Even in the dryest of climates, rain always tends to make an appearance. Many of us might be inclined to think that all rain jackets are created equal, but In our Rain Jacket Review we put ten of the highest-rated rain jackets from some of the most trustworthy manufacturers in the industry to the test and the results proved that this couldn't be further from the truth.
We tested the jackets not only in the field but also under a more controlled H2O scenario, a with the help of our trusty garden hose and a lot of tenacity we came up with a few highly regarded winners. The jackets we tested range in price from $100 to a whopping $300 but all have what it takes to remain functional and keep you dry through the storm. We hope that our efforts will help you select the right rain shell for you and your individual needs.
The rainwear industry has come a long way, changing every bit of technology that goes into making a great raincoat, right down to the fabric. Today you can easily spend upwards of $300 on a jacket that fits in the palm of your hand and will keep you dry all day but that doesn't necessarily mean it the best choice for you and your rainy outdoor pursuits.
With the blessing of choice comes the curse of making a decision. Where once it was easy to grab the only option out there. Now we must wade through a sea of information and technological innovations to figure out if that jacket is really worth the extra money spent, causing some buyers, decision fatigue. If calculating the pros and cons of each piece of information sounds like way too much work and you are all about seeking the best value, your decision is probably best solved by purchasing the least expensive one out there. The Marmot PreCip took home our best buy award and was a great choice for those on a budget still looking for a dependable rain jacket.
But if your favorite outdoor activity frequently involves the threat of rain, 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 cost you upwards of $500, while a rain shell typically costs between $60 and $300. Hardshells tend to feature rugged three-layer fabric designs for the most extreme mountain conditions. Hardshells are more specifically used for 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, not to mention more affordable. They 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.3-Layer Shells
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. Generally, these types of jackets tend to be the lightest and most packable (since they ditch the mesh liner), so for those concerned about weight and function, this is your category. They often proved 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.
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 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, or is your rain shell an emergency-only piece that will live in the bottom of your backpack or messenger bag for 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 consistently out hiking, biking and traveling in the rain you may want to consider a more durable option like the Outdoor Research Aspire - Women's. It 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. 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, or the Gulf Coast, or maybe the Rocky Mountains. This will determine the importance of durability and waterproof metrics. If it rains a lot in your outdoor pursuits, then you don't want to skimp on the waterproof factor, the Outdoor research Aspire was great in heavy downpours. 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 short, leisurely strolls through the woods fit your style more? For a slower pace, a comfortable and more affordable option will fit the bill, and looks might not be a factor.
Cycling and bike commuting offers 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 actively pursuing your flights of fancy, you need to be able to move freely, making flexibility, fit, and comfort, primary factors in selecting the right rain 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 Arc'teryx Beta SL offers a more bright and stylized outdoor adventure look. And, if you want to appear mountain chic, check out the The North Face Apex Flex GTX 2.0.
It is hard to justify spending $200 on a piece of clothing you might only wear a few times. On the flip side, if you find yourself pursuing your outdoor activities more often than not you might just be 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, as 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 good old mother nature decides to literally rain on your parade.