Materials technology is honing in on the perfect waterproof fabric. There are so many options now, and most of them are good at keeping the water out. But that's not all there is to buying a good pair of rain pants. When we recreate outdoors, breathability quickly becomes a significant consideration. Before the advent of waterproof/breathable fabrics, if you wore a rain jacket or pants, you may not have gotten wet from the rain—but if you went for a hike, got your heart rate up a bit, you'd quickly be soaked with sweat.
The Holy Grail of rainwear? That's the perfect waterproof/breathable material. Waterproof is the easy part; then it becomes a matter of what you want to do, and in what climate you want to do it in.
Types of Waterproof/Breathable Fabrics
Two-layer technology is relatively rudimentary: it's just a shell with a mesh liner to keep the plasticky feel off your skin. We did not have any two-layer pants in this review, but you might be familiar with the design from your first rain jacket as a kid. These felt bulky, and often a bit warm; certainly too warm for a brisk walk in warmer weather.2.5-Layer Shells
Waterproof/breathable fabrics described as having 2.5 layers are often lighter than traditional 2-layer designs (which are harder and harder to find, especially in pants). These materials have virtually eliminated the need for a protective lining fabric by using a raised texture screened onto the inside of the face fabric (membrane) to keep it off your skin and protected from the oils--and whatever else might be on your skin while hiking in the woods. The majority of the rain pants we considered for this review are 2.5 layer shells. These jackets are then coated with a Durable Water Repellant (DWR) finish, which ensures the pores of the jackets remain unclogged by water or snow, thus maintaining the jacket's breathability--until they get clogged with your sweat and dirt, so remember to wash and dry these jackets!
This category of shell pants is commonly referred to as "hard shells." This is the name for products we consider to be burly enough for high mountains, frigid climates, and expeditions. For the frequent winter recreationist, this is a required investment. However, if you're going to be backpacking and hiking in temperate climates or lower elevations — and not typically on or around snow — these pants could be excessive, for warmth and protection, certainly, but also for cost. We have a couple of pairs in this review that feature 3 layer shell fabric for added durability, high speeds (cycling in cold/wet regions), and versatility.
Three layer fabrics have the outer layer, what we call the "face fabric," typically made of nylon or polyester. The waterproof membrane is bonded to this face fabric. This is two layers so far. Now, a third, lightweight backing material is attached to the interior. Voila, layer number three. This typically translates to improved long-term durability, but a little more weight and potentially less breathability.
The rain pants in this review were all very similar in their use of materials technology. This forced us to establish a broad panel of other assessment criteria to filter out the best rain pants.
How to Choose the Right Jacket
The easiest way to start with this review is to take a look at the top-scoring products in our first metric, Water Resistance. This is, naturally, the most important. You will notice that all of the jackets performed well above average, as they should if they call themselves waterproof. Within this category, you will find some variations, largely having to do with how the manufacturers handled holes in the fabric (i.e., pockets and vents).
Comfort & Mobility
Different people will need a pair of rain pants for different reasons. Consider your favorite activities, and what you want to be able to do in your rain pants. Are you a bike commuter? Hiker? Avid walker? Or are you looking for something to stretch the limits of a rain pant and provide some protection in the spring and fall, maybe even perform well enough to use on mild winter trips? We moved in all directions to assess the pants for comfort.
Things we look for in a pair of rain pants that will make moving easy: a gusseted crotch, tapered legs, adjustable waist and cuffs, light materials, soft interior (so the material doesn't stick to your skin or clothing underneath).
Breathability & Venting
Here it is, the Holy Grail of rainwear. The more breathable, the better — typically. Good vents and breathability ensure you won't get wet from the inside when you go play outdoors. The jackets in this review were made of similar enough materials that often it was the venting style that would set one pair apart from others.
In dry climates, vents are much less critical. This has to do with osmosis. If you sweat inside the pants, but you're surrounded by dry air, the moisture will move more easily out of the pants. However, if it's humid outside, and humid inside the pants — good luck.
Weight & Packable Size
This is a pretty distinct category to judge rain pants. It's hard to justify carrying a piece of clothing with you on a long backpacking trip or strenuous climb when you only use it 10% of the time. A lightweight, compact pair of rain pants will be much easier to carry and easier to convince yourself to bring with you, even when the mountain forecast is "only" for 10% showers in a couple of days.
When we pick up a new garment, we try to get inside the heads of the designers. What story does this piece of clothing tell? What is it optimized for? What was the design team thinking? This will help you figure out if a pair of pants is the right fit for you. They might be an excellent item from a reputable company, but will it suit your uses? Some of our testers are avid runners, others are passionate climbers, and still, others are all about ultralight so they can go further, longer. Consider what trade-offs and compromises you're willing to make for the qualities that are most important to you.
The major consideration when rating durability is ultimately the tradeoff that it requires. More durable fabric is typically much heavier weight, whereas a lighter material will be less durable. This punts the issue further, making it ultimately a question of value. Do you want a lightweight model? Are you willing to pay for it? We often argue that if you spend a lot of time outdoors, going as light as possible will ensure you stay healthier and happier longer.