I’ve been wanting to give a new waterproof jacket a thorough test for a while now. Whilst writing The Mountain Leader – A Handbook I wanted to test some cheaper waterproofs. My contention is that waterproofs don’t have to be breathable. Of course, it’s nice if they are, but if the people we are leading are on budgets, then how important is it really?
I bought a waterproof jacket for £25 from a high street outdoor shop. It’s a little big for me and the cut is definitely inferior to the branded outdoor jackets. The pockets sit under my rucksack belt and the hood has a floppy peak. There is no chest pocket for a map or phone.
It is lined though and with a base layer, fleece and even a covered fleece underneath it has proved comfortable and warm in showery weather. The condensation hasn’t been noticeable at all, the lining soaking it up and my layers preventing it penetrating.
Last Thursday, however, was a proper wet day. Flood warnings were in place, some places received flash floods, there was a serious one in Borrowdale. Here in Snowdonia the A 498 Nant Gwynant road was closed by a landslide caused by the sheer weight of water. I believe that between 40 to 70 mm fell and it was driven in sideways by a strong westerly wind. A good day for proper waterproof testing.
I did get wet. My legs, wrapped in very expensive breathable waterproof trousers, were soaking. First it was the knees, then the seat then everywhere. My upper half, under the cheap jacket, stayed dry. The jacket did let water in and my second layer down was soaking, but due to my layering system this did not penetrate and I was warm and comfortable in my upper half. The jacket and lining was soaked when I took it off and did take longer than a lined jacket to dry. To be fair, I don’t normally get wet on my top half. My expensive breathable jackets and layering system works extremely well. In fact the cheap jacket’s failure might have been largely due to the need to open it to tuck my map in by my chest. The absence of useful pockets and a flappy hood were the most uncomfortable factors. My group was soaked to the skin and one even lost his phone due to water penetration.
I should say also that, despite many bog crossings, my feet were bone dry in my leather Scarpa boots.
If any conclusions can be drawn from this it’s that we should role model the best kit we can. We need to give a good impression and look after ourselves as best we can and this will normally mean an expensive waterproof jacket. If you are taking out novices, or people who may not take up walking as a pastime, or if there is a limit on budgets a cheap non-breathable jacket will keep people warm and dry. They do need to have layers underneath and shouldn’t keep opening the front of the jacket. Pound for pound the cheap jacket actually performed incredibly well, but I’ll be sticking to my fancy Gore-Tex for the time being.