The purpose of the shell is to protect you from environmental conditions. Finding the right shell is quite challenging because staying dry and comfortable requires managing external moisture from rain, sleet, and snow as well as managing internally generated moisture from perspiration and sweat. There is no perfect / magic material that does all this in all conditions. As a result, learning good techniques to manage moisture in sustained rain is as important as selecting the right rain gear.
Most rain gear is not only waterproof, but is also windproof and boasts the insulation of the garments under the shell. In warmer weather this is a serious problem because the wearer will overheat, sweat, and then find themselves almost as damp as if they were walking around in the rain without protection. Air permeability is typically a good predictor of a shell’s comfort.
I something hear people rave about the breathability of a garment that both laboratory tests and my personal experience suggestion are at best mediocre like the original Marmot Precip. I think this is often because the person raving about breathability has not used the garment doing heavy work in challenging conditions and/or are comparing the garment to a non-breathability alternative.
Updates made Feb 2022.
I use the first generation of the Gorewear R7 Shakedry Hooded Rain Jacket when it won’t make me overheat. I can do zone 2 runs for multiple hours in a steady rain with an air temperature of <50F. At the end of these sorts of run I feel slightly damp around my neck. After a 10 minute cool down I am not feeling particularly damp. On one of these runs I weighted my shirt before and after and recorded just 1 gram of weight gain. I am comfortable in this shell when it <70F standing around, <60F bicycling, <55F light hiking, <50F zone 2 jog / general backpacking, and <40F when running hard to a really hard push up a big hill. Above these temperatures I typically go without a shell using clothing that is comfortable when wet such a based from Polartec Delta, Polartec PowerGrid, or absorbs little water / dries quickly like Supplex nylon. The R7 isn’t for everyone. First, it’s pricy, $300 retail, though sometimes you might be able to find GoreWear shakedry closeouts at sierra.com for around $100 like I did. The other issue is durability. This jacket is not recommended backpacking. So far I have worn this jacket under 10-22lb packs for ~250 hours with no issues, with an additional 800 hours without a pack running, hiking, and cycling. My shoulder have some pinholes but so far there have been no signs of compromised performance (e.g. stayed dry).
I currently don’t have a system I would recommend when expecting highly abrasive conditions like climbing or bushwacking. The best system I have used was an EPIC shell combined with a power grid fleece which keeps me warm though damp. I retired my EPIC shell after 15 years of use because it was just too baggy after I lost weight.
I typically just let my legs get wet. When the temperature is below 50 F I sometimes use a pair of Zpacks Vertice Rain Pants.
It’s been awhile since I have tried to use a poncho. Maybe I will give a poncho a try again in 2023 because they make great sense, I just haven’t had a great experience with them.
Forms of Rain Protection
There are a variety of approaches people take:
- Jackets/Pants: Most common approach and what I normally recommend. Typically made from some sort of waterproof material, though there is a growing number of people who use materials that are not fully waterproof in a system to keep the wearer’s micro climate comfortable even if they aren’t 100% dry. Most of this post will be about jackets.
- Something + Chaps/Skirts: Rather than pants, some people use rain skirts or chaps which are typically easier to put on / take off than rain pants at the cost of area covered. These are typically made from non breathable, waterproof materials.
- The Packa: has elements of a pack cover and a rain jacket with sleeves, a front zipper, and pit-zips for ventilation. While it looks a bit like a poncho, I found it significantly more protective in heavy wind and rain. The pit zips provides much better control of side ventilation while the arms were were significantly better protection, especially when using trekking poles.
- Poncho: have good ventilation and can are be very light weight. Many people like that a poncho can be put on without removing a backpack, there by performing triple duty: rain gear, pack cover and later shelter. Some ultra light backpackers use ponchos made from sil-nylon, spinnaker cloth, or cuben. Examples of ponchos made to be a shelter include the MLD Pro Poncho and Sgt Rock hammock friendly poncho/tarp. No experience, but the Aricxi Poncho from AliExpresss looks like a good deal. The Trailbum Gnu Cape is less than 4oz made from sil/poly. Elsewhere I have written a bit about using a poncho as a shelter. The cheapest are typically fragile “emergency” ponchos made from plastic weighing just a couple of ounces. These can be effective in moderate conditions, but they are very easy to tear. The DriDucks Poncho is slightly more durable that plastics but is still fragile. It has the benefit of being somewhat breathable. Finally, there are vinyl / PVC ponchos which can typically be found as hardware stores. These ponchos are inexpensive and typically weight 8-16oz. They are durable enough to wear, but I won’t recommend using them as a shelter. Disadvantages of using a poncho are that many people find them ineffective in high winds, awkward when bushwhacking and impossible to use when climbing. My personal experience is that my chest get soaked in sweat from condensation (except with DriDucks) and my sides get damp from wind blown rain. I have tried ponchos four times for 6 month or longer. After each poncho experiment I switched back to a rain jacket. Drew Smith makes the case to use a Poncho when Backpacking. I will likely try ponchos again because it seems like it should work, and I would love to have raingear that could last the rest of my life.
- Umbrella: Some people like to use wind/water resistant jackets + umbrellas. Certainly very good ventilation. Winds or going off trail can pose significant challenges to the use of umbrellas. Some people have found ways to mount an umbrella on their packs so their hands are free. GoLite Chrome Dome umbrellas popularized using an umbrella for both rain and sun protection while backpacking. Several backpacking companies such as Six Moon Design and Gossamer Gear sell “Chrome Dome” type umbrellas today. If you use an umbrella, make sure it is sufficiently durable. Some of the best are made euroSchirm which is marketed under the brands such as Birdiepal and Swing Trek LiteFlex. I found the Montbell Trekking Umbrella has a decent balance between small/light and adequate canopy size to protect my upper body. Over the years I have tried to use an umbrella but it never stuck. It seems much of the time I encounter rain I am also experiencing strong winds which make managing the umbrella and maintaining coverage difficult.
Rain Shell Materials
There is a wide variety of materials used in rain shells. In a perfect world there would be materials which would prevent rain from entering but let you vent perspiration. This is the dream offered by waterproof / breathable (WP/B) materials. Alas, I have yet to see a WP/B material live up to their hype. The very best WP/B materials found in shipping products (eVENT DVL and Gore Shakedry) will be overwhelmed by extended aerobic activities but is up to lower activity levels. Many WP/B will be overwhelmed if you do much more than stand around. This is why many WP/B jackets have side or pit-zips which enable the wearer to vent heat and internal moisture when activity levels will overwhelm the materials ability to move the moisture. A survey of the breathability of 27 garments was recently published by Stephen Seeber found shells made from Shakedry to be the best (beating the MTVR of some wind shirts) and that the runners-up included the Marmot Precip Eco?!, OR Motive, MH Quasar Lite, and the ArcTeryx Beta AR which is the most durable jacket of the bunch.
Waterproof breathable jackets are breathable only so long as their DWR continues to function. Most forms of DWR “wet out” after a few hours in continuous rain, and many of the cheaper DWR breathable jackets wet out in less than an hour in continuous rain. The only WPB that doesn’t wet out is Shakedry and I have read Columbia’s Outdry Extreme mesh.
Basic use will degrade the DWR over time. Rough conditions such as bushwacking can significantly speed up this process. This is why you rarely see WP/B being used by people who work in very harsh conditions like the Alaskan bush, Australian outback, fishing trawlers, etc. You will typically find them using very durable non breathable waterproof materials, or they use something that keeps warm and mostly dry such as the modern military layering system using EPIC fabrics. There are some reports that the Columbia’s Outdry Extreme mesh might but up to the rigors of the Alaskan bush and be fairly breathable.
Common materials used in shells today ordered roughly by their breathability.
- Softshells: See my soft-shell post for more information about this approach. The use of soft shells was initially prompted by experienced climbers in the UK when facing cold, wet conditions while engaging in heavy work. These sorts of shells only make sense if you are wearing them continuously and working hard. If they are something you will be putting on only if it starts to rain, then you should go with a traditional rain shell which will be lighter weight and more waterproof. The classic British rain gear is Paramo.
- Gore Shakedry such as used in the Gore Gear R7 Shakedry Hooded Rain Jacket, ArcTeryx Norvan SL and Montbell Dry Peak. The Norvan SL (and later the Gore Gear R7) were the first rain shells I have found that are almost as breathable as an unlined windshell. Unfortunately the material is not rated for abrasive activities, so it’s not recommended for backpacking, climbing, going off trail, etc. I have used it for on-trail backpacking trips, hiking, trail running and cycling. After a two years of continuous use I have a number of pinpoint holes in the shoulders but so far I haven’t experienced any leaking. While I can overwhelm it’s ability to move moisture, it’s ability to clear out the moisture once my activity level drops has really impressed me. The Norvan SL had a design flaw which results in leakage through the zipper which the Gore Gear R7 doesn’t have. The Gore H5 Jacket uses a more durable form of Shakedry and Gore states it would be durable enough for light backpacking, but “H” jackets made from shakedry are not consistently in production. If you want one of these Shakedry jackets purchase it as soon as you see it, because Gore will drop it from the line up in 2023 🙁
- Polartec NeoShell?: Polartec claim’s it’s around twice a breathable as eVENT. I have no experience with it. The people I know who have used it say when it’s dry outside it works well, but in a rain rainstorm it becomes much less breathable and wets out quickly. I would recommend skipping this material.
- eVENT: used to be my favorite WP/B material, especially eVENT DVL until I used Shakedry. I used a Westcomb Focus LT Jacket for several years. I found that eVENT to be more comfortable than Gore-Tex PacLite, Propore, or any other PU shell I tried, but it wasn’t the miracle I had hoped. In particular, I found that when engaged in heavy work, I still need pit zips (which it doesn’t have) to avoid internal condensation. That said, I found that when my activity level dropped that the moisture was able to dissipate. I found I was equally comfortable in a jacket made from eVENT DVL without pit zips as I was wearing lesser breathable jackets that did have pit-zips. eVENT has not been innovating and is falling behind Gore. We can hope they will recover now that they have been spun back out of GE.
- Microporous polypropylene WPB nonwoven fabric (Propore): Strickly speaking Propore is a specific formulation… but I going to use it as a generic term in this paragraph to save space. Propore is the cheapest water proof breathable material available today. In it’s lightest form it is also very breathable and doesn’t wet out. I have been more comfortable wearing a light Propore jacket in warm weather than a 40 denier eVENT shell and have experience wet clothing dry while being worn under a Propore Jacket. The first rain suit I discovered using the material was the Rain Shield O2, which I believe uses the lightest weight Propore manufactured. You can get a complete Dri Ducks Ultralite (jacket and pants, 11oz) for less than $20! There are also the slightly heavier, more durable, less breathable, more expensive Frogg Toggs. The down sides of Propore garments? First, the fabric is very flimsy. They are not appropriate for abrasive conditions: climbing and off-trail travel through shrub country is right out, though they have been fine cross country in relatively open conditions. Some people wear wind shells over their Propore rain gear to protect against rips. My Rainshield O2 jacket had several locations it had worn through after just 100 hours of use. With the aid of duct tape patches I was able to keep the garment alive for a couple calendar years. An odd place I see the fabric wear out is around the wrists. Another issue with Propore rain gear is that the cut tends to be awful: the DriDucks tend to be huge, with the Rainshield O2 cut too tight with uncomfortable seams.
- Zpacks Vertice and EE Visp are reported by some to be as breathable as anything on the market. Some of the numbers look better than eVENT but I found eVENT DVL seemed more breathable in the field and was more durable. That said, the Visp has an option of pit zips. Downside with both is the DWR isn’t the most durable, expect to need to refresh often.
- Gore-Tex Pro/PacLite/Standard: For the last twenty years, Gore-Tex Waterproof/Breathable (WPB) rain gear has been successfully marketed as the gold standard for outdoor activities in the USA. In theory Gore-Tex keeps the rain off you, but “breaths” so your perspiration escapes. Alas, if you are engaged in aerobic actives, you will find that Gore-Tex does not breath enough and you will likely get soaked in sweat. Gore Pro is the most durable version of Gore-Tex and surprisingly more breathable than PacLite. On the other hand PacLite is often bonded to lighter materials, so it can seem more comfortable and PacLites seem to buffer moisture well, so if you engage in brief aerobic activities, you are likely not to notice you have briefly overwhelmed PacLite’s ability to move moisture. I can’t imagine purchasing a Gore-Tex Classic jacket these days since there are a number of PU based jackets which are as breathable and less expensive.
- North Face’s new FutureLight… no personal experience, but others with lab equipment found it not as breathable as eVENT, but provided solid performance.
- Air Permeable PU: Some versions of Toray’s Entrant, Pertex Shield, and related materials like Montbell BreezeTec has some air permeability and are able to directly vent water vapor rather that requiring the vapor to condense and then be transported out. While not as breathable as eVENT, these materials are noticeably better than the earlier PU garments. Not only are they more breathable, but they tend to feel less clammy if you happen to have the material directly against your skin. Reports about the MemBrain Strata claim breathability similar to Montbell’s BreezeTech while being lighter and more durable, but I haven’t seen detail analysis which bears this claim out.
- Columbia Outdry Extreme is immune to wet out which makes it better than the typical WPB material. While the numbers look good, I didn’t find it as breathable / comfortable an the materials listed above. After using it for a season I switched back to materials above. Outdry Extreme mesh is reported almost twice as breathable as the version I tried several years ago so might be approaching Gore-Tex Pro.
- PU Coated Jackets: Most WP/B jackets that aren’t branded as GoreTex or eVENT are PU. The biggest issue with PU jackets is that water vapor has to condense before being transported across the material. This limits the speed the moisture can be move, makes the jacket feel a bit clammy, and when facing severe cold the water can end up such inside as frost because it freezes more quickly than it can be transported. Marmot PreClip which historically has been one of the better values when you factor price (<$100), design (includes features such as as pit zips and a good hood), quality (like fully taped seams), and reasonably light weight (~12 oz). The downside of the less expensive Marmot jackets is that the DWR is so/so… after a number of hours in hard rain they tend to wet out. Most PU coated jackets are not as breathable as Gore-Tex and can be easily overwhelmed by aerobic actives.
- Non-Breathable Waterproof (NBWP) Jackets: Can be quite inexpensive, durable, and very light. You don’t have to worry about water coming through, but condensation, especially if you are engaged in aerobic activities can soak you in sweat. Heavy duty NBWP Jackets are sold to boaters. Light weight are typically produced by cottage gear manufacturers since it’s a nitch market (Gore Tex Marketting machine has convinced everyone that waterproof breathable is a requirement). For example: antigravitygear and light heart gear.
More Info / Details
The Rain Jacket Guide at backpackers.com is a good overview of rain gear. Alan’s Best Durable Light Weight Rain Jackets is a nice summary of a number of high quality, light weight jackets currently on the market.
I strongly agree with the BPL article Why You Should Spend a Few Ounces of Pack Weight on Rainwear Ventilation Features. In the last several years I have used rain shells which didn’t have pit-zips or venting pockets. This was not because I was trying to save weight, but that fabrics I wanted to use (Shakedry for example) was not available with better venting options from the manufacturers. I found that some fabrics performance in jacket which lacked venting options were superior to lesser fabrics which could vent. I only recently realized I could have the best of both worlds (best fabric + venting) by adding pit-zips to an existing jacket.
There is an interesting podcast on BPL about measuring waterproof breathable fabrics. Roger Caffin from down under has written a nice but now somewhat dated Rainwear FAQ. There is a nice article by Richard Nisley called A New Paradigm for Understanding WPB Fabrics with a corresponding thread which discussed the article. Patagonia wrote a nice article entitled What is Percent of Naked? which describes a way to characterize shells which captures both wind permeability and water vapor transmission. A study found that air permeability was a better predictor of comfort than vapor transmission rates. Andrew Skurka wrote an article Breathability: It’s Mechanism and Limitations. There is a nice article by Patagonia about the History of their Raingear.
Some material which is dated but still interesting includes articles from BPL about Waterproof Breathable Fabric Technologies , ORWM 2011 new WPB fabric technologies, and High Exertion Moisture Accumulation. I found the Breathability Graphs and Temperature Dependent Water Vapor Diffusion from the Soldier Systems Center to be interesting.
The cheapest rain gear for short periods of rain are those cheap ($1) and light weight (2 ounces) plastic emergency ponchos or a plastic garbage bag with a hole cut in the bottom. You can also find more durable ponchos made from thin PVC for around $3 (weights around 8oz) at hardware or outdoor stores. The cheapest water proof breathable option I know of are Dri Ducks which are less $30 for jacket and pants (sometimes $20 from Amazon)