Did you ever wander into an outerwear section and felt like you were lost in a wilderness of nylon and polyester? Understanding some key terms and the basics of rainwear technology will help you navigate to the jacket that keeps you dry - and the one that fits your budget.
Any jacket offers some level of water resistance. Understanding terminology will help you determine what degree of protection a specific jacket has.
We call a jacket "waterproof" when its water resistance is sufficient to keep out driving rain. Though companies disagree on test standards, you can trust that any gear that a major brand designates as "waterproof" can stand up to a serious squall.
Waterproof/breathable: This type of performance rainwear keeps rain from getting through to your skin, while also moving sweat back through to the outside world. If you're planning any activity that gets limbs and lungs pumping, this is your kind of gear because both precipitation and perspiration can soak you.
Water-resistant: Also breathable, this is gear that can handle light rain for a brief time-windbreakers and featherweight jackets, for example. If precipitation lingers or starts coming down sideways, these won't be up to the task.
Waterproof/nonbreathable: Think rain slicker or emergency poncho. If you simply need to keep the rain out while sitting or standing around, this gear does just fine-and costs very little money. If you do any exertion, though, your rain slicker will be slick inside, too. And it won't take much wind to make a poncho largely ineffective.
Just as "water-resistant" relates to "waterproof," "wind-resistant" becomes "windproof" when test results exceed an established threshold.
Windproof: Any waterproof jacket is also windproof. That makes sense when you consider that a barrier designed to block driving rain would also block the wind that's pushing the rain. You will also find jackets with windproof technology, typically some type of laminate, that are only considered water-resistant.
Wind-resistant: Essentially the same as a water-resistant jacket, this is often an ultralight garment that easily stuffs into a pocket. Made for short trips and optimistic forecasts, it won't offer much protection in a full-fledged storm.
Though often used interchangeably with the word "jacket," "shell" can also refer to pants, parkas and ponchos. It's a word that focuses on the fabric makeup more than the garment style. Becoming familiar with the following types of shells will help as you consider your weather-protection choices.
Hard shell: This is an alternative term for waterproof/breathable gear. As you might imagine, fabrics in most hard shells are generally stiffer than those in soft shells, though more supple hard-shell fabrics are being developed. Hard shells aren't insulated, so your warmth will come from an underlying base layer and midlayer.
Soft shell: The classic version integrates an insulating layer with a water-resistant shell. The goal is to have a single piece serving as both midlayer and outer layer. The tradeoff is greater breathability for lesser protection from rain, wind and cold. Soft shells are best for high-exertion activities, where perspiration is the greater concern.
Evolving designs make the soft-shell category a little fuzzy. Many soft shells also have excellent flexibility, a feature that's somewhat rare in a hard shell.
Hybrid shell: This term gets applied to a variety of constructions. In a soft/hard-shell combo, more waterproof and windproof fabrics might be on the front and top, while more breathable, flexible fabric is on the sides, back and underneath sleeves. Or you might find a traditional soft or hard shell with a more durable fabric on its outer face or in high-wear areas.
Insulated shell: Typically filled with down or synthetic fill for warmth, most puffy jackets are also water-resistant and breathable. If the jacket has a waterproof/breathable fabric, then you enjoy an elevated level of protection. It has to be seam-sealed, though, to be considered fully waterproof.