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Every time I slip on a rain jacket, I give thanks that we no longer have to wrap ourselves in smelly sealskin to stay dry. Advances in weatherproof textiles and apparel design mean that rain jackets today are more comfortable and watertight than ever. But depending on the climate and your level of activity, sorting through different styles, technologies, and waterproof ratings can be confusing.

Every year, I test around 10 to 12 rain jackets through the wet Pacific Northwest winter. I hike, bike, run, and walk my dog; sometimes I stand in the shower with my clothes on when the weather isn’t cooperating. I also got advice from Amber Williams, a consumer science educator and lecturer in textile science and pattern making at Utah State University’s Outdoor Product Design program. These are our favorite rain jackets. 

If you’re tight on cash, check out our guide to the Best Cold Weather Gear for Under $100. Or you can always reapply waterproofing agents to your beloved old jacket. 

Updated May 2022: We added new picks, like the Patagonia Houdini, and removed older ones.

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Best Everyday Rain Jacket

Baxter Wood Trawler Raincoat

Right now, every outdoor gear company is desperately trying to figure out how to make effective rainwear without the use of carcinogenic perfluorocarbons (PFCs). Modern durable water repellents (DWRs) use PFCs in the manufacturing process, which then migrate from your clothing into soil and streams as you tromp around outside.

I’d argue that one of the best ways to avoid PFCs in an everyday jacket is to use a polyurethane jacket or a classic rubber raincoat. Technical rain jacket manufacturers tend to shy away from polyurethane, because it feels, well, rubbery. But the material is durable, long-lasting, windproof, and waterproof, and it’s also PFC-free! The coats are made from RPET, a plastic derived from recycled water bottles.

The Trawler is not a rain jacket made for climbing or intense activities, but I did go hiking and boating while wearing it. The polyurethane outer fabric did a great job of repelling rain and breaking strong, gusty winds while still being stretchy enough that I could move my arms and torso comfortably and put on backpacks. It’s not amazingly breathable, but it does have armpit vents, in addition to pockets and an adjustable hood. 

Best Rain Jacket for Running

This spring in Portland has been exceedingly soggy. In fact, it has broken the record for the city’s rainiest April ever, and softshell rain jackets with fewer features just haven’t been cutting it. For the past several months, I’ve been reaching for Patagonia’s lightweight windbreaker, the Houdini. 

It’s overwhelmingly simple. It has a slim fit that doesn’t rustle while you’re swinging your arms back and forth, and the hood fits my proportionately oversized head. It has one single chest pocket for keys or a snack that doubles as a stuff sack, and it packs down to nearly nothing (3.7 ounces!) in my tiny Nathan running vest or in a backpack while traveling. I also like that the cuffs are elasticized, so you don’t have to fiddle with Velcro to keep water from running up your arms. 

In the past few years, Patagonia has made a few more Earth-friendly moves that make me more inclined to recommend its jackets. The nylon is recycled, and the company recently made the switch to PFC-free DWR. However, this is not not terribly breathable. If you want to achieve that magical combination of being a little protected but not clammy, I’d recommend something lighter, like Nathan’s Vamos track jacket ($100) or Smartwool’s merino anorak ($130), which uses a PFC-free DWR. These don’t pack down as small, though. 

Good Alternative: I still love the North Face’s Lightriser (men’s sizing, women’s sizing). North Face’s Futurelight fabric was developed from nanospinning techniques originally used in water-filtration systems and smartphone electronics casings, and it’s both waterproof and PFC-free. 

Best Rain Jacket for Biking

Cleverhood Anorak

As much time as I spend in the rain, I never get quite as soaked as I do when ebiking my two children to and from school. If you’re a dedicated cyclist who spends hours training with a Peloton, you will probably be better off with a lightweight, high-visibility jacket that can stretch as you move and vent heat. However, if you’re an everyday bike commuter, you likely want a less-technical jacket. 

Cleverhood is an independent, Rhode Island-based company, and its signature garment is the biking-friendly Rain Cape. However, the anorak is my favorite. Like the cape, it’s cut very generously to allow for a flannel shirt and a small down jacket underneath. 

It’s cut longer in the back to cover my tail as I’m riding. It also has a protected flap under the front zip so I don’t get wet when I open it up, and an enormous kangaroo pocket that’s handy for stowing my shell gloves, masks, and even bike locks in a pinch. I also like that the hood is designed to fit under my helmet, which means I can move my head and neck around a little more easily. It is, however, a tad small when I’m just walking around with my big head. 

Best Rain Jacket for Hiking

Eddie Bauer BC Sandstone Stretch

I really did not believe that Eddie Bauer’s First Ascent line would work. Not because of its specs—it’s a standard high-end 3-layer jacket, seam-sealed, with waterproof zips and StormRepel Super DWR, Eddie Bauer’s longest-lasting DWR. Eddie Bauer’s First Ascent line was designed with backpacking and climbing in mind—sports where you might face exposure for long periods of time and it’s important to stay dry.

No, the reason I did not believe it would work was because the jacket itself was improbably light, flexible, soft, and stretchy. By the time I got my hands on a tester, the only ones available were in men’s sizes. But even then, I didn’t mind. It quickly became my favorite jacket for any athletic activity (bar running), just because it was so easy to wear. It kept me dry, even through pelting rainstorms that left my pants soaked after less than five minutes. As a bonus, it stretched over several insulating layers. 

I also tried the Arc’teryx Alpha SL (men’s sizing, women’s sizing), another climbing shell whose ultra-lightweight fabric is the result of a proprietary collaboration between Arc’teryx and Gore-Tex.

Good Alternatives: Arc’teryx has been my favorite in this category for a long time, even though the company’s high prices give me palpitations (although you can occasionally find good items used). I found the full-zip Beta LT version to be more comfortable, versatile, and readily available. The Arc’teryx Beta LT Jacket comes in men’s sizing and women’s sizing and is $399 at REI. I’ve also had Outdoor Research’s AscentShell (men’s sizing, women’s sizing) for several years. It’s still waterproof and is a more affordable alternative.  

Best Affordable Rain Jacket

REI Co-op Rainier Rain Jacket

For under $100, it is tough to find a rain jacket that offers better value than the Rainier. It uses high-quality laminate waterproofing instead of the less-expensive coating many cheaper rain jackets rely on. (Read more below on laminates and layers.) Rather than bonding a waterproof, breathable membrane below the shell fabric, manufacturers will save money by just coating the inner surface with a waterproof, breathable film. It’s less pricey but also less durable than three-layer construction.

The Rainier has many great features that are tough to find in rain jackets at this price. For example, it’s made from recycled nylon and has venting pit zips. It’s also seam-taped; has a weatherproof center zip; and features an adjustable, packable hood. For casual day hikes and traveling, the Rainier jacket is a great choice.

Good Alternatives: In the past several years, there has been an explosion in affordable rain jackets. If you’re not doing anything more strenuous than mowing your lawn or walking the dog, these are fine! WIRED reviewer Scott Gilbertson’s own rain jacket is the Red Ledge Thunderlight ($34). I also tried the Decathlon Quechua MH100 ($60) and the Decathlon Quechua NH100 ($15). They work! But they run very small and are not very breathable, and the fabric is stiff and not particularly pleasant to wear. I would keep the NH100 as an emergency layer in my hiking backpack. 

Honorable Mentions
  • I also like these waterproof shells: I still like the Fjallraven Keb’s PFC-free waterproofing materials and commuter-friendly design details. Marmot’s Keele Peak lightweight shell performed well while hiking and biking, but Marmot’s Pertex doesn’t feel as nice as either AscentShell or Futurelight fabrics, and I don’t find it as breathable. It just doesn’t justify the substantially higher price tag. I also didn’t trust the durability of Jack Wolfskin’s recycled shell; I got cold and clammy on short, half-day hikes.
  • These jackets are worth the money: I’ve had a Patagonia Torrentshell (men’s sizing, women’s sizing) for seven years. I also tried Outdoor Research’s Helium line and Marmot’s PreCip Eco (men’s sizing, women’s sizing) line, both of which are affordable classics. The PreCip line in particular has been around for over 20 years and has a PFC-free face fabric.
  • I really like REI’s in-house jackets: I am continually surprised by the value for the price in REI’s line. Its casual rain jackets have plenty of nice features, work well, and cost hundreds of dollars less than many of my other picks; I buy their jackets every year on sale for my toddlers.
  • These jackets have interesting design details: Running jackets often have breathable slits and zips all over them to let out your swampy armpit air out when you’re sweating. The Janji Rainrunner ($198) is basically a waterproof tank top layered underneath a long-sleeved crop top. I also tried Coalatree’s Whistler ($77), which is a lightweight windbreaker with a DWR application. Its HiloTech fabric is also self-repairing—if you get tiny holes in the fabric from a thorny plant or a sparking ember off a fire, you can rub it with your fingertips to patch it up.
Understanding Rain Jacket Tech
This image may contain Clothing Apparel Jacket Coat and Raincoat

The North Face Futurelight at CES 2019

Photograph: WIRED

Trying to decipher jackets’ product specs is almost as annoying as getting soaked by a sudden cloudburst on the trail.

Look for laminated layers: Most technical waterproof jackets are referred to as two- or three-layer jackets. These layers usually consist of a face fabric that has been treated with a waterproofing agent like durable water repellent, which is a thin mesh for releasing water vapor, plus a protective interior lining underneath. In general, for greater durability you’ll want to look for layers that have been laminated together rather than merely coated with a waterproofing agent. That’s the advice of Amber Williams, the consumer science educator and lecturer from Utah State University.

Waterproof and breathability ratings: Manufacturers usually rate each fabric based on its waterproofing and breathability. For example, a rain jacket with a waterproof rating of 20,000 means that if you had an endlessly long 1-inch square tube, you could pour 20,000 millimeters of water on top of the fabric before it would start seeping through (that’s over 65 feet!). A 20,000 breathability rating means that 20,000 grams of water vapor can pass through the fabric going the other direction. While the higher breathability rating might seem better, you might want to think twice if you’ll be out in the cold. Body heat can escape a breathable jacket almost as easily as water vapor.

Fantastic fabrics: Gore-Tex remains the gold standard in terms of waterproofing performance. But every company is experimenting with new weaving techniques, PFC-free waterproofing technologies in particular. The North Face’s Futurelight is a spider-weight, waterproof, yet breathable fabric that allows designers to create garments with far fewer seams.

Check the seams and zippers: If you want your rain jacket to last longer than an amusement park poncho, look at the seams. Shoulders are particularly vulnerable points, as most outdoor sports require you to wear a backpack that can rub and damage them. “Design lines look really sexy, but over time, they’re not going to last as long,” Williams says. Other features to look for include plasticized, water-resistant zippers and protective zipper flaps. That’s why our rain jacket picks are so expensive—a lot of new fabric tech and a lot of design details!

Care for your jacket: You can vastly extend the life of your items by properly caring for them. Hang your jacket—don’t store it crammed in an abrasive, tiny stuff sack. If you see stains from grease, dirt, or sunscreen, or notice that water is no longer beading on the surface, you’ll need to wash it. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions. You may need a specialized detergent—many fabric detergents will leave residues that can interfere with DWR’s performance. Avoid fabric softener, bleaches, dry cleaning, and the dryer.

Source: Wired – Gear