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Sweating it out in Mexico with Columbia’s latest sun-defying Omni-Shade tech

Most people take to Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula in search of a carefree vacation spent napping to the soothing crash of the ocean on white sand beaches, or sipping artisanal tequila beneath the palms. But Columbia Sportswear had different plans for the gang of journalists it hauled south of the border this summer — torture testing its new Omni-Shade Sun Deflector technology in one of the harshest climates imaginable.

June in the Yucatan brings unpredictable thunderstorms coupled with sauna-like heat and humidity. That made it the perfect locale to test Columbia’s upcoming Omni-Shade Sun Deflector line, slated for launch next spring. The challenge: Keep a crew of journalists from burning to a crisp in the direct sun, without hiding them under a palapa the entire time. The solution: literally turning the company’s previous technology inside out.

Throwing Omni-Shade

Woody Blackford heads Columbia’s Performance Innovation Team, (PIT), which has been at the forefront of many of the company’s groundbreaking advancements, including its warmth-preserving Omni-Heat. Ironically, this technology intended for retaining heat would end up being instrumental in cooling, too.

Mark Going/Columbia
Mark Going/Columbia

“There are these little silver aluminum foil dots that are applied to a fabric, so the fabric’s still breathable but it’s reflecting your body heat,” Blackford explains of Omni-Heat. “When we initially got our patents, we wrote it in a way that said you could actually have the foil facing out to have it reflect heat from the exterior. What we didn’t have, however, was an optimized foil for that. We tried for years to put that reflective foil on the outside but were just never satisfied with the results.”

The solution didn’t come to them until a scorching summer day in Portland, Oregon, as Blackford and a member of his team sat in direct sun watching a Timbers soccer match.

“We were in a section that was just getting beamed with the sun, so we were super hot,” Blackford remembered. “And I thought, ‘What the hell is going on? Why won’t Omni-Heat Reflective work on the exterior?’ We got to talking and came to the conclusion that it’s just not a foil that’s optimized for reflecting sunlight, it’s reflecting body heat, which is a completely different wavelength of radiation than what you get from the sun. We needed to find a foil that’s optimized for sunlight, as well as the UV rays in that spectrum and near-infrared.”

I thought, ‘What the hell is going on? Why won’t Omni-Heat Reflective work on the exterior?’

After the match, the two didn’t need long to come up with a viable solution: titanium dioxide. A material also used in sunscreen and white paint, titanium dioxide reflects the sun’s radiation with extreme efficiency. After testing showed satisfying results, Blackford and the PIT lab officially introduced the Omni-Shade Sun Deflector line.

Covered almost fully in what appears to be tiny white dots, Columbia’s Sun Deflector clothing certainly doesn’t look like anything we’ve seen before. Composed of a titanium dioxide compound, these dots literally reflect sunlight away — reducing the heat a wearer may experience even more than bare skin —  so wearing long sleeves in 95-degree weather can actually feel cooler than wearing a t-shirt or tank top.

In the field

It works — and we proved it with an array of wildly different field tests Columbia designed to literally push the gear to its limit. With the hot and humid setting of Mexico serving as our home base, staying cool and bug-free even at rest was a challenge. Our wardrobe consisted of a collection of long and short sleeve Omni-Shade shirts and button-ups, Omni-Freeze Zero-outfitted shirts and arm sleeves (which proved perfect for protecting a newly minted tattoo), and neck gaiters designed to shield the sun from the backs of our necks.

In practice, the gear worked even better than Columbia drew it up. One morning we spent nearly four hours on the ocean tracking down pods of whale sharks, all while sitting in direct sunlight on the back of a boat. When it came time to actually swim with the giant fish, we stayed squarely in those rays. With a long sleeve Omni-Shade Sun Deflector shirt on, I avoided a sunburn, yet its light weight never left me wishing for short sleeves.

Mark Going/Columbia

While the ocean worked in conjunction with the apparel to keep body temperatures low, hopping on a mountain bike to traverse through the jungle told a different story. Decked out in an Omni-Shade t-shirt and Omni-Freeze Zero arm sleeves, we worked up plenty of sweat biking around an incredibly muggy course. The clothing kept the smothering heat from completely bogging us down, but there was no denying how different it felt to be trudging through a jungle as opposed to boating through the ocean. It’s hard to imagine what the ride would’ve been like without the assistance of the gear.

Even while simply hiking through ruins in the cities of Coba and Tulum, the Omni-Shade line worked wonders in keeping the sun at bay without baking us alive. Maybe it even works too well — when we returned home, our severe lack of sunshine made it appear as if we’d hardly traveled to Mexico at all.

Along with the oft punishing sun and heat, the Yucatan peninsula also has plentiful bugs. While normal bug spray would keep these critters at bay — albeit temporarily — having the ability to throw on a long-sleeve Omni-Shade shirt without feeling constricted by either heat or comfort was especially welcome. Avoiding the use of a chemical spray allowed us to trek through the Yucatan’s delicate ecosystem free of contaminants. This, as we learned from our guide, was especially important.

But will it last?

Outdoor clothing is only as good as its longevity — if it doesn’t hold up to consistent contact with elements such as salt water or a simple laundry wash, outdoor enthusiasts are going to be furious. Fortunately, the chemistry of Columbia’s new line gives it an edge.

The titanium dioxide seems to “break in” over time, providing a better fit without losing its reflectivity

“The Sun Deflector line’s use of titanium dioxide — which means its oxidized titanium — actually allows it to work best in a salt water setting,” Blackford explained. “Salt water is a real corrosive liquid for a lot of things, meaning regular aluminum foil would be concerning in that environment. The oxidized titanium dioxide, however, won’t further oxidize and that’s what happens during corrosion. You can put that stuff in salt water, leave it there, and nothing happens, which is fantastic for its durability.”

While Blackford won’t go so far as to give the Sun Deflector’s durability a lifetime stamp of approval, he did point out that over the course of rigorous testing and abuse, he’s yet to see any signs of degradation. In fact, the titanium dioxide seems to “break in” over time, providing a better fit without losing its reflectivity. Blackford guaranteed the life of the apparel to at least 70 washes, noting that his tests show it lasting far beyond that number.

“If you’re going to spend $70 on a shirt, it’s critical to Columbia that the shirt lasts as long as you’d expect it to,” added Columbia’s senior manager of public relations, Andy Nordhoff.

Keeping cool

Though the provided Omni-Shade apparel kept harmful UV rays away from our test crew, the other side of the testing coin dealt with remaining somewhat cool despite the stifling tropical weather. To do this, Columbia provided a few pieces of apparel adorned in its Omni-Freeze Zero technology. A “mechanical solution,” as Blackford puts it, Zero deviates from traditional cooling solutions which leaned on an endothermic chemical reaction.

“There are things like xylitol that you can put in water — it’s like a sugar — and when you put it in water the water actually cools off from its original temperature,” Blackford told us. “It’s a heat-absorbing reaction but it has a lifespan that takes a certain number of minutes. If you put xylitol in water, it cools off but it only stays cooled off for 10 or 15 minutes. The problem is, you can’t really repeat that process, so you get the initial boost of cooling, but then it’s gone.”

Omni-Freeze Zero, on the other hand, works on the principle of absorption. By including row after row of Zero’s unique polymer rings in the clothing, Blackford created a fabric which absorbed excess moisture from the wearer — i.e. sweat — while accelerating the garment’s evaporative cooling as the moisture moves along the fabric’s fibers to each polymer. Then, as the rings absorb this moisture, they conduct heat away from the wearer’s skin, using their actual sweat to aid in the cooling process instead of simply evaporating.

Leave no trace

Aside from staying shielded from UV rays and keeping cool, the impact — or lack thereof — we had on the Yucatan peninsula’s ecosystem is an underrated yet incredibly important side benefit to Columbia’s tech. Whether swimming with whale sharks near the world’s second largest reef ecosystem or cooling off in one of the area’s many freshwater cenotes, exploring these environments without the assistance of chemicals helps ensure their continued survival.

Mark Going/Columbia
Mark Going/Columbia

“There’s a freedom of not having to apply and reapply sunblock as a result of Omni-Shade, especially if you’re fishing or on the water,” added Nordhoff. “You don’t want to get chemicals on the bait and a lot of people don’t want to put those chemicals on their body. For us snorkeling along the Yucatan and swimming in the ocean, avoiding bringing those chemicals with us was incredibly important to helping preserve those fragile ecosystems.”

Columbia’s Omni-fueled future

Though the Omni-Shade Sun Deflector series isn’t slated to hit store shelves until next spring, spending a week swimming, sweating, running, and biking in the gear had us wishing it was available today. From the Omni-Shade’s ability to consistently shield us from Mexico’s intense sun to Omni-Freeze Zero’s welcome cooling technology, the line kept us comfortable in what might be considered an uncomfortable time of year in the region.

It doesn’t end there. By the time Omni-Shade Sun Deflector actually becomes available, Woody and the rest of the PIT lab will likely have the next round of Omni advances off the drawing board and into fabric. Innovation doesn’t rest, and judging by the work generated by a “couple nerds at a Timbers match” — Woody’s words, not ours — it appears as though Columbia’s design experts don’t either.

Rick Stella
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