Waterproof fabrics buying guide

This guide will equip you with everything you need to know about hiking waterproof gear, so you can buy smarter.

Woman in hiking waterproof jacket with map

by Chris Williams |

One thing you can guarantee if you’re hillwalking in the UK is that you’ll get a proper soaking at some point. So reliable waterproofs don’t just keep you dry, they offer vital protection in the full range of unpredictable conditions in all seasons.

A reliable waterproof jacket is high on the list of walkers' gear purchases. But with so many options and features available it can be a bewildering buying experience.

This guide to waterproof hiking apparel will help you find the perfect jacket and waterproof trousers for you, and will ensure that your money is spent on the right product for your needs...

rain beading up on the shoulder of a waterproof hiking jacket

Know your gear jargon

Let's begin with explaining three key parts of waterproof fabrics: waterproof ratings, breathability ratings, and fabric type.

Waterproof ratings

The term 'waterproof' sounds absolute but there's a scale of fabrics' ability to block water ingress. A waterproof fabric's 'waterproofness' is quantified by something called hydrostatic head (HH for short).

Hydrostatic head ratings are measured in millimetres. For example, you might see a jacket with a waterproof rating of 15,000mm HH. This means a 15-metre column of water can press down on the fabric before water begins to soak through.

Manufacturers use a machine to mimic this water pressure and it sounds like an odd means of testing at first. But waterproof gear often has to block rain while experiencing extra pressure applied by backpack straps for example. The same goes for waterproof fabrics used for tents.

<5,000mm HH: Water resistant
5,000-10,000mm HH: Waterproof with light resistance
10,000-15,000mm HH: Waterproof with good resistance
15,000-20,0000mm HH: Waterproof with high resistance
>20,000mm HH: Waterproof with highest resistance

Breathability ratings

In addition to waterproof ratings, a waterproof fabric's breathability is important too. A fabric's breathability is how well it allows moisture to escape. Hiking fabrics need to be breathable because condensation build-up inside your clothing acts as a thermal conductor and sucks away your body heat. This is uncomfortable and in extreme cases can be a contributing factor to hypothermia.

Using jackets as an example, those used in warmer climates or in circumstances that require high levels of energy excursion need to be more breathable than those intended for everyday use of leisurely hillwalking.

A common means of measuring a waterproof fabric's breathability is Moisture Vapour Transmission Rate (MVTR). The unit of measurement for MVTR is grams per square metre per day (g/m²/24hrs). It sounds complex but works in a similar way to hydrostatic head ratings. The higher the value, the more breathable the fabric is.

A low MVTR rating (e.g. 8,000g/m²/24hrs) means the garment is less breathable; higher ratings (e.g. 40,0000g/m²/24hrs) indicates the garment is more breathable. But these ratings shouldn't be taken as gospel because there are various means of testing it. So use it as an indicator only.

Just before we move on, to maintain a garment's waterproofness and breathability it needs to be cleaned and cared for properly. This is easy to do, but must be stressed that particular cleaning products should be used, which we recommend in our guide to waterproof clothing and tent care guides.

2 layer, 2.5 layer, and 3 layer explained

Waterproof garments have layers. These consist of an outer or 'face fabric', membrane, and inner layer. The different type of inner layer determines whether a fabric is 2, 2.5, or 3 layer.

The out/face fabric is bonded to the membrane. When the inner is loose or hanging to protect the membrane, you have a 2 layer waterproof fabric. If the inner is partially bonded as a spray-on or printed half layer, you have a 2.5 layer waterproof fabric. When the membrane is sandwiched on both sides by two proper, bonded layers, you have a 3 layer waterproof fabric.

There are reasons for having three types. Predictably, a 2 layer fabric is the cheapest to produce while also being flexible. But it tends to be the heaviest and least durable option. A 2.5 layer fabric is the lightest option while still being reasonably cost-effective. But it doesn't match a 3 layer in terms of durability, protection, or breathability.

Six of the best waterproof jackets for summer walking reviewed
©Live For The Outdoors

What will you use them for?

If you’ve stared at the endless options for waterproof trousers and particularly jackets, you’ll know there are loads of different styles depending on the kind of adventure you’re planning. You get specific hillwalking options, lightweight summer shells, heavy-duty winter jackets, and high-spec designs built for high mountains and alpine terrain. The key is to find one or two that will work across all of your mountain trips.

Take your time whittling down your options. It pays to be fussy.

Don’t block the pockets

When you try on a waterproof jacket in the shop you probably won’t have your rucksack with you, so grab one off the shelf and buckle it up. What you’ll often realise is that the pockets can get obstructed by rucksack straps, meaning you have to take off your whole pack to access what’s in them. A good selection of chest pockets and high-sitting hand pockets is usually best. These allow you to easily access key bits of kit, like gloves, snacks and maps, as you walk.

Find adjustable features

One of the best features of a good waterproof jacket is adjustability. Key areas you’ll want to be able to adjust so they fit your body shape better are the hood, hem and cuffs. This is usually done through a variety of drawstrings, toggles and Velcro tabs.

adjusting the hood on a waterproof walking jacket
©Live For The Outdoors

How to keep cool

Waterproof fabrics are getting more breathable every year, but some jackets offer more ventilation options than others. Adjustment in the cuffs helps, as it lets you roll your sleeves up, while pit zips allow you to open up the whole area underneath your arms.

Find the fit that works for you

Waterproof jackets come in all shapes and sizes – long ones, short ones, loose ones, tight ones. Some people like the jacket to fall way below their waist, while others prefer it to sit on the hips. If the cut of the jacket is loose, it allows more layers underneath. Meanwhile a more athletic fit will feel snugger around your torso. Try a few styles on and go for the one that moves best with your body shape and walking style.

Woman trying waterproof jacket in gear shop

Check out the zips and hoods

They aren’t the sexiest things to talk about, but zips and hoods can make or break a waterproof jacket. Despite big recent advances in technology, water often finds its way through zips, so stormflaps that cover the area over the top and beneath the zip offer extra protection. The key things with hoods are movement and visibility. Once you’ve adjusted and tightened them up to offer as much protection as possible, remember you still need to be able to rotate your head to see where you’re going!

Don’t forget about your legs!

Most walking trousers don’t come with a waterproof lining, so another key addition to your hillwalking wardrobe is a good pair of waterproof overtrousers. Look for a pair with zips that fully open from hip to ankle, so you can put them on without taking your boots off.

Man zipping up waterproof trousers with rucksack in rain

Sustainability

These days, waterproof fabrics used for making jackets, trousers, and tents use synthetic materials. Nylon and polyester aren't the most environmentally friendly materials but there are some things you can do to ensure your garment or piece of equipment is as sustainable as possible.

Look for the use of recycled materials and a fluorocarbon-free (PFC-free) Durable Water Repellent (DWR) coating.

Our favourite hiking waterproofs:

Best 3-season waterproof jacket

A mountain-ready shell with a generous fit. Still lightweight and packable yet robust and well

Patagonia Granite Crest Men's
Recommended
Patagonia Granite Crest Women's
Best lightweight waterproof jacket

Our current lightweight waterproof jacket category winner. 'Much more than an emergency layer,

Arc’teryx Beta Men's
Arc’teryx Beta Women's
Best waterproof trousers

The 3-layer Gore-Tex fabric with a robust, recycled face gives these trousers a HH rating of

Rab Kangri GORE-TEX Pants
Recommended

The 3-layer Gore-Tex fabric with a robust, recycled face gives these trousers a HH rating of

Rab Kangri GORE-TEX Pants

Cleaning and care

Read our in-depth guide to caring for waterproof clothing the find out all you need to know.

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