By Michael Lanza
Shop for a rain jacket for dayhiking, backpacking, or climbing in the backcountry and you’ll see shells for adults ranging in price from under $100 to over $500, 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.
My picks are based on extensive field testing of all of these shells in the backcountry—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, as the lead gear reviewer for Backpacker magazine for 10 years, and now for 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).
Understand the Terminology
Waterproof-breathable means that a membrane or fabric coating allows sweat 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 (see below), have jackets that challenge the performance of the best membranes.
Three different types of construction are used in 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.
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 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 price. Please share with me your thoughts on and experiences with any of these, or another jacket you like, in the comments section at the bottom.
The 5 Best Rain Jackets for the Backcountry
$140, 4.5 oz.
Possibly the lightest waterproof-breathable shell on the market today, the hooded Rainbreaker protected me through three hours of rain on a 27-mile, one-day traverse of Maine’s Mahoosuc Range in August; on a cool, windy morning camped at 5,000 feet in the Grand Canyon in May; and on chilly, windy spring days of climbing at Idaho’s City of Rocks and trail runs in Boise. Although some moisture accumulates inside when I’m sweating hard, it breathes well enough to never get uncomfortably clammy. While it lacks the technical hood and features of the jackets below, the affordable Rainbreaker delivers good performance for an ultralight shell, but only comes in men’s sizes.
Watch for my upcoming complete review of the Flylow Rainbreaker.
REI XeroDry GTX
$159, 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.
For high-speed workouts in windy, damp weather, get a breathable, ultralight shell.
See my review of “The Best Ultralight Hiking and Backpacking Jackets.”
Outdoor Research Interstellar Jacket
$299, 11 oz.
From backpacking nearly 100 miles across Glacier National Park, often in strong, cold wind, to backcountry skiing—uphill and down—for hours in falling snow without ever taking this jacket off, the Interstellar demonstrated a degree of breathability that’s possibly unmatched among today’s rain shells, as well as solid weather protection. Credit OR’s proprietary, three-layer, waterproof-breathable AscentShell fabric for how well it manages moisture. Supple and very packable, it sports the features you want in a serious rain shell, including a fully adjustable hood, good mobility, and three roomy, zippered pockets. Among the lightest technical rain jackets at 11 ounces, at a reasonable price, OR’s Interstellar Jacket offers exceptional value.
Read my complete review of the Outdoor Research Interstellar Jacket.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking any of these links to purchase a men’s or women’s Outdoor Research Interstellar Jacket at backcountry.com, Moosejaw.com, outdoorresearch.com, or rei.com.
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Black Diamond Helio Active Shell
$399, 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. 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 Black Diamond Helio Active Shell at backcountry.com, moosejaw.com, ems.com, or blackdiamondequipment.com, or a women’s Black Diamond Helio Active Shell at moosejaw.com, or blackdiamondequipment.com.
I’ve been testing another shell made with Gore-Tex Active, the REI Drypoint Jacket; click here to see the men’s and women’s versions and watch for my upcoming review.
Never get cold again (well, almost never). See my “5 Tips For Staying Warm and Dry While Hiking.”
Arc’teryx Zeta LT Jacket
$425, 12 oz.
When you really need a high-performance rain shell for ultimate comfort and functionality in consistently wet and challenging conditions, the Zeta LT nails it, as it did for me in very wet weather from Idaho’s White Cloud Mountains to Yoho National Park in the Canadian Rockies. From its superior weather protection and breathability, to the new C-KNIT technology from Gore-Tex making the jacket more supple and quieter than traditional hard shells, this one’s a winner for hard-core hikers, backpackers, climbers, and others.
Read my complete review of the Arc’teryx Zeta LT Jacket.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking any of these links to purchase a men’s Arc’teryx Zeta LT Jacket at backcountry.com, moosejaw.com or arcteryx.com, or a women’s Zeta LT Jacket at backcountry.com, moosejaw.com or arcteryx.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.
Need a rain shell for a kid to use in the backcountry? See my review of the functional and well-priced Marmot Boy’s and Girl’s Precip Jacket.
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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 categorized menus of all of my gear reviews at The Big Outside.