Waterproof Shell Jackets | Buyer's Guide
Everything you need to know about choosing a waterproof shell jacket for the outdoors.
- By Jon -
Here's our guide to choosing the right waterproof shell jacket. There are plenty out there, but some simple tips will help you pick out the one that's right for you whether you're a low-level walker or a serious alpine mountaineer with big summits in your sights.
Show Me The Jackets!
It's easy to get fixated on fabric choice, but you won't go far wrong with any of the majors - Gore-Tex, eVent, Polartec NeoShell, Paramo and own-brand fabrics from established outdoor brands should all do a decent job though there will be variations in outright waterproofness and 'breathability', the fabric's ability to let sweat out.
Here's a run-down of how the main options work:
Gore's tough but light mountaineering fabric aimed at climbers and mountaineers. It's decently breathable, deceptively hardwearing and very reliable. It can be a little crackly compared to some.
Not as hardwearing as Gore-Tex Pro, it's aimed at fast-moving runners, cyclists and sweaty folk thanks to its excellent breathability levels. Worthy seeking out if you run hotter than average.
Standard Gore-Tex is a good all-rounder for walking use. It's very reliable and breathable enough to stay comfortable for most steady walking use. This year it's been joined with a new premium version called C-KNIT which is softer and more breathable, but also more expensive.
The first fabric to challenge Gore's dominance, eVent is more breathable than most - the the latest Gore-Tex is similar - but arguably needs more regular washing and care to stay working at optimum levels.
Not as outright waterproof as other leading fabrics in lab tests, but the pay-off is extra breathability making it a great call if you run properly hot and sweaty. Some brands prefer it for outright snowy, winter use rather than as a standard waterproof.
Paramo Nikwax Analogy
Cult waterproof fabric that uses a combination of a windproof outer layer and a so-called 'pump liner' inner that moves moisture outwards. It's very breathable, quiet and reliable in use and superb in damp, cold, UK winter conditions though a little warm the rest of the time.
Own Brand Fabrics
There are plenty of own-brand fabrics, we like Berghaus Hydroshell, Mountain Equipment DriLite, TNF HyVent and Marmot NanoPro Membrain, but all you really need to know is that fabrics like this have improved drastically in recent years and can work out a lot cheaper than the big names making them a smart choice.
Cut And Fit
Everyone's a different shape, but there are some general pointers when it comes to fit. For walking, a slightly longer cut will give you a little more protection in the crotch area when things get really wet, but not so long that it interferes with normal walking and high steps in particular.
For climbing use, a shorter fit is normal, so that the jacket sits under a climbing harness and doesn't limit your mobility when climbing and scrambling. You also need to check that the jacket doesn't pull up when you reach forward or upwards as you would when climbing, has long enough sleeves for the cuffs not to pull up and doesn't interfere with your movement generally.
Finally, while a close fit is more efficient and looks neater too, you also need to make sure you have enough additional space inside the jacket for warmer mid layers in cold weather. Some of the more technical mountaineering jackets out there are so sleekly cut that a micro fleece is all that'll fit comfortably, so choose with care.
In British conditions, a good hood is essential when things get gnarly. For climbing use, it should fit over a helmet without restrictively head movement and still giving protection to your lower face. It's vital to try before buying as a lot of helmet hoods are slightly too small and prevent easy head mobility.
You should also check that the hood will still work okay with a bare or beanied head and can be adjusted to move with your head and so you can cinch things down for maximum sealed-in protection, preferably even with gloves. For walkers, the choice is easier as it need only work with a non-helmeted head.
In either case, we recommend a hood with a wired and/or seriously stiffened peak that'll help protect eyes and face from driven snow, rain and spindrift. The more coverage it gives, the better. The best hoods feel like being inside a nuclear bunker, but make sure you can adjust things so the hood moves with your head otherwise you'll be flying semi-blind.
Zips And Fastenings
Make sure you can adjust openings, cuffs, pocket and vent-zips while wearing gloves. Chunky tabs help here. The best zips to have are the newish YKK Vislon models, which have plastic moulded teeth which interlock for a nigh-on waterproof seal.
They're very tough, but also very smooth running making them easier to close and open. Make sure they're backed up with a storm-flap to deter minor leaks.
Cuffs should be adjustable too and preferably fit over and/or under your winter glove of choice. Not always as easy as it sounds if you have a thing for bulky winter gauntlets, but think sealing. Similarly, you should be able to tighten up the hem of your jacket to stop draughts and marauding rodents from accessing your nether regions.
Fabric breathability will go only so far if you're moving really fast and getting properly hot, so some jackets also have built-in vents. The two main options are 'pit-zips' which run under the arms and down the sleeves and core or body vents, which allow air to reach the trunk. Sometime the latter are combined with mesh-lined pockets.
Berghaus says its tests show that core vents are more effective in cooling you down, but both work. On balance we'd say core vents are more effective, but pit-zips can be easier to access particularly if you are using a harness and pack. Try before buying to make sure they work, some pit-zips have a tendency to jam up around the arm-pit point.
Many jackets use tougher but slightly heavier fabrics on wear-prone points where abrasion from pack straps, climbing hardware or rock can cause damage. It's a good way of making a tougher, but not overly heavy jacket. Common wear areas are shoulders, hips, forearms and, for mountaineering use, the front of the jacket where climbing hardware can rub.
Your call. A few pointers though. Make sure any hand-warmer or chest-pockets sit above pack-belt or harness level if you want to be able to use them when you're geared up. Be aware that pockets can leak and shouldn't be trusted with water-sensitive stuff like phones or boiled sweets. And if you have venting, mesh-lined pockets, look for protected zips and storm-flap set-ups for maximum protection.
Pocket add weight and complexity, so ask yourself if you really need many. A single chest pocket may be enough, but some jackets have as many as six different options. Yes, really.
Finally, though it's seldom mentioned, don't underestimate the psychological advantage of having a shell jacket that feels properly protective and sturdy. A waterproof and windproof jacket is a fundamental piece of mountain survival gear and a good one will not only keep you comfortable, it'll also keep you safe and protected in the worst conditions.
That's why when we compiled Best Waterproof Jackets Reviewed - 2016 we included a rating for how protective each jacket feels.