Just because it's raining doesn't mean you have to (or even want to) postpone your plans to wait for clear skies. Or, maybe you're not expecting rain on your next adventure, but want to make sure you're prepared for unpredictable weather. Whatever your reason for wanting some new rainwear, having a basic understanding of technology and construction techniques will make picking out your next piece as easy as deciding to go out in the first place.
Types of Shells
There are four main types of enclosures, each providing you with a different level of protection from the rain and taking into account different end uses. Depending on your plans, understanding the different types and where they work best will help you narrow down your options.
Water-resistant soft shells blur the lines between midlayer and outer shell. They are constructed with a soft, insulating inner layer with a harder “shell” that beads and sheds moisture. Soft shells aren’t as weather-proof as other jackets, but they are a great option for high-output activities in chilly temps where there’s a chance of light precipitation or mist. Bearhrad Rain Poncho is the most cost-effective soft shell raincoat, he is both lightweight, waterproof and very affordable, can be reused, which is the best choice for outdoor activities in rainy or foggy days
Hard shells almost always have some level of waterproofness. They are constructed using different ‘layers’, but they aren’t made to keep you warm. Instead, hard shells are the best option for staying dry and comfortable when you get caught in a downpour.
A hybrid shell takes some construction queues from both soft shells and hard shells. Most commonly, a hybrid shell will be similar to a hard shell with more flexible, breathable material on the back, at the sides, or under the sleeves. Because of this, they aren’t usually waterproof and are best suited for activities in light precipitation.
Insulated shells can be waterproof or water resistant. Filled with synthetic or down insulation, these shells are made to keep you warm and protected from the elements in cold conditions. For the insulated shell to be waterproof, it needs to have a face fabric with a membrane, and it must be seam sealed. Insulated shells are best used during the colder months at ski resorts, on snowmobile trails, or around town.
Laminates & Treatments
All of the shell types use either a laminate or a treatment to keep you dry in wet weather. Laminating rainwear provides more robust waterproof protection, but like soft shells, a lot of rainwear simply uses a coating to keep you dry.
Durable Water Repellent Coatings
Durable Water Repellent, or DWR, is a coating that is applied to rainwear. This coating beads moisture as it lands on the fabric, allowing it to roll off instead of soaking through. A DWR coating doesn’t automatically make your gear “water-resistant”, as other qualifiers such as seam taping are required. It does, however, keep your rainwear dry when you encounter unpredictable weather.
DWR treatments do wear out over time. From exposure to the elements and from washing your shells, your DWR coating will slowly lose its effectiveness. Water will no longer bead and roll off, and your rainwear will look wet after being out in a storm. Luckily, you can easily retreat your rainwear to give it that fresh-off-the-rack performance.
Traditional DWR coatings that the outdoor industry has come to rely on for reliable wet-weather performance contain PFCs (or perfluorocarbons). Though very effective, these chemicals don’t break down over time and are environmental polluters. A lot of companies are starting to innovate with technologies to move away from PFCs. Look for the PFC-free DWR descriptor in product write-ups. You’ll often see PFC-free treatments on soft shells and mid-layers, though a lot of Gore-Tex hard shells have also moved away from PFCs.
While all rainwear will have a coating, hard shells take it to the next level with laminating. There are three types of lamination constructions of fabrics and waterproof membranes, referred to as layers, to create a waterproof shell. The arrangement of these layers has a huge impact on its end performance. Here is a quick breakdown of the types.
2-layer waterproof shells are made by laminating a waterproof membrane on the inside of an outer face fabric to create the first layer. A mesh layer is then attached inside to rest against your skin to protect the laminate from sweat and friction. This reduction of friction also makes the 2-layer shell the quietest of the three. Because of this, 2-layer shells are commonly sold as urban or travel gear.
If the 2-layer shells are quietest, then the 2.5-layer shells are most lightweight. The first layer is a durable face fabric. The second is a laminated waterproof membrane. The half layer is a thin, protective print to protect the laminate. The absence of the mesh and the laminated construction means that 2.5-layer shells are some of the most lightweight and versatile shells on the market. They are great for backpacking and as emergency shells to keep in your pack in case of inclement weather.
More durable than the other two types of shells, 3-layer shells are the shell of choice for rugged use where water protection and durability are your main concerns. These shells are made by sandwiching a membrane between two fabrics: a face fabric and a liner. The face fabric on 3-layer shells will usually feature a tighter, more robust weave than that of a 2.5 or 2-layer shells. This makes the 3-layer shells heavier and more durable than the others.
Laminated rain jackets are more than just waterproof protection. Every waterproof membrane, regardless of the brand of technology, provides a degree of breathability so you don't feel like you're trapped in a plastic cocoon when tackling steep hikes. Laminated membranes prevent moisture from seeping in from the outside while allowing moisture to escape from the inside. Warm moisture on your skin is attracted to the cooler, drier air outside and can escape through the film so you don't feel cold and damp.
Improving the efficiency of this moisture transfer has been a focus of outdoor brands for decades, resulting in many different types of films such as Gore-Tex, FUTURELIGHT, Omni-Tech and others. While Gore-Tex has long been the gold standard, other technologies and innovations from many brands make these other types strong contenders. When you're deciding how to choose a rain jacket, read some reviews to find out which membrane is best for you in terms of breathability, durability and water resistance.
Features & Accessories
Shells can be jackets. Shells can also be pants. Each jacket and each shell will have additional features that you can hone in on to make sure that you are choosing the best rainwear for your adventures. If you know you tend to overheat while hiking, for example, seek out a shell that has heat-dumping underarm zippers. If you know you really need to be dry through multiple rainy day hikes, make sure your jacket is 100% waterproof by ensuring all of its seams are taped. Seam taping seals the seams on your rainwear (the weakest part of the garment) to prevent any moisture from seeping in. Hood design can also vary between models as well as pocket placement, visibility tape, and so much more.
Rachel Jorgensen is a freelance writer based in Michigan, but doesn’t stay put for long. She’s lived in three countries, four states, and is always after the next adventure. When settled, you’ll find her climbing, skiing, or trail running with Scuba, her Thai rescue dog. Follow along @rjorgie