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A group of us had the perfect opportunity to test the efficiency of our waterproofs a few weeks ago whilst on a walking holiday in Girona, Catalonia. They don’t seem to do ‘light’ rain there.  When it rained it was very heavy and very wet!  We all know the saying ‘There’s no such thing as bad weather – only the wrong clothes’ but even though many of us had top brands, barely anyone’s jacket withstood the onslaught entirely unscathed.  It re-affirmed to me the importance, not only of a good jacket, but of properly re-proofing it regularly.

Recently Country Walking and Trail magazines published some excellent kit guides and recommendations ranging from footwear to waterproofs – things to consider, maintenance and recommended products.   I thought I’d share their research and recommendations with you over the coming weeks, starting with the item that’s literally and metaphorically closest to my heart: waterproof jackets.  Here’s the lowdown:

What’s the difference between a £40 waterproof and a £200 waterproof?
As Country Walking says, “a basic waterproof is good for throwing on in a shower, but we’ve never met a sub-£50 waterproof that didn’t start to fail pretty quickly and/or make us clammy and hot”.  They reckon that it’s once you get to £200 plus that (with TLC) you will find jackets that will keep your skin dry and your temperature well-regulated for a least five years of intensive use.

Breathable membranes
A good waterproof isn’t just about dealing with rain; it’s about wicking away the heat you generate so that you don’t get wet from the inside out. Cue the breathable membrane.  Everyone’s heard of Gore-Tex, it’s used in shoes, trousers and jackets.  It’s a brand name but one of the best.  It is a fabric sandwich: two layers of nylon with a layer of microporus Teflon called PTFE in between.  The tiny holes in the PTFE layer allow sweat to escape as steam but they are about 20,000 times smaller than a single droplet of water.  So if the membrane is intact and healthy, rainwater can’t get in.

Country Walking consider that Gore-Tex is the membrane of choice for premium jackets but they also highly rate the waterproofing system used by Paramo.  It’s a different system but apparently it’s been loved by Country Walking reviewers for years.

Care for the environment –  and free the PFCs
Gear brands are responding to the damage plastics are causing to the environment.  It’s becoming increasingly easy to find fleeces, jackets and rucksacks made from recycled plastic (check out Marmot’s Phoenix).  Plus brands like Patagonia and Paramo are offering trade-in and repair services to further increase the life of their kit.

One of the big issues is per and poly-fluorinated compounds – PFCs.  PFCs are a family of chemicals with very useful water and oil repellent properties and are therefore often applied to outdoor clothing to increase waterproofing.  But there’s a significant issue with PFCs – they cannot be broken down by natural processes, and many members of the PFC family have been shown to be bio-accumulative, meaning that they build up in the bodies of animals.  A growing body of scientific research has also linked PFCs to a range of human health conditions including immune system damage in children, increased incidences of cancer and compromised female fertility. 

Nickwax and its sister brand Paramo do not use PFCs, they have impressively high ethical standards for manufacturing, product use and conservation.  Marmot has brought out an EVOdry collection which is PFC free and other brands are working towards eliminating PFC treatments from their products (some may already have done so).

For more information on PFCs visit Paramo.

How can I tell if my jacket is still waterproof?
Country Walking says the first clue is how water behaves on the outer fabric.  If a waterproof is working, water should bead up and sit on the surface in droplets because it can’t seep in.  If the jacket is wetting out (i.e. a wet patch is spreading across the surface) that means water is coming in.  You can buy a reproofing wash or spray such as Nickwax and Grangers to restore the hydrophobic shell.  Click here to read a previous blog of mine on the subject.

Remember this:

  1. Clever waterproofs have a stiff peak sewn into the front of the hood and adjustments round the jawline and the back of the head which pull the whole thing taught.  Properly adjusted it keeps the water off your face and enables you to Nordic walk with your head up and in the correct position.
  2. Never tie a quality waterproof round your waist as it will damage the delicate breathable membrane.  Instead you should roll it up and put it in your backpack.
  3. You will need to treat areas of regular wear (eg where backpack straps go over your shoulders) more regularly than the rest of your jacket.

Country Walking’s heavy and light waterproof choices:

  • Helly Hansen’s Odin 9 Worlds: Dubbed the ‘waterproof fortress’ by Country Walking who say the jacket is hard to fault and easily justifies is £300 price tag.
  • Paramo’s Velez Adventure Light Smock: The combination of reliable waterproofing and clever heat management is apparently hard to beat.  But it is a smock so not the easiest to get on and off.

That’s it.  Who would have thought that there was so much to talk about waterproof jackets!  Walking socks are in a few weeks time.