Outside Magazine, October 1998
When it comes to fending off crummy weather, the basic sartorial question has evolved considerably. Now that we've come to trust Gore-Tex, as well as other waterproof constructions and coatings, it's no longer "Will I stay dry?" Rather, the question we're left with is much more daunting: "What should I wear?"
And it's not just a matter of style. Jacket purveyors have diversified and are now offering a wide variety of raingear for a wide variety of tasks. We still have slicker-inspired jackets sealed in polyurethane (PU). They're absolutely watertight, and yet they're equally nonbreathable; if you move too much, you risk creating a rainstorm inside the garment. However, PU is inexpensive stuff that's perfect for spot use: jump-starting the truck in a downpour or sticking it out through a rain delay at a ball game. Then there's the classic storm shell, with its crinkly nylon skin, miniskirt-length cut, and waterproof-breathable innards. This design offers broad-ranging utility, the sort of thing for a long outing on a soggy day. Of course, you pay considerably for such performance. But if you don't want the backpacker look, the newest option is the streamlined, sophisticated work coat — just as waterproof-breathable as the storm shells, yet with an urbane aesthetic. Indeed, these models will protect you both in the hills and around town.
As you survey such jackets, it's wise to look for common traits: a roomy, stowable hood, sealed seams, and pull-cords at the hood, waist, and hem to tailor the fit. They're features you'll find in most of the ten jackets we tested.
The Impertech ($80) is the Platonic ideal of car-tire-changing apparel. The tough, rubbery coat makes lying on your back on slippery pavement and reaching around grimy shock absorbers as tolerable as it can be. You get boy-in-the-bubble protection from rain, along with a surprising dash of comfort thanks to a brushed polyester liner that stretches. The fabric won't cause a racket if you're using it while casting a line in a drizzle. Once the storm passes, however, you'll be tying it around your waist: The small back vent doesn't stem the sweat tide, and unlike many lightweight shells, the Impertech won't stuff into either of its pockets.
Sierra Designs Backpacker's Cagoule
Wearing this blousy cagoule ($89) may make you feel like a kid prancing around in his big sister's nightgown, but the moment all atmospheric hell breaks loose, you'll be very appropriately dressed. Close the chest-length zipper and flip up the hood and you could stay dry in a raging nor'easter. Better yet, the below-the-knee length lets you plop down anywhere. And should the storm throttle back a notch, you can convert the cagoule into a loose-fitting anorak by folding the hem under and snapping it at the armpits. Neat. Come time to doff this dress, it stuffs into one of two waist-high pockets, compressing to no bigger than a Nerf football.
Mountain Hardwear Grade V Jacket
The Grade V is quite an unassuming performer. It's made of sweatbox-quality PU-coated nylon but provides superb air-conditioning by virtue of design trappings typically reserved for more serious outerwear — namely, armpit zippers and mesh-lined chest pockets. So while it's not technically waterproof-breathable, it is in fact both waterproof and breathable, all in a featherweight package. Hood and hem can be battened down with single-handed adjustments, particularly convenient if the other hand is clinging to a slippery handlebar grip. The Grade V even has a zippered interior pocket. If those bells and whistles don't ring loud enough — and for a meager $99, they should — the Grade V is also coated with a new polyetherurethane that won't disintegrate or mildew if it's stored damp.
Morph a Burberry's trench coat with a mountaineering parka and you have the Nevada ($199). It's deluge-ready, being endowed with Lowe's most sophisticated waterproof-breathable coating, Triplepoint Ceramic. Even without armpit zips, the supple Nevada remains comfortable during fieldwork. Snaps stand in for the typical hook-and-loop patches at the cuffs, which can be a drag when you're reaching up to secure bike to roof rack and rain streams down your forearms. The hood is the Lowe's only real misfire: Though it fits rather well, it also zips off entirely, and experience has shown that a removable hood is one that's inevitably back in the closet when it's pouring.
Marmot Appalachian Jacket
Thanks to full-bodied tailoring, just about anything fits under the Appalachian ($339). Pull it over a wool sweater or blazer and the smooth-gliding front zipper and double storm flaps keep you untouched by a sprinkle on a commuter train platform. And if you have to sprint for your train, the venerable Gore-Tex laminate provides heat buildup with an out, while the CoolMax lining disperses any lingering sweat. Then again, you need not run far to notice that the generous cut of the fabric can get in the way. The luxurious, polyester-lined collar can be gathered under the chin to scotch wind, though it feels like you're fitted with an NFL neck roll when it's stuffed with the hood.
Patagonia All-Time Shell
The All-Time ($350) is about finding beauty in austerity. This overcoat's "features" consist of slash pockets and a simple storm flap over the zipper. The shell is devoid of pull-cords, zippered pockets — even an exposed Patagonia label. What you do get is a stealth jacket of a dressy yet durable coarse nylon married to what is perhaps Patagonia's most notable innovation of late: a waterproof-breathable laminate that has some give. The roomy, hamstring-grazing topcoat has three huge interior pockets for a Mont Blanc, Filofax, or what have you, and that stretchiness means it won't hold you back from clearing any urban hurdle. Unfortunately, the hood is simplicity taken too far, an adjustmentless pillowcase of fabric that blows off in a gale.
The anaorak seemed to have gone the way of The Mary Tyler Moore Show: wildly popular in its prime, now relegated to reruns. That is, until REI championed a version that skirts the style's usual complaint — it's hard to put on — by extending the zipper well down the chest. You can slip the Switchback over a fleece jacket or helmet, yet it's still lighter and more pliable than a full-zippered model. And for $200, it's a Gore-Tex steal, with the only compromise being a baggy hood. Even so, it has nice touches like snaps instead of stiff hook-and-loop material on the armpit flaps and a kangaroo pouch with slash pockets on the side.
The North Face Thunder Bolt Jacket
The Thunder Bolt ($260) tries to be all things to all athletes, and it very nearly succeeds. A proprietary waterproof-breathable laminate, which is more the former than the latter, keeps the price modest. The ripstop nylon skin is pliable, and thoughtful details — such as armpit zippers with two sliders per side, five pockets that unzip from top to bottom to avoid spillage, and single-hand pull-cord adjusters — abound. It adds up to a lot, both in usefulness and, alas, ounces: The Thunder Bolt weighs nearly two pounds. But get past that and the related bulk and you have a shell that will survive anything the skies can throw at it.
Moonstone Momentum Ascent Parka
The Momentum Ascent ($310) is a classy coat with several notable and very likable quirks. It differs from the Gore-Tex shells above in that it's a three-ply construction, meaning that the sweat-wicking liner is bonded directly to the laminate, creating a stiff, spare design. It also weighs less than a pound and will stash easily into a lumbar pack. Pit zips that extend past the elbow render the Ascent hyperbreathable, while its zippered inside pouch, made of the same stretchy material used for girdles, cleverly keeps contents from jostling. One nitpick: When bushwhacking, the waist-length cut leaves your rear vulnerable to rain-laden shrubbery.
Arc'Teryx Beta LT Jacket
To the untrained eye, the Beta LT ($350) seems akin to the Ascent in that it features a light and strong three-ply Gore-Tex construction. But check out the innovative waterproof zippers on the pockets and armpits: Since they obviate the need for storm flaps, they reduce weight, lend easier access to the sliders, and give the jacket clean lines. Then there are craftsmanlike touches such as narrow seam-sealing tape, which further reduces weight because there's less material, and tight stitchwork that far exceeds the industry standard. Four single-hand adjustments hermetically seal the hood to your scalp. Lash the compactible shell to your CamelBak or bring it on your Appalachian Trail through-hike. However you use the jacket, learning that Arc'Teryx is located in soggy Vancouver shouldn't come as a surprise, necessity being what it is.
Andrew Tilin is a former senior editor of Outside.
Photographs by David Roth (top), Clay Ellis