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 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, changing every bit of technology that goes into making a great raincoat, even down to the fabric. 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, whether you are engaging in light tasks around town or hiking rugged trails through 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 thick 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, causing some buyers decision fatigue. If calculating the pros and cons of each piece of information 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, whether you enjoy backpacking over mountains or through forests or paddling down long, winding rivers and camping out on distant shores, 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 or cope with slogging around in a soaked-through coat 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 and $300. Hardshells feature rugged three-layer fabric designs for the most extreme mountain conditions, addressing four-season and high-altitude weather and 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, and are generally only appropriate for spring through fall in snow-prone areas. They have fewer features tailored toward the alpinist or climber and more comfort features for everyday wear.
The Rain Shell
First, a little background on the two styles of jacket you will find in our rain shell review.
On the lower cost side of the rain shell spectrum is the 3-layer rain jacket. These ones are easy to pick out of a lineup, as they typically have a mesh lining inside to ensure the water repellency/breathability of the outer "face" fabric (the liner keeps the plastic from touching your 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, not to mention the roughness of the mesh fabric, which can cause chafing or general discomfort. A 3-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 balance innovation, and it still holds its own in a category filled with flashy new textile technologies.
The next level up is perhaps the most innovative and rapidly evolving style: the 2/2.5-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 2/2.5-layer technology, cutting down on fabric, and thus, opportunities for design failure/wear; appropriately, the majority of jackets in our review are 2/2.5-layer jackets, since this stands at the leading edge of rain jacket technology, and we chose from among the best. The waterproof/breathable face fabric is essentially the same as the 3-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 trying to make the lightest, most breathable options for consumers—or at least this is what they tout. Generally, these types of jackets stand as the lightest weight and most packable (since they ditch the mesh liner), so for those concerned about weight and function, this is your category. Plus, they eliminate many failure points, so they theoretically last longer, and they can often prove more comfortable, as they won't bunch or chafe for longer trips. Choosing between a 3-layer and a 2/2.5 layer may just make the difference between loving the great outdoors and cursing the soggy wilderness.
Within the 2/2.5 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. Coatings are much less expensive but laminates are more durable, breathable and lighter weight. Coating work and laminates perform.
Getting into even more detail, both laminates and coatings utilize one of two methods to allow sweat to diffuse out of a rain jacket. One way, which seems the most obvious, is through micropores that let water vapor out, but don't allow water droplets in. This technology must have taken a ton of R&D, but the technology seems to work to some degree. The second way is through adsorption-diffusion-desorption: essentially, the jacket absorbs the water vapor and uses the laws of physics and chemistry to wick it away from your body and outside of the jacket.
The reason why you should know about these different technologies is that they can affect our layering strategies. Jackets with micropores are much more breathable and permeable to wind, we noticed, so you will want to add an extra layer of protection underneath. Other fabric technologies can create stuffiness, so a wicking fabric or fabric that adds breathability is great for a base layer.
Realistically, most people will be happy with a simple and affordable rain shell instead of a hardshell. However, 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 select the right jacket for you and avoid wasting time and money, it is important to be totally honest with yourself about your specific rainwear needs/wants/desires/wishes. Then, you should review the scoring metrics in this review and select a jacket that suits your needs and expectations.
Will you consistently be trudging through stormy weather in the wilderness, or is your rain shell an emergency-only piece that will live in the bottom of your backpack or messenger bag for regular or occasional day hikes? For the avid outdoorswoman, perhaps the most important aspect to consider is how often you will wear the jacket versus how often you will carry it in your backpack. This will likely affect your price range first, after which you will want to consider pack size and durability. 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 day hike over the mountains. 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, you may just want the Marmot PreCip - Women's.
What is your surrounding climate? Is your home range the Sierra Nevada or the Pacific Northwest? Perhaps it is Appalachia, the Gulf Coast, or the Rocky Mountains. 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, as with the North Face Venture 2. 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, such as with the portable and light Outdoor Research Helium II.
How about your level of activity? Do you want a jacket that will keep up with you on speed ascents in the mountains? A thinner jacket will feel better overall for high aerobic output activities, if you are moving fast, as it means there is less material through which your body has to pump excess heat.
Maybe you're going for a leisurely stroll through the woods to teach your students about the wonders of nature? 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.
And, if you are paddling around the perimeter of Lake Tahoe or down the mighty Colorado, you need to be able to move, so flexibility, fit, and comfort, as well as sleeves that seal tightly are going to be primary factors in selecting the right shell.
Some outdoor adventurers don't care how they look. Functionality is all that matters. But, to others, appearance is a factor, and while all of the jackets rank within a similar range in looks (because functionality factors in first when designing a rain shell), there is some variation. The Outdoor Research Aspire offers a professional, stylish fit, while the Mammut Wenaha offers a more bright and stylized outdoor adventure look. And, if you want to appear mountain chic, check out the North Face Resolve 2.
It is hard to justify spending $200 on a piece of clothing you only wear a few times a year and that 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 in a piece of equipment that will prove trustworthy and loyal through all types of conditions. 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 with previous rain jackets. 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). 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 to invest in a jacket that will keep you dry without causing you discomfort or weighing you down.
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 motivated, even when the skies open up and the going gets rough.