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Buyer’s Guide: Choosing the Best Rain Jacket

Wahclella Falls. Photo by Thomas Shahan.
Wahclella Falls. Photo by Thomas Shahan.

Good rainwear is a long-term investment. After all, we’re not talking about an optional item; in many outdoor situations, your rain jacket is literally safety equipment, and you need it to reliably keep you dry and block wind, or you may find yourself in a dangerous predicament.

The price range for waterproof-breathable rainwear, though, can be daunting for the uninitiated. You can often purchase a $120 shell from the same rack as one that costs 4x as much. That’s a massive spread from the lowest-end models to the highest-end models… what’s the difference? More importantly, which should you buy?

Fundamentally, rain jacket pricing comes down to two major factors: the fabrics and technology being utilized, and the features included in a particular jacket. Let’s dig into both of these now, to help decide how much of your hard-earned money you should set aside to get what you need.

Fabrics

Fabrics and the technology are a big part of a jacket’s price. Let’s not geek out too hard here, but you’ll need to know the basics, and there are a couple of different ways to make a jacket waterproof while retaining breathability.

Note: by “breathability,” we mean a way for the water vapor and moisture around your body to pass through the jacket as you sweat and generate heat. By and large, the more breathable the fabric package is, the more comfortable a jacket will be to wear—especially during any high-exertion activity like hiking or skiing.

A hiker wearing the Marmot Minimalist jacket in the Smokies. Photo by Perry Smyre
A hiker wearing the Marmot Minimalist jacket in the Smokies. Photo by Perry Smyre

Waterproof/breathable jackets come in two main flavors. The first type of construction is a physical membrane sandwiched between an outer fabric and a liner, pioneered by GORE-TEX™ many years ago. This membrane is laminated to the outer fabric, so this style is often referred to as a “laminate.” The second type of construction utilizes a coating, which is literally applied to the interior of the face fabric.

In the case of a laminate, both of these additional layers exist to protect the membrane from the elements as well as your own body. Laminates typically breathe better than coatings, and have better long-term durability, but they’re also far more expensive. GORE-TEX™ has long been the standard here, and many manufacturers use it in their high-end rainwear, although most elite outdoor brands also have their own similar, proprietary laminate waterproofing technologies.

Most laminate jackets come in a “3 layer” variety, the three layers being the face fabric (on the outside), the membrane itself and then an integrated liner. One way to save money on a laminate rain jacket is to buy a “2 layer” jacket with a separate, detached fabric liner on the inside; this lowers manufacturing costs, but these jackets are less technically-oriented and are best suited for more casual use.

Most coated rain jackets are a “2.5 layer” style, lacking a true lining but instead featuring a printed or applied pattern on the inside to protect the coating and improve the way the jacket feels against your skin.

This isn’t to frown upon coatings, mind you. Most of the very lightest and most packable rain jackets on the market utilize coatings, and waterproof coating technology has advanced rapidly over the past several years in terms of both durability and breathability. Coatings make it possible to purchase a good quality rain jacket at price points that would otherwise be impossible.

Managing inclement weather on Black Balsam. Photo by Kent Peggram
Managing inclement weather on Roan Mountain. Photo by Kent Peggram

All rain jackets will feature a DWR (Durable Water Repellent) coating on the exterior, as well, which makes water bead up and prevents the face fabric from “wetting out.” Once the face fabric is saturated, breathability is impaired, so this is an important piece of the puzzle. Your new rain jacket will also feature waterproof seam tape on the interior, which seals each seam in the jacket to prevent water finding its way in!

Different fabric packages have differing waterproofness and differing breathability ratings, usually expressed in terms of mm (for waterproofness) and gm/2 (for breathability). There is no real standard for testing, so an apples-to-apples comparison across brands may be difficult. Regardless, the more hardcore your planned activities, the higher you’ll need these numbers to be… and the more expensive the jacket will be.

Features

Rain jackets come with any number of technical features which you may or may not find useful. Some have pit zips; some don’t. Some have pockets oriented so that they don’t interfere with a backpack or climbing harness; some don’t. Some have powder skirts, or two-way zippers, or helmet-compatible hoods, etc.

The key is to ask yourself, honestly, what you’re going to do with the jacket—and then choose accordingly. As the list of features goes up, the price goes up. Are you planning to ski in it? You’ll need that powder skirt. Are you a rock climber? That two-way zipper will come in handy if you need to slip your shell on over your harness but need access to its belay loop, and you want to make sure the hood will mesh well with your helmet.

Here’s a good place to start your line of questioning: are you the kind of person who, when it starts raining the morning of your planned hike, postpones the hike until a nicer day? Conversely, do you bound out into the rain like a labrador retriever, completely undeterred? These personality types require very different jackets.

Gearing up for a storm in the Wind River Range. Photo by Kent Peggram
Gearing up for a storm in the Wind River Range. Photo by Kent Peggram

For the former, if you’re going to spend a lot of time with your rain jacket in your pack and primarily need it for unexpected weather events, packability and weight become significant factors (I know, I know, packability is mostly about the fabrics being used, but I’m still calling it a “feature”). For the latter, you’re absolutely going to want a jacket with mechanical venting—pit zips, in most cases—and it’s worth spending the extra cash for a more breathable option.

Pay attention to durability, too, as some uber-lightweight fabrics won’t stand up well to constant use. Several popular choices use tougher exterior fabrics or similar reinforcement in high-wear areas like the shoulders. If you need to live in your jacket, make sure it’s up to the task.

If you just need something to keep in the car for dodging rain showers during errands, or you want something to offer rain protection during sporting events, you should absolutely take advantage of one of the more value-oriented options. You won’t be generating much heat with the jacket on, which means you don’t need a high level of fabric performance, but a good waterproof/breathable rain jacket is going to be far more comfortable than a poncho or one of those non-breathable vinyl raincoats.

All told, think about the outdoor sports and activities you enjoy, then choose your jacket accordingly. What do you need your jacket to do? If you think you want GORE-TEX but you don’t need a feature-packed mountaineering shell that costs $600, you can usually find the fabrics and fit you’re looking for half the price.

Likewise, if you’re planning to spend your winter ice climbing at altitude, you’re probably going to regret the decision to buy that $99 rain jacket. It’s all about what you plan to do with it.

Examples

With all of that said, let’s look at some examples of jackets at different price points that we feel represent a good value for different types of customer.

Marmot- Precip

Marmot Precip, $99 – Marmot’s ole standby.  Practically everyone who has spent any time outdoors has owned one of these.  The Precip is a great option if you need a great value jacket to get around town, take on a trip, or use backpacking for unexpected showers.  Many people like that the hood stows into the collar.

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The North Face Venture, $99 – Another solid value option.  If you are looking at the Precip, it would be worth looking at the Venture, too.  They are basically the same jacket with a slightly different feel.  If you’re not concerned with a storable hood, then the Venture may be right for you.

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Patagonia Torrentshell, $130 – Patagonia’s version of the “budget” rain jacket costs $20 more than most of the competing options. Predictably, though, it’s absolutely dialed, and we think it’s the standout of this crop. This is primarily your everyday, keep-in-the-car kind of rain shell for casual use, but it’s just fine for rainy-day hikes.  We really like the fleece reinforcement behind the neck to add protection from the wear and tear that occurs in that particular spot.

Outdoor-Research-Revel

Outdoor Research Revel, $160 – This is what we call a “fully featured” rain shell and is well suited for people who plan on venturing out into wet weather.  The hood completely zips into the collar, so if you prefer to wear a rain hat the hood won’t fill up with water.  Mechanical four-way stretch provides great mobility while hiking.  This jacket also introduces the “Torso-Flow” pit zips which allow you to open the entire side of the jacket, basically turning it into a poncho to let out extra heat — which is perfect for hiking in warm, rainy conditions.

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Outdoor Research Helium II, $160 – In this case, you get absolutely the lightest, most packable rain jacket around, to the tune of 6.5 ounces. This one is great for runners or mountain bikers; stick it in the bottom of your pack and forget about it until you need it!  It doesn’t have any pit zips, but weight is the bottom line in this equation.

 

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Marmot Minimalist, $200 – We’re creeping up the price spectrum here, but the big deal for this jacket is that it’s GORE-TEX™ Paclite laminate instead of a coating like the previous jackets. As the name implies, this one comes with a minimum of features, but the fabric performance is top-notch, and if you can do without the bells and whistles it’s a great price point for a great membrane.

Outdoor-Research-Foray

Outdoor Research Foray, $220 – If you’re considering a GORE-TEX option and know that you’re going to be hiking or backpacking in humid or hot weather, you might want to consider the Foray.  The Foray includes the “Torso-Flow” pit zips like the Revel which are a great feature if you plan on hiking in the rain.

Tips & Tricks

If you’re local to a Rock/Creek store, we absolutely encourage you stop in and let our staff help you go over the various options before making a final purchase decision.  Or, call one of our gear experts at 1-888-707-6708 for advice on fit and features. There’s a reason we hire experts! In the meantime, here are some staff tips to help you think about which rain jacket is best for you.

  • Try on the jacket as you plan to use it in the field. This means wear your base layer and mid layers; for a technical piece, will you need to size up to fit over your favorite insulated layer? Shells may include extra room for insulating layers or they may not, depending on the intended use. Consider bringing your climbing or ski helmet if you are concerned about hood compatibility.
  • For serious outdoor use, we recommend wearing bright colors. There are two schools of thought on colors, and we fall pretty firmly into the “wear colors that can be seen if you need to be found” camp. It’s a safety issue. Camo is not a good color to be wearing if you need a rescue!
  • For multi-day backpacking trips, carry a small sponge or microfiber towel to wipe down the jacket before hanging it up overnight. This will help it dry out, especially if you’ve managed to “wet out” the inside by generating heat and sweat. This is an area where three-layer jackets excel, as a two-layer jacket with a liner isn’t likely to dry thoroughly overnight.
  • For ultrarunners, buy something lightweight enough that you can lash it to your pack while moving and slip it on when you stop moving. You’re not likely to be comfortable actually running in a waterproof jacket unless the conditions are extreme, but there’s no reason to freeze when you need a break either.
  • Sometimes, it might be better to get wet and have a dry jacket for camp. For example, on a backpacking trip, if your clothes are already sweaty and you’re planning to change into dry clothes when you arrive at camp, it may be wiser to suffer through a light rain and have a dry jacket to put on over your dry clothes.
  • Don’t overlook proper care for your jacket. The DWR treatment on the outside of your jacket will wear off over time but can be refreshed with Nikwax TX Direct. Likewise, occasional washing is important to clear accumulated dirt and oils from the the fabrics, which impede breathability—campfire smoke is a major offender! Nikwax Tech Wash and tumble-drying on high heat will work wonders for most jackets.

Think of it this way: your shell jacket is one of those pieces of outdoor gear that, when you need it, you really need it. The primary reason you’ll don your shell is that you’re already getting cold, or anticipate getting cold! It’s worth spending enough to buy a good jacket which suits your needs, but it’s also possible to buy too much jacket for what you’re planning to do with it.

Be realistic about your needs, let our outdoor gear experts help you sort through the options and you’re sure to find the best rain jacket for your next adventure and beyond.