Waterproof Jackets for hiking, biking, camping and outdoors have come a long way recently, and new technologies can be confusing. Here’s a short guide to the different types of waterproof jackets.
Waterproof (non-breathable) jackets and ponchos
These are effectively solid layers of fabric which keep rain and wind off you. They’re like wearing a plastic bag and work very well indeed if you’re standing still at a festival or camping, or walking slowly and not breaking a sweat.
However, they can be very warm in use, and if you break a sweat there is nowhere for it to go, so you’ll get damp underneath. A lot of people think that waterproofs have leaked, when actually it’s just sweat. Eww.
Using a non-breathable waterproof jacket when doing activity can be OK if you manage your temperature using zippers and flaps, or occasionally flap some fresh air up under a poncho.
Waxed cotton jackets
Barbour-style jackets use non-waterproof materials and then coat them with a sticky wax, which makes them shed water. They require regular treatment to re-apply wax where it has rubbed thin, but are very waterproof. They tend to be heavy and bulky, and are suitable for low-intensity activities like walking (not hiking) and field sports.
Waterproof breathable jackets
This is what most outdoor retailers now sell as standard, and it’s where the marketing teams like to introduce technical words to confuse us all, so it’s where we’ll concentrate this guide.
There are a number of styling nuances which you should be aware of before buying a breathable waterproof jacket. Some of them are done for functional reasons, rather than just fashion, so consider what you’ll be using the jacket for before you buy – a climbing jacket will not be particularly great for general walking, and vice versa, for instance.
There’s not much worse than cold ears and wet hair, with water trickling down your back, so a good hood is important. Whether you go for removable or permanent is up to you, but either way it should be adjustable, have a peak (to keep rain out of your eyes) and not stop you seeing where you’re going. If you need to wear a helmet under it, factor that in to its size.
Truly waterproof zippers are hideously expensive, so most waterproof jackets use rainproof zippers that will be OK but eventually leak. Plastic coated ones will resist rain for longer, but look for a waterproof channel of material INSIDE the zipper so that any leaks will be funnelled down and out of the bottom of the coat. Wrists should have easy to use (one-handed) seals, usually Velcro and seal snugly to keep out drips. The neck should be snug enough to stop wind and rain funneling down your back, but some rain getting onto the inside is inevitable. A bungee system on the neck can be a good idea.
The very best breathable waterproof material will not let out all your sweat, or keep you cool on a hot day, so the primary means of regulating your temperature is the main zipper and any ventilation. Armpit vents are great – even for girls who insist that they don’t sweat! Jackets aimed at high-intensity activities (running, MTBing) should have more ventilation.
Rain and wind equals cold hands, so hand-warming pockets are a bonus. External pockets should have rainproof zippers and rain flaps to keep as much water out as possible. Internal pockets should be totally waterproof. If you’ll be carrying a map, make sure there’s a map-sized pocket somewhere. Arm pockets for running jackets are a good idea because items in them won’t bounce around and annoy you too much.
Short jackets are best suited for climbing where you’ll be wearing a harness. You’ll probably end up with a gap between jacket and trousers though, especially if the arm length isn’t very generous.
Medium length jackets are standard and are designed to go over trousers and help water funnel down over your backside and waist. They’re a good all-rounder for most activities.
Long jackets are best for cycling and activities where you’ll be raising your arms or bending forwards a lot – they’ll stop the gap of doom opening above your pants. If it’s long enough, you can also sit on it if you need to.
Forgetting Paramo and Buffalo for a moment, because they use different systems, “waterproofing” is achieved in two ways.
The outer fabric of the coat is sprayed with plastic (usually Polyurethane) on its inside face. Bits of material are then sewn together and the sewing lines are taped over with seam-sealer. You get a near solid coating of plastic which is hard wearing but allows some water vapour to escape. Examples of waterproof coatings which all work the same way are:
- HyVent – The North Face
- Storm System – Didriksons
- AquaDry – Craghoppers, Dare2B
- IsoTex – Regatta
- Aquafoil – Berghaus
- Hydrodry – Sprayway
- and lots more…
A layer of plastic (PTFE/Teflon) is created with teeny-tiny holes in it that are too small for rain to get through, but big enough for water vapour to pass through, providing that you are warmer than the outside air! This membrane is then bonded to the outer (shell) fabric of your waterproof jacket. Because the membrane is very fragile it has to be protected from YOU in one of three ways:
– By a separate mesh, which is called a 2-layer technology
– By microdots of Polyurethane printed onto it, which is called a 2.5-layer technology
– By a third layer of fabric being bonded to its inside surface, which is called a 3-layer technology
Examples of waterproof membranes which all work the same way are:
- Gore Tex
- AquaDry membrane
- Polartec Neoshell
DWR (Durable Waterproof Repellents)
Finally, almost every jacket is then treated in a chemical, which is what makes the rain bead-up and run off your jacket in such a pretty way when it’s new. This chemical wears off over time and needs to be renewed. Read more on that in our re-waterproofing guide.
Just a quick note to say that a Hydrostatic Head (HH) rating of 10,000+ is going to keep you absolutely dry in the worst weather. It’s probably not worth paying more money for a jacket that has a rating higher than this, since it’ll make very little difference.
You’ve all heard of Gore Tex and their competitors. Breathability, when you’re doing activities, is almost as important as waterproofing. In humid conditions, breathable waterproof materials don’t work anywhere near as well as in dry heat. Bear that in mind for the muggy British summer. According to this US Army study, Schoeller WB, Conduit and Sympatex work best over a variety of humidities. It’s an old study though, so newcomers like Polartec Neoshell should also be considered.