Columbia Omni-Heat Circuit Breaker Softshell electric / heated ski jacket review

columbia circuit breaker

It’s a mouthful of a name, but Columbia’s new Circuit Breaker Softshell heated jacket is exactly the kind of hardware that avid winter adventurists and residents of frigid locales have been clamoring for. Heated gear has been around for awhile, but older implementations have generally been prohibitively expensive, extremely bulky and short on life. Reviews have generally been mixed, and the cold weather world at large has really been waiting for battery and charging technologies to advance to a point where a heated jacket could be taken seriously. The Omni-Heat Circuit Breaker is it.

This coat is one of three new launches from Columbia for next ski season (it’s slated to go on sale to the public on October of 2011), accompanied by a pair of Omni-Heat electric boots and a set of electric gloves. For this review, we’re going to focus on the most sophisticated of the three: the Circuit Breaker Softshell jacket, albeit a pre-production version that may be altered ever-so-slightly prior to October. Was a jacket filled with heating elements able to keep our core satisfactorily warm during a frigid snowmobile trip through northwestern Montana and during a near-blizzard at Whitefish Mountain Resort? Read on to find out.
%Gallery-114914%The design of the Circuit Breaker Softshell is what really sets it apart, and why it’s likely to be very appealing to travelers looking to keep their load light as they engage in winter travel. The jacket is essentially the same size as any other non-heated ski jacket, but it’s actually thinner, lighter and more flexible than bulky coats which rely on thick layers to insulate you and keep you warm. This jacket is able to trim down on materials thanks to the heating system that runs throughout the fabric; the electric nature more than compensates for the thickness that’s lost. The other incredible part about this system is that you can’t actually feel it while wearing the coat. If there are hundreds of heating tubes ran throughout, you won’t ever notice them until you feel your body warming up. If you’re concerned about tubes or wires inhibiting your motion while wearing it, don’t be — it feels like wearing any other jacket save for one thing.

columbia circuit breaker

That “thing” is weight. On the inner side of each chest section, there’s a clear pocket where a battery pack is stored. The Circuit Breaker can run off of just one, but the battery life suffers. With both packs installed, the coat is definitely heavier than your average non-electric jacket, but once you’ve put on the rest of your winter gear, you’ll forget about the added weight. In our opinion, the added weight is worth carrying around for the benefit of having heat. This is still lighter than some of the older heated solutions on the market.

columbia circuit breaker

Continuing with design, the outer layer of the jacket repelled sleet and heavy snow with ease, and the hood was always easy to find and flip up onto one’s head. There are two waist-level pockets on the exterior, an external chest pocket, and a handy arm pocket that is perfect for storing loose change, lip balm, etc. Turning the heat on and off couldn’t be simpler; just press the button on the front of the coat for three seconds, and it’s flipped on and set for maximum output. Another gentle press turns it down to Medium heat, and another lowers it to Minimum heat. You can disable to light if you wish by holding it for ten seconds (that’ll force the coat to enter “Stealth Mode”). In practice, the button worked great, even when mashed with a gloved finger.

While the design is stellar in most aspects, we did find a few gripes. For starters, there are no extended zipper pulls on the waist-level pockets nor on the arm pocket. For whatever reason, the only extended pull is on the outer chest-level pocket. Columbia should’ve included extended zipper pulls on all external pockets; any skier will understand the difficulty in operating a zipper with a gloved hand, and having no extended pull really made these particular pockets difficult to access. Moreover, the internal clear pockets that hold the battery packs need to be larger; once the jack to each battery is inserted, it’s a tricky process to wiggle the packs into their holsters. A bit more room on the Velcro pockets would have been appreciated. There’s always the slight possibility that the company would add these prior to a full-scale launch, but at worse, you could add your own pulls if you end up sharing our problem.

columbia circuit breaker

Speaking of the battery packs, each one can be recharged via microUSB, and Columbia (thankfully) includes two microUSB charging cables and a single AC adapter that accepts two cables at once. That means a single AC plug can charge up both packs at once — nice! What really impressed us was the extra adapters that were included; anticipating that some buyers may take this jacket to international ski resorts, a number of internal AC plug adapters are included so that you can recharge your coat regardless of where your travels may take you (Swiss Alps, anyone?). This may be an under-appreciated extra by many, but here at Gadling, we’re huge fans of any company that includes support for worldwide power plugs.

columbia circuit breaker

We heard early on that Columbia expected the Circuit Breaker to provide around six hours of heat with both packs fully charged. When we broke out on the snowmobile trails near Olney, Montana, we placed the heat setting on ‘High’ and never backed it down. The wind chill was quite severe, and we needed any extra heat we could find. Within seconds, we felt a rush of warmth all throughout our core region, and it didn’t stop until right around five hours later. We had briefly used the jacket’s heating functions earlier in the day for around a half-hour, so all told, we managed ~5.5 hours of battery life. That’s pretty close to the stated six hours, and it’s even more impressive when you realize that bitter cold temperatures have a tendency to drain batteries.

columbia circuit breaker

Would we recommend the $850 Circuit Breaker? If you live in a location where temperatures routinely drop into the teens, or you’re a frequently traveler to frosty destinations, it may be a worthwhile investment. Non-heated jackets of similar quality can easily reach $500 or so, so the price premium for having five to six hours of heat may be worth it if you’re tired of freezing whenever you step outside. The good news is that the jacket really does do an exceptional job of keeping the wearer warm, and it’s about as elegant an implementation as we have seen. The biggest problem with this coat isn’t in the coat itself — it’s that you’ll probably be itching to splurge on Columbia’s Omni-Heat boots and gloves after you get one. For instructions on how to connect the battery packs, check out the video below.

As a side note, Columbia is planning an entire range of these heated jackets to launch in the fall of 2011. While this specific model has an $850 MSRP, there will be nine electric styles in total ranging from $750 to $1,200.