How Can You Tell If a Jacket Is Waterproof?

how can you tell if a jacket is waterproof?Across our journeys, my wife and I have experienced the failure of tents, hiking shoes, and jackets that we assumed to be waterproof. I’ve learned that just because the surface repels a drop of water, is from a notable brand, and has an expensive price tag, the product is not necessarily waterproof.

When traveling, I have often brought along a $5.00 plastic raincoat that fits in a small carry ball attached to my belt. Sure, it’s effectively a big plastic bag, but it’s light and effectively waterproof. 

Fortunately for all of us, there are several easy clues that we can use to determine whether or not an item of outerwear, like a jacket, is waterproof. Continue 

Waterproof vs. Water-Resistant

Firstly, waterproof and water-resistant are not the same thing. When I’m looking for a comfortable and reliable jacket to use in rainy or snowy conditions, I need to determine whether the jacket is waterproof or water-resistant. 

But What’s the Difference? 

When a jacket is said to be water-resistant, it’s only able to repel water up to a certain point. A bit of drizzle, dew, hail, or dense fog is okay, but it won’t protect or keep me dry under heavy rain or snow (or when I get splashed by a car while riding my bike).

When something is waterproof, it means that it doesn’t allow any liquid to pass through it. I could put the jacket on, go for a walk under heavy rain, and, provided it has a hood, I won’t get wet.     

Water-resistant jackets will often have a durable water repellent (DWR) finish applied to its outer layer. This layer will repel moisture and keep me dry in light rain or snow. A waterproof jacket will have a breathable membrane or laminate (such as GORE-TEX®) to shield against water.

It is here that the clue of pricing can be of assistance. You probably already know this, but when it comes to outdoor, wilderness, or survival jackets, the price will often determine the quality. Sure, my $5 raincoat is indeed waterproof and a terrific reserve raincoat, or to store in the glove box for emergencies. However, it’s cheap quality limits it to 1 or 2 occasions of use.        

Can Any Breathable Jacket Actually Be “Waterproof”?

The answer is no. Only non-breathable jacket membranes will provide adequate and consistent waterproofing. Over enough time, all breathable outerwear that is designed for outdoor use will eventually leak if worn under enough heavy rain, and enough water pressure.

So, when I need to guarantee dryness in very wet or blizzard-like conditions, I would be forced to choose a jacket made of a non-porous outer material such as plastic or rubber. However, as non-porous materials are not breathable, my body will quickly sweat, making the use of such an item uncomfortable.  

How Is Waterproofing Measured?

Fabrics used for outerwear are tested with a ‘Static Column Test’ and given a score from 0-40K+ mm. A 1 square inch cylinder is placed over the fabric membrane and is filled with water. The material is rated based on the level on the cylinder that the water reaches before it leaks through the material (measured in millimeters).

If I’m only going for a short hike, or to stay dry around town on a cloudy day, I will take a jacket rated 0-1K. However, If I’m heading up for a hike in the mountains or into the ski fields with my board, I will take a jacket rated 20K-40K.

Waterproof Ratings Explained

The waterproof ratings of outerwear are determined by the density of the fabric pores. A pricey, warm and fashionable jacket made of wool, cashmere, mohair, or tweed is suitable for summer or autumn, but due to the size of their pores per square inch, they are only water-resistant at the very best. 

For spring or winter, I will always opt for something with a higher density fabric and a waterproof rating to ensure my dryness. GORE-TEX® is my go-to. The GORETEX® membrane contains 1,000,000s (yes, millions) of pores per square inch. When we consider that each of these is pores are 20,000 times smaller than a water droplet, I am more than confident of staying dry.      

Why Is My Jacket Not Always Waterproof/Resistant?

From personal experience, the seams of a jacket, (particularly under the arms to waist) can be the point of failure in cheaper jackets, especially if they are only critically taped. Quality waterproof outerwear can either be fully-taped (every seamed waterproof taped) or critically taped (taping only on neck, shoulders, and chest).  

You can check the taping by looking at the seams inside the jacket. If the seams are covered by a lining of tape, it will prevent any water or snow from getting in and will keep me warm and dry.     

Performance Technical Outerwear (PTO)

The manufacturers of performance technical outwear design and create their gear in laboratories, not in factories. What are their materials? Most of the major labels in PTO use either GORE-TEX® or a DWR (durable water repellent) coating. 

PTO consists of items such as hard-shell jackets, soft-shell jackets, and technical down parkers. Some notable brands include Arc’teryx, Berghaus, Canada Goose, Fjällräen, Haglӧfs, Patagonia, The North Face, and Woolrich, among others.    


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