Shopping for waterproof clothing can be a little bewildering. We all want something that will keep us dry, warm, and comfortable in the backcountry – preferably without breaking the bank. But there’s such a wide range of options out there and it seems like everyone has a story about the “waterproof” raincoat that wasn’t. So what can you rely on when the sky opens up and the wind starts to howl?
We’ll start by talking about different types of construction for waterproof clothing, which has a big impact on price and performance. Then we’ll talk about how the different brand names out there (GORE-TEX™, eVent™, MemBrain™, PreCip™, DryQ™, etc) compare to each other. For the short version of this article, check out our comparison chart. If you want to be an expert and impress your friends, read on.
Table Of Contents:
Types of Waterproof Clothing
It’s useful to group all waterproof clothes into a few performance levels, and then decide which level sounds right for you.
Solid Rubber and Vinyl.
These inexpensive jackets and ponchos are the most economical option and are absolutely waterproof. They’re great for sedentary activities like sitting on a boat or on the bleachers at a sports game. They’re fairly durable and definitely offer the highest longevity-to-price ratio.
The downside of these solid garments is that they offer zero breathability – meaning that if you wear them for aerobic activities like hiking, you’ll get as wet with your own sweat as you would from the rain. Ponchos will of course allow a bit more airflow than jackets, but beware: poncho protection goes downhill fast when the wind picks up.
The name says it all – these jackets and pants are made of a lightweight nylon fabric which has been sprayed with a waterproof coating, and have tape placed over the seams to prevent leakage. Coated nylon jackets and pants are lighter than solid rubber equivalents, and they pack down small. Although they may be advertised as “waterproof” and “breathable”, they aren’t at the top in either category. Unlike other kinds of waterproof jackets, coated nylon will eventually soak through if it rains long and hard enough, and the breathability is limited compared to higher-end construction styles. However, they do offer the lightest weight and smallest pack size for the price.
This is the most popular performance level for raincoats, and chances are good you’ve owned this type of garment before. It looks like this:
This type of jacket consists of a face fabric (what you touch on the outside) which has a waterproof membrane laminated to the back of it. An ever-so-slightly-raised printed pattern is then applied to the inside of the jacket to protect the laminate from your body oils, sunscreen, bug spray, and other contaminants which can break it down over time.
2.5-layer garments are 100% waterproof, are lightweight and easily packed, and offer reasonably good breathability – all starting for around $99. It’s not hard to see why they’re the most popular option.
There are downsides, of course. Chances are good that you or your friend have seen the interior lining of a 2.5 layer jacket disintegrate over time, especially in areas where the jacket touches bare skin frequently. This is because the substances on your skin, such as DEET-based bug repellents, can be corrosive to the jacket’s waterproof laminate. You can prevent this phenomenon through good care and maintenance.
Also, just so you know: most entry-level 2.5-layer garments (those priced at and around $99) essentially fit, function, look, and weigh the same. If you want more choice when it comes to weight and features, as well as marginally improved breathability, expect to spend $150-200.
2-layer construction has been around longer than 2.5-layer, and although the latter has become the most popular choice for hiking and backpacking, 2-layer is still very much alive and useful. This is what 2-layer looks like:
See the mesh? Like 2.5-layer construction, 2-layer starts by laminating a face fabric and waterproof membrane together. But instead of using a raised pattern to keep your skin away from the laminate, 2-layer garments use a totally separate mesh or fabric lining that hangs semi-loosely within the jacket.
This lining makes 2-layer garments a little bit heavier and less compressible than 2.5-layer ones, but it also makes them very comfortable to wear. For that reason, 2-layer garments are great for around-town lifestyle or snow sports applications where weight isn’t such a big deal. Prices vary widely depending on features, but start at around $100.
Welcome to the top. 3-layer construction is the most advanced, protective, durable, breathable – and the most expensive. The only accolade it doesn’t claim is “most lightweight,” which is an honor held by super-light 2.5-layer options. But with that said, there are some great lighter 3-layer options out there.
3-layer shells excel in the most extreme conditions. Whether it’s against roaring wind and driving sleet on a late-fall Presidential hike, skiing chest-deep powder in the Chugach Mountains of Alaska, or bushwhacking through wet branches on the Olympic Peninsula, 3-layer shells are up to the challenge. They even make dry suits for scuba diving using this technique, so you can have confidence in its waterproof performance.
Just like in 2- and 2.5-layer constructions, 3-layer garments start by laminating a face fabric and waterproof membrane together. At this performance level, you can expect to find a range of face fabrics as well as the most advanced waterproof membrane technology. The inside of the jacket is then covered by a very lightweight backing fabric, which is attached to the outer fabric and doesn’t hang loose like the liner of a 2-layer jacket. It looks like this:
This backer improves wearing comfort by absorbing moisture, and also protects the waterproof laminate from being dissolved by skin-borne substances. However, the additional time and complexity inherent in its manufacturing process is what drives the price way up.
Softshells are all the rage these days. Made of a woven blend of nylon and elastane, these stretchy garments provide excellent range of motion, superb breathability and temperature regulation, and a look and feel that some people like better than traditional fleece. The one big thing they don’t usually offer: waterproofness.
Naturally, then, manufacturers have been attempting for some time to fuse the best qualities of hard- and soft-shells. Some of these “waterproof softshells” are still quite hard-shell like in nature, combining stretchier face fabrics with otherwise-typical 3-layer waterproof construction. Another method (which you read a patent application for here) calls for using a sonic welder to join the 3 layers together at the seams, with seam tape applied to the outside of the jacket rather than the inside.
The extent to which a waterproof softshell succeeds in its mission (combining stretchiness and breathability with waterproofness) generally depends on the qualities of the waterproof laminate used; the more air-permeable the membrane, the more successful the jacket.
Rainwear Comparison Chart
Note that this chart is based on our own research, experiences, and impressions. Hard numbers that quantify characteristics like breathability and durability are hard to come by (and generally not very reliable if found) so these ratings will be subjective to some extent.
You’ll also notice that almost all jackets score the maximum five points for waterproofness. That’s because with proper care and maintenance almost any type of waterproof garment should resist wetting out or soaking through and therefore keep you dry.
|GORE-TEX Pro Shell||3-layer; stretch and non-stretch variants||•••••+||••••||•••••||$$$$|
|eVent||3-layer; various weights||•••••||•••••||••••||$$$|
|Mountain Hardwear DryQ Elite||3-layer; hard and “soft” shell variants||•••••||•••••||••••||$$$|
|Polartec Neoshell||3-layer; stretch hard shell and softshell||•••••||•••••+||••••||$$$|
& MemBrain Strata
|2-layer (regular) and 2.5-layer (Strata)||•••••||•••+||••• (Strata)
|Mammut DryTech Premium||2.5-layer||•••••||•••+||•••||$$|
|Marmot PreCip||2.5-layer, 2-layer||•••••||•••||•••||$|
The Bottom Line
When you’re shopping for waterproof clothing, we advise you to first consider construction, features, weight, fit, color (it’s important!) and price, then take it into account what you learned above. You could name any one of the technologies above to us, and we could name you a jacket made with that technology that we would be happy to wear under some circumstance or another. So pick a jacket you like and enjoy the journey!