The first chilly, rainy days of fall hit Seattle this weekend, which means that it’s rain gear’s peak season. Web search data shows the same trend every year, where PNW states see a spike in searches for rain jackets and rain pants like clockwork every year in late September. It should also be noted that we’re the top states for rain gear searches, with the exception of the umbrella, where Oregon and Washington rank 11th and 21st for searches per capita. Some stereotypes hold up.
I went through the hardshell shopping process during my second fall in Seattle, and I’m not exaggerating when I say that it took multiple months. I’d log onto REI and see 5 pages of results. Pricing ranged from $50 to $800 without any noticeable differences between options besides the colors and the logo. It was the first time I started referencing the technical specs trying to understand how pricing worked. Every line of information seemed to send me on another Google search, pining for information. I learned a lot. (Enough to shift my career into the apparel industry). But it shouldn’t have to be that hard to buy a jacket.
For years, I’ve seen similar questions come up online, where women unwittingly buy the same garment over and over from different brands, and rightfully get frustrated when they all perform the same. So today we’re covering the 2 most important lessons about selecting rain gear.
Lesson 1 – What do “layers” mean?
Waterproof gear is marketed as 2, 2.5, or 3 layer construction. Now, most people see that and think it’s layers of waterproof material, and that 3-layer construction is 50% more waterproof than 2-layer. I wish a lot of terrible things on the person who decided on those labels because that assumption is super logical, but totally not how it works.
Layers refer to lamination, or when you bond materials together. When Gore-Tex came out with the first waterproof-breathable rain gear, they laminated a waterproof-breathable membrane on the inner side of a piece of fabric. It worked really well – at first. They found that the membrane broke down when it was in contact with dirt, oil, sunscreen, bug spray, etc., so they needed to find a way to protect the membrane on the inner side of the garment as well. They’ve developed 3 methods:
- 2 layer comes from the original construction where 2 layers are laminated together (the outer fabric and membrane). When they found out the inner side needed protection, they sewed in a separate liner. This MEC jacket is a great visual example. The fabric liner is effective and durable, but it added some weight and bulk to the jackets.
- 3 layer refers to all 3 layers of the jacket being laminated together. The outer fabric, membrane, and inner fabric are all separate pieces of material, but all get bonded together so that it feels like 1 piece of fabric. This is still effective and durable. It makes the garment less bulky. But lamination is an expensive process in apparel production, so these pieces are the most expensive.
- 2.5 layer sounds like it should be in between 2 & 3 layer in terms of price and quality, but for some god forsaken illogical reason, it’s not. They take the original 2 layers (outer and membrane) and then they either spray or print on a film instead of using inner fabric. This is the cheapest way to protect the inner side of the membrane and reduces bulk, but it’s not very durable. If you’ve ever seen a rain jacket peel on the inside like this, that’s the protective layer coming off. If you’re wearing your jacket with a pack on top, this means there’s a lot of pressure and friction around the pack straps, back panel, and waist belt that expedite how quickly that protective layer wears off. This construction also cuts off a tiny bit of weight. (Gore-Tex calls their 2.5 layer pieces “PacLite,” since it’s one of its only redeeming qualities and sounds a lot better than “Gore-Tex Cheap.”) These garments do make sense for ones that get seldom wear, like if you’re a fair-weather hiker or live in drier climates. They also make a better option for rain pants, which don’t get rubbed the same way by a backpack. But for 3 or 4 season hikers in the PNW, I recommend going with one of the prior two options.
Lesson 2 – Not all membranes work the same.
Waterproofing, breathability, durability, and affordability tend to be at odds with each other. There aren’t really options on the market that check all of the boxes. Here’s a general breakdown of what’s on the market, as well as their strengths and weaknesses:
- Polyurethane (PU): Polyurethane is the material used in most brand-owned membranes. (Think Patagonia H2No, Marmot NanoPro, Columbia OmniShield, etc). The PU layer can be thick, which makes it very waterproof, but poor on breathability. Or it can be thinner, where it can be breathable but not as waterproof. However, PU is very durable and isn’t damaged as easily by dirt and oil. PU is the most affordable membrane material.
- ePTFE: This membrane material is very waterproof and very breathable. It doesn’t need to be as thick as PU in order to be very waterproof, so the layers are thinner and let more air and vapor pass through. ePTFE-only membranes are known as Gore-Tex Pro and eVent in the gear world. ePTFE is easily broken down when in contact with dirt and oil, so these pieces need extra mindfulness and regular washing to maximize the life of the garment. These membranes are the most expensive on the market.
- Combination: “Regular” Gore-Tex, which is formally known as Gore-Tex Performance, uses a mix of PU and ePTFE. It’s very waterproof, and sits in between PU and ePTFE membranes for durability. It also splits the difference between the two when it comes to pricing and durability when in contact with dirt and oil.
- Electrospun PU: There are a few brands on the market who discovered they could improve the waterproof & breathability tradeoff of PU with a method called electrospinning. Instead of being a thin sheet of film, these membranes look more like uncooked ramen noodles, with tight strings of PU layered together. There’s not a ton of publicly disclosed lab data on their performance, but reviewer consensus indicates they’re very breathable and take a small hit on waterproofing compared to Gore-Tex or eVent. The current electrospun membranes include Polartec NeoShell, Outdoor Research AscentShell, and The North Face FutureLight.
Most outdoor brands will mix and match different combinations of membranes and layering construction. So taking Patagonia as an example, here are some of the jackets that have been in their assortment over time:
Are these the only two variables in shell design? Absolutely not. There are factors like whether the face fabric is polyester or nylon, and whether it’s woven thick and burly or thin and light. Jackets can be cut for specific sports, like longer ski shells or minimalist ones for running. Some have waterproof zippers while others have a flap of fabric that snaps on top. The inner fabrics can be knit or woven. Hoods may or may not be hood compatible.
But unless you need some specific sport features, these 2 variables are the most important to the average outdoorist and the most impactful factors in determining price.