A guide to the best lightweight rain jackets for men and women thru-hiking in 2020.
Arc'teryx Alpha SL
Protecting yourself from the elements involves more than just a down or synthetic layer. In all four seasons, it's critical you have a waterproof layer to keep you dry when you are navigating an overgrown trail with wet vegetation or hiking in the rain, sleet or snow. You can choose a poncho or an umbrella to keep you dry, but the most popular piece of waterproof gear by far is a rain jacket. A waterproof coat typically is the outermost layer and can be worn alone in the summer or with an insulated jacket as part of a layering system in the fall and winter.
Buying a rain jacket is not as simple as it seems. A lot of technology and testing goes into the design of these jackets. When shopping, you'll encounter waterproof ratings, breathability ratings, DWR, and sealed seams. We explain this jargon and provide insightful tips so you can choose the right rain shell to pack for your next adventure.
Waterproofing: Aim for ratings of 10,000mm and greater.
Rain jackets vary widely in their ability to repel water, which is why there is a market standard that you can use to compare them. Many manufacturers provide a waterproof rating between 0 mm and 20,000 mm or higher. This number represents the height of water you can add to a 1-inch vertical tube before the material begins leaking. The higher the number, the more waterproof the fabric. For most outside endeavors, you'll want a rating of at least 10,000mm. A rating of 10,000 protects you during a light rain, while 20,000 or above is suitable for heavy rain.
Waterproofing is more than just a value. You also should look at the zippers to see if they are waterproof. They will be coated or covered with a layer of fabric to prevent water from seeping through the interlocked teeth. Seams are another weak spot that can leak in heavy rain. Seams should be sealed to help prevent water from soaking through the stitching.
A NOTE ON WINDPROOFING: Most rain jackets are inherently windproof because a coat that prevents rain from penetrating the fabric also prevents wind from entering as well. Some jackets, though, add an extra layer for windproofing but these additions may decrease the breathability.
Breathability: Most jackets are rated between 10K (10,000g) and 20K (20,000g).
Another similar number you'll encounter when purchasing a rain jacket is the breathability value. Breathability is measured as the number of grams of water vapor that can pass through a square meter of fabric. in 24 hours. Most jackets are rated between 10K (10,000g) and 20K (20,000g). The larger the number, the more breathable the fabric.
Breathability is vital if you are going to be wearing your rain jacket while hiking. Not only do you want your coat to keep out rain, but you also want it to let out sweat that accumulates as you exert yourself. There is nothing worse than a rain jacket that traps moisture on the inside, leaving you clammy and swimming in sweat. All breathable jackets face a similar challenge. The pace that the jackets remove water is slower than the rate people sweat. Over time, sweat will start to build up inside the coat no matter what you do.
Pit zips on Montbell's Versalite provide some extra additional ventilation
Durability: The higher the denier, the higher the durability.
Another characteristic you'll see advertised in a rain jacket is its denier. Denier measures the thickness of the individual threads or filaments used to make the fabric. Fabrics with a low denier (10D/20D) are softer and less durable, while fabrics with a high denier (50D) are thicker and more resistant to tearing.
A higher denier jacket is recommended for winter activities and hiking in thick brush or rocky areas. It'll be heavier to carry and won't pack down compactly, but you'll appreciate its tear-resistance on rough outings. A low denier jacket will be lightweight and easy to pack, but it will tear more easily when you come into contact with branches, thick brush, or jagged rock.
Weight: Jackets between 6 and 12 ounces offers a good balance of weight and performance.
Weight is another crucial factor to consider, especially if you are trying to cut ounces for a long-distance hike. There are plenty of lightweight rain jacket options, but most are minimalist jackets made from a lighter weight, less durable material, and little to no extra features like pockets or pit zips. The sweet spot seems to be 6 to 7 ounces. Anything less than that and you start dipping into the emergency jacket only category which tends to be less durable than an everyday rain jacket.
Sleeve cuffs on Patagonia's Rainshadow.
Sizing: Varies from brand to brand.
Each manufacturer has different sizing, so you have to try on the jacket in the store to ensure it will fit. At the bare minimum, you can take your chest, shoulder, and hip measurements to help you choose the best size. You should aim for a fit that is roomy enough to accommodate an extra layer, but not so loose that rain seeps in. Keep in mind that some jackets have an athletic fit that is designed to hug the shape of your body more closely. You may have to buy one size up if you want extra room for layers with an athletic fit.
Features: Minimalist vs Full-Feature?
Like most backpacking gear, you can choose between minimalist or full-featured jackets. A minimalist jacket does the job of keeping you dry without all the extras. These minimal jackets ditch the pockets, limit the adjustment options, and remove extra zippers to keep things simple and light. They also tend to be made with lighter material that packs more efficiently in a backpack.
A full-featured coat has everything you need and more. The extras you get include essentials like pockets, pit zips and plenty of adjustment points for the waist, hood, and wrists. These jackets also are made of more durable fabric that can withstand the scuffs and scrapes of walking in thick brush or scaling rock faces.
FIT: Rain jackets are designed in two basic styles - an athletic fit that is meant to be tight-fitting and a loose, boxy fit for layering. When purchasing a jacket, you don’t want it too tight in case you want to layer a down jacket or other clothing underneath. If the coat you want has an athletic cut, you may have to go up a size to have that extra room for layers. A boxy cut jacket should be true to size as you want to be able to use the adjustments points to secure the openings, so rain does not leak inside the coat.
POCKETS: Most rain jackets include at least two pockets for storing items while you hike. Daily wear jackets will place their pockets down by the waist so you can stand comfortably with your hands in your pockets. Performance jackets place their pockets up higher, allowing you to access the pockets even when you are wearing a climbing harness or a backpack with a hip belt.
Chest pocket on the Zpacks Vertice
HOOD: Almost all rain jacket includes a hood to keep you dry. Some hoods are small and adjust to fit your head snugly, while other hoods are large enough to accommodate a helmet. The bill portion of the hood provides extra protection by preventing the rain from dripping down on to your face. The bill can be long or short, stiff, or flexible. The best bills are long and have some rigidity, so they hold their shape.
VENTILATION ZIPS: Pit and side zips are crucial for venting sweat when you start to heat up while exercising. These zippers allow fresh air to flow around your core, cooling you down quickly.
DRAWSTRINGS AND STRAPS: Not only do rain jacket rely on their fabrics to block rain, but they also keep you dry with their ability to seal off any openings. Most high-quality rain jackets will include adjustable waistbands, adjustable hoods, and sleeve cuffs to create an impenetrable barrier from the rain.
BUILT-IN STRETCH: Select rain jackets include a blend of fabrics that provide some stretch allowing you to move your arms and bend freely while hiking, skiing, or climbing. These stretch rain jackets are not crinkly like a standard rain jacket and are comfortable both in town and in the backcountry. The trade-off for this extra comfort is price. Stretchable rain jackets tend to be more expensive than their standard counterparts.
Adjustable hood on the Enlightened Equipment Visp rain jacket
As you can imagine, quality can vary drastically between model and brands. Some manufacturers trim costs by minimizing the seam sewing, skipping the seam sealing and choosing low-cost zippers instead of the more expensive and reliable YKK zippers. Another factor is the waterproofing, especially when buying a used jacket. The waterproof layers inside the jacket may delaminate (separate) with age, and the DWR on the outside may fail, especially if you are rough on your coat. The DWR treatment can be restored, but the delamination cannot be fixed. In summary, you should look at the zippers and seams to make sure they will last. If you see a jacket that is flaking or bubbling on the inside, don't expect to stay dry.
Waterproofing a jacket is not as simple as it sounds. There are three different strategies used by manufacturers to waterproof a coat - laminates, coatings, and DWR. Laminate is a waterproof/breathable membrane that is attached to the inside of a jacket's shell material. Coatings are also applied to the interior, but this material is spread onto the shell in a thin film. Coatings are less expensive than a laminate layer, but they don't last as long. DWR, durable water repellent, is applied to the outside of most rain shells. DWR causes water to bead up and roll off a jacket protecting the outer fabric from becoming saturated with water. DWR also can wear off from washing and abrasion, but it can re-applied relatively easily and affordably.
Types of ventilation
Gore-Tex is the pioneer in waterproof and breathable clothing, but other companies are working hard to unseat the waterproof fabric king. Gore-Tex was among the first company to use layers of lightweight, protective fabric with a microporous Teflon layer in the middle. This microporous layer has over 9 billion pores per square inch and is the key to Gore-Tex's ability to block rain and remain breathable at the same time. The pores in this layer are 20,000 times smaller than a drop of water and 700 times larger than a water vapor molecule. This precise sizing keeps the rain on the outside and lets your sweat pass through the fabric to the outside. Gore-Tex is available in a 2, 2.5, and 3-layer configurations with a DWR coating on the outside.
Gore-tex may be the market leader in this category, but other companies have been developing competing fabrics. The top competitors to Gore-Tex are eVent which, like Gore-Tex, uses a form of Teflon in its waterproof membrane and Pertex Shield. Other competitors include Columbia's Omni-Tech fabric, Marmot's MemBrain and Patagonia's H2No. A new material, FutureLight, developed by The North Face, promises to deliver ten times the breathability of Gore-Tex and is lighter in weight than existing waterproof fabrics. It also can be made from recycled materials. Another up and coming competitor is HydroBot by KJUS, which actively pumps out the moisture using an electroosmotic technology the company developed. The smart fabric is up to 10 times more efficient at removing moisture than existing membranes and can keep up with your sweat rate so you won't get clammy on the inside.
Gore-Tex and its alternatives are not perfect. These pores can only allow so much water vapor to escape. If you are sweating up a storm during a steep ascent, not all of your sweat will be able to escape the pores in the fabric, and you will begin to feel clammy on the inside. To combat this moisture buildup, you can unzip the pit zips if your jacket has them or undo the front of the coat to let off some steam.
Types of Layers
To protect the delicate waterproofing layers, rain jacket manufacturers often add extra layers to their coats. This is why you will see a jacket designated as a 2-layer, 2.5-layer, or 3-layer jacket.
2-LAYER: a 2-layer coat attaches a waterproof membrane to the outer fabric and adds a hanging layer, usually mesh, to protect the membrane from wear and tear on the inside. You will find this construction on entry-level and casual rain jackets.
2.5-LAYER: A 2.5-layer coat is similar to a two-layer coat - both have a waterproof membrane affixed to the inside of the outer fabric. Instead of a mesh hanging layer, the 2.5-layer coat adds a thin protective material on top of the waterproof membrane. These jackets are lighter, more breathable and more packable than their 2-layer counterparts, making them popular choices for hikers and backpackers. Not everyone likes the 2.5-layer design as this inner fabric can give the jacket a plasticky feel.
3-LAYER: A 3-layer jacket uses three separate pieces of fabric with a waterproof membrane sandwiched between a rugged outer fabric and an inner protective fabric. These jackets are more substantial and more expensive than 2.5-layer jackets, but they are more durable thanks to the extra material. Almost all performance level jackets fall into this category.
Softshell vs Hardshell
Rain jackets are often referred to as "shells". When people talk about a typical rain jacket, they are usually describing a "hardshell" jacket though. These jackets have a rugged out layer designed to ward off rain or handle encounters with branches, rocks and more. They are ideal for outdoor pursuits where staying dry is critical.
Softshells are a completely different type of rain jacket that is more water-resistant than waterproof. These jackets are made from a soft, stretchable fabric that is treated with a DWR coating on the outside. This DWR coating causes water to bead up and roll off the jacket during a light rain. In a hard shower, the water can't roll off fast enough and will eventually saturate the fabric.
Softshells are more breathable than hard shells and are often worn for intense outdoor activities on a dry day. They tend to be stylish, making them an excellent choice for everyday wear as well. Some softshells have an inner layer of brushed fleece providing enough warmth that they can be worn as a water-resistant outer layer or an insulating layer underneath a hardshell.
Fabric: 2-layer Gore Windstopper and 10-denier Ballistic Airlight ripstop nylon
Weight: 6.4 ounces
Price: $199 at Moosejaw
The Montbell Versalite was designed to be lightweight, waterproof, and breathable. The jacket is cut using Montbell's K-mono cut which uses a single piece of fabric to cut the jacket. As a result, there are fewer seams to leak. Minimizing the seam stitching and sealing also reduces the weight on the jacket. Not only is the Versalite extremely lightweight, but it also is full-featured with generously-sized pit zips that extend down the arm, velcro cuffs, and an adjustable hood.
Also available for women.
Fabric: 2.5L Pertex Shield+ and 30D ripstop nylon
Weight: 6.4 ounces
Price: $160 at Outdoor Research
One of the most compact rain jackets on the market, the Helium II stuffs into an interior pocket that doubles as a stuff sack and packs down to the size of a Clif Bar. It is ultralight, making it an ideal rain jacket to throw in your pack as a just-in-case jacket. It is best suited for the occasional rain shower and will not stand up to extended rain or rough terrain. Not as full-featured as some other rain jackets, there are no pit zips for ventilation, no hand pockets and only an elastic at the cuffs.
Also available for women.
Fabric: Ripstop nylon with waterproof/breathable polyurethane interior coating
Weight: 9 ounces
Price: $100 at REI
The My Trail Storm UL is a basic nylon jacket with waterproofing on the inside and outside. The coat is fully seam-sealed with watertight zippers and velcro at the cuffs for a snug fit. There's also pit zips for added ventilation. The My Trail Storm UL is an affordable option for backpackers or hikers who want a jacket that'll keep them dry and won't break the bank. Its Achilles heel is the coatings it uses for waterproofing. You'll have to treat the jacket with care to avoid damaging the interior polyurethane and the outer DWR. Once those coatings are gone, the coat will lose some of its water resistance.
Fabric: 3-layer H2No Performance shell: and 12D ripstop nylon
Weight: 7 ounces
Price: $199 at REI
Patagonia's Rainshadow rain jacket is as stripped down as can be without sacrificing performance. The lightweight coat protects against the weather with DWR, Patagonia's proprietary H2No waterproof membrane and sealed seams. Similar to the Montbell Versalite, the Rainshadow is cut to minimize seams and reduce weight. It also provides extra room in the shoulder and across the back, allowing the jacket to move seamlessly as your hike or climb. It has a streamlined fit that is roomy enough for layers but not so roomy that it feels baggy.
The anorak-style coat has a center zipper that opens half-way down the garment. It provides some ventilation, but not as much as pit zips. Other features include a helmet-compatible and adjustable hood, single drawcord hem and a left chest pocket that doubles as a stuff sack.
Also available for women.
Fabric: Waterproof/breathable ePTFE membrane, 7D ripstop nylon, and a soft tricot lining
Weight: 5 ounces
Price: $200 at Enlightened Equipment
The Visp rain jacket by Enlightened Equipment is one of the lightest rain jackets on our list. The coat uses an ultralight 7D ripstop nylon with a waterproof and breathable membrane on the inside. Very breathable, the Visp can be used for high-intensity outdoor activities in light rain.
One of our favorite features is the drop tail hem which lengthens the back of the garment so it won't ride up when wearing a backpack. Enlightened Equipment makes most of its gear from its Winona, Minnesota location so you'll get an attention to detail that you can find in the mass-produced coats.
Also available for women.
Fabric: 2-layer Gore-Tex Paclite Plus and 40D ripstop nylon
Weight: 10.7 ounces
Price: $300 at REI
The Zeta SL is part of Arc’Teryx's superlight lineup of outerwear. The 2-layer coat weighs 10.7 ounces which places it right in the middle of most backpacking rain jackets. You get a lot of value for this weight. The Gore-Tex Paclite Plus is outstanding in the rain and will keep you dry even in a torrential downpour. Its equipped with water-resistant zippers and a velcro cuff that'll seal out water. The oversized hood is helmet-compatible and has an adjuster that cinches it down when you don't need that extra room. The brim is even laminated for extra water-resistance. The Zeta SL has a slim but comfortable fit thanks to gusseted underarms and an articulated cut for freedom of movement. A slight drop hem and adjustable hem drawcord ensure a snug fit that won't ride up when you are wearing a backpack.
Also available for women.
Fabric: Marmot NanoPro waterproof/breathable membrane and 100% Nylon Ripstop 2.4 oz/yd (AM)
Weight: 11.4 ounces
Price: $100 at REI
The Precip is the classic rain jacket that everyone buys when they are looking for an affordable, entry-level rain jacket. It's durable enough to withstand minor scrapes and scuffs, yet waterproof enough for hiking in the rain. It has a boxy cut that fits well over layers but isn't oversized. Marmot priced the Precip at the low end, but the company didn't skimp on the extras. The jacket has pit zips for ventilation, velcro cuffs, plenty of pockets and a built-in stuff sack pocket.
Also available for women.
Fabric: Zpacks custom waterproof breathable fabric, 7D ripstop nylon, and a tricot lining
Weight: 6.2 ounces
Price: $260 at Zpacks
The Vertice is a three-layer rain jacket made from a proprietary waterproof and breathable fabric made specifically for Zpacks. It is amazingly light and breathes better than most competing rain jackets. There also are two pit zips for even more ventilation. It not only breathes, but it also keeps you dry even in heavy rain. The zippers are water-resistant and have a storm flap on the inside, which helps to keep the rain out. Similar to most rain jackets, all the seams are fully taped.
The Vertice is a minimal coat with a single chest pocket that is used for storage and doubles as a stuff sack. It packs up compactly and takes minimal space and weight in your backpack. It has a hood that stores inside the jacket and is large enough for a small helmet when opened.
Also available for women.
Fabric: BD.dry™2.5L and 100% Nylon 88% nylon with 12% elastane
Weight: 9.9 ounces
Price: $150 at REI
The Black Diamond Stormline Stretch is the jacket you want when your outdoor pursuits require mobility and durability in a shell. The stretch is the first thing you notice when you try on the Stormline Stretch. When you move, you can feel the jacket stretch to move along with you. It has a regular fit and feels roomy thanks to underarm gussets that provide a bit more fabric across the shoulders and chest.
Everything about the Stormline Stretch screams quality. The YKK zippers are coated with PU for water resistance. It has pit zips for added ventilation and an adjustable, helmet-compatible hood. Rock climbers will appreciate the pocket stuff sack that has a carabiner clip for convenient storage. You can attach it to your pack and grab it without having to stop.
Also available for women.
Fabric: Breathable and waterproof nonwoven polypropylene
Weight: 9 ounces
Price: $16 at Frogg Toggs
The Frogg Toggs poncho is popular among long-distance hikers because it is so lightweight and affordable. The poncho will keep you bone-dry in the rain and is naturally ventilated so you won't get soaked from sweat. It has side snaps so you can open and close it as needed. It has a roomy hood with a drawcord for adjustment.
The biggest detractor to the Frogg Toggs Ultralite 2 Poncho is its durability. The polypropylene fabric may tear if it snags on a branch or scrapes up against a rock. On the upside, it is recyclable so you don't have to throw it away when it reaches the end of its life.
Q: How to wash a rain jacket?
Wash your rain jacket on a gentle cycle with a small amount of liquid detergent such as Nikwax Tech Wash. Avoid using powder detergents, fabric softeners, conditioners, stain removers, or bleach as they may damage the fabric. We prefer to hang our jackets to dry, but you can toss some jackets in the dryer. Check the instructions to make sure the coat is dryer-safe and to find out what temperature settings to use if it can be dried.
Q: Can I increase my rain jacket's lifespan?
The best way to extend the lifespan of a rain jacket is to keep it clean. Rinse it with water to remove superficial dirt and wash it regularly to remove dirt, grime, and sweat.
Q: How to restore the permeability of a used rain jacket?
After several seasons of usage, a jacket may lose its ability to keep you dry. You can waterproof most jackets as long as the membrane is not damaged. Start with a visual inspection of the jacket looking on the inside to see if the inner layer is separating from the membrane of the jacket. If you notice flaking, bubbling, or partial separation, then the coat is not salvageable and should be thrown away. If the inner layers are intact, you can apply a new layer of DWR to the jacket.
First, wash the jacket and toss it in the dryer as the heat can reactivate DWR. Just be sure the care instructions recommend drying or you can ruin your coat.
There are several ways to waterproof a jacket. You can wash the jacket with a DWR liquid that infuses the fabric with a fresh application of water resistance. There also are spray-on DWR treatments when you want water protection only on the outside. Check out Granger's, Nikwax, McNett or Penguin for a variety of DWR treatment options.
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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