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Backpacker Magazine – September 2011

The Best Breathable, Waterproof Rain Jackets

Four companies made bold claims about cutting-edge waterproof technology in 2011. So we gathered a dozen rain jackets with the new fabrics and put them to the test in a head-to-head challenge. Verdict: We've never worn a more breathable crop of shells.

by: Steve Howe

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Columbia Peak 2 Peak (Courtesy Photo)
Columbia Peak 2 Peak (Courtesy Photo)

Ever since Gore-Tex revolutionized raingear in 1973 with the first waterproof/breathable membrane, fabric engineers have been working to improve the breathability half of the equation. As every overheated hiker knows, more is definitely better. And while we’ve seen many incremental advances over the years, nothing compares with the windfall of 2011. W.L. Gore, Polartec, Mountain Hardwear, and Columbia all launched new outerwear lines that employ thinner, more porous waterproof membranes combined with advances in fabrics and laminating techniques that further enhance breathability. The result? Our field testers report that the best new shells are 20 to 30 percent more breathable than anything they’ve used before, meaning you can stay comfortable while working harder in a greater range of conditions. And if you do overwhelm one of these jackets on a hard summit push, sweat disperses—and midlayers dry—faster. So which one’s the best?

We studied countless pages of lab data supporting each brand’s breathability claims (they all tout different test methods, see below), plus dense workbooks detailing the materials and construction methods. The graphs and wonky verbiage provided valuable background, and we’ve summarized the key claims made by each manufacturer in the individual jacket reviews. But as every backpacker knows, you can’t mimic an Arctic maelstrom in a lab. And the breathability of any jacket only starts with the membrane. Real-world performance comes from the sum of the parts, including the breathability of the liner and face fabrics, the glue patterns used to bond it all together (glue doesn’t breathe), and the effectiveness of the DWR (durable water repellent) treatment. The DWR performance is key because it causes water to bead up and roll off; if the fabric becomes saturated, the water itself forms a non-breathable layer.

So we set the graphs aside and put the new shells through four months of hard field testing. By the end, we’d narrowed the field to these four standouts. They each proved extremely close in terms of breathability (scores are for the whole jacket, not solely the membrane), so base your pick on the total package, including features, fit, and packability.

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Star Star Star Star Star
Maegan Rediger
Sep 28, 2013

some other brands including the Arc in this review.
i think so .

Star Star
Aug 27, 2013

I agree with Dennis. I recently saw your road show and they were talking about First Accent with isn't even listed

Aug 27, 2013

Two years old. What's the status in 2013? DAT

Nov 06, 2012

Just wondering if anyone has tried the Helly Hanson Hamm jacket. They make rain gear mainly for work but the HH Hamm is used by some backpackers. I like the long torso as it comes down over your gluts and wont ride up. Claims to be ---breathable-- but I think the breathable thing is overrated as you will sweat anyway and usually get wet inside regardless of what you are wearing for a shield. I am now more interested in rain proofness ( I know ) and durability. I gonna give the HH a try.

Sep 12, 2012

Scott B, you are clueless. The reason that nobody talks about water repellency is exactly what you describe; a coating. Go buy some Nikwax TX Direct, spray it on your '95 Starter Jacket every day and you will be happy. If you want a WATERPROOF and highly breathable jacket, buy one of these.

Scott B.
Jul 01, 2012

Funny that none of the "tests" that Backpacker performs has anything to do with water repellancy, which is the only reason you would buy a rain shell. I've owned Northface and Marmot jackets that failed in their second year--because all the repellancy is due to special coatings that quickly bleed off, regardless of whether the jacket is worn. Forget treating the jacket with a new chemical repellant, as it just doesn't work (we tried it with multiple jackets). C'mon, Backpacker, be more than an industry shill. Do the right tests, and screw "breathability." I want to be dry, not hypothermic like when my first rain jacket failed.

Jun 13, 2012

If you're not looking for style/fashion and just pure quality in a rain jacket, I highly suggest having a look at The site isn't much to write home about, but a lot of us swear by the product. It's very popular with fishermen, construction workers and other people who make their living outdoors.

Mar 03, 2012

Check out Eddie Bauer First Ascent gear pretty good stuff and better prices and goes on sale frequently for 20-30% off. The BC-200 is a newer waterproof shell that is supposed to be nice. My $.02

Mar 01, 2012

I would like to know what actual tests were and what method was used to "measure" their results as stated by the Testers that the jackets were 20% to 30% more breathable than anything they used before and what as the "Base" figures from the preious items they wore before??

Also how do you know the Manufactuers supplied Data and information was entirely accurate versus Marketing baloney or Claims, so it appears that you just took for "Granted" like Pack weights and sleeping Bags temperatures that what the Manufacturers provided was truly accurate?

So then, why do you bother to claim you test this stuff,,it appears your just regurgitating what the Company's tell you to regurgitate...Oh how I pine for Mr. Rodale to be alive when his Magazine was a creditable source of information...and I was one of the original I know...

Feb 28, 2012

Why weren't any eVent jackets tested? Information I have seen indicates that eVent is much more breathable than the membranes in the test.

Feb 28, 2012

THOSE are the jackets you test? Mtn. Hardware and Columbia are the same company for starters. What a terrible comparison. This email goes out to, what, thousands, millions of people? And most of them will just see the tag line of what is best. Next time take the time to actually compare and contrast the jackets in more than a paragraph... this is what makes Consumer Reports so popular, f.y.i.

Steve C
Feb 28, 2012

It's funny that when BP does a comparison of a few items, readers want more. I guess that is why the annual Gear Guide is so popular. Some people expect the content of the gear guide in every review. That's ok and I suppose I do the same thing. What I find most helpful in the gear reviews are those little things - plusses & minusses - that let me prepare in my mind how a particular piece of gear will perform in certain circumstances. For example, I know that every jacket has limitations, like how it breaths when I am climbing in a cold drenching rain verses dry windy snow or summer humidity. Understanding those little things help me plan better and make me a better backpacker.

Feb 28, 2012

I too have an Arc and I am disappointed that some of the other high end makers didn't make it at least to the testing in this. The article is interesting but it is misleading by being named the "Best" when you only tested some.

FWIW - My Arc DWR failed within the first week. It has been retreated by Arc and I am wondering what it will be like next season. If it fails, Arc will get MANY bad reviews popping up all over the place.

Lean Lyle
Feb 28, 2012

a bit pricey, what?

Bob Mac
Feb 28, 2012

Their's no way these jackets are worth that kind of money.These companies are testing the market for suckers that will pay for that kind of teckie gotta have the newest apparel. These jackets are made in some slave driven country for 30 cents a day workers. The profit these companies are making is disgusting. Anybody that would pay that kind of money should save the money for psycho analyst.

fomer Mammut fan
Feb 28, 2012

Mark, the same happened to my top of the line Mammut Goretex rag. Had sent it in, been told the membrane was torn, and warranty declined. Never again. My next one will be either a Sympatex or an eVent jacket.

Dec 04, 2011

Checking out waterproof breathable shells AGAIN this year - you can have both of my 2-years-old like-new, utterly useless, actually dangerous Patagonia shells. I'm lucky the weather broke just right. Patagonia apparently forgot the waterproofing entirely. A $10 K-Mart windbreaker has all the water-shedding ability of my $225 Patagonia soft-shell, the $120 shell meant for the bottom of the Camelbak is a little better - still life threatening in a drizzle above tree-line. Just starting to look - open to suggestions.

Nov 29, 2011

The goal was to test the top hardshells (waterproof/breathable shells), not necessarily find the most affortable. I've got the mt hardwear Jovian shell, super sleek design, light and comfortable despite what the article says about it being "stiff". Ponchos are waterproof, but so are windshields, breathability is an issue for those who really spend time working hard (backpacking, running) in wet weather.

R. A.
Oct 18, 2011

I found this review helpful, and the effort that went in to testing it. However, Patagonia, Arcteryx, and other brands also put a lot into research. I would have liked to see more of the different models and brands tested. Is there a way to get more details on your research? I live in the Pacific Northwest, and so I need a shell that is secure and "bombproof" in heavy rain, and also in high-altitude high-wind conditions.

Oct 17, 2011

I bought OR's Foray jacket last year for a 4 month stint in Montana's northern rocky's It handled every thing from a rogue hail storm to a 2 day soaker. And it took the abuse of 120+ days of harsh trail work without a tear

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