The 5 Best Rain Jackets for Hiking and Backpacking
By Michael Lanza
Shop for a rain jacket for dayhiking, backpacking, or climbing in the backcountry and you’ll see shells for adults ranging from under $100 to over $600, and 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. I’m going to make the choice easy for you.
I’ve tested dozens of rain shells while hiking through soaking rains all over the world over the past two decades, writing reviews for this blog and previously for Backpacker magazine; I’ve learned how to distinguish the mediocre from the excellent. Here are my picks for the five best rain jackets for backcountry adventures that you can buy today.
These top-performing shells range in price from $140 to $549, with great deals available right now on some of them (see the links below). I think you’ll find one of them is just right for your dayhikes, backpacking trips, and climbing and other outdoor adventures.
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 should weigh much 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 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 $300 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. I think one of these five will be the right rain jacket for your dayhikes, backpacking or climbing trips, and other outdoor adventures. 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.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to purchase a Flylow Rainbreaker at mountaingear.com.
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Outdoor Research Realm Jacket or Interstellar Jacket
$279, 10.5 oz.
On a four-day, spring ascent of The Mountaineers Route on California’s Mount Whitney, OR’s proprietary AscentShell fabric proved very breathable when I carried a pack weighing over 40 pounds to our high camp at 12,000 feet, as the alpine sun created a solar oven with the snow-covered ground and a biting wind ripped through every few minutes. With four-season versatility, exceptional breathability, and technical features in a shell weighing 10 ounces at a good price, the Outdoor Research Realm Jacket is an exceptional value.
Read my complete review of the Outdoor Research Realm Jacket.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to buy an Outdoor Research Realm Jacket at moosejaw.com.
NOTE: Outdoor Research has replaced the Realm Jacket with the Interstellar Jacket ($299, 11 oz.), which OR describes as an overhaul of the Realm, for only $20 more; and unlike the Realm, it also comes in women’s sizes. I’ve picked up an Interstellar, and first impressions following a six-day backpacking trip through Glacier National Park (where we got plenty of cold wind but no precipitation) and backcountry skiing in hours of steadily falling snow are very positive. It’s made with the same highly breathable, waterproof AscentShell 3-layer fabric used in the Realm, and has an adjustable hood and other features of a fully technical, four-season shell. I’ll post a complete review of the Interstellar Jacket after more field testing.
BUY IT NOW Can’t wait for my review? You can support my work on this blog by clicking any of these links to purchase a men’s Outdoor Research Interstellar Jacket at Moosejaw.com or outdoorresearch.com, or a women’s Outdoor Research Interstellar Jacket at Moosejaw.com or outdoorresearch.com.
Montane Ajax Jacket
$380, 16 oz.
Backcountry skiing in wind-driven snow and wind chills around zero Fahrenheit (wearing warm layers underneath it), and in sustained, wet falling snow, the Ajax Jacket me completely dry. Designed for extreme conditions in any season, especially cool to cold temps in the mountains—with tougher fabric than found in most shells, a Gore-Tex membrane, and a fully adjustable and very protective hood—the Ajax shines when the sun doesn’t for backpacking, mountaineering, backcountry skiing, or hut treks in mountains where you can face a full range of weather.
Read my complete review of the Montane Ajax Jacket.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking either of these links to purchase a men’s or a women’s Montane Ajax Jacket at campsaver.com.
Never get cold again (well, almost never). See my “5 Tips For Staying Warm and Dry While Hiking”
and “10 Smarter Ways to Think About Your Layering System.”
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 moosejaw.com, or a women’s Zeta LT Jacket at moosejaw.com, or the men’s or women’s at arcteryx.com.
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Patagonia Pluma Jacket
$549, 14 oz.
Rain fell for two straight days as we trekked the Tour du Mont Blanc, while the temperature remained stuck in the 40s and 50s Fahrenheit. On the grinding ascent of nearly 3,000 feet to the Grand Col de Ferret at 8,323-foot (2537m), we hiked straight into a wind-driven tempest. Still, I stayed dry and comfortable in the Pluma. A legitimate, four-season shell made with Gore-Tex Pro fabric, it has it all: superior weather protection, good breathability and ventilation, and a fully adjustable, helmet-compatible hood, while still weighing in under a pound.
Read my complete review of the Patagonia Pluma Jacket.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking any of these links to purchase a men’s Patagonia Pluma Jacket at moosejaw.com or patagonia.com, or the women’s Patagonia Pluma Jacket at patagonia.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.”
See all of my rain jacket reviews and all of 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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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.
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