Hiking rain gear comes in a variety of shapes and styles of water-resistant and breathable material with soft or hard shells. Which is right depends on a variety of factors.
Alongside the gear, your approach to hiking can help determine just how dry (or not!) you stay, so we look at some tips later.
First we will look at jackets, before a quick look at the main features for pants, boots, and packs.
Let's start with the jackets
What is the difference between a hardshell jacket and a softshell jacket
One of the most confusing terms are "hard shell" and "soft shell" when people talk about jackets.
Traditionally a hard shell was firm to the touch, good at keeping you dry and usually windproof too. However, they were not considered as breathable or flexible, so making them less nice to wear overall.
On the other hand, a softshell and most people think of a warm, flexible shell that breathes well and moves with them, but is nowhere near as weatherproof either with rain or wind.
However these days new fabrics and coatings have blurred the lines considerably. There are now are fully waterproof jackets that look and feel like soft shells and there are hybrid jackets that meld waterproof materials with soft shells to combine the best features of both.
This all means that where you once had a pretty binary choice, these days there are countless shades of grey between the two extremes.
In terms of choice, this is excellent news, however, it also means it can be a touch bewildering!
As mentioned, the simplest definition of a hardshell jacket is a slightly rigid jacket that is waterproof and usually windproof. This covers a lot of ground in terms of products and the types of fabrics used to manufacture them.
At the lower end they are manufactured from Silnylon or even PVC, right through to more breathable fabrics like Gore-tex and eVent. They are primarily designed to keep you dry in rain, hardshell jackets tend to be cut longer and generally feature hoods.
However their ability to keep you warm or cool is down to the layers you wear underneath them.
In cold weather you will need warm layers under the shell, as the outer shell is unlikely to insulate you well. However, despite the shell manufacturer’s breathability claims, if you are wearing too many warm layers, you will probably get wet under the shell from your own sweat!
The better designs generally have pit zips and torso zips to allow more moisture to escape, but their ability to do so is reliant on the layering system you wear underneath, outside temperature and humidity, and how much energy you are expending.
Overall hardshell jackets are probably the most versatile jacket for winter wear. With the right layering, you can use the same hard shell all-year-round which can make them a very cost-effective choice.
The biggest advantage a softshell has over a hardshell is its superior ability to regulate body heat during high-output activities. The latest generation not only effectively blocks wind and cold air but also keeps you dry by wicking sweat from your lower layers to the outside where it can evaporate off.
Most softshells behave quite a lot like fleece, but the newer materials give them better water and wind resistance. This means that you will have much less need to take off and put on different layers as your body temperature changes.
You will also find that more softshell jackets are more form-fitting due to the high elasticity of the fabric used. This makes them especially good for trail running, skiing and climbing.
Most softshell jackets are not waterproof but water-resistant due to a DWR (Durable Water Repellent) coating. The DWR coating causes rain to bead up and roll off the fabric, while not inhibiting the breathability.
For light rain or snow, a softshell with this treatment is a viable option. However, the DWR coating can wear off pretty quickly in high-wear areas like the shoulders.
Mmany manufacturers say that you can reactivate the DWR treatment by carefully using an iron on the fabric, while others recommend special waterproofing products.
Membrane and Hybrid Jackets
More recently manufacturers have begun to introduce hybrid jackets. These make use of a waterproof outer membrane to a softshell. These membranes are, like the jacket’s upper and lining, elastic and hence better for your mobility than hard shells.
However, the membrane inhibits the breathability, causing it to lose its biggest advantage over the hardshell. You will also find it harder to layer up/down due to the more body-hugging nature of the softshell material.
I know several people that really like these over hard shells for bad weather, so it really is a case of your preference. Just make sure the seams are sealed and that it has the selection of zips and vents you would expect to see on a hardshell (don't be fooled by people telling you that they do not need them!)
Layer Up - Clothing is a System
It is not simply a case of thinking hard or soft. You also need to consider the other layers you have/will want to wear.
It is not until you put them all on together that you get to know how they work. You may find that you get too hot and sweaty with a hard shell or a softshell does not keep you dry enough. It is important that you think of them as an integrated clothing system.
For heavy winter hikes you may carry a hardshell jacket with a mid-layer fleece and a base-layer, with a puffy outer insulation shell to wear over it when you are stationary.
Now, if you get a softshell jacket, you should ask yourself whether it will eliminate one of these layers or mean you need a completely different set of layers! The same goes in reverse or if you switch from a waterproof softshell to a more breathable one.
So rather than just saying "I like that jacket, I'll get one..." take a step back and think about the weather conditions you need it to perform in. You may never need the heavy-duty rain protection of a hard-shell, or simply need the mobility of a softshell. On the other hand, warmth and dryness may be the priority, in which case hard shells become a much more likely choice.
Both hard shells and soft shells have their place in hiking, but it is a far more important decision-making process than just picking one type of jacket over another.
Any hiking rain gear in water-resistant/breathable materials should still offer comfort in a variety of climate conditions.
In addition to protecting against rainfall, the rain gear should retain comfort on the trails with the proper use of vents and make sure the rain-wear is still pleasant in changeable temperature and humidity.
Rain-wear for the hiking trails must have a certain degree of strength and durability to handle the difficult environment and a high chance of snagging on trees and bushes.
Outer fabrics like polyester and nylon come in a variety of deniers or weights. A prefer weight for the hiking rain gear can range from the wispy 15-Denier to the burly 450-denier.
A preferred rate is usually in the region of 70-denier, which has at least 3 layers and more than enough strength for wilderness off-trail, scrambling, or climbing.
But, if wishing to travel as light as possible, it might benefit to invest in a lightweight jacket for milder climates, especially in areas that aren't likely to provide a drenching.
Similar to any other rain-wear the dedicated hiking rain gear can vary significantly in relation to design and style. But, the preferred rain gear is easy to pack, low weight, and doesn't interfere with a daypack, fanny pack, backpack, etc.
Outwear for the hiking trails is different from the urban kit because these are less concerned with weight and pockets.
Hiking rain gear at the top of the line includes exceptional detailing, meticulous seam-taping, breathable and water-resistant laminate, and even awning to protect the zipper heads.
A low-cost hiking jacket is manufactured with a breathable/water-resistant coating with a loose cut. This material is less effective than the laminates at maintaining watertight protection.
But, the coat hiking rain gear is still a viable option for the low key activities for those who require something easy and light to pack.
While there are instances when there is a clear cut choice of a hard shell or a softshell, much of the choice is down to personal preference. Yes, heavy rainfall can cause issues for a softshell jacket, the additional wicking comfort of a softshell may outweigh this if you rarely hike in high rainfall.
The developments in material technology and coatings has narrowed the gap in performance and now mean that the range of choice is much wider. While it can be a little intimidating, this is very much a good thing. If you sit down and look at exactly what type of hiker you are, you will almost certainly find a good waterproof layer for your needs.
Once concern with hiking rain gear is the ability to retain its rain-worthy properties. Many of the fabrics for rain-wear can start to lose its water-shedding coating, so proper care is necessary to maximize this.