Waterproof Clothing Material
It’s easy to get confused by the various jackets and shells that boast waterproof/water-resistant clothing material when you’re just looking for the right jacket to go outdoors with. There is plenty of technology that goes into making a jacket waterproof, and it is important to know how everything factors into keeping you protected from moisture, so you are able to choose the perfect jacket for your next adventure.
Waterproof vs Water-Resistant
When it comes to outerwear clothing, you want a jacket that protects you the most from the weather while also keeping you comfortable. The level of comfort you experience in waterproof clothing is dependent on the weather conditions, and you’ll want to dress accordingly. So, you’re looking for a jacket that keeps you dry, but how do you know it will do the job? I’ll get more in-depth later on, but for now, I’ll say that water-resistance is classified as the material that is great at keeping out light rain, but when it comes to the heavier stuff, it doesn’t work as well. On the other hand, a jacket that’s waterproof stands up to a much larger rainfall and has better technology to handle moisture. Laminates and coatings, waterproof ratings and breathability all factor into how protective outerwear can be, and if you’ve ever wondered what goes into making your jacket so comfortable when you’re caught in a storm, I’m here to help explain.
Seam sealing is the process by which the tiny holes made by the sewing needle are sealed off so that they do not leak or let in moisture. This is often done by using a heat application of some sort, such as thin waterproof tape or glue. When you are shopping for a jacket, you will typically see it list a seam-sealed feature in one of two ways: either “critically taped” seams or “fully taped” seams, and it is important to grasp the distinction between the two. Perhaps quite obviously, “fully taped” seams are, well, fully taped; this means that every seam on the jacket is covered. A fully taped seam jacket is great for when you want the highest amount of protection against water. For a jacket that has “critically taped” seams, it covers the areas with the highest potential for exposure, like the shoulders, the neck and the chest. This will offer you substantial defense against moisture, but it is not recommended if you are going to be doing activities where you will face extreme exposure to the weather; for example, snowboarding in the backcountry.
Above all else, make sure that the jacket you choose at the very least has critically taped seams to ensure you receive an adequate amount of protection when you’re in the outdoors.
Laminate vs. Coating
How waterproof your jacket is, depends on the thing that makes it waterproof. The two constructions that make up outerwear are laminates and coating fabrics and these are what determine the strength of your jacket’s moisture defense. With laminates, the jacket is constructed with a breathable membrane that is applied to the inside of the jacket’s fabric, like a protective layer over a wall, whereas coatings are like a film that spreads across the interior of the shell fabric.
The way laminates and coatings are constructed into the jacket also determines the durability and strength of that jacket, depending on how many layers there are. A 2-layer is typically a more casual piece that features a basic laminate construction to keep the jacket waterproof and breathable. With the performance 3-layer jackets, the construction is similar to the 2-layer, only there’s an added fabric layer that’s secured to the inside, which provides a lightweight alternative material, making it less heavy than a 2-layer while also giving it greater performance.
Examples of Coating and Laminate Technology
One of the more iconic coating technologies is Durable Water Repellent, or “DWR” for short, which is an ultralight coating finish applied to the exterior membrane that is able to prevent the outer layers of your jacket from getting too soaked with water. Durable Water Repellent can help fabrics from getting oversaturated, but it is not as protective as laminate membranes. Durable Water Resistance finish is made up of vertical spikes that keep water from spreading out and force it to form into drops that easily fall off the jacket. DWR is essential in order for the jacket to maintain breathability, as it keeps the jacket from becoming saturated and therefore cutting off breathability in the fabric.
Gore-Tex, otherwise known as Teflon, works as a membrane fabric that repels water while also making it easy for water vapor to move through the fabric. It was invented in 1969 by Bob Gore when he stretched heated polytetrafluoroethylene and accidentally discovered the perfect conditions for creating what would become known as Gore-Tex. The stretching of this material forms micropores and is then bonded with fabrics to make them waterproof. This is known as one of the superior methods of waterproofing.
Although there is not an industry-set standard across the board for testing a jacket’s weather defense, there are still methods that can give us the numbers we need to know if a jacket will be comfortable in the rain or not. I’ll list the testing methods for each section of a jacket’s protective features:
Breathability Testing: There isn’t much of a universal testing method for a jacket’s breathability so, therefore, no agreed-upon test method by which we could measure each brand’s performance objectively.
Waterproof Testing: Fortunately, there is standardized testing for waterproofing. The method that testers use is called the “Static-Column” test where they place a tube with a 1-inch diameter on top of the fabric and fill it with water until it starts leaking through.
Windproof Testing: The method used to test air permeability is simply measuring the air in cubic feet that pass through a fabric in a certain range of time, and some testers convert the amount of air to wind speed as well.
Waterproof outerwear has a range of protection that can be offered to you for various weather conditions. Whether you know you’ll be well-equipped for your journey or not depends on your knowledge of the waterproof rating system. Fortunately, it’s pretty simple: the higher the number is, the more it is able to withstand water and keep you dry. The kind of jacket you will want depends on not only the amount of moisture you’ll be up against, but what activities you will be doing as well.
|Waterproof Rating (mm)||Amount of Protection Provided|
|<5,000||Offers very light protection against moisture, good for activities in light rain and snow|
|6,000 – 10,000||Offers minimal protection against light rain and snow|
|11,000 – 15,000||Offers medium protection against moderate amount of rain and snow, good for hiking, snowboarding and skiing|
|16,000 – 20,000||Offers great amount of protection against moderate amount of rain and snow, even better for activities where you will experience intermittent moisture|
|>20,000||Highest amount of protection against heavy rain and snow, great for extreme activities such as ice climbing, backcountry mountain riding, and mountain hiking|
The Benefit of Breathability
Breathability and waterproof clothing material work together to make your jacket as comfortable as it can be, but the two fabrics work in different ways in order to make that happen. The membranes of resistant fabric and waterproof outerwear have micropores which allow water vapor to escape while simultaneously preventing larger water droplets from penetrating the jacket. When perspiration builds up from your activities, it’s able to move through the micropores of the jacket in order to keep you cool. This technology works especially well when it’s raining out, as the cooler air outside of your jacket will makes it easier for the warm air building up inside of your jacket to move through the micropores.
Brand-Tech Lingo Defined
There are many outdoor waterproof clothing manufacturers of outerwear that love to add brand language to the technologies that make up their jackets, and this can be confusing when you’re just looking for a straightforward answer to a jacket’s waterproofing viability. As with most technology lingo, a lot of these features do similar things but with different names. Here, I will point out and define some of the tech language used by some popular brands so you have a better idea of what kind of performance you can expect from their jackets.
The North Face
DryVent: multi-layered fabric that is treated with durable water repellent to keep water from oversaturating the jacket while allowing moisture to move easily through the outside of the jacket.
H2No: performance standard fabric that combines water repellent fabrics with a waterproof membrane that is also breathable.
DryQ: there are actually three versions of this technology. I’ll break them down for you:
- Dry Q Elite: features GE membrane technology for air permeability, so it allows air as well as moisture to be able to pass through the shell fabric. This is developed for activities where you’ll be exerting a lot of energy, like hiking and snowboarding.
- Dry Q Active: a lightweight, waterproof fabric that feels very breathable, making it a perfect choice for aerobic sports.
- Dry Q Core: This is the most durable of the three, and it is made to be comfortable for a large range of activities.
DryRide: uses microscopic fibers to keep moisture away from skin and makes it easy for the moisture to be evaporated. It works to keep the jacket breathable by preventing sweat from building up and moving the moisture away from the skin.
Omni-Tech: three-layer shell material. The first layer helps to resist dirt buildup. The second layer provides the most waterproofing within the membrane. The third layer works to transfer heat and moisture through other layers in order to keep the jacket breathable.
Types of Weather Shells
Given all of this talk about shell fabrics, it’s important to know what how shells factor into weather protection. I’ll go over the types of shells there are, and how each one will benefit you and keep you comfortable, in the conditions you will need them for.
Insulated shell: This shell is usually filled with a synthetic material or down for added warmth, and they boast a breathable fit and water-resistance. This shell offers a high level of protection and is great for activities where you will experience plenty of moisture, such as snowboarding and skiing.
Hybrid shell: True to its name, the hybrid shell is a mix between soft shell and hard shell, where the fabrics that provide the most waterproof and windproof protection should be on the front and top, while the lighter, more breathable fabrics are on the sides and back. The shell is great for offering you more breathability while still keeping you dry through weather conditions.
Soft shell: Combines an insulating layer with water-resistant shell for lightweight protection. Offers better breathability at the cost of lesser protection from the weather. It also offers good flexibility for better movement. Soft shells are great f you’re going to be doing something where you will sweat a lot, as it makes it easy to get rid of inner moisture buildup.
Hard shell: Compared to the soft shell, the hard shell is stiffer but provides better protection against moisture and is generally a better waterproof material than the soft shell.