A rain jacket that keeps you dry when the skies let loose is likely the first piece of performance outdoor equipment many outdoor enthusiasts ever purchase. The primary reason is a waterproof shell is among the most important pieces of gear for comfort and safety when a storm rolls in or the wind starts to howl. The models we reviewed in our Rain Jacket Review span affordable rain protection for day hikes and general around-town use, to ultralight rain protection for climbing, long-distance backpacking 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 clearly lists how many layers their jacket is constructed with, but if you're like a lot of people, you've likely wondered what does that even mean? Are more layers better? Worse? What are the pros and cons of each and most importantly, how should this affect what products you consider?
Most rain shell fabrics use a 2, 2.5, and 3-layer construction, even though nearly all of them only look like a single layer when you hold them at the store. This is because these layers are tightly-sandwiched and laminated together. Whether it's a 2, 2.5, or 3-layer fabric, these designs share most of their construction qualities, with only a small difference generally presenting 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.
Then 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 again is termed the face fabric layer. To be clear, you do not see the actual waterproof layer from the outside. The third and innermost layer is where the differences in terminology lay.
As we mentioned above, 3-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 other similar backing on the inside of the product. The goal of the third layer is to keep sweat and oils from clogging the microscopic holes in waterproof-breathable layer, which reduces breathability and will likely 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 actually 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 is they are not always as breathable and are often slightly heavier than many of their 2.5 layer counterparts.
2.5 Layer Fabrics
Outerwear that features a 2.5 layer construction looks similar to those that feature a three-layer design (with the exception that they may feel slightly lighter and more subtle). Jackets that feature a 2.5 layer construction still have the same outermost layer (the face fabric) that has been treated with DWR, minimizing how much water is absorbed in this layer, encouraging it to be off and helping to protect the waterproof layer. There is the same "middle" waterproof fabric that just in the cases of three-layer materials can be anything from an ePTFE membrane to a coated piece of nylon. Lastly, on the inside, there is an exceptionally thin polyurethane laminate or other coatings that are placed on the inside of the garment 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. It's just much thinner than the inner most layer featured on most 3-layer garments.
Jackets that feature a 2.5 layer construction offer similar breathability to 3-layer jackets, though they may occasionally feel marginally clammier, depending on their innermost lining fabric. Why? Because the innermost layer doesn't do quite as good of a job at "absorbing" and transferring sweat compared to the innermost lining fabric featured on most three-layer models. 2.5-layer jackets are typically slightly lighter and more subtle but often are not quite as durable (and must be cleaned more frequently to maintain a similar level of breathability). It is worth noting that over the past few years we have seen the most improvement of 2.5 layer jackets; this portion of the market has grown the most, and one of the aspects we've seen the greatest improvements on is how they feel less clammy.
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. In the outdoor world, there are very few 2-layer models on the market because of these disadvantages. However, prior to the 2.5-layer revolution just over a decade ago, around half the rain shells on the market were 2-layer.
A small exception to the rules listed above is a handful of manufacturers (most notable Arc'teryx in models that use Gore-Tex Paclite Plus) refer to this fabric as a 2-layer fabric despite not having any mesh and painting on the half layer similar to most 2.5 layer jackets. What will come of this new wave of outdoor gear jargon? We will be sure to keep you in the loop so stay tuned but essentially it what manufacturers have referred to as a 2.5-layer model for the last 6-8 years.
Water Proof Membrane types
Gore-Tex is an ePTFE waterproof-breathable fabric that is the oldest and most widely know and has become somewhat of the Kleenex of the waterproof-breathable fabrics world. On a very basic level, Gore-Tex is a polytetrafluoroethylene (or ePTFE for short) membrane stretched out to an extremely specific dimension. At this specific 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. Kinda cool right?
Polytetrafluoroethylene is a huge word, but you might have heard it by its slightly better-known name from DuPont brand: Teflon. W.L. Gore is always trying to improve their product and understands the value in the market place that Gore-Tex has. They also want to do their best to maintain that good reputation and to better do so, the company has strict rules and restrictions for companies that want to use their product. For example, they set rules on face fabrics, interior fabrics, zippers, and in some cases, application to help maintain their reputation of "Guaranteed to Keep You Dry."
Gore-Tex with Paclite technology now slowly becoming Gore-Tex PacLite Plus is also formerly known as Gore-Tex Paclite and is a 2.5 layer fabric with a normal Gore-Tex membrane but a proprietary super thin 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, and slightly more breathable) but uses Gore-Tex as its waterproof membrane. As we mentioned above, Gore-Tex PacLite Plus is referred to as a 2-layer fabric despite an inner "painted on" layer (more on this above). We speculate Gore did this to separate it more from previous models which had a super thin but physical .5 innermost layer.
eVent is very similar in design to Gore-Tex in that it is also an ePTFE based material. It was originally designed for industrial air filters by a company owned by General Electric before the company discovered 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.
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 while often offering other unique advantages of their own. In these garments, the PU is the laminate that acts as the waterproof layer sandwiched between the face fabric and the innermost layer. 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 waterproof properties.
Three of the most significant advantages to garments featuring fabric that relies on PU for its waterproofing is that they tend to be lighter, have the potential to be more breathable, and can be constructed with FAR more stretchiness. Jackets and other outerwear featuring Gore-Tex or eVent are much harder to make stretchy; simply put, even the stretchiest ePTFE fabric is nowhere near as stretchy as the stretchier PU or polyester based options.
Coated fabrics are often used on price-pointed models and are nearly always less breathable and are far less long-lasting than the above-listed materials. It's worth repeating that even a coated waterproof and breathable fabric still gets sandwiched inside an exterior fabric and interior fabric and can be used in outdoor garments using a 2, 2.5, or 3 layer construction methods. To be clear, you could have a bomber 3-layer shell jacket that still uses a coated membrane sandwiched inside two other layers that form the backbone of that garments weather resistance. Coated fabrics like PU laminates 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 on the inside) and its performance and job are in resisting and beading up water. The goal of DWR is to help keep the external face fabric from becoming saturated which negatively effects breathability and gives the user a sensation of dampness in the area as a result of reduced breathability. All waterproof fabrics feature a DWR but some level of DWR is also commonly seen on most water resistant textiles which can anything from insulated jackets, wind shirts, or softshell pieces. Most companies use fluorocarbons or fluoropolymer chemicals that are applied and then subsequently bond to the outside of the exterior fabric for DWR.
What is Waterproof?
An easy answer would be "fabric that can't let any water through"; however, the problem is water can have a variable amount of force behind it that directly effects the imperviousness of a given material. For example, even concrete can be cut by highly pressurized water, but despite this, most people still, consider concrete 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. Surprisingly, in the outdoor recreation industry, there is no official standard. However, the US Military requires that fabric must be able to resist 25 PSI (or 16,700mm) to be considered waterproof; and currently, 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 distinguish these two 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 shells will work for downhill skiing but are typically a little more three-season focused being lighter and excelling at hiking, backpacking, and summertime mountaineering.
Hardshells are typically more feature rich and offer greater durability and as a result, are heavier and less packable. Hardshells are better for activities where durability is more of a factor like downhill skiing or snowboarding. They will obviously still work for summertime applications; they are just a little overkill.
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 the breathability of a given fabric 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; while we enjoy seeing the information and reading about the newest materials, we do look at it with this in mind and with a lens of skepticism.
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, you'll want to do your best to make sure that you're wearing the minimal amount of layers you can get away. We've all soaked a synthetic or wool t-shirt while working hard or hiking uphill and a rain shell isn't really any different.
Air Permeable Materials
Air permeable is a technical term and a hip new buzzword in the outdoor industry. Air permeable refers to a fabric's ability to be constantly letting air and subsequently moisture pass through it all of the time, regardless of pressure and temperature differences. This also means that these garments aren't technically windproof. Not that they feel like a cotton t-shirt on a windy day, but you will get chilled quicker 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 versus a non-air permeable model; it just depends on the fabrics. For example, there are a number of air-permeable models that aren't as breathable as non-air-permeable ones like 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, and they continue to breathe even after their user has cooled off (but might still be wet on the inside). In general, a lot of the fabrics that are using air-permeable materials tend to be among the most breathable ones, especially the higher end ones. However, there are several more price-pointed models that are air permeable but are not as breathable as classic ePTFE likes eVent and Gore-Tex. Three models in our review that use air permeable fabric are the Rab Kinetic Plus and Outdoor Research Interstellar.
Ultralight models are minimally featured bare-bones jackets that are designed to be as light as possible. These models skip classic features like lower hand pockets, hood adjustments, and most 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 and 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). Also of note, all three have of the models we tested have reflective logos and patches, a great feature for running and biking.
Depending on where people like to recreate and what they like to do, an ultralight trimmed down model might be far better than a heavier fully featured one. The reason is most outdoor enthusiasts end up carrying their rain shell 90% or more of the time. As a result, all those rad features that seemed sweet in the store only add weight in the bottom of your pack.
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, that is 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 better promotes 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, and clean jacket will function better and last much longer than a dirty, neglected 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 (if you open it back up at the end of your trip rather than storing it wadded up). The less abrasion and abuse the face fabric receives, the better this will help prolong the DWR and the jackets ability to shed water.
Eventually, you will want to wash your jacket. Done correctly, washing and drying can have a miraculous effect restoring DWR and breathability, and this shouldn't be underestimated. These jackets all can be washed in the washer. 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's 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 and encourage the piece to absorb water. Choose a double rinse cycle to remove as much soap residue as possible.
Now you have a clean jacket. Any oils, dirt, grime soiling, and clogging 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 once 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. This can be quite risky a much care should be taken to not burn a hole in your jacket.
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; you want the mesh liner to continue to absorb sweat and get it moving 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.
Hood Design and Applications
You should consider your intended activities with your jacket 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 horrible, but there were no doubt some that were better than others.
For the climbers and cyclists reading this, we'd recommend an over the hood design. While you can wear a given model's hood underneath your helmet and that certainly works in a pinch, you'll likely find a helmet specific design is superior. It is far easier to flip on and off if it goes over the top of your helmet rather than trapping it underneath it. Besides being less convenient to put on and off, when you wear your hood underneath your helmet, it's warmer and is straight-up less comfortable than when you wear it on the outside.
History of Waterproof Breathable fabrics
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 a 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 inner most 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, 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 the 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.