Anyone who enjoys spending some time outdoors has likely spent some time researching how well their gear will hold up to the elements and most importantly, water protection. Sometimes it can get pretty confusing reading and interpreting all the different labels. How can you sort the difference between waterproof and water-resistant, and does it even matter? The meaning of waterproof can change depending on what kind of object you are talking about, but on average it means that it will maintain peak performance when wet. Water-resistant generally means that it can handle some water for a little while, but will eventually fail. Most often these terms are thrown around with things like coats and packs. Their meanings change when you are talking about techs like phones and watches. The simple thing to know is waterproof beats water resistance. Let’s look at each of them more closely.
What Does Waterproof Mean?
Waterproof is a fairly contextual term. Most of the time we are thinking of it in relation to fabrics, coats, clothes, and packs. Waterproof means that water will not penetrate the outer fabric of the clothing or pack and keep the inner content, your body or belonging, dry. A waterproof product makes a huge difference when you are spending extended time outdoors. The trouble with marketing a product as “waterproof” is that there is no mandated industry standard for what that actually means. Each brand has their own standard of what is and is not “waterproof.” You can trust that if a well known brand like Patagonia or Columbia claims a product is waterproof, then it likely is. The industry is too large to say the same for everyone. High quality waterproof fabrics are expensive. If you see a supposedly waterproof product from a well known brand at an unbelievably low cost, it quite possibly could be fake. Be wary of people trying to scam you with recognizable brands and qualities. Good waterproof fabrics aren’t cheap. Be sure to only purchase these products from a trusted source or retailer.
What About Waterproof Watches, Phones, Cameras, and Tech?
When a company claims that a phone or a watch or other piece of non-fabric related item is waterproof, they are making a claim about how well the product can tolerate water before being damaged. Nothing is truly 100% waterproof. At a certain depth or after a certain length of time, it is possible that any product will succumb to the water. Luckily, these types of products come with a clearly defined standardized scale. It is known as the Ingress Protection code, or IP scale. The scale classifies a device’s protection against dust and water, and sometimes additional factors. A device is tested and then assigned a rating based on performance. The rating usually consists of the letters “IP” then a number for dust protection and a number for water protection. Sometimes there is an additional letter indicating another specific protection. As an example, most recent Iphones have a rating of IP68. This means they reached a rating of 6 for dust protection and 8 for water protection. The table below specifies the qualifications for each level of protection surface enclosures provide against surface damage from solid foreign objects, such as skin and dust.
|X||–||X simply indicates that there is not enough tested data to make any conclusion|
|0||–||No protection against contact with foreign objects or the body|
|1||>50mm or 2 in.||Protected from large surfaces of the body, but you can still make contact deliberately|
|2||>12.5mm or .49 in.||Protection from fingers or similar objects|
|3||>2.5mm or .098 in.||Protection from thick wires and tools|
|4||>1mm or .039 in.||Most wires, smaller screws, and small bugs (ant sized)|
|5||Dust-protected||Dust is mostly kept out. A small amount may get through, but not enough to cause damage.|
|6||Dust-tight||No dust at all will enter|
Now let’s take a look at the second digit which has to do with a device’s water protection. Some of the testing details on these one’s can get pretty complicated so we’ll make it a bit simpler.
|Level||Protection Against||Effective Against||Test Details|
|X||–||–||Not enough data to make a rating|
|0||None||–||No protection against water|
|1||Dripping Water||Water drops falling down on the item when it is upright||Test runs for 10 minutes; about the same amount of water as 1mm of rain per minute|
|2||Dripping water when tilted at 15°||Same as level 2, but now the item is tilted 15° on its side||Same as level 1|
|3||Spraying water||Water sprayed on the item from various angles between 60° and vertical||Test runs for up to 10 minutes|
|4||Splashing of water||Water being splashed on the item from any angle||Test runs for 10 minutes|
|5||Water jets||Weak water jets shooting at the item from various angles||Test runs for at least 3 minutes|
|6||Powerful water jets||Strong water jets shooting at the item from any angle||Same as level 5|
|7||Immersion up to 1 meter or 3 ft 3 in. in depth||Total submersion in 1m deep water for a long period||Test runs for 30 minutes|
|8||Immersion greater than 1 meter||Total submersion in water deeper than the previous test (1m)||Submersion depth and testing time are up to the manufacturer.|
Now an important caveat to the above water ingress data is that once you surpass 6, the numbers are no longer cumulative. This means that if a device is rated with a 7, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is also rated for the 5 or 6, protection from jets. Usually manufacturers indicate a device that meets both by using a slash rating, like IPX5/IPX7. The scale does not apply to fabric products. It is specific to things like watches, phones, cameras, and other non-fabric items. Now that we’ve taken a close look at the term “waterproof” in relation to both fabric and tech, let’s examine the term “water resistant” and see how it holds up.
What Does Water Resistant Mean?
There are several phrases you might hear that all sorta come back to water resistance. They include “water resistant”, “water repellent” and “hydrophobic” just to name a few. Some brands might create their own buzzy sounding lingo, but really it means that the fabric will keep you or your belongings dryish for a little while. A product’s water resistant properties are generally dependent on the type of fabric it is made out of. Tighter knit fabrics like polyester and nylon offer greater water resistant than looser knit fabrics like cotton. These are natural properties that occur as a result of the tiny holes that exist between layers of fabric. Any fabric that has the ability to be tightly woven offers greater natural water resistance. This is why you don’t often find rain jackets made from fragile fabrics like cotton. The natural water resistance won’t last forever though. Eventually water will begin to seep through the layers of fabric depending on how much water is coming down.
What About Water Repellent?
Some products may be marketed as “water repellent.” This means that a special coating has been applied to the fabric in order to make it actually repel water, rather than absorb it as fabric tends to do naturally. Water repellent and hydrophobic are usually synonymous ways to say the same thing. You’ll notice on water repellent materials that water tends to bead up in small drops and roll off the fabric. Sometimes you’ll see a label that says the product has been treated with DWR, which stands for durable water repellent. All this means is that the fabric has been treated with this coating to keep water from soaking in the fabric. An important note about water repellent surfaces is that eventually the coating will dissipate and become less effective. Much like how surfaces erode over time due to exposure, the coating will also wither away over time and use. If you feel it has worn off, you can have the material professionally re-treated or use a spray on or wash in treatment.
How Does Waterproof Rain Gear Work?
The technology of rain gear has exploded over the last few decades. There are countless different designs and processes for creating waterproof gear, but one of the most popular and well known is “GORE-TEX.” Lots of people may use GORE-TEX interchangeably with waterproof even if that isn’t actually the tech making the rain gear waterproof. Waterproof rain gear first came about in the 1970s with the introduction of the GORE-TEX jacket. Since it was the first successful waterproof rain jacket, it is often referenced for any waterproof garment. We talked a little about water repellent coatings above, but let’s take a closer look at how waterproof garments and packs actually work. It is important that a waterproof garment also be breathable. A garbage bag could be considered waterproof if you put it over your body, but you’ll also find yourself overheated and uncomfortable extremely quickly. The ability to make a garment waterproof and breathable was a game-changer for rain gear. Waterproof garments usually make use of either a laminate or a coating or some combination of those two things.
What is a Laminate Constructed Garment?
If your rain gear is constructed with laminate technology then that means a waterproof/breathable membrane is bonded to the underside of the garment. The outer shell is usually made of a naturally water resistant fabric and then the inner membrane acts as a non-permeable shield from the water that eventually soaks through the exterior. Laminate constructions are considered highly durable and are generally rated for higher performance garments. These are generally more expensive than the coating construction counterparts.
What is a Coating Constructed Garment?
Rain gear constructed with a waterproof/breathable coating involves a film like coating being spread across the inner surface of the exterior shell fabric. These coated constructions are considerably lighter than the laminate constructions, but are also generally less protective. For more casual use, a coated construction garment should be sufficient.
What Does Multi-Layer Technology Mean For Waterproofing?
When you are looking at lots of waterproof gear, you’ll see a lot of articles branded with the number of layers of protection the garment has. The laminate and coating layers are thin by design so these articles usually offer extra layers to protect against things like cold, wind, and dirt. Most companies tend to boast either 2-layer, 2.5 layer, or 3-layer protection. These all sound really great, but understanding what exactly each layer does for you can be tough to follow.
- 2-Layer Protection: These are less expensive, casual use jackets that sport an outer shell and an inner membrane. A hanging liner then protects the inner membrane from abrasion, thus adding weight.
- 2.5-Layer Protection: A half a layer sounds like an impossibility. The 2.5-layer jacket is effectively the same as the 2-layer described above, but with an ultra-thin veneer, the coating applied to the inner membrane for extra protection. This veneer is the “half” layer. The veneer also limits the breathability performance of the jacket but improves the water protection.
- 3-Layer Protection: The 3-layer jacket is the highest performance protection and is also generally the most expensive. It begins with the same 2-layer construction described above but then replaces the hanging liner with a third fabric layer bonded to the inner membrane. This inner fabric is usually lighter than the hanging liners and allows these jackets to be lighter than the 2-layers while offering peak protection.
Lots of companies have designed and named their own water protection system, like GORE-TEX. Seeing “GORE-TEX” doesn’t necessarily indicate how many layers of protection the garment provides. You’ll need to look closely at each individual product to determine if it is 2, 3, or 2.5 layers. Product specifications on REI.com are usually very informative regarding a product’s constriction and protection. But simply, more layers equals more protection.
What Are Some Other Important Waterproofing Features On Outdoor Gear?
The layers and design of the jacket or pack are of primary importance, but there are even still other important things to consider when you are looking for rain gear. Waterproofing technology has extended its reach into zippers, seams, pockets, hoods, and more. Let’s take a quick look at each of these features and how they can be “waterproof.”
A top notch piece of outerwear is usually packed with zippers to carry your myriad of items. It is important that you can trust these pocketed items to remain dry while in these zipped compartments and pockets. To keep water from seeping through zippers, manufacturers use either a rubberized coating or a storm flap. The coated zippers are more difficult to zip up and down due to the rubberized coating, but they are lightweight than the alternative. These laminate zippers still have a small flap or hood towards the end of the zipper to help seal it completely. But just like the coating on water repellent gear, the coating on these zippers will eventually wear out.
A Well Designed Hood
Obviously you expect a rain jacket to have a hood. But the difference between a casual hood and a serious hood can really change your experience. Higher performance rain gear usually features a hood with a wide brim, adjustable drawstrings on the side and back, and sometimes even a zippered pocket to stow the hood when not in use.
Ventilation for Lighter Wear
Waterproof materials can get heavy and bulky. This is why they are often designed with a lot of attention towards breathability. Higher performance gear usually features vents to improve the breathability. Sometimes these vents are in the armpits and mesh liners in pockets can double as ventilation.
Drawstrings and Adjustable Edges To Keep Weather Out
Lots of jackets feature drawstrings at the waist or bottom hem and wrists some sort of closure at the wrist. This allows you to tighten up the edges of your jacket and really seal out the wind and water while you are trekking across the trail or cruising through the city.
Can You Pack It?
Lots of manufacturers specifically design rain gear with packability in mind. A big heavy rain jacket is tough to shove in a backpack so many are designed to make this easier. Some even go as far as designing a stuff sack into the jacket itself. This allows you to fully stuff the jacket inside itself in a much easier to transport pouch.
How Long Will the Waterproofing Last?
An often overlooked detail of waterproof clothing is that some waterproofing methods are more durable than others. Fabric that has been sprayed with a waterproof coating, for example, will eventually lose waterproofing in areas of high friction such as the armpits and knees. Fabric that is naturally water-resistant or waterproof is the most durable.
What Are Some Of The Best Rain Jackets?
Finding the right rain jacket for you will largely depend on your intended use. It is definitely something worth owning. But the difference between owning a rain jacket for average use in the city vs. owning a rain jacket for living on the trail for a few weeks is pretty sizable. Let’s look at a few great rain jackets for whatever lifestyle you lead.
The Best Rain Jacket For Hiking
The Mountain Hardware Exposure/2 GORE-TEX PACLITE Stretch is a great choice for someone who enjoys a good day hike. It’s lightweight, 2.5 layer construction is perfect for someone who wants solid protection without having to worry about taking up too much space. It also features a drop tail hem, which means the back is longer than the front to keep your backside dry.
The Best Lightweight Rain Jacket
The Outdoor Research Helium jacket is perfect for anyone concerned with weight. This jacket weighs just about six ounces, depending on if it is the men’s or women’s style. It can pack down super small and be a great emergency option if you are going out and don’t think you’ll need a rain jacket, but want to be prepared just in case.
The Best High Performance Rain Jacket
For the serious adventurer out there, you can’t beat the Arc’teryx Beta AR Jacket. This jacket has everything you need to withstand the elements. It is 3-layer GORE-TEX protection and it is also designed to withstand rips and tears. It is definitely the most expensive on out list, but it doesn’t get much better than this.
The Best Everyday Value Rain Jacket
If you are in the market for a rain jacket and want something a little better than basic, but don’t want to break the bank then the REI Co-op XeroDry GTX Jacket is a perfect choice for you. This 2-layer waterproof jacket is modestly priced, but still features many of the ideal qualities and features of a premium rain jacket.
The Best Rain Jacket Under $100
A quality rain jacket generally costs more than $100 at standard retail price. However, the REI Co-op Rainier Rain Jacket comes in slightly under $100 and doesn’t sacrifice quality. It isn’t the highest performance rain jacket out there, but it is consistently a best seller. It features many of the things we’ve talked about before, but certainly isn’t intended for high intensity regular use.
What Are Some High Quality Waterproof Backpacks?
There is nothing worse than opening a backpack to find all of your belongings soggy or worse, soaked. There seem to be tons of options for waterproof backpacks, but sometimes it can be hard to trust them. You could always invest in a rain cover to cover your standard pack and keep it safe, but if you are looking for a pack that does it all, check out some of these options.
Patagonia Stormfront Backpack
Patagonia is a thoroughly trusted name in outdoor gear and you can trust the Patagonia Stormfront Backpack to keep all your belongings dry no matter how rough the weather gets. This 28 L bag is perfectly designed for fishers or other folks who spend time on the water. Even if the bag is submerged, the inside will remain dry supposedly.
The Yeti Panga Backpack
This 28 L backpack made by popular cooler maker Yeti is guaranteed to keep water out. The airtight closure and comfortable backpack design make for a trusted piece of gear to weather any storm. The shell is also puncture and abrasion-resistant to ensure that no holes or leaks appear in the pack.
The FE Active Cloudbreak Drybag
Drybags are a popular option if you need something that is really waterproof. They are typically designed for water activities, like boating or fishing, but there’s no reason you couldn’t use one like this model from FE Active. It won’t feature quite as many cool closures and space as the backpacks above, but if you just want to keep a few things dry, it is a great choice.
RAINS Waterproof Drawstring Bag
If you don’t plan on braving the elements but still want a cute waterproof bag, check out this drawstring bag made by RAINS. This small pack is perfect for city commutes or campus crossings. Keep your personal belongings and electronics safe as you take your chances with the weather.
Does The Difference Between Waterproof and Water Resistant Matter?
It absolutely does. While water resistant may be appealing marketing, it is crucial to remember that it will only offer slight protection against potential soaking. Depending on how much water you are facing and for how long, this water resistance quickly becomes obsolete, particularly in heavy sustained rainfall. Waterproof materials are more expensive, but also consistently more reliable for the unpredictable nature of life. It also makes a world of difference in your technology. It wasn’t too long ago that dropping a cell phone in water meant game over for the device.
Thankfully, advances in technology have allowed us more confidence and security with our very expensive cell phones and other devices. Just remember that not all phones are waterproof now. In fact, if your cell phone features a 3.5mm headphone jack, then it is likely only water resistant. This particular input jack is usually what keeps devices from being waterproof. There is no way to include it and allow the device to be submerged in water since water will flood that port. This problem doesn’t apply to all ports though, which is why you can still have the charging port on a waterproof phone.
All in all, you have the best understanding of what activities you will be engaging in and what sort of protection you may need. We encourage you to check out some of the products listed, but also take your time and do your research. Maybe you’ll find a great deal on some high end waterproof gear or maybe you’ll find a piece that is perfect for your personal needs.
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