EMS Helix Hard Shell Jacket

EMS Helix Hard Shell Jacket
EMS Helix Hard Shell Jacket

I am very picky when it comes to hard shell jackets and as a 4 season hiker and backpacker there are certain must-haves that I look for in any coat. These include front pockets on the chest of the coat, called Napoleon pockets, that are accessible when I am wearing a hip belt, waterproof zippers, an adjustable hood, and adjustable wrist cuffs so I can roll up my sleeves to vent heat when I’m running hot.

Breath-ability is important to me, but over-rated in my opinion, and certainly over-priced. I’ve owned Gore-tex and eVent shells and I’m not convinced that they’re completely worth the premium that manufacturers charge for them anymore. If you’re exerting yourself, you are going to sweat faster than any high tech coat can vent water vapor anyway, especially in high humidity environments, where the performance differences between different types of waterproof/breathable garments tend to converge.

If you want to geek out on the “scientific” differences between different types of breathable waterproof fabrics, REI has published an excellent technical article that compares eVent, Gore-tex, PU (polyurethane) and polyester film jackets, that documents the flurry of inconsistent and poorly documented tests that manufacturers use to claim their proprietary fabrics are better than others. They also conclude that PU jackets, which are the Gore-tex like knock-offs that many manufacturers like Marmot, The North Face, Mountain Hardware, EMS and others produce, perform nearly as well as high-end eVent based jackets: something to consider if you want to save a little money.

What follows therefore, is my subjective opinion about the functional performance of the Helix Jacket based in 3 season and 4 season (winter) hiking conditions.

EMS Helix Ascent Jacket on Mt Hancock, White Mountains
EMS Helix Ascent Jacket on Mt Hancock, White Mountains

Nuts and Bolts

The EMS Helix Jacket is a 3 layer breathable, waterproof PU laminate nylon jacket with the following features:

  • Waterproof Riri zippers
  • Shell fabric made using stretch fabric for mobility
  • Welded fabric seams to improve waterproofness
  • Cavernous Napoleon front pockets
  • Adjustable climbing helmet compatible hood
  • Hood visor to keep flakes off face
  • Long pit zips to vent heat and perspiration
  • Adjustable velcro wrist cuffs
  • Two interior mesh pockets
  • Large cut to accommodate base and mid-layers
  • Drawcord hem to block wind
  • Lined chin guard
  • Long pull tabs on all zippers
  • Waterproofness: 20,000 mm
  • Breathability: 20,000 g/m-squared
  • Weight in a Men’s size XL: 18.1 ounces
Helix Ascent Front
Helix Front – Napoleon Pockets, Pit Zips, and Welded Seams

Functional Performance Assessment

I like the Helix a lot and it’s a great winter hiking shell for the challenging winter conditions we get in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. I’ve been out on numerous day hikes and bushwhacking trips with it this winter, some quite extreme, and I am continuously amazed by how well this jacket performs. It’s certainly as good as my eVent Rab Momentum Hard Shell, which sadly is deteriorating after 2 years of hard use.

In addition to winter hikes, I’ve also been doing a lot of day hiking in the Helix, down south in Massachusetts near my home. I hike  a few hours a day on weekdays when I’m not up north in the mountains in the equivalent of 3 season conditions with more moderate temperatures.

Here are a few of the Helix’s standout features that I really value.

Napoleon Pockets

I won’t wear a hard shell jacket if it doesn’t have napoleon pockets. It’s just one of those things I won’t compromise on. These are pockets located over the chest and out of the way of a hip belt or climbing harness. I use these pockets to augment the storage in my backpack and to store hats, gloves, and food, so I can continue hiking instead of stopping all the time to unpack and repack my pack. This is particularly important for winter hiking when you can’t afford to stop and cool off.

Pit Zips

I sweat a lot when I climb up mountains in winter and usually have to strip to my undershirt to prevent from drowning my mid layer insulation. But, I can only do this down to about 20 degrees Fahrenheit, and below that, I need to wear a shell layer over my base layer to avoid getting too cold. Unfortunately, most shells can’t keep up with the perspiration rate, even those made with eVent fabric, so I get chilled when I stop hiking.

But the pit zips on the Helix are really long and vent the jacket’s interior so well,  that I can keep my mid-layer on during ascents and still stay comfortable and dry. Pit zips like this add so more flexibility and range to a breathable shell, that it’s crazy not to have them on a coat.

Adjustable Hood and Visor

When I first got the Helix, I was a bit leery about the hood because it’s  sized to fit a climbing helmet and I have a rather small head. But the hood has rear and side adjustments and I’ve got it to where it fits pretty well over a hat or balaclava.The hood also has a front visor, which unfortunately does not have a wire, but stays out of my line of sight and prevents snow flakes from landing on my glasses.

Velcro Adjustable Wrist Cuffs
Velcro Adjustable Wrist Cuffs

While I haven’t worn the Helix in hard rain yet, I suspect that I’ll want to wear a ball cap under it to keep the visor off of my face. I wear a ball cap for three season hiking already, so this isn’t a big deal. Just thought I’d mention it.

Riri Zipper
Riri Zipper

Waterproof Zippers

All of the zippers on the Helix jacket are waterproof, including the main zipper, the zippers on the napoleon pockets and the pit zip zippers. More importantly, EMS uses high-end Riri Aquazip zippers on the main zipper and the zippers on the napoleon pockets. Not only are they waterproof, but Riri zipper sliders never come into contact with the PU fabric of the jacket (see orange buffer between zipper and shell above), eliminating any possible abrasion and tearing of the shell itself, and providing a much more durable product.

Unfortunately, the zippers on my old Rab shell are not made by Riri and do come in contact with its eVent shell: they have torn through it and compromised the integrity of that jacket.

The Bottom Line

I’m very impressed with the EMS Helix Hard Shell Jacket and everything that went into this coat is top-end. Frankly, I’m thrilled with it, it’s very comfortable to wear, and it’s stood up to some harsh treatment from me without skipping a beat. In fact, I like this coat so much, that I’m going to use it as my primary hard shell from now on.

Disclosure: Eastern Mountain Sports provided Section Hiker (Philip Werner) with a complementary Helix Ascent Jacket for this review.

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  1. Looks like a great jacket. Small point, but are the zipper pulls long/big enough to pull while wearing heavy gloves? I’ve attached a garbage bag tie to my shell zippers so I can easily pull them while wearing the bulkiest gloves.

    • Not really. I have to strip down to an inner glove layer for any kind of reasonable dexterity. I like the idea of using a garbage tie though. Do you tie them on as a loop? What about a zip tie? Would that work too?

  2. I like to use the small, not-for-climbing, carabiners as zip pulls.

  3. Don’t want to start an argument, but I have to say that after years of Goretex and Toddtex jackets and their much-needed pit-zips, getting an REI e-vent jacket on sale was my best purchase of 2011. Breathes like nothing else I’ve ever worn. Comes without pit-zips … and doesn’t need them! I could never go back to something that didn’t breathe at least as much as e-vent.

    • I think jacket performance really depends on your physiology (are you a sweater or not?) and weather conditions – nothing will keep you dry in pouring rain. Which jacket did you get from REI?

  4. Nice review. I love the Helix and it has been my go to shell for the past 2 seasons..This things can withstand extremely high wind. I have complete trust in this jacket.

  5. Great detailed review. Jacket is now a clearance item at EMS, available only in XS and S sizes. I wonder if the Helix wll continue to be offered and if any changes to it are planned?

  6. I’d been coveting a Felstrum Halfzip this year, but they’re expensive, and hard to find. REI had a sale for members, and I bought a Shuksan e-vent jacket (perhaps the same as JJ?) I have not a chance this winter to test it in anything close to extreme conditions, but I’ve had plenty of chances to wear it in cold rain.

    I’ve never had any use for pit zips, and I certainly don’t miss them in this jacket. As you say, one is going to sweat. So, it makes sense to learn to vent properly, and to layer appropriately. So far the jacket has been a success.

  7. Brilliant analysis!It really looks like a great jacket. Great find.

  8. My suggestion for improved ventilation is to stop using your shell’s hood and wear a brimmed hat instead. It’s a big improvement in airflow, and you can hear better too.

    Thanks for the review of the jacket. I’m wondering, are the zippers really waterproof?

    • I haven’t done stood in shower with them or been in the pouring rain yet (as I note above) since it’s winter, but this particular zipper is billed as being very waterproof. There’s some good commentary on BPL about Riri zippers in addition to the link I included above.

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