Waterproof jackets are one of the main pieces of kit you’ll own if you ride regularly, and it’s worth spending a bit of money on one, as the payoff in terms of comfort will be immense. There’s nothing worse than feeling soaked with rain or sweat halfway into your ride.
However, the price range is huge, and varies from entry level jackets around £30 all the way up to over £300. Within this, there will be a huge variety of jackets designed for various purposes, with differing levels of tech.
As with most cycling kit, choose the option that suits the majority of riding you’ll be doing, and a realistic budget. Jackets may seem expensive, particularly if you just want to use it for your daily commute, but they are one of those garments where you really do get what you pay for. There will always be a trade-off.
If you need a jacket for cycling to work with a rucksack, for example, a tight fitting roady jacket might not be the ideal option. Likewise if you have a long way to ride and tend to pedal hard, a jacket from the lower end of the scale may make you feel like boil-in-the-bag cyclist.
Generally speaking, entry-level waterproof jackets tend to be looser fitting. This allows you plenty of freedom of movement and room for layers, but also means spare fabric, which can drag in the wind and slow you down. This won’t be so much of a problem on urban commutes, but may be more of an issue if you’re into long road rides.
Female specific jackets will feature, predictably enough, feminine cuts. How generous they are in different areas of the anatomy (eg the bust) will vary between brands, and also depend on whether the jacket has a race/performance cut.
As you go up in price, you’ll tend to get more fit options, and jackets will be aimed at particular types of riding, for example road, MTB and commuting.
Road jackets tend to be cut on the more fitted side of the scale, often with sleeves that are cut so they fit to the shape of the arm while riding. The snug fit cuts down wind resistance, so you don’t have lots of fabric catching the breeze and slowing you down.
Mountain bike jackets, even the more fitted ones, will tend to be of a looser cut around the body and arms than road jackets. Mountain bikers move around a lot more on their bikes, so need room in the fabric to allow this.
You’ll also find that you start getting the aforementioned race or performance cut jackets as you head towards the top end of the scale within a companies range. These will be very fitted, high performance options, designed with racing in mind.
Most cycling jackets will also have a drop tail – a longer cut at the back, designed to cover your lower back and derriere while riding. Again, as a general rule this cut will be more pronounced on road cycling jackets, as road riders tend to be leant considerably further forward in the saddle.
Ideally, you want the sleeves to be long enough to cover the tops of your hands when riding, so if you are trying a jacket on in store, assume the position you’d be in while riding. Yes, it might look a bit silly, but it’s better than finding out later on that half your forearms are exposed when you’re riding on the low position on your road bike bars.
This is how resistant the fabric of the jacket is to water, and is obviously the main reason you’re looking at a waterproof jacket in the first place. There is always a big trade-off here with breathability – but more of that in the next section.
Waterproofing is measured in two ways and is set to a British Standard. You’ll see a garments level of water proofing or water resistance measured either in millimetres (for example, 1500mm) or in PSI (pounds per square inch).
The first measurement, in millimetres, is the most commonly used one and refers to the fabrics ‘hydrostatic head’ – how many millimetres of water can one square inch of the fabric withstand before the water starts to leak through. Waterproof fabric will generally range between 500 to 2,000mm.
The chances are if you are doing any kind of exercise, like cycling, even gently, you will sweat. If this water vapour can’t escape, then it will condense on the inside of your waterproof jacket, it won’t take your body heat with it, and you’ll end up with that ‘boil-in-the-bag’ feeling.
Breathability is the measure of how permeable a jacket is this water vapour, and it’s one of the main selling points of mid-to-high range waterproof jackets.
Things that are completely waterproof, for example plastic, are also not breathable. You can have an entry-level jacket that’s really waterproof, but won’t be very breathable.
This is why as you go up in price you start to get expensive waterproof and breathable membranes, like GoreTex and eVent. These work in various ways, but essentially have very tiny pores in the fabric – small enough to prevent large water droplets getting through, but allow water vapour from your body to escape.
Breathability is measured in the somewhat complicated grams of water vapour that can pass through a square meter of fabric in a 24hour period, or g/m2/d, or - as you’ll mostly likely see it written – g. Much shorter. Again, jackets range between 500g and 2,000g.
There are other elements that can help keep you dry and cool when riding, and are used a lot in entry-level jackets, and they include vents.
Even a super-breathable jacket may need a bit of help keeping you sweat-free if you really start putting the effort in. Many jackets at different price points will overcome this issue by including vents.
At the lower end of the price scale, vents are used as the main way of allowing water vapour from your sweat to escape, so you tend to see large vents located on the upper bag, which is one of the sweatiest regions.
On most jackets that feature vents, they’ll also be located under the underarms, for obvious reasons.
As you go up in price, the vents are there to complement the breathability of the fabric, and can really help avoid that boil-in-the-bag feeling. These will tend to be on the underarms, with a zip closure so you can open them up when you need.
There’s an obvious trade off here as having open vents allows rain to get in as well as sweat to evaporate out, so they’ll tend to be located where they’re slightly sheltered.
[part title="Seams and zips"]
Anywhere where there’s a join or opening, such as a seam, is a weak spot in the waterproofing where water can get in, but for a jacket to be deemed waterproof it has to make sure this can’t happen. A lot of waterproof jackets will have taped seams, where an extra strip of waterproof material is glued to the back of the seam, providing extra protection.
Some of the more expensive jackets also have ‘sonically welded’ seams which sounds like something out of Doctor Who – slightly disappointingly it just means that the fabric has literally been welded together at the joins. This does make it very waterproof though.
For similar reasons, zips can also be an area where water has a chance of getting in. More expensive jackets will have water resistant zips that have a coating or cover that prevents water getting through.
You’ll also want to look out for a ‘zip garage’ at the top of the zip; this is a little cover that will help prevent the zip toggle rubbing when you’ve got the jacket fully done up.
[part title="Other features"]
Some cycling jackets come with hoods, some don’t. This is a matter of personal preference and what kind of riding you do. A hood may be great for an exposed rainy MTB ride, but might obstruct your peripheral vision if you are using it on your urban commute. It can also be hard to get one that fits comfortably under a helmet.
The best of both worlds is a jacket with a removable hood, or one that can be packed into the neckline.
Pockets are always handy. You’ll tend to find that you get side pockets more commonly on entry level and MTB jackets, and race cut and road jackets may have them on the back of the jacket or not at all.
Some jackets also have a mesh or fleece lining. This is a good news for comfort, as the inside of a jacket can feel cold and plastic-y on the skin. It also means some extra warmth and insulation. On the downside, it makes the jacket heavier and bulkier.
You can also get packable jackets, which are designed to crumple up to a small size so they can be carried easily in the bottom of a bag or in a jersey pocket, in case of unexpected rain. At the higher end of the price scale, you can find some very highly rated waterproof jackets that pack down very small indeed, like the Gore Alp-X jacket.