The market for waterproofs is diverse and complex. Competition revolves around breathability - the ability of a fabric to evacuate sweat/vapour and maintain a comfortable microclimate inside the garment during activities.
GORE produces some of the most well-known waterproof materials. Their range includes GORE-TEX Pro, which is designed to give waterproof and breathable protection in the harshest conditions, and GORE-TEX Active, which provides highly breathable and waterproof performance perfect for those moving fast and light.
There are many excellent alternatives to GORE-TEX. From the other ePTFE (expanded Polytetrafluoroethylene, more commonly known as Teflon) membrane options (like Polartec NeoShell and eVent) as well as less expensive PU film fabrics (such as The North Face Dryvent or Pertex Shield+) there's something for everyone.
All the types listed here are both waterproof and breathable to varying degrees, but choosing waterproof clothing also depends on many other factors; the brand, the fit, the pockets, the hood, the colour! Knowing the main features and benefits of each different fabric is just the first step in choosing the right garment for your intended activity.
WATERPROOF FABRICS WORK?
Creating a fabric that blocks rain is easy. Creating a fabric that blocks rain yet still allows your sweat to escape is much more difficult. However all waterproof fabrics work on the same principle: diffusion. Molecules will move from areas of high concentration to areas of low concentration. Hence when you warm up and create moisture, it wants to pass through your waterproof jacket to reach the lower concentrations outside. Different waterproof materials achieve this in different ways.
ePTFE Membranes with a PU coating (eg. GORE-TEX)
Traditional GORE-TEX (introduced in 1978) paved the way by using a stretched PTFE membrane containing 9 billion microscopic pores per square inch. These pores are 20,000 times smaller than a water droplet (so rain can't penetrate) but also 700 times bigger than a molecule of moisture vapour (so vapour can escape). This 'sieve' of microscopic holes is backed by an ultra-thin oleophobic polyurethane coating which prevents body oils from contaminating the membrane. The PU coating also completely blocks the wind, which is what gives a GORE-TEX garment its windproof properties.
As you sweat, vapour condenses on the lining and passes through the polyurethane coating as a liquid, reaching the ePTFE membrane where it evaporates out through the network of microscopic holes. It is the differential between the warm, moist internal climate and the cooler, dryer external climate that drives vapour through the fabric's pores away from your skin. So the harder you work, the warmer you get and the faster the whole process works.
ePTFE Membranes without a PU coating (eg. eVent / NeoShell)
These fabrics all utilise an ePTFE membrane without a protective PU film (or in some cases with a PU film that encircles the pores, leaving them uncovered). Since there's no cover over the pores, the membrane is able to breathe more effectively. Fabrics like this can take air in as well as pushing moisture out. It's a two-way air flow that disperses moisture by convection (air circulation) as well as diffusion (pressure gradients).
A downside of this system is that without a PU film the membrane may be more prone to contamination. It is possible to build an oleophobic treatment into the membrane but this may be less effective or durable than the traditional GORE-TEX method. Pores left open will breathe better but may become clogged with oils and dirt more easily, meaning you may need to wash the garment more regularly. Wearers may also experience more rapid cooling in high windchill situations though garments will still be roughly 95% windproof.
Waterproof membranes or PU films are sandwiched between an outer layer (or 'face fabric') and an inner layer ('scrim') sitting next to the skin. The face fabric adds durability and carries the DWR. The scrim wicks moisture outwards and helps protect the film and membrane from contaminants. The nature of the inner layer determines whether a fabric is 3, 2.5 or 2 layer.
- 3 Layer (eg. GTX Pro) - outer, membrane and inner are bonded together into one flexible material
- 2.5 Layer (eg. GTX Paclite) - outer and membrane are bonded together and given a very thin internal carbon or texturised 'half layer'
- 2 Layer (eg. GTX) - outer and membrane are bonded together, but the internal lining is a loose-hanging fabric or mesh
The Importance of Durable Water Repellancy (DWR)
When water hits a brand new waterproof jacket, it will 'bead up' and run off. This is because the surface has a Durable Water Repellent (DWR) coating. A poorly-maintained jacket will often 'wet out', with water soaking into the face fabric. When this happens, the flow of moisture from within is disrupted. Vapour can't escape because it is blocked by the water droplets drenching the face fabric. Wearers may feel wet. This sensation is caused by trapped sweat building up inside the wetting-out jacket, not by any leak. The solution is to re-apply the DWR using Grangers or Nikwax.
You can make a jacket from waterproof material, but unless you seal the seams it will leak very quickly. Look inside a waterproof jacket and you will see strips of tape covering the seams. This taping will not let moisture through in either direction so the more taping, the less breathable the jacket. It also stiffens the seam area. That's why Arc'teryx and others strive to reduce the number of seams and the width of the tape used. Tape is usually essential, but reducing the amount results in a lighter, more supple and more breathable jacket.
Composites and Fabric Technologies
Composite construction is a way of combining two very different materials to give maximum performance in a single garment. An excellent example would be the Alpha Comp range by Arc'teryx. Designed for ice and alpine climbers, where moisture is likely to be falling in the form of snow or spindrift, it combines waterproof GORE on the hood, shoulders and forearms with highly breathable Fortius 1.0 stretch woven fabric across the body. This provides a protective and comfortable environment for the user without the need for multiple layers. Another example of clever design and fabric technology comes from The North Face. Their FuseForm construction makes it possible to weave two material properties into a single garment. By removing the need for seams, it means items can be constructed from a single piece of material, making them lighter, less bulky and more durable.
There are a variety of tests and measures used to quantify performance but none are standardised or accepted industry-wide. The important thing is to take any quoted figures you see with a pinch of salt and bear in mind that a variety of factors – for instance the type of face fabric or the taping pattern used - can affect the performance of individual styles.
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GORE-TEX Pro is the top end waterproof/breathable fabric designed for sustained use by mountaineers and those out in bad conditions on a regular basis. This fabric features multiple layers of expanded PTFE bonded to the outer material and a gridded backing textile, but it doesn’t have an oleophobic PU layer. The innovative construction means it offers excellent breathability, but the emphasis is still on durability for extended use. Outer fabrics must be a minimum 40 denier so GORE-TEX Pro garments are rugged and reliable. We stock GORE-TEX Pro jackets from an impeccable range of brands including Arc’teryx, Mountain Equipment, The North Face, Black Diamond and Mammut.
- 3-layer laminate
- Highly waterproof and highly breathable
- Tough outer fabrics designed for extended use
- Unique backer textile slides easily over layers
- Used by several top brands offering a range of fits and features
GORE-TEX Active is their fabric for fast and light consumers. Lamination technology integrates the backer textile directly into the waterproof membrane for a streamlined, very breathable package. GORE maintains a focus on minimalist designs by stipulating that pockets must not cover more than an A4-paper sized area. GORE-TEX Active works well in lightweight alpine garments like the Mountain Equipment Firefox Jacket and trouser or The North Face Oroshi Jacket.
- 3 layer with integrated membrane and backer
- The most breathable of the GORE waterproof fabrics
- Minimalist styles without unnecessary features
- Bonded backer feels great next to skin
- Receiving great reviews for performance
This is effectively 'Performance Shell' fabric, the tried-and-tested GORE-TEX membrane. It is available in either a 2-layer construction or as a 3-layer laminate. The 2-layer version has a hanging liner reminiscent of traditional hill walking gear. Either format offers the usual fully waterproof/breathable performance and will work very well in cooler autumn or winter weather. Garments are designed for practicality when walking or mountaineering, like Patagonia's Piolet Jacket .
- 2 layer with drop liner or 3 layer laminate
- Classic membrane available in different formats for different end users
- Rugged construction allows a long life-span and year-round use
- Supple fabrics enhance comfort for a range of outdoor activities
- Styles appeal to traditional hill walkers who value practicality
The fabric that does what it says on the tin; it packs down small and light. A carbon 'half layer' backer protects the membrane from contamination meaning a full-scale lining is unnecessary. This results in a smaller pack size than most other waterproof garments. It's an excellent choice for occasional use such as trekking or travel where it may sit in a pack until rain starts falling. The Arc'teryx Alpha SL jacket is a best-selling lightweight waterproof, and Paclite also works well in waterproof trousers like the Arc'teryx Beta SL Pant.
- 2.5 layer including carbon half-layer backer
- Full waterproof/windproof/breathable performance
- Garments stow down small to fit into packs for emergency use
- Versatile for trek, travel and everyday wear
Winter '15 sees the arrival of Gore’s new C-KNIT Backer Technology. Combining the ruggedness of a 3-layer laminate with the look and feel of a soft interior fabric, the result is a waterproof material that gives outstanding comfort without compromising function or durability. With GORE C-KNIT, garments are lighter, softer and even more breathable than comparable previous products, and slide easily over other layers for ultimate wearability. An outstanding choice for outdoor enthusiasts, waterproof garments with GORE C-KNIT can be used for hiking, skiing, snowboarding and beyond..
GORE-TEX with SHAKEDRY product technology is a revolutionary waterproof material that has no external face fabric. Instead the laminate acts as the weather barrier, providing full waterproof, windproof protection. By removing the face fabric breathability is significantly increased while weight and pack size is reduced. On the inside is an ultralight textile backer, for enhanced next-to-skin comfort. Items using GORE-TEX with SHAKEDRY product technology have been designed with high output activities in mind, making exceptional choices for trail running and fast and light hiking.
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This is the first waterproof fabric from fleece specialists Polartec. NeoShell is air permeable. This means that vapour can move out through the membrane as soon as you start sweating, while traditional membranes require a temperature differential to build up before they will move moisture. This fabric has won great reviews for its breathability. Rab
have flown the flag for NeoShell with some well-designed mountain styles including the excellent Stretch Neo jacket
and Myriad jacket
- 3 layer laminate (may use lofted backer in 'softshell' form)
- Very high breathability due to air permeability
- Jackets typically have comprehensive feature lists for mountain use
- Available in stretch face fabric for improved mobility
- Different backers allow for a hardshell or softshell application
Pertex Shield+ fabric uses a PU film coating that offers a high waterproof rating (20,000mm hydrostatic head) together with good levels of breathability. It is very lightweight and packable, while soft and stretchy outer fabrics can be used to create a really supple and comfortable garment. Pertex Shield+ works well across most outdoor activities, from alpine climbing to adventure racing and mountain biking to travel. Rab have a range of lightweight waterproofs in this fabric including the alpine Spark jackets
and the durable Xiom jacket
- 2.5 layer with 'dry touch' texturised layer inside
- Great waterproof and breathable performance
- Soft, lightweight and comfortable to wear
- Available with a full mountain feature set
- Excellent prices for a high performance waterproof
eVent is a patented ePTFE membrane that works in a similar way to GORE-TEX, with millions of microscopic pores which keep rain out but allow vapour to escape. It claims greater breathability than traditional GORE-TEX and over the years many users have agreed. The downside is that the ePTFE pores are not well protected from contamination so eVent may need more regular washing to maintain performance. Sherpa
have showcased eVent in styles like their Lithang Jacket and Lakpa Rita Pants.
- 3 layer laminate
- ePTFE membrane known for high levels of breathability
- Appeals to the clued-up customer who looks beyond GORE-TEX
- Jackets designed with full mountain feature set
- Rugged face fabrics for regular use
H2No is Patagonia's
own-brand waterproof fabric. All H2No fabrics undergo the 'Killer Wash', a proprietary wet flex test which simulates a lifetime of use and abuse. Their Performance Standard dictates that fabrics must have a hydrostatic head of 20,000mm before and 10,000mm after the Killer Wash (though many specific H2No fabrics will exceed these figures). The standard applies from top-end burly shells like the Exosphere Jacket down to classic rain jackets like the Torrentshell Jacket
- 3 layer, 2.5 layer or 2 layer all available
- Proprietary 'Killer Wash' test ensures quality
- Top end mountain jackets offer durability and performance
- Popular rainwear pieces are light and packable
- Patagonia quality with a great performance-to-price ratio
Mountain Hardwear Dry.Q Elite
As with Polartec NeoShell, Dry.Q Elite is slightly air permeable. Effectively the membrane is more porous (bigger holes) and lacks the PU film found in traditional ePTFE fabrics. It works from the word go and doesn't require you to build up a sweat for the process to work. Although there is an inevitable trade-off with air permeability, this fabric remains 99% windproof. Dry.Q Elite is only found on Mountain Hardwear's
top-end alpine mountaineering shells.
- 3 layer laminate
- Air permeability prevents sweat from accumulating inside
- Vapour transfer works immediately to keep you cool
- Vastly exceeds waterproof standards
- Designs are highly technical and cut for climbers
The North Face DryVent (formerly known as HyVent)
The North Face's own brand fabric uses a polyurethane (PU) coating. This is applied in a thin, even layer across the back of the face fabric. Your sweat is transported across the hydrophilic PU by diffusion, moving from the warm, moist atmosphere next to your skin to the cooler, dryer atmosphere outside. The front of the face fabric is treated with a Durable Water Repellent (DWR) finish; this helps water droplets to form and repels them from the surface. All DryVent clothing and accessories are fully seam sealed for increased protection and durability.
The North Face produces DryVent in 2 layer and 2.5 layer constructions, allowing them to maximise protection, performance and comfort across a wide range of outdoor products.
- 2.5 layer with 'dry touch' textured print inside
- Dry touch print raises fabric from the skin for enhanced comfort and faster vapour transfer
- Offers lightness and performance in the lower price spectrum
- Used in sporty styles for active outdoors people, yet still great for everyday use
- 2 layer with drop lining
- Drop lining is comfortable next-to-skin and increases warmth
- Good balance of waterproofness and breathability
- Excellent value for the cost-conscious customer
- A great year-round ('Triclimate') option when layered over a fleece
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