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It's said that Chuck Norris doesn't need an umbrella when it rains, because rain drops avoid him. The average rainfall across the entire United States is estimated at approximately 28 inches per year, with the wettest states enduring over 60 inches per year. The wettest countries in the world drown in an average rainfall of more than 120 inches per year.
Rain is inevitable, so like many things in life, you need to embrace the suck. Or perhaps you enjoy a good downpour. Either way — get yourself a good rain jacket that'll keep you dry…and make you feel like Chuck Norris.
Ever since man first walked the Earth, he has surely learned the value of keeping dry. But achieving this while out and about is not so easy. You need to balance the ability to keep rain out with breathability so your body heat and sweat don't get trapped in. On top of that, you also need comfort and mobility.
The ever-inventive ancient Chinese fashioned protection from precipitation in the form of straw rain capes, oiled silk garments, and woven grass and tree leaves. Amazonian Indians figured out how to use extracts from rubber trees to waterproof clothing and footwear. And indigenous Aleuts used seal and whale intestines to craft waterproof jackets, with seams sealed by animal glues. While today's fashionistas would find them hideous, they perfectly foreshadowed modern designs, with the use of semi-permeable membranes (keeping water out while still being breathable) and sealed seams.
Sailors oiled heavy cloth to waterproof it, a concept still found today in waxed and coated fabric jackets, such as the Kuhl shown in this article. But it was during the 1800s that Charles Macintosh, a chemist from Scotland, invented a process to combine rubber with fabric, creating the progenitor of today's modern-day raincoats. His process sandwiched rubber between two layers of fabric, which stopped water, but also air. This was followed by Burberry's gabardine coats, made of finely woven wool that breathed while shedding water. They were also cleverly tailored to allow for strenuous activities.
The rise of synthetic materials paved the way to today's highly refined offerings. Plastic and vinyl were light, cheap, windproof, and waterproof…but lacked breathability — two steps forward, one step back. It was the introduction of Gore-Tex in the 1970s that marked a quantum leap forward. Gore-Tex is a membrane constructed of expanded polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE, commonly known as Teflon) with pores so small that water droplets can't penetrate, but big enough to allow water vapor to escape. Typically, the membrane is sandwiched between a protective outer layer with a durable water repellent (DWR) coating and an inner layer to prevent the pores from getting oily or dirty and becoming clogged up. These three-layer laminates have served reliably for decades and gave rise to lighter variants with two and two-and-a-half layers — characterized by different treatments on the inner layer.
The Gore-Tex patent expired in the 1990s, opening the doors for other companies to produce their own variations on the theme and also putting downward pressure on prices. As you can see in this product guide, there are now numerous jackets on the market at various price points, made of various different waterproof yet breathable materials.
Soft-shell jackets (as reviewed in RECOIL Issue 11) may be more versatile all-around outerwear, but when you're concerned first and foremost with rain, examine these considerations:
Material: The waterproofing material used in a rain jacket helps determine its water resistance, breathability, durability, and comfort. Most jackets utilize some type of multi-layered expanded PTFE membrane for this, with the specific concoction determining how stiff or soft it is, how breathable it is, and how bombproof it is. The DWR treatment on the exterior provides for the water beading and sheeting effect that is so amusing to watch.
Seams: A rain jacket is only as waterproof as its weakest link. You can have the best material in the world, but if the seams between the panels aren't sealed, you're getting wet. On the inside of a waterproof jacket, you'll typically find strips of tape bonded to the seams where material has been stitched together. As jackets get beat up over time, seams can spring leaks.
Construction and Design: Similarly, the design of the jacket can also affect how dry you'll be when it really starts raining cats and dogs — waterproof zippers with hoods to cover the zipper pull when closed, wrist cuffs with Velcro that cinch tightly, closed versus open pockets, hoods that shield your face effectively without letting much water get inside.
Features: Jackets can be jam-packed with handy features. Zippered side vents can allow for much needed extra ventilation during physical exertion, and if open on the bottom can also provide easier access to a sidearm or other belt-mounted accessories. Pockets are expected, of course, but can be found in a multitude of styles and locations. Hoods can be enhanced with a variety of adjustments, extended bills, and support to maintain their shape.
Fit: You can select a snug fit to make it easier to kit up on top of your jacket and also increase the transfer of water vapor away from your body. Or you can opt for a looser fit, to allow for more layering and provide more insulation and ventilation. As usual, there's no right or wrong, just what is better suited for your application.
Of course, you're always seeking a balance between desired features and functionality, aesthetics, and price — for the types of situations and applications that you anticipate. If you live in Nevada, your needs will be different than if you live in Costa Rica. Peruse the selection of jackets on these pages with an eye toward determining what combination of attributes will best suit your needs.
Finally, don't abuse your rain jacket, and it will reward you with many years of water-shedding service. Follow the manufacturer's instructions to clean it periodically as it gets dirty — oils and particles can clog the pores in the waterproof membrane, reducing its effectiveness. In addition, you may need to occasionally apply a treatment to restore the DWR coating on your jacket's outer layer.
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