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 Enlightened Equipment (Visp Rain Jacket), Zpacks.com (Vertice Rain Jacket), and Lightheart Gear (Silpoly Rain 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 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 restrict 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 can 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

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 should 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. 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 (6.6 oz in a men’s XL) and men’s and women’s models are available. See the detailed SectionHiker review. Note: an updated review of the silpoly version is forthcoming, but not much has changed.

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

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58 comments

  1. I would take a closer look at the Vertice Rain Robe from Zpacks. It is a unique design without a zipper and vents pretty well even without pit zips while keeping you dry. Also combined with a pair of long gaiters it gives full protection. My critique is that the hood only works well with a cap and the pocket is placed too low based on my experience. Not sure what will happen when the DWR starts to fail. I imagine the material will wet through.
    Not perfect and could be easily improved in terms of the hood/pocket imho but due to the unusual design I doubt it is a super seller but I find the overall idea great.

    • You can buy a frog toggs poncho for 20 bucks. But yeah, I see what you mean about the design. Billed hood, adjustable hood, wrist cuffs. But the fabric/dwr will still be scraped off under the shoulder straps and hip belt. Plus I bristle at the thought of having to reapply the DWR, wash it with special soap, etc. If they made it in silpoly, it’d be a lot less expensive, have zero maintenance, and work about the same. That’s all conjecture of course.

      • Funny you mention Frogg Toggs poncho, as I am currently experimenting with one. IMO, the main failing of most BPing rain jackets is that they are worn *under* the backpack/straps/belt and fit much too closely to the body/arms. Sleeves are a big problem IMO as my arms always get really wet from condensation/sweat.

        I think the holy grail would be an “umbrella” type of protection…something that fits over my entire person (and backpack). Think of providing protection like a building…the roof is impermeable, but there are windows on all sides that can be opened for ventilation. Ponchos do exactly that, but are flappy in the wind. The Packa also does this, but for me the arms are the problem as they restrict air flow.

      • Good observations. Lightheart sells an upper jacket that covers the head, shoulders, and serves as a backpack cover.
        Mystery Ranch has something like it too. https://www.mysteryranch.com/hooded-pack-fly
        Both incomplete solutions in my opinion/

      • https://www.decathlon.com/collections/hiking-waterproof-jackets/products/mountain-backpacking-rain-cape-arpenaz-40-l?
        As cheap and quite effective. I hiked along with people who used it and it worked well, much better than the poncho I decided to experiment with but didn’t anticipate the lateral freezing rain going through the sides.

        Another out of the box thinking is this one: https://sierradesigns.com/cagoule/ combined with their rain chaps.

      • Cagoules have been around for a long time. Sierra designs just copied that from the Brits.

      • The Lightheart hoodie pack cover and Mystery Ranch hooded pack fly are both interesting implementations of the same idea…but agree it is an incomplete solution. I really cannot see it fitting my needs as when I need rain gear I need complete coverage.

        The Decathlon “poncho” to me is more a long version of the Packa but sans pit zips and a full length zipper. The sleeved design remains the problem for me, even more so due to the lac of pit zips.

      • The decathlon poncho can only cover up to a 40 pack.

        I’m looking at Cycling rain jackets without hoods. I wonder how much a hood affects rain jacket performance and whether a rain hat would be better.

      • Certainly a rain hat better fits my building analogy…ventilation on all sides. What concerns me is the likelihood of rain down the back of the neck, or down the side(s) for that matter. A hat lacks the ability to “close the window” on the upwind side.

        Let’s be honest here…we will not find a perfect solution as one does not exist. We are looking for a *best* solution from among the options, and once again that will depend on one’s use case(s). No wind? A hat with a wide brim might work well. Most of the rain in my area is accompanied by wind, and sometimes quite a bit of it.

      • I know that none of the current solutions work. I’m really looking for a clear list of requirements for what the ideal (or better) solution would entail to reset the discussion/innovation process. I looked at the Packa this morning. The weight of his large sizes just kills me and I also read Andrew’s review. It’s not really appropriate for my kind of mountain hiking, where scrambling and acrobatics are required, in addition to strapping all kinds of stuff on the outside of a pack. It’s certainly interesting, and probably ideal for an AT thru hike, but you’re still going to get wet wearing it.

      • Phil,
        I agree withyou about the umbrella approach. I prefer to call it the tent approach. I’ve come to love the Six Moons Gatewood Cape. The Gatewood is a pyramid shapped solo tent fly that doubles as a hooded poncho. When paired with a trecking pole and a solo bug tent you have among the lighest pack-cover/shelter/rain jacket solutions thanks to double use. It is also very well ventilated. I live on the wet side of the cascades and prefer my Cape to a rain jacket even on day hikes. Six Moons’ implimentation does need further refinements by moving the guy lines from the cape and to the bug tent (this is really annoying, but easily fixable by the user). Another refinment would be to use the area near the hands as pogies to keep the hands dry with trecking poles (a couple of snaps or ties would get the job done). More thought to draft control in the wind could also be improved, but a simple courd around the waist solves most that issue. Dry hands are the greatest weakness in the hikers armour and the glove/rain jacket interface should be considered as part of any rain gear solution. I would love to see pogies implimented in a jacket or poncho. Keeping the pack under the rain shelter solves so many problems: ventilation, rubbing, access, pack waterproofing, etc.

  2. I can’t stand hoods, they limit my vision and hearing. Much happier with a good rain hat. My requirement would be a jacket option without a hood, or a removable hood. Until then, I’ll stick with the OR Foray with full side zips. The side zips let me open up the waist enough to flip it over my hip belt, so that I can get a chimney effect with airflow up the front of the jacket in addition to the pit zips.

    • Side zips that go to the hem should be a more common feature!

      OR Gaurdian II has that feature too, “torsoflo”, though the zips only go up to the pits, not along the arm. But it still works and I love mine. The hand pockets have so much map/phone/snack storage function when they are free of the belt. Quick and easy in and out. And their weight shifts the fabric forward and back making a kind of bellows effect. First waterproof I can hike in without being soaked in sweat.

      The ascentshell that OR uses here is an air permeable membrane, so you dont need to be as hot inside for it to pump out air. No better than the rest while moving, it doesnt make enough difference… but makes it a bit better when using it dry in camp. More air circulation. Its comfy enough that I often use it for camp insulation over a fleece and baselayer, leaving the puffy at home. Here, the handpockets are again useful, whereas most rain shells should just go without them.

      great hood. machine washable. 12.8 ounces for my size L. on sale now! go get em! (Apologies. no affiliation… I just want the feature set to catch on…)

      (For a hoodless rain jacket, look at cycling gear… Though be careful not to pick one with the pocket on the lower back.)

    • I’ve been meaning to go the rain hat route myself.

      • If you do, I think many people would find your experience/review very informative

      • I hiked through alaskan rain for days with a Patagonia southwester style hat and it worked extremely well, it is a an early pu type wpb, not breathable but very waterproof. also have worn it sea kayaking in an absolute deluge on Lake Huron with good results. The advantage to a southwester style is the brim is angled down and does not flip up in the wind exposing your head and neck and it is long in the back. Outdoor Research makes the very popular Seattle Sombrero but in high winds it will flip up and velcro itself in the up position.They do make a southwester style hat also. Kokatat makes the Seawester which looks very close to what i have from Patagonia (discontinued). An additional advantage is you can hear very well as the brim of the hat funnels more sound to your ears. Hoods just rustle and block much of your hearing

  3. I’m surprised that more jackets don’t come with shoulders and upper arms — and possible the hip belt area — made out of a durable, completely waterproof (not breathable) nylon fabric. Make the rest of the jacket out of a WPB fabric.

    Some of the more climbing-oriented brands, like Rab and Montane, seem to think more about pockets above the packbelt.

  4. I decided a while back that I will not purchase any more rain jackets or rain pants that have a DWR. I’m not going to refresh a DWR, and not willing to do special care when washing.

    It’s interesting that none of the major manufacturers makes a simple jacket that has good pit zips and no DWR. Only cottage companies like Lightheart offer this. If you walk into REI, you won’t find anything that meets these criteria.

    Frogg Toggs, both Ultralight 2 and Xtreme Light? No pit zips.

    Columbia jackets with Outdry Extreme (e.g., Blitz)? No pit zips.

    Almost everybody else? DWR.

    A Frogg Toggs-equivalent with pit zips from a major manufacturer with high awareness and distribution, offered at $35 – $50 at REI and on Amazon, could be a category killer. Its appeal could go beyond backpacking to other high-aerobic activities and be perfectly usable in town as well.

    Why isn’t this available? Beats me. Perhaps marketers think that the WP/B hype sells jackets. And maybe it does.

  5. Good article

  6. Maybe it’s just me, but my backpack belt slips down on my hips when I wear it over my rain jacket. The jacket gets wet and slippery and I have to cinch the belt way tight to get it to hold. I would add friction to your excellent list of desiderata.

    • Another reason why the rain gear needs to go over both you and the pack :)

      • Curios if you can attach gear on the outside of your pack with the Packa. Like a sleeping pad or whether you need everything in the pack. Might be worth trying. Just trying to understand it’s constraints.

      • Depends on the size of your pack :) From the Sizing tab of the Packa website: “Backpacks with a volume of 4600 ci or 75 liters work best with the small, medium, or large Packa. Above 4600ci or 75 liters require the “x” size.” So it looks like you can get a Packa properly sized if you can determine the volume of your pack with all external lashings.

  7. Reading your article and the limitations of rain jackets and lack of pit zips lead me to reconfigure a simple coated nylon pullover that I picked up at Decathlon in Europe for about $14. It has sealed seams around the shoulders but not down the sides, so it was an easy sewing job to open the side seam and put in a 9” pit zipper on each side. It took about 15 minutes for each zipper and came out better than expected. It’s nice having a simple rain jacket with practically no seams on the front, and the weight when finished is 7.23 oz., even with the 2 zippers. Sewing machine used is a straight stitch 1948 Singer Portable that I inherited from my grandmother, and it’s been an invaluable tool for modifying and repairing outdoor equipment ever since.

    • After using the helium ii for a couple seasons I have switched over to the lightheart gear silpoly jacket. I was tired of dwr wearing off on high wear backpacking spots like the shoulders and couldn’t stand the lack of wrist cuff adjustments and hood adjustment to cinch it up around your face. The helium is now for suburban walks for light or emergency rain. The expectation to find a jacket that is permanently waterproof and breathable is a total waste of time. Lightheart gear was a solid choice. Permanently waterproof with mechanical venting and great adjustment features (except the lack of a hem adjustment). Judy is also a pleasure to deal with. Highly recommend.

  8. I give the Lightest Gear a fail. The zippers are not waterproof, especially the pit ziips on mine. I think this is now spelled out clearly on the website. So I am back to my cheapo Frog Toggs. It has never wet out, and I think it actually breaths a little, at least more than the Lightheart Gear. Oh yeah, it costs one fifth as much, and it is a bit lighter.

  9. I don’t mind having to reapply DWR… if it works, and lasts for a while when you re-do it. The problem, to me, is the home DWR treatment never seems to be as effective or long lasting as the factory DWR, and it seems to last for a shorter length of time each time.

    Most DWR treated jackets seem to be great for about a year, useable with a lot of care for a year, and an expensive windbreaker after that.

    • I know what you mean. If it’s water-based it’s water soluble, so eventually it’s going to leach out. The companies that make it will gladly sell us more.

      I eventually give up on the reapplications and just douse the old raingear with silicone and use it for work and local day-hikes.

  10. The only jacket I’ve ever worn that actually keeps me bone dry without steaming me up here in the PNW (yes, even while switch backing up elevation) is the SD cagoul and chaps.
    I added a string to connect the chaps and this string goes over my shoulders so they don’t sag. Chaps are also far better ventilated than pants and you can actually climb over / under a log without your rain pants wanting to split at the crotch.
    Never going back to “breathable” rain jacket and pants.

    • +1 on the chaps. I have a “lightweight” hunting pair, they are urethane coated on the inside, I siliconed the exterior. I bring them mainly for off-trail stuff to protect my legs when I’m wearing shorts, and for cold-weather rain gear. As long as the jacket comes down far enough… Chaps also require a belt of, don’t work well for me attaching them to a pack’s hipbelt.

  11. Another option is some of the products from Buffalo Uk. It’s a very different concept to the this will keep you dry bs. I haven’t used a waterproof jacket in over ten years. I do weeks of off track walking in southwest Tasmania every year and I have used their tech lite for the whole time.

  12. I always get trouble with pockets when I put bit extra gears in my hiking pack :). Some of the pockets just disappear :P

  13. The only thing that ever has truly worked for me was the Packa, recommended to me by Andrew Skurka. It is a complete rethink of the idea of a backpacking rainjacket

    http://www.thepacka.com/

  14. I’ve been happy with my Montbell Versalite so far, but admittedly haven’t been in an all day downpour yet. Will be interesting to see how long the DWR lasts, as I use it all the time for warmth when windy. I will say it is the most breathable rain jacket I’ve ever owned. Your point is spot on. Unfortunately no matter what option you pick, you have to sacrifice something. Would definitely be nice to have a truly waterproof option with waterproof zippers. My Frog Toggs pants had holes in them within 30 minutes because of how big they were, so that won’t be an option for me. If anyone comes up with a solution, they’ll definitely get my money.

  15. When I know a trail will be wet and cold, and I will be out for multiple days, I take my Lightheart…if I want to make sure I stay dry.:-)

    • I have a rain jacket from Lightheart, as well. My only complaint is the stock sleeves are too short. Next time around I will spring for the extra charge to add 2” to the sleeves

  16. Yep, You’re right about the OR Helium. I’ve relegated mine to emergency use, mainly as a LW shell. I’m in very dry (and getting drier by the year) New Mexico, so outside of monsoon season a real rain jacket is rarely needed.

  17. The two items I would add to your list for me would be stout enough to handle some bushwhacking ( not thru a multiflora rose patch but not on a trail either) and not disintegrate like a flock of bobcats ran me down and the fabric should be quiet enough to bow hunt with. Its not just the quiet hunting aspect but most rain jackets are noisy just sitting still with rain hitting them especially the hood. Makes it hard to hear the rest of the world.

    We can all have dreams right?

  18. Philip,
    I would add a 2-way front zipper to your list. Males it a little easier to get at items in your pants pockets. Also it would help while sitting in a canoe.

  19. Part of me wants to explore options for safer and better hiking. But part of me says that wet is gonna be wet. Either make the right decision, whatever it is for yourself, to get out there in the wet, or don’t. Some of my best memories came from getting out there in days of pouring rain. Would not have traded any creature comforts for what I learned from those moments.

  20. Thank God! Some sense at last, for walkers, hikers and trampers alike the problem of keeping warm/cool and dry in rain has been a continuing headache. From oilskin, Helly Henson PVC, Cagoules, a a plethora of so called breathable waterproof materials some work some of the time but none work all the time. By far the best of the bunch for me in my advanced years are a large trekking umbrella and a decent poncho tarp. Cheap option is a trash bag with three slits cut into it, one for your head and one each for arms.

  21. I know Chris Townsend likes the Paramo rain gear, which may not be quite as light but seems to breathe well in extreme and soggy Scottish conditions.

    I have enjoyed my LightHeart silnylon jacket for 5+ years – only complaints are the visibility with a hood (not unique to this jacket) and the zipper snagging in the rain flap. The pit zips are great on it. It could also use a longer tail in the back, but you can probably do a custom order for it.

    I like the Antigravity Gear rain kilt and the Mountain Laurel Designs rain kilt for the lower half. The AGG kilt is longer, but I like the adjustability and the snaps of the MLD kilt better.

    I imagine some fabrics behave differently when the DWR abrades off – some just don’t shed water, while others start absorbing it. Whatever happened to Columbia’s OutDry technology (had the membrane on the outside, no DWR necessary)?

    • Columbia seems to have backed away from Outdry. While it worked better than Gore-tex et. al., the rain jackets they designed with it are/were pretty terrible – hot, with terrible non-adjustable hoods, and no pit zips.

      Paramo is simply too warm to use anywhere in the US.

  22. Another thing about some WB fabrics, and some of the coatings that we reapply; “PFAS”, persistant bad-for-the-planet chemicals that leach out and end up in waterways and drinking water. Most municipalities don’t test for them but I believe Vermont and one of the Carolinas have done so and both have identified a lot of systems polluted by these chemicals which are practically impossible to remove.

    I like the Sil-Nylon Anti Gravity Gear option myself.

  23. A couple dacades ago, my brother took his family to hike the Milford Track in New Zealand. Most of the others who hiked at the same time had very expensive Gore-Tex gear, whereas my nephew had a three dollar Walmart poncho. He stayed drier than all the others with their high falutin’, high dollar techy gear. Sometimes the solutions are easier than we make them out to be.

    Of course, I’m shopping for rain shells now and not planning on the Walmart poncho!

  24. Good article, I would never have thought I had to be careful with what detergents I can and cannot use. I will take your information into consideration when it’s time to replace mine rain gear. The last too items I would tend to not include in my rating. I’ll say weight of 12 oz is a really fair goal and a good point of reference, however I can afford to go higher. I could care less if there is a female model as I’m sure my wife could care less if there is a male model. I’m trying to think if we even have the same brand of anything. Except for the tent that we share, our backpacks, sleeping bags, sleeping pads, stoves, hiking shoes(me)/sneakers(her), utensils, headlamps, pots, fuel types are all different and different brands. Just not that important. However if a company makes the perfect rain wear, it would be nice if they tailor it for different builds. Even different men’s and women’s builds respectively.

  25. I bought the Montbell Versalite rain jacket 5 years ago. I used it a few times in light to moderate rain and it wetted out in less than 10 minutes. I wrote to Montbell who exchanged the jacket and the new one they sent would wet out just as fast. I gave up and bought a Lightheart Gear rain jacket and am extremely satisfied. My only regret is that I did not buy the rain pants at the same time. The Lightheart Gear jacket can become clammy but at least it holds the cold rain out.

  26. The German Army surplus raingear is pretty good. Designed to be worn for days under heavy packs and vigorous exercise. Jacket and bib set.

  27. You mean I don’t have to hand over 700$ for an arcteryx alpha?? I thought I needed one to stay dry…

    I’ve used the Packa quite a bit. The fit could be improved but in a lot of situations it’s the best option out there.

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