THE BIG TEST: Jackets
Staying dry during a hillwalk can be a challenge, but pack the right waterproof jacket and you’ll be warm, dry and comfortable no matter what the mountain throws at you. We put six jackets to the test on the Lakeland fells.
Waterproof jackets go head-to-head
“We’d better put on our waterproof jackets,” I said to Tim and Jon. It was sunny. They looked sceptical. “You’re still going to get drenched.”
We’d reached Stickle Gill, to find water rushing, crashing and splashing between rock faces. Our hands clasped wet rock, our feet slotted into notches between rock pools, and our waterproof jackets were about to be pounded by the torrent from above.
Inside our jackets our bodies were overheating, sweat was escaping through our skin to keep us cool and some of this was rolling down our chest to form puddles of dampness that soaked into our base layers. But most of our body sweat was being transported through the base layer fabrics and then moleculeby-molecule travelling through our jackets to the freedom of the open air.
This miracle of moisture movement, which allows a waterproof jacket to keep the rain out while simultaneously letting body sweat escape, depends on many factors all coming together in perfect synchronicity. When this magic happens it is truly a marvel of modern mountaineering.
Clearly choosing a waterproof jacket is more complicated than grabbing the first one you see...
Waterproof jackets have not always been as effective as they are today. Until the mid 1970s PU-coated waterproof jackets were standard issue, and while waterproof did not allow body sweat to escape which made them very clammy inside.
Things changed in 1975 when Helly Hansen developed the first base layers that both transported sweat from the body and were fast to dry. Around the same time Gore-Tex breathable waterproof fabrics were created that greatly enhanced comfort, by allowing sweat from the body and clothing layers to escape through billions of pores in the waterproof fabric. The result was that hillwalkers were now reasonably dry, even when it was raining and even while they were sweating.
Waterproof and breathable fabrics have become so commonplace that today it is hard to find a waterproof jacket that does not offer some level of breathability. However, performance varies and the most breathable waterproof fabrics do tend to be those with the higher price tags.
Low priced waterproof jackets use fabric that is waterproof, but it may not be very breathable and so condensation may form more easily than higher-priced fabrics. The result can be a jacket that is very damp inside, to the point where you may even think it is leaking. To manage this condensation one option is to ensure you don’t overheat by removing warm layers, such as a fleece jacket, and also by opening up zipped vents in the jacket to allow cooler air to pass through.
Condensation can also be managed by the lining of the jacket. Some incorporate layers of material that soak up and disperse condensation more effectively. Another way is by providing a loose mesh lining. This effectively ensures there is an air gap between the wearer and the underside of the main waterproof fabric where condensation forms. The result is more comfort, but the design is heavier.
To keep weight down, some jackets remove the inner layer of the 3-layer fabric and replace it with a printed matrix layer to manage condensation. This is often called a 2.5-layer fabric.
There are also completely different fabric styles, such as those used by Paramo, which keep out water by acting like animal fur and slowing down the speed of water ingress so the fabric can pump the water out again before it soaks through the fabric. These fabrics are far more breathable than PU coatings and 3-layer laminates, but can be warmer.
Even with the most waterproof and most breathable fabric, you can still be cold, wet and uncomfortable if the jacket is not well designed. Look for a hood that can keep your head dry while maintaining easy vision as you look around. You should also be able to raise your arms without either the sleeves or the hem riding up, otherwise you’ll get cold and wet in these areas when scrambling.
Pockets should offer easy access and be large enough for a map or guidebook. You may also want to check placement if you like to rest your hands in them.
To find out which jackets offer the best features at different price points, Trail has been testing six jackets over the past couple of months. Three gear testers (myself, Helvellyn fell top assessor
Jon Bennett, and hostel manager Tim Butcher) have been using these jackets in a range of weather conditions and locations that have included Munro bagging in Scotland, as well as walking and scrambling in the Lakes.
The final day for photos and testing in the Lake District aimed to draw together our favourites, and began with a scramble up Stickle Gill in Langdale. We then broke off east to scramble over Tarn Crag before more gentle walking around Stickle Tarn and clambering up the scree path to Harrison Stickle, the pinnacle of the Langdale Pikes. As is common in the Lake District it was the mix of wind and showers that provided the challenge to stay warm and comfortable in the hills, while the mix of terrain challenged the design of each jacket.