The 5 Best Rain Jackets for Hiking and Backpacking

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, trail running, 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, as the lead gear reviewer for Backpacker magazine for 10 years, and many years 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). 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.


Hi, I’m Michael Lanza, creator of The Big Outside, which has made several top outdoors blog lists. Click here to sign up for my FREE email newsletter. Join The Big Outside to get full access to all of my blog’s stories. Click here to learn how I can help you plan your next trip. Please follow my adventures on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Youtube.


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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The Outdoor Research Microgravity AscentShell Jacket.
The Outdoor Research Microgravity AscentShell Jacket.

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.

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 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 Flight FutureLight Jacket
The North Face Flight FutureLight Jacket

The North Face Flight FutureLight Jacket
$280, 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 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 Arc’teryx Zeta LT Jacket.
The Arc’teryx Zeta LT Jacket.

Arc’teryx Zeta LT Jacket
$475, 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 really 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 and on numerous other dayhikes and backpacking and climbing trips.

The three-layer Gore-Tex membrane’s breathability is very good, keeping me from overheating (or even building up much moisture inside) on long, uphill climbs wearing a 35-pound backpack, and it repelled hours of rain, while the fully adjustable hood provides good face coverage.

Gore’s C-KNIT technology makes the jacket more supple and quieter than traditional hard shells. This shell’s a winner for hard-core users.

Read my complete review of the Arc’teryx Zeta LT Jacket.

BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog, at not cost to you, by clicking this affiliate link to purchase a men’s or women’s Arc’teryx Zeta LT Jacket at backcountry.com.

Plan your next great backpacking trip in Yosemite, Grand Teton, and other parks using my expert e-guides.

Black Diamond Helio Active Shell.
The Black Diamond Helio Active Shell.

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 (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, at not cost to you, by clicking any of these affiliate links to purchase a men’s Black Diamond Helio Active Shell at backcountry.com, moosejaw.com, or blackdiamondequipment.com, or a women’s Black Diamond Helio Active Shell at moosejaw.com, or blackdiamondequipment.com.

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The REI XeroDry GTX Jacket.
The REI XeroDry GTX Jacket.

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.

BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog, at not 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.”

The Outdoor Research Microgravity AscentShell Jacket.
The Outdoor Research Microgravity AscentShell Jacket.

Outdoor Research Microgravity AscentShell Jacket
$249, 14 oz.

Whether hiking steep hills in steady rain or backcountry skiing in heavily falling, wet snow, OR’s Microgravity AscentShell Jacket keep me dry going both uphill and downhill, thanks to the 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.comoutdoorresearch.comMoosejaw.com, or rei.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.

Tell me what you think.

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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.

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7 thoughts on “The 5 Best Rain Jackets for Hiking and Backpacking”

    • Hi 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.

      Reply
  1. 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.

    Reply
    • Hi Dan,

      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.

      Reply
  2. I appreciate you sharing your expertise with us novices. First time checking out your site… I’ll be subscribing and coming back!

    Reply

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