Q:

What’s the best three-season backpacking shell?

What is a good, moderately priced three-season shell for a big, sweaty backpacker? I got soaked to the bone this weekend and need to upgrade. Also, is it safe to wash backpacking clothes in unfiltered water? John Athens, Georgia

Rain Shadow Jacket     Photo: courtesy, Patagonia

Patagonia Rain Shadow Jacket

Rain Shadow Jacket

A:Well, if you’re indeed a big, sweaty backpacker—and I am trying VERY hard not to conjure a mental image—are you sure you got wet from the outside-in, or was it from the inside-out? Because even the best waterproof-breathable apparel, in the right conditions, can leave you plenty damp and sweaty. But, I know it was raining in your part of the world about the time you got soaked, so I’ll assume your jacket leaked. There are lots of good choices out there, and there’s no real reason to spend a ton of money.

Pretty much the gold standard in well-priced rainwear is Marmot’s PreCip Jacket ($99; www.marmot.com), which completely subverted an outerwear market that was getting rather out of hand with $499 jackets. It’s waterproof, offers reasonable breathability, and is loaded with user-friendly features such as a hood, armpit zippers, and storm flap. It’s not for a lot of grubbing around rocks, trees, and sand, but a good when-you-need-it jacket.

For something a little more luxe, Patagonia’s Rain Shadow Jacket ($149; www.patagonia.com) offers polyurethane-based waterproofing similar to that found on the PreCip, along with a sturdier outer shell (ripstop nylon), pit zips, and hood. It’s also pretty stylish, in case you want to wear it around Athens between trips.

Next up, you can get into Gore-Tex PacLite, a slightly pared-down version of regular Gore-Tex that saves weight and keeps you dry while cutting back a bit on durability. Outdoor Research’s Celestial Jacket ($249; www.outdoorresearch.com) is an excellent application of this fabric, with big side zips for ventilation, taped seams, and water-resistant zippers. For backpacking, it may be close to the ideal jacket, offering lightweight (only ten ounces) and serious weather protection.

Now, when you say “unfiltered water," you mean as in “unfiltered tap water"? Excessively hard water isn’t easy on any kind of fabric, but otherwise, sure. All gear makers run extensive washing tests on their stuff, subjecting most items to aggressive 25 to 30 wash cycles to test for durability and the resistance of the DWR (durable water repellent) coating to detergents. Use a touch of water softener if needed in your area, but DO NOT use an anti-static or softening product in the dryer. Those leave a waxy coating on clothing that can make it less breathable.

Check out this year’s more than 400 must-have gear items, including a comprehensive hiking section, in the 2006 Buyer’s Guide.

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