The Necessity of the Dubya-Pee-Bee
A rain jacket is, for most backcountry travelers, an inevitability. There are certainly areas of the world where precipitation is unlikely enough to render raingear useless weight, and places either warm or cold enough that precipitation is not a concern. In very warm climates, one can just get wet without suffering ill effects, and in very cold places the certainty of precipitation falling in the form of snow combines with the limits of current WPB (waterproof-breathable) technology to make other shells better choices. Most backcountry areas don’t fit into any of these categories, or only do so in certain seasons, and thus anyone hoping to experience the backcountry in safety and comfort ought to bring something to keep liquid precipitation off their backs and out of their ears. The reasons for this become a lifetime axiom for anyone caught out in a rainstorm without raingear. Water promotes heat loss with impressive efficiency, and renders almost all insulations drastically less effective. The necessity of raingear is a lesson best learned in theory first, rather than from the potentially hazardous school of hard knocks.
Better bring your raingear: the author testing the Haglofs Ozo in Alaska. Photo by Paige Brady.
That said, the reputation of WPB rain jackets is less than stellar. They’re reputed to keep precipitation out while not keeping sweat in, yet can fall short in one or both arenas. Breathability is typically the attribute which comes under fire, and in many cases, breathability can be so poor that some hikers have advocated abandoning WPB raingear altogether. Add the substantial expense of WPB jackets, and there appear to be compelling reasons to avoid these supposedly "essential" pieces of outdoor gear.
I examined the various alternatives to WPB jackets in my Lightweight Alternative Rainwear State of the Market Report, investigating the numerous solutions which might address the weight, limited use, and deficient functionality of WPB jackets. The details are discussed in greater depth in that series of articles, but in summary I found that while things like poncho-tarps and silnylon capes can indeed prove efficacious for many lightweight backcountry travelers, they have many limitations, which explain the ubiquity of WPB shells. Even the best poncho-tarps suffer in wind, while bushwhacking, and during any backcountry mode of travel other than walking. Capes are even worse. Modern day iterations of the cagoule, such as the Packa, are good in high winds and off trail, but are made of impermeable fabrics and even their best venting options still renders them less breathable than the worst WPB jacket. Perhaps the single greatest revelation I took out of testing alternative rainwear was an appreciation for just how good modern WPB jackets can be. The best such garments fit closely, yet don’t bind. They seal out even the worst weather, while still letting out a substantial amount of perspiration. They not only protect the hiker, climber, skier, boater, or cyclist from rain, snow, and the various combinations thereof, they also keep out spray from waves, wind, and the brutal soaking that can come from dripping wet brush and scrub. And, as I discovered in this report, the best do all of these things while weighing very little indeed.
The Perfect Rain Coat
The ideal WPB jacket would provide flawless and immutable waterproofing and weatherproofing, yet breathe as well as a single thin base layer. Neither of these is yet possible. WPB technologies still rely on a DWR (durable water repellant) treatment of the outer shell fabric to function, and even the best of these coatings need maintenance. These requirements are easy to fulfill in civilization, but expeditionary users may find doing so more problematic. More familiar to most will be the large extent to which current WPB technologies fall short of ideal breathability. Put a WPB shell on at the base of a steep climb to keep the cold rain off, and with warm humidity/a hard hike/a forceful perspirer/etc. the WPB membrane will soon be keeping water in as well as out. Too much perspiration accumulated and trapped will lead to the very thing the WPB jacket was put on to prevent: accelerated cooling via evaporation.
A tester’s burden: the author ponders his quiver.
Readers desiring a more indepth knowledge of why WPB technologies fall short of our breathability ideal, or merely a definitive understanding of exactly what various WPB technologies consist of should read Alan Dixon’s Waterproof Breathable Fabric Technologies: A Comprehensive Primer and State of the Market Technology Review. Dixon’s article was published eight years ago, but for better or worse the information contained therein in still highly relevant and largely up to date. The three WPB technologies found in the jackets tested here are Gore-Tex, eVent, and polyurethene, which are the three major technologies discussed by Dixon. In this respect, not much has changed in the world of lightweight WPB shells.
The operative word here is "lightweight" (to be defined shortly). As Will Rietveld discussed in his coverage of the 2011 Outdoor Retailer Winter Market, numerous new technologies and variations on old approaches are all attempting to maintain the weatherproofness of the existing WPB membranes, while improving breathability. The extent to which these new technologies achieve this aim is still being assessed. Alas, none of theses garments come especially close to being lightweight, and thus none are reviewed here. In the near future, this will hopefully change, though as discussed below there are historical reasons to be cautious when applying optimism to the evolution of the raingear market.
I’ve become accustomed to having only modest, practical expectations when it comes to the breathability of my WPB jackets, though, as mentioned above, wearing a truly non-breathable shell will put the supposedly lackluster performance of Gore-Tex and PU in good perspective. Over the years, I’ve learned to adapt my habits, both in terms of clothing selection and hiking pace, to suit the strengths and weaknesses of existing WPB jackets. Occasionally I find myself getting especially sweaty on an ascent, and then especially cold on a descent, but wearing minimal quick drying layers, strategic venting, and hiking a bit slower all conspire to avoid the worst of the WPB chill. The other virtue of all WPB shells (or at least all the ones tested here) is that they are windproof. If you’ve got to be a bit damp while out in the cold, there is a lot to be said for being able to slow the rate of drying (aka evaporative cooling) if you are so inclined. I’ve often found being damp and warm preferable to being dry and cold.
If I’m willing to compromise on less-than perfect breathability, I am not inclined to compromise on weatherproofing. Given the state of outdoor clothing design and technology in the last decade, there is no reason for a WPB shell to not do a really good job at keeping weather out when you want it to. (Note that waterproof is part of weatherproof, but far from the whole story.) I live in northwest Montana, and have both Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness complex in my backyard. Both receive lots of precipitation. Both have exposed alpine terrain and densely vegetated canyons in close proximity. Both receive snow in most months of the year. I tested the shells beginning in early spring and continuing through summer to autumn, almost exclusively in home terrain but also on trips further afield in Montana and one summer trip to Alaska. Packrafting is a major part of my wilderness travel, so every test shell saw use on the rivers and creeks on Glacier and the Bob. I also ski, mountain bike, and climb a few mountains, and the jackets came along for those, too.
My ideal shell fits closely enough to not flap in the wind or get in the way during climbing and paddling, but still has enough room for a mid-weight insulating layer (thick fleece or mid-weight synthetic jacket) and the dead air space between insulation and shell to maximize warmth. I don’t bring a down coat unless it’s cold enough that rain is not possible. I find hoods invaluable, and insist on a big one with a generous, structured brim to keep drips out. I want a hood to cinch equally well around a bare head or the hood of my insulating coat, and in either case to move with the head even if the shell is unzipped a fair bit. I favor anoraks over full zip coats, as they layer and wear more seamlessly without the bulk of the zipper, are simpler, and are a bit more durable insofar as the zipper is concerned. I’m 5’11”, hover around 160 pounds, have a 38” chest and 33” sleeves on my dress shirts. Pockets on rain shells don’t excite me too much, as I find pockets on inner garments to be a more reliable place to put things out of the weather. I do get excited about long sleeves, drop tails, and good detailing that doesn’t absorb water. I like to hike fast and all day, don’t cancel trips when the weather is less than desirable, and probably sweat more than average.
A good hood is a beautiful thing: the Haglofs Ozo.
All these preferences, prejudices, and idiosyncrasies should be taken into account when reading the individual jacket reviews, found in Part Two of this report. There is a lot of diversity in features and fit amongst our test shells, many of which I’m not especially convinced will suit other hikers perfectly. Keep your own body type, hiking style, preferences, and previous experience with other shells in mind, and take my conclusions with the consequent grains of salt.
The Vital Importance of DWR
A durable water-repellant treatment on shell fabric is vital to proper functioning of a WPB membrane. I’ll go out on a limb and assert that the overwhelming majority of “failures” experienced where a WPB membrane seems to leak is due to user error: improper maintenance of the DWR.
A DWR treatment on a shell allows the material to shed water and not become soaked. These treatments are all degraded and eventually worn off by dirt and abrasion on the surface of the shell fabric. Countering this is simple: wash your shell occasionally in non-detergent soap, rinse it thoroughly, and dry it briefly (~10 minutes) on medium heat. For the most part, modern DWR treatments are fairly effective, and this process will usually do the trick to revive the coating. If, after such a treatment, water splashed on your shell doesn’t immediately bead up, you’ll need to reapply the DWR using one of the various commercially available wash-in or spray-on products. Follow the directions and don’t skimp! Test your shell periodically, especially the week before a big trip in questionable weather.
Failure of the DWR does not lead to a failure of the membrane, which would allow water to leak in. The saturated shell fabric does render the process by which perspiration is passed through the membrane impossible, which means that, just as with a coated, non-breathable rain jacket, you will wet out from the inside. During very wet and cool conditions, evaporation from the sodden exterior fabric can even lower the dew point just inside the shell enough that condensation forms inside the jacket, just as it does on the inside wall of a tent during especially unsavory conditions. These are difficult conditions where synthetic insulation shines, and, even with its apparent weaknesses, WPB technology is much better than the alternatives.
Expedition usage, where proper care and reapplication of DWR is not possible, in another issue entirely and beyond the scope of this article.
Think of cleaning your shell and occasionally reapplying a DWR coating like changing the oil in your car: if you don’t do it, you might still do okay for a while, but that’s only because you got lucky.
Lightweight, Historically Defined
For the purposes of this report, lightweight rain jackets are only those whose manufacturer claimed weight was less than 8 ounces (227 g), made of WPB fabrics, and had a hood. Why this somewhat arbitrary weight benchmark? There are two reasons: pushing the state of the art and culling the herd.
There are a lot of WPB shells on the market. It seems that each major company makes at least half a dozen distinct models intended for various sorts of consumers. The very first BackpackingLight Raingear Roundup, a decade ago, had a cut off of sub-13 ounces (369 g). It included 17 garments, of which only five were made of WPB fabrics and had hoods. A similar weight limit today would include more garments than could be comprehensively reviewed in a relevant amount of time. Even going down from 9 ounces (255 g) to 8 (227 g) narrowed the field substantially. There is also much to be said for extolling the state of the art in outdoor gear. BackpackingLight has long been, in its best moments, a gadfly to an industry all too often driven by style and short term profit. Witness the early boosterism for eVent, Pertex, and Cuben Fiber, or Roger Caffin seemingly single-handedly being responsible for every MSR Reactor being sold with a big ugly sticker on the pot. Today I ask the question: why would a company make a WPB rain jacket that weighs more than 8 ounces (227 g)?
WPB hooded shells that weigh less than 8 ounces (227 g) have been on the market for a long time. The 2005 BackpackingLight Raingear Review listed half a dozen. One, the Marmot Essence, is still with us today (and reviewed for this report). The other five have either been reincarnated in substantially different models (OR Zealot versus today’s Helium II), or discontinued with no comparable replacement (Patagonia Specter). The Specter is a particularly interesting case; it was the lightest shell tested in 2005 and developed a cult following for its blend of light weight and excellent weatherproofing, yet was discontinued. Earlier this year Patagonia told me, in an exchange over Twitter, that they had durability problems with the Specter, and in 2009 I saw Kevin Sawchuk rip his (heavily used) Specter along the back neck seam while pulling it off after a long wet day. So then, can a sub-8-ounce (sub-227-g) WPB shell cut it for serious, long-term use?
The shoulder area of a 15-month-old Marmot Mica. Raingear durability is a real concern, so long as that concern has realistic implications for field use and is not merely illusory reassurance.
There are three general ways to make a WPB shell light, and each comes with its own set of reasons why such a light shell would not be desirable. (I’m framing this with the perhaps not universal assumption that anyone would, if value, performance and durability were good enough, choose the lightest shell available.) A light outer fabric is a good way to make a shell light, as is a lighter WPB membrane/coating. Dispensing with features, like pockets, full zippers, and sophisticated hoods, is the third way. Durability is the chief objection to the first two, with climbers, bushwhackers, the indelicate, and the paranoid expressing concern that the fabric required to crack 8 ounces (227 g) will be too fragile for their needs. Coating durability is also a concern. Windshells used to use polyurethene coatings to enhance water and wind resistance, and the 4.4-ounce (125-g) first generation of the Sierra Designs Isotope (mentioned in the 2005 article) had so little PU inside that it wasn’t waterproof enough. One jacket tested for this report, the Montane Litespeed H2O, has a lighter PU coating that is advertised as very water resistant and as a result more breathable than fully waterproof PUs. It should be noted that the mature version of the Isotope weighed 5.4 oz, and was found by BPL testers to be fully waterproof. So then, why has there been so little progress in the lightening of WPB rain jackets?
Rain Jackets (WPB, less than 8 oz, Hooded)
|Jacket||MSRP||WPB Membrane||Claimed Weight oz / g||Measured Weight oz / g|
|Montane Spektr||319||eVent||7.4 / 209.8||7.7 / 218.3|
|Montane Litespeed H20||150||PU||6.3 / 178.6||5.6 / 158.8|
|GoLite Malpais||250||PU||7.0 / 198.4||7.2 / 204.1|
|OR Helium||140||PU||6.9 / 195.6||6.4 / 181.4|
|Marmot Essence||175||PU||6.0 / 170.1||6.4 / 181.4|
|Haglofs Ozo||328||Gore-Tex Paclite||6.4 / 181.4||7.0 / 198.4|
|TNF Triumph Anorak||180||PU||5.8 / 164.4||5.5 / 155.9|
|MontBell Versalite||179||PU||7.4 / 209.8||7.0 / 198.4|
|Rab Pulse||175||PU||7.0 / 198.4||7.0 / 198.4*|
|OR Helium II||150||PU||6.4 / 181.4||6.8 / 192.8*|
|DriDucks Micropore||19 (w/ pants)||Propore||6.0 / 170.1||not tested|
|RainShield 02||31||Propore||5.5 / 155.9||not tested|
|ZPacks WPB Cuben Rain Jacket||225||Cuben Laminate||4.5 / 127.6||not tested|
|* Unlike the rest of the test jackets, which were a men’s medium, the Pulse and Helium II were tested in men’s large.|
The Failure of the Market
It’s easy to look at the 2005 report, then at the list of sub-8-ounce (sub-227-g) WPB shells assembled for this test, and conclude that the industry has been, at best, marking time. Previous BPL testing, such as that cited above, and use in the field, like the use of the aforementioned Patagonia Specter by Roman Dial and Jason Geck during the Arctic 1000 Expedition, has demonstrated that sub-8-ounce (sub-227-g) shells can be used in the most serious and committing conditions around. While the durability of the coatings in such light shells may not be universally laudable, history and the testing for this report seem to indicate, even given strenuous use, that it is not a design constraint. Lack of features may have been an objection previously, but is no longer. Shells in the current test group have multiple pockets and fully adjustable hoods as good as any on the market, and even pit zips. Coating/membrane durability and features cannot be considered valid reasons for rain shells weighing more than 8 ounces (227 g).
As mentioned above, durability of the shell fabric is probably the most substantive justification for heavy raincoats. I’m not at all sure I’d want to climb a wet, sharp granite off width in any of the test jackets. Then again, I didn’t actually try that (I don’t do such uncivilized things now that I’m old and wise), and I might be surprised. I certainly was surprised by some of the test jackets, the best of which shrugged off some nasty abuse with no concern whatsoever. I suspect the real reason most WPB shells remain so heavy has to do with consumer pressure. In the most recent BPL Raingear Review, in 2008, Will Rietveld inquired of an eVent representative why no lighter garments had yet been made with their technology. She replied that manufacturers had not yet demanded the light fabric that such a garment would require. Plainly, the market pressure, or perceived market pressure, for truly lightweight WPB garments has not increased substantially in the last half-decade. Companies are doubtlessly keen to avoid returns, but more than that I imagine, many folks see the semi-transparent PU coatings on the Marmot Essence, Triumph Anorak, or Rab Pulse and think that such a thing just cannot keep them dry. It may be a case where perception is reality.
Rain shells can be handy even on sunny days. Justin Baccary stays dry in a classic GoLite Virga on the Middle Fork of the Flathead, Montana.
This is a shame, as my testing revealed some of the sub-8-ounce (sub-227-g) shells currently available are superbly functional and durable. While some users no doubt need a more durable shell fabric, and some might need features currently unavailable in a sub-8-ounce (sub-227-g) shell, I assert that many folks choose a heavier shell in order to gain a sense of security, which is not reinforced by practical need. Aside from the careless and the especially brutal, a sub-8-ounce (sub-227-g) rain jacket will probably serve most users just fine.