This is the primary function of a waterproof jacket: keep the rain outside and your upper body dry. When rating jackets in this category we consider the jacket as whole, from seams to zippers, hood to wrist closures and of course the fabric construction. The jackets in this test mostly use proprietary membranes. The exception is the Outdoor Research Helium Hybrid’s Pertex+ and the First Lite Vapor Stromlight Ultralight Rain Jacket which uses 37.5 (previously known as Cocona). Brands rate fabric waterproofness using a water column test. We use a more subjective real world test of using the jackets in the pouring rain and observing how long it takes for water to absorb and leaking to begin. Because it swaps the Pertex+ material for soft shell panels under the arms, the Outdoor Research Helium Hybrid scored the worst for weather shedding. In sustained and heavy rain, water will leak through the soft shell panels. The rest all scored high for waterproof, but the First Lite Vapor Stormlight Ultralight Rain Jacket nudged the other jackets due to its excellent hood.
This score speaks to how well the jacket allows excess heat to escape from inside the jacket. When hiking, paddling or during any other exercise, our bodies warm up, releasing heat. The breathability is how well the jacket allows that heat, in the form of moisture vapor, to escape the micro-climate between the body and fabric. As with weathershedding, breathability is a factor of construction, both the materials used and any mechanical venting built into the jacket like pit zips, perforations and soft shell panels. Outdoor Research Helium Hybrid led this category thanks to the solid breathability of the Pertex fabric and soft shell panels on the side. Both the L.L. Bean Tek O2 Element and Eddie Bauer Cloud Cap Flex make up for okay membrane breathability with pit zips.
Often it’s the little things that make or break a jacket and it’s those miscellaneous features that we’re reviewing here. Pocket size and placement, zipper function, fit and how the jacket wears as we walk, run, bend over and reach up are all in play. For instance, the Eddie Bauer Cloud Cap Flex scored high because it looks sharp and never constricted with built-in stretch throughout. Fleece patches on the First Lite were a nice touch.
This test time frame doesn’t allow us enough use to really see how these shells will stand up over months and years of wear, but we can tell pretty quickly where the weak points lie. From years of beating up jackets our testers can look at the seams and overall construction details and immediately see potential issues before we’ve even worn it. Then we encourage hard use and put these jackets through bushwhacking torture. We didn’t rip any jackets this year, but we think the lightweight Sherpa Assar fabric needs to be treated with more care, while the flexible Eddie Bauer Cloud Cap Flex proved to resist a lot of abuse.
We measure packability in two ways: ounces and volume. These matter because extra weight on the back generally hurts speed on the trail and bulkier items gobble space, oft a scarce and valuable resource. The difference between the heaviest shell (L.L. Bean Tek O2 2.5L Element) and the lightest (Sherpa Assar) is only 5.5 ounces, less than a snack bar. Volume stacked up similarly, with the Assar and Tek bookending the test again. In both cases it’s a measure of the weight of the fabric and number of features, since every strip and extra zip adds weight and bulk.
For this test our testers packed those five categories — weather shedding, breathability, function, durability and packability — along with the shell and headed out the door. They used them side by side and individually in a range of activities, temperatures, weather conditions and intensities. After a couple months of use, everyone reported their findings. After compiling and condensing you’ve got the reviews here. Once we’d dried out, the Sherpa Assar Jacket stood a slim shoulder above the Eddie Bauer Cloud Cap Flex Rain Jacket. Though, it’s worth noting only seven points out of a possible 100 stood between our top ranked and lowest ranked jacket in this year’s test. That speaks to the continuous improvements in function, weight and breathability we’ve seen in 2.5 layer jackets. Every year manufacturers find ways to improve performance, while keeping prices affordable. These jackets breathe better than many three layer shells, protect from the elements almost as well and keep getting tougher. Where we would usually reserve these for day trips and fair weather expeditions, they’re steadily convincing us that lightweight waterproof jackets are worthy of longer trips and harsher conditions.
Over more than six months, a team of testers use the jackets in a variety of conditions and activities. They took the jackets hiking, canoeing, mountain biking, sea kayaking and rock climbing, pulling them out of their pack any time conditions warranted a shell. In addition, we put the shells through a series of standard tests. We wore all the shells in an uphill run in 65 degree weather to test breathability, in a shower for 10 minutes to test weathershedding and on a bushwhack hike to test durability.
Throughout the real-world testing, our testers recorded their observations on our five criteria: Weathershedding, the ability of the jacket to shrug off wind and rain; Breathability, how well the jacket released excess heat; Function, a catch all for features, fit and other factors that influence what it’s like to wear the jacket; Durability, how well made that jacket is and how much abuse it can take; and Packability, the weight and bulk of the jacket.
After all the testers reported their findings, the test reviewer added his own input and then assigned each jacket scores in each of the five categories from 1 to 10. The scores reflect the jacket’s performance compared to all other waterproof and breathable jackets we’ve tested. The jacket with the highest aggregate score wins the Gear Institute Best in Class rating.
What is a Lightweight Waterproof Jacket
Lightweight Waterproof Jackets could also be called 2.5-layer jackets. All share the same construction technique, which involves sandwiching a waterproof and breathable membrane between a protective outer fabric and a thin film barrier on the interior of the jacket. This style of construction has been around for a couple decades as a less expensive and generally lighter option than 3-layer storm shells.
Typically 2.5-layer shells are best reserved for lighter duty, day trips, shorter overnights and fairer weather. They are not as waterproof or durable as three-layer shells and since there is just a thin barrier between the membrane and pore-clogging grease and dirt from the body, they need more washing and care to perform optimally. Increasingly these concerns are less relevant as the materials companies are using in this category continue to improve.
Most of the jackets in this test lean toward the lightweight and minimalist side. They tend to use elastic at wrists and waist, little structure in hoods and only hand pockets. This helps keep weight low, but impacts performance in harsher situations. A sub-category is hybrid jackets, which mix waterproof materials in more exposed areas and more breathable materials in more sheltered or hotter parts of the body. This category sacrifices weather shedding for breathability, a trade off that’s not a big deal for day trips, but should be carefully considered on more exposed and longer outings.
Overall, because of their low bulk and weight and their affordable price, Lightweight Waterproof Jackets are ideal for day trips and as the go-to waterproof-breathable shell for weekend warriors.