Is Columbia’s OutDry Extreme the best waterproof-breathable material that no one is using?

ODX hasn’t revolutionised the outdoor apparel world in the way its creators expected it to – but that could be about to change…

Columbia ODX
(Image credit: Pat Kinsella)

When Columbia launched it’s new OutDry Extreme (ODX) range in 2016, the American brand had high hopes for the impact their radical new approach to waterproof-breathable apparel would have on the outdoor active world. It is, as Haskell Beckham – Columbia’s senior director of innovation – recently explained to me, truly ‘a disruptive technology’ that should have taken off. But it didn’t.

There’s a pretty basic reason why OutDry Extreme failed to ignite and excite the outdoor world the first time around, as I’ll explain, but after recent developments that have impacted the whole industry, and ahead of the upcoming launch of a new-look ODX, there are also two good arguments to say it was simply a concept that was ahead of the curve, and its time is about to come. Probably.

Columbia ODX

(Image credit: Pat Kinsella)


Used in everything from the best waterproof jackets through to top-end hiking boots, the development of wearable fabrics capable of protecting people from the elements, while preventing them from getting soaking wet with sweat on the inside, has been obsessing the active-outdoor industry for half a century.

In 1969, in a fit of frustration, Bob Gore famously fluked the invention of expanded polytetrafluoroethylene (ePTFE to its friends) – a structure that became the magical microporous membrane now known as Gore-Tex. When this was incorporated into outdoor gear it really did revolutionise the adventure world, and various versions of Gore-Tex have been dominating the coat-racks of outdoor shops and gear cupboards of adventure types ever since, as it continues to be seen as the component ingredient of choice by lots of consumers and high-end brands.

When Gore’s plethora of patents expired in the 1990s, lots of brands quickly developed their own microporous membranes, which did essentially the same job for a slightly more budget-friendly price. This included Columbia, who came up with Omni-Tech [external link], way back in 1991 – a very effective membrane-based material that’s still used in garments like the excellent Ampli-Dry jacket.

But the release of OutDry Extreme, over 20 years later, was different – this fabric was far more than just a crowd-pleasing cover version of a Gore-Tex classic hit.

Columbia ODX

(Image credit: Pat Kinsella)

Inside Out

Behind the development of ODX, there was a lot more lateral thinking going on. Up until this point, laminate waterproof jackets (and other pieces of technical apparel) had always positioned waterproof-breathable membranes on the inside of garments, or sandwiched between an outer shell and an inner layer. And that works – albeit better in some conditions (alpine) than others (humid) – but there are several problems with this approach.

The outer layer of such products has to be coated with a ‘durable water repellency’ (DWR) treatment so water beads up and rolls off instead of sinking in and soaking the material. Even with good DWR, the exterior fabric of jackets can and will ‘wet out’ (become sodden) when subjected to sustained downpours because the kinetic energy of rainfall eventually forces moisture into the yarn.

When the outer wets out, a good membrane still stops water from getting through, but a drenched outer can make the wearer feel cold, and it also seriously impacts the breathability of the garment. For a jacket to be really breathable, there has to be less humidity on the outside of the jacket than the inside, and the disparity draws the moisture vapour through the tiny holes in the membrane, allowing your body to breathe – if the outside material wets out, it has 100% humidity and the garment is longer capable of breathing, so you can end up damp on the inside too.

In 2016, Columbia came up with a solution to this problem: “We thought, why are we putting the membrane on the inside?” recalls Haskell Beckham, who was working as a consultant to Columbia at the time. “Let’s flip it around and put it on the outside – it could work!”

Columbia ODX

(Image credit: Columbia)

And it did work. The new design meant DWR treatments were not required, because the membrane was on the outside and it was hydrophobic, so rain just bounced off it. It didn’t wet out, so it remained breathable no matter how torrential the conditions.

In fact, it could be extra breathable because when the person wearing the jacket perspired, Colombia used a wicking material on the inside of many of their jackets, so instead of moisture having to immediately work its way through a membrane, it was more evenly distributed from high sweat areas across the garment and dissipated away from the body.

Beckham tells me that in lab tests that replicate the real physiology of the human body, such as the Upright Cup Test [external link], ODX scored results that were: “At least comparable, if not better [than the other breathable-waterproof technologies on the market], but where it really wins is in terms of waterproofing.”

“If you do a typical hydrostatic head test, you get a really high score with that, but the test we prefer to do is the Bundesmann test because it really replicates what the fabric is going to be exposed to, which is falling raindrops… Any test done in rain reveals ODX mesh does really well when it comes to waterproofing.”

Columbia ODX

(Image credit: Columbia)

Planet positive

And it was very well received by people who understood it. In 2017, Outside magazine included it in a feature titled ‘The 40 Most Significant toys and tools ever designed’ (“along with Duct Tape and the Swiss Army Knife!” exclaims Beckham, quite rightly proud of the illustrious company the innovation was keeping).

Respect for the tech came not only as a result of its high performance, but also because no DWR treatment was required, and therefore no PFCs were being used, and these ‘forever chemicals’ were already being recognised as being very bad for the planet – which is why Gore-Tex has recently had to re-invent their membrane, moving away from ePTFE and launching ePE materials.

“Columbia was leading the industry,” explains Beckham. And the planet-friendly aspects of the material went deeper than the absence of DWR. “There are a lot of inherently more sustainable attributes about ODX compared to regular waterproof breathable constructions.

Because pigments are used in the membrane on the outside, no water is used for colouration. And it’s easy to clean – if you’re out hiking in a storm, getting muddy, you can just wipe it off, so you don’t need to launder the jacket so often. This means it will last longer and is more eco-friendly and sustainable. 

“The tech quickly evolved. We went full eco with a version we called Outdoor Extreme Eco in 2017, where we used recycled trims recycled fabrics, did the whole lifecycle analysis and figured out what reductions we got. ODX won lots of awards.”

Columbia ODX

(Image credit: Pat Kinsella)

Turning the technology inside out wasn’t, of course, without its challenges – otherwise, it presumably would have been made that way from the outset. “The problem is that being on the outer [a membrane] is open to more easily being damaged in use,” textile expert Charles Ross [external link] explains. “Plus, some membranes are not so UV stable, so they’re weakened with exposure to sunlight.”

Columbia took an innovative approach to these issues. “The surface of the [ODX] membrane has a very special grid abrasion-resistant coating,” Beckham says. “US-patented, this still allows for breathability, but a high solids content grid print helps with abrasion.

It’s such an unusual construction we developed customised hydro abrasion tests, basically a Martindale abrasion test [external link] in the presence of water. And we combined this with wear-testing and field-testing, where we got it on people and sent them out into the forest, rubbing up against trees and going through brush and stuff.”

He admits that it might be possible to puncture the shell if you were to do something very unwise such as run through a briar patch, but confirms that ODX is built to withstand most things and points to the overwhelming benefits of the material never wetting out.

Columbia ODX

Shiny when wet. (Also shiny when not wet.)

(Image credit: Pat Kinsella)

Face value

But there was a bigger issue. Although it worked beautifully, and was better for the planet, OutDry Extreme, with its toughened external membrane, had a shiny, glossy finish that did not go down well with consumers. People just didn’t buy it.

“The main problem is the visage,” confirms Ross. “No matter how technical a garment is, if a person can not see themselves wearing it…no sale. Aesthetic is the single most important factor to securing or blocking the sale.”

Beckham knows this only too well. “When we launched ODX, we thought it would change the world, and that obviously hasn’t happened,” he tells me, ruefully. ‘I thought it would have taken off in Europe, honestly before the U.S., but it hasn’t. European consumers are constantly talking about how important sustainability is to them, but sometimes there is a disconnect between what consumers say they will do, and what they actually do.

“It looks different. With the membrane on outside, it does look to some consumers – or maybe to most consumers – like the old rubber raincoats. We believe one of the reasons it hasn’t been as widely adopted as we would have liked is because people look at it, and unless they’re professional or elite outdoors folk, or they have really dug into the research to figure out what it is, ODX doesn’t necessarily look breathable. Even though the data shows it is.”

Columbia ODX

(Image credit: Columbia)

Second coming – ODX mark 2

Despite initially disappointing uptake, Colombia kept the faith, and ODX has remained in their line ever since it was launched, on the apparel side at least (it was pulled from footwear). And now there are now two very good reasons why this ideas time might finally have arrived.

Firstly, because of mounting environmental concerns, PFAS-products (including most traditional DWRs) are being regulated right out of production across the planet (starting with the states of California and New York, but with Europe next). This has created a conundrum for many brands, whose apparel was reliant on the performance of a DWR on the outer fabric of their products, unlike ODX, which doesn’t require the use of DWRs at all.

“We believe that, as [the industry] moves to less effective PFAS-free DWRs, this aspect of ODX is going to become more and more apparent,” says Beckham. “It will be by far the most waterproof offering on the market.”

But secondly, and very importantly, in the spring of 2025, Columbia is launching a new, much-evolved version of ODX that is – shall we say – a lot less shiny and glossy. And Beckham believes that this will be a game changer.

“If the original Gore-Tex structure invented back in the 1970s had been sufficiently tough enough to put on the outside of the fabric, everyone would be wearing membrane-outside structures nowadays,” he laughs. “Now we have a second opportunity to teach people that this is really the way that waterproof breathables ought to be constructed.”

I’m looking forward to trying the new gear out, in the worst conditions I can find. I’ll let you know how I get on – watch this space.

Pat Kinsella
Freelance outdoor writer

Author of Caving, Canyoning, Coasteering…, a recently released book about all kinds of outdoor adventures around Britain, Pat Kinsella has been writing about outdoor pursuits and adventure sports for two decades. In pursuit of stories he’s canoed Canada’s Yukon River, climbed Mont Blanc and Kilimanjaro, skied and mountain biked across the Norwegian Alps, run ultras across the roof of Mauritius and through the hills of the Himalayas, and set short-lived speed records for trail-running Australia’s highest peaks and New Zealand’s nine Great Walks. A former editor of several Australian magazines he’s a longtime contributor to publications including Sidetracked, Outdoor, National Geographic Traveller, Trail Running, The Great Outdoors, Outdoor Fitness and Adventure Travel, and a regular writer for Lonely Planet (for whom he compiled, edited and co-wrote the Atlas of Adventure, a guide to outdoor pursuits around the globe). He’s authored guides to exploring the coastline and countryside of Devon and Dorset, and recently wrote a book about pub walks. Follow Pat's adventures on Strava and instagram.