Monday, June 27, 2011

Gear Review: Columbia Powder Bowl Parka

Summertime is the best time to buy new snowboard gear. Everything is half price. No, you won't have next year's gear, but you can shred easy knowing that you didn't pay full retail. With that in mind, let me introduce you to a jacket that you'd have to be nuts to pay full retail for: Columbia's Powder Bowl Parka.

Shell only. Snow nerd, not included.

The Powder Bowl is one of Columbia's 3-in-1 interchange jackets. You can wear the shell by itself, you can wear the liner by itself or you can zip the liner into the shell when it's extra cold. Both layers have Columbia's proprietary Omni-Heat technology, which they proclaim will keep you 20% warmer (it takes 20% more weight from other materials to equal the heat of Omni-Heat, allegedly).

Omni-Heat closeup. Silver dots reflect body heat.
I wore this jacket all winter, but the biggest test of warmth was on day one. At one point, I was standing around in near-zero-degree wind chill. With the liner and shell, I never got uncomfortably cold. Now, when we decided to get out of the wind and go to the warmer side of the mountain, even with the vents open 20º felt like 80º. You see, the liner doesn't have vents. It's just a synthetic, puffy 'sweater.' Opening the vents on the shell does nothing. Usually I treat my vents like an extra layer. This jacket combination doesn't allow for that. Once you've zipped the liner into the shell, you're locked in the sauna until you take off the liner. I can't overstate how big a drawback this is. In any outdoor venture you start out cold and warm up as you increase your activity level. With this warmth, you eventually need to dump heat or sweat like a Bikram yoga newbie. Not being able to dump heat means not being breathable enough. This severely limits the liner's uses. Even shoveling snow would overheat you. If you're a liftie or push a snowblower you might want this jacket. Carry the liner in your pack for when things get ultra-cold, emergency style. It does pack rather small.

The shell alone kept me warm snowboarding down to about 20-25º with a wool longsleeve shirt for layering. Of course, I tend to stay relatively warm. This puts the jacket in a similar category to my other non-Omni Heat jackets. The zip-in liner jacket is about twice as warm as the shell. A removable hood and vents on that thing would put it in another league.

Insulated liner
Speaking of hoods, the one on the shell will not fit over a size XL helmet without making you feel like The Great Cornholio. Then again few do. Be warned.

The water resistance skin is another proprietary technology. The shell has Omni-Tech. Columbia doesn't rate Omni-Tech in the standard mm of water resistance and gm of breathability scale. They just guarantee that it will keep you dry. Through one season, it did that job well. I'd compare the shell to a 20,000mm jacket.

The shell also stood up to some serious abuse. After days of heavy tree riding, I'd check it for wear and see nothing but skidmarks from the branches. No tears, no scratches. The fabric is remarkably durable, but even that comes with baggage: it is also remarkably stiff and takes a while to break in. One friend said I looked pregnant the way the shell tented out from my body. The combination of the fabric's stiffness and the zipper's stiffness makes for a goofy look, like I'm smuggling a dog house out of a pet store. This eased up, but it took time.

The liner's skin is Omni-Shield, a lighter-duty material touting water and stain repellency. It never saw snowboarding action by itself, but it did just fine in the drizzly Portland rain. I wouldn't take it through the trees, but it does fine around town.

Let's get back to the shell. The thing has eight pockets. Eight!? Eight, Bob. Too many. I used three. Pants have pockets, too, people. Anyone who wants eight pockets rides with a backpack.

Speaking of redundancy. This jacket has a water-tight front zipper with a double storm flap on the inside and half of one on the outside (chest to chin). If you want to show off the zipper, what's with the flaps? And why the half-flap on the outside anyway!? This jacket is just confusing. Why not a more flexible zipper with storm flaps as necessary?

On the topic of "looks useful but isn't", let's talk about the powder skirt. It has zero interface with pants. No clips, buttons, hooks, velcro, nada. It doesn't stay in place. EVER. If they could fix one thing that would make this jacket almost worth it, a powder skirt that actually works would be it. All of the other complaints are pretty minor, this one actually makes me wish I had a ninja suit or bibs. It lets snow where it doesn't belong. Making me mad and possibly cutting my day short should be something an outerwear company wants to avoid at all costs. On the bright side, you can zip it off and give it to your girlfriend for use as a real skirt. If you do, send me pictures.

Speaking of keeping the snow out. Where are the wrist gaiters? This jacket is too expensive not to have them. It might be tough to pull off with the interchange, but you'll figure it out. This is not an option, it's a necessity. Remember, keep snow out of the places it doesn't belong. If you can figure out a built in neck gaiter that actually works, you'll be rewarded there, too.

A word on fit. I'm about 6'1", 170# and I went with the large. I tried on the XL at a local store and it didn't seem to be much if any longer in the body, just in the sleeve and body width. When you try it on, remember to try on all three configurations as the fit of the liner alone is much different from the shell alone. The large was probably right for me, if a little short. It could have been made to feel like it fit better if the powder skirt worked better. Oh and it's no Holden, the cut is rather square. 

Full retail price, not according to Bob Barker, is $300. The internets are selling it for $180. Columbia sent it to me for free because they're trying to get tight with all the snowboard bloggers. That's why there's a dozen reviews of this jacket out there.

In the end, this jacket isn't worth $300. For that price, you can do better with a 20k shell with better features and your layering of choice. For $180 it's certainly closer. Columbia needs to figure out a better way to design clothes for people who are active outside. The Powder Bowl Parka isn't it.

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