The Best Rain Jackets for Backpacking of 2020
A rain jacket is pretty much nonnegotiable as part of your thru-hiking kit, like a down or synthetic jacket. Sure, it might stay stuffed in your pack during the dry parts of the trail, but once the rainy section hits, you’ll be glad to deploy this critical piece of gear. Your rain jacket will also protect from wind and help keep your core warm when the temperature drops. Remember that there is no perfect rain jacket out there, and nothing is infallible against truly torrential conditions. If you’re hiking in it, you’re going to sweat. There are some models out there that are more breathable than others, but you are going to get damp in this layer if you’re moving. It’s not the jacket failing… you’re just sweaty.
What to Look for in a Backpacking Rain Jacket
Your rain jacket shouldn’t weigh more than 12-14 ounces. 8-10 ounces is ideal.
Your backpacking rain jacket should be a medium fit. You want to comfortably layer underneath it without sacrificing mobility, but it shouldn’t feel so big that it bunches up. Because this can be used as another layer to protect against cold, you don’t want to have to work harder to keep that microclimate warm. Look for a longer model with a drop waist to help rain runoff in the back, and also in case you want to sit down. At the very least, the jacket should be long enough that it doesn’t ride up under a hip belt.
The two main types of waterproofing are a PU laminate and an ePTFE membrane. Rain jackets built with a PU laminate are less expensive, but won’t be as breathable. Gore-Tex was the original user of the ePTFE membrane, which is waterproof and breathable. If you have the budget, look for mentions of GTX, eVent, or proprietary branding that utilizes ePTFE.
Pit zips: Good for dumping heat while wearing it on the move, but not totally necessary.
Drawcord waist: Protect from splashing and keep your other layers (sort of) dry.
Adjustable cuffs: Same as the drawcord waist. Nothing’s worse than reaching up and having water pour down your sleeves. Look for elastic or Velcro closures.
Hood fit: This one can be tricky. You want the hood to be fitted and deep enough (with a brim) so the rain doesn’t sneak in, but you also don’t want to lose your peripheral vision. Make sure you can tighten the hood enough to turn your head and have the hood turn with you, not turn your head and be staring at the inside of the hood.
Sealed pockets: We don’t recommend keeping anything of value in your rain jacket pockets, but makes sure the model has waterproof zippers… at the very least highly water resistant.
The Best Rain Jackets for Backpackers of 2020
Outdoor Research Helium II
Weight: 5.6 ounces
This jacket was perfect for the PCT. It packs down tiny and is incredibly light (I wear an XS and it weighs 5.25 ounces), but at no compromise to the protection it offers. It kept me dry through some gnarly high Sierra thunderstorms and also got the job done through some perpetually wet days in Oregon and Washington. I’m not a big fan/proponent of hiking in rain gear because it gets so hot, but the Helium is very effectively breathable. I won’t be swapping it out for something else on the Colorado Trail this summer. Bonus points for so many color options. –Anne Baker
Weight: 6.4 ounces
Enlightened Equipment Visp
Weight: 4.3 ounces
Enlightened Equipment continues to up the cottage-industry apparel game with this sub-5 ounce rain jacket. Reasonably priced, featherlight, and with EE’s option to customize the color, this rain jacket is a thru-hikers’ dream. The Visp is built with three layers, including a soft lining to avoid the clammy rain jacket feel, lightweight 7D ripstop nylon, and an ePTFE membrane for the coveted combo of being waterproof while still breathable. This is one of the lowest denier face fabrics, and while it’s still durable, we recommend keeping an eye on potentially abrasive off-trail areas. The jacket has a longer hem to allow water to drip, a deep hood, and yes… it’s made in the US. –Maggie Slepian
Arc’Teryx Zeta SL
Weight: 10.9 ounces
The Arc’Teryx Zeta SL is built with an ultra-tough 40D face fabric and GoreTex Paclite Plus membrane, and is a killer combo of durable, packable, and breathable. It is one of the more expensive on the list, and while you’re getting a high quality piece of gear, you’re also paying in part for the name brand. The jacket does not come with pit zips, so extra sweaty hikers might want to look for another model, but the next-to-skin feel is softer than other comparable jackets. –Editors
Weight: 12 ounces
Very reasonably priced and a classic option for thru-hikers, the Torrentshell uses Patagonia’s proprietary H2No Performance membrane, which isn’t quite as breathable as some of the other options out there, but the venting pit zips take some pressure off the membrane. This jacket has a medium fit good for layering, and an adjustable hood that allows adequate visibility. Be aware that the construction of the hand pockets can allow water to seep in during heavy rain, so if you’re heading to a particularly wet trail, this might not be the best option. –Editors
Gore Shakedry Jacket
Weight: 8.3 ounces
This is definitely a jacket for those who want the best technology currently in market. It is incredibly breathable and light, and water literally shakes off. Gore, the makers of Gore-Tex, has always been a forerunner of new rainproof technology and the GORE H5 SHAKEDRY rain jacket uses the latest technology to come out of the Gore labs. It is impressively breathable, packable, and extremely light, weighing a mere 8 ounces. The main selling point of this jacket, the new SHAKEDRY Goretex technology, moves the waterproof membrane to the outer material rather than having a more traditional textile surface. This makes water bead and roll right off the jacket. If you are looking for something reliable, comfortable, and at the cutting edge of its category, this jacket’s a great option. –Joal Hos
Arc’teryx Norvan SL Hoody
Weight: 4.2 oz
Arc’teryx’s Norvan Jacket is quietly one of the best thru-hiking rain jackets out there, and its draw can be summed up in just a few words: GORE-TEX. UNDER. FIVE. OUNCES. You read that correctly. This thing is as light as any rain jacket on the market (4.2 oz) but is still made with GoreTex. One of the biggest critiques I read about the jacket was trail runners complaining they didn’t think the jacket would hold up for very long, but I’m here to attest to the Norvan’s impressive durability. After using this much more often than I’d anticipated on the PCT in 2019, it hardly shows any sign of wear. The Gore-tex is still holding up, and I think it looks great too. The older version that I used also featured vented pits, but the updated Norvan SL Hoody sewed the pits shut and added a drawstring adjustable hood. If you can stomach the hefty price tag, I think this jacket will seriously impress you. –Carl Stanfield
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