How to Choose the Best Rain Pants

The Foray Pant by Outdoor Research offered some of the better freedom of moment among rain pants on the market. It doesn't feature stretchy fabric like a handful of other models on the market  but does feature superb articulation and a mobility-oriented design.
Article By:
Ian Nicholson
Review Editor
OutdoorGearLab

Last Updated:
Wednesday

Waterproof Breathable Fabrics 101


There is a lot of difficult to decipher terminology regarding waterproof/breathable fabrics and it can be hard to figure out what construction method might be best for you. The following information is basic yet valuable information that will aid you in making an educated purchase.

When you first start looking at waterproof garments  all the terms describing construction and materials can be confusing. We try to break it down here in a simple way to help you make a more informed discussion.
When you first start looking at waterproof garments, all the terms describing construction and materials can be confusing. We try to break it down here in a simple way to help you make a more informed discussion.

Construction 101: 2, 2.5, and 3-layer Fabrics


If you read about waterproof breathable fabrics, you've likely heard that they can be constructed using 2, 2.5, and 3-layer designs, with each offering their own subtle advantages. Most rain pants we tested feature 2.5 or 3-layer designs, even if they all might look like a single layer of fabric when you grab them off the rack at the store. You might wonder why does it look like one layer, even if it's labeled as 2.5? This is because the layers are tightly bonded together to function as one. This is true of both 2.5 or 3-layer designs (appearing as one layer), with 2-layer designs featuring an inner hanging mesh of some kind.

The aspect of waterproof breathable fabrics least understood by consumers is construction type and how if might affect a garment's performance. Below  we break down three layer  2.5 layer  and two layer construction  as well as some basic advantages and disadvantages that each one offers.
The aspect of waterproof breathable fabrics least understood by consumers is construction type and how if might affect a garment's performance. Below, we break down three layer, 2.5 layer, and two layer construction, as well as some basic advantages and disadvantages that each one offers.

All three of these designs share most of their construction qualities with the primary difference found on the inside of the garment. All three styles have an outer shell material, commonly referred to as a face fabric, which is coated with a chemical-based Durable Water Repellent finish (AKA: DWR) to keep the outer most layer from absorbing water. The middle layer (or second layer) is the actual waterproof breathable layer (whether Gore-Tex, another membrane, or coated fabric). Universally, the waterproof layer is located beneath the outer face fabric; this means you can't actually see the waterproof layer from the outside. The third and inner most layer is where the differences lies (between the three construction types).

You can see the pattern that's part of the .5 layer; it almost looks as if it has been painted or printed on. The goal of this layer is to protect the waterproof breathable layer from getting clogged with dirt and oils  while being as light and as breathable as possible. Another goal is to not inhibit the other layers overall performance.
You can see the pattern that's part of the .5 layer; it almost looks as if it has been painted or printed on. The goal of this layer is to protect the waterproof breathable layer from getting clogged with dirt and oils, while being as light and as breathable as possible. Another goal is to not inhibit the other layers overall performance.

Both 2.5 and 3-layer fabrics both feature an external DWR treated face fabric and a waterproof breathable membrane in the middle. The functionality of both of the inner most layers is the same: to keep sweat and oils from clogging the microscopic holes (sometimes called pores) in the waterproof breathable layer, which would reduce breathability and potentially make the user feel wet from the inside. The difference is 3-layer fabrics tend to use a more durable polyurethane (PU) film or similar backing, whereas 2.5-layer garments use an exceptionally thin polyurethane laminate or similar coating that is typically "painted" or printed on. This is considered a half layer, even if it covers all of the surface area on the inside.

Both 2.5 and 3 layer fabrics might feel the same in the store. They share many characteristics and design qualities  with the primary difference coming from the inner most piece of material.
Both 2.5 and 3 layer fabrics might feel the same in the store. They share many characteristics and design qualities, with the primary difference coming from the inner most piece of material.

Three layer fabrics tend to be more durable overall, as the inner most piece of fabric protects the pores in the waterproof membrane from clogging, thus maintaining better breathability between washings. That said, not all 3-layer pieces are more breathable and are often heavier than many of their 2.5 layer counterparts. 2-layer fabrics can also sometimes feel marginally clammier because the inner most layer is a loose hanging mesh that frequently doesn't do quite as good of a job of "absorbing" and transferring sweat away from the user's body. The advantages of 2.5-layer pants are that they are typically lighter, more subtle, and more packable.

Not all waterproof breathable fabrics are created equal; while they are all waterproof  they can vary greatly in breathability and longevity.
Not all waterproof breathable fabrics are created equal; while they are all waterproof, they can vary greatly in breathability and longevity.

Waterproof Breathable Insert Materials


Not all waterproof-breathable fabrics are created equal. While they are all waterproof, they can vary greatly in breathability and in longevity. To summarize, we found that models featuring Gore-tex PacLite offered the best breathability and longevity, but not by a landslide. The propitiatory fabrics used in the Mountain Hardwear Stretch Ozonic and REI Talusphere moved moisture and breathed well, offering respectable longevity.

The biggest advantage of laminates like Gore-Tex  eVent and other proprietary fabrics is they tend to last longer and maintain a higher level of breathability over time. The advantage of coatings is that they tend to be less expensive and have the potential to be more compressible (though rarely are).
The biggest advantage of laminates like Gore-Tex, eVent and other proprietary fabrics is they tend to last longer and maintain a higher level of breathability over time. The advantage of coatings is that they tend to be less expensive and have the potential to be more compressible (though rarely are).

Durable Water Repellent (DWR)


Durable Water Repellent (DWR) refers ONLY to the chemical treatment that has been applied to the exterior fabric and not to the membrane or coated waterproof fabric that is actually laminated to the inside of this exterior fabric. DWRs primary function is water resistance; this happens as the treatment creates a low surface tension, allowing the water to bead. The goal of DWR is to help keep the external face fabric from becoming saturated, which affects breathability, giving the user a sensation of dampness. All waterproof breathable fabrics feature a DWR, as well as nearly all water-resistant textiles which can be found on insulated and softshell pieces. Most manufacturers use fluorocarbons or fluoropolymer chemicals that are applied and subsequently bonded to the outside of the exterior fabric.

Durable Water Repellent  or DWR  refers to the chemical treatment that is applied to the water resistant garment's exterior. This treatment helps the garment bead water and keeps it from becoming saturated  which results in limited breathability and a wet-feeling interior (which also makes the garment heavier).
Durable Water Repellent, or DWR, refers to the chemical treatment that is applied to the water resistant garment's exterior. This treatment helps the garment bead water and keeps it from becoming saturated, which results in limited breathability and a wet-feeling interior (which also makes the garment heavier).

What is Waterpoof?


What is waterproof? A simple answer would be " it won't let any water through the fabric". However, the difficulty lies the fact that water can have variable amounts of force behind it, which conversely alters what it can let through. As an example, concrete can be cut using highly pressurized water, but most people would still consider concrete waterproof. Let's offer some perspective. Most rain generates around 2-3 PSI (PSI = pounds per square inch) of force. Rain in a severe storm (such as 80+ mph winds that might be found in a hurricane) can produce driving rain with forces up to 10 PSI.

What is waterproof? It seems like a simple question with a simple answer. While the outdoor recreation industry technically has no official standard  the US Military requires that a fabric must be able to resist 25 PSI. Most manufacturers use that as a start for outerwear and waterproof breathable fabrics.
What is waterproof? It seems like a simple question with a simple answer. While the outdoor recreation industry technically has no official standard, the US Military requires that a fabric must be able to resist 25 PSI. Most manufacturers use that as a start for outerwear and waterproof breathable fabrics.

A manufacturer recently calculated that a 180 pound person creates around 8 psi sitting on the wet ground and 16 psi while kneeling. While the outdoor recreation industry has no official standard, the US Military requires that for a fabric to be waterproof, it must be able to resist 25 PSI of water. Consequently, that has become a non-mandated guideline that most manufacturers have used. You might be wondering: what do these numbers even look like? To generate three pounds per square inch of force, imagine that a one inch by one inch box, which would have to be over seven feet high and filled with water, was placed on a given fabric in order to generate three PSI.

Below  we break down our actual comparisons and results of our side-by-side testing and real world findings; this photo demonstrates when we compared durability and mobility while hiking into Boston Basin on a very wet day North Cascades National Park  WA.
Below, we break down our actual comparisons and results of our side-by-side testing and real world findings; this photo demonstrates when we compared durability and mobility while hiking into Boston Basin on a very wet day North Cascades National Park, WA.

Considerations by Activity


Hiking


Folks looking for rain pants to use while day hiking or trail running should focus on low weight and compressibility over other features. The reason is most day hikers are likely to be more selective about which days they spend on the trail; for perfect days, most folks likely won't even carry a pair. However, for marginal weather days or when the threat of afternoon thunder showers is greater than having a pair in the bottom of your pack, a pair can be essential. Many of the "extra features" will likely mean less benefits, as it will simply add weight, as many of these folks will carry a pair of rain pants in their pack as a just-in-case layer".

For day hiking or trail running  you'll likely be best suited with a lighter weight  more compressible option rather than a fully featured model.
For day hiking or trail running, you'll likely be best suited with a lighter weight, more compressible option rather than a fully featured model.

Backpacking


Backpackers should still focus on weight, though a few extra features and comfort are more important factors. Backpackers might be pickier in regards to the weather, but for most people, especially if it's a few days backpacking trip, they are still apt to go, even if the weather is less than ideal. That means comfort under a hip belt and features to keep the wearer's pants from prematurely inching down can be nice. Weight and compressibility are still important, as even the most diehard backpacker will hopefully be carrying their rain pants more frequent then they wear it. Durability is a factor, but most backpackers follow relatively well-maintained trails that aren't too brushy, making it less of a factor than with other user groups.

Backpackers should look for fairly lightweight and compressible pants  as they are still carrying them in their pack for a majority of the time. Most folks feel that a little bit of occasional hassle to put them on is worth the five extra ounces and a little bit of volume over dozens of days. However  design features which make the pant more comfortable under a waist belt are easily one of the most important features to look for.
Backpackers should look for fairly lightweight and compressible pants, as they are still carrying them in their pack for a majority of the time. Most folks feel that a little bit of occasional hassle to put them on is worth the five extra ounces and a little bit of volume over dozens of days. However, design features which make the pant more comfortable under a waist belt are easily one of the most important features to look for.

Climbing and Mountaineering


Climbers and mountaineers tend to be one of the harder user groups on their gear, particularly rain pants, as they are more likely to wear them much more frequently for a multitude of reasons, such as wind protection or colder temperatures, or to assist in (intentionally) sliding down the mountain after an ascent. Having full or three-fourth length side zippers is of greater value because of the zipper's ability to enable mountaineers to don, or remove their shell pants over larger volume boots (with the potential to be wearing crampons). Climbers not only wear their pants more frequently, but they often wear them in rougher terrain - both in the act of climbing itself, but also often to embark on more off-trail travel in general. Due to the nature of climbing, having better mobility is also of greater value. While you don't want heavy rain pants, you do want them to last more than a handful of trips and to be easy to pull on over your mountain boots - or while roped together on a glacier or on a cliff.

While weight and packed size are important  climbers and mountaineers tend to wear their rain pants not only more frequently  but also commonly expose them to significantly more abuse than backpacking or hiking. Whether climbing on rock  ice  or just exposing them to crampons while walking up a glacier  durability and longer size zippers facilitate an easier time of putting them on and taking them off.
While weight and packed size are important, climbers and mountaineers tend to wear their rain pants not only more frequently, but also commonly expose them to significantly more abuse than backpacking or hiking. Whether climbing on rock, ice, or just exposing them to crampons while walking up a glacier, durability and longer size zippers facilitate an easier time of putting them on and taking them off.

Winter Sports


Winter sports can include a wide range of activities, from snowshoeing to backcountry or cross country skiing. Winter sports can include ice climbing. Our recommendations tend to be for the previously mentioned activities, as we would mostly lump these users in with our climbing and mountaineering recommendations. The pants we selected here work OKAY for backcountry skiing, but have more of a hiking/backpacking/mountaineering design focus. The main reason they don't offer incredible performance for backcountry skiing or snowboarding is because most of the models we included are too tight to be pulled over a ski or snowboard boot, while others do not offer the necessary level of breathability.

Most of the rain pants in our review are designed for backpacking  hiking  and mountaineering. Some pairs can be used for occasional backcountry skiing  but they tend to be lighter weight and less durable than most contenders that people would buy for ski touring. The majority of pants we tested feature cuffs that are too snug to be worn over ski or snowboard boots.
Most of the rain pants in our review are designed for backpacking, hiking, and mountaineering. Some pairs can be used for occasional backcountry skiing, but they tend to be lighter weight and less durable than most contenders that people would buy for ski touring. The majority of pants we tested feature cuffs that are too snug to be worn over ski or snowboard boots.

Snowshoers, like climbers, tend to wear their shell pants far more often; thus, for these users, features, comfort, and durability tend to be weighted slightly more than compressibility or weight. Full or three-fourth length side zippers that allow for easy on, easy off changes, as well as the ability to ventilate on the fly.

So whether you're backpacking  hiking  or mountaineering (or all three)  we hope you found this review helpful  and thanks again for reading!
So whether you're backpacking, hiking, or mountaineering (or all three), we hope you found this review helpful, and thanks again for reading!

Ian Nicholson after a long day near Washington Pass.
Ian Nicholson
About the Author
Ian is a man of the mountains. His overwhelming desire to spend as much time in them as possible has been the reason for him to spend the last seven years living in small rooms in dusty basements cluttered with gear and in the back of his pickup (sometimes in the parking lot of the local climbing gym). This drive and focus have taken Ian into the Kichatna Spires of Alaska and the Waddington Range of British Columbia (with the help of two Mountain Fellowship Grants from the American Alpine Club) as well as extensive trips through much of the Western United States and Canada. His pursuit of guiding has been tenacious. He was the youngest person to pass his American Mountain Guides Assn Rock and Alpine Guide exams (on his way towards becoming a fully certified International Federation of Mountain Guides Associations guide). Ian also holds an American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE) Level 3 certification as well as an AIARE Level 1 avalanche instructor certification.

 
 

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