The rainwear industry has come a long way, changing every bit of technology that goes into making a great raincoat, right down to the fabric. With the blessing of choice comes the curse of making a decision. Where once it was easy to grab the only option out there, now we must wade through a sea of the latest innovations and proprietary technologies that are impossible to compare just by reading about them, all in an attempt to figure out if that impressive, snazzy jacket is really worth the dough.
You can easily spend upwards of $300 on a jacket that fits in the palm of your hand and will keep you dry all day but that doesn't necessarily mean it the best choice for you and your rainy outdoor pursuits. But before you give up and buy the cheapest option out there, let us help. We start by figuring out what sort of jacket you need for your adventures, whether that be strolling around the city or heading out on a climbing pursuit.
Types of WaterPROOF Jackets
There are two main types of waterproof jackets or shells: a hardshell and a rain shell. Both types serve roughly the same purpose, but there are some key differences: price and durability.
we have a Women's Hardshell review.
The Rain Jacket
Types of Water RESISTANT Jackets
Perhaps this is all too much. After all, a waterproof layer will always involve some level of breathability sacrifice. If you live in a dry climate and don't often find yourself in much more than a light shower here and there, a waterproof layer may be overkill. Some other options still do a pretty good job of protecting you against a small amount of precipitation but are more comfortable and much more breathable than most waterproof layers.
we have a Women's Softshell review.
take a look at our Women's Windbreaker review.
So You Want a Rain Jacket
Great! Now that you know you're in the right place, there's still a sea of choices to swim through. One of the most basic options of a raincoat is the number of layers it's made of. But what does that even mean? Let us break it down for you:
On the lower cost side of the rain shell spectrum is the 3-layer rain jacket. These ones are easy to pick out of a lineup, as they typically have a mesh lining inside to ensure the water repellency/breathability of the outer "face" fabric (the liner keeps the plastic from touching your skin and aids in air circulation for breathability). While certainly still a very breathable design (because we define breathability as a garment's capacity to expel excess vapor from sweating), many users find this design to feel too heavy, bulky, and generally too "warm" of a design for highly aerobic activities, not to mention the roughness of the mesh fabric, which can cause chafing or general discomfort. A 3-layer design is also a good option if the jacket is likely to spend 360 days of the year in your closet or if you are just exploring a new outdoor activity and can't justify the expense of a lighter-weight model—and you don't intend to carry it around in a backpack for a week in the mountains. This design was the original waterproof/breathable balance innovation, and it still holds its own in a category filled with flashy new textile technologies.
The next level up is perhaps the most innovative and rapidly evolving style: the 2/2.5-layer rain shell. This technology first came out in the mid-90s when Gore-Tex introduced its Paclite technology. Today, most lightweight rain jackets use 2/2.5-layer technology, cutting down on fabric, and thus, opportunities for design failure/wear. Appropriately, the majority of jackets in our review are 2/2.5-layer jackets, since this stands at the leading edge of rain jacket technology, and we chose from among the best. The waterproof/breathable face fabric is essentially the same as the 3-layer design, but the mesh has been replaced by a printed or sprayed-on partial protective layer--considered a half-layer. This is where you will find the most competition between companies trying to make the lightest, most breathable options for consumers. Generally, these types of jackets tend to be the lightest and most packable (since they ditch the mesh liner), so for those concerned about weight and function, this is your category. They often proved more comfortable, as they won't bunch or chafe for longer trips. Choosing between a 3-layer and a 2/2.5 layer may just make the difference between loving the great outdoors and cursing the soggy wilderness.
Within the 2/2.5 layer rain shells, there is a further distinction: jackets with laminates and those with coatings. A laminate is often metaphorically described as wallpaper on a wall, and coatings as paint on a wall. Coatings are much less expensive, but laminates are more durable, breathable, and lighter weight.
Diving into even more detail, both laminates and coatings utilize one of two methods to allow sweat to diffuse out of a rain jacket. One way, which seems the most obvious, is through micropores that let water vapor out, but don't allow water droplets in. This technology must have taken a ton of R&D, but the technology seems to work to some degree. The second way is through adsorption-diffusion-desorption: essentially, the jacket absorbs the water vapor and uses the laws of physics and chemistry to wick it away from your body and outside of the jacket.
The reason why you should know about these different technologies is that they can affect our layering strategies. Jackets with micropores are much more breathable and permeable to wind, so you will want to add an extra layer of protection underneath. Other fabric technologies can create stuffiness, so a wicking fabric or fabric that adds breathability is great for a base layer.
How to Choose the Right Jacket
Now that you have an understanding of the products and technologies available, the next step is to figure out which product best matches your needs. As a consumer, to be sure you select the right jacket for you and avoid wasting time and money, it is important to be totally honest with yourself about your specific rainwear needs/wants/desires/wishes. Then, you should review the scoring metrics in this review and select a jacket that suits your needs and expectations.
Will you consistently be trudging through stormy weather, or is your rain shell an emergency-only piece that will live in the bottom of your backpack or messenger bag for occasional day hikes? For the avid outdoorswoman, perhaps the most important aspect to consider is how often you will wear the jacket versus how often you will carry it in your backpack. This will likely affect your price range first, after which you will want to consider pack size and durability.
If you're constantly out hiking, biking, and traveling in the rain, you may want to consider a more durable option that will last through the years. If you're looking for an emergencies-only layer that doesn't take up too much space in your pack, you may consider an ultralight option. Perhaps you need a super versatile jacket that looks as good in the park as the office and doesn't sacrifice comfort for functionality.
What is your surrounding climate? Is your home range the Sierra Nevada or the Pacific Northwest? Perhaps it is Appalachia, or the Gulf Coast, or maybe the Rocky Mountains. This will determine the importance of durability and waterproof metrics. If it rains a lot in your outdoor pursuits, then you don't want to skimp on the waterproof factor, make sure to look for an option that's great in heavy downpours. But if rain is infrequent and less consequential to your goals, ambition, and happiness, perhaps you will derive more satisfaction from a jacket that performs in a pinch but doesn't feel like a brick in the bottom of your pack. For this, you may consider the weight and packability or even look for an all-around value option, since you won't be using it too often.
How about your level of activity? Do you want a jacket that will keep up with you on speed ascents in the mountains? A thinner jacket will feel better overall for high aerobic output activities if you are moving fast, as it means there is less material through which your body has to pump excess heat. A jacket with great ventilation features may also be your best friend here. Maybe short, leisurely strolls even in the rain fit your style more, or you tend to find yourself braving a cold rain more often than not. In that case, breathability matters less and might even work against your ability to keep yourself warm.
Cycling and bike commuting offers particular challenges to your rain jacket selection. Moving forward at high speeds means the rain will really be pelting you, so waterproofness is important. But it also creates particular challenges for breathability. You don't want vents that open wide to let water in, but you will want a jacket that can dump heat fast on that unexpected hill around the corner. And, if you are actively pursuing your flights of fancy, you need to be able to move freely, making flexibility, fit, and comfort, primary factors in selecting the right rain shell.
Some outdoor adventurers don't care how they look. Functionality is all that matters. But, to others, appearance is a factor, and while all of the jackets rank within a similar range in looks (because functionality factors in first when designing a rain shell), there is some variation. Depending on if you like bright colors and bold patterns or favor a fitted shape and classic shade, there's a rain jacket for that.
It is hard to justify spending a few hundred dollars on a piece of clothing you might only wear a few times. On the flip side, if you find yourself pursuing your outdoor activities more often than not, you might just be willing to invest in a piece of equipment that will prove trustworthy and loyal through all types of conditions. But if you fall somewhere in between, as most people do, that's where the choosing gets tough. The best approach is, first, to list your priorities and uses for the jacket.
Next, think of any good or bad experiences you've had with previous rain jackets. Then reflect a little on these uses and experiences and rate the importance of each component of a rain jacket for you (our scoring metrics provide a handy list you can use). Leave price for last; don't ignore it, just look at it last. In the long run, for a layer that can make or break an outing you've been looking forward to all year, it might be worth the extra cash to invest in a jacket that will keep you dry without causing you discomfort or weighing you down.
Don't Let it Die!
No matter what rain jacket you ultimately decide is right for you, they all need upkeep to continue protecting you from the wet. Unless you plan on wearing a literal plastic bag, every option you choose needs careful care to continue keeping you dry. And for something you could spend hundreds of dollars on, it's important to pay attention to this upkeep regiment. From reapplying a DWR coating in your washing machine, sending it through the drier to reactivate coatings or periodically retaping seams, each jacket has its own specific tips and tricks to keep it working for as long as possible. Whatever coat you decide on, be sure to read the label and follow those directions unless you want to end up with a rain jacket that doesn't keep you dry.
In the end, buying a raincoat is a very personal choice, but this review should help you wade through the flood of information and zero in on the jacket that will keep you dry and motivated, even when good old Mother Nature decides to literally rain on your parade.