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Geartrade: The Rain Jacket Guide 

If you’ve ever been caught out in a storm while hiking, biking, or running, you know the awful deep chill that ensues. Your skin and hair get wet, your clothes get soaked, and your body immediately starts losing heat—fast. It’s uncomfortable at best, and it’s downright dangerous if you’re in a remote place without a way to warm up fast.

It’s why the simple little rain jacket is a mandatory staple in any backpack, especially if you frequently recreate in a rainy place. (Or if, like this post’s author, you once trail-ran up the highest peak in Scotland without a waterproof jacket and encountered a disastrous fire-hose of rain blowing at 70mph and subsequent hypothermia. The incident is filed under “stupid mistakes that won’t be made twice.”)

What the labels and ratings mean. 

It’s hard to choose a good rain jacket if you’re not familiar with the terms thrown around in their product descriptions. So here’s a quick rain jacket glossary for you:

  • Waterproof vs. water-resistant: This is an important distinction! If you’re only expecting a light drizzle, you can get by with a water-resistant jacket (which may pack down a bit smaller and weigh less--like a windbreaker, for instance). But if rain might be heavy (and especially if it’s chilly out) you need to choose a jacket touted as waterproof.

  • Waterproof and breathable: A jacket that’s both waterproof and breathable will let perspiration escape through the fabric while also keeping water out of it. (This is possible because perspiration vapor molecules and rainwater droplets are different sizes, so a nice waterproof jacket’s membrane can act as a filter, releasing vapor while blocking raindrops.) If you’re choosing a rain jacket for outdoor pursuits, a rain jacket that’s breathable is important. Go ahead and skip the plastic trash-bag poncho your dad made you take to camp.

  • Durable water repellent (DWR): Many outerwear brands put a coating of Durable Water Repellent on the exterior of their waterproof rain jackets for good measure. This helps the waterproof-breathable membrane do its job ushering vapor out, with the added bonus that the jacket’s exterior fabric face won’t saturate, which makes the jacket colder for the wearer. Instead, rain will bead up in drops and roll off.

  • Layers of fabric around the membrane: Many brands describe their waterproof jackets as “2-layer,” “2.5-layer,” or “3-layer.” This refers to the way their waterproof membrane is sandwiched into the jacket’s fabric layers.A three-layer waterproof jacket is the most rugged: it features an exterior fabric, a waterproof membrane, and an interior liner fabric that sits on top of the membrane.A two-layer waterproof jacket also has a face fabric and membrane inside it, but instead of an interior liner fabric that’s “wallpapered” onto the membrane, the liner is loose-hanging inside the jacket. This performs reasonably well and typically costs less than a three-layer jacket.Finally, a 2.5-layer jacket refers to a fabric exterior that’s had a waterproof coating or laminate directly applied to its inside. The result isn’t quite as waterproof and breathable as two- or three-layer jackets are.

  • Stuffability: It’s extremely handy if your jacket packs down small. Its product description will typically mention if it does, and whether it is snazzy enough to pack down into a little stuff sack. Then, you can keep it in your pack or bag for whenever it’s needed.

  • Seams and zippers: The nicest waterproof jackets have “taped” seams, meaning even the seams have a special membrane tape sealing them off from water. They should also have coated (or laminated) zippers, keeping water from seeping in there too.

About waterproof ratings. 

Most folks agree the top standard for waterproofing is set by the Gore-Tex brand. Many other brands offer their own versions of the technology—with some being much better than others. The North Face calls theirs DryVent, while Patagonia offers H2No, Marmot uses NanoPro, and so on.

How do you tell how they stack up? The manufacturers should all list somewhere what rating their membrane is—which is to say how much water the membrane can withstand before water starts seeping in. The rating is usually given in units of thousands of millimeters—which tells you how deep a column of water could sit on top of it before it leaks. Higher rating numbers are better (especially if you’re gonna take that sucker out in a heavy or prolonged storm).

GoreTex is typically considered to be 25,000+mm in its waterproofing. This tops the brands on the market. Many other brands’ proprietary membranes are good too, and many actually offer shell jackets that use Gore-Tex in addition to jackets that use their own in-house version. Typically, the Gore-Tex jackets will cost most.

As a broad rule of thumb, you want a waterproof rating over 20,000mm for a heavy, wet storm. Something between 10,000-20,000mm will probably be adequate for light to moderate rain. Something under 10,000mm of waterproofing will probably only protect you in a gentle drizzle. (I.e., don’t take it to Scotland.)

Little matters of preference. 

Now that you know what a jacket’s features and ratings mean, you can make your own decision about the subjective stuff. Where do you like having pockets? How many pockets are needed? (Remember, each adds weight and bulk.) Do you want a hood that’s roomy enough to fit over a helmet? Do you want underarm zippers (“pit zips”) to get a little bonus airflow going when you’re hot? And lastly (but not least-ly), which brands make a jacket you like the looks of?

Fortunately, at the moment, we have plenty of rain jackets gently used (and even unused) here on, just in time for spring. Hop on and give ‘em a look. If you haven’t updated your rain jacket in a hot minute, now’s your moment.

Women's Rain Jackets
Men's Rain Jackets

Beth Lopez is a seasoned writer and creative director who loves to tell tales of adventure and discovery—and finds writing a powerful way to give a voice to people, causes, and places. Beth runs amok in the Wasatch mountains when untethered from her computer. She believes there’s no such thing as a bad ski day and considers animals her favorite people. Don’t tell her mother about her Instagram mountaineering photos.