Reviews You Can Rely On

How to Choose Rain Pants

How to Choose Rain Pants
The Foray Pant by Outdoor Research offered some of the better freedom of moment among rain pants on the market. It doesn't feature stretchy fabric like a handful of other models on the market, but does feature superb articulation and a mobility-oriented design.
Credit: Ian Nicholson
By Ian Nicholson ⋅ Review Editor
Saturday September 21, 2019
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A pair of pants that keep you dry when the skies open up is one of the earliest pieces of outdoor equipment that an aspiring outdoor enthusiast can purchase. The primary reason for this waterproof layer it to keep its wearer dry for hours, and potentially days on end, should a storm roll in or the wind starts to howl. The models we reviewed span from our favorite budget-oriented weather protection to the best-of-the-best higher-end models. We've also included lightweight, compact models for climbing, long-distance backpacking, and trail running. Whether you are searching for your first pair of shell pants, a modern replacement, an old favorite, or an ultralight pair to add to your quiver, we've found something for you.

Waterproof Breathable Fabrics 101

There is a lot of challenging terminology when it comes to waterproof/breathable fabrics, and it can be difficult to determine which construction method is best for you. The following information is basic yet valuable information that will aid in making an educated purchase.

rain pants - when you first start looking at waterproof garments, all the terms...
When you first start looking at waterproof garments, all the terms describing construction and materials can be confusing. We try to break it down here in a simple way to help you make a more informed discussion.
Credit: Ian Nicholson

Construction 101: 2, 2.5, and 3-layer Fabrics

If you read about waterproof breathable fabrics or rainwear in general, you may have heard that they can be constructed using 2, 2.5, and 3-layer designs, with each offering their own subtle advantages. Most rain pants we tested use 2.5 or 3-layer designs, even if they all look like a single layer of fabric when you grab them off the rack at the store. You might wonder why it looks like one layer, even if it's labeled as 2.5 or 3; this is because the layers are tightly bonded together to function as one. This is true of both 2.5 or 3-layer designs (appearing as one layer), with 2-layer designs featuring an interior hanging mesh of some kind.

rain pants - both 2.5 and 3 layer fabrics might feel the same in the store. they...
Both 2.5 and 3 layer fabrics might feel the same in the store. They share many characteristics and design qualities, with the primary difference coming from the inner most piece of material.
Credit: Ian Nicholson

Regardless if it's a 2, 2.5, or 3-layer material, these designs multilayered fabrics share the majority of their construction qualities. The primary difference comes on the innermost side of the garment. Similarities start with all three design styles, which feature an outer shell fabric, commonly referred to as a face fabric. This face fabric is coated with a chemical Durable Water Repellent finish, also known as DWR. DWR helps keep the exterior layer from absorbing water.

Then middle or "Second layer" is the actual waterproof layer, whether that be Gore-Tex, a proprietary laminated membrane, or even a coated membrane (not to be confused with a DWR coating). Regardless of the design or the number of layers, the waterproof layer is universally placed beneath the outermost layer, which again is termed the face fabric layer. To be clear, when you look at a jacket, you do not see the actual waterproof layer from the outside, as you are looking at the face fabric. The third and innermost layer is where the vast majority of differences in terminology come from when we compare layered fabrics.

rain pants - the aspect of waterproof breathable fabrics least understood by...
The aspect of waterproof breathable fabrics least understood by consumers is construction type and how if might affect a garment's performance. Below, we break down three layer, 2.5 layer, and two layer construction, as well as some basic advantages and disadvantages that each one offers.

3-Layer Fabrics

All 3-layer waterproof breathable fabrics feature an exterior face fabric treated with a DWR - a waterproof breathable membrane of some kind in the middle - and a super-thin polyurethane (PU) film or another similar backing on the inside facing part of the pant.

rain pants
Credit: WL Gore

tThe disadvantage of three-layer garments is they are not always as breathable, as there are more layers for your sweat to pass through. Pants made with three-layer materials are often heavier than many of their 2.5 layer counterparts.

rain pants - you can see the pattern that's part of the .5 layer; it almost looks...
You can see the pattern that's part of the .5 layer; it almost looks as if it has been painted or printed on. The goal of this layer is to protect the waterproof breathable layer from getting clogged with dirt and oils, while being as light and as breathable as possible. Another goal is to not inhibit the other layer's overall performance.
Credit: Ian Nicholson

2.5 Layer Fabrics

Models that use a 2.5 layer construction look extremely similar to those that feature a three-layer design, with the possible exception of them feeling slightly lighter. 2.5-layer pants still have the same outermost, face fabric with a DWR treatment, minimizing how much water is absorbed to the outside. There is also still the same "middle" waterproof fabric (Gore-tex, eVent, etc.).

Here is where 2.5 layer fabric differs from 3-layer ones. On the inside of 2.5-layer pants, there is an EXCEPTIONALLY thin polyurethane laminate or similar another coating that is placed on the inside of the garment to help protect this layer from grime, sweat, or other oils that could clog the waterproof membranes' pores. This painted on layer is just much much thinner than what is featured on most 3-layer garments.

rain pants - here is a comparison of a 2-layer construction with the loose-mesh...
Here is a comparison of a 2-layer construction with the loose-mesh liner on the left and a 2.5-layer Patagonia Torrentshell on the right.
Credit: Ian Nicholson

2 Layer Fabrics

On the inside of 2-layer rainwear, there is a separate layer (In this case there actually appears to be two layers). These two layers are most frequently an inner loose mesh liner that hangs away from the shell and a waterproof layer/face fabric combination. We know this is somewhat confusing because there are actually 3-layers, it just looks like there is two. Regardless this mesh liner has the same purpose of helping to protect the membrane or coated material.

New wave exception

A new, small exception to the rules listed above are new models using the latest version of Gore-Tex Paclite, which is called Paclite Plus. What will come of this new wave of outdoor gear jargon and a reduced number of layers? Who can be sure but rest assured that OGL will be sure to keep you in the loop.

rain pants
Credit: Max Neale

What is Waterproof?

The simple answer to this question would be "any fabric that won't let water through". The problem with this is water can have varying amounts of force. For example, concrete or steel can be cut by highly pressurized water, but despite this, nearly everyone would consider concrete waterproof. That is an extreme example but let's look at it in a more outdoor centric way. Rain from a severe storm coupled with hurricane-force winds can produce up to 10 PSI.

rain pants - while the outdoor industry has no official waterproof standard most...
While the outdoor industry has no official waterproof standard most have adopted the US militaries of 25 PSI with most outdoor applications and the most severe storms generating less than that.
Credit: Ian Nicholson

One manufacturer calculated that a 175-pound person creates around eight psi on their bum while sitting on wet ground and 16 psi on their knees while kneeling. While the outdoor recreation industry has no official standard, the US Military does and requires that fabric must be able to resist 25 PSI (or 16,700mm) to be considered waterproof. The outdoor industry has universally, though unofficially, taken up.

Durable Water Repellent or DWR

Durable Water Repellent (DWR) refers to the chemicals applied to rain pant fabrics. The DWR does not directly relate to the waterproof-breathable membrane or coated fabric on the inside of the jacket. DWR performance does directly relate the exterior material's ability to resist and bead up water. With DWR, the goal is to allow the external face fabric to keep from becoming saturated. If the face fabric becomes saturated, it consequently affects how a pair of rain pants can breathe. This could give the user a sensation of dampness in the saturated area as a direct result of reduced breathability. All waterproof fabrics feature some type of DWR but its also worth noting that some level of DWR is commonly seen on nearly every water-resistant textile, from insulated jackets to softshell pants.

rain pants - along with the number of layers a given fabric has the next biggest...
Along with the number of layers a given fabric has the next biggest difference is what type of waterproof-breathable fabric is sandwiched into the insdie of a given fabric.
Credit: Ian Nicholson

Waterproof Breathable Insert Materials

Not all waterproof-breathable fabrics are created equal. While they are all waterproof, they vary the greatest in breathability and longevity. We found that models featuring Gore-tex PacLite offered the best breathability and longevity, but not by a landslide.

rain pants - the biggest advantage of laminates like gore-tex, event and other...
The biggest advantage of laminates like Gore-Tex, eVent and other proprietary fabrics is they tend to last longer and maintain a higher level of breathability over time. The advantage of coatings is that they tend to be less expensive and have the potential to be more compressible (though rarely are).
Credit: Ian Nicholson

The propitiatory fabrics used in the Mountain Hardwear Stretch Ozonic and REI Talusphere moved moisture and breathed well, offering respectable longevity.

rain pants
Credit: Ian Nicholson

Considerations by Activity


Folks looking for rain pants to use while day hiking or trail running should focus on low weight and compressibility. Most day hikers are likely to be more selective about which days they spend on the trail; for perfect days, most folks won't carry a pair. However, for marginal weather days or when the threat of afternoon thunder showers is greater than having a pair in the bottom of your pack, a pair can be essential.

rain pants - for day hiking or trail running, you'll likely be best suited with a...
For day hiking or trail running, you'll likely be best suited with a lighter weight, more compressible option rather than a fully featured model.
Credit: Ian Nicholson


Backpackers should still focus on weight, though a few extra features and comfort are more important factors. Backpackers might be pickier in regards to the weather, but for most people, especially if it's a few days on a backpacking trip, they are still apt to go, even if the weather is less than ideal. That means comfort under a hip belt and features to keep the wearer's pants from prematurely inching down can be nice. Weight and compressibility are still important, as even the most diehard backpacker will hopefully be carrying their rain pants more frequently than they using them. Durability is a factor, but most backpackers follow relatively well-maintained trails that aren't too brushy, making it less of a factor than with other user groups.

rain pants - backpackers should look for fairly lightweight and compressible...
Backpackers should look for fairly lightweight and compressible pants, as they are still carrying them in their pack for a majority of the time. Most folks feel that a little bit of occasional hassle to put them on is worth the five extra ounces and a little bit of volume over dozens of days. However, design features which make the pant more comfortable under a waist belt are easily one of the most important features to look for.
Credit: Ian Nichlson

Climbing and Mountaineering

Climbers and mountaineers tend to be one of the harder user groups on their gear, particularly rain pants, as they are more likely to wear them much more frequently for a multitude of reasons, such as wind protection or colder temperatures, or to assist in (intentionally) sliding down the mountain after an ascent. Having full or three-fourth length side zippers is of higher value because of the zipper's ability to enable mountaineers to don, or remove their shell pants over larger volume boots (with the potential to be wearing crampons). Climbers not only wear their pants more frequently, but they often wear them in rougher terrain - both in the act of climbing itself, but also to embark on more off-trail travel. Due to the nature of climbing, having better mobility is of great value. While you don't want heavy rain pants, you do want them to last more than a handful of trips and to be easy to pull on over your mountain boots - or while roped together on a glacier or a cliff.

while weight and packed size are important, climbers and...
While weight and packed size are important, climbers and mountaineers tend to wear their rain pants not only more frequently, but also commonly expose them to significantly more abuse than backpacking or hiking. Whether climbing on rock, ice, or just exposing them to crampons while walking up a glacier, durability and longer size zippers facilitate an easier time of putting them on and taking them off.
Credit: Andy Dalhen

Winter Sports

Winter sports can include a wide range of activities, from snowshoeing to backcountry or cross country skiing. Winter sports can also include ice climbing. Our recommendations tend to be for the previously mentioned activities, as we would mostly lump these users in with our climbing and mountaineering recommendations. The pants we selected here work okay for backcountry skiing, but have more of a hiking/backpacking/mountaineering design focus. The main reason they don't offer incredible performance for backcountry skiing or snowboarding is that most of the models we included are too tight to be pulled over a ski or snowboard boot, while others do not offer the necessary level of breathability.

most of the rain pants in our review are designed for backpacking...
Most of the rain pants in our review are designed for backpacking, hiking, and mountaineering. Some pairs can be used for occasional backcountry skiing, but they tend to be lighter weight and less durable than most contenders that people would buy for ski touring. The majority of pants we tested feature cuffs that are too snug to be worn over ski or snowboard boots.
Credit: Ian Nicholson

Snowshoers, like climbers, tend to wear their shell pants far more often; thus, for these users, features, comfort, and durability tend to be weighted slightly more than compressibility or weight. Full or three-fourth length side zippers that allow for easy on, easy off changes, as well as the ability to ventilate on the fly.

so whether you're backpacking, hiking, or mountaineering (or all...
So whether you're backpacking, hiking, or mountaineering (or all three), we hope you found this review helpful, and thanks again for reading!
Credit: Ian Nicholson

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