope with a lot of abuse of that sort. No problem under a backpack however, even after many hiking weekends it does not show any signs of deterioration in the shoulder and hips areas.

The second layer is the waterproof/breathable (WP/B) membrane Columbia calls Omni-Dry. They stopped using Gore-Tex membranes a while back and are marketing their own as being as waterproof but a lot more breathable than Gore’s alternative. Real life tests show that it is indeed waterproof but like all other membranes on the market, only to a certain extend. Don’t expect this to keep you dry inside for 10 hours in pouring rain. It does a very good job for the unexpected downpour or a prolonged drizzle. I got caught the other day in a storm on the Spanish coast, with gale force winds and rain, and made it back to the shelter after about an hour, dry and warm. Apart from rain protection, WP/B membranes are also very good at shielding from the wind and this one is no exception.

This leads us to the last layer. Half of a layer to be precise. The .5 in a 2.5 layer construction is not an actual sheet of fabric but more like a print applied directly on the membrane. The print here is what Columbia calls Omni-Wick EVAP. This is a very interesting technology, which they introduced earlier this year in the Compounder Shell. One of the problems with WP/B membranes is the last part, the breathability. The more waterproof, the less breathable. And even with new membranes like Omni-Dry, you can still get wet inside because of your own sweat.

Columbia Ultrachange review

Helmet compatible hood and streamlined design. And a bright colour too.

[pullquote]”What Omni-Wick EVAP does is canalize moisture and spreads it on a larger surface[/pullquote]

What Omni-Wick EVAP does is canalize moisture and spreads it on a larger surface. The larger the surface the faster the evaporation so you understand what they are trying to do here. The truth is, it does seem to work, at least for moderate physical activities like walking.

For highly aerobic activities, Columbia added some welcomed vents in the two zip pockets on each side. All the pocket zippers on the shell are protected behind rain guards and have a good action to them. I haven’t had any jam problems with those.

Columbia Ultrachange review

A perfect day in Cadaqués, on the Spanish coast. They call it “La costa Brava”, the Fierce Coast. Unpredictable and impulsive, sharp rocks and high cliffs. When the wind blows you better be prepared.

The insulation jacket and its Omni abilities

The second piece of the the Ultrachange is an insulation layer to keep you warm when comes the low temperatures. It has a less-fun dark green colour with patches of black. It weights 340g (12oz) so still lightweight. The face fabric also comes with a DWR treatment called Omni-Sheild to protect you for the odd shower.

The insulation material is synthetic and quite thin but paired with Columbia’s Omni-Heat technology managed to keep me warm in below zero temperatures with just a long sleeve merino baselayer underneath and the shell on top.

Omni-Heat is a special layer of breathable fabric where tiny metallic dots (disco!) are printed on. The dots act as little mirrors and reflect body heat back while leaving moisture and extra heat escape through the fabric. They feel a bit clammy though and are not very comfortable worn with short sleeves as the dots stick to the skin.

The black patches I was talking about earlier are areas where instead of the synthetic insulation and its face fabric they have put a single layer of very stretchy and breathable fabric with Omni-Heat. You’ll find them on the underarms, hip-sides and neck. They leave great freedom of movement and evacuate perspiration a lot better than the insulated parts.

[pullquote]”Columbia’s Omni-Heat technology managed to keep me warm in below zero temperatures[/pullquote]

Bottom line

Columbia’s Ultrachange is one hell of a jacket. Very versatile with its 3-in-1 construction, the shell is outstanding in terms of performance, fit and finish. The insulation jacket is good and warm enough for most outdoor adventures. If we had such things as “recommended buy” badges this one would get it. This great 3-in-1 jacket will be yours for around $450, quite steep but there is always the possibility that it will go down a bit after a few months.

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Note: The Columbia Ultrachange Jacket was given to us for the purpose of this review. We try our best to not let this affect our views in any ways. Our gear tests are done in real life, during our own outdoor activities. All pictures © Gear Exposure.