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Tuesday, May 14, 2024

The Best Rain Jackets to Help You Brave the Elements

Every time I slip on a rain jacket, I give thanks that we no longer have to wrap ourselves in smelly sealskin or bulky rubber slickers to stay dry. Advances in weatherproof textiles and apparel design mean that rain jackets today are more comfortable and watertight than ever. But depending on the climate and your level of activity, sorting through different styles, technologies, and waterproofing ratings can be confusing.

To help, I tested more than 35 waterproof rain jackets through the long, wet Pacific Northwest winter. I hiked, biked, cycled, and walked my dog; I stood in the shower with my clothes on when the weather wasn't cooperating. I also got advice from Amber Williams, a consumer science educator and lecturer in textile science and pattern making at Utah State University’s outdoor product design department. My conclusion: You don't really need to spend much more than $100 to stay dry. But if you spend hours in the rain every day like me, innovative new fabrics can immeasurably add to your comfort.

Updated March 2021: We added new picks, like the Baxter Wood Trawler Jacket, and removed older ones. We also added a table of contents!

Table of Contents

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Best Everyday Rain Jacket

Baxter Wood Trawler Raincoat ($140)

Right now, every outdoor gear company is trying desperately to figure out how to make effective rainwear without the use of carcinogenic perfluorocarbons (PFCs). Modern durable water repellents (DWRs) use PFCs in the manufacturing process, which then migrate from your clothing and into soil and streams as you tromp around outside.

I'd argue that one of the best ways to avoid PFCs in an everyday jacket is to use a polyurethane jacket, or a classic rubber raincoat. Technical rain jacket manufacturers tend to shy away from polyurethane, because it feels, well, rubbery. But the material is durable, long-lasting, windproof, and waterproof, and it's also PFC-free!

I still love last year's Rains Ultralight ($140), which doesn't feel thick and rubbery at all. But I've found myself reaching for the Baxter Wood Trawler pretty often this winter. In addition to being PFC-free, the coats are made from recycled RPET, a plastic derived from recycled water bottles.

It's not a rain jacket made for climbing or intense activities, but I did go hiking and boating while wearing it. The polyurethane outer fabric did a great job of both repelling rain and breaking strong, gusty winds, while still being stretchy enough to move my arms and torso comfortably and put on backpacks. It's not amazingly breathable, but it does have armpit vents, in addition to pockets and an adjustable hood.

The Baxter Wood Trawler Raincoat costs $140 at Baxter WoodBest Rain Jacket for Running

The Showers Pass Cloudburst Jacket ($189)

I also loved last year's North Face Flight jacket. North Face's Futurelight was developed from nanospinning techniques originally used in water-filtration systems and smartphone electronics casings. The webs are waterproof and PFC-free. But the jacket had one critical flaw—the women's version is black!

This isn't a great color choice for people who bike or run outside at all hours, in all seasons, and for safety reasons need clothing that comes in bright colors and with reflective trim. That's why this winter, I repeatedly reached for the Showers Pass Cloudburst. It's not the lightest I've tested—it's a three-layer jacket that weighs about 10 ounces—but it can still pack down into a pocket at the back to fit into my tiny Nathan running vest.

The jacket has a nice trim cut—it won't flap or rustle around as you move your arms—and stretchy, breathable fabric. If you open the pockets, you'll find two large vented panels, so you could run for miles and miles without becoming overheated. The face fabric is so soft to the touch that I stood in the shower for 10 minutes to see if a direct downpour would penetrate it. It did not.

The only major stumbling block is that it doesn't have a hood. This isn't a problem for me, since I run with a baseball cap to keep water from hitting my face, but if that's a problem for you (a very understandable problem at that), there are other options. 

The Showers Pass Cloudburst Jacket costs $189 at REIMost Eco-Friendly Rain Jacket

Marmot Eclipse Rain Jacket ($125)

When assessing whether a jacket is eco-friendly, I took several factors into account. Preferably, the jacket's waterproofing materials are PFC-free; I've recommended Fjällraven's Keb Eco Shell in the past, but it's exceptionally pricey and needs to be treated every season with a PFC-free spray. I also tried Black Diamond's TreeLine shell, which uses a proprietary PFC-free DWR made primarily from palm seed oil, but it wasn't as effective. I didn't get wet, but I definitely got a little clammy. 

In addition to being effective, the jacket also has to be durable. That's why many sustainable companies like Patagonia still continue to use fluorinated DWR, albeit in slightly less-toxic compounds. In their calculus, it's better to own a jacket that you'll wear and rewear, instead of buying a less-effective PFC-free jacket that you replace every season.

Taking all this into account, I think the Eclipse (7/10, WIRED Review) is still the most eco-friendly rain jacket I've tried. In Portland, I can wear the DWR off a rain jacket in less than a year, but the Eclipse is still going strong after several years. Marmot uses a technology called AquaVent, which uses high-pressure gas to press water repellents directly into the jacket's fibers, where it is thermally polymerized into place. In addition to being more durable, it doesn't produce a lot of toxic wastewater as a byproduct, and it's a lot easier to clean.

The Marmot Eclipse Rain Jacket costs $125 at REIBest Rain Jacket for Hiking

Arc'teryx Beta LT Jacket ($399)

As much as most of us want to wear 100 percent bombproof gear, we probably don't need it. It's OK to wear a breathable, and perhaps slightly permeable, jacket like the Cloudburst if you're running around your neighborhood and going to be home in an hour or two. 

But if you're at risk for exposure, or out for 24 hours or more, it's hard to recommend a jacket without the best DWR possible. For this reason, I usually recommend a variety of alpine shell. I still like Outdoor Research's MicroGravity, which uses OR’s proprietary AscentShell fabric. You make Ascentshell by spraying nano-sized polyurethane fibers over an electric charge, which creates a thin, stretchy, and breathable membrane that is then sandwiched between a durable face fabric and a comfy interior backing fabric.

But it's hard to make a more effective and comfortable jacket than Arc'teryx. This winter, I've reached for the Beta LT more than any other jacket. Unfortunately, there's a reason why we've used fluorinated DWR for so long: It really works. The Beta LT is a three-layer Gore-Tex jacket that would work for everything from day hikes to spring skiing. 

It has a big, adjustable hood that fits my hair, hats, and helmets. The cut is roomy and generous for layering comfortably underneath, with no seams on the shoulders to make carrying a pack uncomfortable. Arc'teryx started as a high-end climbing brand, and its jackets are known for their remarkably comfortable cut. You don't have to worry about your arms getting pinioned tight by your clothing. 

I also tried the Arc'teryx Alpha SL, another climbing shell whose ultra-lightweight fabric is the result of a proprietary collaboration between Arc'teryx and Gore-Tex, but I found the full-zip Beta LT version to be more comfortable, versatile, and readily available. 

The Arc'teryx Beta LT Jacket costs $399 at REI

Alternative: The high prices for Arc'teryx gear give me palpitations (although you can occasionally find good items used), so Outdoor Research's Ascentshell line is a more affordable alternative.  

Best Affordable Rain Jacket

REI Co-op Rainier Rain Jacket ($90)

For less than $100, it is tough to find rain jackets that offer better value than the Rainier. It uses high-quality laminate waterproofing instead of the less expensive coating many cheaper rain jackets rely on. (Read more below on laminates and layers.) Rather than bonding a waterproof, breathable membrane below the shell fabric, manufacturers will save money by just coating the inner surface with a waterproof, breathable film. It’s less pricey but also less durable than three-layer construction.

The Rainier has many great features that are tough to find in rain jackets at this price. For example, it's made from recycled nylon and has venting pit zips. It’s also seam-taped, has a weatherproof center zip, and has an adjustable, packable hood. For casual day hikes and traveling, the Rainier jacket is a great choice.

For more affordable options, product reviewer Scott Gilbertson likes the Red Ledge Thunderbird, and I also tried the Frogg Toggs Xtreme Lite. However, I wouldn't use the Xtreme Lite as anything more than an emergency jacket that I keep in the car. It worked, but the face fabric is slightly sticky to the touch, and I don't trust a $9 rain jacket to not wear out after more than a season. 

REI Co-op Rainier Rain Jacket costs $90 at REIHonorable Mentions

  • These are my favorite light, waterproof shells: I still like and wear the Fjallraven Keb and the Outdoor Research Microgravity. I liked the Keb's PFC-free waterproofing materials and commuter-friendly design details, and I like the Microgravity's light weight. Marmot's Keele Peak lightweight shell performed well while hiking and biking, but Marmot's Pertex doesn't feel as nice as either AscentShell or Futurelight, and I don't find it as breathable. It doesn't justify the substantially higher price tag. I also didn't trust the durability of Jack Wolfskin's recycled shell; I got cold and clammy on short, half-day hikes.
  • These jackets are worth the money: I've had a Patagonia Torrentshell ($129) for six years. I was disappointed by Patagonia's choice to stay with a DWR that isn’t PFC-free. In 2016, however, the company switched from the DWR treatment with a longer chemical structure, or C8 PFCs, to one with a shorter molecule that is easier to break down. I also tried Outdoor Research's Helium line and Marmot's PreCip Eco line, which get rave reviews from the rest of our reviewing team. The PreCip line in particular is affordable, has been around for over 20 years, and has a PFC-free face fabric.
  • I really like REI's in-house jackets: I am continually surprised at the value for the price in REI’s line. Its casual rain jackets have plenty of nice features, work well, and cost hundreds of dollars less than many of my other picks; I buy their jackets every year on sale for my toddlers.
  • These jackets have interesting design details: Pit zips present a conundrum to me. I find cold air blasting under my arms to be uncomfortable, but I don't like getting swampy while running. The Janji Rainrunner ($196) avoids the pit-zip conundrum, as it's basically a waterproof tank top layered underneath a long-sleeved crop top, with a full 360 degrees of venting around the core. I also tried Coalatree's Whistler windbreaker ($129), which is a lightweight windbreaker with a DWR application. Its HiloTech fabric is also self-repairing—if you get tiny holes in the fabric from a thorny plant or a sparking ember off a fire, you can rub it with your fingertips to patch it up.

Understanding Rain Jacket Tech

Trying to decipher jackets' product specs is almost as annoying as getting soaked by a sudden cloudburst on the trail.

Look for laminated layers: Most technical waterproof jackets are referred to as two- or three-layer jackets. These layers usually consist of a face fabric that has been treated with a waterproofing agent like durable water Repellent, which is a thin mesh for releasing water vapor, plus a protective interior lining underneath. In general, for greater durability you’ll want to look for layers that have been laminated together rather than merely coated with a waterproofing agent. That's the advice of Amber Williams, the consumer science educator and lecturer from Utah State University.

Waterproof and breathability ratings: Manufacturers usually rate each fabric based on its waterproofing and breathability. For example, a rain jacket with a waterproof rating of 20,000 means that if you had an endlessly long 1-inch square tube, you could pour 20,000 millimeters of water on top of the fabric before it would start seeping through (that's over 65 feet!). A 20,000 breathability rating means that 20,000 grams of water vapor can pass through the fabric going the other direction. While the higher breathability rating might seem better, you might want to think twice if you’ll be out in the cold. Body heat can escape a breathable jacket almost as easily as water vapor.

Fantastic fabrics: Gore-Tex remains the gold standard in terms of waterproofing performance. But every company is experimenting with new weaving techniques, PFC-free waterproofing technologies in particular. The North Face's Futurelight is a spider-weight waterproof, yet breathable fabric that allow designers to create garments with far fewer seams. Look for ultra-lightweight waterproof leggings and other outdoor apparel soon. 

Check the seams and zippers: If you want your rain jacket to last longer than an amusement park poncho, look at the seams. Shoulders are particularly vulnerable points, as most outdoor sports require you to wear a backpack that can rub and damage them. “Design lines look really sexy, but over time, they're not going to last as long,” Williams says. Other features to look for include plasticized, water-resistant zippers and protective zipper flaps. That’s why our rain jacket picks are so expensive—a lot of new fabric tech and a lot of design details!

Care for your jacket: You can vastly extend the life of your items by properly caring for them. Hang your jacket—don’t store it crammed in an abrasive, tiny stuff sack. If you see stains from grease, dirt, or sunscreen, or notice that water is no longer beading on the surface, you’ll need to wash it. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions. You may need a specialized detergent—many fabric detergents will leave residues that can interfere with DWR’s performance. Avoid fabric softener, bleaches, dry cleaning, or the dryer.

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