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In praise of the Outdoor Research Helium HD

I recently planned a 10-day mountain biking trip to the high desert of western Colorado & southwestern Utah. Yes, it was awesome, but that’s another story.

I’d be riding solo 3-4 hours per day, starting as close to dawn as possible to beat the combination of desert heat and afternoon thunderstorms. Before heading west, I knew I would need to add a piece of outerwear to my quiver: a rain shell small enough to fit inside my normal mountain biking pack.

This was partly for the risk of being caught in those afternoon storms, partly for the chance of cold temps on a fast, windy downhill at the top of the “Whole Enchilada” MTB route (in spring, it’s a 21-mile downhill that tops out around 9,000 feet).

I also knew, having previously owned ultralight waterproof shells, that I’d still want a jacket with pit zips and hand pockets. Sure, I can play minimalist, but it’s just too hot in the desert (or the southeast!) to go without pit zips in a high-exertion activity… something I’ve learned through painful experience.

That’s a pretty tough list of demands: legitimately waterproof, super small and light but not featureless. It was easy to narrow things down from those criteria, though, and I went with the 9-ounce Outdoor Research Helium HD jacket.

If you’re not familiar with the OR Helium waterproof jackets, take a look at these photos; these shells pack down insanely small!

The Helium HD, specifically, expands on OR’s best-selling Helium II, a 6.5-ounce marvel that packs so small you forget it’s there, by adding zippered hand pockets, pit zips and an improved hood.

Sure, those extra zippers add a couple of ounces, but all worthy features; true ultralight types might prefer the II over the HD. For my money, it doesn’t matter how light a piece is if it doesn’t get the job done, and this one does.

So I stuffed the Helium HD down into my pack and set off on a week of riding, managing between 20 and 25 miles a day. I never saw a thunderstorm, and it wasn’t all that chilly up at 9,000 feet, so I never even needed it…

…and that’s the beauty of such an ultralight piece! If you don’t end up using it, you’re not dragging some heavy-ass jacket around. You don’t even know it’s there. I sure didn’t.

After six days and about 140 miles of hammering the living hell out of my suspension in Moab, disaster struck: a pivot literally worked its way loose on my mountain bike and was lost to the desert.

A couple miles later, when the bearings popped loose and I became aware of the issues, one thing was certain: I wasn’t going to find that part, and no local bike shop was going to be able to get me one before I flew home.

The mountain biking portion of my trip over, I pondered the available options. Hey, a wasted day in Colorado is a really wasted day, right? I realized the weather was favorable enough to attempt one of the easier, hikeable 14ers, so I drove over to Guanella Pass and headed up Mt Bierstadt.

Once atop the ridge just below the summit, things were getting pretty cold and the wind picked up, but I was able to pull out the Helium and it rocked.

There’s your takeaway — however under-prepared you think you are, a good shell jacket goes a long way. At 9 ounces with plenty of useful features, the Outdoor Research Helium HD has a permanent home in the bottom of my pack.

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