A simple, no-frills rain shell is an adventurer’s best friend, and a cheap one is the first building block of an outdoor wardrobe. We spent four weeks hiking, bushwhacking, mountaineering, and taking the trash out in the rain, and found that Patagonia’s Torrentshell does the best job at keeping water out. The secret? A deep hood. Unlike cheaper jackets with hoods that don’t fit your face, the Torrentshell’s is cavernous, keeping precipitation off your nose, chin, and hair. And where other manufacturers make concessions—a tiny zipper here, some cheap bits of Velcro there—our Patagonia pick comes compromise-free.
There are “cheaper” cheap jackets, but if you want to stay dry, Patagonia’s works the best, thanks to a big hood that amply covers your head and a stiff brim and generous sides that move water away from your nose and chin. This is a 2.5 layer jacket, designed with a printed pattern over the inner side to keep dirt and body oils from clogging the breathable layer, rather than a full fabric lining. It feels suspiciously like a trash bag, but the “half-layer” printed inner liner keeps bulk down, and makes the jacket packable without reducing its rain resistance. The membrane is made out of Patagonia’s in-house H2No waterproof/breathable fabric.
The Torrentshell has fully lined pockets, an alternative to more common mesh pockets, which can let moisture in and transfer it to your clothes. It has a double storm flap over the zipper that stays shut without the use of Velcro, so you can zip your coat while wearing gloves and they won’t snag. And zero elastic on the cuff means water slides off the coat instead of onto your wrist.
The fit is generous, which makes this coat ideal for layering when it gets cold. And, if you work up a sweat, armpit zips let you vent heat. It comes in several colors, including a few eye scorchers, so you can be easily seen ahead on the trail on a cloudy day, in a rainy forest. We also think Patagonia provides one of the best warranties in the industry.
If the Torrentshell is too baglike for your tastes, the North Face Venture jacket has less fabric under the sleeves, giving it an all-around slimmer and more flattering fit. With a hood design similar to Patagonia’s, it kept our faces dry during testing and did the second best job at keeping rain at bay. (Our hands still got wet, and the mesh pockets also have the potential to let water in.)
The only major difference between this and our top pick is the Venture’s mesh-lined pockets, which you might find either a positive or a negative. They let moisture in as you open or close them to get your phone, or anything else you have stashed—but a mesh pocket provides an additional way to vent your jacket. There is Velcro on the storm flap that gets caught on gloves, but overall we’ve had great success taking it on wet-weather outings.
*At the time of publishing, the price was $90.
We wouldn’t take the L.L.Bean Trail Model on any hard-core missions because there are no arm vents, something you definitely need if you’re going on a hike. But for walking the dog or spending a rainy day at the stadium, it’s perfect. It’s cut large enough that it fits over warm clothing, it packs down into a pocket, and it also comes in a wide range of sizes for men and women, including tall, petite, misses, and women’s.
I got my first job washing dishes at the American Wilderness Leadership School in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, when I was 15. I have since put those skills to use (both the wilderness skills and the dishwashing skills—it was a very real-world education) on four continents, in 10 countries and 41 of the contiguous United States. Seamus Bellamy wrote the first edition of this guide, and he is an avid outdoorsman who lived in the soggy bits of Vancouver Island and British Columbia’s lower mainland for close to a decade.
In addition, we tapped the masterminds behind two of the best resources out there: Kristin Hostetter, gear editor at Backpacker for two decades, a site that has thoughtful and extensive coverage on backpacking-specific rainwear and features; and Stephen Regenold, founder and editor of Gear Junkie, who has now guided us through both iterations of this guide.
An inexpensive rain shell is an uninsulated jacket meant to repel wind and rain, but not necessarily keep you warm. Because it’s unlined, it’s lightweight and easy to stuff in a pouch or pocket.
Unlike rain jackets of yore, they’re made of waterproof/breathable (“w/b” from now on) fabric that helps push moisture out of the coat and prevent you from getting wet and clammy. It’s a basic piece of gear that all hikers, campers, and backpackers should have in their arsenal—it doesn’t hurt to have one around the house either.
We started by researching other gear sites and reading up on outerwear—fabrics, construction methods, and uses. We studied jacket lines from all the major brands we could find, and then consulted our experts, including Regenold and Hostetter, to figure out what to look for.
Here are the elements that a cheap rain shell must include:
On that last point, Hostetter told us that you can’t just look at a jacket and figure out if it’s breathable: “You just can’t. One thing that you can look for to combat that is pit zips—which are vents under your arms.” Every jacket we considered has underarm zippers so that you can dump heat and let moisture out of the jacket manually.
Though less important, our ideal rain shell could also be easily used while wearing gloves, and has a hood that articulates—meaning when you turn your head, the hood turns with you.
A few things we discovered weren’t so important:
Using these guidelines, we selected 10 jackets and took them hiking in torrential downpours in the giant redwood forests of California, where the average yearly rainfall is 46 inches a year—9 inches more than the US average; through misty forests in the eastern Sierras on the way to the summit of Mt. Whitney; and on depressing gray days in limp snow flurries through Avalanche Gulch and Casaval Ridge, the easiest and most difficult technical climbs on Mt. Shasta. Then we tossed in a few day-long hikes in Lassen Volcanic National Park for good measure. We stress tested for almost a year before making a decision.
The Torrentshell’s cut keeps water out of your face, away from your hands, and off your clothes better than any other jacket. The deep hood and wide, straight cuffs are a key ingredient, but the front zipper is also properly fortified, with a double storm flap and zipper garage at the neck. It’s only one of two coats we tested that had fully lined pockets—most of these jackets have mesh pockets that can let in water. And if you’re hiking, it’s the best tool for the job, because you can use it with gloves and layer underneath, while pit zips let you vent when you start working up a sweat.
Manufacturers like to make a big deal about their w/b technology—the special fabric that this kind of rainwear is made of. It is an important ingredient, but it’s not everything. What keeps you dry is a hood big enough to extend past your hairline, and a stiff visor that keeps water moving to the sides of your face—not straight down. If it’s too shallow, water gets in, and once drops have creeped in, they make their way toward your neckline.
The cuffs on the Torrentshell have no elastic, which is also helpful for keeping dry. A fully elasticized cuff, like on The North Face Resolve jacket, sends water straight to your hand instead of flicking it away toward the ground. The wide cuff is practical in an everyday way, too—many people suck their hands inside their sleeves to keep them dry and there’s room to do that. There is a Velcro closure if you want to cinch them down over gloves.
The lined pockets are an asset, too. Water usually gets into pockets if you’re warming your hands: It runs off your sleeve and into the interior. If they’re made of mesh, like the Columbia Evapouration jacket, that water gets onto your clothes. There is a trade-off to this design—Hostetter really likes the mesh pocket feature: “If you open the pockets, they act as vents. Because the air flows through to your torso. Pocket vents are good.” If you’re hot and bothered about pocket vents, then consider our runner-up, the Venture jacket, which has them. In the quest to find the jacket that would keep you the most dry, we think the fully lined pockets on the Torrentshell are an advantage.
What about the zipper? Should it be fancy and waterproof like on Columbia’s Sleeker? Regenold told us, “Some of these jackets have waterproof zippers on the front, which is fine, but they’re not necessary. You’ve got to be in a real crap storm for water to start coming in through the zipper.” So do we want storm flaps instead? Maybe not. Hostetter went on to say that “storm flaps are more fabric and more fabric is more bulk and more weight. Really, for hiking, we don’t want that.”
All but one of our jackets have storm flaps, but we decided the bulk and weight wasn’t a dealbreaker as we’re not looking for an ultralight coat. This led us to prefer the double storm flap on the Torrentshell, since it hides the front zipper without the use of Velcro, which tends to get caught on gloves and jackets.
We like this shell a lot for hiking since you can operate the hood pulls with one hand, unlike on the Marmot PreCip, which requires really getting in there to operate the drawstring. We know this seems like a minor issue, but keeping on-trail adjustments fuss free is the goal. Fuss less; hike more. All the features on the Torrentshell can be used with gloves on, including the front zipper, hood pulls, and arm and pocket zippers, since they have pull tabs.
And finally, this jacket can ventilate. The H2No fabric, which is Patagonia’s in-house brand of w/b membrane, is a good start, but it also has pit zips you can open to let moisture out—one of our most important criteria for choosing a jacket.
As of right now, a w/b membrane can’t substitute for manual venting. While working as a guide at Yosemite National Park recently, a friend of mine had a client who kept fully zipped up in his rain jacket the entire time, and was turning red hot from exertion. But when my friend suggested he open his coat, the man’s response was, “I shouldn’t have to. It’s a $300 breathable jacket. It should do it itself.”
W/B technology keeps you from sweating to death inside your jacket while you try to keep the elements out. But if you’re working hard, there is no fabric (not yet anyway) that can push moisture out of your jacket faster than you create it. Even the most expensive jacket can’t do it without your help. Regenold said frankly, “All the claims on breathability are whatever. I prefer manual ventilation. There is no amount of breathable fabric that can get the sweat I’m putting out of my body. I just pull my jacket up.”
One more thing—we’re concerned with how things are made. None of the jackets we tested were made in the US, which isn’t necessarily bad, but it does cost more than $100 to do that. However, Patagonia recently received a grade of A- from Free to Work’s Apparel Industry Trends report for 2015, which investigates everything that touches a garment’s supply chain, such as how raw materials are sourced and how workers are treated. Patagonia excels at traceability of its textiles, but if the company wanted to improve it would have to work with companies that offer a better living wage to the employees that harvest, spin, and cut the fabric. Patagonia also offers one of the best warranties you can get.
This is a 2.5 layer coat: It has an outer rain-resistant layer, an inner waterproof-breathable membrane (the white part), but instead of a third layer of mesh or other material, the “0.5” layer is printed on. It’s meant to keep your slimy body oils and other dirts away from the white layer so that it doesn’t clog up its “pores” without covering it entirely, so it can do its job of moisture transfer. It’s possible the interior lining could flake, but that would be considered normal wear and tear. It shouldn’t happen until you get several good years out of the coat, so if it happens right away it might be worth seeking a replacement.
Also, the front pockets on this coat don’t work well with a backpack: The straps cover them. Unfortunately, that was the case for every single jacket we tried—we put a backpack on over all of them—with the exception of the Montbell Thunder Pass, which you could hike up a bit to get full access to the pockets. But then you have a big goofy coat hiked up over your waist strap.
Maybe you don’t feel like spending more than $100. In that case, the North Face Venture is for you. Some elements differ from the Torrentshell—Velcro on the front flap (which helps keep the flap down, but catches on gloves) and less user-friendly hood pulls. But otherwise it’s very similar and less expensive, and it kept us dry.
The hood works exactly the same as the hood on the Torrentshell, and the brim is stiff enough to keep rain out, though it doesn’t extend as far. The hood pulls aren’t as great as Patagonia’s, requiring more finesse to pull down the hood with one hand—but it can be done.
Again you’ll find elastic-free cuffs that shed water away from your hands, though they’re harder to suck your hands into. The back and side of this coat are cut slimmer, which makes the fit really flattering. The downside is there’s less room to hide from the rain.
This jacket has mesh pockets, a feature that—as mentioned earlier—can have advantages and disadvantages. If you open your pockets and rest your hands inside, you’ll probably get some water in there that can get onto your clothing. The flip side is that you can use them for more ventilation if you need to. There’s also a double storm flap over the zip, which is a step above jackets that have only one.
The North Face Venture has all the other good stuff that makes it great for backcountry trips, like zipper pulls and hood tabs that you can use with gloves, enough room to layer under, and the all-important under-arm zippers.
Flaws but not dealbreakers
This jacket has the same issues as the Torrentshell, including the potential for the interior layer to flake, and those pockets just don’t work under backpacks.
*At the time of publishing, the price was $90.
The L.L.Bean Trail Model lacks a major feature—the pit zips for ventilation—that makes our top picks so good. But if you’re not hiking, you might not need them, in which case you can stay dry for less money.
This is a 2.5 layer coat, just like our top picks, and it has the main features that keep you dry. The hood is not as deep as the Torrentshell, but it has the other design features that make a hood useful––the drawstring runs the entire length of the brim (as do our other picks) which makes sure that it remains still and sends water away from your face. The toggles are also on the exterior, and operate with easy-to-use pull tabs, just like those on the Torrentshell.
The interior pockets are made of mesh, which won’t keep you as dry as lined pockets, but without the underarm zips this is probably a good thing, allowing some air in and out of the coat to regulate heat. We still think the Columbia Watertight II, a former pick, is a great value, but for a few dollars more the Trail Model has a lot to offer, including a broad range of sizes for both men and women, including tall, petite, misses and womens. It’s also backed by L.L.Bean’s legendary return policy (so far the only one we’ve found that can rival Patagonia’s) in case the lining flakes prematurely or you run into some other durability issue.
Flaws but not dealbreakers
If you happen to have an older version of this jacket, be aware the latest version might not be made the same way (an issue we’ve run into with other jackets). We noticed an older model had pit zips, while the newest one we tested for this review does not.
Gore-Tex was the first waterproof-breathable laminate invented, and since its inception it’s been associated with high-end outerwear. But now almost every brand has its own in-house technology, and there are other manufacturers, like Pertex and Polartec, that make similar fabrics.
“You shouldn’t put Gore-Tex on some pedestal,” Regenold said in an interview. “There are certainly other technologies now that can match Gore-Tex for being waterproof, including eVent, Polartec’s Neoshell, and Dry.Q from Mountain Hardware.” All of them, he added, cost significantly less than Gore-Tex.
Care and maintenance
Dirt can clog up your waterproof-breathable layer, so you need to wash your jacket every now and then. In addition, you might need to revitalize the DWR layer after you take it out of the wash.
DWR stands for “durable water repellent,” and it’s a coating sprayed on the outside of your jacket. We recently attended a seminar on DWR chemicals given by Robert Buck, PhD, a technical fellow at Chemours, which is a leading manufacturer of DWR technology, including Teflon. He said not to think of a DWR coating as a solid layer, but rather a bunch of side-by-side umbrellas that barely touch, which creates a surface tension and causes liquid to roll off.
If you notice your jacket is wetting out—that the water no longer beads off the surface, but instead is absorbing into the top layer—it’s time to refresh the DWR. This can be done by tossing the jacket in the dryer, physically re-applying the layer with a product like Nikwax TX.Direct, or even ironing the outside of it.
To find out which method is best, check the specific care instructions for the material your jacket is made out of. Patagonia’s can be found here, The North Face has details here, and this is the info for Columbia.
Columbia OutDry Ex Gold: Our tester really liked wearing this jacket in cold conditions, but found it too hot to wear in milder temps: “I tested it on 2 Munros in Scotland with 45 mph wind, sideways rain, temps in the 30s and 40s, and was very grateful to be wearing it. That being said, taking it on an uphill in temps of 60s was very unpleasant.”
The OutDry is DWR-free, so far one of the very few jackets available with no coating on the exterior of the jacket (but you’ll be seeing a lot more of this soon, as the EPA is working to eliminate PFCs, the chemicals used in some DWR layers). Perhaps the new waterproofing tech is the reason “it felt kind of rubbery.” The hood left something to be desired, never seeming to stay completely over the face and never tightening up.
Montbell Thunder Pass – The most jacket for your money, it’s the only coat in this price category with three layers instead of two. That means there isn’t just a printed inner layer, but a full layer of facing fabric attached to the inside that makes the jacket more durable. It kept us dry under a generous hood with a stiff brim and has attentive details—like pockets that sit high enough that water won’t get in when you put your hands inside. But the fit was strange, a sentiment echoed by other publications who have reviewed this product—seemingly short and boxy around the waist (even though back length was the same as other models). We would recommend trying it on before buying.
Columbia Evapouration Premium: This one felt like it had the lightest/thinnest material of the jackets tested, yet didn’t breathe as well as the Montbell Thunder Pass. The pit zips were too small to help much with overheating. Much like the OutDry, it was difficult to get the hood to cover the entire head and stay on in wind.
Red Ledge Free Rein – This also features a hood that kept us bone dry, plus lots of room in the sleeves and loads of useful zippers. But again the fit was off, with lots of baggy fabric under the arms, which doesn’t sit well under backpack straps. If you want something for around the house, the Watertight II is less expensive. The lack of support—we couldn’t find a customer service contact or any warranty info—also gave us pause.
Mountain Hardwear Plasmic Ion – As of the writing of this guide, the Plasmic Ion is being discontinued. We originally tested (and eliminated) this jacket because it had no pit zips, which caused some confusion—we later found out that the men’s version had pit zips and the women’s version didn’t. At any rate, it doesn’t matter anymore.
Marmot PreCip – Our top choice for the past several years, the PreCip is a deal when it goes on sale. But we noticed some changes between the jacket we tested two years ago and its most recent incarnation, even though the retail price of $99 has stayed the same. The storm flap has been reduced from two flaps to one. The original coat had at least one zipper pull—this one has none (we had to doctor our test coat zippers with twist ties to use it). There is a new stowable hood, but at the expense of the toggles, which are now harder to use, swapping a useful feature for a useless one. The fabric feels the thinnest of everything we looked at. It kept us dry, but just barely. The newest version of the PreCip is working to do the absolute minimum, and for the same price we’d rather get the Venture, which has more usable features and a better hood, and looks just as good.
Helly Hansen Loke – The soft hood couldn’t keep water out, nor could the wrist cuffs. Our face and hands got soaked.
Both Columbia and Gore Fabrics (the people who make Gore-Tex) have announced they’ll be offering rain jackets (or in the case of Gore, manufacturing a new fabric) that won’t need a DWR layer on the outside to keep you dry. If it works, that means less maintenance—no more DWR washing and ironing! We’ll test these options as soon as they become available.