Sitka Vapor SD Rain Jacket Review
I love to hate rain gear. I’ve given up on rain pants entirely and avoid putting on my rain jacket even in the heaviest downpours. I carry an umbrella on every backpacking trip specifically so I can avoid using my hard shell for as long as possible. But the truth is, deep down I value the versatility of a good rain jacket just as much as easy-to-love gear like my puffy and quilt.
Sure, hiking in an icy rainstorm can be miserable, but it doesn’t need to be raining for a hiker to reap the benefits of a lightweight, waterproof layer. Most of the time when I’m wearing my rain jacket, it isn’t even raining. I use it instead to cut down wind-chill, provide an extra shred of warmth at dawn or dusk, or protect my torso from enthusiastic mosquitoes. On shoulder season excursions, I find myself zipping up my rain jacket every day in the backcountry, even with clear skies.
The Sitka Vapor SD is an ultralight rain jacket that checks all the boxes. It weighs less than similar offerings yet boasts more features (read: pockets). Using the latest technology from Gore-Tex, it also promises to be more waterproof, breathable, and durable. I’m naturally skeptical of such bold claims (especially when any rain jacket claims to be breathable), but I was impressed overall and found the Vapor SD to be an upgrade across the board compared to what I’m used to.
Sitka Vapor SD At-a-Glance
Model: Sitka Vapor SD
Style: Hard-shell rain jacket
Waterproofing: Gore-Tex ShakeDry™
Weight: 5.25 ounces (men’s SM, measured)
Sitka is a technical apparel company specializing in hunting gear for year-round applications. As a vegan, I love peanut butter and have mixed feelings about hunting, but it’s undeniable that hunters demand amazing gear. While the result is generally overbuilt and overweight by backpacking standards, the focus on staying comfortable in harsh conditions is shared by both parties. Every now and then, a crossover piece like the Vapor SD hits the market. Sitka is owned by the same parent company as Gore-Tex, and thus is well-positioned to make use of their latest waterproofing technology. That’s good for hunters and, in this case, backpackers as well.
Sitka designed the Vapor SD to be an ass-saving layer for training in unpredictable conditions, lightweight and packable enough to justify bringing along on any adventure despite a sunny forecast. Based on my calculations, “ass-saving” in hunting parlance is equivalent to “depend on it every day” for thru-hikers. Its weight and packability definitely qualify the Vapor SD for inclusion on a backpacking gear list and even make it worth keeping close in the frontcountry.
Circumstances of Review
A few weeks of consistently dreary days on the Oregon coast provided ample frontcountry opportunity to test the waterproofness claims made by Sitka of the Vapor SD. Precipitation varied from soaking mist to blinding downpours blowing sideways. Walks in these conditions usually fell somewhere between 30 minutes and one hour.
Opportunities to test breathability and durability in a backpacking setting have been hard to come by. The summer in the Pacific Northwest has since turned dry and warm, which is great for a lot of reasons, but crappy for testing a rain jacket. I’ve taken the Vapor SD with me on several hikes and backpacking trips in Colorado and Oregon, and terrific conditions have always kept it in my backpack.
For comparison, I carried the popular Outdoor Research Helium rain jacket on my 2015 PCT thru-hike and a dirt-cheap O2 Rainwear jacket on a CDT thru-hike in 2019. The latter is similar to classic Frogg Toggs.
Sitka Vapor SD Features
Gore-Tex ShakeDry™: Sitka calls this “the lightest, most breathable, windproof, waterproof, packable” product offered by Gore-Tex. Sounds pretty good, huh?
Pockets: The Vapor SD has two zippered hand pockets. Most ultralight jackets have zero. These are roomy and great for stashing snacks, electronics, or hands in cold or wet conditions. The jacket can be stuffed into either one with space to spare.
Full-length zipper: Nothing fancy here. Just a quality plastic zipper that keeps water out. It is also useful for regulating body temperature.
Adjustable hood: The three-panel hood is comfortable and easy to adjust. An elastic drawstring on the back of the head allows for one-handed tightening. With it cinched down, it moves well with the head and does not block peripheral vision. This is one of the best hoods I’ve ever used. Note that it’s not helmet-compatible.
Lycra cuffs: Sitka decided to go with non-adjustable cuffs, presumably to cut down weight and bulk. The stretchy Lycra material is comfortable around the wrist but does leave gaps that might allow water to work inside the sleeves. This is a common downside to ultralight jackets, though, and I prefer the Lycra to the more typical, scrunchy elastic cuffs.
Sealed seams: The seams are fully sealed to prevent water ingress. The only place I could find unprotected stitching was at the cuffs, waist, and hood where the Lycra was attached.
Enabling Technology: Gore-Tex ShakeDry™
The Problem with Rain Gear
The majority of rain jackets are constructed using a three-layer system. A waterproof, breathable membrane is sandwiched between a comfortable inner fabric and a protective outer fabric with durable water repellent (DWR) finish. The problem with this is that the DWR isn’t actually that durable. Dirt, body oils, and abrasion degrade this coating to the point that the outer fabric absorbs water instead of shedding it. When this happens, sweat vapors can’t escape through the breathable membrane, resulting in that nasty, clammy feeling that we all know so well. Regular maintenance mitigates this performance degradation and products exist to refurbish DWR, but inevitably it fails.
A Different Problem
Cheap rain jackets like Frogg Toggs or my O2 eliminate the outer DWR layer, which solves the wetting-out problem, but leaves the fragile, waterproof membrane exposed to a world of sticks, rocks, and cheese graters. The results are ugly. Users often find themselves rocking major holes or sending multiple jackets to the landfill over the course of a single thru-hike. Bad for staying dry and bad for the environment.
Enter Gore-Tex ShakeDry™. This membrane is robust enough to eliminate the need for protective DWR fabric without sacrificing durability. What does that mean? With the Vapor SD, Sitka cuts out the weight of an entire layer of fabric, and the jacket never absorbs water or loses breathability. Wet weather performance will supposedly last forever without special treatment besides regular launderings. The fabric even stretches so the well-fitted garment doesn’t sacrifice mobility or put undue strain on the seams.
I foresee most hiker trash being priced out by the high tag price of the Vapor SD. That’s too bad today, but I believe that it will work out in the long run. The trickle-down theory might not work for economics, but it works for backpacking gear. Time for innovative technology to reach the masses can run excruciatingly slow, but gear we take for granted now (carbon fiber, down insulation, GPS, etc.) was all expensive or available only to sponsored athletes at one point. Who knows exactly why Gore-Tex ShakeDry is so expensive? A combination of material, manufacturing, and development cost? Lack of competition? It doesn’t matter. The price will come down and more people will buy it. Then we’ll all dream about owning the next big thing.
So how well does that fancy ShakeDry™ stuff work? As advertised, precipitation beaded up in circular droplets and a swift shake dislodged them. The only place that water could stick was the Sitka logo. I’m sold on at least the short-term performance of Gore-Tex ShakeDry™.
Besides the waterproofness of the fabric itself, the cut of the Vapor SD did a good job of keeping me dry in the rain. The stretchy cuffs left a small gap that allowed some moisture to work up my wrists and a little water made it through my beard to my neck as well. Besides that, the hood did a nice job sealing around my face and, overall, this jacket keeps the water out at least as well as any other jacket I’ve used. For the most part, it also does a great job with wind protection, but would benefit from an adjustable drawcord at the waist to seal out drafts.
Beautiful summer weather hasn’t yet provided a scenario where I can put the Gore-Tex breathability claims to the test. That’s unfortunate, but I’ve done my best. I hiked in the Vapor SD unnecessarily in the blazing sun with a pack on and was pleased to find that the only places swimming in sweat were where my pack met my body. And I’ll add that the inside of the jacket never felt clammy during casual walks, even in high-humidity situations. While there are no pit zips, the full-length zipper works well for dumping heat when exertion levels rise. I don’t think rain jackets will ever be as breathable as manufacturers want you to believe, but the Vapor SD feels like a step in the right direction.
I don’t have any complaints when it comes to comfort. The low weight of this jacket allows it to disappear when I put it on. The textured inner surface feels nice next to the skin if wearing a short-sleeve shirt, and the Lycra hems are nice and soft. The hood moves well with my head and keeps my vision unhindered, which I’m sure I’ll appreciate during a bear or cougar attack.
Fit and Sizing
The ShakeDry™ fabric has a bit of stretch, which helps the jacket move with the wearer and allows Sitka to keep a trim fit. I value this in an active layer, but there isn’t much room for layering underneath. That said, sizing is true and comparable to my OR Helium. I would recommend sizing up if intending to cover a puffy insulating layer with the Vapor SD. To be fair, a size small fit over my Arc’Teryx Atom LT without trouble.
Waterproof: In my experience, the ShakeDry™ technology lives up to the hype. I’ve never seen such fantastic water repellency on fabric before. Water beads up like it does on a freshly waxed car. And as the name implies, it shakes off.
Durability: I have more work to do, but so far have been impressed by the durability of the Vapor SD. It’s still just as waterproof as the day I unbagged it, and sealed seams will be hard to blow out. Unlike the cheapest rain jackets, I don’t think this is going to the landfill anytime soon.
Low weight: At just over five ounces, this jacket weighs a few peanuts more than two Clif Bars. I find it funny that Sitka does not list the weight on their website. Most companies would print it in bold. Clearly they aren’t focused on the backpacking crowd.
Pockets: I’ve sacrificed pockets in the name of going ultralight before, but I’m happy to have them back. They’re great for securing electronics when the rain starts falling or when the temperature drops.
Fit: The cut of the Vapor SD makes it great for active pursuits like backpacking where baggy clothing can get caught on plants or awkwardly folded between a pack and back. And this jacket looks good. It just does.
Packability: Having only two layers of fabric allows this jacket to pack down to roughly the size of one of those frozen burritos that are three times too small to satisfy your hiker hunger. It stuffs into either of its pockets with plenty of room to spare.
Windproof: I will use this jacket more for wind protection than rain protection. On windy days above treeline, I turn to my rain jacket to cut down the chill. The Vapor SD will do that, no problemo.
Only comes in black: Eliminating the outer fabric layer means there is nothing to hold dye. The black of the ShakeDry membrane does look good, but there is value in rocking obnoxiously flamboyant colors when visibility is poor or in rescue situations.
Price: The high performance of this jacket will cost you. Whether or not it’s worth the cost is up to you. To be fair, there are more expensive jackets out there (I’m looking at you Arc’teryx Zeta FL).
No venting: The Vapor SD has no pit zips or pocket vents. These features add weight and were deemed unnecessary by Sitka. I agree and feel that the main zipper is adequate for shedding excess heat.
Cuffs: They are comfy on my sensitive wrists, but I prefer Velcro closures to seal out the elements.
No waist adjustment: The stretchy Lycra hem does a decent job of trapping warmth and blocking wind, but a drawcord would be an improvement. Not sure if it would be worth the weight though.
The Sitka Vapor SD is the lightest and most protective rain jacket I have ever owned. It’s difficult, though not impossible, to find a lighter hard shell. The wet weather performance is shockingly superior to my old OR Helium. Still, it’s hard for me to heartily recommend a $300 clothing item. Does superior performance justify spending so much? I’ve completed two thru-hikes in other jackets without missing the Vapor SD. I’m excited to use it on future adventures but probably wouldn’t have splurged without seeing it in action myself. However, if your budget allows, I believe that the Gore-Tex ShakeDry™ is worth the investment over traditional three-layer waterproof shells. With the Vapor SD, Sitka takes that technology and turns out a great jacket.
Similar Rain Jackets
Weight: 6.3 ounces (men’s); 5.6oz (women’s)
Waterproofing: 2.5-layer Pertex Shield
Weight: 4.9 ounces (men’s); 4.6 ounces (women’s)
Waterproofing: Three-layer fabric with ePTFE waterproof/breathable membrane
Weight: 6.2 ounces (men’s); 5.7 ounces (women’s)
Waterproofing: Three-layer Vertice fabric
Weight: 7.2 ounces (men’s); 6.3 ounces (women’s)
Waterproofing: Two-layer N20p Gore-Tex fabric with Paclite Plus
This product was donated for purpose of review.
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