I’ve been hiking and backpacking for more years than I care to remember now. During that time my quest has been to find truly waterproof clothing for when the good old British weather turns to rain. My criteria for waterproof jackets and trousers are:
- Wind proof
- Breathable with venting options
- Small pack size
I’ve tried most fabric technologies and I’ve come to two conclusions. The first is that there is no breathable fabric that can meet all my criteria. Without exception a waterproof will eventually wet out. Once that happens, either rain will penetrate or internal vapour can’t escape so you get wet from perspiration. Either way, a wet body means trouble because it can lead to hypothermia especially once you stop moving and the body starts to cool down. My second conclusion will be revealed later.
Let’s have a quick review of waterproof clothing technologies.
- The Barbour jacket. This is the quintessential British rainwear beloved by the hunting and shooting set. Made from wax cotton a Barbour is very tough – not for nothing are the fabric and dressing described as thornproof. They are very windproof and waterproof; after a day of torrential rain they might leak a bit but you’ll be basically dry. They have reasonable breathability too. Alfred Wainwright used one (along with tweed trousers and hobnail boots) while mapping the Lake District. He slept out on the fells just wearing this kit and was comfortable. However, they’re no use for ultralight backpackers as they are relatively heavy and the pack size is large. Best for day walks, watching nature, fishing, etc.
- Laminated membrane fabrics like goretex, eVent, sympatex and others. The workhorse of hikers. Light, packable and perform well until they wet out on the surface. Then you’re wet. Breathability is sometimes good, sometimes not. They remain windproof though. I’ve had more Goretex clothing fail on me than any other clothing and I’m at the stage where I don’t trust it anymore. Sooner or later, the membrane will die or the outer DWR will fail and you’ll be drenched. Plus they always rustle like a crisp bag.
- Paramo (a British company) use a “pump liner” technology to move water about. Many mountain rescue teams swear by Paramo as do many other outdoor people. The clothing is breathable, windproof and very durable. If a rip happens you simply sew it and the fabric is waterproof again. It’s great gear as long as the DWR is maintained. Good as Paramo is, eventually it will wet out. Pack size isn’t too bad but the clothing is fairly heavy and very warm. Some weight can be offset because a base layer and paramo jacket will keep you warm in cold conditions without further insulation needed. I rate Paramo highly for winters conditions but it’s just too hot for summer use. NB: in the last year or so Paramo have launched light versions of their products but I haven’t tried them.
- Buffalo (a British company) also have an innovative view. They use a pertex outer and a pile inner. The idea being that the pertex maintains windproofness and some water repellency but, even if the pile becomes saturated you will remain warm. The garments are worn next to the skin and dry through body heat. Buffalo is highly thought of by service personnel but it is quite heavy and bulky.
Paramo have a similar idea if a reversible shirt is used with a windproof jacket. Surprisingly, it works very well. I tried my Trail shirt with a Velez windproof and was amazed to see water dripping out from between the layers. I’ve subsequently found out that any pertex outer like a montane featherlite has the same effect. This combination has become my wind/waterproof layer of choice for light rain.
Now to my second conclusion. Non-breathable waterproofs sound as if they will be horrible to use. Clammy, hot, perspiration-soaked, etc. However, over the last few years I’ve been using ponchos or capes as my rain gear and shelter. By definition, the fabric is water and wind proof. What I’ve found is that, in practice, a poncho has good enough ventilation to expel perspiration and I’ve remained dry and warm. This was a hiking epiphany for me – reduces weight and volume drastically and has two uses.
There is one other type of waterproofing that needs to be mentioned. The umbrella has been around for many years because it just works! Keeps the rain off, great ventilation and can also stop sunburn. I use a Euroschirm brolly and it’s great provided the wind isn’t too high.
To conclude, my systems for keeping warm and dry are:
In light rain I use a windproof jacket with some degree of water repellancy e.g. a Montane Featherlite pertex smock (or a Paramo Velez Windshirt) coupled with a Paramo Trail Shirt or a micro fleece and some old Golite trousers. In heavy rain I use a silnylon poncho or Cape (usually a Gatewood Cape) coupled with a Mountain Laurel Designs pair of Chaps. For cold weather I either use a windshirt with heavier insulation or go to my Paramo waterproof jacket coupled with Berghaus over trousers. Whatever the season I carry waterproof gloves, usually MLD rain eVent rain mittens, and a Euroschirm umbrella.
I’m not saying my systems are perfect for everyone but they work well for me.