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Hiking Clothes for Hikers: Rethinking Rain Jackets

Hiking Clothes for Hikers Rain Jackets

The vast majority of hiking clothes, including rain jackets, used by hikers and backpackers aren’t actually made for hiking or by people familiar with hikers’ needs, but for skiers, climbers, runners, and suburban dads and moms. So it’s no wonder that most of the rain jackets that hikers and backpackers purchase today don’t cut the mustard when it comes to hood design, maintenance-free use, and shoulder strap/hip belt compatibility.

True, there are a smattering of hiker-owned companies like Zpacks.com (Vertice Rain Jacket), Lightheart Gear (Silpoly Rain Jacket) and Warbonnet Outdoors (Stash Tarp Fabric Jacket) that make rain gear that’s more aligned with hikers’ needs. But most hikers still buy rain jackets that adhere to the failed and thoroughly discredited waterproof/breathable paradigm and its ridiculous waterproof and breathability ratings. These ratings, including hydrostatic head and moisture water vapor transmission (MVTR) rates, have little correlation with real-world use in humid, rainy weather when half your jacket is covered with a backpack and worn all day, or for multiple consecutive days, during vigorous exercise. (Yes, it’s ironic that science-hating Americans gobble up these waterproof/breathability ratings as gospel truth.)

Hiking Rain Gear Requirements Redefined

Forget what you know about rain jackets for a second and ask yourself what unique characteristics you would want in a rain jacket designed for hiking and backpacking. Ignoring breathability, which I consider a pipedream, what are the functional capabilities that you want a hiking and backpacking rain jacket to provide? Think out of the box.

Here’s my requirements list. What do you want that’s different than the status quo?

  • The hood should keep the rain off your face while you’re hiking without the need to wear a billed hat.
  • You should be able to restrict airflow through the jacket hood, up the arms, and around the waist in cool weather so you stay warmer.
  • Backpack shoulder straps and hip belts should not affect the waterproofness of the rain jacket.
  • Pockets should be accessible when wearing a backpack hip belt.
  • The waterproofing should be permanent and not require any “maintenance.”
  • There shouldn’t be any special detergents necessary to wash a rain jacket.
  • The fabric of the jacket should not absorb water.
  • There should be a way to ventilate the jacket to help reduce heat build-up and perspiration.
  • There should be a way to close the jacket if the zipper fails (assuming it has a zipper).
  • The jacket’s weight should be under 12 ounces.
  • Men’s and women’s models should be available.

How Does Your Rain Jacket Stack Up?

How well do the most popular rain jackets used by hikers and backpackers stack up against this redefined list of requirements? Here are some quick assessments to consider.

Outdoor Research Helium Rain Jacket

The Outdoor Research Helium Jacket hood has a front brim to keep the rain off your face when hiking. You can limit airflow through the hood, wrists, and drawcord hem to stay warmer in cool weather. The jacket has a DWR coating, so backpack shoulder straps and hip belts will reduce the waterproofness of the jacket due to abrasion. There’s only a chest pocket that remains accessible when worn with a backpack. The waterproofing is not permanent and requires maintenance. Actually, it’s awful on this jacket which wets out very quickly. You need special soap (non-detergent) to wash the jacket. The jacket fabric absorbs water when the jacket wets out. The jacket lacks ventilation features like pit zips. The jacket is lightweight and men’s and women’s models are available. See the detailed SectionHiker review.

Overall: Fail

Lightheart Gear Rain Jacket (New Model)

The Lightheart Gear Rain Jacket hood has a front brim to keep the rain off your face when hiking. You can restrict airflow through the hood and wrists, but the jacket lacks a drawcord hem. Backpack shoulder straps and hip belts do not affect the waterproofness of the rain jacket. The front handwarmer pockets are not accessible when wearing a backpack hip belt, but the two internal drop pockets are. The waterproofing is permanent and does not require any maintenance. The seams are seam taped and zippers are now waterproof. You can wash the jacket with a mild detergent. The jacket fabric does not absorb water. The jacket has very long pit zips to help reduce heat build-up and reduce perspiration and condensation. There are velcro tabs alongside the zipper to keep the jacket closed if the zipper fails. It is lightweight (6.4 oz in a men’s medium) and men’s and women’s models are available.

Overall: Pretty Good

Montbell Versalite Jacket

The Montbell Versalite Jacket hood has a front brim to keep the rain off your face when hiking. You can restrict airflow through the hood (fantastic sizing controls) and wrists (wrist cuffs) and waist (drawstring hem). Backpack shoulder straps and hip belts do reduce the waterproofness of the rain jacket due to DWR abrasion. The front pockets are accessible when wearing a backpack hip belt. The DWR coating is not permanent and does require maintenance. You should use special, non-detergent soap to wash the jacket. The jacket fabric absorbs water when the DWR wears off. The jacket has very long pit zips to help reduce heat build-up and reduce perspiration and condensation. If the zipper fails, you’re SOL. It is lightweight (7.0 oz in a men’s XL) and men’s and women’s models are available. See the detailed SectionHiker review.

Overall: Acceptable with durability limitations

Updated: June 2023.

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21 comments

  1. Bought the Lightheart Gear jacket because of your review a few years back and have been happy with it. Price and the fact that you don’t have to fuss with waterproof maintenance was a deciding factor, so a belated thanks for your article. Looks like the new version has improved zippers. Also, looks like a lot of thru hikers are going with something simpler, like Frog Toggs, as long as there isn’t and serious weather expected.

    • Ditto, very grateful for you bringing this topic up previously as I had fallen for the waterproof/breathable hype. A Lightheart jacket a storm keeps the hypothermia away

      • I still feel Arc’teryx jackets are the best available and have the best waterproofness but are not represented well on this site because of cost.Gore-Tex costs more,but is the best you can get.It has saved my life high up in the Kindu Kush mountains in Afghanistan and there’s nothing tougher in arduous austere conditions.

        • It’s not the cost that keeps them off the list. As for Gore-tex, it’s important to distinguish between different grades of gore-tex (there are many) and how the jacket is constructed around them, which plays an enormous role in how they perform. For example, the most expensive 3Layer jackets will outperform all other grades/construction types. Gore-tex is also much more effective in colder weather when there is a big temperature gradient between inside and outside. But it sucks just as bad as anything else in hot or warm weather.

  2. I was able to add a draw cord to the previous model Lightheart rain jacket without any sewing or other modifications (the previous model currently is on sale). I’m not sure why the jacket does not come with a cord; perhaps weight or additional ventilation . So far, I’ve been loving this jacket.

  3. Years of bike commuting has taught me the fallacy of breathability from any other mechanism than enormous pitzips, like wrist-to-waist.

    I appreciate this column pointing all that out with respect to backpacking.

  4. i hiked Mt. Flume (NH) today in rain and yes snow(June 4th!) and the Lightheart Gear Jacket kept me pretty dry. I learned of the brand through this site and the same jacket has kept me dryish on the PCT and endless sloppy weather in the Whites. And like most hikers I have a closet full of GoreTex jackets that have been relegated to walking the dogs. Lighter, cheaper, no maintenance, made in the US – I love it.

  5. I can never have enough brim. Give me a jacket with a 4″ removable hood brim – snaps, Velcro, or zip. I need removable arms for when it’s hot. Also removable jacket bottom below the breast for when it’s too hot and I don’t want to remove my backpack. Zip or Velcro. I need 4 inside pockets. Why are they so stingy with inside pockets? They’ve gotta be big, 2 of them zip. All of this will add weight that you don’t want. Well, you have to compromise somewhere. I’ve always traveled light so it wouldn’t be a problem for me. My attitude towards rain changed when I visited Portland Oregon. If they can’t make a waterproof rain jacket then change your attitude towards rain. It’s just water and it’s clean and abundant in this country.

  6. living and being from a place that is wet and rainy (Scotland)I have noticed we do have rain jackets designed by people who use them. I haven’t had one yet where I couldn’t use the pockets. I usually go for Rab or Berghaus.
    Breathability can be a bit meh when the weather is dreich but big pit zips help.
    Talking of hip belts. I bought a decathlon shirt which was designed to be under a hipbelt with a cover over the buttons at that part. it makes a difference in the summer

  7. Stuart Crawford

    Always thought an oversized cagoule is best so that the sac is underneath, keeping it and it’s contents dry. Also shouldn’t be difficult to make a simple plastic covered wire contraption fitted to the sac straps to keep the cagoule off your shoulders, aiding ventilation and keeping you warmer in very cold wet or snowy weather – thinking out of the box.

  8. I don’t mind maintenance. All gear requires some level.

    Nice to have just 3 best(?) options. May be condition dependent though. My Marmot Precip still works for fall conditions in NW Rockies. That includes off trail sometimes involving bushwhacking willows. Cold driving rain/sleet/snow can be an all day event. Precip is heavier but reasonably durable.

    Replaced my 9.5 oz rain paints with 6 oz rain pants that can go over size 11 boots. Paid $25 for off brand. Good options probably exist that aren’t $$$. Really useful in camp for extra warmth.

    Be good to have reviews for rain gloves and mitts that have some dexterity.

    • Biil,
      “6 oz rain pants that can go over size 11 boots. Paid $25 for off brand.”

      If you see this, what brand is that.

      • AXESQUIN Men’s Rain Pants

        Couldn’t add the link. Haven’t tested them yet but good reviews. Hopefully a 6 z rain jacket with good ventilation will make it to market for 1/2 the price of current models.

      • My buddy and I walking in the rain together, he’s wearing a breathable Patagonia jacket and I have the LightHeart gear jacket Story is I’m wet and he’s not, end of story. I’ve used silicone seam sealer over every seam to try and keep water out but am thinking poncho now. I’m glad other LightHeart jackets are working out though, could be what I’m wearing underneath it as well as other factors. Of course getting wet is not the end of the world, unless temp drops below freezing after getting wet.

    • I know maintenance is necessary, but if it wasn’t then I wouldn’t miss it.

  9. Rethinking rain jackets for hiking is a refreshing perspective, and this article offers great insights into alternative options such as ponchos and umbrellas. It’s important to consider breathability, weight, and versatility when choosing hiking clothes. Thanks for sharing these practical tips for staying dry on the trail!

  10. The hip belt (which even my day-packs have) does a good job of closing off the bottom of the jackets from air flow, so a draw string bottom hem or waist string in redundant.

    One annoyance I’ve had is getting whipped in the face by the hood drawstrings on a windy day, especially above tree line. So a requirement for me is elastic cord hood drawstrings.

    A hood with a “volume adjuster” at the rear is great for taking in some slack if you bought the jacket large enough to go over your winter mid layers and insulated hat.

    It spring, summer and fall, I just wear a hat with a wide brim to keep my head dry because i don’t like the restricted vision of a hood or hearing the fabric go creak-rustle-swish in my ears with every step.

    Personally, I’ve found pit zips to be more a liability than help. the shoulder strap tend to keep them closed to air flow but somehow water coming down the straps finds its way in.

    I had a Gore-Tex rain jacket from Log House Designs (Chatham, NH) for about 20 years. It was a heavier fabric, but held up very well to bushwhacking and trail work. It had a “raglan” sleeve, so there were no seams on the shoulders which was great for pack straps. The back-up Velcro closures saved me when the zipper finally blew.

  11. After mentioning the Vertice jacket, I don’t see your appraisal of it.

  12. I’ve been using a jacket from Paramo for years. It uses different thinking with a liner that uses what Paramo calls “directionality
    “. Just wash it when it gets dirty. It’s incredibly water resistant and works incredibly well at getting moisture away from your body. The downsides are that they are relatively expensive, heavy, and warm. I use mine to from mid autumn until mid spring. The jacket is incredibly durable, compatible with using rucksacks made in an ethical way.
    Ps. I use a jacket from froggs toggs during the summer months.

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