Having a way to keep dry is critical if you’re headed into the mountains. I live in the Pacific Northwest, where it rains—a lot. Over the years, I’ve tried out numerous rain jackets and I can tell you, they’re not all the same. Some will last for years of hard use, while others will leave you soaked after just a couple trips into the backcountry.
In this guide, I’ll highlight 8 of the best lightweight rain jackets for hiking and mountaineering. I’ll also explain what you can expect from a rain jacket, how to choose, and how you can make yours last for years to come.
My Rain Jacket Review Process
I’ve personally tried out more than a dozen rain jackets in the Cascades, which are known among mountaineers for their consistently wet conditions. On top of that, I’ve done a deep dive into the technical fabrics that top brands are putting into their jackets and talked with fellow mountaineers to find out what jackets they swear by.
Arc’teryx is one of my favorite brands, and all the reasons I consistently recommend this company’s products are evident in the Zeta SL. It’s impressively waterproof, even in the heaviest of downpours. At the same time, it weighs in at just 10.9 oz—making it one of the lightest rain jackets I reviewed.
The quality of the waterproofing is thanks to the introduction of new Gore-Tex Paclite Plus fabric. This 2.5-layer jacket is also extremely breathable, which is a huge plus when you’re headed uphill in damp conditions. The fabric also felt surprisingly soft against the skin, which is a welcome change from other rain jackets.
The only knock I have against the Zeta SL is that the hood isn’t quite big enough to fit a helmet. If you’re climbing technical terrain in the rain, though, you’re an even more dedicated mountaineer than I am.
The Marmot PreCip Eco is ridiculously cheap for how high-quality it is. Sure, it’s not the most breathable, lightest, or most waterproof rain jacket I tested. But at roughly one-sixth the price of the Zeta SL, it’s worth checking out if you’re on a tight budget.
On all fronts, the PreCip Eco jacket performs well enough. The 2.5-layer fabric is sealed with Marmot’s NanoPro coating, which does a nice job of beading off water. It does eventually wear off, but I found that the jacket takes a durable water repellent (DWR) re-application well.
The jacket can feel stuffy in warm conditions, and it definitely feels clammy against your skin. However, it’s fairly breathable compared to other 2.5-layer rain jackets and offers plenty of flexibility for hiking and climbing. The hood is also well-designed, which is nice for keeping water out of your eyes.
The REI Co-op Stormbolt GTX is a slightly heavier rain jacket, weighing in at 14.5 oz thanks to the 3-layer Gore-Tex construction. However, that same 3-layer construction makes it incredibly waterproof in a storm as well as extremely durable. When I know I’m heading out into a day of bad weather with no chance for a break in the rain, I reach for the Stormbolt.
The cut of the Stormbolt GTX is bulky compared to other rain jackets I tested. However, that can be an advantage, particularly in cooler conditions. The inner layer of the fabric is less likely to press against your skin, which means it feels less clammy and takes longer to wet out from sweat.
The biggest downside to the Stormbolt, besides the extra few ounces, is its breathability. To be fair, this jacket is extremely breathable compared to other 3-layer designs. But 3 layers is a long way for hot air to move, so it can get humid inside the jacket when you’re moving.
The Outdoor Research Microgravity is a versatile 3-layer rain jacket that doesn’t feel like a 3-layer jacket. It’s extremely breathable and does a terrific job of keeping you cool even when zipped up. That’s in part thanks to Outdoor Research’s proprietary Ascentshell membrane, which allows air to move through the jacket regardless of whether you’re moving or standing still.
Where the 3-layer design of the Microgravity jacket shows is in its ability to shed water. This jacket can stand up to hours of pouring rain without wetting out. Even the zippers are designed to lock out water, which is a big plus when rain is blowing at you sideways.
The Microgravity weighs in at 14.5 oz, which is lightweight for a 3-layer rain jacket but adds a few ounces compared to more minimalist options. Depending on what conditions you’re headed into, those few ounces could be worth the extra weather protection they afford.
The Outdoor Research Helium is one of the best ultralight jackets on the market today. It’s insanely lightweight, weighing in at a scant 10 oz. While the Helium is slightly heavier than a minimalist running shell, but that extra ounce or two buys you a lot of waterproofing. This jacket might wet out in a major storm, but it does a respectable job of keeping you dry in anything short of a downpour.
Being so light and compact, don’t expect much in the way of comfort features from the Helium. The hood is small and doesn’t do a great job of keeping water off your face, and the wrist cuffs don’t cinch down to lock out water. In addition, it’s not the most breathable rain jacket since it doesn’t use Gore-Tex fabrics or a similar membrane.
That said, I particularly like the Helium for the forecast you’ll see often in the mountains: partly cloudy with a chance of rain. Chances are you’re going to leave your rain jacket in your pack all day, but you can’t leave home without it. The Helium excels at sitting quietly in your pack, too, since it stuffs into its own chest pocket and takes up virtually no space.
The Arc’teryx Beta LT verges on being a hardshell jacket for backcountry skiing and mountaineering rather than a rain jacket. But if you’re planning a multi-day trip above treeline with a storm in the forecast, this is the perfect rain jacket for the job.
The Beta LT is essentially a heavier-duty version of the Zeta SL. It offers incredible stormproofing thanks to the Gore-Tex Pro fabric - one of the most waterproof fabrics that Gore-Tex makes. The jacket also weighs just 12.7 oz, so you’re not adding a ton of weight to your pack for the near-guarantee of staying dry that the Beta LT offers.
Another thing I like about the Beta LT is that it was designed with climbers in mind, not hikers. The waistline and zippered hand pockets are designed to accommodate a harness, and the adjustable hood is big enough for most climbing and skiing helmets.
The Mountain Hardwear Stretch Ozonic jacket is a lightweight, comfortable jacket that’s ideal for hiking and backpacking. It features Mountain Hardwear’s Dry.Q waterproof membrane, which I’ve found to be extremely breathable across a wide range of conditions. This jacket also has underarm zips for ventilation, which I absolutely love.
The Stretch Ozonic is built with 4-way stretch nylon, which makes it one of the more flexible jackets I tried out. Even with a backpack on, I could easily raise my arms overhead. The jacket features an adjustable hood, although it’s not large enough for a helmet. It also packs down small enough to stow inside the reversible exterior chest pocket.
Another thing I like about the Stretch Ozonic is that it features an athletic cut with a long waist. That means that you can put your pack’s hip belt over the jacket, essentially creating a sealed system if you’re also wearing rain pants. The handwarmer pockets are also high enough to be out of the way of a harness, which is a nice touch, and adjustable cuffs help to lock out water when you’re using trekking poles.
The StormLine Stretch jacket from Black Diamond is an all-around gem of a jacket. It’s waterproof, breathable, and packed with nice features that show off the designers’ attention to detail. Plus, it weighs in at just 11.3 oz, which is on the light side compared to other 2.5-layer jackets.
What really makes the StormLine Stretch stand out is how comfortable it is. The hood—which is plenty large enough to fit a climbing helmet—cinches down and is easy to adjust. There are underarm zips so you can quickly dump heat. Plus, the stretchy fabric allows you to reach up without the usual pulling and crinkling.
The jacket is built with Black Diamond’s BD.dry waterproof membrane and features a DWR finish. Just plan to spray the jacket every season or two, especially if you’re rubbing it with a harness, since the DWR coating can wear off easily.
How To Choose The Best Rain Jacket
As with most performance outdoor gear, rain jackets are highly specialized garments. So, the best rain jacket for you will depend on what conditions you plan to head out in. Here, I’ll cover some of the main things to consider when choosing a lightweight rain jacket.
2-layer vs 2.5-layer vs 3-layer
While most rain jackets look the same from the outside, they can be constructed very differently. In fact, one of the biggest differences in rain jackets lies in what’s underneath the outer layer.
There are 3 main types of rain jacket construction:
2-layer jackets have an outer fabric layer, which faces the elements, and an inner waterproof layer. Many 2-layer jackets also have a mesh liner to keep sweat and oil off the waterproof layer.
2.5-layer jackets have the same design as 2-layer jackets, except there’s a clear coating sprayed over the waterproof layer. It’s not really a true extra layer of fabric, hence the ‘2.5-layer’ term.
3-layer jackets have a performance, sweat-wicking fabric sewn under the waterproof layer. This protects the waterproof layer from sweat and oil and enhances breathability.
In general, I recommend opting for a 2.5- or 3-layer rain jacket. The mesh inside 2-layer rain jackets can be sticky and uncomfortable, and the waterproof membrane wears down quickly as you sweat into the jacket.
The choice between 2.5- and 3-layer jackets is tougher. 2.5-layer rain jackets—including my top pick, the Arc’teryx Zeta SL—are among the lightest and most breathable jackets around. However, 3-layer jackets typically offer the best stormproofing and durability.
So, think about whether you would rather go fast and light, or slightly heavier but more waterproof. Ultimately, the differences aren’t huge and you can’t go wrong with either style.
The Waterproof Breathable Membrane
The most important layer in any rain jacket is the waterproof layer. This layer is a membrane that’s designed to keep water out, while still allowing hot, humid air to move out of the jacket.
Virtually every company that makes rain jackets has its own proprietary waterproof breathable membrane. Black Diamond has BD.dry. Mountain Hardwear has Dry.Q. Marmot has NanoPro. Patagonia has H2No. In addition, there are several membrane technologies like Gore-Tex Pro, Gore-Tex, Paclite Plus, and eVent that you’ll see used in jackets from Arc’teryx, REI Co-op, and others.
If you’re in a controlled laboratory, there are meaningful performance differences between these different membrane technologies. However, out in the mountains in a downpour, you probably won’t be able to tell the difference. The main thing is to ensure that you’re getting a jacket with a tested, proven waterproof membrane rather than a membrane from a no-name brand.
The Importance of a Good Fit
Fit is another thing that distinguishes different rain jackets. Some jackets are designed to fit snug against your body, while others offer a looser, more bulky fit. Neither is necessarily better—it’s a matter of comfort.
That said, you will want to pay attention to the fit of the hood and the waist. A well-fitting, adjustable hood can go a long way towards keeping water off your face. A longer waist can be annoying for hiking and climbing, but it will also keep water from seeping into your pants.
What Price Can You Expect to Pay?
High-performance rain jackets aren’t cheap. The Arc’teryx Zeta SL costs around $300, and the REI Co-op Stormbolt GTX costs $280. That said, you don’t have to spend a fortune to get good weather protection. My value pick, the Marmot PreCip Eco, costs just $100—a pretty reasonable price for technical outdoor gear.
In general, expect to spend between $150-$250 for a quality lightweight rain jacket, and more if you need heavy-duty protection or want maximum breathability.
Waterproof vs Water-resistant vs Water-repellent
If you’re wondering whether you can use another jacket, like a softshell, as a rain jacket, the answer depends on what conditions you’re heading out in. Jacket manufacturers use three terms to rate a jacket’s ability to keep water out:
Waterproof jackets, like rain jackets, are designed to keep out water no matter how much of it there is. Yes, even waterproof jackets can wet out. But it will take inches of rain, not a quick storm.
Water-repellent jackets, which include many softshell jackets, are a step down in rain resistance. These jackets have a coating like DWR that causes water to bead up and spill off. In a heavy rain, though, water will start to seep through the coating and there’s no waterproof membrane to stop it from reaching you.
Water-resistant jackets hardly stop rain at all. They’re not coated, so it’s simply the hydrophobic properties of the fabric that affords protection. Water-resistant jackets might keep you from getting wet in a drizzle, but don’t expect much once it starts raining hard.
Whether you’re headed out hiking or mountaineering, having the best lightweight rain jacket can make a world of difference when clouds roll in. I recommend the Arc’teryx Zeta SL as the best all-around performance rain jacket, but any of my top 8 picks will keep you dry in a downpour.
*The information on this site is based on research and first-hand experience but should not be treated as medical advice. Before beginning any new activity, we recommend consulting with a physician, nutritionist or other relevant professional healthcare provider.