Any quality jacket that says “Waterproof” on the tag likely meets industry standard for keeping out moisture, so you really do not have to worry about modern jackets leaking. Maintaining breathability, the other side of staying dry, requires proper care and maintenance of the garment. There are a couple of simple things you can do to make sure that your jacket keeps you dry for many hikes to come:
Dirty gear doesn’t just smell bad…it functions bad as well. That is because breathability relies on the openness of the tiny pores in the waterproof-breathable membrane. Impurities from the environment and oils and minerals from your skin and sweat can all collude to clog up the pores and decrease the performance of your gear. Regular washing keeps this problem in check, as well as makes it easier for your buddies to sit next to you on drives to the trailhead. The best choice for washing your raingear is a detergent specifically made for outdoor gear, like Nikwax Tech Wash. If you can’t get that, use mild, unscented, powdered detergent. Other detergents can actually degrade your membrane, dramatically shortening the life of your gear in a way that companies will be hesitant to warranty. You can hand wash your gear in the sink or throw it in the machine on the most gentle cycle. It is a good idea to yank rain gear out before the spin cycle, because water trapped on the inside of the garment is not going to spin off, just put unnecessary pressure on your membrane. A few shakes and a minute to drip should have your gear ready for the drier. Read the tag, and dry your gear as warm as it allows. Or just hang it in the breeze.
The coolest thing about brand-new rain gear is that when you walk out in the rain (or spill your coffee on it) liquid beads up and rolls off like water off a ducks back. This has nothing to do with the membrane inside, but is due to a coating on the face fabric called a Durable Water Repellent (or DWR). Check out these DWR jackets.
If the membrane or coating on the inside of the fabric is there to keep you dry, the DWR is there to keep the fabric dry. This is important because breathability depends on a vapor gradient; for the moisture to want to leave the inside of your jacket, the air outside must have less moisture in it than the air inside. But, if your DWR fails and the fabric “wets out,” directly on the other side of the micro-thin membrane is soaked, cold nylon, then vapor is not going to want to exit the garment. In fact, it is more likely to hit the chilled membrane and condense, leaving liquid moisture on the inside and making it feel for all the world like your jacket is leaking.
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