Shopping for waterproof raincoats.

Shopping for waterproof raincoats.

Shopping for waterproof raincoats.

How to be the best consumer you can be.
July 11 2003 11:28 AM

Who'll Stop the Rain, and Yet Remain Breathable?

Shopping for waterproof raincoats.

Illustration by Keith Seidel

I've seen people swear by GORE-TEX like it's some kind of rainwear miracle. Yes, I know, in its day it was a fabric revolution. Waterproof and breathable, ooooooh. Never been done before, blah blah blah.

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

Please. That was 1976, people. You're still going all googly-eyed over expanded Teflon laminate membranes? Well, that's sad! Plenty of new waterproof/breathable options are out on the shelves these days.

To see if any of these newer fabrics could shatter the GORE-TEX monolith, I rounded up seven different raincoats with prices ranging from $5.00 to $199.99 and put them to the test. So, the next time you need a slicker, should you shell out for the often-pricier GORE-TEX, or can you count on something cheaper to keep the rain out?

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The Sink Test
One of Gore's big selling points (the company that makes GORE-TEX is called W.L. Gore and Associates, but we'll just call them Gore if that's OK with you) is its "Guaranteed To Keep You Dry" pledge, which promises that no liquid will ever, under any circumstances, penetrate the GORE-TEX membrane. This includes rain, to the point of soppage, and also prolonged contact with water—like if you lean against a soaking-wet park bench, or lie back in a mud puddle. To test this claim, I filled up my sink and then fully submerged one sleeve of the raincoat, making a "U" at its elbow to form a sleeve-tunnel. I held the sleeve under for several minutes, crinkling it up and stretching it at the seams, to see if any wetness would eventually penetrate. My GORE-TEX entrant (the L.L. Bean Double-L Rain Jacket) indeed held fast, admitting not a droplet.

OK, good job. But when I tried this same test with my six other brand new non-GORE-TEX raincoats (one each from The North Face, Marmot, Columbia, Lowe Alpine, and Pearl Izumi, with a $5 poncho thrown in for good measure), every single one performed equally well. Not one let in any dampness whatsoever. When a fabric doesn't let in water even when submerged for several minutes, that's waterproof enough for me, friend.

Of course, Gore would say that GORE-TEX is highly durable, and that these other fabrics lose waterproofosity over time, from dirt and wear. So, I also tried the sink test on my girlfriend's old North Face raincoat, which is a few years aged and has made it to Kashmir and back, with plenty of dirt and wear along the way. Guess what! This jacket passed the sink test with flying colors, just like all the others. Sorry, Gore.

In fact, I had to haul out my 15-year-old, beaten-up REI raincoat to find a leak of any kind. It let in water at the seams, where its ancient seam tape had broken down ("delammed," as they say in the biz, meaning delaminated) and no longer protected the stitch holes. Here's where Gore may have an argument: Gore requires very high standards of craftsmanship—wide and strong seam tape, shoulder stitching that holds up to the wear of backpack straps, and so on—before they'll license their name for a garment. This means when you see their logo you can count on high-quality construction. But remember, we're talking about stuff like seam tape here—not about a superior fabric, which is what most people seem to think they're getting when they buy GORE-TEX. The fact is that all these fabrics were 100 percent waterproof, from North Face's Hyvent to Columbia's Omni-Tech to the cheap plastic of the $5 poncho.

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The Jogging-in-My-Shower Test
For this test, I donned a bathing suit and a gray T-shirt (water shows up really well on it) and tried out each raincoat (hood up, zipper zipped, flaps flapped) while jogging in my shower, and frequently spinning around. The idea was to replicate hiking in a rainstorm, testing both waterproofosity and breathability. The result was that I slipped and nearly killed myself, and also that I caught a cold after showering for two hours straight. Additionally, I learned a few things about the raincoats.

For one, I do not like mesh pockets—I want my pockets to be solid, waterproof material like the rest of the coat. If you unzip mesh pockets to get something out of them, as I did in the shower, rain will pour right through to your clothes. That is moronic. I'd rather have rain collect in the pockets than next to my skin. Yet only the GORE-TEX L.L. Bean coat and the Lowe Alpine Atom Jacket had solid pockets.

Second, I do not like pit zips. Several of these coats have zippers at the armpits, which can be unzipped when it's dry outside for better ventilation. That's great, when it's dry … and I don't need a raincoat at all! When it's raining, pit zips are an avenue for leaks. Both the Lowe Alpine coat and the Marmot PreCip Jacket let in water through their pit zips, even when the pit zips were zipped.

I also demand double flaps to protect the main, center zipper of the coat. Most of these coats had double flaps, except, strangely, the GORE-TEX coat from L.L. Bean. Its single flap let in some water right through the center zipper. Inexcusable!

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Finally, one thing I absolutely do not want in a raincoat is a set of giant holes in the middle of its back. This seems not too much to ask, yes? Yet the Columbia Stormy Trails Jacket (cheap at $29.97, but not worth even that) has a bunch of giant holes all in a row along your shoulder blades. I think they're for ventilation, and a small flap protects them as long as you stand upright. But when I bent and reached down to the floor of the tub—as though I'd dropped something on the trail, such as a zip-lock bag full of dried apricots—water came streaming through these holes and instantly soaked my entire back. Unacceptable!

The Breathability Wars
Of course, the idea behind exercising in the shower was also to test for breathability. Frankly, waterproofing is the easy part. A garbage bag is waterproof. The trick is to be waterproof while letting air vapor through. Otherwise, your own body heat condenses in your raincoat, making it all clammy. ("The storm within," they say in the biz.) Some people even mistake this clamminess for a leaking jacket, when in fact it's just the jacket's failure to breathe.

Sadly, my own efforts were ill-suited to ranking breathability. From the vantage of my shower, it was hard to tell empirically if one breathed better than the next, or if I was just getting sweatier as I continued to exercise. So, I turned to an expert. Phil Gibson is a Materials Research Engineer for the U.S. Army Soldier Systems Center—in other words, he tests fabrics for Army uniforms. The Army currently uses GORE-TEX in its Extended Cold Weather Clothing System, or "Eckwacks", yet Gibson, like myself, is a GORE-TEX skeptic. He says the Army's long-term use of GORE-TEX mostly just stems from inertia.

According to Gibson's tests, GORE-TEX is only "in the middle of the pack" when it comes to breathability. It was the first waterproof/breathable fabric, and it has the big name, but it's not really any better than the rest. And here's why:

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In Gore's marketing pitch, the key component of GORE-TEX is a sheet of Teflon (that chemical coating on your frying pan) stretched out to form tiny pores that are big enough to allow air vapor to pass, but too small for water droplets to get through. Voila: waterproof, breathable. This membrane is then laminated to a regular fabric (like nylon). In pure form, expanded Teflon membranes are incredibly breathable. But there's a flaw. Sweat and oil that touch the membranes can act as a conduit to sneak water droplets through the pores. Thus, Gore is forced to cover its Teflon with a special coat of polyurethane, or PU, to protect it from sweat and oil. But now what's really keeping the water out is the PU (which is itself 100 percent waterproof), not the Teflon. The PU is breathable but far less breathable than the Teflon would be alone. In the end, the GORE-TEX membrane ends up doing nothing at all. It's just there so Gore can say it's there. Says Gibson, "I don't really see the point of the Teflon, but that's part of their patent. The Teflon is just a skeleton. The functional part is the PU." So, GORE-TEX is effectively no different than all the hundreds of other fabrics out there that use PU coatings, including those in nearly all my test raincoats. GORE-TEX is a scam!

One notable fabric—it's called eVENT, and I tested it in the Pearl Izumi Channel Jacket (my priciest model at $199.99)—uses expanded Teflon like GORE-TEX does, but its makers claim they've found a way around using a PU coating. They use some sort of complicated, proprietary treatment to make the Teflon itself oil-repellent. Gibson's lab tests bear this out—eVENT was the most breathable rainwear fabric out there. GORE-TEX was just average.

The Bureau-Chief's-Garden-Hose Test
My final test was to go to Slate's D.C. bureau chief's house and have him spray me with his garden hose from a height of about 15 feet. The idea was to replicate rainfall better than my shower could. I didn't learn much from being sprayed with torrents of freezing water, except perhaps that I am an idiot. The one thing I did notice was that the Lowe Alpine coat's neck opening was too big, causing it to droop out, catch falling water, and funnel it down my front. Big design flaw. Unless you are Bruce Banner and expect to become angered while out strolling on a drizzly day, you do not need a neck opening this big.

Final Analysis
My rankings, from worst to first:

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Last Place— Columbia Stormy Trails Jacket, with Omni-Tech fabric. (Click on the links to see pictures of the jackets.) $29.97 from Campmor.com. Great big holes in its back. Enough said. Original price is $75, which is absurd for this coat.

Sixth—$5.00 rain poncho. Essentially a clear garbage bag with a hood. Smelled like a garbage bag, too. Would do the trick in a pinch, though. Nice price.

Fifth Place—Lowe Alpine Atom Jacket, with Triplepoint Ceramic fabric. $99.50 from Paragon Sports. (It's sold out at Paragon now, but still available—at a much higher price— here.) Ugly, with a sort of black-rubber dungeon bondage look. Bulky. Overpriced. Pit zips leaked. Hulk neck. Otherwise, decent quality construction (meaning good seam tape, solid feel, decent features).

Fourth— Marmot PreCip Jacket,  with PreCip fabric. $79.98 from Campmor.com. More leaky pit zips. Mesh pockets. But otherwise acceptable.

Third— L.L. Bean Double L Rain Jacket, with GORE-TEX fabric. $99 from L.L. Bean. Admirably simple style, if somewhat dowdy. Just a single flap on the main zipper, which is a flaw. Otherwise, very solid construction. Looks like it would last a long time. But I credit L.L. Bean—not you, Gore!

Runner-Up— Pearl Izumi Channel Jacket,  with eVENT fabric. $199.99 from RaceLogix. This one uses the eVENT fabric, which tested best in the Army lab. It admitted no water whatsoever in my tests and has clean, attractive styling, with a sort of off-duty astronaut look. Much pricier, but you're paying for fantastic construction, with high-quality zippers and stitching. No hood because it's made for hardcore bicycling.

Champion— The North Face Venture Jacket, with Hyvent fabric. $59.97 from Campmor.com. Lightweight, easily packed (stuffs into its own pocket), well-constructed, no pit zips. Its only flaw is mesh pockets. A nice coat at a reasonable price, beating out the Pearl Izumi with superior value. And we have a winner.