Rainwear: How to Choose
Rainwear: How to Choose Performance rainwear choices include waterproof/breathable or water resistant, Gore-Tex or eVent, hard shell or soft shell, and more. Here's how to make sense of all these choices.
Performance rainwear choices include waterproof/breathable or water resistant, Gore-Tex or eVent, hard shell or soft shell, and more. Here's how to make sense of all these choices.
These factors and questions usually accompany a rain jacket or parka purchase:
Function: Will it keep me dry? When new, rainwear touted as "waterproof" is rain-worthy. Over time, however, rainwear fabric requires regular care to revive its optimal water-shedding ability. (Such maintenance is often overlooked.) What about soft shells? Most fall into the "water-resistant" category. That means they can withstand light precipitation, but not a drenching rain.
Comfort: Will I swelter inside it? In rainwear's waterproof/breathable category, much discussion and lots of advertising are devoted to fabric breathability. It is true that fabric technologies play a big role in making rainwear comfortable to wear during vigorous activity, but so do other factors: use of vents, individual metabolisms, humidity, temperature, the clothing worn underneath rainwear, and more.
Durability: Can it handle hard use? Face fabrics (nylon or polyester, usually) come in different weights, or denier. This specification is not always identified by manufacturers; 70-denier (70D) is a common weight, though outerwear fabrics can range from 15D (wispy) to 450D (burly). Aim for midweight (70D, often found in 3-layer designs) or higher if you like to climb, scramble or bushwhack off-trail. Sticking to trails? Save ounces by choosing a lightweight design.
Appearance: How do I look? Rainwear is maybe not fashion runway-swank, but it looks less techy than in the past. Rainwear designed for the wilderness aims for low weight (resulting in trim, athletic tailoring), easy packability and pocket positioning that won't interfere with backpack straps or a climbing harness. Rainwear for travel or around-town use is styled with a fuller cut, more pockets and less fussiness over weight.
Price: Why such disparity? High-end rainwear features advanced fabrics (usually involving a waterproof/breathable laminate), meticulous seam-taping and exceptional tailoring and detailing, right down to tiny protective awnings over zipper heads. Lower-cost rainwear is cut looser and often uses waterproof/breathable coatings (generally less breathable than laminates). Still, coated rainwear is quite adequate for moderate activities, and it's light, easy to pack and budget-friendly.
The abundance of rainwear options can seem intimidating. We fret: "How can I be sure I'm making the right choice?" One tip: Use your past experiences to forecast future rain jacket needs. Are you seeking something more breathable? More durable? Lighter? Something exactly the same? Understanding your personal needs can help you locate your niche on the outerwear continuum.
Types of Rainwear
Waterproof/Breathable (WP/BR) Rainwear
Traditionally the most popular rainwear for active people, this category is suited for the widest range of uses. WP/BR fabrics repel nonstop precipitation yet allow perspiration vapor to escape—though sometimes not as quickly as you might desire. Rainwear using high-tech laminates (Gore-Tex, eVent. MemBrain Strata) generally have an edge in breathability over rainwear using coatings.
- Laminates: Gore-Tex; eVent;
- Coatings: Hyvent
Recommended users for high-end garments using laminates:
- Frequent, year-round or high-elevation backpackers (particularly those who explore when weather is less stable, such early spring or late fall).
- Trail runners.
- Adventure travelers.
- Backcountry skiers/snowshoers.
Recommended users for moderately priced garments (often using coatings):
- Summer-season backpackers and day hikers.
- Fitness walkers.
- Sports spectators (or similar low-activity pursuits).
- Keeps active people more comfortable than traditional rainwear.
- One jacket can suit many activities.
- No universally accepted standard for breathability exists, so breathability performance is hard for a consumer to measure; breathability can vary widely from garment to garment, brand to brand.
- Costlier than other rainwear types.
Laminate vs. Coatings
A nutshell comparison of waterproof/breathable technologies.
|Think of it as:||Wallpaper glued to a wall||Paint spread on a wall|
|Made from:||Expanded polytetrafluoroethylene (ePTFE), polyurethane (PU) or polyester||Many formulations of polyurethane (PU)|
|Popular brands:||Gore-Tex; eVent; MemBrain Strata||Hyvent|
These are designed for strenuous, highly aerobic activities in cool conditions or when the biggest precipitation threat is a light shower, mist or dry snow. Water-resistant garments delay water penetration but do not prevent it. Best of this breed: soft-shell fabrics, consisting of tightly woven yarns that are stretchy, abrasion-resistant and highly breathable. Also in this category: uncoated fabrics treated with a durable water repellent (DWR) finish.
- Soft shells (designed with Polartec Power Shield; assorted textiles from Schoeller; Gore WindStopper).
- Wind shirts; some outdoor fitness apparel.
- Backpackers who value breathability and can tolerate dampness.
- Climbers who value stretchiness and can tolerate dampness.
- Day hikers expecting a light drizzle at the most.
- Backcountry skiers/snowshoers.
- Alpine skiers in spring conditions.
- Trail runners/fitness walkers.
- Excellent breathability.
- Sometimes lighter than WP/BR shells.
- Usually less expensive than WP/BR shells.
- Many include no hoods; most offer no sealed seams.
- Modest to minimal insulation value.
- If rain becomes steady or hard, fabric can become saturated.
These are soft-shell designs engineered with a WP/BR laminate. Their breathability is no different than traditional "hard-shell" rainwear; their advantage is the added stretch found in soft-shell fabrics, giving them appeal to climbers and other users who value flexibility in their outerwear. Jackets that mixed areas of hard- and soft-shell fabrics have mostly vanished.
- Gore-Tex Soft Shell.
- Backpackers/day hikers.
- Snowsport enthusiasts who encounter wet spring conditions.
- Trail runners/fitness walkers.
- Enhanced stretch.
- Keeps wearers dry in a downpour.
- No gain in breathability usually associated with soft-shell fabrics.
Fabrics (usually fully coated) where rain does not get in, and sweat does not get out. They are intended for minimal activity or emergency use, and are best sized large in order to vent out body heat. For example, bibs for fishing are cut loose and have no elastic waist; warm, moist air can rise as if ascending a chimney.
- Coated jackets, ponchos.
- Birders/wildlife viewers.
- Stationary outdoor people (such as a crosswalk guard).
- Sports spectators.
- Often stiff; can feel hot or clammy if temperatures rise or sustained activity is required.
Rainwear Construction (Layers)
Laminates and coatings are relatively delicate, and abrasion can create tiny leakage channels. Thus rain jackets employ some type of skin-facing inner layer for protection and are described as 2-layer, 3-layer or even 2.5-layer designs. Here is a brief primer on the terminology.
2-Layer: The Most Affordable
These are comparatively basic garments, where a membrane or coating is applied to the interior of the face fabric to form 1 layer. The second layer is often a loose-hanging liner, usually mesh, that is stitched into the interior of the jacket. This suits many people, though some find hanging linings a little too loose and bulky-feeling. The liner is needed to protect the laminate or coating from abrasion. Two-layer jackets are usually a touch heavier and less breathable than other designs, include more pockets and are primarily intended for day trips or urban activities.
2.5-Layer: The Lightest Weight
These use a low-weight face fabric (first layer), a polyurethane-based WP/BR laminate or coating (second layer) and a bare-minimum protective inner layer (more like a sheen than an actual layer, which is why it is considered a half-layer). Typically this inner layer is little more than a series of dots, a grid pattern or a scattering of resins that provides a touch of slickness and abrasion-resistance. These garments, typically 16 ounces or less, are intended for ultralight wilderness travel and weight- and space-restricted travelers. Two top-selling examples: the Marmot Precip and REI Ultra Light Jacket. Backcountry travelers who favor more breathable soft shells as their principal outerwear often toss a 2.5-layer jacket into their packs just in case a deluge hits and they need full waterproof protection. If abrasion-resistance is not one of your key concerns, 2.5-layer garments (particularly those with laminates, such as MemBrain Strata) deliver high performance for a comparatively modest price.
3-Layer: The Most Durable
ackets in this category offer rugged yet low-weight WP/BR protection. No coatings are used here, just laminates, with a membrane tightly sandwiched between the face fabric and a body-facing liner. Designers here seek to shave ounces and add refinements as minute as rounded zipper pulls to avoid any angular edges on the finished product. Jackets in the category offer a sleek, athletic fit and face fabrics that can handle less-than-gentle treatment. This makes them well-suited for serious climbers and backpackers. Products in this category aspire to high breathability, high durability and relatively low weight, albeit at a somewhat higher cost.
Little things can make a difference in your jacket or parka. Some to watch for:
Seam taping: Seam tape seals puncture holes created when sewing needles stitch together fabric panels. Virtually all top-brand WP/BR garments offer factory-taped seams. A few detail-obsessed manufacturers such as Arc'Teryx will even point out their use of narrow seam tape, which saves a few grams per garment. Some skiwear items offer "critical" seam taping. This means only seams in high rain exposure areas are taped; side seams, for example, may be omitted in an effort to keep costs down.
Weight: Rainwear designed for rugged use will tend to weigh more, often north of 16 ounces. Fewer conveniences (pockets, zippers, wrist adjustments) result in lower weight. Low weight vs. convenience—it's the eternal outdoor explorer's conundrum, and only you can supply the correct answer for yourself and your own preferences. Are you a fair-weather adventurer or casual rambler? Then it may be wise to aim light and resist the temptation to over-fortify yourself when a lightweight, 2.5-layer Marmot Precip (13 oz., men's medium) or Ultra Light (16 oz.) will do.
Fit: Be aware that many technical jackets ("technical" is typically a code word for higher-cost outdoor products that provide elevated performance attributes) feature a trim athletic cut. They look sharp on a corresponding body type, but may feel snug to some people and could make layering a challenge.
Hoods: Some are made extra roomy to accommodate a climbing helmet. Such hoods can appear enormous on a helmet-free noggin, so be aware that it may require some adjusting to keep it from flopping in your face. Want a cleaner appearance when wearing a jacket around town? Look for a detachable or hideaway hood when shopping. Hoods with stiffened brims have become fairly commonplace; they offer a nice rain awning that keep drips out of your face. Many soft shells have not offered hoods in the past, a trend that is gradually changing.
Vents: Nothing hastens the evaporation of sweat as well as direct air exposure. A jacket's biggest vent is its front zipper, and savvy wearers will regularly adjust this opening to maintain a comfortable body temperature. Some front zippers are 2-way zippers, meaning you can unzip them from the bottom—a very handy venting option. Some chest pockets or hand pockets double as core vents, which is another plus. Many zippers are the water-resistant variety, which are nice in foul conditions but harder to pull.
Armpit zippers: Minimalists will complain that they add weight (and they're right), but "pit zips" are a splendid air-circulation feature. Jackets that offer such an extra may also provide wrist adjustments that can be tightened or loosened to regulate airflow on your arms.
Articulated tailoring: Articulated sleeves, gusseted underarms and so-called "angel-wing" construction are worthwhile design features. These features allow sleeves to bend naturally without causing cuffs to ride up your forearm; or, when you raise your arms overhead, your lower torso remains covered. Very helpful.
Linings: Those aiming to save space and weight should sidestep jackets with hanging liners and choose a 3- or 2.5-layer design. In 3-layer jackets, some manufacturers call their linings a backing for a WP/BR membrane, one of the layers in a 3-layer laminate. Typically polyester tricot (soft and fast-wicking) is used. The Gore-Tex Pro Shell laminate features a 15-denier "micro grid backer" that W.L. Gore touts as being especially lightweight and breathable.
Chin guards: Some jackets offer soft material at the top of the front zipper channel so nothing but fleecy goodness touches your chin when the jacket is zipped up. It's a nice extra.
Storm flap: Front zippers sometimes come with a draft flap that backs the main zipper. It stops wind from slipping through the teeth of the zipper, but may add a hint of weight to the garment.
Pockets: Fewer are found on technical jackets than on urban-minded designs. Designers shrewdly position them to avoid conflict with backpack straps and hipbelts or a climbing harness. Most people view music pockets (with headphone ports) as a nice bonus. Inner mesh pockets can offer a place to store climbing skins or keep water bottles from freezing. Some travel-oriented jackets offer inner zippered security pocket for IDs.
Back length: Rainwear specs include back length—the distance between the between the base of a garment's collar and the bottom of its hem. For online shoppers, this measurement can help you envision how a rain jacket will fit. Most rainwear is jacket-length, with the hem resting just below the hips. Most parka-length designs, which cover a wearer's backside, are intended for snowsports and urban use.
Drawcords, snow skirts: Drawcords in a jacket's hem allow you to snug the fit and resist low-level intrusions from whipping winds. Snow skirts, usually found only in winter parkas, accomplish the same task at waist level. They also keep snow from flying up inside a jacket, the way a gaiter keeps scree out of a boot.
Noise: Some jacket fabrics create a swishing sound during arm swings. Nylon is usually a little more audible than polyester. Soft shells earn high marks here; they are typically much quieter than nylon or polyester hard shells.
Detailing: Why do some rain jackets cost $500 and more? The fabrics are typically the most advanced available, but the level of detailing is another factor. Take a close look at the precision that goes into some of the higher-price rainwear options on the rack. A few of them (notably Arc'teryx products) come close to resembling museum pieces.
Soft Shells vs. WP/BR Fabrics
Soft shells rate a mention as an outerwear option when rigorous, highly aerobic activities are involved. Some experienced, high-energy adventurers even prefer them over traditional outerwear.
Two types of soft shells (not always easy to tell apart) are available:
Traditional soft shells: These offer a water-resistant, tightly woven fabric distinguished by excellent stretch and breathability.
- Pros: A good choice for highly aerobic activity (backpacking, Nordic skiing, snowshoeing, trail running, climbing) where flexibility and breathability are prized; capable of withstanding lighter showers.
- Cons: If a soaking downpour hits, the fabric will likely become saturated at some point and you will feel wet.
Soft shells with a WP/BR membrane: These offer more stretch than a WP/BR garment, but with a reduced level of breathability (though one usually comparable with higher-performing WP/BR hard shells). But wait, is a membrane-equipped soft shell really a legitimate soft shell? It's an odd evolutionary step for soft shells, no question, since their initial reason for being was their sensational breathability (coupled with modest rain protection).
- Pros: Good for the same activities mentioned above, particularly climbing in wetter environments (where the extra stretch coupled with better weather protection pays off).
- Cons: When the weather clears, it will not be as breathable as a membrane-free soft shell.
Soft Shell Tips
- Soft shells involve a learning curve. Before relying on one as your sole source of weather protection on a multiday trip, try it on a day trip or on a short walk on a foul-weather day. Gauge the level of water resistance it supplies and measure its performance against your own comfort tolerances. Most soft shell users carry a no-frills "hard shell" for hard rain, heavy wind or a touch of extra warmth.
- Most soft shells, disappointingly, are not equipped with hoods. So a wide-brimmed WP/BR (or simply waterproof) hat is a smart addition.
- For your initial overnight trip with a soft shell, go in relatively mild temperatures. Carry both a lightweight WP/BR "hard-shell" jacket and a soft shell and use the soft shell as your insulation layer instead of fleece. Soft shells typically do not offer the same level of thermal insulation as fleece, but in mild conditions should be adequate.
- If the clouds open up, avoid letting your soft shell get soaked. Reach first for your "hard shell" rainwear and adjust insulation as necessary. Don't count on a soft shell to do too much. During light showers see how your soft shell's water resistance and your comfort levels match up. A hard-shell/soft-shell combo adds up to some extra ounces, but it could offer you a just-right mix of protection.
- This category is evolving. The latest emerging technology: a membrane-based soft-shell fabric from Schoeller. Named "c_change," it adapts its breathability capacity according to your body temperature by expanding or contracting the pore structure of its proprietary membrane. It's sci-fi-grade stuff that apparently has impressed a number of media field testers.
Guidance for Choosing
- No perfect rainwear exists, but many good options are available. Nothing breathes as efficiently as bare skin, so some humid, rainy day you may feel clammy inside your jacket.
- Make your choice based on how well a jacket's features match your needs and preferences, not just the perceived prestige value of a logo or price.
- With the "always be prepared" motto in mind, many people choose more jacket than they need. But you never go wrong buying quality.
- Many women-specific designs are available. Shop based on your current preferences and needs, not on what worked for your brother or dad 2, 5 or 10 years ago.
Breathability matters most? Consider...
- 3-layer laminate—costlier, yes, but if you push your intensity threshold, the payoff in comfort is easily worth the price. Top performing laminates include eVent and Gore-Tex Pro Shell. New arrival MemBrain Strata, a 2.5-layer design, hits the market with glowing field test reports.
- Soft shell (without a WP/BR membrane)—for experienced, fast-moving backcountry explorers, soft shells lead the breathability parade, but if a serious cloudburst hits, you'll yearn for a WP/BR jacket. Some minimalists love the breathability of soft shells so much they rely them as their primary weather shield. They may toss a lightweight hard shell into their pack just in case they walk into a downpour.
- No universally accepted testing method for fabric breathability exists (though at least 5 different test methods are used to gauge breathability). Be wary of product claims; manufacturers often cite test figures that put their design in the most favorable light.a
Waterproofness matter most?
- Any garment—2-layer, 2.5-layer or 3-layer—classified as waterproof will serve your needs. Your activity level will determine your final choice, with 3-layer designs targeted at the most active wearers. Some rain jackets are promoted as providing a waterproof rating of 40 to 45 psi (water pressure per square inch). Wind-driven rain, meanwhile, exerts a force of roughly 2 psi. All waterproof jackets offer pressure resistance of at least 3 psi.
Warmth matters most?
- Don't count on rain shells to provide much thermal insulation. Rainwear is not designed to counteract air temperature. Even soft shells, with high air permeability, are marginal insulators.
Weight matters most?
- 2.5-layer garments with a WP/BR laminate or coating are the top choice, with some options weighing in around 8 ounces.
- Soft shell (no membrane)—not ultralight, but experienced wilderness travelers with a higher tolerance for minimal convenience could, if forecast conditions are favorable, skip the rainwear and the fleece and get by with a soft shell alone. Big caveat: This is not a recommended strategy for beginners.
Durability matters most?
- In the WP/BR category, 3-layer laminates are best for rugged use (and Gore-Tex's track record of durability shines here; eVent is comparatively the new kid on the block).
- All soft shells—their tightly woven face fabrics are abrasion-ready.
Flexibility/maneuverability matters most?
- Soft shells—the ability to stretch is one of their key attributes; any model that claims "4-way stretch" is especially stretchy.
- Some hard-shell garments feature stretch panels to boost flexibility.
Cost matters most?
- Coated/nonbreathable rainwear will keep you dry at an economical cost; just avoid much activity. Soft shells, 2-layer and 2.5-layer WP/BR garments are often moderately priced.
Convenience and comfort matter most?
- Storage hounds should seek out 2-layer jackets (some with more breathable laminates, some with coatings) for their relative abundance of pockets.
- 2-layer jackets (intended for travel and urban use) offer the most relaxed, roomy fits.
Looks matter most?
- The most athletic tailoring is found in high-end, 3-layer WP/BR designs and snug-fitting soft shells.
Versatility matters most?
- If you want a single do-it-all rain jacket, it would be smart to pay a little more and choose a 3-layer WP/BR laminate with a tougher, high-denier face fabric that can withstand abrasion.
Tips on Using
In the Field:
- Feel too warm? It's better to feel a little cool when active than overly warm. Open some vents if your jacket has some. Ditch a layer of clothing. Slow down.
- Feel chilly? Zip up. Add some clothes. Pull on a hat. Eat something. Don't trudge; pick up the pace.
- Wearing a coated, 2.5-layer jacket? Be ready to take an active role in managing your jacket's ventilation. Zip up or zip open frequently as your comfort needs require.
- Feel moisture collecting on the inside of your jacket? Open all the vents you can without risking a soaking. Consider pausing in a sheltered spot and either briefly removing the jacket or zip it fully open.
- Is your companion warmer than you? Adjust your clothing system to suit your needs. Feel no obligation to mimic a partner's habits just to fit in. If some people feel comfortable on cool days with an unzipped jacket, fine. But never hesitate to zip up and put your hood up if you feel the need. Regularly assess your clothing mix to match up favorably with the conditions and your personal metabolism.
- Feeling grimy? Avoid if possible contacting the exterior of your rain jacket with your hands and face. Dirt and body oils can diminish WP/BR performance.
- Is it hot, humid and raining? "In those conditions, there's really no raincoat that anyone wants to wear," one rainwear expert says. "You're going to be just as wet on the inside as if you're not wearing a raincoat. I don't know what to do about that except use an umbrella."
- Ensure your rainwear is allowed to dry fully.
- If needed, wash the garments according to manufacturer instructions. Do not hesitate to clean rainwear; doing so optimizes its performance attributes.