Shells sensible enough to go out in any weather
Ever since W.L. Gore first hyphenated waterproof-breathable, wearers of miracle outerwear have known that the term is more hopeful hyperbole than wear-in-any-weather reality. In other words, there are degrees of waterproofness and breathability, and no garment both dispels and transmits moisture successfully in every circumstance. The shell that is fully waterproof is likely to keep you fairly sticky on a supercharged mountain bike ride. Likewise, the workout jacket you choose for outstanding breathability won’t protect you during a prolonged trudge in a downpour. The good news is, there are great shells available that are versatile enough to serve in a range of conditions. The realistic news is, you’ll probably need a couple of jackets to span the territory between breathable and waterproof, between a jog in a drizzle and six days of rainy backpacking.
Narrowing the field
Jackets can be divided into three categories that exist at various points on the continuum: high-output shells (highly breathable and modestly water-resistant), mixed-conditions shells (very breathable and very water-resistant), and storm shells (waterproof and reasonably breathable). Each roughly suits certain weather conditions combined with a specific level of exercise intensity. Prices for our 14 picks range from under $100 for a simple workout shell to nearly $400 for full expedition protection. More money brings extra protection and/or features, such as ventilation options.
High-output shells: thin-skinned protection. When it’s blustery, and you’re running, mountain biking, or doing anything else that redlines the intensity tachometer, your jacket should be more breathable than protective. These shells break the wind, turn back a little moisture, and transpire sweat very well. Since you want to feel fast, weight is an issue. Less is more, so if it’s heavier than 14 ounces, look again.
Mixed-conditions shells: a little rain won’t hurt. Now you’re working up a sweat in potentially rainier weather. A mixed-conditions shell approaches a high-output shell in breathability; it will also turn back a short downpour. Such jackets are the most versatile of the bunch. But if you stay out in the rain, you’ll eventually get wet; don’t look to these for the protection you need on an overnight (or longer) camping trip.
Storm shells: to dispel more than transpire. We kneel before the miracle of waterproof-breathable technology when the weather gets really ugly. If you’re backpacking in a cold rain, getting doused is dangerous: You need a storm shell. It’ll breathe, but some of that quality is sacrificed for genuine waterproofness.
Microfibers breathe with the best. The tight weave of their fine polyester thread gives microfiber jackets excellent windproofness and decent water-repellency. Some add a light fabric treatment to further resist moisture, though no such jackets can stave off more than a mist. All microfiber shells are remarkably breathable, spare, and stuffable.
All waterproof-breathable jackets permit water vapor (i.e., steamy sweat) to pass through, while larger rain molecules are turned away. If you’re considering a laminate-membrane jacket, you’ll have to decide between two- or three-layer construction. The two-layer concept is misleading: The outer layer, the shell, is bonded to the inner layer, the laminate, and there’s also a free-hanging wicking layer. Three-layer jackets comprise a shell, the laminate, and a wicking layer, all bonded together into one piece for a lighter but stiffer jacket.
There’s one more jacket-construction term to know: DWR, or durable water-repellent finish. All of the jackets we tested are DWR-treated so that water beads up on the shell. When DWR wears off (see “Treat it Right“), even a waterproof jacket will feel like a wet dishrag.
Let some fresh air in. The way a jacket pulls apart is as important as how it’s stitched together. Of course, this is a lesser concern with a highly breathable jacket made from a microfiber or Activent; the only ventilation on such shells is often the zipper. But waterproof jackets need additional openings. Look for mesh-backed pockets and underarm zippers (aka pit zips), as well as cuffs, waists, and hems that can be adjusted to open wide. Storm flaps (the baffle over the zipper) that close with hook-and-loop material or snaps let you leave the zipper open for airflow into the jacket.
Fit and finish
Any jacket should have room enough to let air in as a result of your body movements. Ample room also gives you freedom to layer. Microfiber or Activent jackets are generally cut to hip length so fast-paced movements aren’t restricted. With the waterproof-breathable jackets, a thigh-length cut better covers your legs and rear end. Storm shells should offer an integral hood that rolls up out of the way via a hook-and-loop tab — versus hoods that stuff into zippered collars, which are too stiff and a pain to access. The hood should move with your head and be endowed with an ample bill.
Pull-tabs on zippers let you get at what’s inside your pockets without taking off gloves. The more weatherproof shells sometimes provide waist pockets that are lined with a soft, fleecelike fabric: welcome refuge for cold hands on a nippy day. If you wear eyeglasses, check out the hood’s bill. A good one will extend far enough over the glasses to keep drips away.
What to look for
- The hood should fit snugly, with a rear size-adjustment drawstring and a bill that can route rain over eyeglasses.
- A two-way zipper provides an extra ventilation option. A storm flap covers it when the weather’s nasty.
- Chest pockets that are mesh-backed invite extra air in when you need it.
- Underarm zippers are the key to a waterproof-breathable jacket’s ability to ventilate.
- A plenitude of pockets means you can keep small items handy.
- Top water protection comes from a Gore-Tex membrane or waterproof-breathable coating; both breathe reasonably well.
Jackets aren’t no-maintenance, they’re low-maintenance; occasional care and feeding will do wonders for your waterproof-breathable and water-resistant outerwear. Here are suggestions to follow in addition to the guidelines on your garment’s label.
Give it a gentle bath. Dirt on your jacket’s DWR, or durable water-repellent finish, actually attracts water, giving the DWR potentially more work to do and consequently wearing it out faster. Wash your jacket using a powdered detergent and run it through the rinse cycle twice. Liquid detergents and most soaps tend to leave a harmful residue; one exception is Nikwax’s Tech Wash. Also, never use bleach or fabric softeners since they can damage coatings, and avoid taking your shell to the cleaners. Most conventional dry cleaners’ solvents will undermine a jacket’s water-resistance. If you do have it dry-cleaned, request a clear, distilled-solvent rinse.
Let it feel some heat. Throw your jacket in the dryer and, oddly enough, you’ll go a long way toward reviving the water-repellent finish. Setting the machine on low heat will spread the remaining DWR over the jacket’s entire surface. You can also accomplish the same thing by ironing the outside of the jacket using a warm/steam setting.
Freshen its finish. After a year or so of wear, your DWR will wear thin — time to apply a new one. Choose between spray-on (convenient, though short-lived) and wash-in (lasts longer, applies more evenly) products. I like Nikwax TX-Direct, a durable wash-in treatment; though it will inhibit some of your liner’s wicking ability, it’s more important to preserve waterproofness. Still, if your jacket has a liner, you might opt for a spray-on finish such as Tectron Fabric Protector or Nikwax TX-Direct Spray.