The Outdoors Industry Marketing Machine™ would have you believe that you always need to stay dry when riding and that moisture must be shut out at any cost with waterproof membrane fabrics the solution for any and all wet-weather-woes. I disagree — frankly, I think waterproofs suck!
20 metres of rain? Pfft
It’s worth having a think about the dynamics of riding in the rain. There are two main ways in which you get wet while riding: rain and sweat.
Rain is easy enough to keep out, but achieving a level of breathability that can cope with your sweat output is the real challenge.
Out of those two, most waterproof manufacturers would have you worry about sealing out the outside over all else.
Indeed, modern waterproof fabrics can now easily withstand a 20,000mm water column. That’s 20 metres of solid rain sitting on your shell. Unsurprisingly, you’re unlikely to find yourself in such a scenario.
Breathability — or the lack of it — is the real concern. Nevertheless, we get all wrapped up in lab-tested breathability and waterproof ratings without really considering how that applies to the real world.
Sweat = wet
Before I go on, I’ll start with a disclaimer: I run warm and sweat profusely when doing any high-intensity sport. No matter how breathable rain jackets may claim to be, most of the time it just feels like I’m wearing a clammy plastic bag.
However, the marketing copy for any rain jacket would have you believe that it will keep you bone dry, no matter what you throw at it. The reality is usually quite different.
While I don’t quite subscribe to the evangelical views of mountaineer Andy Kirkpatrick, I do think there’s some truth to what he says; you may not be getting wet from the outside with modern jackets, but you’ll almost certainly be dealing with that awful sticky feeling because all of your sweat building up on the inside.
Now you may say, I cycle, I don’t climb mountains. Well, I’ve spent my fair share of time doing both and I have found that the requirements in terms of layering and weather protection for both activities are broadly similar.
The problem is that any membrane is going to have issues ridding itself of the moisture you produce. Cycling by its nature is a high output activity, and for me that means I produce a lot of sweat. Any and all waterproofs I have ever owned or tried simply cannot deal with a high output.
There is another way
Water and sweat are not the enemy, we simply have to manage them better.
Wetness (at least rain-induced wetness) isn’t the evil that parts of the industry would have you believe. Look at a wetsuit. It literally uses you being wet to keep you warm by keeping a nice cosy layer of water right next to your body.
I’ll admit there are some discrepancies in this analogy, but what I’m basically trying to say is that water and damp aren't evil, it’s how you manage that moisture which matters.
Wind is the killer
In fact, what should concern you is the wind. That’s the real killer.
Wind is the enemy because it stops you from building up a nice layer of warm air, which keeps you insulated and protected from the elements. Wind blows your nice warm bubble away.
And that is why you really need a windproof jacket — cheap and, shock-horror, not waterproof, but wonderfully light and packable.
Such a jacket will let you build that layer of warm air. This will keep you toasty all while having a level of breathability that actually matches your sweat production rate. In my particularly sweaty case at least, such a setup actually keeps me dryer than I would be if I was wearing a waterproof.
At this point, my wetsuit analogy breaks down. For outdoor clothing we don’t want a wet layer near our skin because, unfortunately, water is incredibly efficient at transporting heat away from your skin.
That’s why you (I hope) wear a baselayer and other wicking layers that transport moisture away from your skin to your shell.
The shell is where we could encounter a problem.
Depending on how intense your activity, you can easily overwhelm the breathability (i.e. moisture transport) of a membrane-based fabric at this point. That’s when your layers start to get saturated with sweat and is when, so to speak, the wetsuit comes off and you’ll start to get cold.
Choose a more breathable layer, such as a windproof, and you’ll likely find that the improved breathability keeps you warm, it's more able to deal with the moisture you produce and it keeps you more comfortable in the long run.
My favourite windproof, the Rab Windveil, sadly isn’t made anymore, but the Pertex Microlight fabric blocks out the wind and is so tightly woven that it wards off light rain without the need for a membrane. Because of this, it remains breathable whatever I’m doing.
But what about rain you may ask?
If I do encounter some rain, or get wet through, the heat I produce while riding tends to dry me out anyway (or at the very least keeps me warm). That heat production effectively dries me out from the inside and I’m not pooling in a puddle of my own sweat because moisture is forced out and can escape, rather than staying trapped in.
It might sound like I hate waterproofs. I don’t. They have their place, and in the worst rain and for low-intensity activities, or when it’s cold enough not to sweat (rarely), I’ll happily use one, but treat them with measured caution. They are not the one-stop shop that the industry would have you believe. Nine times out of 10 times I am reaching for my windproof instead of a waterproof when the weather looks unpleasant.
A waterproof can provide valuable protection if you’re static or in an absolute torrent, but the philosophy of creating a hardened barrier to the outside is questionable much of the time. It just doesn’t work because that barrier also stops your own moisture escaping.
Alternative waterproofing systems
Alternative waterproofing systems exist — look at Paramo or Buffalo for two popular examples — but to my mind, you’ll get maximum versatility from a Brynje base layer (if you thought string vests are passé, you’re wrong), a cycling jersey and a windproof. Layers can, of course, be added or removed to suit the conditions.
You don't need the latest and greatest £200+ jacket in your quest for the ultimate in protection from the elements. Instead, a much cheaper windproof should comfortably see you through 90 percent of the conditions you encounter.
Trust me on this one, try out a windproof and see how you find it. You might be surprised at just how comfortable you will be.
What do you think? Have your say in the comment box below