When you’re buying a rain jacket, you probably have lots of questions, none of which really matter besides “Which rain jacket is best for me?” Do yourself a favor and stop asking other questions because if you do ask other questions, you will find yourself sucked into a whirlpool of information preying upon your inability to do math and science as an adult.
You want a jacket that’s waterproof and breathable, right? Well.
Lots of smart folks have spent billions of dollars chasing the holy grail of “waterproof breathable,” which is an awesome thing, and has given us some great products that do a hell of a lot better job of breathing than those of 15 or 20 years ago. There are several waterproof breathable materials out there, most of which are great. What is hard is verbalizing the difference between Jacket X and Jacket Y, or how waterproof something is compared to the adjacent something on the rack. Turns out there is science and math involved, things many of us have not done since high school or college, so that stuff is hard to understand.
But no, really, what’s the best rain jacket?
A few years ago, I got an assignment to write an article about waterproof breathable materials. Jesus H. Christ did I feel dumb. I dug through studies, did math, tried to understand it all, and found out neat things such as testers use something called a “sweating mannequin” to test the breathability of apparel. Also, apparently someone has invented a sweating mannequin. I had images of my high school science teachers’ faces twisting in disappointment and hurt, maybe anger.
There’s RET (“Resistance to Evaporative Transfer” or “Resistance of Evaporation of a Textile,” depending on who you ask), also MVT (Moisture Vapor Transmission) or MVTR (Moisture Vapor Transmission Rate). All of them are kind of the same thing. At the end of it, I decided a sealed thermoplastic water bottle is waterproof. Jogging shirtless is breathable.
And I also discovered that the best rain jacket is…well, REI has put together a great guide to help you decide that very thing. It’s called “Rainwear: How it Works” and it’s 7,400 words long.
When I worked on the floor at a large outdoor retail store, one of the most common and difficult-to-answer questions we’d get was: Is this waterproof? This is not a dumb question.
People would ask that about jackets, GPS units, backpacks, tent flies, sleeping bags, hiking boots, camera cases, watches, everything in the store. And they were justified — usually it’s hard to find a roof to stand under when you’re in the out-of-doors, so if it rains, some of your stuff is going to get wet. So you want a few waterproof things, or maybe just a Ziploc bag to keep important stuff like your cell phone and Subway punch card in.
If a customer asked about an item that was less waterproof than Gore-Tex or a tent rainfly — a nylon backpack, for instance — we would always say,
“It’s water resistant.”
Which is true. Most things resist water for a little while. Even a slice of Wonder Bread will give your phone some protection from a downpour for a few minutes before it disintegrates. Gore-Tex trail running shoes are waterproof, but only until you step into a four-inch-deep puddle and water gets into the shoe from the top.
Knowing all this, if I were still a retail shop employee and someone asked me, “Hey man, what’s the best rain jacket?” I would have three possible responses:
1. “Jacket X. Jacket X is the most expensive rain shell we carry, so obviously it is the best.”
2. “How much college did you get? You should get more college and then go read about waterproof breathable materials on the internet.”
3. “Jacket Y. I wear Jacket Y, and I have climbed literally dozens of mountains, plus I work here, which means I must know something about gear.”
A few years after my short career on the sales floor, I met my old pal from the shop, Dustin, to climb a peak in southern Arizona. The night after we climbed, we cooked dinner at a rustic campground near the peak, standing under a ramada made from the wood of saguaro cacti—the roof being one-inch-wide pieces of saguaro wood laid out parallel to each other, with one-inch gaps.
“Hey, you think this is waterproof,” I asked Dustin as raindrops started to pelt us through the porous roof. Without missing a beat, he deadpanned,