A Guided Tour Through the Rain(Gear) Forest

by Rob Kleine

(A version of this article was first published as "A Guided Tour Through the Rain (Gear) Forest," in Outdoor & Nature Photography, Fall 1997, Peter K. Burian, Editor)


Pausing to enjoy the wildflowers.  Edgecomb, Maine. (c) Rob Kleine.  GentlEye ImageryIt is no secret that the most dramatic photo opportunities occur during periods of changing weather. Most often this means that a storm is approaching or clearing. Storms mean precipitation. Whether a sprinkle or a deluge, proper rain gear can mean the difference between getting that unique shot, or having to pack up early and head back to the car. For some practical pointers on selecting rain gear, read on.

The High Tech Approach. Outdoor photographers of Ansel Adams' vintage had two choices: rain gear made of oil skins (fabric saturated with oil to make it waterproof), or waxed cotton. Both fabrics require regular maintenance to remain waterproof. They are bulky, uncomfortable in warm weather, and smelly. The advent of fabrics like PVC and Nylon, and waterproof fabric coatings like polyurethane, made possible light, compact, and low-maintenance waterproof rain gear. The revolution continues. Today's outdoor photographer can choose from a dizzying array of high-performance two-piece rain suits.

Want Waterproof (WP) or Waterproof/Breathable (WP/B)? With today's high-performance fabrics you can take your pick.

WP rain gear is completely waterproof and fairly inexpensive. PVC, from which ‘el cheapo' $5 rain suits are made, and urethane coated nylon are examples of WP fabrics. The downside of waterproof rain gear is that it can become a mobile sauna. The sweat you generate hiking with a full photo pack can't escape. Instead, it condenses inside the jacket soaking you and your clothing. The rain won't get you, but your own sweat will.

Waterproof/Breathable fabrics have a micro-porous membrane that is waterproof yet allows sweat vapor to escape (it breathes). This means you are less likely to get soaked by your own sweat. WP/B rain gear is also useful as general purpose windy weather gear. Gore-Tex is the best known brand of WP/B fabric. Other brands include Campmor's Camp-Tech, Entrant, Lowe alpine's Triple-Point Ceramic, Red Ledge's TH4, Solstice's Microshed, and Ultrex.

How do the WP/B fabrics compare? Imagine a continuum anchored at one end by non-breathable/waterproof fabrics like PVC. At the other end we have completely breathable but not waterproof materials like mosquito netting. Each WP/B fabric falls between these extremes, balancing the tradeoff between breathability and waterproofness. Some coatings, Entrant for example, are more waterproof than breathable. W. L. Gore's new Activent fabric, on the other hand, emphasizes breathability over waterproofness. Gore-Tex falls in between.

Fabric construction -- whether 2-ply or 3-ply (see Glossary) -- also influences WP/B fabric breathability. 3-ply WP/B fabrics breathe better and are more durable than 2-ply fabrics. Which WP/B fabric is best? That depends on how you plan to use your gear. Read the hang tag, ask your retailer, or call the manufacturer to find out how a particular fabric performs.

Many photographers believe WP/B fabrics defy the laws of thermodynamics and breathe constantly so that interior condensation never occurs. Wrong. Think of WP/B fabrics as waterproof or breathable, but not necessarily at the same time. WP/B fabrics breathe best on clear days when exterior humidity is low. At high humidity levels, less sweat passes through the porous membrane. When exterior humidity reaches 100% (it is raining), WP/B fabrics will keep you dry from the rain but no longer breathe.


Wildflower field in Edgecomb, Maine. (c) Rob Kleine. GentlEye Imagery.Buying Tips. Performance is in the details. Construction details and features are as important as the fabric for keeping you dry and comfortable. When examining raingear, consider the following:

  • Are all seams taped or sealed? Leaky seams allow seepage that will soak you in a downpour.
  • Do generous weather flaps cover all zippers and snap openings and pockets? Inexpensive rain suits sometimes cut corners by limiting weather flaps.
  • Is construction robust? Is the stitching straight and well detailed? Will the fabric withstand how you intend to use the gear? Are the snaps, zippers, and cord locks of high quality? Are high abrasion areas reinforced? Does the manufacturer stand behind their product with a confidence-inspiring warranty?
  • Compare styles. Parkas are often long enough to cover your seat, and full of features like a hood and multiple pockets. A parka's extra length is much appreciated when not wearing rain pants. Jackets are often shorter, have fewer features, and may not have a hood. If considering a jacket, make sure it has adequate overlap with the rain pants.
  • Does the jacket have an adjustable, visored hood? Are draw cord ends secured so they won't batter your face in high winds? If you don't like hoods, consider a wide-brimmed hat like OR's Seattle Sombrero Gore-Tex rain hat.
  • Does the jacket have a draw cord at the bottom hem and/or at the waist to seal out weather or seal in warmth?
  • How well does the suit ventilate? Does the jacket have torso-venting mesh pockets or underarm zippers (pit zips)? Can you adjust the cuffs -- via Velcro (TM) or snaps -- to close out the weather or increase ventilation? (See Tips for Staying Dry Sidebar.)
  • Look for chest level pockets that are accessible when wearing your photopack.
  • Buy an oversized jacket that will fit over layers of bulky insulation and your camera.
  • Can you pull the rain pants over the biggest boots you own? Is the waist belt secure so it won't slide down under your photopack? Turn pull-on rain pants inside-out while removing them so boot muck doesn't contaminate the clean inside.
  • Handy are jackets and pants that self-store in their own pockets to form go-anywhere bundles that fit in a pocket or a camera bag.

Enjoying a drink, along the Escalante Route, high above the Colorado River.  (c) Rob Kleine. GentlEye Imagery.Define Your Needs. So, will a $5 vinyl rain suit suffice or will a full-featured $500 techno-marvel WP/B rain suit better suit your needs? It depends:

  • Do you need ruggedness or is light weight and minimum bulk important to you? A $5 rainsuit of PVC is light and compact, but will shred quickly if you hike through a cluster of wild roses. A commercial grade rain suit made of PVC coated cotton will survive the roses, and is excellent for extended wet weather photography, but is heavy and bulky.
  • If you walk only a short distance from car to your subject, or if minimum weight and bulk matter, consider WP raingear of coated nylon. These compact suits will fit in a stray corner of your photo pack and are easy on the wallet. Look for good ventilation features to manage the inevitable condensation.
  • If you often hike or bike to your subject, and you desire versatility from the gear in your photopack, consider one of the excellent rain suits made of a WP/B fabric. I find lightweight WP/B raingear with pit-zips most versatile. Don't buy an expedition grade WP/B outfit unless you have an expedition planned.

Tips for Staying Dry. Despite all my high-tech raingear, I've never stayed 'bone dry' when photographing in the rain. The challenge is to minimize how wet I become. Here's what I do:

  • Deploy raingear the moment it starts raining. It is tempting to say, "I'm almost there, I'll hold-off." Resist the temptation. Keep your clothing dry. Wet clothing increases your risk of hypothermia.
  • Wear quick-drying clothing under my raingear. Clothing under the best raingear will become damp from sweat or leakage. Shirts and pants made of Supplex, a brushed nylon that resembles cotton, are comfortable and dry amazingly fast, even in the dampest conditions.
  • Anticipate changes in activity level. If I am stationary, and temperatures are moderate to cool, interior moisture from sweat doesn't pose a problem. But my body heats up when I start hiking that ridge in search of a better vantage point. Even with WP/B raingear, my sweat quickly begins to condense inside the rainshell and soak my inner layers. Here's what to do:
  • Remove insulation layers worn under the shell before you begin to hike so you don't overheat. Insulation stays dry and you stay comfortable.
  • Ventilate before you overheat. Open the shell's front zipper, pit-zips, or vented pockets to let heat escape before it builds up.
  • Get out of the rain. A tarp provides quick and convenient shelter if you are photographing in one location for an extended time. I prefer a lightweight urethane-coated rip-stop nylon tarp with a catenary cut that facilitates a taught pitch. Ponchos made of coated nylon often feature loops so they can be pitched as a tarp.
Parting Words. Photography in the rain can yield exciting dynamic pictures. But concentration on your photography is possible only if you are comfortable. Inadequate raingear can force you to quit shooting before you had planned, failed raingear will increase your risk of hypothermia. Choose raingear with comfort, safety, and intended applications in mind. Don't skimp. When it is 45 degrees, and you hardly notice the pouring rain, you'll know you made an excellent choice.

Glossary of Fabrics

A photographer, somewhere along the Escalante Route, Grand Canyon National Park, AZ.  (c) Rob Kleine.  GentlEye Imagery.Understanding today's high-tech raingear requires negotiating a world over saturated with techno-jargon. Here's a brief primer on raingear techno-speak:

  • 2-ply construction. The waterproof/breathable (WP/B) coating is affixed to the back of the outer fabric (outer fabric + coating = 2-layers). Because the WP/B coating is exposed, a loose protective liner is added to protect the WP/B layer. This liner can impede breathability.
  • 3-ply construction. The WP/B membrane is sandwiched between the outer fabric and a protective liner (outer fabric + coating + inner protective layer = 3 layers). 3-ply fabric appears to be a single piece of fabric. Because there's no separate lining, 3-ply fabrics breathe better and are more durable than 2-ply fabrics.
  • CampTech. Campmor's proprietary WP/B fabric. Similar to TH4.
  • Dry-Plus Saddle-Cloth. Cabela's proprietary WP/B fabric.
  • Durable Water Repellant (DWR). A treatment applied to all WP/B raingear, and some WP raingear, that causes water to bead on the fabric surface and roll off. Nickwax's TX-Direct Wash-In is specially made for use with WP/B fabrics.
  • Engineered for Extreme Wet Weather(TM). A rating applied to Gore-Tex outerwear that meets W.L. Gore's most stringent design standards. More stringent than Gore's Guaranteed to Keep you Dry criteria, these standards specify features, such double flaps over zipper closures, that ensure the wearer will stay dry during prolonged exposure to the nastiest tantrum Mother Nature can throw.
  • Entrant. A WP/B coating made by Toray Industries.
  • Gore-Tex. The best known brand of WP/B fabrics. Made by W.L. Gore.
  • Guaranteed to KeepYou Dry(TM) . Applied to Gore-Tex outerwear that meets W.L. Gore's design standards for raingear that will keep you dry under most conditions.
  • Microfibers. This relatively new material, made of densely woven high filament threads, is highly windproof, is very water resistant and breathes. Versatech is one brand of microfiber.
  • Microshed (ceramic enhanced). Solstice's proprietary WP/B fabric. The ceramic adds durability.
  • Oil Skins. Historically, referred to fabric saturated with oil to make it waterproof. As used today, oil skins denote commercial-grade raingear made of PVC laminated to a cotton backer fabric.
  • Polyurethane coated fabric. A coating of Polyurethane (sometimes shortened to urethane) is applied to the inside face of the fabric (e.g., nylon, Supplex, or polyester). Polyurethane applied in a heavy coat creates a waterproof nonbreathable fabric. Coated raingear is waterproof, durable, light in weight, and compact. Polyurethane is also used to create microporous WP/B coatings like TH4 and Entrant.
  • Poncho. A large rectangle, made of plastic or coated nylon (better), with a hood in the center for your head and snaps down the side. If you carry a photo pack, consider a backpacking poncho as its longer back will go over a pack.
  • PVC (vinyl). Your standard 'el cheapo' raingear is made from PVC or vinyl. Completely waterproof, not very durable. Does not breathe.
  • PVC laminated to a fabric backing of polyester, nylon, or cotton. Laminated PVC is waterproof and fairly durable. Most commercial grade raingear is made from a durable PVC coating laminated to a heavy backer fabric. Does not breathe.
  • TH4. Red Ledge's proprietary WP/B fabric.
  • Triple-Point Ceramic. Lowe alpine's proprietary WP/B fabric. Similar to Solstice's Microshed.
  • Ultrex. A WP/B coating made by Burlington Industries.
  • Waterproof/Breathable (WP/B). Describes fabrics affixed with a microporous membrane that is waterproof yet let allows perspiration vapors to pass through.

Note: Many WP/B coatings are licensed to various manufacturers who then market the coating under a proprietary name.

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