- Main Considerations in a Waterproof Jacket
- Material & Construction
So, you’re looking for a waterproof rain jacket but might be wondering how exactly you choose the best jacket for your needs. You’ve come to the right place.
In this article we cover everything you need to know, and probably a few things you never thought you wanted to know, about choosing a waterproof jacket.
There’s a lot of information, so you can skip to the summary here, or skip ahead in the table of contents to find exactly what you are looking for.
And, when you are ready to find a great waterproof jacket, check out our guide to the best rain jackets of 2022.
Main Considerations in a Waterproof Jacket
When it comes to choosing a waterproof jacket, there are a lot of options out there and some of the terminology can be confusing.
What exactly is Gore-Tex? What’s the difference between Gore-Tex and DWR? What’s the difference between waterproof and water-resistant? Or, breathable versus non-breathable?
The list goes on and on. But, in general when choosing a waterproof jacket, focus on a few key points:
• Material & Construction
We cover a number of other important considerations below, but pretty much everything comes down to what material is used, how breathable it is, and how much ventilation the jacket offers.
For the most part, the more active you plan on being in your waterproof jacket, look for more breathable materials – like Pertex – with more ventilation integrated into the jacket’s design.
First though, we need to define, “waterproof.”
Skip ahead here.
Waterproof vs. Water-resistant vs. Water-repellant
The dictionary defines waterproof as, “impervious to water.”
In terms of jackets and other outdoor gear, waterproof is taken to mean, “impervious to water… up to a point.”
No material is immune to the consistent probing of water over time, especially heavy rainfall.
Given enough time, water can smooth river banks and split giant granite boulders.
Waterproof jackets are no exception. Of course, some materials can hold back longer than others.
One of the most waterproof jackets on the market today is the Helly Hansen Gale jacket. This is a polyurethane (PU) coated jacket rather than a Gore-Tex laminate jacket like the Arc’teryx Beta LT.
PU coated jackets are more waterproof but less breathable than laminated membrane jacket (more on these differences later).
Still, even these jackets will begin to seep after some wear and tear while exposed to the right conditions.
So, waterproof is the most amount of water protection you can get in a jacket or garment before water begins to seep inside.
For quick outings or when you expect mixed conditions with light-sporadic showers and bit of wind, water-resistant materials make more sense.
Because they are less impermeable, water-resistant materials also tend to be lighter, more breathable, and less expensive than fully waterproof garments.
While waterproof and water-resistant jackets get most of their ability to block moisture from the actual material they are made of, water-repellent jackets usually rely on some sort of treatment that is sprayed or coated onto the outer jacket.
The most common water-repellent treatment you will see is DWR (Durable Water Repellant).
Water-repllents like DWR allow water to roll off the jacket material rather than soaking into the fabric.
Most fully waterproof jackets will also be treated with DWR or something similar.
Overtime DWR will wear out or wear off, so if you intend to keep your jacket for a long time also plan on regularly re-treating it with DWR.
Here is a detailed video from Gore-Tex on what DWR is and how to care for your DWR treated gear:
Jackets rated as only water-repellent are best for minimal exposure to moisture like running from the grocery store to your car in the rain or a short hike on a foggy coastline.
Windproof & Wind-resistant
In product details, windproof and wind-resistant are usually used synonymously. Like waterproof ratings, under extreme conditions nothing is ever truly windproof, so manufacturers often prefer to write wind-resistant in their product descriptions.
By their nature, almost all waterproof rated jackets are also windproof or wind-resistant.
In most cases the more waterproof your jacket the more windproof it is as well. Keep in mind however, as your jackets breathability increases its windproof abilities may decrease.
If wind is a big deciding factor in your purchase, narrow down your choices and if possible do a side by side test.
Simply grab a piece of the material – a sleeve works well – place one side up to your lips with your hand on the other-side and blow as hard as you can through the fabric so that your cheeks puff out.
Eventually you will feel a slight warmness coming through from your breath. The less you feel your breath on the inside of your hand, the more windproof the material.
This is a simple and easy way to test just how windproof your gear is; or to see which piece of gear is more windproof than another.
Material & Construction
One thing a lot of people don’t realize is that a jacket’s “waterproof” abilities actually come from the materials used in its construction.
Long ago, oil and wax coatings were used on fabrics to create a waterproof jacket. However, while very effective this method doesn’t last long (having to constantly be reapplied) and is bulky and stiff.
Today we use lightweight membranes layered between tightly woven fabrics that allow moisture out, block water from coming in, and are much lighter and durable.
For example, Gore-Tex isn’t simply a plastic lining or a spray, it is actually a membrane of stretched polytetrafluoroethylene (ePTFE).
It gets a bit technical, but more or less the membrane is made of tiny pores that are large enough to let sweat vapor out, but small enough that water droplets can’t seep through.
This membrane is then layered between other water-resistant or repellant materials.
While Gore-Tex is the original waterproof-breathable material and still the standard, today there are many other waterproof materials available offering similar functionality.
A few Gore-Tex alternatives to note are:
• Black Diamond’s BD.dry
• Patagonia’s H2No
• Outdoor Research AscentShell Technology
• Marmot NanoPro
How is a Waterproof Jacket Constructed?
Waterproof-breathable jackets are constructed by fusing multiple layers together.
These jackets are usually made with either two layers, two and a half layers, or three layers.
Heavier jackets like PU coated fishermen’s jackets or Work Wear jackets use a standard base fabric (usually polyester) coated with waterproof PU.
Modern technology also allows for breathable PU coatings (usually used in work wear like the Helly Hansen Alta. Although these are great jackets with solid waterproofing, they are generally less breathable than high-tech fabrics like Gore-Tex.
Jackets made with 3-layer construction offer great durability and performance in harsh conditions but may be heavier or bulkier than their 2-layer counterparts.
2.5-layer jackets offer the best of both worlds.
In general, the less layers, the lighter but less durable the material.
Below, Rab Equipment gives a great summary of the differences between layers:
In high performing waterproof-breathable jackets, its actually the membrane doing all the hard work.
These membranes get their unique properties from the size of the pores in the membrane material.
So, even though Gore-Tex was the first of its kind and remains the industry standard, its competitors are now able to create nearly identical materials with lower price points.
Reality is, when choosing between one of these materials or the other, performance is mostly equal.
Focus instead – as we discuss below – on weight, packability, added ventilation features, and price.
First, here’s a quick look at some of the best and most common membranes you will see on the market today.
Invented in 1969 by garage-tinkering father and son duo Wilbert and Robert Gore, the aptly named Gore-Tex (known technically as ePTFE) is now one of the most ubiquitous polyurethane based materials on the planet – it’s even used in select medical instruments.
More or less, Gore-Tex is a specialized polymer that when stretched, creates a microporous structure.
This structure is made of tiny holes. These holes are large enough let out water vapor (as in sweat) but small enough to block out water molecules (as in rain drops).
Other waterproof-breathable materials used in jackets may go by a different name but they all function in a similar way.
Pertex is the most common Gore-Tex alternative used today.
It’s a “dry” technology like eVent, meaning your skin should stay drier longer than with Gore-Tex (where the membrane has to get damp before it can move the moisture away from your skin) .
Because it is also one of the lightest and quietest waterproof-breathable materials available, manufacturers are using it in ultra-light garments like the OR Helium jacket.
While Gore-Tex is very durable it tends to be stiff and can be noisy.
Pertex has a softer feel and is almost silent with movement.
In addition, once it does get soaked, Pertex dries faster than Gore-Tex.
With a range of technologies, eVent Fabrics not only create high performing waterproof-breathability materials but also industrial work wear and bio-hazard protective materials.
According to the company, their eVent Direct Venting system and eVent membrane create a “dry system” that is far superior at keeping you dry and warm compared to other materials on the market.
In terms of breathability, Gore-Tex for example, has to get wet from your body sweat then moves that moisture outward.
Direct Venting with eVent moves that moisture away from your skin immediately so inside the jacket you stay dry and warm.
Polartec has been around for a long time. You might recognize them as the inventors of the soft shell.
And while their legacy is already secure, Polartec continues to innovate.
Their recent NeoShell technology offers up one of the most breathable weatherproof fabrics ever created.
The NeoShell is not as waterproof as other materials like Gore-Tex or Pertex, but they wanted it that way.
NeoShell focuses specifically on breathability over full range weatherproofing.
So, for heavy activities like running or ice climbing where breathability might be more important than waterproof ratings, a jacket made from Polatec’s NeoShell is a great choice.
Brand Name Proprietary Materials
Not to be left out of the game, companies like Black Diamond and Patagonia have started making their own waterproof-breathable materials.
Black Diamond has their BD.dry, Patagonia created H2No, and The North Face has their DryVent technology.
While these materials are essentially the same as the Gore-Tex ePTFE membranes they are modeled after, some still lack the overall performance of true Gore-Tex.
For this reason some high end manufacturers like Arc’teryx still use Gore-Tex rather than creating their own waterproof-breathable product.
Regardless of which brand you choose, whatever the name of their waterproof-breathable material, they are all using essentially the same technology.
The main considerations to keep in mind when choosing one garment over another are how many layers the jacket is constructed with and how durable the outer layer is.
Backcountry snowboarders, for example, will want a slightly burlier 2.5-3-layer jacket compared to an urban long distance runner who would be comfortable in a 2-layer model.
Waterproof Coatings & Laminates
As we’ve discussed above, waterproof jackets are made of a base material with some kind of coating or integrated membrane laminate.
For Gore-Tex type jackets, the actual waterproof-breathable membrane is laminated between one or two layers of additional fabric.
Other types of waterproof jackets might simply be a base fabric like polyester with a stretched Polyurethane or PU coating.
Coatings vs. Laminates: Which is Best?
Now that you know the difference between a laminate and a coating you might be wondering which is better, coatings or laminates?
Well, it depends.
Laminates are better at breathing. Meaning, when you sweat during activity, these jackets let that moisture escape to the outside so you don’t get clammy and cold inside your coat.
Coated jackets, however, offer a much higher degree of waterproof protection.
Because these jackets don’t breath as well as their laminated counterparts, they are ideal for low impact activities (or long exposure to extreme wet conditions).
Think a long stroll in the rain, waiting for a bus, or in the extreme case, working on a commercial fishing boat.
What is DWR?
As you begin to choose a waterproof jacket you will see the term DWR thrown around in product descriptions.
DWR stands for Durable Water Repellant.
Essentially, this invisible coating keeps water from accumulating on fabric so it never gets the chance to soak in.
On a jacket recently treated with DWR water will bead and roll off, eliminating the opportunity for water to soak through to your skin.
Most waterproof garments are treated with some form of DWR.
Keep in mind, the waterproof rating of a jacket is determined without DWR.
Important to note is that DWR naturally wears out over time. When newly applied, at a microscopic level, the material stands up and away from the base material.
As it ages, is worn off through abrasion, or is broken down by body oils and dirt, the DWR loses its ability to repel water and your jacket might start getting wet spots when exposed to moisture.
Fortunately, restoring worn out DWR is a quick and inexpensive fix.
Learn more about DWR and how to restore your rain gear here.
Other Important Considerations
Besides the materials used to construct a waterproof jacket, there are a number of other construction components that help make the garment more waterproof and higher functioning.
Important Considerations When Choosing a Waterproof Jacket:
• Seam Taping
• Hood Design
• Adjustment Features
This aspect is so important, that Gore-Tex requires it of companies who use their material in end products.
According to Evo.com,
“Manufacturers using GORE-TEX fabric are required to use GORE-SEAM® tape and specialized seam sealing machinery to ensure a proper seal, and to provide random samples for testing by GORE’s headquarters throughout a product’s production run.”
Seam taping ensures that garment seams are waterproof and breathable. As an added bonus, it also makes the end product less bulky and more streamlined.
You can have the greatest waterproof jacket of all time, but if the zippers leak in a downpour, it doesn’t really matter.
The gold standard for zippers are YKK Zippers. Their YKK AquaGuard is the standard for use in waterproof jackets.
Side note: YKK stands for Yoshida Kogyo Kabushikikaisha – a Japanese manufacturer, who according to Insider, is accountable for the majority of zippers used worldwide. Check your clothes at home, chances are all the zippers say YKK on them.
Most manufacturers will list the type of zipper in their product details. If it’s YKK, you know it’s reliable.
While that might be more detail than you’re looking for, moral of the story, when choosing a waterproof jacket for severe conditions make sure it has waterproof zippers on all openings (including armpit zips).
Ideally, choose a jacket that has a hood in the first place.
Unless you are using it specifically for running or biking, a hood can make a world of difference in severe weather.
Hoods help keep in heat. In addition, without a hood, rain will run down your neck directly onto your shoulders, eventually soaking your entire torso under the jacket.
A hood offers versatility, added protection, and warmth (especially in windy conditions).
If you don’t plan on using a hood often, look for a jacket with a removable hood or stowable hood that folds into the jacket’s collar.
For people whose sports require a helmet, keep an eye on the product details to be sure the hood is helmet compatible.
Even if you don’t plan on wearing a helmet, the extra space gives you flexibility with layering as well as added coverage.
Look for hoods with a hard or extended brim like the Black Diamond Liquid Point Shell.
This feature keeps dripping water away from your face as well as preventing moisture from dripping down into the upper neck line of your jacket.
Another important and often overlooked consideration is the ability to adjust as many aspects as possible on your chosen jacket.
As discussed above, a hood that can be stowed, is big enough for a helmet or hat, and is adjustable is a must in a quality waterproof jacket.
For hoods, look for two adjustment options; one draw cord at the back of the hood and two on each side where the hood meets the neckline.
Adjustment cords near the neck cinch the hood downward while one at the back pulls the sides away from your face while also making it more snug.
Both are great; either or is the norm.
You may also want to look for bottom hem drawcords and wrist adjustments.
Some jackets will feature hidden drawstrings that you pull from inside the front pockets while others might have a single pull tab on one side of the jacket.
The ability to cinch the bottom of your jacket helps seal in warm air while keeping the cold and wet out. When you start to overheat or dampen, this features also helps improve ventilation.
Wrists adjustments generally come in the form of a sewn in bungee cord or adjustable velcro.
Either way, this is an important feature as your wrists are sometimes the first place water begins to seep into you jacket. Additionally, if your sleeves are a bit long or large, it helps keep them out of the way during activities like paddling or climbing.
One of the most important and often overlooked benefits of pockets in a waterproof jacket is added ventilation.
Some jackets feature a mesh inner lining to their pockets instead of hard outer shell fabric.
While the inner lining might not be as durable overtime, it offers the added benefit of extra ventilation.
Simply unzip the pockets and you greatly increase your ability to dump moisture and increase air flow inside the jacket.
Some minimal waterproof jackets don’t even have pockets while others like the Arc’teryx feature sealed pockets; closed fabric on the backside and YKK sealed zippers.
These are great pockets for keeping your stowed items dry and secure, however they don’t offer any added ventilation.
In severe conditions like backcountry snowboarding or mountaineering, close-back pockets are better as this prevents cold air or moisture that makes it way through the zipper from getting inside to your base layers.
In most cases, make sure you at least have a small chest pocket to store keys, power gels, or ear phones.
In general, the more burly your jacket, the less packable it will be.
Many waterproof jackets are designed to pack into their pocket or hood
Remember, lighter materials might be more packable, but pound for pound, they are almost always less waterproof over time.
In terms of waterproof jackets and other outdoor gear, breathability refers to your garment’s ability to allow moisture inside to escape to the outside.
Our bodies, even when cold, are constantly producing heat. Heat in a confined space produces condensation or moisture.
That moisture is designed to help us stay cool. But in cold or damp conditions, that moisture buildup next to our skin can make us uncomfortably wet and cold.
This effect is amplified if we are doing something active like hiking or climbing.
So, the more breathable your jacket, the better it will be at keeping you warm and dry; and conversely the more waterproof the material, the less breathable it gets.
Layered jackets with a breathable membrane like Gore-Tex or Pertex offer the best balance of waterproofness and breathability. These types of garments are best suited for intense activities like running, ice climbing, or biking.
Coated jackets are generally more waterproof but less breathable. These jackets perform best in low impact situations in extremely wet conditions. Examples include commercial fishing, walking your dog in storm, sailing, motorcycle touring.
When choosing a waterproof jacket most people focus the material it is made of: Is it Gore-Tex or PU? Should I get Pertex or Gore-Tex?
But another often overlooked – but extremely important – factor is ventilation.
A jacket made of non-breathable material like PU or PVC that is constructed with lots of added ventilation may actually be more breathable overall than a high end Gore-Tex jacket with no added ventilation.
Look for these simple design features when choosing a waterproof jacket that significantly increase your jacket’s ability to keep you dry by dumping excess moisture:
• Pockets with mesh backing
• Armpit zippers
• Back flaps
• Removable or stowable hoods
• Adjustable waist and wrists
High quality waterproof jackets can be a big investment.
Taking the time to understand exactly what you need in your jacket and why will not only save you money in the long run, but also ensures you are more comfortable and better protected out on the trail.
Not all waterproof materials are created equal.
PU is an older technology that creates very waterproof materials but it is not as breathable, light weight, or flexible as more advance materials.
Gore-Tex, Pertex, and other waterproof-breathable materials are membranes laminated between layers of fabric to create light, durable, and breathable waterproof jackets.
These jackets come at a higher price point than comparable PU type jackets, but they are much better suited to active pursuits like climbing, biking, or running.
Remember, waterproof is different than water-resistant is different than water-repellant.
As waterproofness increases, breathability tends to decrease.
In general, the higher output your activity, the more breathable jacket you want.
When possible, get different jackets for different conditions.
For example, a waterproof 3-layer Gore-Tex jacket for backcountry skiing and ice climbing, a 2-layer water-resistant jacket for biking and commuting, and a water-repellant jacket for around town or early morning hikes.
You may even want to add in a fully waterproof PU coated jacket for activities like fishing, walking the dog, or sailing.
Whatever your adventure, take the time to find the right waterproof jacket so you don’t one day find yourself stuck out in the rain.