A rain jacket that keeps you dry when the skies let loose may be the first piece of performance outdoor clothing you ever purchase; as a result, a waterproof shell is one of the most essential pieces of gear you can have for comfort and safety when a storm rolls in. The models we reviewed in our Rain Jacket Review span affordable rain protection for short day hikes and general around town use, to ultralight rain protection for climbing and trail running. Whether you are searching for your first jacket, a modern replacement for an old favorite, or an ultralight model to add to your quiver, you're in the right place.
Construction 101: 2, 2.5, and 3-layer Fabrics
Nearly every manufacturer boasts about how many layers their jacket features, but what does that even mean? Are more layers better? Worse? How should this affect what products you consider?
Most rain shell fabrics use a 2, 2.5, and 3-layer designs; most of the layers are tightly-sandwiched. Whether 2, 2.5, or 3-layer fabrics are used, these designs share most of their construction qualities, and there is only a small difference on the inside-facing side of the garment. All three styles feature an outer shell fabric, commonly referred to as a face fabric which is coated with a chemical Durable Water Repellent (AKA: DWR, more on this below) finish to help keep the outer layer from absorbing water.
The second, or middle layer is the actual waterproof layer, whether that be eVent, Gore-Tex, another proprietary membrane generally made of polyester or nylon, or a coated fabric. Universally, the waterproof layer gets placed beneath the outermost layer which is termed the face fabric layer. To be clear, you can not usually see the waterproof layer from the outside, and the third and innermost layer is where all of the differences lie.
Three-layer fabrics feature an external DWR treated face-fabric, a waterproof breathable membrane in the middle (that could be any of the types listed above) and a super thin polyurethane (PU) film or another similar backing. This third layer's goal is to keep sweat and oils from clogging the microscopic holes in the waterproof-breathable layer, which reduces breathability and may make the user feel wet from sweat (that they might think is coming from the outside).
The advantage of three-layer fabrics is they are typically the most durable overall because of the innermost layer, which protects the pores in the waterproof membrane from clogging (at least for longer), thus maintaining better breathability between washings. The disadvantage is three-layer pieces are not always as breathable and are often heavier than many of their 2.5 layer counterparts.
2.5 Layer Fabrics
Outer garments that feature a 2.5 layer construction look similar to those that feature a three-layer design (with the exception that they may feel slightly lighter and more subtle). Models that feature a 2.5 layer construction have the same outermost layer that has been treated with DWR, protecting the waterproof layer. Then, an exceptionally thin polyurethane laminate or other coating is placed on the inside to help protect this layer from sweat, grime, or other oils that could clog the pores. This layer is often "painted on," which is why it's considered a half layer (Yes, the painted on layer is the half-layer, even if it covers all of the inside surface area).
Jackets that feature a 2.5 layer construction offer similar breathability to 3-layer jackets, though depending on their liner they may occasionally feel marginally clammier. Why? Because the innermost layer doesn't do quite as good of a job at "absorbing" and transferring sweat that has been created by the wearer. 2.5 layer jackets are typically slightly lighter and more subtle, but often not quite as durable (and must be cleaned more frequently to maintain breathability). It's worth noting that in the last few years, we have seen the most improvement in 2.5 layer jackets to minimize their clammy feel in higher end models.
2 Layer Fabrics
These fabrics have the same DWR face fabric bonded to a waterproof-breathable layer, with a loose liner hanging on the inside that typically meshes; this works to help protect the membrane or coated material. These jackets are less expensive and more moderately priced. They breathe well but are heavier, bulkier, and not ideal for active outdoor users. Overall in the outdoor world, there are very few 2-layer models be made because of these disadvantages. However before the 2.5-layer revolution just over a decade ago, around half the rain shells on the market were 2-layer.
Waterproof Membrane Types
Gore-Tex is the oldest and most widely know waterproof-breathable fabric and has become the Kleenex of the waterproof-breathable fabrics world. On an elementary level, Gore-Tex is a polytetrafluoroethylene (or ePTFE for short) membrane stretched out to a particular dimension. Water vapor can escape, but liquid water cannot enter, due to both the sizes of the pores (which are 20,000 smaller than a water droplet), as well as the material's extremely low surface tension, which cannot absorb liquid water without tremendous pressure.
Polytetrafluoroethylene is also slightly better known by the DuPont brand name Teflon. W.L. Gore is always trying to improve the product; to do so, the company has strict rules and restrictions for companies that want to use their product; in doing so, they keep up their reputation of "Guaranteed to Keep You Dry."
Gore-Tex with Paclite technology is formerly known as Gore-Tex Paclite and is a 2.5 layer fabric with a normal Gore-Tex membrane but a proprietary super thing half layer that completely covers the inside. Gore keeps exact specifications pretty locked up, but it more or less has the same properties as most 2.5 layer models (being lighter, more subtle, slightly more breathable) but uses Gore-Tex as its waterproof membrane.
eVent is very similar in design to Gore-Tex and is also an ePTFE based material. It was originally designed for industrial air filters by a company owned by General Electric before discovering it would make a fantastic waterproof breathable textile. Similar to Gore-Tex, eVent uses an external face fabric with a very similar polytetrafluoroethylene membrane. Where the big difference is in the inner-most layer: instead of using a solid material like Gore-Tex (which uses a hydrophobic polyurethane (PU) film on the inside), eVent uses a secret propitiatory coating that protects the individual fibers without clogging the pores. The result is a more breathable ePTFE than Gore-Tex, yet a product that needs to be washed more frequently to maintain better breathability.
Dry. Q Elite is Mountain Hardwear's own proprietary waterproof breathable fabric. They use an ePTFE membrane in a 2.5 layer construction, but there isn't a typical (or any is what they claim?) innermost layer. While the exact specifications of this fabric remain their trade secret, this is one of the sweetest proprietary waterproof breathable out there. The lack of an inner layer allows for exceptionally high moisture transfer rates and enables the garment to be air permeable, meaning it starts to breathe without a buildup of heat. The temperature differential (warmer on the inside colder on the outside) is required by all other ePTFE.
Polyester, Polyurethane, or PU Films
Higher end versions of many of the new wave of PU fabrics are quickly catching up to ePTFE membranes like Gore-Tex and eVent in performance or offering unique advantages of their own. In these garments, the PU is the laminate that acts as the waterproof layer and is very similar to the one laminated to the inside of a Gore-Tex jacket. If the PU layer is waterproof, why bother to add the ePTFE layer, you might ask? It's because when laminated to an ePTFE layer, it can be exceptionally thin; without it, it must be thicker to achieve the desired properties.
Three of the most significant advantages to garments with fabric that relies on PU for its waterproofing include lighter weights, the potential for more breathability, and extra stretch. Jackets and other outerwear featuring Gore-Tex or eVent do not allow for as much stretch. Simply put, even the stretchiest ePTFE fabric is nowhere near as stretchy as the stretchier PU or polyester based ones.
Coated fabrics are often used on price-pointed models and are nearly always less breathable and typically are far less long-lasting than the above-listed materials. It's worth repeating that the coated waterproof and breathable fabric still gets sandwiched inside the jacket and can be made using a 2, 2.5, and 3 layer construction. Like PU coated fabrics, it can be made with stretchy textiles, allowing garments to have more range of motion.
Durable Water Repellent (DWR)
Durable Water Repellent (DWR) refers exclusively to the chemical treatment that has been applied to the exterior fabric (not the membrane or coated waterproof fabric) and its performance in resisting or beading up water. The goal of DWR is to help keep the external face fabric from becoming saturated, affecting breathability and giving the user a sensation of dampness. All waterproof fabrics feature a DWR, which can be found on insulated and softshell pieces. Most companies use fluorocarbons or fluoropolymer chemicals that are applied, which bond to the outside of the exterior fabric.
What is Waterproof?
An easy answer would be "it can't let any water through"; however, the problem is water can have a variable amount of force. For example, even concrete can be cut by highly pressurized water, but we still consider it a waterproof material. Most rain generates around 2-3 PSI (PSI = pounds per square inch) of force. Rain in a severe storm (with 80+ mph winds found in a hurricane) can produce up to 10 PSI.
A manufacturer calculated that a 180-pound person creates around eight psi sitting on the wet ground and 16 psi while kneeling. While there is no official standard in the outdoor recreation industry, the US Military requires that fabric must be able to resist 25 PSI (or 16,700mm) to be considered waterproof; most manufacturers have used just that. What do those numbers look like, even to simply generate 3 PSI? Imagine that a one-inch by one-inch box would have to be over seven feet high and filled with water while placed on a given fabric; this would generate 3 PSI.
Types of Waterproof Jackets
Here at OutdoorGearLab, we divide waterproof/breathable shell jackets into two categories: rain jackets and hardshells. At the most basic level, price and fabric construction quality distinguish these categories from one another. Jackets generally cost about $90-$300 and typically feature 2-2.5 layer construction, while hard shells will set you back $350-$800 and typically feature three layers.
Rain jackets are the affordable or lighter weight option for general use or applications where weight is more important, while the advanced hardshell fabrics are usually more durable, and their features are more technically focused for alpine climbing and skiing.
Similar to waterproof ratings, breathability has a scale to determine its effectiveness. However unlike waterproof ratings where the results of a PSI water test are pretty cut and dry; breathability ratings couldn't be more different. It's not that the tests that prove how much moisture can pass through a given fabric are useless, but there are FAR more outside factors that influence the performance of a given fabric's breathability, such as the temperature, humidity, and pressure. These factors also make the tests super unapplicable to real-world use. To make matters even harder, there are no standardized tests from brand to brand.
Breathability and Layering Approprately
It's important to remember that every jacket has a maximum limit on how much moisture can physically pass through it. Thus when you're working aerobically, do your best to make sure that you're wearing the minimal amount of layers you can get away with. We've all soaked a synthetic or wool t-shirt while working hard or hiking uphill and a rain shell isn't much different. Remember there is a point when you're working and sweating so hard that it doesn't dry as you go; once you cross that threshold, the jacket starts to wet out. It's not that a garment isn't breathing, it's just not breathing enough for your exertion level.
Air permeable is a technical term and hip new buzzword in the outdoor industry that refers to a fabric's ability to be constantly letting air and moisture in and out, regardless of pressure and temperature differences. This also means that these garments aren't technically windproof. Not that this means they feel like a cotton t-shirt on a windy day, but you will get chilled slightly more quickly with an air permeable model than a non-air permeable one.
A common misconception about air permeable fabrics is that just because they are air permeable doesn't necessarily mean that more moisture can pass through than a non-air permeable model; it just depends on the fabrics. For example, some air-permeable models aren't as breathable as non-air permeable ones that feature eVent and Gore-Tex.
What this does mean is air permeable models don't require the same heat build-up as non-air permeable models. They continue to breathe even after their user has cooled off but may still be wet on the inside. In general, many of the fabrics that are using air-permeable materials in the outdoor industry tend to be among the most breathable ones, especially the higher end ones; however, several more price-pointed models are air permeable but are not as breathable as classic ePTFE like eVent and Gore-Tex. Three models in our review that use air permeable fabric are the Rab Kinetic Plus, Outdoor Research Interstellar, and Mountain Hardwear Quasar Lite.
Ultralight models are minimally featured bare-bones jackets, designed to be as light as possible. These models may skip classic features like lower hand pockets, hood adjustments, and additional ventilation features. They excel at activities where saving weight and a minimal packed volume is of the utmost importance. These models are best suited for dry pursuits in cool to cold weather, or shorter spats of drizzle to guard against afternoon thunderstorms. The ultralightweight and small packed-size makes these perfect just in case storm protection that you can toss in your pack, clip to your harness, or stash in your running vest. The three ultralight models we tested were the Outdoor Research Helium II (6.5 oz), Patagonia Storm Racer (6 oz), Black Diamond Fineline (7.5 oz). Also of note, all three have of the models we tested have reflective logos and patches, which are great feature for running and biking.
Sizing your Jacket
Consider if you want your rain jacket to fit snugly for more active use or a little loose to allow for layering underneath? Having a loose fitting jacket gives you more room for insulation and base layers, but does it perform better one way or the other? A snug fitting jacket will maximize breathability or the transfer of water through the fabric away from your body. As discussed above, water vapor always wants to move from warm to cool. A snug fitting jacket will create a more uniform warm environment inside that promotes breathability. A loose fitting jacket promotes better ventilation. Pit zips, pocket vents, open wrist cuffs… these all move more air when a loose fitting jacket moves as you move.
Care & Cleaning of Rain Jackets
A well cared for, clean jacket will function better and last longer than a neglected, dirty one. First off, be kind to your jacket. Whether you stuff the jacket into its pocket or roll it away into its hood, you will prolong the performance of the DWR treatment. The less abrasion and abuse the face fabric receives, the better. Adopt this habit when stowing your jacket in your pack. Your jacket will maintain its breathability longer, as the interior stays cleaner and the pores in the fabric remain unclogged.
Eventually, you will want to wash your jacket. Done correctly, washing and drying can have a miraculous effect restoring DWR and breathability. These jackets all can be washed in the washer, and a front-load machine without a center agitator is best. All fabrics with a DWR treatment should be washed in cold or warm water using a small amount of powdered detergent. Find the manufacturer's recommendation on either the jacket label or website, and follow it. Cold water and the delicate cycle is your best bet if you have any doubts. Liquid detergents and fabric softeners should be avoided, as they have components that adhere to the fabric's fibers. Choose a double rinse cycle to remove as much soap residue as possible.
Now you have a clean jacket. Any oils, dirt, and grime that may soil or clog up the waterproof/breathable layer will have been washed away, and the original breathability should be restored. Now comes the important bit. Hanging or laying your jacket to air dry is the safest technique. A freshly laundered, air dried jacket will sometimes restore a DWR that was losing its ability to bead water. Carefully applying heat can work wonders when cleaning alone doesn't restore DWR; a dryer's low heat setting is the place to start. Again, the manufacturer's care instructions should be consulted. A popular but riskier technique is using an iron, either on low heat or low steam. If the polymers that make up the DWR haven't worn off the face fabric completely, the dryer or iron can make them bead water like a champ again.
After enough use, it will be necessary to reapply a DWR treatment to your jacket's exterior. Spray-on and wash-in treatments are available. Two-layer jackets with a mesh liner should only be treated with a spray-on product, as you want the mesh liner to continue to absorb sweat and allow it to move towards the outside. Either is appropriate for a 2.5-layer jacket, but we prefer spray-on products.
Here is the advanced technique for spray-on application. Wash your jacket as described above and let it air dry. Briefly place the jacket in the dryer on low heat, until all the fabric is nice and warm. Remove from the dryer, hang, and immediately spray on your new DWR. Use less rather than a more spray-on product, and with a hair dryer you've readied, accelerate the drying of the new DWR. This technique serves to both restore the original DWR that remains on the jacket and maximize the bonding of the new polymers you are applying. Nikwax and Granger both produce a full line of fabric treatments, including spray-on and wash-in varieties.
You should consider the activities you'll be taking your jacket on and think about its hood. Is being able to fit over a climbing or bike helmet essential? Or is it a rare-enough occurrence you can just tuck it underneath? How important is good peripheral vision? None of the jackets we tested were atrocious, but there were no doubt some that were better than others.
The world changed for waterproof clothing in 1976 when W.L. Gore and Associates introduced Gore-Tex fabrics to the market. Gore discovered and patented the process for creating ePTFE, or expanded Polytetrafluoroethylene. This thin film contains millions of small pores, too small for liquid water, but large enough for water vapor to pass through. Laminate this thin membrane to a synthetic face fabric and voila!! The first waterproof and breathable fabrics. Today's waterproof/breathable layered fabrics include face fabrics that are laminated to membranes like Gore-Tex and face fabrics that are coated.
Gore-Tex rainwear quickly conquered the market or, in one sense, created the waterproof/breathable market. Competing waterproof fabrics coated with Polyurethane (PU) or Polyvinylchloride (PVC) couldn't compete. The first Gore-Tex fabrics were 2-layer construction; the ePTFE membrane laminated to a nylon or polyester face fabric and a mesh or thin fabric liner hung inside this layered fabric to protect it and provide comfort next to your skin. Gore quickly discovered the ePTFE membrane's pores could easily become clogged with oils and dirt though, and added another layer to the laminated sandwich, covering the ePTFE membrane with an oil resistant PU layer. This PU layer protects the pores from contamination but stops all airflow through the membrane's pores. Three-layer construction was the next big advance and mesh or scrim was laminated to the interior of the layered fabric. This innermost layer protects the membrane and provides better transfer of water through to the outside. As the "light is right" ethos took over the outdoor world in the 90s, 2.5-layer technology did as well. This construction incorporates, instead of laminated mesh, a texturized "half layer" printed on the inner face of the layered sandwich.
So does traditional Gore-Tex breathe? No, in the sense that air does not pass through. Yes, in the sense that liquid water passes through the innermost PU layer, and then is wicked to the face fabric through the ePTFE's pores, where it evaporates. This wicking process works best with a large temperature gradient. Water always wants to move from warmer to colder zones. Fabric that does a great job "breathing" when it's cool outside will not wick nearly as much sweat away from your body when it's hot out.
Gore's original patents for ePTFE expired in the mid-90s, and competitors, many of whom had been developing PU membranes and advanced PU coatings began to experiment with PTFE technology. Options multiplied for manufacturers of outdoor performance clothing, but Gore-Tex has maintained its dominating market share for high-end waterproof/breathable fabrics. Polartec NeoShell, eVent, and Mountain Hardwear's Dry.Q are the latest ePTFE laminates. None of these technologies uses a PU layer, and as a result, all are air permeable. High performing PU membranes are popular today as well; examples include Patagonia's H2No and Marmot's air permeable NanoPro laminate. As these newer, truly breathable, or air permeable, membranes gain traction, Gore has gotten on board as well. Gore's latest version of Gore-Tex Pro is its first to eliminate the PU layer, creating the first air permeable Gore-Tex fabric. In our review of hardshell jackets, you'll find jackets intended for serious mountain activities, constructed with these advanced three-layer laminates.
Here is a good summary of many of the top of the line waterproof/breathable fabrics. Marmot's new NanoPro fabrics are rightly garnering much attention. Here is a good article comparing NanoPro to the new air permeable Gore-Tex Pro. For those of you interested in the history of Gore-Tex, and how W.L. Gore revolutionized the outerwear market, and perhaps discouraged further innovation, read Insane in the Membraine.