By Michael Lanza
Choosing a waterproof-breathable rain shell for hiking, backpacking, climbing, or other outdoor activities can seem daunting. Prices range from under $100 to over $500, and weights from less than half a pound to over a pound. Some are loaded with features, others so minimalist they seem like a glorified trash bag. You’ll also find the full gamut of opinions on them from reviewers and consumers.
Here’s what I’ve learned from testing dozens of rain shells while hiking and backpacking through soaking rains all over the world over a quarter-century of testing and reviewing gear, as the lead gear reviewer for Backpacker magazine for 10 years and now for this blog: The right backcountry rain shell for you depends more on you than on any jacket—and our needs as backcountry users vary as much as our budgets.
Many hikers, backpackers, climbers, and others buy a rain jacket based on price, brand, or the recommendation of a trusted reviewer. That’s not a bad strategy, and it’s sometimes successful. But it’s really an incomplete strategy. As with almost any consumer product, buying a rain shell you will be satisfied with comes down to considering how and where you will use it and understanding the subtle differences between them.
Follow these tips and I guarantee you will find the perfect rain jacket for your adventures.
Ready to shop for shells now? See my picks for “The 5 Best Rain Jackets For Hiking and Backpacking.”
No. 1 Decide What It’s For
This is the logical first step when buying any consumer product, but one nonetheless often overlooked with backcountry apparel. Ask yourself: How much of a rain jacket do I really need? If you generally head out in warm, dry weather—common in many Western mountain ranges in summer—you may only need a less-expensive shell, or you might be better off with an ultralight rain jacket (which vary in price). On the other hand, if you routinely find yourself in sustained rain and widely ranging temperatures, especially on multi-day trips, you’ll be happier—not to mention more comfortable and safer—with a shell that delivers reliable protection from rain and wind as well as good or exceptional breathability (more on that below).
In short: Choosing the right jacket is, first and foremost, a question of how much time you expect to spend wearing it versus carrying it in your pack just in case of rain, as well as consideration of how extreme the weather could get.
No. 2 What Does the Rain Jacket Weigh?
Weight matters, especially if you’re into ultra-hiking or ultralight backpacking, but for everyone else, too. Today, there’s no reason a three-season shell should weigh more than a pound, period. Jackets heavier than that are usually too bulky, taking up excessive space in your pack, and too warm when wearing them while on the move, causing you to overheat—resulting in you either getting soaked inside the jacket (negating its purpose) or shedding it completely. In fact, even most fully technical rain shells designed for use in any season now weigh under a pound. Jackets heavier than that are designed for winter or casual wear.
Still, don’t assume that the lightest shell is the best choice for your needs. Weight is just one important factor.
Get the right shell for you. See my picks for “The 5 Best Rain Jackets For Hiking and Backpacking”
No. 3 Speak the Language
To make an informed choice in rainwear, it helps to know some common terminology:
NOTE: I tested gear for Backpacker Magazine for 20 years. At The Big Outside, I review only what I consider the best outdoor gear and apparel. See categorized menus of all of my gear reviews at The Big Outside.