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Battery-Powered Clothing

January 29, 2012

You’re outside on a nippy winter day. Old Man Winter claws his grip into your frigid bones. Painful cold gnaws at your fingers and toes. How to fend off their icy bite? It’s simple. Just turn on your clothing.

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Check out author Matt Heid’s Equipped gear blog.

A small but growing collection of outdoor garments utilizes onboard batteries to provide heat, enabling you to fine-tune your temperature level with the touch of a button. Electric clothing isn’t new (it’s been around for a decade or more) but a recent high-profile entry into the market by Columbia Sportswear may mark its transition to the mainstream. Or perhaps not, as consumers debate the merits and numerous drawbacks of this technology.

Columbia first introduced its “Omni-Heat” battery technology in 2010 with a line of heated winter boots that could be activated with a small external button near the ankle; in 2011 the company expanded its collection to include jackets and gloves. The insulated jackets feature two small rechargeable lithium batteries that tuck inside the liner and connect to a button on the front near the zipper; pushing it activates one of three different temperature outputs (the button glows a different color depending on the heat setting). When the power runs out, users recharge the removable batteries via a USB port or wall socket.

Columbia is not the only manufacturer to use such technology; several other niche companies—EXO2, ActivHeat, and Venture Heated Clothing, among others—produce similar products, though outdoor clothing is usually only one category among several. (Other options include “heat therapy” pads for warming an injured back or joint and specialized gear for cold-weather motorcycling that can be plugged into a 12-volt adaptor for continuous heat.)

The advantage of battery-powered garments is obvious: on-demand warmth when (and where) you need it most. Heat is transferred using one of two methods, either by integrating tiny wires into the garment or by utilizing specialized conductive fabrics that transfer heat on their own. Warmth is directed to key areas, rather than throughout the entire garment. On jackets, these may include panels on the chest, lower back, and around the cuffs. Boots usually have a warming pad underneath the ball of the foot. Gloves often heat the length of the fingers, though sometimes exclude the thumb or may only warm the back of the hand.

Most products feature multiple heat settings, allowing you to regulate warmth depending on your needs. Columbia’s external on/off button is a rarity; most manufacturers require you to directly click on the battery itself, though some styles feature a small wired control unit in an accessible front pocket. Some batteries can even be used to charge a cell phone or portable music player.

On-demand heat may be a boon, but it comes with myriad drawbacks. Battery power is short-lived, typically lasting only two to four hours on the warmest setting or eight hours at most on the lowest output level. The batteries, though small, are still hard little bricks that take up noticeable space, especially on gloves. They must also be recharged, a regular inconvenience. Finally, there’s the risk that the whole system will malfunction and simply stop working, which can pose a safety hazard in the chilly backcountry if a hiker lacks additional insulation to compensate. If a component is fully kaput, finding replacement parts can be a challenge if manufacturers discontinue the product the following season.

There’s one drawback that overshadows all others: cost. Battery-heated garments often run double—or more—the price of a standard garment. Columbia’s battery-heated boots retail for $350 to $450; its jackets sell for an eye-popping $750 to $1000. Other manufacturers offer less extravagantly priced options, though still demand a premium for the technology. Only time will tell if consumers freeze with sticker shock or warm to this growing trend.

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Matt Heid

Equipped blogger Matt Heid is AMC's gear guru: He loves gear and he loves using it in the field. While researching several guidebooks, including AMC's Best Backpacking in New England, he has hiked thousands of miles across New England, California, and Alaska, among other wilderness destinations. He also cycles, climbs, and surfs.