Columbia Sportswear began as a small, family-owned hat distributor. Present chairwoman Gert Boyle's parents, Paul and Marie Lamfrom, fled Germany in 1937 and immediately bought a Portland hat distributorship. They became the Columbia Hat Company, named for the nearby Columbia River. Frustrations over suppliers influenced the family to start manufacturing their own products.
Ten years later, Gert married Neal Boyle, who became the head of the company. In 1970, Neal died following a heart attack. Gert and son Tim Boyle, then a University of Oregon senior, took over the operations of Columbia, rescuing it from near bankruptcy.
Columbia's jackets featured waterproof fabric that was also breathable. Additionally, new jackets featured interchangeable shells and liners. Multiple wearing options and fabric technology fueled rapid sales growth.
Columbia Sportswear acquired footwear maker Sorel Corporation in 2000 and Mountain Hardwear in 2003. In 2006, Columbia acquired the Pacific Trail, Montrail, and Moonstone brands.
On June 15, 2008, Columbia Sportswear announced a three year sponsorship of the cycling team formerly known as Team High Road and before that T-Mobile and Team Telekom. The sponsorship began on July 5, 2008 with the start of the Tour de France. The team's new name is "Team Columbia". The sponsorship includes both the men's and women's teams.