How to Choose the Proper Rain Gear for Your Hike
Angry storm clouds swirl overhead as icy rain drenches the alpine landscape around you. An earsplitting thunderclap precedes a hair-raising crackle of lightning. “Good thing I brought appropriate rain gear for my hike, rather than cutting arm and head holes in a garbage bag like Bradley Cooper in Silver Linings Playbook!” you cry as you sprint for cover.
Trying to choose the best rain gear for your needs can be a frustrating and intimidating process. From trash ponchos to high-end performance jackets, the sheer number and diversity of choices are overwhelming. Believe it or not, though, there is some rhyme and reason to the mysterious world of hiking rainwear—if you know what to look for. So how do you choose the proper rain gear for your hike? Let’s start by establishing why you need to have it in the first place.
The Purpose of Rain Gear
Weather is inherently unpredictable (especially in the mountains,) and a hiker caught unaware by a storm is at risk of more than just wet socks and sadness. Getting soaked in the backcountry is a recipe for hypothermia. This is a year-round possibility in any environment, so take note and plan accordingly.
Rainwear is obviously meant to keep you dry, but its other job is to keep you warm. This latter function is underrated, but it’s arguably the more important of the two from a safety standpoint. It’s the reason rain gear is considered one of the Ten Hiking Essentials you should never hike without.
Some Factors to Consider
Remember, your primary goal with rainwear is to stay both dry and warm. To narrow the field of potential choices, you’ll want to first consider factors like the location, season, and length of your hike, as well as your budget.
When and Where Will You be Hiking?
If your planned destination is in a warm, arid environment, the stated goal of staying warm and dry with your rain gear is pretty attainable. In contrast, if you’ll be in a wet and/or cold region, your rain gear will have to work harder to function the way you want.
Think about the time of year and whether you’ll be experiencing significant elevation change on your hike since elevation can dramatically affect local weather conditions. Don’t forget to account for nighttime lows as well as daytime highs when estimating typical conditions.
Hot and (mostly) dry? Go minimalist on weight and price with a lightweight rain jacket (example: Outdoor Research Helium) or emergency poncho. A rain umbrella is another option that can complement this system for maximum breathability. Whatever rain stuff you bring is likely to spend most of its time at the bottom of your pack, so it’s OK to skimp in this situation. Just remember to have something in case conditions change unexpectedly. It does happen.
Hot and wet? A lightweight waterproof/breathable jacket and optional rain kilt will manage sweat while keeping you dry. A rain umbrella is another option that can complement this system for maximum breathability.
Cold and wet? A beefier waterproof breathable jacket and pants can add significant warmth to your layering system in addition to protecting you from wet weather and abrasion from snow and ice. Waterproof mitts, waterproof boots and/or socks, and, in snowy conditions, waterproof gaiters, are also advisable.
Cold and dry? Same as cold and wet. Even if it’s highly unlikely that you’ll see precipitation on your trip, in a cold environment you have to consider how disastrous it would be if a freak storm did materialize and soak you to the bone. Do not underestimate the danger of being cold and wet. Don’t skimp!
How Long Will You be Hiking For?
If you’re a day hiker or a weekend backpacker, it’s relatively easy to predict the sorts of temperatures and environments you’ll likely encounter on the trail. But if you’ll be in the field for weeks or even months at a stretch, it’s virtually impossible to predict the conditions you’ll face. The longer you’re out, the greater the chance you’ll encounter foul weather somewhere along the way. Also, you’ll be more likely to traverse a broad range of environments with dramatically different weather patterns. Long-distance hikers can’t tailor their rain gear choice to a specific environment or season, so if you fit that description, look for versatile, generalist gear that can function well in a wide range of conditions. You may also prize packability and weight savings since every ounce counts in a thru-hiker’s pack.
What’s Your Budget?
Rain gear falls on a pretty broad pricing spectrum, so think about how much money you’re willing to spend. In a gear category that’s both broad and incredibly nuanced, cost is a legitimate and effective parameter to help narrow down your search. Avoiding expensive features like waterproof zippers and opting for less expensive PU-coated fabrics over ePTFE laminates (more on that later) can significantly reduce the cost of rain gear.
Rain Gear Technology
Now that we’ve established some general context to help you choose the proper rain gear for your hike, let’s talk about the actual technology. In this section, we’ll be focusing on wearable rain gear, particularly rain jackets, as they’re the go-to choice for most hikers.
Obviously, the first thing you’ll want to consider when buying rain gear is whether the product in question is, you know, waterproof. Waterproofness itself is a relative thing; measurements of waterproofness are standardized and are based on the amount of water pressure a material can withstand before starting to leak.
Generally, you can start to consider a garment truly waterproof if it’s rated to withstand a water column up to 2,100 mm high (the rough equivalent of 3 psi or light rain). Ideally, though, you would want something rated to 10,000 mm or higher, which will withstand wind-driven rain and the pressure of your body weight when you sit or lean against a wet surface.
Waterproof garments have design features like covered zippers and taped seams to keep water from seeping in anywhere, and they contain a layer of truly waterproof material. It isn’t the same as water repellency, which is the ability of a fabric to bead water and keep it from penetrating. This ability is imparted to material by DWR (durable water repellent), a chemical treatment that can be extremely effective but is prone to failure with prolonged wear.
Waterproof garments are like onions: they have layers. Typically, there’s an outer face fabric that’s treated with DWR to keep water from penetrating; a very thin waterproof layer in the middle; and an inner fabric that protects the waterproof part from damage due to dirt and abrasion. Waterproof materials are further subdivided into two, 2.5, and three-layer construction.
In two-layer fabrics, a mesh liner is used as the inner protective layer. Because it hangs loose and isn’t bonded to the rest of the material, it’s not technically considered part of the layering system—hence only two layers. Two-layer jackets are the heaviest and cheapest option.
Meanwhile, 2.5-layer fabrics have just the thinnest protective coating painted on the inside of the jacket to protect the waterproof material. This veneer may not be the most effective at protecting the waterproofing/promoting breathability, but 2.5-layer jackets tend to be cheaper (and can be lighter weight) than their three-layer counterparts.
Three-layer jackets have a full-on protective fabric layer bonded to the interior side of the waterproof layer. This style is heavier than a 2.5-layer construction but much lighter than a two-layer. It performs the best in terms of breathability and durability. If you’re looking for something high end and technical, go with three layers.
No matter how many layers your rainwear features, the garment in question will probably feature either a laminate or a coated material. Laminates feature a solid membrane bonded (laminated) to the inside of the face fabric. Gore-Tex is a well-known example of a waterproof laminate. It utilizes a material called ePTFE, a microporous variant of Teflon, as its waterproof membrane. Gore-Tex is everywhere in the hiking rainwear market, but REI’s Xerodry GTX jacket is one good example.
Coated waterproof garments have a waterproof film like polyurethane (PU) painted on the interior of the face fabric. PU-coated rainwear is often cheaper and lighter than laminate alternatives, but durability and breathability may suffer in exchange. The Marmot PreCip is a prime example of a PU-coated jacket.
Waterproof breathable materials allow sweat to escape from inside the jacket while preventing rain from entering. This is achieved by creating micropores within the waterproof material that are just large enough to allow water vapor (evaporating sweat) to pass through but are small enough to prevent liquid water (rain) from doing the same.
Waterproof breathable technologies have their limitations, and they can be overwhelmed quite quickly during active pursuits—as any hiker who’s ended up drenched with sweat inside their rain shell knows. That being said, these breathable materials are still markedly better at managing sweat than non-breathable vapor barrier alternatives, so it’s worth investing in a quality breathable garment if possible. Reducing sweat output is a crucial aspect of keeping yourself dry during a storm, after all.
When waterproof breathable technology inevitably reaches its limits, look to features such as pit zips that improve ventilation and airflow against your skin as another powerful tool to manage sweat. Alternative rain gear styles, like kilts, ponchos, and umbrellas (more on these later) provide superb ventilation.
Though they aren’t necessary components of a great rain jacket, the following features are all nice to have. They’ll enhance your comfort and the functionality of the jacket, though it should be noted that all come with penalties in the form of added weight and expense. If you’re looking for the works, check out the REI Stormbolt GTX jacket.
Adjustable hood. It’s great to be able to fine-tune the adjustment of your hood so that it’s not always slipping down into your eyes, and you can believe that in a driving storm, you’ll appreciate that little bit of shock cord that allows you to cinch that baby down tight.
Brimmed hood. A bill on the front of your hood is definitely going to add some weight to your jacket, but it’s nice for keeping the rain from dripping in your eyes.
Waterproof zippers. Most rain jackets have flaps covering the zippers to keep rain from seeping through them, but some high-end jackets have waterproof zippers. These can give your rainwear a sleek, streamlined look, and more importantly, they can actually generate some weight savings by eliminating the need for all those extra flaps. They do add to the price tag, though.
Pockets. Who doesn’t love a little extra storage space? Pockets can also be unzipped to provide extra ventilation. They add weight to your garment, and if you wear a pack with hip belt pockets, they might be somewhat vestigial.
Adjustable cinch waist. In a strong wind, it’s nice to be able to cinch your waist down tight to lock in warmth.
Full-leg zippers (rain pants). Generous zippers add weight but make it far easier to get in and out of your rain pants on the go. Just saying: in a sudden downpour, you’re definitely not going to love fumbling around in the mud trying to squeeze your giant hiking shoes through the cuff of your rain pants. Check out REI’s Rainier rain pants for an example.
Additional Rain Gear
Sometimes, you have to turn away from the beaten path to find the solution that best fits your needs. Here are a few unconventional pieces of kit that might enhance your rain system.
Popular among desert hikers because they pull double duty as sun protection (and triple duty as rainwater collectors when turned upside down in camp), umbrellas are extremely effective at keeping your upper half dry. With no stuffy material enclosing you at all, they provide superb ventilation, so not only will you not get rain on you, but you also won’t find yourself sweating excessively. You can use your umbrella hands-free by using a couple of gear ties to lash it to one of your pack shoulder straps. Ultralight hiking umbrellas weigh in between six and 10 ounces, a competitive weight compared to rain jackets.
There are several downsides to umbrellas, though. They don’t perform well in high winds or dense brush, it can be annoying to keep them properly adjusted (either you have to hold it in one hand or fiddle around to get it positioned just right on your shoulder strap), and if temperatures drop unexpectedly, they’ll be of no use as an extra warm layer in your clothing system.
Ponchos aren’t quite as breathable as umbrellas, but with those giant, baggy sleeves and overall loose fit, they get pretty decent air circulation compared to jackets. An oversized poncho can go over both you and your pack, providing maximum protection for your gear. For many hikers, the biggest advantage ponchos have is that they’re pretty inexpensive compared to most rain coats. They’re a little more convenient to use than umbrellas, but their loose cut makes them a poor fit for windy or brushy conditions. If you’re in the market, check out Outdoor Products’ Backpacker Poncho.
Rain kilts or skirts are basically your lower half’s version of a poncho. They provide way more breathability and circulation than pants (and typically for significantly less weight), but they don’t cover your legs entirely and, again, are sub-optimal in wind or dense vegetation. If you hate having wet legs but you’ll be hiking in a warm area where rain pants aren’t a necessary part of your layering system, they’re an ideal solution for weight savings and comfort.
Most hikers who pack a rain jacket also bring along the matching set of pants, but do you really need rain pants? The answer largely depends on the conditions you expect to encounter on your trip. Rain pants can add significant warmth to your layering system in cold weather, plus they’ll protect your legs from moisture and abrasion by snow and ice. If it’s going to be buggy, they might serve as an uncomfortable but highly necessary barrier against mosquitoes and other biting insects. The rest of the time, they’re generally just too heavy and stuffy to justify carrying. None of your vital organs are in your legs, so it’s slightly less important to protect them in typical three-season conditions.
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