By Michael Lanza
Shop for a rain jacket for dayhiking, backpacking, trail running, or climbing in the backcountry and you’ll see shells for adults ranging in price from under $100 to over $500 and in weight from less than half a pound to over a pound—with just as huge and confusing a range of opinions on them from reviewers and consumers. Look no further. This review spotlights the best rain jackets for the backcountry and provides expert tips on how to select the right one for your adventures.
My picks are based on extensive field testing of all of these shells dayhiking, backpacking, climbing, backcountry skiing, and/or hut trekking—and on testing dozens of rain shells while hiking through soaking rains all over the world over a quarter-century of testing and reviewing gear, including the 10 years I spent as the lead gear reviewer for Backpacker magazine and even longer running this blog. I’ve learned how to distinguish the mediocre from the excellent.
I think you’ll find one of them is just right for your dayhikes, backpacking trips, and climbing and other outdoor adventures—and you’ll find great deals available on some of them right now (see the links below). Please share your thoughts on any of them or recommend your favorite backcountry rain shell in the comments section at the bottom of this review; I try to respond to all comments.
Understand the Terminology
Waterproof-breathable means that a membrane or fabric coating allows the moisture built up from sweating to escape through the fabric while it repels precipitation. Membranes generally offer better weather protection, breathability, and durability than a coating. Jackets with coatings are typically less expensive and lighter.
Quality definitely varies a lot. Membranes like Gore-Tex outperform many proprietary waterproof-breathable fabrics from jacket makers. However, some brands, like Outdoor Research and The North Face (see below), have jackets that challenge the performance of the best membranes.
Three different types of construction are used in waterproof-breathable rain shells:
- Two-layer consists of a membrane or coating applied to the inside of a protective, outer fabric layer. The second layer is a liner that hangs loosely. Two-layer jackets are quiet and relatively inexpensive, but offer only modest breathability.
- 2.5-layer construction marries a polyurethane laminate or coating to a durable outer layer, which is backed by a protective “half layer.” These shells are less breathable and durable than others, and sometimes more clammy-feeling, but also lighter and less expensive.
- Three-layer jackets, in which a membrane is sandwiched between a tough outer fabric and a protective liner, offer the best weather protection, breathability, and durability.
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How to Choose a Rain Jacket
How do I choose a rain jacket for the backcountry? I follow four simple criteria:
• Don’t spend more than necessary for what you’re doing—i.e., your activity level (how much you sweat) and where you go (how much rain you’ll see). Think about how often you’ll actually wear that jacket.
• There’s no reason a three-season shell for the backcountry should weigh more than a pound, period. And four of the six jackets reviewed here—none weighing more than a pound—can handle winter conditions.
• At a bare minimum, any waterproof-breathable shell, whatever the price, should fit you, shed steady rain, have a hood that keeps precipitation off your face, and breathe at least well enough that you’re not just as wet from perspiring in it as you would be not wearing it. Otherwise, you’re wasting your money.
• If you’re spending upwards of $250 or more, don’t settle for anything less than a jacket with great fit and exactly the performance and features you want.
See my “5 Expert Tips For Buying a Rain Jacket for Hiking.”
With those criteria in mind, I’ve put together this list of the best jackets I’ve tested and reviewed at this blog, arranged by weight. The chart below lists the jackets from lightest to heaviest and provides some direct comparisons between these models.
|Mammut Kento Light HS Hooded Jacket||3.9||$219||5.5 oz.||3.5||3.5||4||5||3.5|
|The North Face Flight FutureLight Jacket||4.1||$300||8.5 oz.||4||4.5||4||4||4|
|Arc’teryx Zeta SL Jacket||4.4||$299||11 oz.||5||4||4.5||4||4.5|
|Outdoor Research Helium AscentShell Jacket||4.5||$449||11.5 oz.||5||4.5||4.5||4||4.5|
|Black Diamond Helio Active Shell||4.5||$400||12 oz.||5||4||4.5||4||5|
|REI XeroDry GTX Jacket||4.1||$169||12 oz.||4.5||4||4||3.5||4|
|Outdoor Research Microgravity AscentShell Jacket||4.3||$279||14 oz.||5||4.5||4||3.5||4.5|
The Best Rain Jackets for the Backcountry
Mammut Kento Light HS Hooded Jacket
$219, 5.5 oz.
From a nine-day hike of nearly 130 miles through the High Sierra in August, much of it on the John Muir Trail, to dayhiking in New Hampshire’s Presidential Range in October, the Kento Light HS Hooded Jacket delivered all the weather protection I needed. Mammut’s DRYtechnology Performance waterproof-breathable fabric kept me dry and blocked wind—including for over an hour in a pounding thunderstorm on the JMT.
At just over five ounces and packing down to the size of an orange, it’s one of the lightest waterproof-breathable jackets you’ll find. While not designed for hours of hard rain, it has an adjustable hood, elasticized cuffs, a hem that extends well below the waist, and a concealed, zippered chest pocket.
Read my complete review of the Mammut Kento Light HS Hooded Jacket.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog, at no cost to you, by clicking any of these affiliate links to purchase a men’s Mammut Kento Light HS Hooded Jacket at backcountry.com or moosejaw.com, or a women’s Mammut Kento Light HS Hooded Jacket at backcountry.com or moosejaw.com.
For high-speed workouts in windy, damp weather, get a breathable, ultralight shell.
See my review of “The Best Ultralight Hiking and Backpacking Jackets.”
The North Face Flight FutureLight Jacket
$300, 8.5 oz.
The North Face bills its Flight FutureLight Jacket as the brand’s most breathable shell, and it measures up to the hype. I’ve wore it trail running in rain showers and cool wind, backpacking through thunderstorms with strong gusts, and even backcountry skiing in variable spring weather, and despite some minor flaws, the Flight FutureLight demonstrates impressive breathability and a comfortable fit.
TNF’s nano-spinning process creates a membrane with millions of microscopic fibers that allow air but not moisture to pass through, resulting in excellent breathability. Its weather protection doesn’t measure up to others on this list, but for trail runners, dayhikers, and ultralight backpackers, this is a nice, light, packable shell.
Read my complete review of The North Face FutureLight Jacket.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking either of these links to purchase the men’s or women’s The North Face Flight FutureLight Jacket at moosejaw.com or backcountry.com.
Plan your next great backpacking trip in Yosemite, Grand Teton, and other parks using my expert e-guides.
Arc’teryx Zeta SL Jacket
$299, 11 oz.
Backpacking in the Wind River Range, the Zeta SL kept me dry through hours of rain, including hiking nine miles through a wind-driven tempest. Its minimalist design focuses on the needs of backpackers and dayhikers, keeping the weight at 11 ounces, while providing functional features—and keeping the price competitive with the very best three-season rain shells for hiking.
The Gore-Tex Paclite Plus membrane delivers good breathability that prevents overheating in moderate temperatures. The adjustable hood sports a laminated brim and the jacket’s waterproof front zipper comes up over the chin, shielding your face from rain. Overall, the Zeta SL displays the exceptional construction and design of Arc’teryx apparel. Lastly, it squishes down to the size of a softball.
Read my complete review of the Arc’teryx Zeta SL Jacket.
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Outdoor Research Helium AscentShell Jacket
$449, 11.5 oz.
For two weeks in Iceland—trekking the Laugavegur and Fimmvörðuháls trails and on dayhikes along the Ring Road—I lived in this lightweight shell for hours daily, through cool temps with wind and rain most days and some hard, wind-driven deluges. And it met the challenge of the hardest conditions most hikers, backpackers, and climbers will face.
It combines durable Pertex Diamond Fuse fabric and OR’s waterproof-breathable AscentShell membrane for reliable weather protection and superior breathability and comfort. The adjustable, helmet-compatible hood kept rain off my face when hiking into heavy, wind-driven mist. With four zippered pockets, two mesh stuff pockets inside, hook-and-loop cuffs and an adjustable hem, it delivers excellent performance for a packable shell weighing under 12 ounces.
Read my complete review of the Outdoor Research Helium AscentShell Jacket.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog, at not cost to you, by clicking either of these affiliate links to purchase a men’s or women’s Outdoor Research Helium AscentShell Jacket at moosejaw.com or outdoorresearch.com.
Which puffy should you buy? See “The 10 Best Down Jackets”
and “How You Can Tell How Warm a Down Jacket Is.”
Black Diamond Helio Active Shell
$400, 12 oz.
Through a long day of rain, wet snow, and wind gusting over 40 mph in northern Spain’s Picos de Europa Mountains, and other days of mixed weather, I stayed dry and staved off hypothermia in BD’s versatile Helio Active Shell (lead photo at top of story).
Made with Gore-Tex Active three-layer membrane, the Helio breathed well enough to keep me from overheating even at times when we were protected from wind while hiking steeply uphill in the rain with temps in the 40s, while carrying a pack weighing 25 to 30 pounds. Besides its solid weatherproofing, the fully adjustable, helmet-compatible hood, easily accessible pit zips, and zippered pockets make it a shell for extreme conditions in all seasons.
Read my complete review of the Black Diamond Helio Active Shell.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking any of these links to purchase a men’s or a women’s Black Diamond Helio Active Shell at backcountry.com, moosejaw.com, or blackdiamondequipment.com.
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REI XeroDry GTX
$169, 12 oz.
With the XeroDry GTX, REI puts Gore’s lightest and most packable two-layer membrane, Gore-Tex Paclite, in a rain shell that has all the features, weather protection, and breathability needed by hikers and backpackers who avoid severe weather—at a price that’s hard to beat.
It kept me dry through hours of cold wind and steady rain, with a bit of wet snow, backpacking in September in Yellowstone.
A fully adjustable hood and three pockets complete the package. While the other jackets on this list are clearly more in the high-performance category—making them more weatherproof, breathable, durable, and versatile—at half or less the price of them, REI’s XeroDry GTX represents a good value for hikers and backpackers.
Read my complete review of the REI XeroDry GTX Jacket.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog, at no cost to you, by clicking this affiliate link to purchase a men’s or women’s REI XeroDry GTX Jacket at rei.com, including men’s tall and women’s plus sizes.
Never get cold again (well, almost never).
See my “5 Tips For Staying Warm and Dry While Hiking.”
Outdoor Research Microgravity AscentShell Jacket
$279, 14 oz.
Whether hiking steep hills in steady rain or backcountry skiing in heavily falling, wet snow, OR’s Microgravity AscentShell Jacket kept me dry going both uphill and downhill, thanks to solid waterproofing and exceptional breathability. Credit OR’s proprietary, three-layer, waterproof-breathable AscentShell fabric for how well it manages moisture.
Supple and packable, it sports the features you want in an all-season shell, including a fully adjustable, helmet-compatible hood; a comfortable fit with very good mobility; four roomy, zippered pockets; weatherproofing features like hook-and-loop cuffs and waterproof zippers; and solid durability—all at a good price, although it’s heavier than other jackets reviewed here. It lacks pit zips, but many users won’t miss them, given the Microgravity’s breathability.
Read my complete review of the Outdoor Research Microgravity AscentShell Jacket.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog, at no cost to you, by clicking any of these affiliate links to purchase a men’s or women’s Outdoor Research Microgravity AscentShell Jacket at backcountry.com, outdoorresearch.com, or moosejaw.com.
See my “5 Pro Tips For Buying the Right Rain Jacket For the Backcountry,” and all of my reviews of rain jackets, my reviews of ultralight wind shells, water-resistant, lightweight jackets well suited to aerobic activities outdoors, and all of my reviews of outdoor apparel, backpacking gear, and hiking gear at The Big Outside.
Don’t miss my picks for “The Best Backpacking Gear” of the year.
Whether you’re a beginner or seasoned backpacker, you’ll learn new tricks for making all of your trips go better in my “12 Expert Tips for Planning a Wilderness Backpacking Trip,” “10 Tricks for Making Hiking and Backpacking Easier,” and “A Practical Guide to Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking.” With a paid subscription to The Big Outside, you can read all of those three stories for free; if you don’t have a subscription, you can download the e-guide versions of “12 Expert Tips for Planning a Wilderness Backpacking Trip,” the 10 tricks for making hiking and backpacking easier, and the lightweight backpacking guide without having a paid membership.
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 my Gear Reviews page at The Big Outside for categorized menus of all of my reviews and my expert buying tips.
23 thoughts on “The Best Rain Jackets for Hiking and Backpacking of 2023”
Heads up … Black Diamond discontinued its Helio Active Shell. They didn’t really replace it with a similar model. According to BD’s customer service, the closest is the Liquid Point Shell but it uses GORE-TEX Paclite 2.5L, which you noted as being less breathable and durable. Are any newer rain jacket reviews on the way?
Yes, I’ve seen that and I do plan to test and review more rain shells. As for BD shells, I’m inclined to consider the Highline Stretch Shell for its design, features, and price, even though it’s not Gore-Tex. Yes, Paclite 2.5L is less breathable and durable and it’s only advantage is being a little lighter and slightly cheaper.
Great site and very helpful information / commentary. Ive been on a search to replace a 23 yo ll bean jacket that finally called it quits ….the closest replacement seems to be the rei xero dry, but on the subject of ll bean, specifically the primaloft packaway, how come their products never show up in best of lists anywhere? For reasons unknown (maybe their boot?) i always imagined they were top notch. Thanks.
Yes, the REI Xero Dry may be the closest replacement for your old Bean jacket and probably lighter and better. I can’t speak to why you don’t see LL Bean products reviewed much, or whether that’s just your experience or actually true. I’ve reviewed Bean products before. Maybe they’re putting less effort into reaching out to outdoor media to propose products for review, but I don’t know that.
Good luck with it.
thank you very much
You bet, Gideon.
Ever had any experience with Columbia outdry extreme? The idea seems interesting, but i’d like to know if it actually world.. Been following it for a while but not many trustworthy reviews in my opinion.
No, I have not used a Columbia jacket with its Outdry Extreme membrane but I also have not heard or seen rave reviews about it, either. And Columbia’s website has consumer reviews of the product that look quite negative.
I have enjoyed reading your articles regarding your family’s travels over the past year.
Your last advice on backcountry snow clothing for winter snowshoeing in the Upper Peninsula MI was invaluable. The Patagonia Nano Air and Capilene mid-layer keep me warm enough to 10 degrees and along with the OR Ascentshell, if I do generate too much moisture, I am dry within 10 minutes before my core chills. So, thank you for saving me loads of money determining what was best to use in the backcountry of the UP.
I am reaching out to you again in regards to a clothing question regarding rain gear – particularly pants. I will be spending 3 weeks in Scotland. As I understand, it will rain most of the time while I am there. I am looking for a recommendation of an alternative to standard rain pants. Rather, I am looking for good water-resistant pants for touring in Edinburgh – somewhat like a chino. I am also looking for a pair of pants for hiking in the Isle of Skye and Glencoe area in case it rains.
Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.
Thanks for the compliments, I’m glad my last advice was helpful. I’ve hiked in Scotland’s Northern Highlands and walked for miles around Edinburgh while we were there; loved it all and it did rain quite a bit. The temps in mid-summer were also often cool.
Whether for walking around cities and towns or hiking in variable weather, I do like soft-shell pants for when it’s not raining or it’s raining very lightly and would want rain pants for when it seriously rains on hikes.
For soft-shell, water-resistant pants, there are two models I’ve been using and like for their breathability, some wind protection, fast-drying fabric, and resistance to light precip; and I intend to review both soon: the Outdoor Research Ferrosi Convertible Pants which also come in non-convertible and other models for men and women and are also available here; and the Patagonia Altvia Light Alpine Pant.
For rain pants, I’d go with the Outdoor Research Helium Rain Pant.
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Thanks for the question and good luck.
Hello! I hike in the west and go out for 12 days at a time. Rain is not the norm but as a small older woman I’ve been dangerously cold when my light gear has wet out at altitude. I’m looking for something lighter weight than what you’ve included here. What do you think of montbell torrid flier and versalite? If you like both of them, which would you choose? They are within less than an ounce of one another in weight but the versalite sure seems to get more press. I’m not sure why. Thanks!
I’ve used Montbell apparel, sleeping bags, and other gear and they make good stuff. Montbell also had an ultralight focus before it became a marketing catchword. Their website provides detailed specs on each jacket and you’ll see the Torrent Flier is made with Gore-Tex PacLite Plus, a lightweight membrane with good breathability (and the jacket has pit zippers) and water resistance rated at 50,000mm, which is about as good as a breathable jacket gets.
By comparison, the Versalite is made with Gore-Tex Infinium Windstopper, which has essentially the same breathability as Gore-Tex PacLite Plus (and it has pit zippers) but measurably less water resistance at 30,000mm. Simply put, it’ll probably keep you dry for a while in a steady rain but isn’t built for hours of rain and would eventually wet out.
So that’s the difference. If you’re concerned about steady, perhaps hard rain penetrating the jacket over time on an outing, I think you want the Torrent Flier.
I hope that helps. Good luck.
The thing missing in this as well as most tests or reviews is the complete lack of support from these companies for tall men. I keep hearing the excuses that carrying more SKU’s is the issue. Really, would making one model that’s feature-packed be so difficult? This article and others give these companies a pass on this huge failure.
I’m sure it can be difficult to find any apparel in sizes for tall men and probably because of low demand and relatively high costs per unit to produce that stuff. It’s not my intention to give any companies a pass on this; the same has been true for years for large/plus women’s sizes. However, some companies have been great strides in expanding their sizing options. Look at the size ranges for Outdoor Research jackets (two jackets in this review) and they go up to men’s XXXL, which is chest 52-56 inches, waist 45.5-50 inches, and hips 49.5-53 inches. You can find brands making very large sizes.
Good luck to you. Thanks for the comment.
Can you recommend one for the Northern Way ( El Camino del Norte, Spain) during winter times?,regards,Claudia.
Especially in winter, I suggest you get one of the three most-technical shells on this list: the Outdoor Research Interstellar Jacket, Black Diamond Helio Active Shell, or Arc’teryx Zeta LT, and the BD Helio or Arc’teryx Zeta will have the best weather protection overall.
Good luck and thanks for the good question.
While I’ve never tried any of these jackets, I’ve had $300+ rain jackets from Patagonia and OR, and they never performed better than my cheaper Marmot rain jacket, that’s over 15 years old at least while being in rain days on end. And when I’ve trashed jackets on thru hikes, a frogg toggs jacket is significantly more waterproof than any fancy fabrics, although it has the breathability and durability of a trash bag.
It was good to have the REI pick, but I think you could do a whole article of Best Rain Jackets under $200, and not give up much in the way of quality.
I can remember having the same attitude toward rain shells, about 30 years ago, before I started testing outdoor gear and apparel for some of the magazines. I eventually became the lead gear reviewer and Northwest Editor of Backpacker magazine and I have worn countless rain shells at all price points since, and I continue to test rain shells and other gear. I didn’t have to wear many different rain jackets in a variety of weather conditions—including extreme, sustained downpours from New Zealand to the Pacific Northwest to Vermont’s Long Trail and many more places—to realize there are big differences between rain jackets. I agree with you that price does not always correlate with performance, but I definitely disagree with your premise that virtually any rain shell under $200 will measure up to high-end jackets like most of those covered in this review.
For starters, your premise ignores the clear differences between types of waterproof-breathable technology (as I describe above the reviews in this story). I’m not sure which Marmot jacket you’ve owned for years, but I’m very familiar with a specific line of inexpensive rain shells that Marmot first rolled out about 20 years ago (I was on the team of editors at Backpacker that gave that jacket an award), which have been very popular because of their price and decent performance. Those affordable jackets are made with a coating, not a membrane, and a coating will perform fine in light to moderate rain if you’re not sweating too hard; but many wearers would soon realize that it does not provide the same level of protection against sustained, heavy, windblown rain, it does not breathe nearly as well, and it is not as durable as a three-layer membrane. Period. I’ve hiked through severe downpours in affordable rain jackets that wetted out completely, leaving me quite wet and cold. That’s a safety issue in the backcountry.
Inexpensive rain jackets also typically lack the fully adjustable, technical, often helmet-compatible hood that high-end rain shells have—which you will notice when hiking for hours into cold rain blowing into your face (I know from personal experience). The REI XeroDry GTX Jacket is a good value, which is why I included it in this review; but you can see the difference in the face coverage provided by the hoods on these jackets just by looking at the photos in this story, and the ZeroDry doesn’t measure up to the OR, BD, or Arc’teryx models. Inexpensive rain jackets also often lack other details like secure closures at the cuffs and deep pit zips, not to mention better tailoring and design that make them vastly more comfortable for wearing for hours on end.
The buying tips and explanation of rain shell technologies that I include above the reviews in this story are helpful when shopping for the right rain shell. If you don’t typically venture out in weather that threatens serious rain (or snow), you may not need a high-end jacket. But if you do, a better shell is well worth the extra dollars you spend.
Thanks for the comment and have fun out there, whatever you’re wearing.
I appreciate you sharing your expertise with us novices. First time checking out your site… I’ll be subscribing and coming back!
Great, thanks Lori.
Nothing to say about this topic, thanks for these best resources