Outdoor Research Zealot
This jacket is the lightest of the three by a few grams, yet still provides the best overall protection. After three cold, rainy days in New Zealand's Southern Alps, our tester emerged dripping only on the outside-even his notebook in the small chest pocket stayed dry. On this and other hikes, the hem drawcord, elasticized cuffs, waterproof zips, and midlength butt coverage kept out windblown precipitation. The adjustable hood requires two hands to operate, but the brim provides decent protection. The 15-denier fabric survived thick Pennsylvania briers unscathed. We wish the Gore-Tex PacLite breathed better, and that the jacket had pit zips; testers sweated inside when they hiked hard in mild temps. That, plus a loose fit that leaves room for warm layers, makes the Zealot best for cooler conditions. $199; unisex S-XL; 7 oz. (888) 467-4327; www.orgear.com.
If you expect mostly mild conditions--like passing summer thunderstorms--this bargain jacket delivers adequate protection for minimum dough. The Essence is exactly what the name implies: a no-frills shell with one zippered chest pocket, fabric that holds up to bushwhacks, and a trim cut that delivers barebones coverage. The PreCip Plus fabric's breathability compares with that of the pricier Zealot. There are tradeoffs for such ruthless minimalism: The elasticized cuffs leaked in a sustained rain, and the waist-length hem let wind-driven drops sneak in. We're also not fans of the hood's small, limp brim and hook-and-loop depth adjustment. That said, you'll get your money's worth as long as you don't get caught in a tempest. Fit is roomy enough for a couple of light layers underneath. $160; men's and women's S-XL; 7.5 oz. (707) 544-4590; www.marmot.com.
Integral Designs eVent Rain Jacket
Our jury is unanimous: eVent fabric is the most breathable waterproof material we've ever worn. In mild rain and swirling snow, testers found that the fabric started moving moisture out as soon as the steaminess began accumulating inside. Even hard-to-vent areas on our backs hardly got damp. Result: More time hiking, less time changing layers. But this jacket's hem stops at the waist, exposing your rear to wetness, and the hood has no brim. Like the other shells, durability is topnotch despite the light construction. Fit is the closest of the three, but adequate for a midlayer underneath, and the jacket has a large chest pocket. The superior breathability makes it a great emergency rain jacket that can double as a wind shell. You'll want to wash it regularly to keep the fabric's micropores from getting clogged. $220; unisex S-XL; 8.5 oz. (403) 640-1445; www.integraldesigns.com.