There’s no bad weather — just bad gear and bad attitudes. Rainy and windy? No problem. Just bring along a waterproof/windproof rain shell. Here’s how to buy a good one.
THE LOW DOWN
There are two types of shell jackets — hard shells and soft shells.
Hard shells are what most people think of when they talk about outdoor jackets. These are lightweight hooded jackets designed to keep out wind and rain. Standard rain slickers are considered hard shells, too, but we’re focusing on hard shells that are also breathable, meaning they wick sweat away from your body. If you’re wearing something that doesn’t breathe, you’re going to sweat and get all the rest of your insulation wet because none of the moisture is going to be able to leave
Soft shells are woven jackets that are wind- and water-resistant and totally breathable. Many soft shells use a durable water-repellent (a.k.a. DWR) coating on the jacket’s surface to make it shed rain.
ONE FOR ALL?
If you can afford only one jacket, you should buy a simple lightweight hard shell. Hard shells are necessary equipment for heavy wind and wet weather because a soft shell simply won’t give you the needed protection. That said, if you can afford both, a soft shell is ideal for about 80 percent of your outdoor activities, and you can keep a lightweight, waterproof hard shell in your backpack for the nasty weather.
HARD VS. SOFT
Soft shells are generally more supple and more breathable but less windproof and less waterproof. Hard shells typically don’t fit quite as nice, but they’re usually more waterproof, more windproof and lighter weight.
These are marketing words you’ll hear used to describe hard shells. Usually these jackets are built with two to three layers of material, including a special membrane layer that keeps weather out while letting your sweat escape.
A common misconception when people are looking for a shell jacket is they think they need to see the words 100 percent waterproof on the tag. Depending on your activity you might want a decent amount of waterproofness, but don’t get hung up on it.
Also, there are a wide variety of waterproof/breathable materials on the market. Some are more heavily advertised than others, but often the generic or “house brand” waterproof/breathable fabrics offered by manufacturers will work just as well for you. Gore-Tex, for example, is a fine product, but it’s only one of many waterproof/breathable fabrics.
You want a shell jacket to be decently trim. You don’t want it to be bulking out and getting in the way of your mobility. To make sure it fits right, raise your arms over your head and make sure the bottom of the shell jacket doesn’t come up above your waist.
For hard shells, make sure it’s roomy enough to allow for layering when it’s cold. Soft shells should be more form fitting. If you’ll be wearing a backpack waist belt or climbing harness, consider how the jacket may interfere with that.
A really well-designed hood that lets you see well is something a lot of people probably don’t think about a lot, but it’s really important because with poorly designed hoods, you can barely do anything. Every time you turn your head you’re looking into the side of the hood.
Look for a hood that has good coverage, can fit over a climbing helmet (if you’ll be climbing) and is able to cinch down tight to your face so it doesn’t obstruct your view.
Always look for a jacket that’s seam-sealed. That said, keep in mind it doesn’t matter how much you spend, in a downpour even the most expensive jackets will probably eventually wet-out.
Even though shell jackets claim breathability, the truth is that a rain shell is going to be a little clammy. So look for one with pit zips (zippers that open the sides of the jacket under your arms) because they help with breathability, especially when you’re being active.
BELLS AND WHISTLES
MP3 pockets, hydration bladders, etc. You’ll see tricked-out shells in the stores with these things, but it’s best to keep it simple. The ideal jacket is really lightweight and just has a well-designed hood, two chest pockets and fully sealed seams.
TRY BEFORE YOU BUY
You can probably find good jackets online, but it’s always best to buy in person because you can try it on.
In general, the more you spend on a jacket, the more bells and whistles you’ll get. Also, higher-end waterproof jackets tend to be more breathable.
If you happen to fit into kids’ sizes rather than adult jackets, you can save lots of cash on a jacket while still getting the same waterproof/windproof performance.
Gear Guy combed the stores to find the best new jackets (and some old tried-and-true ones) that are both cool and affordable.
All these rain shells are similar. Each is made of waterproof breathable nylon with fully sealed seams, and adjustable hood and chest pockets, and each is very packable. The differences come down to price, style and the addition of features like armpit zips for added breathability.
All prices are MSRP — manufacturer’s suggested retail price. You can often find better deals in stores or online.
COLUMBIA WATERTIGHT JACKET
($50 boys, $90 adult; columbia.com)
This mesh-lined jacket is more comfortable in warmer temps. 8.4 oz./13.4 oz.
HELLY HANSEN LOKE
The Loke is a full-featured jacket (including pit zips) for just a hundred bucks. 9.4 oz.
OUTDOOR RESEARCH HORIZON
Probably the best choice for backpacking, this one has pit zips that unzip all the way from the waist to easily accommodate a backpack waistbelt. 14.5 oz.
($65 boys, $100 adult; marmot.com)
This one’s a classic — it has been around forever! And for good reason. The PreCip is a great jacket at a good price. Plus, it comes with pit zips. 9.7 oz./13 oz.
L.L. BEAN DISCOVERY RAIN JACKET
($40 boys, $55 adult; llbean.com)
The kids’ sizing on this jacket is the best deal in our roundup. The inner mesh liner keeps the shell of your skin in warm weather. 8 oz./14 oz.
REI RAINWALL JACKET
Offered only in boys’ sizing, this waterproof jacket comes with a nice chest pocket and an adjustable hood. 12.4 oz.