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.

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