Anyone who has ever shopped for a waterproof jacket or technical shell has probably come across Gore-Tex.
Skip ahead for the TL;DR summary.
A first of its kind material, Gore-Tex is a patented waterproof-breathable material that catalyzed a period of novel innovation in the outdoor apparel industry.
Gore-Tex and similar materials provide superior breathability in addition to extreme weather protection.
These materials allow outdoor adventurers to test the boundaries of what is possible with the confidence their gear will keep them protected and performing optimally.
But, what is Gore-Tex really? What is it made of, how does it work, and what is the best way to take care of it?
Keep reading for the answers to these questions and more.
As always, skip ahead in the table of contents or jump straight to the summary.
What is Gore-Tex
Gore-Tex is a stretched plastic material that is both waterproof and breathable.
Due to its structural and chemical properties, the material allows water vapor to escape (breathability) while preventing water droplets from getting in (waterproofness).
Although we always see the Gore-Tex brand name on the outside of jackets and other garments, the material itself is actually a thin membrane layered between outer and inner fabrics.
How Gore-Tex Works
Gore-Tex is a Polytetrafluoroethylene (commonly referred to as PTFE), a type of plastic resin.
These materials are very common and in use all around us.
For reference, one of the most famous PTFEs is DuPont’s ubiquitous Teflon.
PTFEs are, “characterized by a high resistance to solvents, acids, and bases,” (Wikipedia).
Gore-Tex is actually a stretched form or PTFE known as ePTFE.
When stretched under the right conditions, the material takes on a unique porous structure allowing it to work as a sort of one way barrier for liquids and vapors.
This property is what makes Gore-Tex so useful in the manufacturing of outdoor gear.
Heat vapor or – in the case of outdoor gear – sweat molecules are smaller than water molecules.
The pores in Gore-Tex material are large enough to allow vapor to escape while being small enough to prevent water from getting in.
It is important to note, that Gore-Tex does have to get “wet” in order to move water vapor away from your skin. Meaning, the material does have to get slightly saturated in order for the vapor to be transported outside and vented away from your body.
This is one reason why people often claim Gore-Tex gear makes them feel damp or clammy.
Today there are a number of Gore-Tex alternatives on the market that claim to be “dry” membranes.
These technologies move moisture away from your skin immediately, eliminating or lessening that damp-cold feeling common with older gear.
A Brief History of Gore-Tex
The Gore-Tex namesake comes from its inventors, Bill, Robert, and Genevieve Gore.
In 1958, Bill Gore left a job at DuPont to pursue his creative side, while selling PTFE insulated cables and wires, he also started a workshop with his wife and son in their household basement.
Bill’s son Robert had the idea to stretch the PTFE (now known as ePTFE). When they did this under the right conditions, the material took on a unique porous structure with waterproof-breathable properties.
Hence, Gore-Tex was born.
Is Gore-Tex Waterproof?
Technically, Gore-Tex is “waterproof.”
But, as we’ve mentioned before, with enough time, under the right conditions nothing is ever completely waterproof.
Waterproof-breathable jackets and gear are, in general, less waterproof than their non-breathable counterparts.
This is because, while the membrane (Gore-Tex or Pertex, etc.) is technically waterproof, if moisture is allowed to accumulate on top, the membrane loses its waterproof-breathable properties.
For this reason a Gore-Tex jacket must be coated with a water-repellant material.
Most often this material is DWR, which keeps water from soaking into the outer material and puddling on top of the inner membrane.
For reasons discussed in a previous article, DWR breaks down and wears out with use and therefore has to be frequently reapplied and reactivated.
If you’ve ever bought a brand new waterproof jacket, you probably noticed that it performed amazingly at first followed by a steep decline in waterproofness.
In most cases, it is not the technical membrane that is underperforming but the water-repellent coating that needs attention.
So, is Gore-Tex waterproof? Yes, as long as you keep your jacket clean and care for it properly.
If you don’t plan on doing strenuous activities with your gear, a fully waterproof garment might be the best choice for you.
Is Gore-Tex Breathable?
Yes, Gore-Tex is breathable. In fact, it was one of the first waterproof-breathable materials invented.
Keep in mind, for the reasons discussed above in regards to waterproofness, if a jacket’s or other garment’s outer water-repellent treatment wears off, moisture soaks through and sits on top of the Gore-Tex membrane, greatly reducing its ability to breathe.
Another reason it is so important to constantly care for your DWR.
Advantages of Gore-Tex
The main advantage of Gore-Tex is its breatability.
Gore-Tex has a number of other advantages over traditionally designed waterproof garments.
Before Gore-Tex, waterproof garments were usually made of some base material coated with a layer of Polyurethane (PU) or Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC).
While these materials provide near complete waterproofing, they tended to be stiff, wear down quickly, and be bulky and heavy.
Because these materials are so good at keeping moisture out, they are just as good at keeping it in.
With even the slightest physical exertion, old PU or PVC jackets accumulated moisture internally, leaving you feeling almost as damp as if you weren’t wearing a coat in the first place.
Technology has brought PU materials a long way. There are now a number of breathable PU materials as well as more durable and stretchy PU waterproof gear available.
Compared to other materials Gore-Tex is significantly lighter. Keep in mind, however, the more rugged a garments outer layer, the heavier it will be over all.
Disadvantages of Gore-Tex
The main disadvantage of Gore-Tex is price.
Gore-Tex or similar materials require precise manufacturing in combination with hi-tech materials.
For some, the price of this technology is prohibitive.
It is worth noting, a quality Gore-Tex jacket cared for properly will last a very very long time.
One other disadvantage that is not frequently mentioned, is noise.
The material used in Gore-Tex garments can be noisy with movement.
In an outdoor setting you might not notice it too much, but inside it can be distracting.
If possible, try on a few pieces of Gore-Tex gear at your local shop to get an idea of how they feel and function.
Newer materials like Pertex are much quieter and lighter than Gore-Tex. For example, the Outdoor Research Helium jacket has a plush feel with a softer-less crumply sound when moving.
Is Gore-Tex Worth It?
One of the questions we get asked most often is if Gore-Tex is really worth the price.
If you are an active outdoor adventurer, the answer is yes.
For anyone who needs all-around weather protection while doing persistent physical activity outside, Gore-Tex or a similar product is definitely worth it.
Being totally soaked from your own sweat after a pitch of ice-climbing or a mile into a long hike can be a deal breaker.
Gore-Tex allows you to efficiently dump body heat while sealing out rain and wind.
For less intense situations like biking to the grocery store or walking the dog in the rain, a less breathable jacket will probably work much better while also being more affordable.
How to Wash Gore-Tex
Now you know what Gore-Tex is and how it works. You also know that it requires a bit of care to continue functioning properly.
One of the easiest things you can do to keep your jacket or garment working the way it’s supposed to is to wash it regularly.
Dirt, body oils, and other substances can block or breakdown a waterproof-breathable membrane. Wash your garment regularly to improve its functional ability.
*When washing a Gore-Tex garment or any garment always check the label for care instructions first.
How to Wash Gore-Tex:
1. Prepare your garment: check care label, empty all pockets, zip up all zippers, loosen strings and cords, secure flaps, snaps, and cuffs.
2. Wash: use a normal or gentle cycle at low temperature (usually around 40 C/105 F), use lowest spin setting possible, add extra rinse, use gentle or gear specific detergent.
3. Dry: hang to dry or tumble dry low approximately 15 minutes.
After washing your Gore-Tex gear it is important to reapply or reactivate the DWR layer. Full instructions for this process can be found here.
Gore-Tex is a type of stretched polymer resin known as ePTFE.
It is a made into a microporous membrane that is both waterproof and breathable.
The structure of Gore-Tex allows vapor (heat) to escape while preventing water droplets (moisture) from entering.
Gore-Tex was invented in the early seventies and has become the primary waterproof-breathable membrane on the market.
However, today there are a number of high quality alternatives such as Pertex, BD.Dry, and eVent.
These membranes are usually layered between other materials. The outermost fabric of a waterproof-breathable garment is treated with DWR to help enhance water-repellency preventing moisture from soaking into the material, while the innermost layer protects the membrane from abrasions, body oils, and dirt.
Gore-Tex jackets should be washed on a regular basis.
This removes body oils, dirt, and other substances that can reduce the Gore-Tex membranes’ ability to function properly.
Wash and dry Gore-Tex on the lowest and most gentle settings possible for temperature, spin, and drying.
Use gentle or gear specific detergent.
After washing Gore-Tex, always reactivate or reapply DWR.
While Gore-Tex or similar materials can be expensive, they help keep you dry and protected in even the harshest conditions.
Properly cared for, a waterproof-breathable jacket will outlast a fully waterproof PU jacket in effectiveness and functionality.