Rain Gear Guide

With the right rainwear, you’ll be able weather any storm.

Spend enough time on the trails, and you’re bound to run into a little rain—if not a biblical deluge. That doesn’t mean your outing is over; with the right rainwear, you’ll be able weather any storm. Rain jackets (also called shells) are designed to keep precipitation out while also allowing some of your body heat to escape, keeping you dry and comfortable. 

And there’s a reason rainwear is considered part of the National Park Service’s 10 Essentials. Getting soaked in the backcountry is more than uncomfortable—in poor conditions, it can quickly lead to hypothermia, which can be life threatening. Unexpected precipitation is always a possibility, so anyone who’s traveling outdoors for more than a few hours should carry waterproof gear, just in case. 

There are lots of different rain jackets out there, which vary widely in terms of waterproofness, durability, breathability, and weight. Not every shell is ideal for every outdoor enthusiast, though. Here’s how to choose the best one for you.

More Than One Way to Waterproof

Any piece of rain gear will employ one of the following technological approaches to keeping you dry.

DWR treatment

Some types of shells and pants aren’t technically waterproof, but they deserve a mention here. Softshells, windshells, and hybrid shells (usually made with some waterproof sections and some softshell sections) aren’t meant to protect you from relentless rain, but they’ll handle light precipitation and wind. They get their water resistance from a durable water repellent (DWR) coating, which is a chemical treatment that helps water bead up on the outside of the jacket. Some jackets also use a tighter weave to add to their weather protection.

Water-resistant rainwear is more breathable than something fully waterproof, so it’s great for all-day wear, particularly in alpine environments or in the winter. And windshells in particular are often ultralight, reducing your gear load. Downside: It won’t get the job done if that sprinkle turns into real rain. 

Waterproof coatings

Some rain gear draws on a thin chemical coating applied to the fabric for waterproofness. This style is much more affordable than the most technical rain jackets, and sometimes lighter. But it’s also much less breathable, and less durable, than more expensive options. Coated rain gear can be a good choice for someone who needs a just-in-case jacket for surprise storms, or for low-key activities (like hanging around camp), rather than someone who expects to spend the day working hard out in the rain.

Waterproof-breathable membranes

The highest-tech option available, waterproof-breathable membranes (also called laminates) are ultrathin films that keep rain out, but also allow body heat and sweat vapor to escape. This porous quality prevents wetting out with your own sweat from the inside out, making it more comfortable to wear for extended periods. This type of rainwear uses several different constructions: Some of the most common jackets sandwich the membrane between a face fabric and a protective inner layer or pattern. A few brands have also figured out how to place the membrane on the outside of the shell (like Columbia’s OutDry fabric). Gore-Tex is probably the most famous technology in this category, but there are quite a few other options on the market, including Pertex, eVent, and NeoShell. 

Jackets with waterproof-breathable membranes are (relatively) breathable, durable, and highly protective, making them great for anyone spending a lot of time exploring the outdoors. Trade-offs: They’re the most expensive options, and some can be fairly heavy and bul

Make hiker wearing a rain jacket in the rain

Shopping Considerations

Rain gear is optimized for different kinds of users. Here’s what to ask yourself to dial in the best picks for you.

How important is breathability?

Hiking, biking, or skiing hard can turn your waterproof jacket into your own personal sauna. More breathable shells are much more comfortable to wear in extended precipitation and/or while working hard. If you tend to run hot, you’ll also appreciate this quality. The most breathable choice is a water-resistant softshell, because even the best waterproof membranes inhibit the venting of body heat to some degree. This is a great pick for aerobic exertion whenever you don’t expect much precipitation. If you need full waterproofness, look to the higher-end waterproof-breathable technologies (and expect to pay a bit more).

How much does weight matter?

Nobody wants to carry more weight than necessary in a backpack, but the lightest waterproof jackets (less than 6 ounces) demand a trade-off: They have fewer features, and they need TLC to prevent tears. Heavier jackets (1 pound and up), on the other hand, tend to come with a full suite of features (multiple pockets, adjustable hoods and cuffs, pit zips) and boast superb durability—ideal for long backpacking trips or spending time in extreme conditions. You’ll also find plenty of shells in the middle, with a balance of features, toughness, and weight.

How durable does the jacket need to be?

If you’re tough on your gear—into off-trail hiking, mountaineering, climbing, or any other activity that involves a lot of abrasion against your clothes—then look for a jacket on the high end of the durability scale. Check the face fabric: The higher the denier of the fabric (a measure of the weave’s strength), the more abrasion-resistant it will be. As we’ve seen, tougher shells are usually heavier, thanks to the beefier, thicker fabrics used. On the other hand, if you prefer to go ultralight, don’t expect your shell to survive rough treatment. Look at the zippers, too: Burly waterproof zippers are tough but heavier, while delicate zippers are prone to snags and breaks.

How much mobility do I need?

Some waterproof shells are highly stretchy, allowing greater freedom of movement for reaching and twisting; others are stiff and crinkly. If you’re looking for maximum mobility, also look for features like articulated shoulders and elbows to give you more room to move. 

What features do I want?

Minimalist shells—perfect for the ultralight crowd—skimp on design features to save weight. But that’s not everyone’s cup of tea. Consider the following extras as you shop, keeping in mind that more features will add more ounces.

  • Pockets: Hand pockets are great for protecting your hands as well as stashing snacks or maps. Chest and interior pockets provide more places to keep items at the ready.
  • Hood: Some water-resistant jackets skip a hood for a more streamlined design, but you’ll want a full hood if there’s any chance of extended rain or wind.
  • Adjustability: Toggles or Velcro tabs for fine-tuning the hood, cuffs, and/or hem let you tighten things up in bad weather or loosen them for more airflow in moderate precip.

Beyond Rain Jackets: Waterproof Accessories

A solid rain shell is enough for most of the conditions we encounter outdoors. But if you spend a lot of time in really wet places—the Pacific Northwest or tropical environs, say—you could benefit from a few extra pieces.

Rain pants 

Rain pants are like a rain jacket for your legs—they’re made from the same fabrics and technologies used for jackets, after all. And the same considerations apply when you’re shopping: Think about breathability, weight, durability, and mobility. Rain pants tend to have few features, but two important ones are pockets and ankle zips for easier put-ons/take-offs over boots.

Rain hats

Waterproof hats keep your head dry without the loss of peripheral vision you get from a hood, not to mention funnel drips away from your eyes. Some look just like ball caps and provide less coverage, while others have an all-around wide brim for more coverage.


Though they’re most associated with snow, gaiters can be great for keeping your feet dry in extended downpours, too. Look for shorter, lighter models for hiking in moderate temps. Wear them under your pants or rain pants so there’s no chance of stray drips sinking into your socks.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.