To answer this question, I turned to our Summer Buyer's Guide jacket tester Ryan Stuart. He lives and recreates on Vancouver Island (where they measure rainfall in feet every spring), and he spends about 70 days a year in the wet testing the newest rain jackets for Outside.
Before buying a spring or summer rain shell, you have to think about your budget. Also determine how you plan to use the jacket. "That'll dictate what features you're going to look for and where in the technology spectrum you’re going to end up,” says Stuart. For example, pockets are nice for a do-it-all shell, but unnecessary in a jacket you’re only going to run in.
Breathability is key, too, and thankfully the number of good breathable fabrics is growing. "For a long time Gore-Tex was the gold standard and everything else was far beneath it. It’s definitely a much more level playing field now," Stuart says. In fact, it can be hard to tell the difference between the high-end membranes—they’re all pretty darn good.
The bottom line? Don't get bogged down in the membrane tech stories (unless you just enjoy it, like me). Focus instead on the design features that will serve your purposes within your price range. With that said, here are four shells that stood out from the dozens Stuart tested this year.
Patagonia Leashless Jacket ($399)
On the high end of the price spectrum, there’s the Patagonia Leashless Jacket, which Stuart loved. This alpine jacket, ideal for mountain adventures you can do in one day, uses stretchy Gore Active Shell. The pit zips are a key design detail that Stuart appreciated on hot days, and Patagonia still managed to keep the weight down to just 13.1 ounces in spite of the zips. "It's a wicked bomber jacket," Stuart says.
Marmot Essence ($200)
While breathability differences between high-end jackets can be incredibly subtle, Stuart says the Marmot Essence stands out thanks to its NanoPro MemBrain fabric. "It’s got some funky venting going on," Stuart says. "They sort of just drilled holes in the armpits that actually work really well. You notice it disperses more heat through there." The venting worked so well, Stuart didn’t have to take the jacket off while mountain biking uphill on a 60-degree day.
Mountain Hardwear Hyaction ($350)
The Mountain Hardwear Hyaction doesn't have pit zips, but it still moves moisture efficiently thanks to its air permeability. "It’s slightly porous, which allows some air to come in and draw some of the moisture with it as it goes through the membrane," Stuart says. Instead of traditional wrist closures, the Hyaction has a fabric cuff with a waterproof section around it that Stuart says integrates well with gloves.
L.L. Bean NeoShell Bounder ($300)
Stuart said the L.L. Bean NeoShell Bounder jacket is a great option for the price: jackets cut from NeoShell fabric are usually considerably more expensive. "It's a backpacking-style jacket with good breathability that’s nice all-around," Stuart said.