Your rainwear can help you stay dry and happy on your spring adventures, or it can leave you a soggy and sweaty mess. But with so many options and products out there, how do you choose? Should you default to the most expensive GORE-TEX coat on the rack, or will one of the simpler, less spendy options suit you?
We’re laying it all down for you here - complete with science, a solid explanation of the differences between various products, and some key questions to ask yourself before you buy. Read on and, like the song says, the next time it pours you’ll be able to keep your cheeks (and the rest of you) dry.
WHAT IS GORE-TEX, ANYWAY?
If you ever wore one of those classic yellow rain jackets as a kid, you likely remember how gross it felt after you’d been running around awhile. Sticky, hot, and oddly soaked through, considering you were, after all, wearing a raincoat. If you ripped it off and threw it in a puddle to continue playing sans jacket, we can’t really blame you.
The reason you got drenched inside your waterproof coat comes down to physics. The rain didn’t soak through, but all that activity worked up a sweat, and since your coat was waterproof, it had nowhere to go but sit on your skin. The end result is feeling hot and sticky, or on a chilly day, cold and wet.
Waterproof/breathable (WPB) rainwear was designed to address just this problem by building the waterproofing and breathability right into the garment. A waterproof/breathable laminate or coating is bonded together with the shell fabric in either a 2-layer, 3-layer or 2.5-layer construction. This type of fabric isn’t solid, like your yellow raincoat. It is actually full of small pores, which are small enough to keep precipitation from getting through, but big enough to let your sweat evaporate.
How is that possible? Well, if you remember anything from science class, you’ll know that in liquids (like rain), molecules are connected to each other. This keeps water in drops. With vapour (like your perspiration), the molecules are not connected to each other and can move around freely. A single raindrop is much, much bigger than the pores in WPB fabric, so it can’t get through. Since your sweat is in vapour form, it can easily pass through those tiny pores, leaving you nice and dry! For a nice bonus, WPB fabrics also provide wind protection.
So where does GORE-TEX come in? GORE-TEX was the first WPB fabric on the market, introduced in the late ‘70s. But GORE-TEX isn’t the only game in town. There are now a wide range of competitive WPB textiles out there, at every price-point.
WHAT IS DWR?
While the interior construction of your rainwear is key to keeping rain out and letting sweat evaporate, what happens on the surface of your jacket is important, too. Durable Water Repellent (DWR) finishes are applied to the outside of the garment, and play two key roles:
- Cause water to bead up and roll off, which keeps the outside of the garment from becoming saturated.
- Helps maintain breathability. While your WPB construction will keep water from getting through, a saturated fabric will get in the way of your sweat evaporating. Saturated fabrics also feel cold and heavy, which seems damp on your skin (even if it isn’t actually wet).
So how does DWR work? DWR finishes are applied to the outer surface of your rainwear. The finish adds microscopic spikes to the fabric, which makes water bead up and roll off. This technology is often used in conjunction with WPB fabrics - they work really well as a team.
DWR finishes do wear off over time, causing fabrics to “wet-out”, or saturate, as we talked about above. Luckily, there are several products on the market allowing you to re-apply a DWR finish at home via a spray-on or wash-in formula. See our suggestions at the end of this article.
Like water off a duck’s back (literally): DWR finishes force water to bead up and roll away.
SO, WHAT JACKET SHOULD I PICK ALREADY?
So now that you’re an expert on the science of textile technology, let’s apply that knowledge to your day-to-day life!
With most outdoor gear purchases, you need to start with an honest assessment of the type of activities you’ll be doing. If you’re spending a cushy August weekend car camping for example, you probably don’t need a super-lightweight backpacking tent designed for winter weather. Same goes for your rainwear, so here are a few things to consider before you start shopping:
HOW HARD WILL I BE WORKING?
What you’re really asking in this case, is how much will I be sweating? If you’re going to be doing any high-output activities like running or cycling, breathability is key - you want to move that sweat away from you above all else. In that case, you might be better off with a soft shell jacket with DWR treatment - some rain and wind will get through, but you won’t overheat. Plus, you’ll probably be able to hop into a hot shower pretty soon afterwards to warm yourself back up.
WHAT ARE THE CONDITIONS LIKE, AND HOW LONG WILL I BE OUT THERE?
Most fabrics (except maybe for cotton) are somewhat water resistant, keeping rain from reaching your skin. If you’re headed out for a little while in a light drizzle to, for example, walk the dog, a lightweight, less expensive water resistant jacket will do the job. If you’re going to be out in a serious rainfall for hours, this is the time to call in the big guns - go for the best 3-layer waterproof/breathable product you can afford.
DOES IT NEED TO BE ULTRA-LIGHT AND PACKABLE?
This is where 2.5-layer construction shines. These designs are not quite as breathable or durable as the others, but they do tend to be lighter and more affordable. If size and weight are considerations, this can be a great option for you.
WHAT SPECIAL FEATURES DO I NEED?
Need to safely stash passports and cash? Want to be able to access your pockets while your pack is on? Think about what activities you’ll be doing in your rain gear to make sure it suits your needs.
There are all kinds of special features that help to customize rainwear for different conditions and activities. Consider:
- Hood - can you adjust the size of the opening? If you’re relying on the jacket to keep you dry in intense conditions, you’ll want it pulled in close to your face.
- Vents - for high energy output, it helps to have additional ways for perspiration to escape. Underarm and torso vents can be a welcome addition. Some jackets even have torso vents in the pockets!
- Drawcords and velcro closures - these adjustments aren’t just for making the garment look more fitted, they allow you to tighten up closures to keep the rain and cold out. On the other end of the spectrum, they can also be loosened to create more airflow and ventilation.
- Pockets - pocket placement has a big impact on how you use your jacket. If you’re going to be backpacking, you’ll want to look for mid-torso pockets so you can access them easily without having to go under your shoulder straps or hip-belt. For casual urban use, you might want an interior pocket with a cord port so you can listen to the latest TED Talk on your walk to work.
Need to safely stash passports and cash? Want to be able to access your pockets while your pack is on? Think about what activities you'll be doing in your rain gear to make sure it suits your needs.
HOW TO TAKE GOOD CARE OF YOUR INVESTMENT
Like most high-quality outdoor gear, rainwear too requires some care and maintenance to continue to perform well. As we touched on above, DWR finishes don’t last forever. Dirt, oil from your skin, and repeated friction (from pack straps, for example) will wear away DWR coating. So will frequent washing and years of use.
Does your jacket keep wetting out? Running it through the washer might be all that's needed to remove dirt build-up and revive the DWR finish.
You’ll know that your water resistance has worn off when water no longer beads up and slides off your jacket. You might also notice that certain areas get saturated when wet, and feel cold on your skin. If this happens to you, here’s what to do:
- Wash it! A run through the washer (according to directions on the tag, of course) will get rid of accumulated dirt and oil and can revive the DWR finish.
- Bring some heat! Most brands recommend a spin in the dryer or light ironing as exposure to heat will reactivate DWR. As always, follow the directions on the tag.
- Add a fresh coat! After lots of abrasion from contact with the environment or other gear, or after years of heavy use and laundering, the DWR on your garment might be past the point of a touch-up. This is the time to apply a new coating of DWR using a spray-on or wash-in product. Some of our favourites include Granger’s Clothing Repel wash-in and Performance Repel spray-on waterproofing treatments.
TIME TO GO SHOPPING
So now that you’re an expert on rainwear, you know how to care for it and you’ve had a moment to consider your needs, it’s time to go shopping! We have a huge range of high quality products in all price ranges at Wild Rock Outfitters, including our favourites, below. If you need some extra help figuring out the best jacket for you, our super nice staff is there for you.
OUR FAVE MEN’S WATERPROOF/BREATHABLE JACKETS
OUR FAVE WOMEN’S WATERPROOF/BREATHABLE JACKETS
DWR MAINTENANCE PRODUCTS
Granger’s Clothing Repel wash-in waterproofing treatment
Performance Repel spray-on waterproofing treatment