Remember those old rubber rain slickers you had as a kid? For some, this might conjure images of a soggy childhood, tromping around in the rain only to come back home so clammy you wish you hadn't worn the it at all. Or maybe you remember your first backpacking trip when you raided your parents old gear and pulled out some heavy old jackets that got saturated with rain after five minutes hiking in a light drizzle, and you promised yourself never again
The rainwear industry has come a long way, in every way imaginable. Today you can easily spend up to $200 on a jacket that fits in the palm of your hand and will keep you dry all day, from light tasks around town to rugged routes in the mountains.
With the blessing of choice comes the curse of decision. Where once it was easy to grab the only option out there--a sticky rubber slicker--now we must wade through a sea of information and technological innovation to figure out if that jacket really is worth the extra $50. If that already sounds like way too much work, your decision is probably easy: get the least expensive option and call it good.
But if your favorite outdoor activity frequently involves the threat (or the reality) of rain, and you don't want to recreate that backpacking trip all those years ago when you swore you'd never carry so much weight on your back ever again, then read on.
Types of Shell Jackets
First, there are two primary types of waterproof, protective jackets: a hardshell and a rain shell. Both types serve roughly the same purpose, but there are some key differences: price and durability.
A hardshell can run up to $500 while a rain shell typically costs between $60-$300. Hardshells feature rugged three-layer fabric designs for the most extreme mountain conditions, originally tailored to the specific needs of alpinists. For more details, reference our Women's Hardshell Review. Rain Jackets tend to be less rugged and slightly more breathable, as well as more affordable. They will have less features tailored toward an alpinist or climber and more comfort features for everyday wear.
The Rain Shell
First, a little background on the two types of fabrics you will find in our rain shell review.
Two Layer Shells
On the simpler and lower cost side of the rain shell spectrum is the two layer rain jacket. These ones are easy to pick out of a lineup: they typically have a mesh lining inside to protect the waterproof/breathability of the outer "face" fabric (the liner keeps the plastic off your oily skin, and aids in air circulation for breathability). While certainly still a very breathable design (because we define breathability as a garment's capacity to expel excess vapor from sweating), many users find this design to feel too heavy, bulky, and generally too "warm" of a design for highly aerobic activities. For this reason, these jackets are usually relegated to around-town missions where comfort is paramount. A two layer design is also a good option if the jacket is likely to spend 360 days of the year in your closet, or if you are just exploring a new outdoor activity and can't justify the expense of a lighter weight model--and you don't intend to carry it around in a backpack for a week in the mountains. This design was the original waterproof/breathable innovation, and it still holds its own in a category filled with flashy new textile technologies.
2.5 Layer Shells
The next level up is perhaps the most complicated and rapidly evolving: the 2.5 layer rain shell. This technology first came out in the mid-90s when Gore-Tex introduced its Paclite technology. Today, most lightweight rain jackets use 2.5 layer technology; appropriately, the majority of jackets in our review are 2.5 layer jackets. The waterproof/breathable face fabric is essentially the same as the two layer design, but the mesh has been replaced by a printed or sprayed-on partial protective layer--considered a half-layer. This is where you will find the most competition between companies who are trying to make the lightest, most breathable options for consumers--or at least convince buyers that they are. Categorically, these types of jackets are going to be the lightest weight and most packable (since they ditch the mesh liner), so for those concerned about weight AND function, this is your category. Put mom's old rain coat back in the basement and lighten the load on your next trip in the mountains. It might just make the difference between loving the great outdoors and cursing the soggy wilderness.
Within the 2.5 layer rain shells, there is a further distinction: jackets with laminates and those with coatings. A laminate is often metaphorically described as wallpaper on a wall, and coatings as paint on a wall. Laminates, such as Gore-Tex and eVent, are typically more durable, breathable, and lighter weight than coatings. But coatings tend to be less expensive. Coatings are also, however, more susceptible to contamination from detergents, so be sure they get a thorough rinse after washing.
Getting into even more detail, both laminates and coatings utilize one of two methods to get water vapor (sweat) to diffuse out of a rain jacket (except the Marmot PreCip - Women's which uses a combination of both technologies). One way, which seems the most obvious, is through micropores that let water vapor out but don't allow water droplets in. Harder to manufacture than it sounds, we're sure. The second way is through adsorption-diffusion-desorption: essentially, the jacket absorbs the water vapor and uses the laws of physics and chemistry to whisk it away from your body and outside of the jacket. This is where the numbers for the MVTR, or moisture vapor transmission rate, come from.
The reason it is good to know about these different technologies is that it can noticeably affect our layering strategies. Jackets with micropores are much more breathable and permeable to wind, we noticed. We often felt cooler in the Marmot PreCip - Women's compared with other jackets in the review--and the feeling was exactly as if we were wearing a less wind-resistant jacket. When we learned about these pores, it all made sense. On the opposite end, the Outdoor Research Aspire - Women's felt like a fully weatherproof coat, and added noticeable warmth and protection from the elements.
The comparison of highest intrigue here is the Outdoor Research Helium II - Women's and the Marmot Crystalline. These two jackets were practically the same product: same price, close in weight, similar materials and design. But the Helium II uses a coating while the Crystalline is made with a laminate. Before researching these details, our reviewers reported that the Crystalline did breathe a bit better, and it felt drier to the touch (i.e. less clammy) than the Helium II--as expected given the technology used.
A third alternative, though not reviewed here, is a soft shell. These jackets are easily the most popular mountain layer. These jackets are highly breathable and wind resistant, and when the durable water repellent (DWR) coating is new, they can be surprisingly water repellant. These garments are designed for high octane activities. Prices for soft shells usually fall in between hard shells and rain shells. To learn about these jackets, and even some hybrid options that combine features of both, check out The Best Softshell Jacket for Women Review.
How to Choose the Right Jacket
Now that we have an understanding of the products and technologies available, the next step is to figure out which product best matches your needs. As a consumer, to be sure you get the best bang for your buck, it is important to be totally honest about your specific rainwear needs/wants/desires/wishes. Then it's time to review the scoring metrics in this review.
Will you consistently be out and about in a very rainy climate, or is your rain shell an emergency-only piece that will live in the bottom of your backpack or messenger bag? For the avid outdoor woman, perhaps the most important aspect to consider is how often you will be wearing the jacket versus how often you will be carrying it in your backpack. This will likely set your price range first, from which point you will want to consider the importance of durability and breathability. If you're out hiking and biking and kayaking and climbing and traveling and… etc. in the rain a lot, a durable option like the Outdoor Research Aspire - Women's is an excellent, long-lasting choice which is also extremely breathable. If you're looking to go ultralight, there is no match for the featherweight Outdoor Research Helium II - Women's on your next fast-and-light alpine adventure. Getting back to price, however, if you want to cut cost because you just don't use the jacket much, but you still value light weight and low bulk, maybe you will want the Marmot PreCip - Women's.
What is your climate? Is your home range the Sierra Nevada or the Pacific Northwet (not a typo)? This will determine the importance of the durability and waterproof metrics. If it rains a lot in your life, then you don't want to skimp on the waterproof factor. But if rain is infrequent and less consequential to your goals, ambition, and happiness, perhaps you will derive more satisfaction from a jacket that performs in a pinch, but doesn't feel like a brick in the bottom of your pack. For this, you'll want to consider the weight first.
How about your level of activity? Do you want a jacket that will keep up with you on speed ascents in the mountains? A lightweight option like the OR Helium II is not only half the weigh of the competition, it could also easily do the job of rain jacket AND wind jacket, thereby eliminating one layer altogether. Now that's minimalism! A thinner jacket will feel better overall for high aerobic output activities, as it means there is less material through which your body has to pump excess heat.
Maybe you're going foraging for seaweed or teaching kids about the wonders of nature on slow hikes through the forest? For a slower pace, a comfortable and more affordable option will fit the bill, and looks might be a factor to consider for professionalism.
Cycling and bike commuting offer particular challenges to your rain jacket selection. Moving forward at high speeds means the rain will really be pelting you, so waterproofness is important. But it also creates particular challenges for breathability. You don't want vents that open wide to let water in, but you will want a jacket that can dump heat fast on that unexpected hill around the corner.
Is style an important factor? Do you need to look sleek and professional in your rainwear? The OR Aspire is pretty sexy as far as brightly colored Gore-Tex goes, but the Sierra Designs Stretch - Women's looks like a nice jacket you might wear to an important meeting.
It is hard to justify spending $200 on a piece of clothing you only wear a few times a year and has little bearing on your enjoyment of said activity. On the flip side, if you're out and about, rain or shine, many days of the year, perhaps you're willing to invest. But if you fall somewhere in between, like most people do, that's where the choosing gets tough. The best approach is, first, to list your priorities and uses for the jacket. Next, think of any good or bad experiences you've had in the rain. Then reflect a little on these uses and experiences, and rate the importance of each component of a rain jacket for you (our scoring metrics provide a handy list you can use). But leave price for last—don't ignore it, just look at it last. In the long run, for a layer that can make or break an outing you've been looking forward to all year, it might be worth the extra cash.
In the end, buying a jacket is a very personal choice, but this review should help you wade through the flood of information and zero in on the rain jacket that will keep you dry and psyched, even when the sky cracks open and the going gets rough.