Some of the best jackets you can get today are waterproof hiking jackets. For me choosing one is a pretty big deal as there are so many quality options these days, it can be hard to make an educated and informed choice. When choosing a waterproof hiking jacket there are some basic things you need to take into consideration. Let's take a look at these below!
If you want to skip straight to our top waterproof hiking jacket recommendations, you can check out our top recommendations for the best men's hiking rain jackets here and our top recommendations for the best women's hiking rain jackets here. There are plenty of excellent options there to meet your hiking needs!
Please note, although this article was first published in 2013, it is updated on an ongoing basis.
Waterproof Hiking Jacket - Hard Shell, Soft Shell, Rain Shell, etc?
When you first look into this area, it can be a bit confusing as there are so many different types of jackets available on the market that are suitable for hiking. You have hard shells, soft shells, windproof jackets, rain shell jackets and the list goes on. If you’re new to this, it can be a tad confusing.
First off, lets take a look at some of these main categories of jacket to try and shed some light on what they are and the differences between them.
Hard Shell Jackets
These are full on rain jackets and are made with 2, 2.5 or 3 layers of material. The extra layers enable a hard shell to be truly breathable and very waterproof. In brief, the function of each of these three layers is:
- An internal layer enables free movement against your clothes under the jacket and protects the next layer
- The next layer is the waterproof and breathable layer
- Finally, an external fabric on the outer layer which is usually nylon or polyester
This category of jackets are probably the toughest waterproof jacket you can get but this is reflected in the price and you will pay be moving into the $500 plus area for a hard shell. Hard shells are great jackets but, in my opinion, are mainly for the hardcore outdoor enthusiast and not necessary for the average hiker.
Soft Shell Jackets
When it comes to waterproof protection, generally speaking a soft shell jacket is a jacket that you would use as a light rain jacket and possibly as an additional lighter under-layer to an outer rain jacket.
It will offer more breathability so can be a preferable choice to a fleece as an outer layer in good weather. Some soft shells will have some water repellent capabilities but they are not designed for severe weather. Therefore, while it is a useful piece of kit for the hiker to have, it doesn’t fit the bill with regards to good waterproof protection.
These are specialized jackets to be used for environments and conditions that are, well, very windy. Think sailing or cycling. These jackets focus on protection from the wind and breathability. They may have some waterproof capability but it will be minimal. While again, a useful piece of kit to have, this is not the ideal choice for the average hiker.
Multi-Purpose / 3-in-1 Jackets
These jackets are jackets that have layers built into them. For example, you have a hard shell outer layer with a fleece zipped into the jacket. These jackets don’t really appeal to me personally. The main problem I have with them is that you are somewhat limited to using the layers than come with them. On the other hand you should get a good fit!
These jackets are also expensive moving towards the higher end of $1000. I don’t’ think these are the best option for general hiking usage.
Rain Shell Jackets - *Recommended
This category of jacket is the most desirable option for the average hiker and, in most cases, the hiking enthusiast. If, like me, your hiking trips range from weekend day hikes to a few longer multiple day treks throughout the year, this type of jacket should meet your needs.
These jackets, generally speaking, will have as good a level of water repellency as a hard shell. What they won’t have is the breathability of a hard shell. Although most jackets in this category will however claim to be breathable, the breathability capabilities are generally, in my opinion, limited.
However for me, this is no big deal as my normal hiking is in climates that when it’s raining, it’s usually cool enough anyway that I can simply take off layers to stay dry underneath my layers. However, if you have to deal with trickier conditions, e.g. hiking in higher humidity, you can still get around this with a rain shell by being sure your rain jacket has some simple ventilation features like pit zips (air vent zips under your armpits).
These jackets also offer enough windproof protection for a hiker and are also the most economical, running anywhere from $50 - $250.
What type of weather will you be mostly using your hiking jacket in? How long at a time will you be using it for e.g. for short weekend hikes or for extended periods (weeks or even months) at a time? Will you be mainly in temperate or tropical conditions or both?
In short, you need to establish the hiking environments you know you will be in so you can make an educated guess as to what kind of performance requirements it needs to satisfy.
Size and Fit
When it comes to jackets, most people know what broad category they fall into i.e. large, small, etc. If you’re not familiar with sizing, have a look at the sizing of any jackets you currently have to give you an idea. Keep in mind though that there can be significant differences between the same size in different hiking jackets. Generally speaking, for hiking, leaving some room underneath your jacket for adding extra layers of clothing and providing some space for air to move around is advisable. You can always stop into any shop for a fitting too.
In these straitened times, this is of course a big consideration for most. The selection and quality of hiking jackets available today are really outstanding but this is also reflected in the price you will pay.
As mentioned above, you can spend anything from a couple of hundred bucks for a decent waterproof hiking jacket, up to a thousand dollars on a top of the range hard shell jacket. Assess your needs and ensure you purchase within a price range that is comfortable for you!
The Good News!
Again, in my opinion, most hikers should be fine using the rain jacket option above. In that category your price range is roughly $50 - $250. You should be able to get a very functional rain jacket to meet all your hiking needs within that range.
There are multiple options and technologies in the materials available today for your waterproof hiking jacket. Broadly speaking, primarily you want something waterproof followed by some level of, or access to breathability / ventilation.
With regards to waterproofing, Durable Water Resistant (DWR) coatings are used to keep the external fabric of your hiking jacket, and therefore you, from getting wet (Saturated). Gore-tex is a popular fabric technology that also enables your jacket to breathe.
Of course, different jackets have different levels of quality in this area. As mentioned in the opening of this post, some jackets will be both waterproof and breathable so water can't get in but moisture can get out. DWR only jackets will generally only keep water out so this is something to consider in your purchasing decision i.e. if you choose a DWR only rain shell jacket you may want to look for other ventilation options in the jacket like pit zips to ensure you can get some outer air circulation via the vents.
As an example of the technical science and detail behind this, check out the video for HyVent or review some of the technology for Gore-Tex (See picture below), two of the most well-known and respected technologies. It’s pretty technical stuff but it all goes to keeping you dry, in good shape and hopefully with a smile on your face when out in the wilds!
- This picture is taken from the Gore-Tex website, click on the picture to learn more.
Following on from, and related to the material used in the type of jacket you choose, weight is a factor you should consider. A lot of the time you won’t be wearing your jacket and it will be rolled up in a ball in your pack. Whether day hiking or on longer treks, you don’t really want to be carrying any extra weight, so keep this in mind when choosing your jacket.
As a general rule, rain shells will be lighter than hard shells.
Regardless of what type of jacket you go for, ongoing maintenance is a key thing to help extend the life of your jacket. Everything from your sweat (lovely) to general scuffing and abrasion will have an impact on your jackets longevity so you need to take good care of it to get the most out of it.
Also, as a matter of course, at some point your jacket will start to lose its water repellency and may even ‘wet out’ i.e. get saturated with water. When this happens you’ve effectively lost any waterproofing capabilities the jacket had so you need to reproof your jacket. Check out the post on how to care for a waterproof hiking jacket for some tips on how to get the most out of, and the longest life from your jacket.
Tip: Always read cleaning and maintenance instructions carefully! For example, putting a DWR jacket in a washing machine could destroy the outer protective coating. Follow the care and maintenance instructions to the letter to get the most from your waterproof hiking jacket!
What brand do you like? There are many to choose from and I think this is really a very personal choice. You may have had experience with certain products in the past which is usually a reasonable gauge to use to help define if you’ll like more of their stuff.
For some of the best options available from some of the best brands, check out the waterproof hiking jackets page here on Cool Hiking Gear.
Every waterproof hiking jacket will have some basic features as standard. For example they will have a hood which can be peaked and or adjustable. Below are some features that you should look for in a good jacket:
I like having as many pockets as possible available on my jacket. The main consideration here is the location of the pockets on the jacket. Normally the options are that you will have waist height pockets, breast pockets and maybe one or two on the side of the arm.
The main consideration is access to the pockets when on the move or, if relevant for you, carrying a backpack. When carrying a backpack, the waist pockets should be higher up on your jacket so they are accessible. This isn't really a factor for a day hiker carrying a small day pack but it’s nice to have the option. Also, mesh pockets are good to look out for.
Finally, a nice, but not absolutely necessary, addition on a hiking jacket is a Napoleon breast pocket, so called as the pocket sits approximately two thirds up the outside of your jacket, usually on the left hand side (see picture below). If you put your hand into the pocket and left it there, you would look like the classic pictures of Napoleon. This pocket is really handy for putting a map or compass into so it can be easily accessed throughout your hike.
Every waterproof Hiking jacket will have a hood and it's a very important part of the jacket. The hood should be adjustable so you can fit it to your head comfortably. Adjustments are usually on the left and right hand sides of the base of the hood and on the back of the head.
A hood style that can be nice to have is a peaked hood. This helps keep the rain off your face. Also, a hood that can be rolled up and stored in the collar of the jacket is handy although not necessary in my opinion. You can always roll it up into the hood when storing it.
Keep in mind any special needs you may have for your hiking adventures. For example, will you ever need to wear a helmet under your hood? If so, you will need a bit more room in there to fit it in.
Adjustable Hem Draw-cord
This should be standard in all decent jackets. It is a cord that you can adjust to tighten the jacket around your body. Not rocket science but functional and necessary. These can be at the waist level of your jacket and / or at the bottom of it if the jacket is longer.
Angel Wing Movement
This is a feature than means you can move you arms in a circular motion and the jacket won't ride up your back. Good to have and easy to test out. It may not always be specifically mentioned but it is definitely worth checking.
These are cuffs that have adjustable tabs on them to help seal them around your wrists. These can be elasticated cuffs or have cuff flaps made from Velcro, the preferable option. Definitely a nice thing to have on your jacket.
Waterproof Zippers / Storm Flaps
These are designed to protect the zip area from letting water in. Storm flaps are flaps that you can seal over the zip and can be on both the inside and outside of the jacket. Waterproof zippers are what they say they are i.e. zippers that are waterproof.
Jackets will usually have some mix of these features as extra protection. They should run the whole way up to the chin line of the hood. Combined with the adjustable hood it can form a chin guard.
The topics reviewed above cover most of the items you should consider when making a decision to purchase a waterproof hiking jacket. With these topics in mind, check out the video below for a walk through on them and other things to think about.
OK, well, we've covered a lot here and I think and in some ways, we've probably only scratched the surface of what’s available. You can go into the technology behind each brand to the nth degree but I think that is too much for most people.
When I look at what’s available on the market today, it is amazing. There are so many makes and models to choose from it can be head spinning. You can check out our top recommendations for the best men's hiking rain jackets here, and our top recommendations for the best women's hiking rain jackets here. You will find plenty of excellent options there to meet all your hiking needs!
It’s up to you to decide what is best for you but for an average hiker I recommend going with a rain shell jacket adding your other layers underneath.
In conclusion, there is much to consider when choosing a waterproof hiking jacket that's right for you and your hiking needs. Take the time to walk through everything in this post several times to help ensure you pick the right one that will give you many happy, dry and comfortable hikes for a long time to come!
Have you bought a waterproof hiking jacket recently? Any tips you can share? Share your tips and experience in the comments below.