What To Look For In Quality Rain Gear
When the weather turns wet, you may be wondering what to look for in a quality rain jacket.
But if product descriptions riddled with technical jargon have you stumped and struggling to decipher the difference between eVent, DryVent and underarm vents, we’re here to help. We’ve assembled a quick guide to understanding the anatomy of a rain jacket to demystify some of those scary technical terms.
With a little help, you’ll know your storm flaps from your stash pockets and Gore-Tex from Omni-tech in no time. Raincoats come with lots of bells and whistles, but depending on your needs, some might be more important than others.
One of the most basic decisions you have to make is how your jacket is built. Here are a few of the basic terms you’ll need to know before clicking “add to cart.”
While “shell” can be a general term for the outermost layer of clothing (rain pants, for example), you’ll encounter it most in describing jackets. The commonly stiffer fabrics of hard shell jackets are designed to withstand severe weather events, like prolonged exposure to snow, sleet and rain, and are often worn a size or two larger to accommodate a range of base layers.
These thin but sturdy jackets are usually waterproof, and depending on the fabric technology (more on that later), can provide breathability for active users. Hard shells also offer the highest level of wind protection.
Soft shell jackets are commonly water resistant, but not fully waterproof or windproof. They can be lightweight and packable — something you keep handy in case an afternoon shower comes your way — or lined with fleece or other cozy material to eliminate the need for a base layer.
Soft shells are versatile, functioning as an outer layer in mild weather or a mid-layer under a hard shell in colder conditions. Whether they’re a thin windbreaker-type jacket or something more substantial, soft shells alone aren’t designed for intense storms.
Some rain jackets come with built-in winter linings, but many are lightweight and lined only with mesh or a bonded barrier material — thus the name shell. This leaves you free to customize your base and mid layers according to conditions and peel off or add another if the skies change.
No matter how great the technology, all zippers have tiny spaces between the teeth that allow water to seep through. Jackets with an exposed zipper advertise them as “leak resistant” but not entirely “leak proof.” These zippers tend to perform well for short-term exposure. The tried and true system of placing a storm flap over the zipper will provide the most reliable protection, but with it comes some bulk. These are usually panels of fabric that button or Velcro in place.
Alongside zippers, seams are a top source of rain jacket leaks. You’ll read several different terms, like welded, bonded and taped, to describe methods of sealing seams. While the processes may vary slightly, the outcome is generally the same: fewer leaking seams. Sometimes, manufacturers only treat the shoulders and other major seams, so keep an eye out for jackets with fully taped seams if you need the highest level of protection.
Style and function
This one’s pretty simple — do you want to carry an umbrella or use a hands-free mechanism for keeping raindrops off your head? Trenches and other hoodless raincoat styles are fashionable, and great for urban commuters who happen to have a free hand.
However, if you need to keep your hands free for climbing, biking, or carrying groceries, opt for a raincoat with a hood. Some technical outdoor brands offer hoods that fit over a helmet and cinch down in the wind.
New fabric technologies make rain gear more breathable than ever, but there’s nothing quite like opening an underarm vent and letting those steamy pits get some fresh air. If you plan on running, hiking or otherwise breaking a sweat, look for a jacket that comes with some natural air conditioning under the arm or via mesh-lined hand pockets.
Some of the lighter rain jackets on the market emphasize their packability. Whether it’s a jacket that stuffs into a stash pocket or takes up less space in your bag, fabric weight and volume may play a role in choosing a jacket that you carry with you but don’t need to wear all day.
Zippers, taped seams, linings and hoods add to the overall bulk of the garment. Weigh your options and intended use when selecting a jacket; perhaps trading truly waterproof properties for something lightweight, free-moving and water resistant fits your needs best.
DWR, or Durable Water Repellant, is a broad term for a fabric coating that makes the jacket waterproof or water resistant. The purpose of DWR coating is to shed water by causing it to bead up and fly off instead of soaking your clothes. But ultimately, the difference between waterproof and water resistant lies in a combination of factors, including the jacket’s base fabric. DWR coatings do wear off with use and laundering over time but can be reapplied as needed.
eVent is a system designed to release body heat through tiny pores in the jacket while repelling water. Unlike similar systems that employ polyurethane, eVent membranes don’t have to be wet to release water vapor (sweat). Thus, your body remains in a steady state of temperature and humidity, known as the “dry zone.”
DryVent fabrics are made of a polyurethane membrane fused to one or multiple layers of material. It, too, touts breathable qualities and is used in jackets of varying weights and applications. Many products from The North Face incorporate DryVent technology.
Gore-Tex is one of the most familiar names in the rainwear field. Its technology employs ePTFE, the same type of polymer used in Teflon. This hydrophobic and breathable membrane is then sandwiched between layers of fabric. It’s utilized by many of the top outdoor brands in rain gear and footwear. Products containing Gore-Tex tend to be more expensive than other technologies, but they have a very loyal following.
Omni-Tech is a proprietary fabric technology used by Columbia Sportswear that repels water as well as stains, thanks to its Omni-Shield coating. Omni-Tech garments are breathable and great for everyday use, but generally not designed for sweaty, high-intensity workouts.
Layers and laminates
Many rain jackets at an entry-level price point will be two-ply, which equates to a layer of polyurethane or other water-repelling coatings on a layer of tightly woven face fabric. They often have a loosely attached mesh lining to help keep that rubbery surface from catching on your base layers or directly touching your bare skin, but since it’s a separate piece of fabric, it doesn’t count as a layer or ply.
A 2.5 ply rain jacket has pretty similar materials as the two-layer: a coating on a face fabric. However, the “half layer” tends to trip people up. Instead of adding another coat on the entire surface, the half layer gets applied in a dot or grid pattern inside of the jacket. This functions somewhat like a lining by keeping the jacket’s inner surface off your skin and makes the jacket lighter and more packable than one with a traditional, sewn-in liner.
Shells made from three layers are often considered the highest level of wind and rain protection. These can be used alone or with a layering strategy for skiing, mountaineering and other prolonged outdoor activities. While the tech varies between manufacturers, a three-layer rain jacket generally has a breathable waterproof membrane sandwiched between a face fabric and an inner fabric. These three components are bonded or laminated to feel like a single unit.
Your activity type and location will dictate the kind of jacket that suits you best. Breathability, adjustable cuffs, drawstrings and hoods might be vital if you’re cycling or hitting the mountains, but less so for your daily commute.
You may want a minimal style for that rain-or-shine morning run, and something fashion-forward to pair with evening wear. Or you might invest in a shell you can wear with base layers and carry into several seasons.
Hopefully, we’ve taken some of the intimidation out of shopping for a rain jacket so that you can stay dry and in style.