Backroads trip leaders in Alaska have a saying: there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad gear. So, if you’re properly prepared with the right gear, adventuring in inclement weather—wind, rain or snow—can result in some of the most memorable outdoor experiences you’ll ever have. No self-respecting guide ever leaves home without a rain or shell jacket. It might just be the most important layer in the layering system because it’s your first line of defense against the elements, which is why choosing the right one is so important.
Below is a guide to choosing a high-quality rain jacket that’ll suit your needs. It even includes an explanation of what all that “tech talk” means so you can speak the language too!
What is a Rain Jacket, or Shell Jacket?
It’s best to think of a rain jacket as a protective “shell.” It’s your outermost layer—the one intended to protect you from the elements no matter what outdoor activity you’re pursing. This is the layer you should never leave home without.
Features of a Versatile and Functional Shell Jacket
No insulation: Usually a shell jacket has no insulating properties, which is why it’s important to be used with the layering system. Done properly, the layering system allows you to stay comfortable when outside. Imagine it’s about to storm on a warm summer day, but the temperature is supposed to drop in the evening, meaning you don’t want to get wet. On this trip, all you have is a heavy ski jacket that’s waterproof and insulated. Wearing that means you’ll probably end up sweating, and you’ll still be wet at the end of the day. That’s no good! A high-quality rain jacket without insulation (used within a proper layering system) would help you avoid this issue. The less insulation, the more versatile the layer is going to be, and don’t forget you can always add a light layer to increase warmth.
Backroads Pro Tip
Most people trying on rain jackets feel the fabric and think, This isn’t going to be warm. Remember, though, the shell jacket isn’t designed for insulation; it’s designed for protection from the elements. This, in turn, keeps you warmer.
Breathability: Every good shell jacket needs to be breathable. If you’re wondering if something can be breathable and waterproof, here’s your answer: absolutely! It might sound counterintuitive, but most modern shell jackets allow moisture (sweat) to escape your jacket while keeping rain from getting in. If you don’t have a breathable jacket, you’ll sweat out your other layers, which means you’ll still ultimately be wet. Breathability is one of the most important features of a rain jacket. If you’ve ever thought your rain jacket wasn’t working because you were getting wet, it might not have been rain getting in but sweat failing to escape. The trade-off for more breathability is less durability.
Backroads Pro Tip
Water conducts heat away from your body 25 times more efficiently than air. This means wearing wet layers can rob your body of valuable warmth very quickly. Keep this in mind when shopping for foul-weather gear!
Tech Talk: A Basic Explanation of Rain Jacket Technology
Not all shell jackets are made equal, and the available selection might initially seem overwhelming. To narrow the field, start by considering what types of activities you typically engage in, what level of protection you desire and what kind of durability and features would work best for your needs.
Waterproof Versus Water Resistant
Water Resistant: Water-resistant jackets come in many forms and varying degrees of resistance. Be careful not to confuse water resistant with waterproof. A water-resistant jacket is usually OK for light rain but shouldn’t be expected to keep you dry in prolonged wet conditions. This category of jacket is preferable when traveling in drier climates where the chance of heavy rain is slim. A big advantage of water-resistant jackets is they typically breathe better, meaning you’re less likely to get soaked from perspiration. These types of jackets are great for close-to-home adventures, such as short runs, rides or hikes. One excellent example is the Patagonia Houdini jacket.
Waterproof: There’s no substitute for a quality waterproof jacket, especially when you find yourself in a serious storm or on longer trips in the wilderness. If you’re facing the elements, where your safety and comfort are essential, it’s best to leave the water-resistant jacket at home. If you’re buying from reputable companies (Patagonia, Marmot, Arc’teryx or any other brands sold at quality retailers), a jacket won’t be marked “waterproof” unless it actually is.
Backroads Pro Tip
Look at the seams of any jacket, and you can generally tell if it was designed to be waterproof or not. The seams are typically the weak point (where it will leak), so if there’s a small strip of tape over those seams, you can safely assume the designers intended for the jacket to keep moisture out!
Waterproofing Explained: Why Some Jackets are Superior to Others
Jackets are made waterproof in two ways. Companies will either include a “laminate” fabric inside (think Gore-Tex or OutDry), or they’ll design the jacket with a waterproof coating. All quality waterproof jackets will be labeled as waterproof, will be seam taped and will be breathable. They will also have an additional coating of DWR (durable water repellent) on the outer fabric. This is what makes water bead up and run off your jacket. Regardless of which jacket you purchase, applying DWR as part of regular maintenance will be important.
Laminate Jackets: Superior in protection, breathability and durability. Good for recreational to professional users. Don’t let the price scare you away. Even cheaper laminate jackets (most anything with Gore-Tex) will outlast any coated jacket. If you find yourself in the outdoors often, this’ll likely be the best option for you. A quality laminate waterproof shell jacket is a very versatile layer that can be used for rain, snow or a variety of tough elements. Price range: $200–$600.
Coated Jackets: Good protection, limited breathability and limited durability. Good for recreational users who generally don’t embark on extended excursions far from home or for the “once in a while” hiker or bicyclist. Price range: $100–$200.
Types of Shells
Beyond waterproof and water-resistant properties, rain jackets also have different types of designs. These are suited to a variety of outdoor activities.
Hard Shell Jackets: This type of jacket is generally the most waterproof and provides the most protection from the elements. It’s typically lighter and has no insulation. If you only want one shell jacket, this is the one to purchase.
Soft Shell Jackets: This type of jacket is more specialized and is generally more breathable than a hard shell, but it’s usually only water resistant—not waterproof. Soft shells are also designed to have more stretch to them since they’re generally used for high-output activities, such as climbing and skiing (where breathability and mobility are essential). This jacket doesn’t often act as a substitute for a hard shell.
What to Know about Laminate Layers
When choosing a good rain shell, it’s important to know the differences between laminate layers.
3 Layer: Three-layer jackets are often the most expensive rain jackets, but they offer the best protection against the elements while remaining very breathable. These jackets are great for skiing or mountaineering.
2.5 Layer: Providing about the same amount of protection as a three-layer jacket, 2.5-layer jackets don’t boast moisture-transferring properties on par with three-layer jackets.
2 Layer: Comprised of a single swath of fabric, two-layer rain jackets are preferred for less robust conditions. (Think less hiking and more walking around a city.)
Beyond waterproofing, shells and layers, there are other considerations when choosing your perfect jacket:
- Fit. Remember, you’ll normally be wearing additional layers underneath, so be sure to allow room for this—particularly if you plan to use the jacket in cold-weather conditions.
- Adjustability. Jackets that allow you to tighten cuffs, hoods and the baseline will help keep you warm and the elements out.
- Packability. Planning on traveling light? A bulky jacket takes up a lot of space in a pack, whereas an ultralight jacket can be packed into its own pocket and takes up about as much space as an avocado. Choose the right size and packability for the excursions you’ll be taking.
- Venting. While vents in the armpits, back and elsewhere might slightly reduce total water protection, they can make a huge difference for breathability and comfort. If you’re a person who runs hot and values breathability, keep this feature in mind.
Other Forms of Protection
Beyond rain jackets, there are other ways to protect yourself from the elements. Consider also packing a rain hat, waterproof shoes, waterproof cases for your phone and other electronics and, perhaps most importantly, a rain cover for your pack and other belongings.