Is one waterproof jacket much like another? You will often hear that said, and – shock horror – there is a grain of truth in it. Very few of the jackets we try out in our tests are actually flawed from the outset; if they were, we wouldn’t waste your time with them. Above a certain price range (around £180) they often share the same design principles and technologies, with a few exceptions.
What you pay more for are the refinements: the extra features, higher-quality materials, or reduced weight. And crucially – longevity. While it’s not true that a cheaper jacket won’t last (we’ve all had inexpensive jackets that have lasted five years plus, with a bit of careful washing and proofing), if you want long-lasting peace of mind and minimal maintenance, a more sophisticated jacket generally makes for a better investment. This is likely to be the highest-value purchase you make as a walker, outranking walking boots, rucksacks, the whole shebang; you want to get it right and we’d love to help you.
Staying dry on a damp day is a wonderful thing, unlocking so many more miles of quality strolling. And hopefully, after having a considered look through our buyers guide you’ll be doing that for a long time to come.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR WHEN BUYING A WATERPROOF JACKET
Where there’s a zip, there’s a chance of water getting in, so look carefully at how your jacket protects them. Less expensive jackets usually have fabric flaps above and below the zip. Pricier options often have a strip of waterproof tape heat-bonded over the zip. This (usually) keeps out water and (definitely) saves on weight and materials, keeping the zip flush with the outer fabric.
Most jackets come with ‘handwarmer’ pockets, but these are often useless if you’re wearing a rucksack with a hip-belt. Thus a chest pocket is more useful for storing maps, routecards, a phone or GPS. Pleasingly though, some of this year’s crop have started placing handwarmer pockets higher up the torso, meaning they can still be accessed despite a rucksack harness. Eureka!
Ideally the jacket should be longer at the back than the front, to cover your hind quarters while still allowing your thighs to move freely. If the front is long, look for a two-way zip. This allows you to unzip from the bottom if you need to lift your thighs on a big ascent.
A hood is no good if it can’t be fastened securely around your head. So look for three points of adjustment: a master cord at the back of the head, and two by the jawline. And a firm peak will help the hood keep its shape, and keep the rain out of your eyes.
Your jacket should keep out wind and water obviously, but it should also allow you to vent heat when you’re warm. Look for adjustable cuffs, a drawcord in the hemline, and under-arm pit-zips which all help to disperse the heat.
You can rest assured that if a jacket appears in our reviews, it has passed our waterproofing tests over several weeks of use. All of these are still beading water properly after multiple soakings. And we’re confident that if you have a problem with any of them, the makers have a good enough customer service setup to offer repair or exchange within a reasonable timescale.
Sometimes you’ll be wearing your jacket just over a base-layer; sometimes you will have a thick fleece or soft shell on too. So make sure you try on your jacket with and without the mid-layer, to make sure the fit is generous enough to allow for it, but slim enough to compress round your torso when you’re just in a base-layer.
WHAT ELSE SHOULD I KNOW?
HOW IS A WATERPROOF JACKET PUT THROUGH ITS PACES
The main measure of a waterproof jacket is hydrostatic head. A piece of the jacket material is clamped across the open end of a clear vertical tube, which is then slowly filled with water. Observers then monitor how high the column of water gets before the material lets drips through. So it’s a measure of a) volume and b) pressure. A hydrostatic head rating of 3000mm means that the column was 3 metres tall before any water came through. Most of the jackets in our test have a hydrostatic head rating of between 7000 and 10,000. That’s not the end of it though: to be waterproof, the jacket needs to block any ingress points, so its seams need to be double-stitched, covered with tape and sealed down. Abrasion machines are then used to check the seams, zips and other vulnerable points.
WHAT IS OUTDRY?
OutDry is a waterproof/breathable system that takes a different approach from Gore-Tex and other membranes. Traditional treatments work a bit like cavity wall insulation, creating two (or three) layers which stop water getting out but let internal heat and moisture escape. OutDry does the whole thing in one layer by being heat-bonded to the outer fabric. Columbia are the only major outdoor brand using it in the UK, and it has worked well on their boots for the past two years.
WHY ARE HOODS SO BIG?
Sometimes getting a hood to fit snugly round your head is like trying to wrap a cricket ball in the Daily Telegraph. That usually means the hood has been designed overlarge to fit over either a cycling or climbing helmet. Again, the three points of adjustment are key. And if the hood is still big after adjustment, it’s a sign the jacket is more specialised for climbing than you need it to be.
CARE AND REPAIR
“If I buy a £250 waterproof jacket, I don’t expect to have to spend ages making it waterproof again every six months.” It’s an argument we can sympathise with, but sadly, even the most premium jacket is capable of wearing out after intense use. Or as someone else put it: “You wouldn’t buy a Ferrari and not get it serviced.” So if your jacket has stopped beading water and is starting to ‘wet out’, here’s how to fix it…
> Clean all traces of normal detergent out of your washing machine
> Close all pocket and zips on jacket.
> Pour a dedicated 2-in-1 reproofing agent into the detergent drawer of the machine (Granger’s, Nikwax, Storm)
> Run machine as directed by the instructions on the reproofing liquid
> Afterwards, reactivate the DWR coating by tumble-drying (or just use a hairdryer or iron at low temperature)
> Flick water onto the jacket and marvel at the fact it is beading again.
KEEP IT ZIPPED UP
As you’ll have gathered from the stuff about hydrostatic head, any place where the jacket opens is a potential weak point. So if there are zipped pockets and zipped vents, the amount of tech that is needed to make them all waterproof will bump up the price. The Velez has an innovative answer: it hides the pockets inside the vents, thus it only needs one layer of waterproofing protection. This does make the pockets a bit fiddly to get into, but it saves weight and space, and minimises the risk of leakage.
WHAT IS GORE-TEX?
Gore-Tex is a waterproofing technology using a membrane created from a polymer called PTFE. It’s sandwiched between the inner lining and the outer fabric of your jacket. Its one-way permeable qualities allow it to draw heat and moisture away from your skin, while preventing water from getting in. Today it comes in three formats: regular Gore-Tex (perfect for most walkers’ needs); Gore-Tex Active (lightweight, for speedy movers) and Gore-Tex Pro (super-tough for serious mountaineers). Find out more at www.gore-tex.co.uk
AND ONE FINAL TOP TIP
Jacket sleeves should be slightly overlong, to cover the backs of your hands. Feels odd but locks out wind and rain better.