Waterproofing in outdoor gear is a complex subject that goes far beyond just keeping you dry. It’s a delicate balance between blocking out moisture and allowing sweat to escape, ensuring both comfort and safety during your outdoor adventures. The technology behind this involves intricate membranes, rigorous testing, and a deep understanding of material science.
Did you know that nearly 30% of outdoor gear failures are attributed to inadequate or skipped testing processes? This startling statistic highlights the critical role that rigorous testing plays in ensuring the reliability and safety of waterproof gear.
As someone living in the Arctic, I understand the paramount importance of having appropriate gear for expeditions. Nobody wants to cut their journey short due to the risk of hypothermia. You can jump right off to our comparison table of the membrane brands and their features to see which one fits your requirements!
Waterproof and Breathable Membranes: Explained
Explanation of What a Waterproof/Breathable Membrane Is
A waterproof/breathable membrane is a thin layer of material that serves a dual purpose: it prevents water from penetrating from the outside while allowing moisture (in the form of water vapor) to escape from the inside. This membrane is usually sandwiched between the outer fabric and the inner lining of your outdoor gear, creating a barrier that keeps you both dry and comfortable.
How It Works at the Molecular Level
The science behind these membranes is fascinating. They are made up of a complex structure of microscopic pores. These pores are large enough to allow water vapor molecules (from sweat) to pass through but are too small for liquid water molecules (from rain, snow, etc.) to penetrate. This selective permeability is often achieved through the use of advanced materials like expanded polytetrafluoroethylene (ePTFE) or polyurethane, which are engineered at the molecular level to have these specific characteristics.
A Surprising Fact About the Microscopic Size of the Holes in Breathable Membranes
Here’s something to ponder: the microscopic pores in some breathable membranes can be as small as 20,000 times smaller than a water droplet but 700 times larger than a molecule of water vapor. This incredible scale is what makes the selective permeability possible, allowing you to stay dry from both external rain and internal sweat.
Measuring Waterproofness and Breathability
Hydrostatic Head for Measuring Waterproofness
When it comes to measuring the waterproof capabilities of a fabric, the term “hydrostatic head” often comes into play. This is a test that measures how much water pressure a fabric can withstand before it starts to leak. The test involves placing a column of water against the fabric and measuring the height (in millimeters) at which the fabric begins to allow water through. Higher hydrostatic head values indicate better waterproofing. For instance, a hydrostatic head rating of 10,000mm is generally considered good for most outdoor activities.
Below is a table to help you understand the hydrostatic head ranges and what they mean in terms of water resistance and practical applications.
|Hydrostatic Head Range (mm)||Water Resistance Level||Usable Conditions|
|0 – 1,500||Not Waterproof||Indoor use, not suitable for outdoor conditions|
|1,500 – 5,000||Water-Resistant||Light rain, dry snow; not suitable for heavy precipitation or high-pressure activities like skiing|
|5,000 – 10,000||Waterproof||Moderate rain, average snow conditions; suitable for hiking and general outdoor activities|
|10,000 – 20,000||Highly Waterproof||Heavy rain, wet snow; suitable for more demanding activities like skiing and mountaineering|
|20,000 – 28,000||Extremely Waterproof||Indoor use, is not suitable for outdoor conditions|
|> 28,000||Professional Grade||Severe and extreme conditions; suitable for specialized activities like ice climbing, deep-sea diving|
Breathability Measured in Grams of Water Vapor
Breathability, on the other hand, is usually measured in terms of how many grams of water vapor can pass through a square meter of the fabric in 24 hours (g/m²/day). This metric helps you understand how well the fabric can wick away moisture from your body and allow it to evaporate. Higher numbers indicate better breathability. For example, a fabric with a breathability rating of 20,000g/m²/day is considered excellent for high-exertion activities.
Comparison Between Different Fabrics’ Breathability Metrics
Some everyday fabrics like cotton have breathability metrics that are off the charts, but they are not suitable for outdoor activities. Why? Because while they allow a lot of moisture to escape, they also absorb water and become heavy when wet. In contrast, specialized outdoor fabrics may have lower breathability metrics but perform far better in real-world conditions due to their ability to repel water while allowing vapor to escape.
In-Depth Comparison of Different Waterproof Membrane Brands
Overview of Popular and Emerging Brands
The world of waterproof membrane brands is huge and diverse, providing options to suit different needs, activities, and budgets. In addition to previously mentioned brands like Gore-Tex, eVent, and Polartec NeoShell, other noteworthy brands include OutDry, Pertex Shield, Columbia’s Omni-Tech, Patagonia’s H2No, Eco-Shell, Salomon Advance Skin Dry, and Outdoor Research’s Ventia 2.5L.
Comparing Their Waterproof and Breathability Ratings
Gore-Tex stands as a premium choice for those seeking top-tier performance and durability for their outdoor gear, and it’s particularly well-suited for those willing to invest in long-lasting gear. It is often considered the industry standard for waterproof-breathable fabrics, renowned for its durability and extensive range of specialized products like Gore-Tex Pro, Active, and Paclite.
Each of these is tailored for specific outdoor activities and conditions, making Gore-Tex one of the most versatile options on the market. They offer various range of products including jackets, shoes, gloves, etc.,In terms of performance metrics, Gore-Tex often outperforms many other brands, offering a hydrostatic head of around 28,000mm and breathability up to 25,000g/m²/day for its Pro line
This is an incredible range of fabric technology that will keep you dry and comfortable no matter the weather. You’ll be prepared for any sudden downpour, as well as those long days in the sun with this range.
- Gore-Tex Pro: Designed for extreme conditions and extended use. Hydrostatic head of around 28,000mm; breathability up to 25,000g/m²/day.
- Gore-Tex Active: Tailored for high-aerobic, one-day activities. Hydrostatic head of around 23,000mm; breathability up to 25,000g/m²/day.
- Gore-Tex Paclite: Known for being lightweight and packable. Hydrostatic head of around 20,000mm; breathability around 15,000g/m²/day.
- Gore-Tex Infinium: Focuses more on comfort rather than waterproofing. Hydrostatic head of around 10,000mm; breathability up to 10,000g/m²/day.
- Gore-Tex with Stretch Technology: Provides more freedom of movement. Hydrostatic head and breathability similar to Gore-Tex Pro.
eVent Fabrics specializes in waterproof and breathable fabrics with air-permeable technology. Their Direct Venting™ system keeps you dry by instantly venting sweat, while their eco-friendly eVent BIO Technology offers high moisture vapor transfer rates. Extensively tested, their fabrics have impressive water column ratings and RET values.
The fabrics have been extensively tested, with a water column rating of 10,000-30,000mm and MVTR ranging from 10,000 to 30,000 g/m²/24 H. The RET (Resistance to Evaporative Heat Transfer) values range from 3-5 M²PA/W; comparable to Gore-Tex.
Polartec NeoShell is a fabric designed to be waterproof, windproof, and breathable—all while being lightweight and durable. It’s the perfect choice for anyone who needs an ultra-protective outer layer that won’t weigh them down or restrict their movement. The special construction of Polartec NeoShell allows it to remain strong even in the harsh conditions of windy mountain treks. Hydrostatic head of around 10,000mm; breathability up to 30,000g/m²/day. Renowned brands such as Helly Hansen, Marmot, Norrona, and many others use this waterproof membrane.
Mountain Hardwear’s Dry.Q Elite
Mountain Hardwear’s Dry.Q Elite features an air-permeable technology. Unlike traditional waterproof-breathable fabrics that require you to start sweating before they become breathable, Dry.Q Elite is instantly breathable. This means it starts venting the moment you put it on, which can be particularly beneficial for high-exertion activities where you want to minimize sweat and moisture buildup. This technology aims to keep you dry and comfortable in a wide range of conditions and activity levels. Hydrostatic head of around 20,000mm; breathability of around 20,000g/m²/day.
OutDry is known for its unique lamination process that directly bonds the waterproof membrane to the outer fabric. This eliminates the need for seam tape, which often becomes a weak point for water entry in traditional waterproof gear. The result is a one-piece construction that is not only waterproof but also more durable and lightweight.
This lamination process also prevents the outer fabric from becoming waterlogged, which can happen in traditional waterproof gear where the outer fabric absorbs water even if it doesn’t penetrate through to the inside. By preventing water absorption at the outer layer, OutDry ensures that the gear remains lightweight and breathable, even in wet conditions.
Pertex Shield is known for its focus on lightweight and packable waterproof fabrics. One of its unique features is the use of a PU (polyurethane) film laminate, which allows for high levels of waterproofing and breathability while maintaining a soft and flexible fabric. This makes Pertex Shield fabrics particularly suitable for activities where weight and space are at a premium, such as backpacking, climbing, or trail running.
Another standout feature is its range of multi-layer constructions. Pertex Shield comes in different versions like Pertex Shield+, Pertex Shield AP, and Pertex Shield Pro, each offering varying degrees of durability, breathability, and water resistance to suit different activities and conditions. Offers a hydrostatic head of around 20,000mm and breathability of 20,000g/m²/day.
Columbia’s Omni-Tech is designed to offer a balanced combination of waterproofing and breathability at a more accessible price point. One of its unique features is its multi-layered weather protection system. The outer shell is typically made of a water-repellent fabric that resists external moisture, while an inner layer consists of a breathable membrane that allows moisture vapor to escape.
Omni-Tech also incorporates a third layer, often a mesh lining, that helps wick moisture away from the body. This three-layer system aims to keep you dry from both external precipitation and internal perspiration.
Another notable aspect of Omni-Tech is its versatility. It’s designed to be adaptable to a variety of conditions, making it suitable for a wide range of outdoor activities, from hiking and fishing to skiing and snowboarding.
While it may not offer the extreme levels of waterproofing or breathability that some high-end technologies provide, Omni-Tech is a solid, reliable option for casual outdoor enthusiasts or those who are just getting started with outdoor activities. The hydrostatic head of around 10,000mm; breathability of 10,000g/m²/day.
Patagonia’s H2No is known for its rigorous testing standards and commitment to durability. One of its unique features is its multi-layer construction, which typically includes a water-repellent shell fabric and a waterproof/breathable membrane. Some versions of H2No also include an additional protective barrier, known as a “half layer,” which enhances durability and long-term performance.
H2No is subjected to a “killer wash,” a 24-hour water exposure test that simulates extended, extreme conditions. This ensures that the fabric can withstand prolonged exposure to moisture and still maintain its waterproof and breathable properties.
Another standout feature is Patagonia’s commitment to sustainability. Many H2No products are made from recycled materials and are Fair Trade Certified, aligning with the brand’s broader environmental and ethical commitments.
Overall, H2No is designed for those who are looking for durable, long-lasting waterproof protection and are willing to invest in quality gear that stands up to the elements. It’s suitable for a wide range of activities, from casual outdoor pursuits to more demanding adventures like hiking, skiing, and mountaineering. Hydrostatic head of around 20,000mm; breathability around 15,000g/m²/day.
Eco-Shell, a proprietary development of Fjällräven, is a waterproof fabric technology that places a strong emphasis on environmental sustainability. One of its unique features is its use of recycled and/or bio-based materials to create the waterproof membrane. This is a departure from many traditional waterproof fabrics that rely on petrochemical-based materials.
Another standout feature is its use of PFC-free DWR (Durable water-repellent) treatments. Many traditional DWR treatments contain perfluorinated compounds (PFCs), which have raised environmental concerns. Eco-Shell’s PFC-free DWR offers effective water repellency without the environmental impact.
In terms of performance, Eco-Shell is designed to be both waterproof and highly breathable, making it suitable for a range of outdoor activities. It often features a multi-layer construction, similar to other high-end waterproof technologies, to provide a balance of protection and comfort.
Overall, Eco-Shell offers a more sustainable alternative for outdoor enthusiasts who are concerned about the environmental impact of their gear, without compromising on performance. It’s suitable for a variety of activities where staying dry and comfortable is essential.
Salomon Advance Skin Dry
Salomon’s Advanced Skin Dry technology is designed to provide a balanced combination of waterproofing and breathability, making it versatile for a range of outdoor activities. One of its unique features is its 10k/10k or 20k/20k ratings for waterproofness and breathability, respectively. This means it can withstand a hydrostatic head pressure of up to 10,000mm or 20,000mm and has a Moisture Vapor Transmission Rate (MVTR) of up to 10,000g/m²/24h or 20,000g/m²/24h, depending on the specific product.
Another standout feature is its integration into Salomon’s broader “AdvancedSkin” lineup, which aims to improve comfort by adapting and protecting the body in motion. Advanced Skin Dry is often combined with other Salomon technologies like Advanced Skin Warm and Advanced Skin Shield for comprehensive protection against the elements.
While it may not offer the extreme levels of waterproofing or breathability that some specialized technologies provide, Advanced Skin Dry is a solid, reliable option for a variety of conditions, from light rain to more demanding wet environments.
Overall, Salomon’s Advanced Skin Dry is suitable for outdoor enthusiasts who need versatile, reliable protection against both water and wind. It’s commonly found in Salomon’s range of jackets, pants, and gloves.
Outdoor Research’s Ventia 2.5L
Outdoor Research’s Ventia 2.5L technology is designed to offer a balanced combination of waterproofing, breathability, and affordability. One of its unique features is its 2.5-layer construction, which includes a face fabric, a waterproof membrane, and a protective inner coating rather than a full third layer. This makes Ventia 2.5L garments lighter and more packable compared to traditional 3-layer systems.
In terms of performance metrics, Ventia 2.5L typically offers a hydrostatic head rating of around 15,000mm and a breathability rating of around 15,000g/m²/24h. While these numbers may not be as high as some premium technologies, they are more than adequate for a wide range of outdoor activities, including hiking, skiing, and climbing.
Another standout feature is its affordability. Ventia 2.5L is often found in Outdoor Research products that are priced more accessibly compared to offerings with premium waterproof technologies. This makes it a good option for outdoor enthusiasts on a budget or those who are just getting started with outdoor activities and are not ready to invest in high-end gear.
Summary of Unique Features of Each Brand
- Gore-Tex: Known for durability and a wide range of products.
- eVent: Direct Venting technology enhances breathability.
- Polartec NeoShell: Focuses on stretch and movement.
- Mountain Hardwear’s Dry.Q Elite: Features air-permeable technology.
- OutDry: Unique lamination process for increased durability.
- Pertex Shield: Known for lightweight and packable fabrics.
- Columbia’s Omni-Tech: Designed for casual outdoor activities.
- Patagonia’s H2No: Known for its rigorous testing and durability.
- Eco Shell: Prioritizes sustainability with recycled and PFC-free materials.
- Salomon Advance Skin Dry: Known for its versatility in various weather conditions.
- Outdoor Research’s Ventia 2.5L: Offers a balance of performance and affordability.
Comparison Table of the Waterproof Membrane Brands
|Brand||Waterproof Ratings (Hydrostatic Head)||Breathability Ratings (g/m²/day)||Unique Features|
|Gore-Tex||28,000mm||25,000||Known for durability and a wide range of products|
|Gore-Tex Pro||28,000mm||25,000||Designed for extreme conditions and extended use|
|Gore-Tex Active||23,000mm||25,000||Tailored for high-aerobic, one-day activities|
|Gore-Tex Paclite||20,000mm||15,000||Lightweight and packable|
|Gore-Tex Infinium||10,000mm||10,000||Focuses more on comfort rather than waterproofing|
|Gore-Tex with Stretch Tech||28,000mm||25,000||Provides more freedom of movement|
|eVent||28,000mm||>30,000||Direct Venting technology enhances breathability|
|Polartec NeoShell||10,000mm||30,000||Focuses on stretch and movement|
|Mountain Hardwear’s Dry.Q Elite||20,000mm||20,000||Features air-permeable technology|
|OutDry||20,000mm||Comparable to top brands||Unique lamination process for increased durability|
|Pertex Shield||20,000mm||20,000||Known for lightweight and packable fabrics|
|Columbia’s Omni-Tech||10,000mm||10,000||Designed for casual outdoor activities|
|Patagonia’s H2No||20,000mm||15,000||Known for its rigorous testing and durability|
|Fjallraven’s Eco Shell||30,000mm||26,000||Prioritizes sustainability with recycled and PFC-free materials|
|Salomon Advance Skin Dry||20,000mm||20,000||Known for its versatility in various weather conditions|
|Outdoor Research’s Ventia 2.5L||15,000mm||15,000||Offers a balance of performance and affordability|
How Brands Test Their Membranes
Introduction to Key Tests
When it comes to ensuring the quality and safety of outdoor gear, brands employ a variety of rigorous tests. Among the most critical are the Martindale Test for measuring fabric durability, the Cold Flex Test for assessing gear performance in extreme temperatures, and the Rain Room for simulating real-world weather conditions. These tests serve as the industry’s gold standard for evaluating the effectiveness of waterproof and breathable membranes.
Ensuring Quality and Safety
The purpose of these tests is twofold: to guarantee the quality of the product and to ensure the safety of the user. For instance, the Martindale Test subjects the fabric to repeated abrasion until it shows signs of wear, providing an estimate of its lifespan. The Cold Flex Test, on the other hand, evaluates how well the material can maintain its flexibility and integrity in freezing conditions. The Rain Room simulates various weather scenarios, from light drizzles to torrential downpours, to ensure the gear can withstand the elements.
Comparing Testing Methods Across Brands
While all reputable brands employ rigorous testing, the methods can vary. For example, Gore-Tex is known for its “Storm Cube,” a custom-built chamber that subjects gear to wind-driven rain and snow. On the other hand, brands like Patagonia and Fjällräven focus on field testing in real-world conditions, often in extreme environments. These variations in testing methods offer insights into each brand’s priorities, whether it’s lab-based precision or real-world resilience.
The cost of conducting these rigorous tests can run into tens of thousands of dollars for each product line. This significant investment underscores the commitment of outdoor gear brands to quality and safety, and it’s a cost that’s often absorbed into the final retail price of the product.
The Role of Layers in Outdoor Gear
Differences Between 2.5-Layer and 3-Layer Jackets
The performance of an outdoor jacket is significantly influenced by the number of layers it comprises. A 2.5-layer jacket typically consists of an outer fabric, a waterproof membrane, and a protective inner coating. This construction is lighter and more packable but may not offer the same level of durability as a 3-layer system. In contrast, a 3-layer jacket features an outer fabric, a waterproof membrane, and a separate inner fabric layer. This construction is more robust and often provides better long-term durability.
How Construction Affects Performance
The choice between a 2.5-layer and a 3-layer jacket can affect various performance aspects, including durability, breathability, and weight. For instance, 3-layer jackets are generally more durable and better suited for extreme conditions, but they can be heavier and less packable. On the other hand, 2.5-layer jackets are often lighter and more suitable for activities where weight and space are a concern, although they may not offer the same level of durability.
Adding layers can actually increase a jacket’s breathability. While it may seem like more layers would trap moisture, a 3-layer construction often allows for more advanced membrane technologies that can better manage moisture vapor, leading to improved breathability. This is especially true for high-end 3-layer jackets that use state-of-the-art membranes and face fabrics designed to optimize moisture vapor transmission.
The Importance of DWR (Durable Water Repellency)
What is DWR?
DWR stands for Durable Water Repellency, a treatment applied to the outer fabric of waterproof and water-resistant gear. This treatment forms a hydrophobic layer on the fabric surface, causing water to bead up and roll off rather than soaking into the material. DWR is a crucial component in the overall performance of outdoor gear, often working in tandem with other waterproofing technologies like membranes.
How It Affects Performance
The presence of a DWR treatment significantly enhances the performance of outdoor gear. It not only helps to keep the outer fabric from becoming saturated, but it also maintains the breathability of the garment. When the outer layer is waterlogged, it can inhibit the moisture vapor transmission process, making the garment feel clammy and uncomfortable. DWR helps to prevent this by ensuring that the outer fabric remains as dry as possible.
DWR treatments are not permanent and can wear off over time due to abrasion, exposure to dirt, or repeated laundering. When this happens, the performance of your gear can be severely compromised. The outer fabric may become saturated more quickly, leading to reduced breathability and comfort. However, the good news is that DWR can often be reapplied at home using specialized products, extending the life and performance of your gear.
How to Use This Information as a Consumer
Tips for Reading and Understanding Labels
When shopping for waterproof and breathable gear, it’s important to understand the labels and what they signify. Look for key metrics like hydrostatic head ratings, which indicate the level of waterproofness, and breathability ratings, often measured in grams of water vapor per square meter per 24 hours (g/m²/24h). These numbers can give you a good idea of the gear’s performance capabilities. Also, pay attention to terms like “2.5-layer” or “3-layer” to understand the construction and durability of the item.
Hydrostatic Head Ratings
This is a measure of how water-resistant the fabric is and is usually expressed in millimeters (mm). A higher number indicates better water resistance. For example, a rating of 10,000mm is generally good for light to moderate rain, while a rating of 20,000mm or higher is suitable for heavy rain and wet snow.
This metric is often measured in grams of water vapor per square meter per 24 hours (g/m²/24h). Higher numbers indicate better breathability. For high-exertion activities like hiking or skiing, you might want a garment with a breathability rating of at least 15,000g/m²/24h.
Labels often specify whether a garment is 2.5-layer or 3-layer. This gives you an idea of the garment’s construction and what to expect in terms of durability and breathability. A 3-layer construction is generally more durable but might be heavier and less packable.
Seams and Zippers
Look for terms like “fully taped seams” or “waterproof zippers” to ensure that these potential weak points are also designed to keep out water.
The type of material used can also be crucial. Fabrics like Gore-Tex or Pertex indicate high-quality materials that are both waterproof and breathable. Some labels also specify if the material is sustainably sourced or recycled.
Always check the care labels as improper washing can degrade the waterproofing and breathability features of your gear. Some garments require special detergents or reapplication of DWR after washing.
Questions to Ask When Purchasing Gear
- What activities is this gear best suited for?
- How do this brand’s testing methods compare to others?
- Is the DWR treatment environmentally friendly?
- Can the DWR be reapplied, and how often does it need to be reapplied?
- What is the warranty or guarantee on the waterproofing and breathability?
These questions can help you make a more informed decision and ensure that you’re investing in gear that meets your specific needs and conditions.
Here’s a useful hack for testing the waterproofness of gear at home: Fill a small spray bottle with water and lightly mist the gear’s surface. If the water beads up and rolls off, the DWR is still effective. If it starts to soak into the fabric, it may be time to reapply a DWR treatment. This simple test can give you a quick idea of the current state of your gear’s water repellency.
The world of waterproof and breathable fabrics in outdoor gear is both complex and fascinating. Understanding the science behind these technologies, from the role of DWR to the intricacies of membrane construction, can significantly impact your comfort and safety during outdoor activities. Equally important is being knowledgeable about the different brands and their unique features, as well as the rigorous testing methods they employ to ensure quality and performance. This information is not just academic; it’s highly practical and can guide you in making informed decisions when purchasing gear. Whether you’re a casual hiker or an extreme mountaineer, the right gear can make or break your outdoor experience.
Remember, the best gear is the one that meets your specific needs, but you can only determine those needs when you understand what goes into making that gear effective. So, the next time you find yourself puzzled by labels or overwhelmed by options, remember that knowledge is your most valuable tool in choosing gear that will serve you well in the great outdoors.
For those interested in diving deeper into the world of waterproof and breathable fabrics, here are some additional resources and trusted brands that offer valuable information and high-quality products.
- Understanding Hydrostatic Head Ratings: An article that explains what hydrostatic head ratings mean and how to interpret them.
- DWR and Environmental Impact: A study that discusses the environmental concerns associated with Durable water-repellent treatments.
- Field Testing vs. Lab Testing: The article argues that while lab tests provide scientific data, field testing offers real-world insights that are crucial for consumer trust. It emphasizes that a combination of lab and field testing is integral for innovation in outdoor gear, as it’s where data meets physical experience and can be translated into consumer confidence.
- Gore-Tex: Known for its extensive range of waterproof and breathable technologies. Visit Website
- Patagonia: Renowned for its commitment to sustainability and high-quality outdoor gear. Visit Website
- Fjällräven: Makers of the Eco-Shell and other sustainable outdoor products. Visit Website
- Outdoor Research: Offers a variety of technologies like Ventia 2.5L and is known for its affordability. Visit Website
- Salomon: Specializes in a range of outdoor gear, including products with Advanced Skin Dry technology. Visit Website
- Columbia: Known for its Omni-Tech technology and offers a range of budget-friendly options. Visit Website