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Why does my rain gear not work?

Spend enough days in the outdoors teaching canoe courses, guiding groups, or just paddling on personal adventures and you will spend some time in the rain. This past summer I spent a LOT of time in the rain. It rained at least 1 of the days on every course I taught and during my final Moving Water course of the year it rained the entire 3 days we were on the water. I will admit that I was lucky with the weather on my Seal River Canoe Expedition where we only had 1 solid day of rain, and only a couple rain showers during the 10 days we were on the river.

There is 1 topic of conversation that takes place on every rainy canoe course or trip, and it generally happens while we are all gathered under a tarp wearing our rain gear. That topic is “why doesn’t my rain gear keep me dry?”. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had this discussion, but I sure which I had a buck for each time it’s come up.

I do enjoy the discussion because each time you hear a new perspective on the topic, or you learn about a new brand or style of rain jacket. I remember one white-water course where our group was off the water for the day and we were all gathered around at camp under the tarp; every brand and price point of rain gear was present. There was Arcteryx, Patagonia, Cabela’s, Eddie Bauer, and of course, The North Face. The price range of jackets in the group was from $70 all the way up to $700, and the consensus was that no one besides me was happy with their performance of their rain gear.

The underlining theme to each conversation has to do with two major issues related to staying dry and having good functioning rain gear. The first is the DWR coating that wears off on older rain jackets and seems to prematurely wear off some new rain jackets. The second issue, which is related to the first, is the wetness created inside the jacket from the moisture build up due to the reduced breathability or in some types of rain jackets, no breathability.

Now DWR is a term we use in the outdoor industry and it is short for “Durable Water-Resistance Coating”. It is a coating that is applied to all rain jackets at the factory and my experience has been that the original coating seems to be the best it will ever be. The DWR coating is super important part of making sure your rain jacket is breathable and comfortable to wear. The DWR coating creates a layer that keeps the rain droplets from adhering to the jacket fabric and makes the rain droplets bead off the jacket.

When water rolls off your jacket, moisture in the form of vapor can pass through the jacket and allow you to release that extra heat you create from whatever activity you are doing, thus making you more comfortable. When the droplets no longer bead off the jacket, they wet out the fabric and it is much harder for a jacket to pass heat vapor when the exterior fabric has “wetted out”. From general use of the rain jacket or pant, contact with backpacks, sitting on canoe seats, or even just stuffing the rain jacket into your pack or canoe barrel, this coating can wear off over time.

This coating also comes off if you wash your jacket using regular detergents. Now you can rejuvenate your DWR coating by running your jacket through a dryer cycle, which works great in the condo on a ski trip, but not so great on a hiking or canoe trip. Some folks recommend not to crush and pack your jacket so much, but that is sometimes hard to manage on trips when storage space is a premium. The best advice is to always wash your jacket in a proper cleaner such as Tech Wash from Nikwax. Tech Wash is not a detergent and does not strip off the precious DWR treatment on your jacket. If you wear your jacket a lot in the rain like I had to last summer, it is highly recommended to re-treat your jacket with a product like TX-Direct from Nikwax to re-coat your jacket with a new DWR coating. This wash and treatment are not brand or rain jacket specific, but general maintenance of any type of waterproof-breathable rain gear. It is a super important part of looking after your gear. As I mentioned above, some jackets have a more durable DWR coating then other jackets. Over the years I have used roughly 8 different rain jackets and noticed that the type of fabric that the company chooses is very important to the durability of the DWR coating. Even with proper use and proper wash care, some jackets do not hold their DWR coating and it is up to companies to warranty or replace those jackets for their customers.

The second issue is the breathability, or lack thereof. We have all felt the moisture build up in a jacket and we start to feel damp, then wet as a jacket’s breathability does not keep up with our activity level. We probably all pay less attention to how that jacket starts to dry from the inside out as our output level drops, and the jacket’s breathability catches up and comfort and dryness returns. Anyone who I have helped in the store over the years has probably heard me compare breathability to rush hour traffic: “Everybody gets home at the end of the day, it just takes some people longer than others.” This means that the moisture will move through the garment, it just needs more time.

Setting aside the fact that there are different types of jackets for different types of activities so a person can match a better choice of jacket, let us focus on why we feel our jackets are leaking or not performing.

The layers we wear under our rain jackets are super important to this equation. If we get caught wearing a cotton shirt or cotton blended layer, we cannot expect the jacket to move the moisture out since cotton is a sponge-like layer that absorbs moisture. Paddlers can get away with this (even though we never recommend it) but hikers and backpackers do not have the time or energy to haul all that extra water weight. What is recommended are synthetic layers like polyester shirts, or tech shirts with at least 80% synthetic content that will not absorb moisture but allow it to pass through and out of the jacket. Another suggestion would be to not even use polar fleece, but rather a synthetic insulation like Primaloft as a mid-layer. Primaloft insulation is hydrophobic so it does not absorb moisture and is warmer and more compressible than fleece. Merino wool is also a great mid-layer because it allows moisture to pass through, though through my discussions and debate on the subject I came to the conclusion that, for those that get cold easily and have trouble warming up in the outdoors, they should stick to synthetics and follow the old mantra of “if we can be dry, we can be warm”. Don’t forget the new mantra of “I wear wool and don’t stink so I have more friends in the outdoors!”

The bottom line is that what we wear under our rain jacket is super important to the wetness level/comfort level of that rain jacket, understanding that under-layers need to handle that excess moisture until it has time to pass through.

So, if our rain gear has been properly cared for AND we are wearing the right layers AND we understand the importance of our activity level, we can be sure that we will end up dry at the end of every rain storm, rainy day, or 3 day soaker!

If you end up standing under that tarp questioning the quality or functionality of your rain gear, think about the following.

  1. Have I properly cared for my jacket, or has this jacket been on too many trips and now it’s worn out and needs to be replaced?
  2. Can I adjust or change the layers I am wearing under my rain jacket to be more comfortable?
  3. Is my breathability expectation of my garment reasonable for the level of activity that I am doing, or the heat output that I create?

I want to leave you with a quick note about a new technology that The North Face introduced in the Fall of 2019. Everyone is pursuing better breathability and increased comfort in rainwear. Outdoor adventurers have long been tired of putting on a rain jacket and then having to take it off because once it stops raining, the jacket is too warm to wear, and they perspire too much to leave it on. The North Face introduced a new waterproof, breathable technology called Futurelight. Most of the testing and stories from their athletes has featured high altitude or above treeline use and the consensus is that the breathability is the best of anything they have ever used. There is little rain in these areas, so we look forward to more reports of waterproof success outside the traditional lab tests. Gore-Tex earned our approval only after decades of use, but if Futurelight earns these same accolades for waterproofness, even I can attest to the increased comfort in wearing Futurelight because of its fantastic breathability.

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