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.
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
- Why Do I Get Wet Inside My Rain Jacket?
- Jackets with Pit Zips: When Are They Effective?
- Why Does Rain Gear Wet Out?
- How to Backpack in the Rain
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