Have you ever felt lost in the maze of nylon and polyester when you walked into an REI outdoor wear section? Knowing the basics of rainwear technology and key terms will help you find the jacket that suits your needs.
Its research, development, and testing determine the price of a jacket. Rainwear of the highest quality can run into hundreds of dollars, so it’s worth researching before you buy.
Do you want to get geeky about rainwear? Please take a look at our Rainwear How It Works page. It is worth reading the fabric care section because each jacket requires regular maintenance to keep you dry.
Weather Protection Types
Every jacket has some degree of water resistance. You can determine the level of protection a coat provides by understanding its terminology.
Waterproof vs. Water-resistant
A jacket is “waterproof” if it has sufficient water resistance to keep out driving rain. Despite differences in test standards, you can be sure that gear that major brands label as waterproof can withstand severe storms.
Waterproof/breathable: This type of performance rainwear keeps rain from getting through to your skin while also moving sweat back to the outside world. If you plan any activity to get your limbs moving, this is the gear to wear.
Water-resistant This is gear that can withstand light rain, such as windbreakers or featherweight jackets. These won’t hold up to persistent precipitation or begins to fall sideways.
Waterproof/nonbreathable: Think rain slicker or emergency poncho. This gear is perfect for keeping the rain out of your sitting or standing area. It also costs very little. Your rain slicker may also become slick if you exert yourself. It only takes a little wind for a cloak to become ineffective.
Windproof vs. Wind-resistant
As “waterproof” refers to “waterproof,” “windproof” is when the test results exceed a threshold. For example, 60+ mph is the standard for all REI-brand jackets.
Windproof Any waterproof jacket can also be windproof. This makes sense, considering that a barrier that blocks driving rain will also stop the wind. Jackets that have windproof technology (typically a type of laminate) will also be available. These jackets are water-resistant but not waterproof.
Wind-resistant This is essentially the same as a waterproof jacket, but it’s often a lightweight garment that can be stuffed into a pocket. It is designed for short trips and optimistic forecasts but won’t provide much protection during a storm.
This design is a step above rainwear and combines a raincoat with a fleece jacket or an insulated shell. You can wear the inner or outer component separately by zipping it into the rain jacket.
Types of Weather Shells
Although often used interchangeably to mean “jacket,” “shell” can also be used to refer to pants and parkas, as well as ponchos. It is a term that emphasizes fabric makeup rather than garment style. As you think about your weather protection options, being familiar with these types of shells is helpful.
Hard shell: This is an alternative term for waterproof/breathable gear. Complex shell fabrics are typically stiffer than soft-shell fabrics, but there are new hard-shell fabrics that are more flexible. Hard shells can’t be insulated, so you must have a base layer and a mid-layer.
Soft Shell: The classic version combines an insulating layer and a water-resistant outer shell. It is essential to have one piece as both a mid-layer and an outer layer. You get less protection from the cold, rain, wind, and freezing in exchange for more excellent breathability. Soft shells are ideal for high-exertion activities where sweat is a more significant concern.
Soft shells are a fuzzy category due to evolving designs. Soft shells often have exceptional flexibility, which isn’t so common in hard shells.