Guide to Choosing a Waterproof Jacket and Breathability Basics

Taking off my rain jacket after a drizzle in the Adirondacks.
With the variety of different types of jackets out there, it can be a challenge to choose one that will keep you dry on your adventures. Whether you’re a hiker, backpacker, cyclist, trail runner, or the type that enjoys a variety of outdoor activities, there are some important things to understand when you’re looking for a rain jacket.

Different Types of Waterproof and Water-Resistant Jackets

There are several different types of waterproof jackets available and they all serve slightly different purposes. Water-resistant, breathable jackets are designed to keep you dry in a drizzle, but if you’re caught in a downpour or steady rain for hours, you’re going to get wet. However, if you’re a trail runner, for example, and can tolerate a little dampness knowing you’ll be working up a sweat, this type of jacket is a good option. Soft shell also jackets fall into this category. I have a softshell I’ve worn for climbing in the fall because it keeps me warm, lets me move, and if there's a little drizzle, I’ll stay dry until I can get to shelter.

Waterproof, breathable jackets are popular among outdoorspeople because they’re designed to keep the water out in just about any type of rainstorm while letting perspiration escape. These are the most common options among backpackers and hikers, for example, because you’ll stay dry (from the outside, most of the time, but more on that later) in a downpour. And finally, there’s waterproof, non-breathable jackets like most ponchos that will keep water out, but won’t let your sweat escape. These types of jackets are not ideal for any activity that will cause you to sweat.

How are Waterproof, Breathable Jackets Constructed?

According to REI, there are two basic ways a jacket can be constructed as waterproof and breathable - through laminates or through fabric coatings. Laminates like Gore-Tex used in this Berghaus jacket are created by bonding a membrane to a garment’s fabric, sealing the fabric and protecting it. Coated jackets are constructed with a brushed layer of polyurethane that can be used to cover the interior of the jacket, or to completely seal it. If you’re interested in learning more about jacket construction, REI’s expert advice page is a great resource.

Additionally, you’ll often see “2-layer,” "2.5 layer" or “3-layer” attributes noted in some jacket specifications. According to Eastern Mountain Sports, 2-Layer jackets are constructed simply using a membrane on the fabric while 3-layer jackets use another layer of liner on the interior.

The Columbia Women's Compounder Shell is a
2.5 layer breathable waterproof jacket.

What Does “Waterproof, Breathable” Mean?

The goal with waterproof, breathable fabrics is to keep water from getting through the outside of the fabric while letting perspiration escape through the inside of the fabric. If you’re a cyclist doing a time trial in a drizzle, you’ll perspire more than a casual hiker in the same drizzle and will need to chose a jacket accordingly. On a trip to Devil’s Path a few years ago, my rain jacket did a great job of keeping rain out during a downpour, but between the humidity and my perspiration, I was soaked through completely by the end of the day.

As of now, there’s no real industry standard for fabric breathability and sometimes, you’ll notice that even if you’re wearing a breathable jacket, you’ll sweat at a greater rate than the jacket allows perspiration to escape. A jacket’s water vapor transfer rate is one way companies measure the breathability of a jacket, but it’s still a challenge to understand what that means. Bottom line? Right now, there’s no perfect way to decide what jacket will truly let you achieve the perfect balance between keeping rain out and letting perspiration escape. Choose a jacket based on your activity level, then work to manage your perspiration rate.

Other Factors to Consider

If the perfect level of breathability continues to be elusive, how on earth are we supposed to choose the right jacket? Thinking about the activity you’ll primarily use the jacket for is key. Weight and packability as well as durability are important if you’re choosing a rain jacket for backpacking. If you’re a trail runner, you might want something lighter and less burly. Of course, fit and comfort are important as well. Look for underarm vents (pit zips) to help you control your body temperature and prevent sweat buildup inside the jacket. And most waterproof jackets won’t stay waterproof for a lifetime. There are a number of fabric treatments out there to help re-waterproof your jacket. I treat mine once every year or two, depending on how often I get outside.

There’s so much more that can be said about rainwear. What other tips would you give a first-time waterproof jacket buyer? What’s your favorite jacket? Have you had a really bad or really great experience with rainwear? Tell us in the comments! 

Many thanks to Berghaus for making this post about waterproof jackets possible. If you're unfamiliar, Berghaus is a leading international outdoor brand known primarily for outdoor clothing, waterproof jackets and rucksacks. Be sure to visit their website and check out new Gore-Tex PRO products as well as products for the upcoming fall and winter seasons!


John Saltmarsh said…
water proof your investment with this great product.

The Leader in manufacturing earth friendly waterproof products for you and your family; Waterproofing for tents, camping gear, outdoor gear, fabrics, boat covers, awnings and many other applications.

Superior fabric waterproofing specifically formulated for backpacks, duffel bags, hiking gear, and footwear that has to withstand the abuse of hiking and camping in harsh weather conditions.

Dry Guy lets your boots breathe while protecting against moisture, mould and stains!

Dry Guy Protect & Extend the Life of all your Hiking & Outdoor Gear
Addie alexa said…
The warmest women's
snow pants and jackets provide increased comfort on harsh, mountainous
terrain. The warmest snow pants and jackets are made with lightweight
materials that feature a breathable design.

Weatherproof 6500
Jessica Rhae said…
My favorite waterproof jacket is the Arc'teryx Beta. It's a 2-layer hardshell so it doesn't add any extra warmth (if you need warmth too, you can layer underneath it accordingly). It has pit zips and I would say they are essential if you are going to hike in a fully waterproof jacket. Since they don't breathe as well, that is a great way to let the heat out quick so you don't sweat and get yourself wet from the inside.
Katie said…
Nice! Yes, agreed, pit zips are clutch! When it's raining, water can get in, but they're so important for temperature management in jackets that don't breathe. Thanks for the comment, Jessica!