When it comes to jackets, I kinda get around. I think this is probably because I have learned the value of wearing quality layers through lots of experience in the outdoors in challenging weather conditions. I have put in my time in environments that are unforgiving. Much of that time I had no option to exit my circumstances. Whether I was backpacking, paddling, or climbing, I was often weeks into the wilderness with work to be done, regardless of the weather. It has made me critically aware of the value that quality versatile layers in a jacket provide as the first line of shelter from harsh conditions.
Over the years I’ve become accustomed to finding comfort in the worst of weather conditions. I work to continue that trend today in being ready to deal with nasty conditions when training on the range.
When it comes to weather, hypothermia is the beast I try to avoid. Hypothermia is a body temperature below 95° F. Most of the time when people think about hypothermia, they think of cold weather. They aren’t wrong, but they also aren’t exactly right. Significantly more people die in the spring, summer, and fall months from the impact of hypothermia than in the winter. The reason for that is that in warmer weather conditions people aren’t prepared for the drastic changes that can lead to hypothermia. A temperature swing of 20° F isn’t uncommon with a weather front. When this temperature change is accompanied by wet and windy weather the problems are compounded.
Being prepared for these types of conditions starts with awareness. Awareness leads to acquiring the right gear to complete the mission. This is where the Defense Mechanisms Helion Jacket comes into play.
Over the past couple of years, I have become friends with Tim Marshall, the owner of Defense Mechanisms. Tim has been involved in the soft goods market of the ultralight backpacking world for years and has applied the lessons learned from his company Enlightened Equipment to the spooling up of Defense Mechanisms.
Let’s be honest, there is a lot of good gear out there. Defense Mechanisms isn’t going to sew something up unless they have a way to make it better.
The Helion is better.
It’s Not Just Another Jacket
I arrived at Alliance Police Training early one Friday morning. It was April in NE Ohio so I came prepared for all 4 seasons. I’m glad I did cause we had them all — including the 33° heavy rain with wind scenario.
I had plenty of layers and no cotton, so I was set. Set to feel a bit like the Michelin Man layered up in a plate carrier.
Tim was wearing a Helion and I really liked the way it looked — clean, comfortable, and warm. It was probably unnecessary for the conditions we had to start off class: 35°F and warming; calm and sunny.
I was good to go in a merino wool long-sleeve base layer, an Underarmour fleece zip-up, a hat, and gloves.
When the rain came around 3 and I got up on the catwalk in a bit of a breeze, the weather was a different animal. This was prime hypothermia weather and although I was warm, my movement was restricted by the thick fleece layer.
I casually asked Tim about how his coat was doing keeping him warm and he offered a couple of options for me to try out. The Coyote XL with the hood and shoulder velcro seemed to fit well.
An hour later I logged into the Defense Mechanisms Website and paid for the Helion. I wasn’t giving it back.
What makes one jacket better than another is the feature set it delivers. Not every jacket is right for every circumstance. The feature set of the Helion makes it a solid layer for those that spend time on or downrange, regardless of the weather circumstances.
The outer shell is lightweight and durable nylon that’s been coated with a durable water repellent (DWR) finish. I watched the shell consistently repel the light, steady rain throughout the class. There was some absorption where the sleeves made regular contact with rifles and other hard surfaces. This should be expected with any DWR nylon.
The DWR finish can be recharged with a quick tumble on low heat in the dryer.
For moderate and heavy rains the Helion should be paired with a waterproof shell for full protection.
The Helion depends on Climashield APEX insulation for warmth. The APEX is a 2 oz. insulation, which means that one square yard of insulation has a mass of 2 ounces. Being a guy that lives in a rainy environment, I generally prefer synthetic insulations to down. Down is warmer for the weight and more compressible, but as soon as it gets wet it is done working. Synthetics, on the other hand, maintain their thermal properties when wet and they dry much quicker.
If I were looking for a desert insulation layer, I would skip the Helion and take advantage of down. I had a down coat with me on this trip. It stayed in the truck, and I bought a Helion instead.
I think it makes sense to consider that when worn under PPE the compressibility of down may not be an advantage. Compressing insulation removes its ability to insulate. The Climashield APEX didn’t fully compress and as a result, helped keep me warm.
The jacket stuffs down to about the size of a 2×2 stack of AR-15 mags.
These are well thought out. The thing you are most likely to not notice is the fact that they are cut long. This isn’t bothersome during regular use. It also isn’t bothersome when you drive a handgun out to full extension. There won’t be a blast of cold air on your wrists due to the sleeve length and the Raglan style cut for mobility. The cuffs are soft and seal well without feeling tight.
The coat is also cut long in the back to help keep you warm even when you bend, twist, and sit.
The pockets are zippered, large, and warm. Maybe most importantly, they are cut to allow access when wearing a plate carrier.
Polartec Fleece Side Panels
The side panels on the Helion are an important part of the jacket’s function. They provide ventilation when work is getting done which helps prevent getting humidity under your layers. The stretch in the fleece also adds to mobility. When I compared the feeling of the Helion to my full nylon down layer I felt free where the down coat makes me feel constricted.
Let’s face it, the side panels look shit hot and that isn’t a bad thing.
The Helion jacket is available with or without a hood. I like hoods. For the added weight they can add significant functionality from the standpoint of insulation.
The hood on the Helion is big. I was able to pull it over the top of the Team Wendy Exfil I was wearing. This left some significant gaps for air to get in on the sides of my head. I found it much warmer when worn over the top of my MSA Sordin hearing pro and under the helmet. Worn in this manner I had good warmth and solid visibility. Even though I was able to wear the hood over my lid, it’s designed to go under your helmet and it performs well when used as designed.
When I wore the hood on my bare head, I ran into visibility issues. If I could make one change to the jacket it would be to add a vertical and horizontal hood height adjustment system. This would allow me to easily wear the hood on my bare head without sacrificing sight.
Or I could just have a head that is normal human-sized instead of my toddler’s skull.
My Experience Wearing the Helion Jacket
One word — Exceptional. I have logged thousands of active hours in difficult conditions and I wish I would have had the Helion years ago. I am an extremely harsh soft-goods critic and can find very little wrong with the Defense Mechanisms Helion.
Remember, Tim, the owner is my friend. I paid for the jacket. I’m not sad.
Since I‘ve acquired the Helion I have worn it every day. I’ll probably be buying another Helion with a collar and soon, I’ll be picking one up for my wife. She will love the cozy warmth.
The Bottom Line
Avoiding hypothermia means staying dry and warm. This doesn’t mean you have to stay inside when the weather gets wet, windy, and cold. Instead, you need to have the right gear to deal with the conditions. The Helion is an excellent stand-alone insulated jacket for moist, cool conditions. When it gets wet and cold, it serves as an outstanding mid-layer under your waterproof shell.
Speaking of a waterproof shell… Talk to me, Tim…