Rain pants provide a protective layer from the bone-chilling cold of the rain and wind. They add just a few ounces to your pack and take a minimal amount of room. In most cases, they are worn over your hiking pants and shorts; or, alone when you are in town doing laundry or at the end of the day when you are hanging your shorts to dry.
Scan any backpacking gear lists, and you often will find rain pants included as a must-bring item. Not everyone agrees that they deserve a coveted spot in your backpack though. Let's dive into some of the pros and cons before reviewing the best models.
|REI Co-op XeroDry GTX||Polyester||10 oz||$139|
|Marmot PreCip Eco||Ripstop Nylon||8.1 oz||$80|
|Outdoor Research Helium||30D Ripstop Nylon||5.5 oz||$119|
|Mountain Hardwear Stretch Ozonic™||DryQ Active Waterproof||10 oz||$150|
|REI Co-op Rainier Full-Zip||Ripstop Nylon||n/a||$90|
|Arc'teryx Zeta SL||N40r GORE-TEX||8.6 oz||$300|
|Black Diamond Stormline Stretch||100% Nylon||7.65 oz||$99|
|Showers Pass Storm Pants||100% Nylon||7.5 oz||$69|
|Zpacks Vertice||7D Ripstop Nylon||1.5 oz||$149|
|REI Essential||Ripstop Nylon||9.5 oz||$60|
In a hurry? Skip straight to the reviews.
Many thru-hikers leave their rain pants at home because they want to keep their base weight as low as possible. They prefer to wear hiking pants and shorts in the rain.
However, wearing rain pants can really help provide protection in harsh environments... without compromising your pack weight much.
✅ Protection from the Elements. They will shield heavy winds and provide some level of insulation. They make the most sense in colder climates, when that warm summer breeze is now a biting wind, and the wetness from the rain now chills you to the bone. Rain pants help keep the cold, wet weather on the outside and also helps to trap in body heat, keeping you warm while you hike.
✅ Lightweight and Compact. Most rain pants are very light, with some pants weighing as little as 3 ounces. They can be folded flat and slipped into your backpack. They can also be scrunched into a small ball and used to fill that extra space between gear.
❌ Not 100% 'Waterproof'. They provide protection for a limited amount of time and eventually wet through. Ultralight backpackers figure that you will get wet no matter what, so why bother bringing them. They might as well stick with their DWR-coated, fast-drying shorts or hiking pants.
Left: Elastic waistband | Right: Fly and snap closure with built-in belt
When shopping for rain pants you’ll need to consider the type of waterproofing in your pants. These include fabric layers like laminates, outer DWR coatings, and even smaller items like the seams and zippers. We will step you through these different types of waterproofing so you know what these terms mean and how they may influence which rain pants your purchase.
LAMINATES: GORE-TEX AND COMPETITORS
Waterproof and breathable rain pants have two basic components—an outer shell and an inner waterproof membrane layer.
When we discuss laminates, we are looking specifically at this inner layer (the outer shell protects the waterproof membrane from bumps, scrapes, and contamination).
Laminates, like Gore-Tex, use a waterproof and breathable membrane attached to the underside of a jacket's outer fabric. This membrane works because of the size difference between rain droplets and sweat. Each membrane has micropores big enough to let sweat out but small enough to prevent larger rain droplets from seeping inside.
Gore-Tex may be the brand name for laminate waterproofing, but companies increasingly are using their own technology or Gore-Tex competitors such as Pertex or eVent.
LAYERS: 2 VS 3 VS 2.5-LAYER PANTS
Laminates are available in three different types: 2-layer, 3-layer, and 2.5-layer. Each type describes how many layers are used in the construction of the waterproof fabric.
Ultralight 3-layer pant construction (Zpacks Vertice)
DURABLE WATER REPELLENT (DWR): THE GOLD STANDARD FOR WATERPROOFING
DWR is an acronym for durable water repellent. It is a liquid waterproof coating that is applied to the outside of rain pants. DWR can't be damaged physically, like the internal membrane of the waterproof laminate fabric. It does tend to wash off and lose its effectiveness over time. Thankfully, DWR can be reactivated by a few minutes in the dryer. It also can be reapplied either with a liquid you spray on the surface of the pant or a solution that is added to a wash cycle and infused directly into the fabric. DWR can be used as the only form of waterproofing, but it is often used in conjunction with a laminate membrane to provide an additional defense against the rain.
SEAM SEALING: PAY ATTENTION TO THE CONSTRUCTION
Seams are the weak point when it comes to waterproofing. Whether it's a pair of pants or a tent body, seam sealing is critical to preventing water from leaking through these areas where the pieces of fabric join together. Some rain pant manufacturers use stitching or specialty thread to help secure the seams. Seams can be further sealed with a water repellent liquid or covered with a special seam sealing tape to prevent leaking. Just like DWR, seam seals sometimes need to be replaced. You can re-tape each seam or spray them with a liquid waterproofing solution.
Seams sealed for additional waterproofing
ZIPPERS: CAN ALSO BE WATERPROOF-COATED
Zippers are another area that can leak when exposed to rain. To prevent leaking many pants treat their zippers with a waterproof coating that gives them a rubberized feel. Some pants also add a flap underneath the zipper that serves as a storm shield. You typically won’t see this flap on ultralight rain pants, which cut these extra features to trim weight.
FABRIC: NYLON VS POLYESTER
There are two primary types of fabrics used in the outer layer of hiking pants—nylon and polyester.
WEIGHT: KEEP IT BELOW 8 OUNCES
When choosing a target weight, you need to consider how you will be using your rain pants. Will you wear them only occasionally when it's cold, or you need bug protection at night? Do you plan on using them in town or extremely cold or wet weather? Most rain pants weigh around 6-8 ounces, with some as light as 3 ounces, and some are tipping the scale at 13 ounces. The lighter the pants, the more simple they are in construction. The most lightweight pants have zero vents, no pockets, and a very lightweight material that can tear easily. The heavier pants have ample zippers, a thicker material that'll stand up to abuse, and extra features like belts and articulated knees.
Two kinds of waterproof zippers (left: Mountain Hardwear Stetch Ozonic; right: Showers Pass Storm Pants)
PACKABILITY: THE MORE FEATURES, THE BULKIER
Almost all rain pants are very packable. You can roll them up and shove them into the nooks and crannies of your backpack. If you want the smallest packed size, opt for the minimal pants as they have less extra like zippers or belt buckles that add some girth. We write about these features in detail below the product reviews.
ACTIVITY: SKI VS HIKING VS BIKING VS CLIMBING
Most rain pants are multi-sport but cater to a specific sport. Skiing pants tend to have a layer of insulation for cold winter conditions, while biking pants may have padding for the bicycle seat. Climbing pants are similar to hiking pants but have more stretch to accommodate the movement needed for climbing. They also tend to be reinforced in those areas more likely to come in close contact with the rock. Hiking rain pants may have articulated knees for freedom of movement and zippers for easy removal.
WIND-PROOFING: A PERSONAL PREFERENCE
Rain pants are not only waterproof, but they also are windproof. Almost all pants provide some protection from the wind, but some pants have a specialized layer that improves their ability to block the wind. This extra windproofing typically is heavily advertised by manufacturers.
SUSTAINABILITY: CHEMICALS AND REPURPOSED MATERIALS
A growing number of companies are making their rain pants with sustainability in mind. Some pants are made with a milder waterproofing that doesn't use harsh chemicals harmful to the environment. Some pants are even made from recycled bottles and other repurposed materials.
Weight: 10 oz
Made with Gore-Tex Paclite, the XeroDry GTX Pants from REI will keep you warm and dry when a cold rain threatens to cancel your hike. The Paclite material is known for its water-resistance and its packable size. No more swish-swish sound either. The pants are remarkably quiet when you walk. The XeroDry GTX Pants have an athletic fit that is not too snug and not too baggy.
Available at REI.
Fabric: Ripstop Nylon
Weight: 8.1 oz
The Marmot PreCip Eco stands out for its sustainability. The pant is made from a 100% recycled nylon fabric. If you like pockets, you're going to love the PreCip Eco. The pants have front hand pockets and a back pocket. All the pockets have zippers to keep the contents inside safe and dry. We strongly recommend the full-zip version, which improves ventilation and makes it easy to slip them on even when a storm is raging outside.
Available at Amazon.
Fabric: 30D Ripstop Nylon
Weight: 5.5 oz
The Outdoor Research Helium tips the scale at a lightweight 6 ounces. Though not stretch pants, the generous cut and elastic waistband make this pant one of the most comfortable on our list. It falls short in durability especially when scaling rock is a daily occurance, but it is lightweight and packable. It's an ideal choice when the terrain is forgiving and pack space is a priority.
Available at Amazon.
Fabric: DryQ Active Waterproof
Weight: 10 oz
Mountain Hardwear has a winner with its Stretch Ozonic Pant. The company managed to create a super stretchy pant with the best breathability on our list. It may not be as storm worthy as the Arc'teryx Zeta SL, but that's OK. Just save the Zeta SL for those truly awful weather days and enjoy the free-movement of the Stretch Ozonic Pant the rest of the time.
Available at Amazon.
Fabric: Ripstop Nylon
The Rainier rain pants from REI pack a ton of features into a rain pant that costs well under $100. First and foremost, they have a full-length zipper that lets you control ventilation and take them off in an instant. The 2.5L fabric is made from recycled nylon and has a comfortable 4-way stretch. Waterproof and windproof up to 60+MPH, these Rainier pants will keep you warm and dry.
Available at REI.
Fabric: N40r GORE-TEX
Weight: 8.6 oz
Arc'teryx is expensive, but when it comes to rain gear, the company's products are worth the investment. The Arc'teryx Zeta SL is a prime example. Like its rain jacket with the same name, the rain pants have outstanding breathability thanks in part to its 2L GORE-TEX Paclite® Plus fabric and its 3/4-length side zips for ventilation. The pants balance performance with weight. Weighing only 8.8 ounces, they add a negligible amount to your pack, but you get so much for that half-pound. The only con for some folks would be the lack of pockets. Considering these are designed to pull out in the middle of the storm and not for walking around town, this is an omission we can overlook.
Available at Amazon.
Fabric: 100% Nylon
Weight: 7.65 oz
As its name implies, the Black Diamond Stormline stretch rain pants are made from stretch nylon and feature a gusseted design that moves as you move. They have excellent waterproofing thanks to the outer DWR finish and the BD.dry waterproof membrane. The Stormline Stretch also earns praise for its 1/3 length side zippers and its low profile waistband that fits seamlessly under the belt of your backpack.
The Black Diamond Stormline stretch also is available in a full-zip version.
Available at Black Diamond.
Fabric: 100% Nylon
Weight: 7.5 oz
With a price tag of $70, you can't go wrong with the Showers Pass Storm Pant. Showers Pass is known for its biking apparel, and these rain pants feature a biking-influenced design. Fortunately, they work as well on the trail as they do on the saddle. They have an elastic waistband for easy on/off and a zippered pocket for storing your cash when you're in town.
Available at Amazon.
Fabric: 7D Ripstop Nylon
Weight: 1.5 oz
If ultralight is what you are looking for, then it is hard to beat the Zpacks Vertice. At 2.5 ounces, the Vertice is the lightest hiking pant on our list by a large margin. You sacrifice durability and give up added features like zippers, but that's a trade-off you may be willing to make to keep your base weight as low as possible.
Available at Zpacks.
Fabric: Ripstop Nylon
Weight: 9.5 oz
REI Essential rain pants are minimalist pants for those who want an emergency pair but don't want to spend a lot of money. At $60, you can't find much of a better value. They have a low profile waistband that won't interfere with your backpack and a roomy, comfortable fit. Ankle-length zippers make it easy to throw them on when a sudden storm hits. Not surprisingly, the REI Essential Rain pants don't breathe as well as higher-end rain pants, but they will keep you warm and dry.
Available at REI.
ZIPPER LENGTH: FULL ZIP VS HALF ZIP
Zippers serve two purposes on rain pants. First, they open the pants at the bottom of the leg, making it easy to slip them on and off over a pair of trail sneakers or boots. Second, zippers allow you to open up the leg of the pants providing ventilation.
Zippers are a convenience feature, but they do have some drawbacks. They add weight to the pants, especially if you have more than one. Some pants even have zippers on the legs and zippers on the pockets.
Zippers also can be a weak point in the waterproofing. Unless they are somehow waterproofed, rain can seep through the teeth of the zippers.
LINING: PERSONAL PREFERENCE
Some rain pants are equipped with a mesh lining that helps keep the pant fabric away from your skin. Not only does this make the pants a bit more breathable, but it also helps keep the wet fabric away from your skin. The extra mesh layer has its drawbacks. Some people don't like the feel of the mesh and it adds extra weight to the pants.
Full-length zipper allow you to easily put the pants on over type of shoes.
POCKETS: NOT NEEDED
Pockets are handy to have on a pair of rant pants, but are not a necessity. If you plan to wear the pants primarily when hiking in the rain or wind, then pockets are not useful. They are usually burning underneath the strap making them inaccessible when hiking. It’s also hard to carry items in your pocket because they often get in the way when you hike.
Pockets are useful if you are wearing the pants around town when you are washing your regular hiking gear. It’s convenient to have a few pockets to carry your wallet or other necessities when you're in town. Pockets do add a small amount of weight though.
WAISTBANDS AND BELTS: EASY ON/OFF AND SNUG FIT
You don't often think about the waistband, but it can make or break a pair of rain pants.
If you plan to wear your rain pants over other clothing, you should consider rain pants with a stretch waistband. The band needs to expand if you want it to fit as you pull it up over your existing clothing. The biggest problem with a stretch band is that it can lose its hold over time. The best stretch bands have a tie string or cord lock to give it some extra grip around your waist.
Another option is the traditional fly with a belt. Like a stretch band, the fly gives the pants extra room to fit over existing clothes. It also cinches tightly around the waist so it won't fall down or loosen over time. This is also helpful when you lose weight on a long-distance hike. Just make sure the belt lies flat and doesn't interfere with the waist belt of your backpack.
BUILD: STRETCH FABRIC AND ARTICULATED JOINTS
When you think of rain pants, you probably think of plasticy pants that are stiff and restrictive when you hike.
A growing number of rain pants are made out of a stretch fabric that bends and moves as you hike. These pants give you a freedom of movement that is unforgettable. You can bend and stretch to scramble over any terrain. They also are great for biking which may be important if you are into multiple sports.
There is one significant drawback to stretch pants. They tend to be more expensive than their non-stretch counterparts. If you wear your rain pants a lot, it may be worth the extra cost. Otherwise, you may want to save some money by sticking with non-stretch fabric.
Articulated knees are another feature you may run across as you shop for pants. These gussets provide extra room in the knees so you can scramble and climb without resistance from your pants. This added fabric adds some weight to the pants, but the freedom of movement you get may be worth a few extra ounces.
WATERPROOF RATINGS: AT LEAST 10,000mm
All waterproof gear is given a rating based on how waterproof they are.
Water-resistance measurements are standardized using a 1 square inch cylinder water column or a hydrostatic test. These ratings are measured by the mm of water it would take to penetrate a piece of fabric.
For example, rain pants with a 10,000mm rating would need a 10,000mm column of water to finally soak into the fabric.
In general, the higher the number, the more water-resistant the material is. As you would expect, pants with the highest waterproof ratings also tend to be the most expensive.
The level at which a piece of fabric is considered waterproof varies among manufacturers.
BREATHABILITY RATINGS: AIM FOR 10,000g/m2 OR HIGHER (DEPENDS ON BRAND)
Pant also are assigned a breathability rating, but these ratings are not standardized. There is no single accepted test, so testing methodologies are all over the place.
Results also vary based on temperature, humidity, and outside air pressure. It's impossible to replicate real-world conditions in the lab, so take these ratings with a grain of salt.
Similar to waterproofing, the more breathable a pant, the more expensive it will be.
Breathability is measured in grams per square meter. The higher the value, the more breathable the fabric. Because the measurements are not standardized, it is challenging to compare one brand to another. Here are some rough guidelines though:
A NOTE ON BREATHABILITY: Don’t expect to be sweat-free when wearing breathable pants, though. Sweat can pass through the micropores in the waterproof membrane, but you will sweat faster than the sweat can escape. You will get sweaty even with the best breathable gear.
There are ways you can slow down this sweat build-up.
First, you can slow down your pace so you don’t sweat as much. This is especially critical during the winter when a dripping sweat can chill you to the bone.
You also can use ventilation if your pants have it. These side zippers can be opened to allow cooling air to circulate inside the pants. Once the air floods in, you can cool yourself off quickly.
Pants are only one option when it comes to keeping your legs dry and protected from the wind. You can choose to wear a rain skirt, kilt or even a poncho.
RAIN SKIRTS AND KILTS: ALL THE BENEFITS OF PANTS BUT NOT WINDPROOF
They wrap around your waist and cover your legs just like a skirt. These are easy to put on and take off. Unlike pants, you don’t even have to remove your boots. They also are very breathable minimizing sweat by allowing your legs to breathe while you hike. A skirt or kilt weighs about as much as a pair of pants and provides about as much protection from the rain. Wind is another story. Because they are very breathable, a kilt or skirt is not as effective in the wind as a pair of pants.
PONCHO: PROTECTS BOTH TOP AND BOTTOM
Another option is a rain poncho which can replace both your rain jacket your rain pants. The poncho slides over your head much like a sweatshirt, covering your head with a hood and draping over the rest of your body. It even drapes over your backpack providing an extra layer of protection for your gear. Most ponchos come down to your knees protecting you from your head down almost to your toes. Just like a rain skirt, a poncho is very breathable and lightweight. You can take it on and off without removing any clothing or gear.
WASHING AND DRYING
To extend the life of your pants, you need to care for them carefully to protect the waterproofing.
Don't be afraid to wash the pants. The breathability and waterproofing of the fabric depend on it staying relatively clean. Just follow the care instructions.
Typically, you can wash your rain pants on a gentle cycle with a small amount of waterproof-safe detergent, such as Nikwax Tech Wash. Avoid using powder detergents, fabric softeners, stain removers, or bleach as they may damage the waterproof fabric.
Once clean, you can hang the pants to dry or toss them in the dryer. Just check the care instructions to ensure the pants are dryer-safe.
If your pants lose some of their waterproofing, check the care instructions. You often can reactivate the DWR waterproofing by heating it in the dryer.
If you need to reapply the waterproofing, you can wash the pants with a commercial DWR solution that gives the material waterproofing. There's also spray waterproofing solutions that you can use to coat the surface of the pants. See options from Granger's, Nikwax, or Kiwi.
By Kelly Hodgkins: Kelly is a full-time backpacking guru. She can be found on New Hampshire and Maine trails, leading group backpacking trips, trail running or alpine skiing.
About Greenbelly: After thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, Chris Cage created Greenbelly to provide fast, filling and balanced meals to backpackers. Chris also wrote How to Hike the Appalachian Trail.
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