These two articles first appeared in the Uncle Wacko’s Gear Corner column of Wanderlust, our ATC Club magazine, in November and December 2019 respectively.
They are repeated here as a potential tramping gear resource for NZ conditions.
Warning: Uncle Wacko has strong views and may challenge tramping assumptions and sensibilities!
Quick link to 2nd article:
A bit about rain jackets
Here’s a couple of things you need to know about buying a rain jacket.
‘Waterproof breathable materials' is an oxymoron
If you’re scratching your head over that one, let’s just say it’s bollocks. A contradiction in terms. Like an easy 1000m climb, a gentle gale force wind, a harmless avalanche.
Sure, waterproof materials can be a bit breathable, and breathable materials might keep out a bit of moisture. But if you want something to be waterproof, don’t expect it to breathe much. And if something breathes well, it’s not going to keep a decent downpour out.
The idea you can have a jacket that somehow keeps all the rain out and at the same time miraculously ships all your pent-up body heat to the outside is a massive con by the garment manufacturing industry. Don’t believe a word of it.
Sure, they might manage it in ideal conditions – just the right temperature, minimal exertion, easy terrain. A gentle winter stroll on a beach in your flashy Kathmandu urban wear, maybe.
But as soon as you chuck a pack on your back, get a sniff of a hill, up the pace, or start flailing about on a gnarly bush track, she’s a different story.
In practice the exertion of normal tramping will quickly overwhelm the breathability of a waterproof jacket.
A rain jacket isn't just about keeping rain out
If you think it is, big mistake!
Uncle Wacko’s mum used to say horses sweat, men perspire and women glow. Yeah right! Trampers are all horses, then.
Trampers sweat. Some not so much, others buckets. For us, managing sweat is a big deal.
Moisture isn’t the problem. Skin is waterproof, after all. We don’t bloat up like a puffer fish and start blobbing down the track when we get wet.
No, the tramper’s enemy is cold - that’s where we can get into strife.
Which means you need to think of your rain jacket as part of your system for not getting cold. And a sure fire way of getting cold is to retain moisture next to your skin in cold weather.
There are two aspects to avoiding that. Firstly not letting water in from the outside – so waterproof rainwear.
Secondly, moving sweat away from your body to the outside. That means using wicking base and mid layers to draw your sweat to the outer surface of those layers.
But it ain’t much use if your rain jacket then traps all that moisture inside the jacket. As you continue to sweat you’ll just get wetter and colder. Nek minnit you’ll be hypothermic, which won’t make your mum very happy.
So you don’t want your jacket acting like an iron lung or Fort Knox.
You need ventilation, and plenty of it. Uncle Wacko wouldn’t even consider buying a rain jacket without pit zips – ever! And he’s constantly amazed that otherwise good gear manufacturers keep churning out jackets without them (we’re looking at you Macpac – what are you trying to do, become a Kathmandu clone fashionista supplier!?)
You also want storm flaps over front and pocket zips. They’ll let you unzip for extra ventilation without letting the rain in.
Pit zips and storm flaps do add a bit of weight. But the extra control they give over your body temperature in the rain is way more important than a few extra grams.
And a final thing – don’t buy a jacket with a liner. Not unless you’re heading into genuinely cold temperatures. A liner just reduces the already minimal breathability of your jacket and makes you warmer and so sweat more. Use layers if you need more insulation.
So you want a 2.5 layer jacket, not 3 layer.
That’ll do for now. Next month, more pointers on buying a rain jacket that’ll do you proud in the back country.
The 3 biggest mistakes (mug) trampers make when buying a rain jacket
1. It's not actually (fully) waterproof
Driving rain will always get through a suspect jacket’s defences. You only need one small weakness, and she’s all over, rover – you’ll be soaked.
The problem is not all jackets touted as waterproof actually are. Here are the main problem areas.
Zips have to be laminated to be waterproof, but the coating wears off over time. So not having storm flaps is pretty daft – it’s just a matter of time before your jacket leaks.
But manufacturers often omit storm flaps to save weight. Some will even freely acknowledge the zips aren’t waterproof on their “fully waterproof” (but no storm flaps) jackets (Macpac!). Well what bloody use is that then!
Uncle Wacko reckons you’d be mad to fork out for a rain jacket without storm flaps over all zips - front and pockets. Besides, storm flaps give more venting options – a rather major consideration for any energetic (sweaty) tramper.
Seams join sections of fabric together, so have zillions of tiny needle holes that water will surge through if not sealed. So you’d kinda want all seams sealed, right?
BUT … some jackets are only seam-sealed at hood and shoulders, which manufacturers charmingly call “critical seam sealing”. It’s critical all right - you’ll end up soaked!
Check inside the jacket - you’ll see if it’s tape sealed. The tape is glued or heat-bonded over the seam so won’t peel off, and is a very effective seal.
But seams can also be welded and that’s not so easy to see. You’ll need to check the manufacturer’s description.
A loose-fitting hood will let water in, or worse a decent blow will whip it off your face and water will cascade down your torso. Nice!
You need a rear volume adjustment plus side cord adjusters to get a snug, secure fit around your noggin. Test the fit before buying.
And test that the hood really is waterproof! Uncle Wacko’s missus once bought a reputable brand jacket whose hood seams leaked like a sieve. You’d want to know about that before you’re out in the hills in a storm.
Test for waterproofness at home, first!
Hose your jacket down vigorously or string it up and fill it with water.
Make sure nothin’ gets through. Take a real close look at hood, sleeve seams and zips.
2. It's too warm
Trampers overheat in rain jackets, many of us big time. So you don’t want a jacket with a liner – unless you’re going into very cold temperatures. Use more layers if you need more warmth.
And you need effective venting options. That means pit zips, a full front zip and zipped pockets, all with storm flaps.
Now the best venting jacket Uncle Wacko’s ever had is a Paramo (English brand) with upper arm zips instead of pit (under arm) zips. They’re amazingly effective and way better than standard pit zips.
It’s a mystery why other manufacturers haven’t followed suit. Maybe they’ll catch on one day ...
3. Crappy hood
Your hood has to stay tight and snug in a howling gale. So effective rear and facial adjusters are a must.
But watch those facial cords – make sure you can get ‘em out of the way. Having them whip about in a blow and slice up your face ain’t much fun.
You’ll also want a peak to keep water out of your eyes – apparently it’s helpful being able to see where you’re going when tramping.
Having a decent hood is crucial for your tramping comfort. Check the fit works for you in the shop before parting with your dosh.
We could add a 4th mistake:
Uncle Wacko was on an ATC tramp once where a bit of a blow on the tops ripped the sleeve seam apart on some lightweight invention one of the party was wearing.
Best to stick with tried and trusted brands, eh.
That’ll do you for now. Spot ya.
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