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Gear Spotlight: Rain Jackets 101

You know how everything called a waterproof breathable shell or rain jacket has the same silly info graphic tag of the water cycle of a rain jacket?

On this tag, from the outside of the material, rain is kept out and squiggly arrows push the water vapor out from the inside. It tells you nothing about the reality of how that jacket is going to work, but every shell top or bottom has one. For all the variations in price on rain jackets, this is an attempt to clarify what a Durable Water Repellent (DWR) does for the breathability, the construction, the lifespan, and the price you’re paying.

On a rain jacket, water is supposed to bead up and roll off instead of soaking into the material – that is the DWR at work. It is the first and most important aspect of a satisfactory rain jacket. A few years ago, the EPA mandated that the chemical chain that makes up a DWR was not friendly to the environment — ironic that the comfort of the outdoor community was based on a pollutant, right? So, the industry has moved to a shorter chain which is better for the environment, but the downside is that we’ll actually never see the durability of DWR’s that we saw in the past.

GORE-TEX®, as a leader in the industry, has actually come out and said that you should now re-treat your shell after 20 days of use for optimal performance. But let’s put that in perspective – if your shell splits time in just rain and snow, is kept in a clean pack, isn’t crashing through the understory for weeks on end, then you may be able to stretch those 20 days out quite a bit longer and the average user is not going to notice. But if you spend just one night standing around a smoky campfire, you’re kinda using up your 20 days worth right there, but for different reasons than you might think.

The DWR’s job is to keep the water from soaking into the outer layer, allowing the middle layer (the GORE-TEX, eVent, NeoShell®, etc) to move the moisture building on the inside of jacket to the outside. A smoky campfire’s tiny particulate matter can both smudge into the material and smear over the DWR, clogging it’s breathability and giving the water something to stick to, further clogging the breathability.

Regarding two-layer versus three-layer construction, two-layer is less expensive, varies from light to superlight and its best years are definitely within the first two years given moderate use. It’s downside is that it feels clammy when wearing short sleeves. At some point, after three-five years, this shell will feel more like a wind breaker or “mudding” jacket than a rain jacket. Three-layer construction is more abrasion resistant and the lifespan is longer overall although the DWR will need to be re-treated as needed for performance, seemingly after about two years of abuse.

For the past 12 years, I’ve had the luxury of testing tons of different jackets for backpacking, climbing, skiing, farm work and walking the dog. For a few years, I tried to get away from GORE-TEX shells and test other materials for our environs where despite those info-graphics, classic GORE-TEX just didn’t seem to breath as I wanted it to. What I found for both eVent and Neoshell was that both materials breathed better than GORE-TEX, but the total lifespan was only about five years. Not bad for someone who needs the performance and is willing to spend the extra dollars.

The pros for GORE-TEX’s newer Proshell jackets are that they breathe better than classic Gore and after three years of moderate use seem to be going strong with only one re-treatment of the DWR. The reason you pay more for a GORE-TEX branded jacket is that Gore has a lifetime guarantee on the materials of a jacket and I’ll say that with most brands using GORE-TEX, you can expect 10-15 years of use with good care. That one jacket is likely less expensive overall than the multiple two-layer jackets you might go through if performance is your strongest criteria. At the end of the day, that is both cost effective and better for the environment.

Gear Aid, a Bellingham based company, makes the industry-leading Revivex that we recommend at Backcountry Essentials to keep your rain gear performing.

Chris Gerston owns Backcountry Essentials, an outdoor specialty shop located at 214 W. Holly in Bellingham, WA.

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