5 Pro Tips For Buying the Right Rain Jacket For the Backcountry
By Michael Lanza
Choosing a waterproof-breathable rain shell for hiking, backpacking, climbing, or other outdoor activities can be daunting. Prices range from under $100 to over $600, and weights from less than half a pound to well over a pound. Some are loaded with features, others so minimalist they seem like a glorified trash bag. You’ll also find the full gamut of opinions on them from reviewers and consumers.
Consequently, many hikers, backpackers, climbers, and others buy a rain jacket based on price, brand, or the recommendation of a trusted reviewer. That’s not a bad strategy, and it’s sometimes successful; but it’s really an incomplete strategy. The truth is, the right backcountry rain shell for you depends more on you than on any jacket—and our needs as backcountry users vary as much as our budgets. Follow these tips to find the perfect rain jacket for your adventures.
#1 Decide What It’s For
This is the logical first step when buying any consumer product, but one nonetheless often overlooked with backcountry apparel. Ask yourself: How much of a rain jacket do I really need? If you generally head out in warm, dry weather—common in many Western mountain ranges in summer—you may only need a less-expensive shell, or you might be better off with an ultralight rain jacket (which vary in price). On the other hand, if you routinely find yourself in sustained rain and widely ranging temperatures, especially on multi-day trips, you’ll be happier—not to mention more comfortable and safer—with a shell that delivers reliable protection from rain and wind as well as good or exceptional breathability (more on that below).
In short: Choosing the right jacket is, first and foremost, a question of how much time you expect to spend wearing it versus carrying it in your pack just in case of rain, as well as consideration of how extreme the weather could get.
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#2 Does the Rain Jacket Weigh More Than a Pound?
Weight matters, especially if you’re into ultra-hiking or ultralight backpacking, but for everyone else, too. There’s no reason a three-season shell should weigh much more than a pound, period. Jackets heavier than that are usually too bulky, taking up excessive space in your pack, and too warm when wearing them while on the move, causing you to overheat—resulting in you either getting soaked inside the jacket (negating its purpose) or shedding it completely. Heavy jackets are designed either for winter or casual wear.
Still, don’t assume that the lightest shell is the best choice for your needs. Weight is just one important factor.
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#3 Speak the Language
To make an informed choice in rainwear, it helps to know some common terminology:
Waterproof-breathable laminate—simply put, this is what we recognize as brands like Gore-Tex and eVent. Laminates offer the best waterproofing, breathability, and durability, and cost more.
Coating—a waterproof-breathable treatment applied to a fabric, it does not deliver the performance of a laminate, but it’s less expensive, often used in lighter jackets, and often sufficient for someone who encounters really wet weather infrequently.
Hard shell—a waterproof-breathable jacket that keeps rain out and releases moisture produced by your body. This term is used to distinguish between the two types of shells that are now common, these and soft-shell jackets.
Soft shell—a jacket that’s generally more breathable than a hard shell and highly water resistant but not waterproof. These are often better in winter, because falling snow doesn’t get fabric as wet as rain, and breathability becomes more critical because you can quickly get hypothermic (dangerously cold) if you sweat too much and soak your base layer in freezing temps. Soft-shell jackets are also often heavier than three-season hard shells. Some brands are making shells that look, feel, and breathe as well as soft shells but are effectively waterproof; so far, those are still designed for winter conditions, but useful if you do encounter rain.
Hybrid shell—usually a combination of hard-shell fabrics in places where waterproofing is most needed (hood, shoulders, outer sleeves, front) and soft-shell fabrics or ventilating designs in areas where you want more breathability (sides, underarms, back). These garments are best for highly aerobic activities like running and Nordic skiing and shorter adventures, like dayhikes in generally fair weather, and they’re often very lightweight. They will not protect you from severe weather or breathe as well as a good hard shell.
Water-resistant shell or ultralight wind shell—very lightweight (usually under a half-pound) jackets designed to offer some breathability, shed a light shower, and cut wind, these are best for essentially the same uses as hybrid shells, although they often don’t deliver the same level of versatility in terms of breathability and weather protection.
2-layer—a waterproof-breathable membrane or coating applied on the inner side of the jacket fabric, backed by a lining, creating a garment that’s quieter, less expensive, and not as waterproof or breathable as a 3-layer jacket.
2.5-layer—not true fabric “layers,” this consists of an outer fabric with a polyurethane laminate or coating applied to its inner side and a protective external application, resulting in a waterproof-breathable jacket that’s typically lighter but not as durable or breathable.
3-layer—the best (and most expensive) kind of waterproof-breathable membrane in terms of protection from rain, breathability, and durability, it consists of a membrane sandwiched between a durable outer fabric and an inner lining.
DWR—a durable, water-repellent finish is applied to most rain shells to cause water to bead up and roll off the fabric. A DWR eventually wears off; you’ll know when the fabric “wets out,” or the surface appears to get soaked, which compromises breathability. Follow manufacturer instructions for reapplying DWR treatment to revive the jacket; various products accomplish that.
Taped or welded (heat-bonded) seams—basically, a jacket’s not waterproof unless seams are taped or welded, the latter being more expensive and more reliably waterproof.
See all of my reviews of soft-shell jackets and ultralight wind shells.
#4 Make a Short List and Try On Each Jacket
Once you have a strong idea of what you want, read some reviews from reliable reviewers who have experience testing outdoor apparel (see all of my rain jacket reviews and ultralight rain jacket reviews). Consumer reviews can be helpful, but I don’t place much faith in one or two consumer reviews that deviate greatly from the consensus; and I basically ignore vague reviews, positive or negative. Frankly, many consumers have used very few rain jackets and do not put them through rigorous backcountry conditions. On the other hand, you’ll often find enough consistency of opinion among professional gear reviewers to help guide your decision.
However, whether the reviewer is a professional (or purports to be) or a consumer, I only trust a review that offers a detailed, informed critique that demonstrates the writer knows what he or she is talking about.
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Now it’s time to go past research and put your hands on some jackets. No matter what you’re buying—a backpack, boots, a tent, or a rain shell—trying on and handling the product provides essential information to help you decide. In fact, assessing how it feels on your body will often reveal details you like or dislike and drive your final choice. You must zip it up, pull the hood over your head, and play around with its pockets, pit zippers, and other features in order to know several factors that will affect your satisfaction:
• How well it fits in terms of sleeve length and through the waist, chest, and shoulders—does the jacket hike up when you lift your arms?
• How much coverage, protection from windblown precipitation, and adjustability the hood provides, and whether it stays in place in wind or when you turn your head side to side—and if desired, whether it fits over or under a helmet.
• How supple or stiff the fabric feels.
• How easy it is to open and close pit zippers and how much ventilation they provide.
• Does it have enough pocket space for you? Where are pockets positioned—above a pack belt or climbing harness, or directly underneath the belt, making pockets hard to access and potentially creating uncomfortable pressure points where the belt presses against a zipper? Do they have waterproof zippers, which protect better but can be harder to tug? How about a mesh lining for better ventilation, which can also be more vulnerable to tearing?
• How far below the waist (if at all) the length covers you, and the hem’s adjustability.
Ultimately, wearing it is the only way to ensure it fits and you like it.
At a bare minimum, any shell, whatever the price, should fit you, shed steady rain, have a hood that keeps precipitation off your face, and breathe at least well enough that you’re not just as wet from perspiring in it as you would be not wearing it. Otherwise, you’re wasting your money.
See my review of “The 5 Best Rain Jackets for the Backcountry” all of my rain jacket reviews.
#5 Don’t Spend More—Or Less—Than Necessary
I deliberately saved this tip for last. That’s partly because you’re not ready to pull the trigger on making a purchase before going through the previous steps. But it’s also because, while most of us have a budget—some of us a very limited budget—it’s better to decide what kind of shell you really need before considering price. Otherwise, you might actually spend more than necessary, or you might settle for a jacket that seems like a bargain but doesn’t give you the performance you need—which is no bargain at all, especially if that results in you purchasing a better jacket sooner than you would have if the first purchase had been the right one.
Even if you’re on a tight budget, understanding the range of options available at different price points will still help you make a more-informed choice now, and perhaps later, whenever you’re eventually able to replace that bargain shell with a better one.
Certainly, if you’re spending upwards of $300 or more, don’t settle for anything less than a jacket with perfect fit and exactly the performance, weight, and features you want.
See my buying tips in my story “Why and When to Spend More on Outdoor Gear.”
Spending more is no guarantee of getting a jacket that you’ll like. Some expensive models are designed for severe weather and can be too hot to wear when all you need is a shell that ventilates well and protects you from a warm shower or brief thunderstorm and wind. And some are expensive because of a high-end waterproof-breathable membrane and features that you may simply not need. As I suggested in tip #1: Think about how often you’ll wear that jacket.
But if you do need a high-performance jacket, don’t shortchange yourself. When friends and others who have the means to get good outdoor gear and apparel ask my advice, I tell them that spending more—when it’s justified by your needs—often translates to more comfort and a better experience. You can’t put a price on that.
See these related stories at The Big Outside:
“5 Tips for Staying Warm and Dry on the Trail”
“10 Smarter Ways to Think About Your Layering System”
“7 Pro Tips For Avoiding Blisters”
“The Simple Equation of Ultralight Backpacking: Less Weight = More Fun”
“Review: The Best Base Layers and Shorts For Hiking, Trail Running, and Training”
NOTE: I tested gear for Backpacker Magazine for 20 years. At The Big Outside, I review only what I consider the best outdoor gear and apparel. See categorized menus of all of my gear reviews at The Big Outside.
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