M Ultralight Waterproof-Breathable Jackets: 2012 State of the Market Report

by David Chenault

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Article Summary:

A rain jacket is for most backcountry travelers an inevitability. There are certainly areas of the world where precipitation is unlikely enough to render raingear useless weight, and places either warm or cold enough that precipitation is not a concern. In very warm climates one can just get wet without suffering ill effects, and in very cold places the certainty of precipitation falling in the form of snow combines with the limits of current WPB (waterproof-breathable) technology to make other shells better choices. Most backcountry areas don't fit into any of these categories, or only do so in certain seasons, and thus anyone hoping to experience the backcountry in safety and comfort ought to bring something to keep liquid precipitation off their backs and out of their ears. The reasons for this become a lifetime axiom for anyone caught out in a rainstorm without raingear. Water promotes heat loss with impressive efficiency, and renders almost all insulations drastically less effective. The necessity of raingear is a lesson best learned in theory first, rather than the potentially hazardous school of hard knocks.

That said, the reputation of WPB rain jackets is less than stellar. They're reputed to keep precipitation out while not keeping sweat in, yet can fall short in one or both arenas. Breathability is typically the attribute which comes under fire, and in many cases the capacity of a WPB rain jacket to keep sweat in under warmer and more humid conditions has some hikers regarding them as single-purpose pieces of gear, if not abandoning them all together. Add the substantial expense of WPB jackets, and there appear to be compelling reasons to avoid these supposedly essential pieces of outdoor gear.

I examined the various alternatives to WPB jackets in my Lightweight Alternative Rainwear State of the Market Report, investigating the numerous solutions which might address the weight, limited use, and deficient functionality of WPB jackets. The details are discussed in greater depth in those articles, but in summary I found that while things like poncho-tarps and silnylon capes can indeed prove efficacious for many lightweight backcountry travelers, they have many limitations which explain the ubiquity of WPB shells. Even the best poncho-tarps suffer in wind, while bushwhacking, and during any backcountry mode of travel other than walking. Capes are even worse. Modern day iterations of the cagoule, such as the Packa, are good in high winds and off trail, but are made of impermeable fabrics and even the best venting stills sees them breath less than the worst WPB jacket. Perhaps the single greatest revelation I took out of testing alternative rainwear was an appreciation for just how good modern WPB jackets can be. The best such garments fit close, yet don't bind. They seal out even the worst weather, but let out a substantial amount of perspiration. They not only protect the hiker, climber, skier, boater, or cyclist from rain, snow, and the various combinations thereof, they also keep out spray from waves, wind, and the brutal soaking that can come from dripping wet brush and scrub. And, as I discovered in this report, the best do all of these things while weighing very little indeed.

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