So it’s time to invest in a new jacket, but what type do you need? How much should you spend? How does GORE-TEX work? All these questions will be answered in this easy guide to jackets & coats, taking in waterproof shells, down and insulation, 3 in 1s, softshells, gilets and parkas.
There are two main things to look for in a waterproof jacket- firstly, you need it to be waterproof (obviously), and secondly you need it to be breathable, which means it lets air escape. There's no point in keeping the rain out only to overheat on the inside and end up soaked in sweat.
There are varying degrees to which a jacket is waterproof and breathable, and these are measured in the following ways:
- Hydrostatic head: This measures how waterproof the jacket is, and is calculated by applying a column of water an inch in diameter against a fabric, and seeing how high the water will rise before it starts to seep through. So a 5000mm rating means the water rises to 5 metres before water penetrates. For a fabric to be called waterproof at all it must have a rating of at least 1500mm, but in everyday use with pressure from wind, elbows, and brushing up against rocks you need a much higher rating.
- MVT (Moisture Vapour Transfer): This measures how breathable the jacket is, and is calculated by how much moisture can pass through the fabric in 24 hours, displayed as 10,000 gr/m²/day, or 10,000gr. Breathability ratings don't need to be worried about too much as a good waterproof membrane will be highly breathable and manufacturer guidelines can be misleading. For highly active use where you will sweat no matter what, look for features such as pit zips to increase ventilation.
So waterproofing and breathability are the two key factors, but what about all the different technologies that are used? It can get very confusing very quickly, but they fall into three basic categories.
- GORE-TEX® and eVent®: These are the two leading waterproof technologies, and they work by using a microporous membrane underneath the outer fabric that has thousands of tiny holes in it. The holes are small enough to stop water particles passing through, but big enough for air to escape. So these wonder fabrics keep out rain, are fully windproof and provide exceptional levels of breathability. GORE-TEX® is ePTFE (expanded Teflon), and eVent® is a similar patented material. Because of a slightly simpler structure, eVent® is arguably more breathable, but that's a hot debate we won't go into here!
- Own brand technology: The top outdoor brands all have their own waterproof systems such as HyVent® (The North Face), AQ™ (Berghaus), and TEXAPORE™ (Jack Wolfskin). These aren't technically standalone membranes, but they use a coated fabric within a layered system that works like a membrane and uses the same principle as GORE-TEX® to keep water out and let air pass through. At the higher end of the scale these technologies tend to have pretty much the waterproofing and windproof levels of GORE-TEX® and eVent® but won't offer the same breathability.
- Coated fabrics: A basic waterproof jacket won't have a membrane at all and will use a Durable Water Repellent (DWR) or PU (Polyurethane) coating to prevent water penetrating the jacket. These are used on lightweight jackets and packaways and whilst being breathable and water repellent, they won't offer anywhere near the performance levels of membrane technology.
- Festivals, day trips and sporting events: Here a basic packaway shell will suffice. This would usually be constructed using a DWR coating over a lightweight polyester fabric. These won't offer too much breathability and won't have a very high hydrostatic head (1000-2000mm) but they will do the trick if you aren't moving around too much.
- Everyday commute and light trail: Look for something with a good waterproof rating, 5000mm hydrostatic or above, and good breathability. You'll be walking a lot, and potentially in some heavy rain so one of the brands' own waterproof systems as mentioned above will more than suffice.
- Heavy trail and mountain use: This is where the GORE-TEX® and eVent® shells will count. For long tough walks in changing conditions you'll be varying degrees of hot and cold throughout the day, so you'll want to stay dry inside and out even when you might be sweating a lot. Any of the top brands' waterproof systems like HyVent® and AQ™ also perform in these conditions, but look to the more rugged 2.5 or 3 layer versions. In a GORE-TEX® 2 layer the membrane is bonded to the outer fabric only, with a separate layer to protect the membrane and add next to skin comfort. With a 3 layer construction all 3 layers are bonded together, which means no movement between the layers and a stiffer, more rugged and durable construction better suited to mountain pursuits where you are more likely to brush up against rocks and face much stronger winds. The GORE-TEX® Pro Shell range is a great example of this kind of rugged wear, and tends to favoured by professional mountaineers and rescue services.
Key features to look for
- Sealed/taped seamsAs well as the waterproofing technology, a jacket must also have sealed seams to fully ensure no water enters the jacket.
- Adjustable cuffsThese will help adjust the fit of the jacket and trap in warmth, and will feature on most basic shell jackets, but look out for bonded cuffs on mountain jackets that can withstand more wear and tear.
- Hem drawcordThis again adjusts the fit and traps in warmth, but also stops the jacket riding up when wearing a backpack.
- Map pocketIf you're using your jacket on the trail this is essential to keep your map dry and easily accessible. Virtually all shells will also feature front zippered pockets for carrying snacks or essentials.
- Storm flapA key feature of walking jackets, this ensures no water will enter through the zip.
- Bonded zipsA key feature of top mountain shells, the bonding will prevent weather entering the jacket through the zips, and keeps weight down by reducing the need for further fabric.
- Pit zipsMountain trekking requires more exertion, so zippered vents under the arm pit allow additional breathability, which can be essential to keep you dry as you reach the colder climes of the summit.
- Zip-in compatibilityThis allows a fleece to be zipped in to the jacket to add winter warmth, also known as Interactive (IA).
- Adjustable hood Important for a good comfortable fit and to ensure complete coverage, higher end trail jackets may also feature a stiffened Helmet compatible hood – essential for mountain pursuits, this ensures comfort and safety when wearing a helmet.
The Layering System
When trail walking, make sure you wear the correct layers underneath your waterproof to ensure moisture is transferred. Polyester is the best material for this – start with a base layer, then a fleece in cold conditions, then your shell jacket on top. The layers trap heat and provide insulation to keep you warm, and the correct material means moisture won't get caught up and make you uncomfortable. If you wear cotton you're likely to end up drenched in sweat on the inside and prone to a chill once you cool down.
A good jacket is an investment, and put simply the more you invest the more you’ll gain. There’s no point breaking the bank if you only need a basic shell for the odd shower, but if you’re using the jacket regularly on trail or mountain walks you’ll really see the benefit of the higher end fabrics like GORE-TEX®, eVent® and GORE-TEX® Pro, particularly in terms of breathability and durability. If you look after these type of jackets properly you'll get years of use.
Which brings me to my final point- take care of your jacket! A good waterproof shell needs to be looked after, as over time dirt and grime can affect its waterproof capability. A jacket with a waterproof membrane will also use a DWR treatment on the outer layer to stop water building up on the surface. Use a Nikwax or Grangers spray or in-wash cleaner every few months to refresh the DWR coating and this will significantly extend the life of your jacket.
3 in 1 Jackets
The 3 in 1 is the classic year round outdoor garment. It's basically two jackets- a fleece inner and a waterproof shell outer, and offers versatility and value-for-money as you have 3 wear options:
- The fleece on cool dry days
- The shell when it's wet and mild
- The two combined for complete winter warmth and waterproof protection
Worn with a base layer underneath, it's also the full layering system in one, allowing you trap warmth between the layers and still allow moisture to escape, keeping you warm and dry as you hike. You can also add or peel off the layers as the weather dictates, equipping you for any conditions you might encounter.
Look for a minimum of 200 grams of insulation in the fleece layer for complete winter warmth in the UK; anything less won't cut it in the colder months.
Down and Insulated Jackets
What actually is down?
Down is the light, powdery feathers plucked from next to the bird's skin, and this is combined with the outer feathers to provide the insulating fill. The higher the ratio of down to feathers, the warmer the jacket will be, i.e. 90/10 ratio has 90% down and 10% feathers.
Rough guide to down ratios:
- 50/50 – this is used mainly for fashionable jackets for light protection in cool conditions.
- 70/30 – this is a high ratio found in premium jackets for cold conditions. Anything around this ratio will easily be warm enough for the coldest UK conditions.
- 90/10 – provides incredible insulation for extreme cold and artic expeditions. Pretty much the highest ratio you'll see as any higher and it becomes incredibly expensive, and 100% down doesn't exist as it's not possible to separate it in this way.
This is basically the size of the down clusters and the fluffiness of the down. The bigger it is the more air it will trap, providing better insulation and a warmer jacket. 600 fill power combined with a high down/feather ratio will provide enough insulation for the coldest UK climates and is found in premium down jackets, but for colder climes 800 fill would be better suited.Advantages
- Down is nature's best insulator, can provide incredible warmth in extreme cold
- Naturally lightweight
- Compressible, so it's easily carried
- High warmth-to-weight ratio
- Extremely long lasting if cared for
- Won't work when wet – moisture makes it clump together and lose virtually all of its insulating properties, plus a serious soaking can damage the jacket for good
- Difficult to care for – needs specialist or very careful cleaning in order not to damage the feathers
With new technologies like Berghaus' Hydrodown™, the down itself is treated with a water repellent coating. This doesn't mean it will still work when completely soaked; it's more to do with recovery. Hydrophobic down will dry quicker, regaining its insulating properties, and it won't absorb nearly as much water, so it will retain its warmth better than regular down when wet.
Why not just have down with a waterproof membrane on top?
A non-waterproof layer is always going to be more breathable than a waterproof membrane, and down needs to be able to breathe. Basically with a waterproof membrane you would get very hot, forcing you to open up the jacket to vent, then you'd cool down too quickly and end up repeating this process all day. Also down is designed primarily for snowy conditions rather than heavy showers, where by and large it will do its job.
- Retains insulating properties even when wet
- Dries quickly
- Generally cheaper
- Easy to care for and can be machine washed
- Highly compressible
- Can't match the warmth of down in extreme conditions
- Heavier – requires more weight to get the same level of warmth
- Will wear down over time
There are many kinds of synthetic insulation, but two prime examples are Thinsulate™ and Primaloft®. Thinsulate™ is the original warmth without weight fabric, and provides insulation in a range of sportswear an outdoor wear including fleeces, hats and gloves. It performs when wet, resists water and is highly breathable.
Primaloft® is a relatively new innovation, and has been hailed as the best synthetic alternative to down. Its wet performance is outstanding and retains 96% of its insulation power. It's also extremely hard wearing and compressible. The North Face's ThermoBall™ is the latest Primaloft® innovation, and uses small clusters of fibre to create numerous tiny air pockets that trap air to provide pretty impressive warmth for synthetic down, equivalent to the 600 fill power of goose down.
With down being essentially an animal product, there are ethical concerns. Particularly with the live-plucking process, and the issue of birds being force fed prior to plucking. Most of the major brands have begun to address this issue, with Mountain Equipment setting up the International Down and Feather Laboratory (IDFL) to monitor all aspects of production. Berghaus now adhere to the processes outlined by Mountain Equipment and state that "All the down we use is a by-product of the food industry. It is not the result of live plucking, and does not come from geese that have been force-fed".
600 fill power will be warm enough for any conditions you'll encounter in the UK, so you only need to go higher if you're heading to Scandinavian or Arctic climes. With this in mind a high end synthetic jacket should do the trick in the UK, plus it'll work when wet and is much easier to look after.
If you do go for down (and it is still the best choice for extreme cold) you must look after it, and the old tricks still work. After use put in a tumble dryer on a low setting with a tennis ball- this will even out any clumps of feathers and help regain its loft and maintain its insulating properties. Also, never store down in a compressed state, as this will crush the feathers and destroy its ability to loft.
Gilets are a great option when it's cold and dry and you don't want the bulk of a full fleece or down jacket. The sleeveless design gives you a full range of movement, and you'll retain core body warmth. They are also great as part of a layering system- wear over a shirt or fleece or under a waterproof shell. Gilets tend to be either fleece or insulated/down. Down has a better warmth-to-weight ratio than fleece so will be the best option in extreme cold. It's also highly compressible so it can be packed away easily in your rucksack.
The North Face Nuptse is a classic example of a down gilet and has become an icon of the outdoors; it also looks great in a casual setting.
Lightweight Packable Jackets
Perfect when you need a waterproof to carry in your rucksack on trail walks or day trips, these jackets will pack away either in to their own pocket or in to an accompanying stuff sack. Some down/insulated jackets can also be packable due to their high compressibility. These are a great option for active mountain treks where over the course of the day (or weeks and months!) the temperatures can change dramatically, and you may need to throw on an insulating layer.
With packaways, the lighter they are the better. You want it to take up the least weight and size in your pack as possible. GORE-TEX®'s Paclite is a great example; it still uses a membrane but remains incredibly light, exceptionally breathable and waterproof.
Softshell is perfect if you want a versatile, warm and lightweight layer to protect when it's cold with a chance of light showers. Made from polyester fleece with a water repellent outer layer, they're perfect for active outdoor use, as the stretchy fabric allows a full range of movement. The smart finish of softshell jackets means they also look great for casual use, and can be ideal as a day-to-day autumn/winter jacket.
A top softshell can be the ideal solution in most conditions if you want to keep weight to a minimum- it'll keep you warm and dry without slowing you down, but look for a windproof option such as WINDSTOPPER® if you're wearing as a standalone piece.
Parkas are essentially the ultimate winter jacket. Heavy, insulated and often with a waterproof outer in the higher end options, you'll be completely snug all season, and they are the ideal choice in extreme cold or in some cases Arctic conditions. Parkas are identified by a fur or faux fur lining on the hood, and are often great as a casual winter jacket because of the twill or shell finish of the outer fabric. A parka is the perfect option when you find yourself stood still for long periods of time in cold or extreme cold.
Keep an eye on the spec, a parka might look really warm and snug, but you need some serious insulation to keep you warm when it's below freezing. As with the down jackets look for 600 fill power or equivalent for use in the UK, or go higher for sub-zero temperatures.