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 five 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 three of the five 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.
With those criteria in mind, I’ve put together this list of the five best jackets I’ve tested and reviewed at this blog, arranged by weight.
The 5 Best Rain Jackets for the Backcountry
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.
For high-speed workouts in windy, damp weather, get a breathable, ultralight shell.
See my review of “The Best Ultralight Hiking and Backpacking Jackets.”
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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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.
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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.
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Never get cold again (well, almost never).
See my “5 Tips For Staying Warm and Dry While Hiking.”
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.
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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.
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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.