Rain Jacket? Hardshell? A Buyer’s Guide

“There is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing”. That certainly rings true with rain jackets. The market offers a huge selection. Our Buyers Guide can help narrow it down for you.  Continue reading

Klättermusen Rain jacket, Hardshell  (1 products)

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Klättermusen Fjorgyn Unisex Jacket
Klättermusen Fjorgyn Unisex Jacket
£ 304.46
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In stock, delivery time 3-5 days

Extremely lightweight, waterproof hoody for optimum weather protection in any situation

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Rain Jacket? Hardshell? A Buyer’s Guide

Rain jackets were once just that. However, modern technology and demand has created a much wider spectrum, creating a new terminology - the hardshell. What is this new species of rain protection exactly?  Bergzeit Textile Product Manager Johann Öttl explains, that a hardshell jacket "is a robust, functional laminate jacket for outdoors, perfect against snow, rain and wind."


A good rain jacket keeps the rain out!! | Photo: Bergans / Fredrik Schenholm
A good rain jacket simply keeps the rain out! | Photo: Bergans / Fredrik Schenholm

The alternative to the hardshell is a softshell jacket. The material is soft, breathable and warm (unlike a hardshell that can be stiffer). However as a complete rain protector, softshell jackets aren't adequate. They are also not nearly as robust. A softshell is a comfortable all-rounder, whereby, a hardshell jacket is the specialist when it comes to wet and demanding applications such as ice climbing.

Here a rain jacket - there a rain jacket

Browsing the current market for a rain jacket doesn't take long to discover that various price categories divide  rain jackets, their materials, technology and workmanship. Basically, this functional apparel can be broken down roughly into three categories:

# 1 Light rain jacket:

This type of rain jacket satisfies basic requirements: in a rain shower, it offers quick protection against rain and weather. Most light rain jackets are relatively light and thin and consist of two or a double-layer and partly lined with a membrane. It will normally not be found with reinforced taping and offer little resistance to chafing or rubbing (eg around shoulder or waist strap zone). It also means that with intensive and prolonged use, these lighter made jackets will have less resistance to water, allowing the water to eventually seep through to the inside. Lightweight rain jackets are particularly suitable for strolls when caught in a rain shower - or as a low-weight companion, as an extra precaution, to throw in your pack.

# 2 Classic all-round jacket:

Hard shells are indispensable companions for all alpine activities. | Photo: Vaude / Moritz Attenberger
Hardshells are indispensable companions for all alpine activities. | Photo: Vaude / Moritz Attenberger

As the name suggests an all-round rain jacket caters to just about all-wet weather needs. Reliable protection for longer stays in the rain and is particularly strengthened in wear-prone  (such as the shoulders) zones. It is robust and keeps you dry even with regular use. However, the durability of the outer fabric can be disappointing under a backpack or harness.

The decisive factor for the robustness is the weave density that has been used to make the outer material. This depends on the yarn thickness. (usually measured in denier = Td). The thicker the yarn, the denser and more robust is the outer fabric against abrasion - and the better it can protect the membrane. Most classic all-round rain jackets have a 40 denier consistency. For more extreme, high-altitude undertakings most yarns rate at 80 denier. A general rule of thumb therefore applies: The thicker the outer shell, the longer it will be of service.

# 3 Hardshell for extreme, high-alpine use:

Extreme challenges require a rain jacket that has plenty of features. Enter the hardshell! These jackets are designed for regular, tough use and their share of wear-and-tear. The outer material is robust and ideal for such purposes and especially at points of pressure or friction that is exerted on a regular basis, such as shoulders and pelvis where the backpack is fixed - these jackets are made to stand the test. The combination of outer fabric and a membrane lining results in the value of a water column. A water column of 1,000 millimeters means that it can withstand the pressure of about one liter of water. The EU standard (EN 343) defines a water column of 1,300 millimeters as "waterproof". However:  loads are not taken into account, which come together through movement, wind or weight. Kneeling around on wet ground, will soon put a burden of up to 5,000 millimeters of water. Therefore a functional rain jacket will usually rate with a water column value of 10000-30000 millimeters. Easily defying a storm or the weight of a backpack.

Membrane lining - clothing as a one-way street

Gore-Tex membranes and their field of uses. | Image: Gore-Tex®
Gore-Tex membranes and their field of uses. | Image: Gore-Tex®

Rain jackets for outdoor use are usually breathable. This is due mainly to the membrane lining that has been used. Its uniqueness lies in the selectivity: Depending on the structure, the porous expanded portion of the membrane allows moisture vapour to easily escape and at the same time prevents water droplets from penetrating. The Gore-Tex® membrane was established in 1976  and over the past 40 years, these membranes have been newly developed or enhanced.  Gore-Tex® and Gore-Tex? Pro®, Dermizax® and eVENT® are most commonly seen on the market today.

However, there is a catch with this exchange process: The diffusion of water vapor through the membrane requires a temperature difference of  no more than 15 degrees Celsius. This means that at higher temperatures or wearng numerous layers of insulation under the jacket, moisture transport functions weaker. That's where mechanics can help: A prime example would be ventilation zips under the armpits.

In addition to the protection against water, the membrane has another task: Textile Product Manager Johann Öttl explains further, "a waterproof membrane is always windproof". A good way of retaining warmth into the first layers of clothing.

Two layers? Two and a half layers? Or three?

Membranes have a great advantage over coatings: they are much more resistant to abrasion, which is especially beneficial in outdoor use. However, they work mainly in a sophisticated interaction with other layers.
Hardshell jackets usually consist of two to three layers: A robust outer material is bonded to the membrane. This protects, depending on the density, the membrane from abrasion. The components of a two-layer jacket; often the inner is a thin mesh lining. Two and a half layer jackets also have a protective coating on the inside of the membrane. Three layer jackets also have their own inner lining - and are extremely robust and comfortable to wear.

Waterproofing and washing a rain jacket

Washing and caring for a waterproofed treated jacket is a sensitive issue which Greenpeace clearly showed in their Detox study. The study indicated that chemicals used for waterproofing textiles (PFC), particularly PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) or PFOS (perfluorooctane sulfonate) accumulate in organisms and nature.

Those wanting to avoid these chemicals, should pay particular attention to the manufacturer's instructions, which equip their jackets accordingly. At the moment, manufacturers are working on waterproofing garments that aren't hindered with such disadvantages. Currently in the high-end price range there are still no alternatives with a comparable water-repellent effect.

However why are these treatments used if the membrane lining is already waterproof? The impregnation is an additional protection for the outer shell that otherwise becomes saturated with water, explains Bergzeit expert Hansi Öttl. When that happens, water vapour has less chance of escaping and water drops can then penetrate easily through the membrane. "Therefore, functional jackets should be waterproof treated on a regular basis. It's not however, necessary to treat the jacket if it's only been worn a few times and hasn't been wet often. In this case, it''s at the discretion of its owner. "The wearer should consider how the jacket is holding up in wet conditions and if it can be worn a few more times before it's to be treated. When purchasing garment care, try to ensure that these are PFC-free, such as Nikwax.

It is important that the jacket is cleaned, either with a clothes brush or special detergents. Only when the membrane pores are open, can they also breathe.

Which rain jacket is suitable for what specific use? It pays to know!

Rain jackets for everyday wear keep a simple rain shower at bay . | Photo: Bergans / Fredrik Schenholm
Rain jackets for everyday wear keep a simple rain shower at bay | Photo: Bergans / Fredrik Schenholm

Rain jackets can be found for many uses and applications: They are just as essential for cycling as they are for skiing or hiking. What is important in these areas of application? We have compiled the most relevant pointers for you:

Leisure rain jackets

... are ideally suited for walking in the city. They are uncomplicated enough for throwing on to walk the dog or also tossing into a work bag.

  • Everyday use (usually classic in design)
  • Comfortable
  • Double jackets (combination of outer rain shell and zip-in fleece jacket) are flexible for both wet and warmth protection

Example: Salewa Zillertal GTX Jacket

Rain jackets for alpine activities (hiking, mountaineering, ski touring)

... Comprises a wide range. The choice of jacket here depends on the surrounding environment. A classic all-round jacket has sufficient reserves both against moisture and against wear. However, the material is not designed for extreme loads. For those that spend a lot of time ski touring or mountaineering should invest in a jacket that withstands these type of adventures. Important here are the following:

  • Durability and resilience; for more intensive use, the jacket should be reinforced on the arms, shoulders and hips
  • Weight and pack size; whether the rain jacket is stashed in your backpack for an entire summer of hiking or you want to save more under extreme loads: low weight is an advantage
  • Ventilation zips under the armpits
  • Snow safety gear; in the case of a fall in powder while ski touring or freeriding, this is a great feature to have
  • Cut; the length of the jacket depends on your own preference; in combination with a harness is a longer cut and a double zipper recommended
  • Helmet compatible hood with adjustment feature comes in handy

Example: Mammut Meron Jacket

Rain jackets for climbing / ice climbing

While climbing a Hardshell needs to withstand a lot ... | Photo: Arcteryx / Wiktor Skupinsk
While climbing a hardshell needs to withstand a lot  | Photo: Arcteryx / Wiktor Skupinsk

... Can be divided into two categories: Jackets for approach and those for alpine and ice climbing. Sport climbing is on rainy days (if at all possible) usually done under large overhangs. A waterproof jacket is put into use mainly for ascents and descent. Good to remember is that a lot of weight comes together in the backpack - therefore quite a load. The outer material of the jacket, needs to be resilient enough, of course.

For longer alpine enterprises a rain jacket is more of a companion in your backpack for unpredictable weather and needs to be compact in terms of bulk and weight. However, for climbing passages, it's important to be wearing a jacket that has sufficient freedom of movement. Ice-climbing in particular adheres to a hardshell jacket with full features of mobility.

  • Mobility; often these jackets have gusset inserts under the armpits to prevent the bottom edge of the jacket during overhead movements from slipping upwards
  • Compactness and weight (for climbing always important)
  • Helmet should fit under the hood
  • Resistant to abrasion, whether from the backpack or on rock

Example: Mammut Nordwand Pro Jacket

Hardshell jackets for skiing

... need to hold up to wet ski days as well as enduring windy and cold conditions. It's also important that a hardshell ski-jacket insulates reliably especially while sitting sedentary for longer periods in a ski chair or lift.

  • Insulation, ie with integrated lining or without (in this case a layered principle applies)
  • Vents for warmer days
  • Powder skirt (removable, fixed or none)
  • Additional pockets (eg for the ski pass)
  • Robustness of the outer material plays a secondary role
  • Make: for alpine skiing as a rule a somewhat contoured athletic cut
  • Jackets for freeskiers are usually slightly longer and equipped with snow skirts to keep snow out in the event of a fall

Example Ski Jacket: Sweet Protection Monkeywrench Jacket

Rain jackets for cycling

For rainy days when cycling an essential companion | Photo:. Bergans / Fredrik Schenholm
For rainy days when cycling an essential companion | Photo:. Bergans / Fredrik Schenholm

... need to be especially compact and light. For a day ride or on tour, room is usually in short supply.

  • Compactness and low weight
  • Partially longer cut as a splash guard for the butt
  • Helmet compatible hood

Example: Gore Bike Wear Alp-X 2.0 GT AS Jacket

Rain jackets for running

... Must also be light and reliably protect from wind and rain.

  • Breathable
  • Comfortable to wear
  • Mostly used to has a  backup in the case of unpredictable weather

Example: Norrona Bitihorn Aero60 jacket


Further reading on rain jackets and hardshells:

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