And breathe…..no it’s not a yoga class, it’s time to choose a new hiking jacket. For some people, it’s easier to assume the lotus position than look for parkas. And so they end up just holding on to that 15 year old faithful friend of a rain jacket, only to be let down by that friend when you most need it. So, deep breaths and focus, here are our top hiking jackets tips to help you choose what works best for you. And remember, they need to be able to breathe too.
Loving the layer – the L word
For hiking, you really want to pick clothing that can layer well. For example, a cosy, thick waterproof jacket is great for keeping warm and dry around town, but when you’re hiking, you’re usually best to park the parka. The reality is, if you want a hiking jacket for looking cool going around town, and one for keeping cool while hitting the hills, you need two different jackets. For longer hikes on holiday, for example, you may want one down-filled jacket to keep you warm and another to keep you dry.
The membrane game
It’s easy to be bamboozled by tech talk when it comes to hiking jackets, starting with whether to choose a hardshell, softshell and lightweight jacket. However, the main difference between these is in the layering. You will often see the shorthand L2 or L3, referring to the number of bonded layers within the outer shell of the jacket. Typically, most people think of Gore-Tex when they think of waterproofing membranes, but there are some great alternatives now such as Pertex Shield, eVent, FUTURELIGHT and H2No. Another important factor in these materials is the breathability, and this is where our in-house experts believe that Gore-Tex still rises above the rest. For more techy terms, you will often have a an additional chemical coating on the outer fabric called a DWR, or Durable Water Repellent.
A lightweight shell is great for activities where you might generate a lot of heat, but want to carry very little weight, stay dry, and be able to pack a jacket right down, like on some of our moderate to strenuous hiking trips. These jackets are great for light showers and keeping the wind out, while also allowing for maximum breathability. They can usually be packed small enough to keep in a large pocket or small bag and are often water-resistant rather than waterproof to save on weight, so be sure to check when you start shopping.
For general hiking holidays where there is any risk of downpours, most people want a hardshell, which means having a 2L or 3L. Two layers gives a great amount of waterproofing and is the industry standard, but a three-layer jacket is the most robust and will withstand the harshest weather conditions. This is what’s recommended for long hikes in places with unpredictable weather, such as on the Spanish Pyrenees late in the season or taking on a Camino de Santiago in spring or autumn. A hardshell won’t pack down as small as a lightweight jacket, but you’re sacrificing space and weight for guaranteed waterproofing and, as we transfer your luggage for you, you can always pack it up and send it on, if the forecast is good.
It’s also worth considering a softshell jacket, which is much softer than a hardshell or even a lightshell but is really only showerproof. These are made from much softer material and don’t contain a waterproof membrane, but can be a comfortable and highly breathable layer, which is great for keeping you warm if temperatures lower as you get higher. These are great if you are hiking in hot destinations such as Morocco, Greece or Turkey, although with changing climate conditions, and more unpredictable rain, it’s important to be prepared for rain.
Saving for a rainy day
There’s no escaping the fact that kitting yourself out for adventuring outdoors can be pricey, with some of the high-end Gore-Tex Pro jackets costing as much as £500 which, if you are planning one of our walking holidays in Bulgaria’s Pirin Mountains, for example, or walking Ireland’s Dingle Peninsula can be the same price as the trip. Which is why it’s worth understanding what your needs really are, and then find the best jacket for the journey.
A lot of people tend to look at the price tag and think more expensive means better. While technically this might be true, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s right for you and your needs. For example, Mountain Equipment makes excellent jackets to a very high standard, however many of their fits are tailored to accommodate gloves fitting under the cuffs and helmets fitting under the hood, but your average hiker doesn’t need these features, so you might just want to seek out a more casual fit.
A good fit
The fit of your jacket is very important. For both waterproof and insulating jackets, you want a snug, but not tight fit, making sure your chest is comfortable for breathing, the length in the sleeves and torso fits well and your underarms can move comfortably. Having this snug fit means that the technology in the fabric of your jacket can work with your body to regulate your heat. Lots of empty space means extra air to warm up and can cause condensation on the inside of your waterproof, making it tougher for it to breathe and leading to you becoming too warm and soggy. Try on different brands to see what works for you, and make sure you can comfortably add layers underneath.
The small things
Small features on hiking jackets can make a big difference. Such as storm flaps, which area layer of fabric over the main zip, which keeps out a surprising amount of water. A stiff peak hood makes sure that the water running off the hood won’t be running down your face. A two-way zip means you can adjust it easily for different actions, such as taking large strides or ascending steep slopes. Underarm zips give you ventilation on those pongy pits and pocket placement can make a difference, with a vertical one allowing for easier access, while also preventing the pocket from filling up with water as easily as a horizontal pocket. Many hiking jackets will also have pockets sized perfectly for carrying maps.
Sustainable hiking jackets
Sustainability is fast becoming the biggest focus of the outdoor clothing industry with more and more companies are making the shift to removing PFCs. This stands for per- and poly-fluorinated chemicals, which are man-made chemicals used to create DWR coatings and waterproof membranes. It’s a competitive market out there, particularly in finding ways to use recycled products to repel the rain. The top brand for setting the bar high in this area is Patagonia, with its PFC-free Dual Aspect Jacket. This jacket is free of harsh fluorinated chemicals, and made from recycled nylon, setting a great example of what can be achieved in sustainability in the technical clothing industry.
Another big outdoor brand making the shift is Rab who, in 2023, announced that up to 80% of their autumn/winter products are 100% fluorocarbon-free (with the exception of zips found in some products). They’re also a proud member of Fair Wear, achieving Leader status within two years of joining the foundation. For all clothing companies signed up to Fair Wair’s ethical trading standards, see here. If you’re conscious of the impact your clothing choices might have, most outdoor brands should also have a visible sustainability statement on their website, some more detailed than others.
Keeping hiking jackets waterproof
If your hiking jacket is your best friend on walking trips, then you need to treat them kindly in order to maintain their waterproofness. What lots of people find is that after even a relatively short amount of time, their waterproof jacket looks soggy, and the material is holding water in the rain. However, this is normal, and the actual waterproofing layer of the jacket is probably fine.
General wear on the fabric of the jacket may cause your hiking jacket to lose its DWR coating, however, and this is where products like Nikwax Tech Wash and TX. Direct come in, which makes cleaning and proofing your jacket very simple. Some products are as simple as using it as detergent, and others are spray-ons. Nikwax’s products also don’t contain harmful chemicals such as fluorocarbons, and none of their products are tested on animals. Simply put, keeping your jacket clean and maintaining the DWR will keep you dry and happy, while extending the life of your jacket.
For waterproofs, the tell-tale sign of when it’s time to let go is when the jacket starts absorbing water. You might find the panels that get the most wear and tear let in water first, such as the shoulders and elbows. You might also notice some fraying or wearing down of the fabric, typically around the wrists and seams, that will compromise the integrity of the jacket.
Hiking jackets for winter walking trips
Our range of winter snow holidays, be they snowshoeing or cross-country skiing, is growing all the time. We asked our in-house experts to put their cards on the snowy table and share their top winter warmers. And the winners are…..
For warmth: Rab Neutrino Pro Down
Built to tackle harsh alpine conditions, the Neutrino Pro is a great choice for anyone looking to head out during bitterly cold months. The goose-down jacket is made from 43% recycled materials and, with the exception of the zip, is 100% fluorocarbon-free.
For waterproofing: Cortazu Mountain Hard Shell
It’s safe to say the Cortazu jacket has really made an impact against the more well-known names in the industry. Whatever your winter natural adventure, this one has you covered (literally), with a three-layer Dermizax waterproof fabric, putting it in the same ballpark as the biggest player in the game, Gore-tex.
On a budget: Berghaus Paclite Dynak
As the name suggests, this is a great lightweight packable hardshell (2L Gore-Tex Paclite), which will serve you well both around town and when out on the trail. Not only will the Paclite Dynak keep you dry, but it’s got lots of great features such as adjustable cuffs and a stiff-peaked hood, water-resistant zip and, in addition, it fits into the smallest pockets of your pack when not in use.
High end: Arc’teryx Beta AR
A tremendous all-rounder, whether you’re hiking through the Dolomites in a downpour or gliding along some loipes in Valdres, Norway, the Gore-Tex Pro Beta AR will have you covered with maximum durability, a helmet-compatible hood, watertight zippers, a stand up collar and fully adjustable cuffs and hems.
For more information on packing and gear, you may enjoy our blogs on Hiking boot tips and What to pack for a hiking trip or our blog on Tips on walking responsibly. If you have any other questions about gear, our adventure specialists will be happy to help, so don’t hesitate to contact us for any information before you book. And don’t forget to keep breathing.