April 22, 2010
Nothing is simple any more. Getting on (and off) an airplane, changing channels on your TV, figuring out why the "check engine" light keeps flashing on your dashboard. Oh, it's such a long list.
So, why would I think that buying some functional, basic men's rainwear would be easy?
For weeks now I've been buried under a mountain of jargon, quasi-science and hype, trying to make sense of the various high and low-tech fabrics and features. All I was looking for was something you could throw in your backpack or briefcase in case of rain.
This mission took me through the perils of zipper chafe, the nuances of taped seams and the mysteries of waterproof ratings. What I learned — and it applies to womenswear too — is that it doesn't have to be that complicated.
I've looked over dozens of hooded, zip-front jackets like the seven shown here. Then, after trying them on, fooling with all the Velcro and gizmos, reading the encyclopedia of information on the tags, I was just getting more confused.
With the help of a confessed "gear nerd" at Outside magazine — senior editor Grayson Schaffer — I've finally figured out that there are only a few things that you need to know to make a smart purchase that will fit your needs.
What a relief. Schaffer said to pay no attention to all those crazy waterproof ratings that manufacturers boast about. He said, "Those numbers are not going to lead you to the best jacket." Whew!
So, what is going to lead you to the best jacket? Pared down to the essentials, Schaffer's advice is to ask yourself what's important, what you need it for and what features you can do without.
Do you want serious protection: to stay dry in a torrential downpour? "Go with a brand name fabric" (like Gore-Tex, HyVen t, h2no, eVent) "and a name brand jacket" (Marmot, Mountain Hardwear, The North Face, Patagonia, REI, Eastern Mountain Sports, etc.).
Need something that you grab from the back seat of the car to throw on just long enough to dash through the rain into your house? A $30 nylon Coleman from Walmart will do (top left).
It must be really lightweight and supremely packable? There are some jackets that weigh only 8 ounces and squeeze down to the size of your fist, like the Marmot Super Mica, for about $200. But if you can handle 6 more ounces and a little more bulk, save $50 by buying the Marmot Aegis Jacket, the bright blue one at the bottom.
Expect it to last for many years? Look at the seams. They should be taped or welded. If the seams are merely stitched, you're going to have leaks.
Worried about getting hot or clammy? Look for pit zips — zippers at the armpits to ventilate.
Need to carry bulky stuff? Check for large chest pockets that will zip closed (not snap or Velcro only) around the largest thing you haul (a water bottle?).
Want to save money? "What you can do with $50 is not much." But for $150 to $200 "you can find some nice fabric and important features." End-of-season sales help keep price down.
How about really cheap? "If you want full waterproofness but breathability is not important, buy a plastic poncho for $1" — like they sell at sporting events and outdoor concerts. It will work for a single downpour. Ditto a big black plastic bag with holes cut for head and arms.
Still confused? Shops specializing in outdoor gear have salespeople who know the options and can help you decide what you need. Or check gear ratings such as Outside magazine's summer 2010 Buyer's Guide in early May.
What every jacket should have
Draw cord at hem and hood
Ample chest pockets
Collar that protects from zipper chafe
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