How to Choose a Waterproof Jacket for Hiking and Trekking

Lightweight, comfortable, and extremely waterproof, jackets for mid-mountain activities, such as hiking and trekking are exceptionally versatile and the designs look great, both in the mountains and around town. Here, we talk about how to choose the most suitable jacket for your needs.

Hiking and trekking jackets. Waterproof, lightweight and comfortable. Photo: Arc''Teryx

A waterproof jacket is an essential item for hiking and trekking. However, it is often difficult for beginners to decide on the specific features they require, as they are unsure of the conditions they will encounter and usually want a jacket that does it all.

Broadly speaking, the mountain textile industry understands this, and jacket designs are much more versatile than those made for high mountaineering, for example. Mid-mountain jackets can also be described as waterproof garments, which are sufficiently technical and comfortable for hiking and for non-extreme winter conditions..

This category does not include jackets designed for highly aerobic activities such as trail running or ski mountaineering which feature multiple seams and ultra-light, highly breathable fabrics that would not be as waterproof or durable for the activities we are interested in, although in most cases they would perform well enough. Something similar happens with high mountaineering jackets, which are made of very tough, durable materials and have a multitude of reinforcements, making the jacket heavier and less comfortable for activities at lower altitudes.

Waterproofing capacity is the most important feature. Photo: Arc''Teryx

Hiking and trekking are popular all year round, in all kinds of weather, so jackets need to be highly versatile. For this reason they usually have a very high hydrostatic head, for maximum waterproofing capacity and a fairly loose fit so that they can be combined with a fleece or mid-layer jacket, as well as with a soft lining, for comfort when worn over a tee-shirt. These features make them some of the most versatile jackets for outdoor activity available.

Classifying a jacket is not easy. After all, where is the boundary with an aerobic jacket and where is the difference with a high mountaineering jacket? The features between one type of garment and another are not set in stone and the same waterproof jacket may combine features from different categories to make it more versatile or more activity-specific.

Despite this difficulty and bearing in mind that there are always exceptions to the rule, we have made a list of the most essential features of a jacket, designed for mid-mountain activities, such as hiking and trekking:

  • Highly waterproof, these jackets tend to offer the highest waterproofing capacity.
  • Medium-high breathability, occasionally reinforced with underarm vents.
  • No thermal insulation, but loose enough to be worn over a warm mid-layer.
  • Relatively lightweight, usually under 450 grams
  • Includes basic features, such as a hood, full zip and other more specific accessories such as adjustable hem, cuffs and collar.
  • Subtle designs, usually in one colour or a combination of two similar colours.

Let’s take a closer look at each of these features to help you choose the best model for your needs.

Waterproofing Capacity

At high mountain altitudes, precipitation is usually in the form of snow, which penetrates the fabric much more slowly than water, so waterproofing capacity is not as important as it is for activities at lower altitudes, where precipitation is usually in the form of rain.

The following articles give further information on the different waterproofing systems available:

There is a wide range of waterproof membranes to choose from. Even within the same brand, there are different membranes adapted to each activity and each rainfall intensity. Hiking and trekking jackets usually have the highest waterproofing capacity, which is generally over 20,000mm HH (hydrostatic head) and often closer to 30,000mm.

Rab Downpour Eco Jacket W. 20,000mm HH

Breathability

It is here, where the quality of a hiking and trekking jacket becomes clear. No garment can be totally waterproof as well as totally breathable, because preventing water from entering while allowing sweat to escape are contradictory functions and the balance will depend on the activity.

Aerobic jackets, for example, have lower waterproofing capacity in order to allow higher breathability, while, in contrast, urban or lifestyle jackets need to be more waterproof than breathable. However, it is essential that jackets designed for hiking and trekking, are both waterproof and breathable.

Depending on the brand, the level of breathability is indicated in two ways: MVTR (moisture vapour transmission rate) or RET (resistance to evaporative heat transfer). If they are not familiar, you can find out more, by clicking on the links. It is advisable to choose a MVTR above 10000 g/m²/24h or a RET below 13, which will guarantee more than adequate breathability for hiking activities, unless the climate is very warm.

Rab Kinetic 2.0 Jacket. An impressive MVTR: 35000g / m2 / 24 hrs

Thermal Insulation

It is important to mention, that except in urban fashion garments or those for special conditions, such as winter work clothing, a waterproof and breathable jacket intended for outdoor activity, will rarely have thermal insulation. Except for jackets with 3-in-1 designs, which feature a detachable inner jacket and allow the triple combination of warmth, waterproofing or both together, it is uncommon to find thermal insulation in a waterproof jacket, for outdoor activity.

So, when the temperature drops, clearly an additional warm layer is required. For this reason, these jackets are designed with a looser cut, so that you can comfortably fit a warm mid-layer jacket or fleece underneath, without losing out on freedom of movement.

Weight

Hiking jackets are not usually heavy, as they don''t need to be as robust as mountaineering jackets, yet they do need to be packable, so that they take up little space in your backpack, when not in use, which is why they are made of lighter fabrics and materials.

Lightweight and packable to take up little space in your pack

Fabrics used can vary, but they are mainly made of polyester, which is very lightweight, durable and exceptionally breathable. It is also environmentally sustainable, as most mountain equipment brands tend to opt for recycled polyester.

An excellent weight estimate for a hiking and trekking waterproof jacket is 350 grams for a men’s size M. Rarely do these jackets exceed 450 grams or go below 320 grams.

Accessories

As most jackets in this range have similar waterproofing capacity, breathability and weight, choosing between jackets often comes down to the accessories and design.

Clearly, this kind of jacket needs to have a hood and a full zip, and an adjustable hem, collar and hood are also interesting options, to ensure it moves with your body and keeps out the cold.

Some models, also feature pit zip ventilation, for enhanced breathability or reflective elements, which are useful for being seen in urban environments.

Columbia Omni Tech Amplidry Shell W. Pit zip ventilation for enhanced breathability.

Another welcome detail is a stuff sack for compressing the jacket into a small space in your backpack. They usually stuff into their own pocket, which avoids the need of an extra bag.

Design

Unlike other jacket designs, which prioritise freedom of movement or durability and therefore require a number of different seams or reinforcements, hiking and trekking jackets do not need such a complicated design for optimum performance and for this reason, designs are more simple, with fewer sealed seams, making their waterproofing and breathability more efficient.

Patagonia Torrentshell. Fewer seams and reinforcements improve fabric performance.

In recent years, colour designs have become more subtle, especially compared to the intense combinations of some years ago and they usually feature just one colour or two similar tones, which do not stand out in urban environments. Of course, this has no influence on the technical performance, but the fact that these jackets are becoming more popular in urban environments, due to the protection they offer against the rain and their light weight and comfort, may explain the more subtle designs.

We hope we have cleared up any queries on the range of hiking and trekking jackets. If you would like further information, we are here to help you on-line. We look forward to hearing from you!

On-line store: www.barrabes.com

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