Waterproof Jacket Buying Guide
Waterproof jackets come in many different styles and with different features to suit different activities. With so much choice available, it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly which jacket is right for you.
To help you make the right decision we have put together this handy guide to help you figure out exactly what the features are for and which you might want, or need, on your new jacket.
The fabric used in waterproof jackets is often a great indicator as to what kind of use the product is intended for.
Generally speaking, super lightweight fabrics are often used for waterproof jackets that are designed for fast and light adventures. These don't have the most durable face fabric can often be a kit requirement in adventure/ultra races and they must be able to offer protection should the participant come into difficulty.
At the other end of the spectrum, heavyweight fabrics have a higher denier face fabric and thus offer more durability and protection from the elements. They're usually designed to be worn all day in wet and wintry conditions.
The outer fabric, also known as the face fabric of a jacket, isn’t actually waterproof, it’s there for the purpose of durability and to protect the inner membrane. To aid moisture resistance, it will have a Durable Water Repellent (DWR) finish on it which helps water droplets to bead and roll off. However, this finish isn’t permanent and needs replenishing (also known as ‘reproofing’) when the jacket wets-out before any beading occurs.
The membrane or laminate that is bonded to the inside of the outer fabric is the principal element of waterproof fabric. It will allow sweat vapour to pass through from the inside while not allowing larger rain droplets through to the inside.
For more in-depth information see our waterproof fabrics buying guide.
The seams on all waterproof garments should be sealed either by taping or welding, this ensures that water doesn't work its way through the stitch holes in the fabric. When a description states that critical seams are sealed it’s important to remember that not all of the seams are taped.
Seams are taped by using a fabric tape along the stitch on the inside of the jacket to seal the holes created by the stitching needles. The width of the tape will vary from brand to brand but the narrower the tape the more difficult, and thus more expensive the process of seam taping. Seam tape features glue to ensure it sticks to the fabric, this glue is not breathable therefore by having narrower tape on the seams more of the jacket remains breathable.
When only the critical seams are taped on a jacket, it usually refers to the hood, the neck and the shoulder area. These are the most exposed areas of a waterproof jacket and where water is most likely to drive through the stitching in wet weather.
Seam welding is when the pieces of fabric are fused together under heat and pressure, this can be very effective and because no taping is used along the seam it keeps weight to a minimum.
Think about what you want to use your waterproof jacket for. If it is for general hillwalking from late spring through early autumn, then you are likely to need to get it out on more than a few occasions, so buying something that offers a good balance of durability and protection is perhaps for the best.
If you are looking for something to take you through the winter, mid-autumn through mid-spring, it’s likely that you’ll wear it all day, every day so you may opt for something that is more durable to abrasion, particularly in the arms and in areas where rucksack straps and harnesses are worn.
The volume and fit in the body of your waterproof jacket will largely depend on the activity it is intended for.
Waterproof jackets designed for high energy activities such as trail running will have a lower volume and more athletic cut to minimise weight and excess fabric when on the trail.
A waterproof jacket designed for general hiking will have a slightly more generous fit throughout to allow full freedom of movement with extra layers in cooler conditions. Many are also slightly longer in the body for better coverage, while more ergonomic designs are longer in the back than the front so as not to hinder leg movements when tackling steeper slopes and climbing over stiles.
Climbing and mountaineering jackets often have a more tapered body with higher volume around the chest and shoulder area for full freedom of movement with layers, going into a lower volume and more fitted design around the hips and hem to reduce bulk when wearing with a harness.
The hood is a key part of any waterproof jacket and should always be tested when trying the jacket on. Most basic hoods are large enough to fit over a beanie and adjustable with at least one drawcord that cinches in the excess fabric around your face. A slight step up from a basic hood would be a hood with a peak that will help to keep the rain off your face, like a baseball cap but with a less prominent peak so as not to obstruct your peripheral view. The peak may be structured with pliable wire, laminated fabric or tubing to help it stand away from your face in even the most ferocious winds.
You may come across hoods that have an adjustment on the back of the head, this will allow you to reduce the volume of the hood so that it sits on your head like a cap and will often ensure that your hood turns with your head rather than your head turning inside your hood, restricting visibility.
Helmet compatible hoods, usually found on more technical shells, have a much larger volume to allow the wearer to make use of a helmet while still being able to comfortably move their head around. They will also have volume reducers and cinch adjusters at the back or sides so that you can make the hood fit your head even when not using a helmet.
The sleeves of a waterproof jacket are designed to allow for insulating layers to be worn beneath, as well as full freedom of movement. Some jackets will have articulated sleeves (ergonomically shaped sleeves) to ensure a better fit. Levels of articulation will vary according to each jacket, the activity it is intended for and the brand designing it. As an example, a jacket that has been designed primarily for hiking trails will usually have less articulation than a jacket that has been designed for climbing.
Waterproof jackets that have been designed with climbing and mountaineering in mind will often have longer sleeves and sometimes angled cuffs to ensure you maintain coverage and ease of movement when extending your arms. By having longer sleeves and articulation, particularly around the shoulder area, hem lift will reduce dramatically so your jacket’s waist hem doesn’t constantly untuck from your harness; while this may seem trivial, it is extremely important in wintry weather conditions.
The cuffs on a waterproof jacket are also something to bear in mind. On a minimal, lightweight waterproof jacket designed for running, they’ll likely be narrow in diameter and elasticated to save on weight and bulk when packed down.
At the other end of the spectrum, waterproof jackets that are more designed for mountaineering will have a hook and loop tab that can be opened and closed according to what you require, the cuffs themselves will also have a generous diameter to allow room for gloves when you need them.
Having ventilation in a waterproof jacket will allow you to maintain a consistent and comfortable temperature while on the go without having to constantly stop and add or remove layers.
Mesh panels are often used in key areas of waterproof jackets that require ventilation. In less technical jackets you may find the pocket bags are made out of mesh so that the pocket can double up as a ventilation zip. When higher levels of ventilation are required, for example for high energy activities such as trail running, the lightweight jackets will also feature mesh panels under the arms or on the back panel.
When choosing a waterproof jacket, you’ll want to make sure there are enough pockets and that they are exactly where you want them to be. Minimalist running jackets might not have any pockets at all or will only have a tiny pocket that doubles up as the stuff sack for the jacket to save on weight and bulk.
Waterproof climbing and mountaineering jackets will tend to have chest pockets on the torso (also known as napoleon pockets) so as not to create bulk where the harness or rucksack hip belt sits. In order to ensure ease of access to the pocket contents when active, the zips might be central to the body of the jacket so you can reach in with the opposite hand without difficulty, perfect for stashing a compass or a quick snack. The zips of these jackets might also be engineered to open and close easily with just one hand.
Hiking jackets aren’t generally worn with harnesses and thus you may find generous pockets in the hip area to stash your gloves or some trail nibbles. You may also find additional pockets at the chest area, inside the jacket or outside, that are ideally sized for stashing a map or GPS unit.
The drawcords of a jacket are there to improve fit and cinch in dead space, these are a great way to personalise the fit of a jacket but can often result in long sections of cord hanging from the jacket that can be annoying in the wind and cause snag risks. When choosing your waterproof jacket consider how the drawcords have been designed, is there a cord tidy to keep them under control? Hood drawcords often have a channel that guides the excess cord away from the face so as not to cause irritation in windy conditions, this might be on the inside or outside of the jacket.
Waist drawcord adjusters often sit on the inside of the jacket or inside the pockets of the jacket so as not to get in the way on the outside of the jacket.
Hem drawcords allow you to cinch the bottom of the jacket in, this can improve heat retention in cooler conditions but also allows you to style the jacket according to your own preference. The excess cord from adjusting the hem might sit in a tab on the inside of the hem, alternatively, they are sometimes channelled through to the insides of the hand pockets.
Storm flaps help to keep wind and rain on the outside of the jacket. They are usually found over the main zip but can also be found on pocket zips too. There are different types of storm flap, but the most common takes the form of a simple strip of waterproof fabric that sits over the zip acting as a barrier and secured with hook and loop (Velcro) sections. A double storm flap is when a strip of fabric runs down each side of the zip and secures to each other with hook and loop tabs to ensure maximum protection from both sides.
Jackets that are designed for the stormiest conditions might have a ‘rain drain’ on the inside of a double storm flap, this is a simple fold on the inner flap that helps to catch water ingress before it reaches the zip and the fold of the fabric acts as a channel for the water to run down and out of the jacket. Some pockets may utilise a ‘rain drain’ on the inside of a water resistant zip as a back-up to keep water ingress from damaging the pocket contents.
Most waterproof jackets will utilise typical zips throughout the jacket. However, you may come across jackets that feature alternative zips that better suit the jacket or activity.
Water Resistant Zips
Water resistant zips can be used on pockets and main zips and they are often used on high-performance jackets and jackets that have been designed to keep weight to a minimum. By utilising water-resistant zips, they can remove the fabric that would have been used for the storm flaps without sacrificing performance. While this may seem trivial, it is by making many tiny adjustments like this that significant weight savings can be made.
It is important to remember that water resistant zips are not waterproof zips so there is potential for a degree of water ingress, consider this before you put your paper map, mobile phone or GPS device in your pocket. Arc’teryx developed their own highly water resistant zip called the WaterTight™ zip, although it can’t be considered fully waterproof it is the world’s first water resistant zip to pass W.L. Gore’s extreme wet weather test.
Locking zips are zips that won’t work their way open while you are active, they require you to actually engage the zip-pull before moving it. This means that you can have your jacket zipped as much or as little as you like while trusting it will stay that way until you decide otherwise, they are often, but not exclusively, found on waterproof jackets for running.
Alternative to a locking zip, Arc’teryx developed the No Slip Zip™, it consists of a series of bumps that sit by the teeth at the top section of a zip so that the zip pull can easily be pulled over when you need to unzip but it can’t wiggle itself open while you are on the move.
Asymmetric zips can also be found on waterproof jackets, rather than being straight up the centre they’ll taper off to the side of the chin so as not to sit directly on the chin and cause irritation.
2-way zips can often be found on longer length walking waterproof jackets or jackets that might be worn with a harness. This allows you to unzip the jacket from the hem while still keeping the top of the jacket zipped up for weather protection and heat retention if it’s required.
If it’s a longer jacket this can make it easier to sit down and will ensure full freedom of movement on steep uphill terrain or even when tackling stiles. When climbing, a 2-way zip can come in handy, again for freedom of movement but also allowing access to layers and kit underneath without having to undo the whole jacket.