Waterproof Jackets | Buyers' Guide
All the information you need to help you choose the right waterproof jacket for walking, scrambling, climbing or mountaineering.
There's overwhelming choice of waterproof jackets out there, all of them claiming to keep you dry and comfortable in the outdoors, but how do you choose between them? We've picked out some of the most important features to look for to help you make a decision.
If you want specific reviews of waterproof jackets check out our round-ups of the Best Waterproof Shells 2017 and Best Waterproof Shells 2016 and browse the Waterproof Jackets Reviews section of the site for individual jacket tests.
Areas to be aware of include construction - is it waterproof - fabrics, fit and cut, hood design, and construction and features like pockets, zips and adjustment. Make the right choice and you can head out confidently into the worst weather, modern outdoors waterproofs are generally well-made and effective.
How Much To Spend?
You can, if you choose to, spend more than £500 on a technical waterproof shell. Or you can spend as little as £50 or less. So what's the difference? In really basic terms, spending more money buys you a better fabric - maybe no more waterproof, but less sweaty and more comfortable.
It should also buy you better, more robust construction, things like reinforced wear areas, hidden stitching and so on. You'll also get more useful, outdoors-orientated features. A pocket that fits a map perhaps, vents to use on the move to help keep you cool. A more protective hood with better adjustment.
And when you get into serious mountain jackets, you're looking at adjusters and fasteners that can be used with thick gloves, a cut that's trim, but doesn't restrict movement when, say, reaching up for a hold when climbing and hoods that will also fit over a climbing helmet.
We'd say, in very rough terms, you should look at spending at least £100 on a decent outdoors waterproof, nearer to £200 for a mountain jacket, and the sky's the limit if you want a full-on technical mountaineering shell.
And while it's not as simply as getting what you pay for, well-made, well-designed waterproof jackets using top fabrics aren't cheap for very good reasons.
Invest in a waterproof jacket from a specialist outdoors brand and it should be properly waterproof and windproof. There are three main elements that contribute here. The first is the fabric, which should have been developed to keep water out full stop.
'The dirty secret of shell clothing is that in really bad weather, water will eventually run down your neck'
Lab tests show that some waterproofs are counter-intuitively, 'more waterproof' than others, but if a jacket is sold as waterproof it shouldn't leak full stop. The second part of the equation is construction and particularly 'taped seams'.
This means that stitch-lines and seams are internally covered with a waterproof sealing tape to prevent water leaking in past the stitches. All waterproof jackets should be fully taped. If it's not taped, chances are that it's not waterproof.
Finally design also contributes. The dirty secret of shell clothing is that in really bad weather, water will eventually run down your neck - a Buff or similar neck gaiter helps with this - but features like storm-flaps behind zips and the right choice of components all help keep most of the water water out.
Waterproof fabrics are a big part of outdoor waterproofs and a lot of development has gone into them, which is partly why specialist outdoor jackets are expensive. The good news is that own-brand fabrics are getting better and better, so choosing not to buy, say, a name-brand fabric doesn't mean you're necessarily compromising performance.
In general, the hotter you run the more important it is that you choose a fabric that's as breathable as possible. For 'breathable' read 'comfortable' when you get hot and sweaty. It'll clear the fug faster and, if you do get damp from perspiration, it'll dry out more quickly.
Don't expect miracles though, you will still sweat even in the most breathable waterproofs. Here's a quick check list of what's what.
There's more than one type of Gore-Tex depending on what it's intended for, what they have in common is a lot of development and a lifetime guarantee against leaks. 'Normal, just plain 'Gore-Tex' is for all-round and walking use. It's less breathable than some of the more specialist versions. For an example see the Sprayway Zeus.
Gore-Tex with C-Knit technology is a softer, quieter, more breathable version of standard Gore-Tex that's nicer to wear and predictably a little more expensive. The Arc'teryx Zeta LT is a premium sort of walking jacket using the fabric.
Gore-Tex Active is the brand's more breathable fast-moving, lightweight fabric. It tends to be used for running and biking jackets, but occasionally appears in lightweight mountaineering shells. Finally Gore-Tex Pro is the company's hardcore mountaineering fabric. It's light, tough and decently breathable and is used by numerous outdoors brands.
The only real downside is that it's quite noisy and crackly in use, though it does soften with wear. Our top choice expedition shell jacket the Berghaus Extrem 8000 Pro uses Pro as does the classic Mountain Equipment Lhotse all rounder.
One of the first challengers to the Gore-Tex domination of the quality waterproof market, eVent was launched using a similar but more breathable membrane technology. For several years it had a detectable edge on the breathability front, but Gore-Tex has gradually caught up.
It's still a decent fabric and well worth considering though it does need regular washing and re-proofing treatments to keep it working at its best. The main brand using eVent currently is Rab, for its top-end mountain jackets like the Latok and Latok Alpine.
Polartec's NeoShell is a relative newcomer, but if you run hot and sweaty, it's the number one choice. It's perceptibly more comfortable and breathable than other waterproof fabrics we've used and a favourite for that reason.
It also tends to have a soft, stretchy, quiet feel to it, which again makes it a little bit different. There are downsides though, it's not quite as tough as Gore-Tex Pro for example, like eVent it needs regular care to keep it happy and it's not as outright waterproof as some other materials in lab tests.
Brands using it include Montane and Jöttnar for the rather nice Bergelmir Jacket.
Paramo's Nikwax Analogy
It's heavy, warm and soft, quite unlike conventional waterproof fabrics, but Paramo's Nikwax Analogy garments, made in a social project in Colombia, have a cult following because they're very breathable and comfortable to wear in the damp, cold UK conditions.
Cut has generally been conservative, but we reckon the latest Paramo Enduro Jacket is the best jacket yet from the brand and well worth a look if you like the idea of the technology but have previously been put off by the cut and styling.
Pertex Shield Fabrics
Pertex is best known for windproof fabrics, but it also produces waterproof fabrics called Shield and Shield+. The latter is significantly more breathable than the bog standard Shield and would be our choice from the brand.
Assorted Own Brand Fabrics
Arguably the biggest advance in recent years is the improvement in 'own brand' fabrics from companies like Marmot, Berghaus, Mountain Equipment and others. Advances in technology mean that membranes based on PU in particular can now be micro-engineered to be very effective.
We've been impressed by Marmot's NanoPro, as used for the Red Star Jacket in particular and also by the various incarnations of Berghaus HydroShell as seen in the Extrem Hagshu Jacket. In other words, don't write a jacket off purely because it's not made from a name-brand material.
Cut And Fit
In really general terms, you're looking for a fit that suits your body shape and the activity you're doing. For general walking use, something that's neat fitting, but not tight and medium-long to offer some crotch protection makes sense.
Some technical climbing jackets are cut slightly shorter so you can use them comfortably with a climbing harness, but the pay-off is a little less coverage. You should also check that the jacket doesn't ride up if you reach out in front or above your head as if climbing. Similarly the sleeves shouldn't pull up over your wrist.
In general, you're looking for a close fit, which is more efficient, but without it restricting movement at all. For winter and cold weather use, you want enough extra space inside to allow you to wear a mid-layer fleece or light insulation inside the shell. Many mountain jackets are sized on this basis.
Hoods You Win
The hood is arguably the most important single feature of a mountain waterproof shell. It should fit closely enough to move with your direction of gaze when properly adjusted, give side-on protection to your face without obstructing peripheral vision and be capable of being battened down to give decent facial protection - ideally up to just below eye-level for really foul weather.
In UK conditions a stiffened and wired peak is a really good call. It helps keep heavy rain and driven snow out of your eyes when you're moving forwards and works like a baseball cap. Speaking of which, you can use a cap and/or a face-mask or balaclava to improve protection, but we prefer the hood to work without.
If you're planning to use a helmet, look for a helmet-compatible hood and try it on before buying. The main issue with such hoods is that if they work well with a helmet, they're often too big and baggy worn with a bare head. It's hard to get the compromise right - Berghaus has cracked it using magnets no less on their top-end jacket, but many others haven't quite got it right.
Finally, adjusting a hood to fit is less obvious than it might seem. Our tip is to adjust the top-cord, the adjuster is usually at the back of your head, high up, so the hood grips the top of your head like a cap. Next adjust the front cords to snug-up the head-opening and cover the face as much as you want. Finally if there's a lower, volume adjuster at the back, tension that up to stop the peak from falling forward over your eyes.
Pockets are a matter of personal preference, how many, where they are, whether you use them or not. We like to have a chest pocket that'll take a phone, plus at least one map-sized pocket. Bear in mind that multiple pockets add weight and complexity along with areas of double or even triple fabric which reduce breathability.
Make sure the pockets sit above a pack waist-belt or you won't be able to use them easily while wearing a rucksack or harness which will compress anything already in the pockets. For technical mountaineering, we prefer Napoleon-style chest pocket for ease of access on the move - ideal for quickly stashing gloves for example, but again it's a personal preference not an absolute rule.
Mesh-lined venting pocket are handy, but bear in mind that they may be less secure when open and potentially more prone to leaking in really bad weather.
What else should you look for? If you run warm, we like some sort of venting option. The most common of these are 'pit-zips', which usually run from below the arm-pit to somewhere around elbow level or higher.
They work, but make sure the zips work smoothly and don't jam under the arm-pit. Try them with a pack too, many don't play nicely with rucksack straps.
Make sure adjusters do what they're supposed to, that the cord doesn't slip and that you can use them with gloves on if necessary. Zip-pulls should have some sort of pull-tab for easy use. Ditto hood adjusters. Bear in mind that hidden stealth adjustment looks clean, but can be fiddly to use on the move particularly for hoods.
Zips are interesting. Most modern jackets use water-resistant ones, with with a PU coating or, more expensively, with moulded plastic teeth, which lock together to make a seal. The former can leak when they flex, the latter, usually YKK Vislon, flow more smoothly, are very tough and are our first choice where possible.
Whichever type of zip the jacket uses, it should be backed up with an internal storm-flap just in case any water does get past the main seal.
Consider colour if you're concerned about mountain safety and visibility. Red is a good choice and often used by Mountain Rescue Teams, but bright colours that'll stand out against both snow and murk all work fine. Consider reflective trim also for night-time visibility.