Waterproof jackets and trousers
“The only piece of outdoor gear that is 100 per cent breathable and waterproof [is]...the humble umbrella.” Andy Kirkpatrick, world renowned climber
Waterproofs form the final layer and are crucial for not only repelling rain, but reducing the wind chill. For most of us, the purchase of a jacket represents a significant investment and, generally, you get what you pay for...up to a point! Look for lifetime guarantees. Discriminating between the increasing array of jackets available is difficult so here are some ideas on the criteria to apply in making your choice.
Waterproof fabrics are mainly manufactured in two ways - coated fabrics or membrane fabrics.
A non-breathable coated jacket does not allow water in, but it also does not allow water out. As soon as you start exercising you’ll get damp from sweat. In light rain you may find you’re less damp without the jacket than with it! This type of jacket is only suitable for short-term, non-strenuous use.
Breathable fabrics use either a microporous membrane laminated to a face fabric where the pores in the coating are large enough to let water vapour pass through but small enough to keep water droplets out (Gore-tex) or a coating. Two distinct types of breathable coating exist: microporous that work like Gore-tex (Lowe Triple point) and hydrophilic (Symaptex) that rely on the chemical and molecular properties of water molecules. You don’t have to spend the earth. Large manufacturers also have their own cheaper, lower performing brands that are often good value and perform well enough for most users. The more active you are the more breathable the material must be however good ventilation and adjusting your layers to reduce sweating is just as important in keeping you dry.
In reality how well a jacket breathes and keeps out water is more down to the design of the jacket and how active you are rather than breathability of the material and how much water pressure it can withstand. Identify the key activity you expect to use your jacket for and buy the most suitable and specific jacket for the activity you enjoy most rather than make a compromised choice to suit a wider range of activities.
Lightweight materials are great when the weather is mostly dry, but if the environment you walk in is often wet choose heavier weight fabrics. Take any manufacturer’s claims of staying dry in torrential rain with a pinch of salt because a fabric's breathability is always compromised when it's wet or dirty. This is why it is important to reproof the outer to keep the water beading up and keep it clean.
It should provide freedom of movement so try jackets on with the maximum layers you are likely to wear. Reach for the sky – are your wrists and belly exposed or does it pull at the waist and cuffs? Can you see your feet? It should also not be too tight because you must be able to build up a water vapour pressure difference between the inside and outside of the jacket to force water vapour out. Waist draw cords can help with this process and make it fit more snugly.
The heavier a jacket is the more durable it is likely to be but do you really need a ski pass holder, pit zips or lots of pockets
The attention to detail in the hood will tell you if the jacket is well designed. Hoods that roll away into a zipped pouch are rarely large enough and don’t have a stiffened peak or wired visor, essential when it is windy. A good hood should be large enough to allow you to get a hat or even a climbing helmet underneath it and not flop down over your eyes, or obscure your vision when you turn your head. Volume adjusters on the back of the hood are useful to reduce the size when you are not wearing a hat. The greatest advance in waterproofs came with the development of elastic draw cords on hoods that are secured at both ends and ‘lock’ with a toggle that can be operated single-handedly. No longer do you have to endure them flicking your face in windy conditions.
|“When in the mountains, any thing on your person that flaps in the wind or dangles past your knees will at some point slap you in the face or try a trip you over”.
Zips and storm flaps
Two-way zips allow you to increase ventilation, put the jacket on in a hurry and undo to answer calls of nature!
The zip is a weak point in combating the elements and it should have a Velcro storm flap to prevent water getting through. Uncovered water resistant zips on lightweight jackets work well when new, but they are not so durable and do not slide as easily Pit zips can increase ventilation in extreme situations, but you can probably achieve the same effect by opening your cuffs, pockets and neck zip. They can also be difficult to do up while wearing a rucksack.
Waterproofs with zips on the inside to insert a fleece are rarely of any use. Smocks with a long zip are underrated because jackets are commonly either on, with the zip done up, or they are in a rucksack, however smocks are more difficult to get on and off.
Mid-thigh length jackets give extra protection to the waist and thighs when walking, but can restrict movement. Shorter jackets are lighter and less bulky, fit under a harness and allow greater freedom of movement when scrambling or climbing, but they may expose your back when bending over.
Chest pockets should be mesh-lined to improve ventilation and large enough for a map (although you can always cut the map into smaller sections). An extra mesh pocket on the inside is useful for those readily required items like sunscreen or snacks. If you regularly wear a harness avoid pockets below the waist.
These should be sealed to prevent any ingress of water. Taping should also cover embroidery or logos.
Velcro adjustable cuffs
These keep the worst of the weather out, but when left loose increase ventilation.
These supposedly provide an outer and insulating layer in one. They are soft to the touch, highly water resistant, wind resistant, highly breathable and often stretchable. While not 100 per cent waterproof, a soft shell delivers twice the breathability of Gortex, however they do take a long time to dry out when wet and you will then feel the cold more.
The decision to wear soft shells or conventional clothing depends on the activity. If rain is likely, a conventional waterproof jacket is important, but for aerobic activities in cold, dry, high activity situations, soft shells may work well.
A soft shell - evaporation uses heat therefore the more breathable a jacket is the cooler you will feel.
Often the discomfort these can cause outweighs the protective factor: on a warm wet day you might not wear them as they make you sweat too much; on a cold wet day you risk hypothermia if you don’t wear them. I carry a lightweight pair in summer and a heavy-duty pair of salopettes for winter conditions. The most important thing is how easy they are to get on and off, plus how far can you lift your leg up in them. Full-length zips make them easier to get on and off and braces help to stop them sliding down.
Care of jackets and over-trousers
Roll them up to put them in your rucksack it will keep the breathable membrane or coating flatter. Breathable fabrics are treated to make surface water bead up and roll off the garment. This keeps the fabric surface clear so that sweat and body heat can pass through from the inside. Over time the water-repellent treatment wears off, and the garment is less effective. To restore it try heating the material with a cool iron or in a tumble dryer, and when this no longer works treat the jacket with a reproofing product.
Dirt and sweat can clog the pores of breathable materials. Most garments are machine washable but do not use modern detergents, conditioners or softeners - use pure soap or a specialist, cleaning product and check the care label.