Rain jackets come in three distinct forms based on how they are constructed. Each has their own properties, pros and cons, but what is the difference and which should you use? Let’s look into it.
First, let’s talk about what a rain jacket really is. A rain jacket is basically any jacket that is designed to keep water off the user. Some garments are water resistant, some are waterproof, but they are all meant to shed water. Ideally, a jacket would keep out rain forever, but this isn’t always the case, and we’ll talk about that. We’ll also talk about breathability and wind resistance, but first, a couple of definitions to get us all on the same page.
Waterproof: Keeps out water, basically permanently.
Water resistant: Keeps out water, at least for a bit.
Breathable: Able to allow air to travel in and out of a jacket through the material itself.
Windproof: Able to block wind from penetrating the material.
Insulated: Able to trap heat and provide warmth.
Soft Shell: A jacket that is soft to the touch, like a hoodie or fleece. These are often water-resistant but may offer no water protection at all.
Hard shell: A jacket that is tougher to the touch and not considered soft. Often, these are made of nylon or polyester and can feel a bit like plastic. These can be water-resistant or waterproof.
Wetting out: When a rain jacket (or pants) start to absorb water and become less useful.
First, let’s talk about what causes rain jacket failure.
Rain jackets require DWR (Durable Water repellent) to make water beads up and roll off. If you look at the image above, you can see this happening. DWR is applied, generally, by being sprayed onto or washed into the outer layer of a jacket. DWR works because it is hydrophobic (pushes water away). DWR is breathable, as it has small pores that let air escape or enter. These pores are large enough to let air out, but small enough that no water can get in. When DWR gets worn or dirty, it begins to absorb water. This happens because the oils in sweat and dirt are hydrophilic (attracts water), which pulls water in through these pores. Worn DWR simply is removed from the fabric and is no longer in place to protect it. Both of these are common causes of jacket failure, so keeping the waterproof layers and DWR is key to maintaining them.
Now, Let’s dig into the three standard types of rain jackets you’ll see in stores.
These include two, two point five and three layer variations. As the word layer implies, jacket are not a single layer, but instead several layers compressed together into one sheet of material, each with its own purpose. Other variations are out there, but usually quite rare.
All jackets have a face layer, or the actual fabric layer. This is always the first layer built into a jacket, and it faces the elements directly. When you look at at a jacket, this is normally what you see. Typically, this is made from nylon or polyester and coated with some form of DWR to help it shed water. The second layer is the actual waterproof layer, such as eVent or Gore-Tex, or other materials. The third layer, if present, is where most of the performance gains come from, and where the real difference come in, and I’ll cover that in more detail later. When looking at a jacket, you won’t be able to see these individual layers, but they’re there.
2 layer rain jackets: These are moderately affordable, mid weight rain jackets. They always consist of a face layer with applied DWR and a second waterproof layer. These have mesh nets attached to the inside to reduce noise while moving and also reduce clamminess (that humid, sticky sensation that occurs when sweating inside a jacket). The main function of the mesh, however, is to protect the waterproof layer from oils, dirt and such will can cause the waterproof layer to fail or clog. The outer layer provides durability, while the inner layer provides all waterproofing. These jackets can be a bit on the heavy side since they include a mesh inner, but offer good protection and durability. These usually offer fair wind resistance and trap little heat, but pair well with other insulating layers. These are not great for high levels of activity or dirty conditions however, as the mesh inner only provides limited protection from sweat and dirt.
2.5 layer jackets: These jackets are the lightest, most breathable, and often most affordable rain jackets. They are made thin and often feel a bit like plastic to the touch. Here, the “layer” term can get a little confusing. The jacket has the same DWR coated face layer and a waterproof second layer like before (generally a budget friendly polyurethane). However, the half layer is actually a printed or sprayed material on the inside of the jacket, usually in a pattern such as dots or lines, but it can be a completely clear material that covers the entire inner surface. These half layers exist to provide added durability for the waterproof membrane. These increase resistance to sweat and oils, while occasionally providing tactile benefits. This allows the waterproof membrane and face layer to be thinner, cutting weight. The downfall, however, is the lightweight build and printed layers tend to fail under stress, wetting out when wet or dirty as they have limited resistance. These tend to offer limited wind resistance and basically no insulation on their own, but go great with a softshell or puffy.
3 layer jackets: These are the most robust, and typically the best performing rain jackets when it comes to keeping off water. They also tend to be the most expensive jackets, with weight varying from heavy to light weight. These have three dedicated material layers, which is where the added performance, cost, durability and weight comes from. There is DWR treated face layer, a waterproof membrane (generally a better performing material like Gore-Tex or eVent), and a dedicated inner liner to protect it. The third, innermost layer isn’t a mesh layer or print, but instead a pressed in high performance layer designed to breath while preventing oils and dirt from interfering with the waterproof membrane. This added protection allows for more sophisticated, breathable layers like Gore-Tex and eVent to be used, which would fail on their own. Despite using a breathable second layer, breathability can take a hit here depending on the material, with the dedicated liner slowing down the movement of air through the pores. Still, many generally perform similar to 2.5 layer jackets. The actual performance of 3 layer jackets, when it comes to keeping out water, however, is generally unmatched. These provide great wind resistance and can trap limited heat, but shouldn’t be considered insulation on their own.
Which type of jacket do I need and which is best?
Well, let me break it down to a simpler way of looking at it.
2 layer: Good protection, heavy, durable, good breathability, least clammy, affordable.
2.5 layer: Good protection, lightweight, less durable, best breathability, often clammy, often affordable.
3 Layer: Best protection, light weight, most durable, fair breathability, little clamminess, expensive.
It comes down to what you need. I personally have two types of jackets in my gear closet, 2.5 and 3 layer jackets. If there is a light chance of rain and I need decent protection with minimal weight, I’ll take a 2.5 layer jacket. If there is a chance of heavy rain and I’ll be working up a sweat, a 3 layer jacket is going in. Pants, however, I always settle for a 2.5 layer, just to cut weight. If you live in an area with little rain, a 2.5 layer makes perfect sense. If you live with constant monsoons, a 3 layer really is the way to go. I don’t personally use 2 layer jackets, but if you’re just hiking around town or commuting, they have a place.
So, those are the basics on rain jackets and their various layer types. Any questions? Comments? Did I miss something? Let me know!
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