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How to Choose a Waterproof Jacket

By Rik Henderson   

on January 26, 2021    4.25/5 (4)

How to Choose a Waterproof Jacket

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Along with boots and rucksacks, waterproofs definitely sit high in the top three bits of essential kit needed for tackling mountains and the great outdoors. Let’s face it, if you were asked which bit of kit you’d grab if the conditions kicked off whilst in the mountains, I think most of us would say waterproof shells! As is the case with all outdoor clothing and equipment these days, there is a vast range of different options available on the market so hopefully this piece will help you sypher through all the available information with a little more ease and help you to Choose a Waterproof Jacket.

During the start of 2021’s national lockdown many of you, like myself, will be taking stock of your outdoor clothing and equipment. Not being able to travel on weekends to our much-loved wild locations gives us a great opportunity to clean, fix, organise and prepare boots, bags, jackets, pants, poles, tents etc. You may be cleaning and proofing your waterproof shells and deciding that they look a bit tired and in need of replacing, or you might be thinking that your go to summer waterproofs might not be cutting the mustard and a more substantial shell might be a good purchase. There are plenty of sales right now so this might be a good opportunity to press GO on a shiny new outer (or set of outers) and there are a couple of things to bear in mind.

1. Activity

Jackets have changed a lot over the years, I remember my old man singing his praises of a Berghaus Lightening GTX jacket back in the day (RRP £200 then), a knee length parka style shell that offered superior weather protection in such a simple package, big hood and two deep pockets with a large fit to work in conjunction with as many warm layers as you liked, perfect for thrashing the dog about wet muddy fields and all non-strenuous activities. You don’t see many jackets in that particular style anymore, but some rules do apply to different activities when it comes to length, cut and features.

Walking

As mentioned above for general low-level walking what you really need is as much weather protection as possible, long in the tail to prolong the need to don on waterproof trousers and not so fitted so you can use in conjunction with warm layers be it fleece, other synthetic insulation or down. If you are tackling mountains, then you will want something more fitted to enable plenty of movement and cut down unnecessary excess fabric that will flap about in high winds. You will also want a fully adjustable hood that can fit around the shape of your head giving you maximum protection, movement, and uncompromised vision, and high spacious pockets that will not be obstructed by your pack hip belt, large enough to take a folded OS / Harvey map. You will need a jacket that will stand up to the harshest of conditions, so a highly waterproof and breathable fabric for working hard in wet conditions is very important.

Climbing / Scrambling

The above mentioned for mountaineering also applies for climbing jackets however the shape will likely be much more athletic and shorter cut to enable maximum movement and flexibility. As well as choosing a jacket with a fully adjustable hood you will need to select a design that states “helmet compatible”, essentially a higher volume hood that will fit over a lid. Some jackets will also have reinforced areas on the elbows, shoulders, hips, tail etc, not only to protect you against sharp rocks but also to help with abrasion from rucksacks and harnesses, in fact most jackets designed for climbing will feel more substantial and hard wearing all together.

Skiing / Snow Boarding

Jackets for winter activities come in all different shapes and sizes but some common features include a snow skirt around the waste and snow cuffs to protect you from snow finding its way inside your protective shell, a fully adjustable helmet compatible hood, underarm pit zips for enhanced venting, a high collar to keep the elements away from neck and chin, and other ski slope specifics like pockets dedicated to carrying your ski pass….oh and said jacket must look rad on and off the slope!

You will find that most manufacturer websites will give you as much detail as you will possibly need and will tend to state the activity their products are designed for; reviews can be both useful and unhelpful sometimes as we are all different shapes and sizes and have different levels of activity in mind. You will always get someone on Facebook answering “Military Issue (insert item here) is the best” … don’t get me wrong some military kit is awesome, absolutely bomber and usually much cheaper, however you would expect it to be quite crude in design and much heavier than some of the highly designed and expertly manufactured clothing and apparel we have available on the market today.

2. Weather Conditions / Seasons

As is the case with footwear, different weather conditions and temperatures will have quite a lot of impact on what waterproof shell you choose, instead of discussing each individual season, as let’s be honest the weather in the UK can be changeable at the best of times and different seasons for overseas usage might produce different temperatures, instead we will map out the key characteristics that you should be aware of for both hot/wet and cold/wet climates, even if this might be obvious to you already;

Colder Conditions

For cold and wet conditions you will need as much protection as possible, so a jacket with a high hydrostatic head (*See below) rating is essential. Something that I have come to realise over the years is that some of the most reliable waterproof jacket manufacturers are in fact British, no matter what weather the overseas companies’ garments claim to protect against, apart from some noticeable exceptions of course. Let’s face It, British weather could be described as “changeable” at best, perhaps diabolical at worst, companies such as Mountain Equipment, Rab and Montane (to name a few) seem to have a knack at designing brilliant shells for outdoor activities in the UK and perform ever so well on those days when the rain and wind just doesn’t seem to let up. You will need to factor in being able to use them in conjunction with warmer layers as well so using a larger size can sometimes be of benefit. Such jackets will be heavier in weight and take up a little more room in your pack.

Warmer Conditions

For warm and humid conditions the most important things to factor in are breathability and weight. You might think that waterproofs are less important in the warmer seasons, but due to exposure in the mountains you will still feel the chill higher up when the heavens open. The average adult sweats between 0.8 to 1.4 litres during exercise but in warmer conditions this figure is considerably more. Getting the most breathable jacket you can is always advisable to ensure that moisture management is optimal. Such garments are by nature much lighter in weight and will take up less space in your smaller summer pack.

*Manufacturers can offer different jackets for a range of conditions by utilising a plethora of waterproof systems / technologies. Again, at first glance it is a bit of a minefield, but the following table will give you an insight into some of these systems. Essentially waterproof materials are measured in waterproofness by their levels of hydrostatic head (HH), a machine test that determines the resistance of fabrics to water penetration under pressure, and breathability, measured by the amount of water vapour in grams that can pass through a m2 of the chosen fabric in a 24hr period – a higher figure being preferable in both instances.

Brand Waterproofness (mm) Breathability (GM/M²/24HR)
GORE-TEX 3L >28,000 17,000
GORE-TEX Pro 3L >28,000 25,000
GORE-TEX Paclite 2.5L >28,000 15,000
GORE-TEX C-Knit 3L >28,000 >20,000
eVENT 3L 30,000 >20,000
eVENT DVstorm 3L 10,000 >30,000
MARMOT NanoPro 2.5L >THAN 10,000 17,000
NORTH FACE Hyvent 2.5L >THAN 15,000 ~12-15,000
PATAGONIA H2No 2.5L 10-20,000 ~12-15,000
Helly Tech® Performance 2.5L >10,000 >10,000
MONT Hydronaut / Pro 3L 30,000 >20,000 / 28,000
PERTEX Shield+ 2.5L 20,000 20,000
RAB Proflex 3L 10,000 30,000

Source – https://www.paddypallin.com.au/blog/all-about-waterproof-fabrics/

This is a great article that looks at hydrostatic head, breathability and DWR (durable water repellancy) in more depth.

Not listed above but well worth mentioning, outdoor specialist Berghaus gets impressive results from their own Hydroshell systems including Hydroshell Elite Pro (3L): 20,000mm HH / 20,000g/m2/24 hours, and Hydroshell Elite (2.5/2L): 15,000mm HH / 20,000g/m2/24 hours

So, if you are looking at ski jackets then breathability is key and waterproofness is less important on the premise that you will be highly active and operating in dry snowy conditions, and if you are operating in very wet conditions then obviously you will need a system that is highly waterproof. Individual body types must be taken into consideration as well though, for instance I am someone who runs hot during exercise therefore, I will sometimes take a hit on the hydrostatic head figure if it means getting a more breathable system.

3. Budget

Never has there been such a disparity when it comes to the cost of a new shell, a quick search online and you will find Regatta waterproof jackets for £40 as well as Arcteryx models for £680…you might think that the cheaper of the two is nowhere near as good as the expensive model, but truth be told, each one will be perfectly suited for its user and their chosen activity. A cheap jacket is designed for occasional use and is a layer to shield against light rain and wind, whereas the more expensive jacket is designed for continuous thrashing in alpine conditions when your life depends on staying protected from harsh weather, each managing their chosen activity respectively.

You need to ask yourself – how often will I be using the jacket and what kind of conditions will I be using it in? Most of you reading this, like myself will be using our outer shells in the mountains, year-round on a regular basis, and will need a high-quality model that is hard wearing, functional and highly waterproof / breathable. Whilst we are all different, personally I would look at allocating between £250 – £350 for a decent shell and believe me, the saying “buy cheap pay twice” most definitely applies here. Skimping out in this area will either see yourself wet through or with an item that is falling apart at the seams, literally!

In the ideal world we would have a different jacket for each activity and each season, but more realistic is either trying to find a jacket that does all (quite a tricky task), or a jacket for the colder months and one for the warmer. Personally for mountaineering use, I would not recommend buying second hand as you just can’t tell how much the jacket has been used and how the garment has been looked after / cleaned, unless the item still has tags on, has come from a smoke / pet free environment and has not seen any outdoor use.

Like other garments and kit we would always recommend trying on as many as possible and also trying them on at home with packs and under layers, before de-tagging and using outside. (slightly tricky with current restrictions due to the pandemic but you will be able to buy and return from online sites should you not be totally satisfied).

To Summarise

We are all different shapes and sizes with different requirements, so thankfully there are many reputable outdoor manufactures making a wide range of waterproof garments to suit an individual’s needs. There will be a perfect waterproof jacket out there for you and sometimes it is trial and error, but once you find one that works for you, you will feel invincible in even the worst of conditions. Once you have considered the above, take a trip to your local outdoor store and speak to one of the many knowledgeable staff members and ask them to run you through their selection of outers, failing that hit the internet and search your way through the vast number of online retailers from the comfort of your home, happy hunting!

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Rik Henderson

siBased out of Shrewsbury Shropshire, I spend most of my free time across the border into Wales, primarily in Snowdonia. A keen walker and explorer who has completed the Top 100 mountains in Wales and Shropshire's 50 hills. Taking on such challenges enables me to travel to remote, quiet areas and away from the crowds, those are my favourite mountain days. I very much look forward to contributing to the forum that is Mud & Routes, with route guides and gear reviews. Instagram: @rikthehiker Twitter: @RikTheHiker

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