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Gear Guy

What's the deal with waxed raincoats?

What's the deal with waxed cotton raincoats manufactured by Barbour in England and Filson in Seattle? Although they don't breath well and would not work for high output activities, I have run into users who rave about their water repellency and durability, tempting me to buy one for around town and short hikes carrying minimal loads. Steve Albany, New York

A: I have one of those "waxed" cotton rain jackets. Sharp-looking as I am when wearing it, the thing weighs about 17 pounds. I couldn't imagine wearing something like that on a hike. Plus, the stuff is wildly expensive—my Barbour Beaufort is $346 (OK, it was a Christmas gift, so shoot me). Filson's Cover Cloth Packer Coat, a relatively lightweight version of these jackets, goes for $295. And while it's a beautiful piece of clothing, it's not "active" wear. Fishing, horseback riding, cattle-branding, tooting around in an ATV, fine. Hiking up a trail? Forget it. Around town, though, these items are terrific. Better looking than the usual Gore-Tex stuff, extremely waterproof (if maintained properly, but that's another story), and breathable enough. They're also very durable—any one of them is essentially a lifetime investment. The "deal" on any of these garments is that they are treated with either wax or an oily substance to make them waterproof. The technique goes back more than 100 years, long before the advent of "modern" fabrics, of course. Oiled or waxed garments work great, but the waterproofing can wear off over time so needs to be re-applied by the user. It's not a huge chore; sort of like waxing a boot.

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