There are many choices of clothing that an outdoors person can wear for not just rain protection but wind or snow protection as well. With so many options, it can become confusing as to what may work for you and your chosen activity. This article will hopefully break down the choices a bit more. Perhaps even make it a little less confusing to understand what may work for you.
As with many aspects of the outdoors, it is difficult to pick a piece of rain gear that will:
- Protect you from the wind
- Keep out the rain and snow
- Not let you overheat
- Be durable
- …and work in all conditions
Like all pieces of gear, it is about compromise and what works best for your particular outdoor style, goals, budget and so on. If there were one piece of equipment that did everything and were indeed the best, there would not be so many choices. 🙂
As with previous articles, I am not going to discuss specific pieces of gear, but rather the types.
Overall, I find that while gear manufacturers and specific models may come and go, the general types of gear tends to stay the same.
A surplus nylon poncho (eBay affiliate link) from the local Army-Navy store may be more substantial and come in cammo, but is functionally no different from the DCF (cuben fiber) poncho sold by the cottage gear makers.
With no further ado, here is what I consider the basic categories of hard shell type gear.
Wind jacket and wind pants
Bordering more on the soft shell side (such as the classic Marmot DriClime) in many cases, the wind shell-type clothing tends to be more breathable than traditional shells. More water resistant than waterproof, it works best for a light drizzle, fog and wind esp during highly aerobic activity. The old-school unlined windbreaker used on your high school track team is not far removed from this type of gear.
This piece of gear tends to be very light.
As my legs pump out a lot of body heat while hiking, this is my preferred layer for pants.
Many people like this type of gear as their only shell for highly aerobic activities such as winter backpacking or ski touring. In cold, dry conditions the breathability of this type of shell is highly desirable and is what I use as my shell during the day for winter.
Best for: Aerobic activities on the go, for wind protection and during a light drizzle. Cold and dry conditions, too.
Popular example: Patagonia Houdini
A backcountry staple for many years. Many people love ponchos as they vent extremely well and can be multi-use: Rain gear, a pack cover, a shelter or a ground cloth when “cowboy camping”.
I think this gear does best in more wooded environments such what is found on the Appalachian Trail. Ponchos tend not to do as well as above tree line. If not tied down properly, the poncho can turn into a sail. 🙂
I’ve tried ponchos, but never cared for them. Being on the shorter side (5’6″), find that the poncho got caught up around my legs and hiking poles too easily.
Still, the versatility, weight savings, and easy venting make them an attractive option for many.
Best for: Non-windy areas and for those who want perhaps a versatile and (potentially) weight and a cost-saving piece of gear.
Popular example: Too many to list! 🙂
The bomber shell with thick material, big and beefy zippers, wide pit zips and can take whatever Ma Nature throws at you. The problem? Not many of us are climbing K2. 🙂 Despite the Gortex lining found in the most gear of this type, the mountaineering shells tend to make the average person overheat in all but the absolute coldest and driest conditions. The jacket is heavy and bulky too. Unless you are wearing the jacket and pants the whole time, you have to schlep the thing up and down the mountain. Note that most climbers rarely take this type of shell, either.
The shell is heavy, bulky and usually expensive. When I moved to Colorado, I bought a beautiful and well made Marmot mountaineering shell (luckily steeply discounted from Sierra Trading Post in nearby Cheyenne, WY.) Little did I know how overkill it would be. I have yet to climb K2…and probably never will. 🙂
Best for: Edmund Hillary adventures! (Or, to be more applicable to most, resort skiing)
Popular Example: Marmot Alpinist
The happy medium regarding weather protection.
If I had to buy just one jacket/pants, it would be of this type. Relatively light ( 12 oz +/- for the men’s jacket, 9 oz +/- for the pants), reasonably durable and water resistant. Many pieces of the gear of this type have pit zips and Goretex or similar laminate.
The result? The jackets are breathable for up to moderate aerobic activity. Not terribly expensive, either.
In short, the all-around clothing for many conditions. A classic example in this class is the Marmot Precip.
There are lighter, more breathable, more “bomber” and more versatile shell-types, but this type tends to be a good overall “go to” piece for most people.
Best for: All around use be it three-season backpacking and hiking, winter touring, or even around town. Size up if used in winter with bulky clothing.
Popular example: Marmot Precip
DriDucks / Frogg Toggs Class
Frogg Toggs and related jackets are light (about 5 oz ea for the Men’s Medium sized pants/jacket…or ~10oz for a set) surprisingly breathable, and inexpensive while being very weather resistant. They are made out of a Tyvek-like material. With no pit-zips and sometimes even no pockets, this type of rain gear is very minimalist. They tend to run large (e.g. a men’s medium feels like men’s large. Perhaps for easier layering?)
The downside? Not very durable. The pants in particular! I would not take these for bushwhacking or off-trail hiking with rough terrain, climbing, or backcountry skiing. This jacket is not the best choice for constant rain gear either IMO.
On trail? They work well as occasional use rain gear. At $20 for a set, affordable too.
Best for: On trail hiking for occasional use or those on a budget
Popular example: See above 🙂
More of an supplement to, rather than a replacement for, standard gear, an umbrella is a popular choice for many people. Many people use the umbrella as their main piece of equipment in conjunction with wind shells.
Made of light material to keep off the rain and works for sun protection, too. Needless to say, ventilation is fantastic. This ain’t a Mary Poppins umbrella. 🙂
During the daily Colorado summer thunder storms, an umbrella is a great place to have your own shelter while taking a break, too.
Obvious disadvantages are for use in high winds, getting snagged in trees or brush, and extra weight to carry. If you are a pole user, you will need to stash your pole(s) while using an umbrella.
Best for: Rain and sun protection in non-windy and non-brushy environments. May be better for those who do not hike with poles.
There are of course other types beyond what is covered in this document and some pieces of gear fall in-between my broad categories. But, I feel the above is a good representation for general outdoor use.
As always, what you are doing depends on the choice of gear.
- Highly aerobic activity, cold and dry conditions, light drizzle, or wind protection? Wind shell
- On a maintained trail in sheltered areas, want excellent ventilation, and versatility? Poncho
- Mountaineering or lift-served skiing? Mountaineering shell
- General purpose, do-most-everything shell? Marmot Precip type
- On a maintained trail, want something light and fairly breathable, using occasionally, or on a budget? DriDucks/Frogg Toggs
- On-trail or non-rough conditions, don’t use trekking poles or mind stashing them? Umbrella
Note that you can mix and match the types, too. For general backpacking, I take my wind pants because they are durable, light and breathable and couple it with the appropriate jacket (A heavier or lighter shell). Many people will also pack a wind shirt and take a light rain jacket to swap as conditions warrant or combine with an umbrella with other gear. My buddy d-low will carry an umbrella to supplement his gear, too.