Full coverage, water resistant jackets weigh under 8 oz these days, which is great news for the light-and-fast crowd. Look for the lightest, most breathable jacket you can afford that will meet your needs, from a light mist to a rip-roaring deluge.
It's been said there's no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing. Make the right choice and stay dry.
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The Shell Game
Some tips for choosing the right raingear for the conditions
By Wild Things Brand Director, Mike Boardman • April, 2012
It’s been said there’s no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing. Those of us who have been caught exposed in a sideways deluge—you know the kind that washes over you in seconds and leaves you pouring water out of open pockets, can certainly identify, and perhaps question the choices made when filling our packs. With the wet season replacing dry in many parts of the country, now is the perfect time to review your outer layer options for dealing with wet weather in the backcountry.
Hiking in the wet for long periods can, with a poor outer layer choice, lead to wetting out, a term that simply refers to a fabric becoming saturated with moisture. When this happens to your gear, not only is it no longer waterproof, but also once you stop moving, the water in the fabric will, as a natural conductor, sap the heat from inner layers and your body with surprising efficiency.
For you technical types, the water resistance of a fabric is calculated by the amount of water it can support, in millimeters, before water begins to seep through. A moderately water resistant fabric, for example, will withstand around 5,000 mm of water before it gives out. At the upper end of the scale are fabrics that can withstand 20,000 mm of water. Impressive water shedding ability, certainly, but it would be hard to move through the backcountry in the equivalent of a diver’s dry suit. You would saturate your inner layers from the inside.
Breathability is another factor to consider when choosing rain gear. The breathability of a fabric is based on how much water vapor can pass through in a given period. Known as the Water Vapor Transmission Rate (WVTR), tests vary between manufacturers, but as a rule of thumb, even with modern waterproof breathable fabrics, a degree of breathability is sacrificed as you move up the water resistance scale. A well performing wet weather layer will strike a balance and work like a valve, keeping rain and wind out, while at the same time forcing water vapor out. Overall performance of rain gear is typically a compromise between water resistance and breathability.
There are a number of waterproof/breathable membranes and DWR (Durable Water Resistant) treatments/coatings on the market—all offering comparable performance. In the membrane category, Gore-Tex and eVent standout, with the latter getting a slight nod, in our testing.
A Waterproof Breathable Shell for all Conditions
Full coverage, waterproof/breathable jackets weigh as little as 8 oz these days, which is great news for the light-and-fast crowd. Unless you are hiking in extremely wet environments, you should look for the lightest, most breathable jacket you can afford. As an emergency shell layer, this will sit in your pack 90% of the time. If you are looking for something more durable that can withstand a good deal of rock abrasion, snags, and a rip-roaring deluge, you may opt for something a bit heavier. Again, breathability is key. When it does rain, you don’t want to soak in your own sweat. With heavier jackets, generous pit zips are a must. Other items to consider: a snug hood that turns with your head, a good sized laminated brim to keep water from hitting your face, and chest pockets that can’t interfere with your pack setup. Climbers and mountaineers alike will appreciate a roomy, helmet compatible hood, and articulation built into the elbows and shoulders for unrestricted range of motion.
A Water Resistant Shell for Drier Conditions
There are those who would suggest that it’s not worth carrying raingear in places with limited rainfall. We have a saying around here, “Brighter is Righter.” Carrying a few extra ounces, in our opinion, saves you from the unexpected. Rain-resistant clothing is almost always necessary for safe travel in the backcountry.
With that said, a summer trip to the High Sierra may not require a bomber 3-layer, all-conditions shell. In fact, in 80-degree heat, it’s not something you are likely to put on, quite possibly to your personal detriment. For these conditions, consider a lighweight, water resistant windshirt. Key features to look for: nylon or polyurethane construction, DWR treatment, relaxed fit to layer over mid layers. Other wants: self-stow pocket, snug elastic hood and wrists, carabiner loop.