During a recent trip to Southeast Asia, I found myself on a street corner in Hanoi coveting a waterproof poncho. Though it wasn’t the rainy season, there had been a sudden cloudburst, and with that, ponchos seemed to magically appear everywhere. Upon observing a smartly attired woman, in pencil skirt and high heels, blithely retrieve one from the storage compartment of her motorbike and drape it over her outfit, I felt woefully ill prepared.
I had chosen to live dangerously, and leave my rain gear back home in New York. Why? As a devotee of light packing, I decided that my favorite raincoat, which would have been perfect for this occasion, would get so little use on the sojourn that it wasn’t worth its weight (24 ounces) in my suitcase.
Now contemplating the next journey, to Europe in the fall, I vowed to never again play raincoat roulette. Instead I set out to find a thigh-length waterproof jacket or raincoat that would prevent me from getting drenched while hiking in the Swiss Alps, without branding me as a tourist in Paris.
My wish list included certain non-negotiable essentials. The coat should be waterproof, with an adjustable hood. I wanted something trim and stylish, yet roomy enough to layer a sweater or down vest underneath. Finally, it had to be much lighter than my current coat – ideally less than a pound. As I learned the hard way, the best raincoat is the one that you have in your tote bag or daypack.
I scoured online sites and visited a couple of stores looking for coats or jackets that would meet my requirements. Much had changed during the seven years since I purchased the coat that has accompanied me on many trips: a belted, impermeable trench from Patagonia, in a style that has been discontinued. In a favorite family photo, I was wearing that coat when I celebrated the Fourth of July in 2012 by romping through the snow on top of the Jungfrau mountain in Switzerland.
While not about to retire this serviceable standby, I was tempted by the growing category of so-called “packable” raincoats aimed at avid travelers who, like me, wanted to stay dry, in style. Eddie Bauer’s Girl on the Go Trench ($149), for example, is designed for universal appeal. Made of waterproof polyester, in a choice of six colors, it comes in regular, petite, tall and plus sizes.
In almost every respect, the Girl on the Go Trench lives up to its winsome name. It’s lined, with a sturdy two-way zipper covered by a placket that snaps; a large security pocket on the inside and two hand-warmer pockets on the outside; a hang loop; and an adjustable, removable hood. Trouble is, all these attributes make it heavier than I would like. This coat weighed only three ounces less on my postage scale than the one I left behind on the last trip.
One route to lightness in packable coats is the fabric. New technology has expanded the market once dominated by Gore-Tex – the original breathable, waterproof fabric. Some manufacturers now use patented equivalents, made of laminated nylon, polyester and synthetic blends.
But here’s the rub: Though many products claim to be “waterproof,” the question is, “for how long, and in how much rain?” Consider the Royal Robbins Oakham Waterproof Trench Jacket ($149), an unlined coat made of polyester and spandex that’s silky to the touch. It covered me to an inch above the knee and weighed 12.8 ounces (with tags) on my postage scale. (Unless otherwise indicated, weights given here are based on manufacturers’ claims, which don’t typically indicate the size.) The hood can be zipped into the neckband, and the whole coat packs into its own pocket. Two toggle adjustments (one on the hood and the other at the waist) make it suitable for many body types.
Still, I raised an eyebrow at comments on various websites from customers who said they had gotten soaked while wearing this so-called waterproof trench. When my husband, who was considering the men’s version (a jacket), queried the company about efficacy, a customer service representative replied, by e-mail, that the Oakham styles were “great for a light rain or heavy rain for a short period of time.” While we admired his candor, for me that was a deal-breaker.
Another issue is the features that one may have to sacrifice in order to cut down on weight. The Royal Robbins coat, for example, is not lined, has no internal security pocket or hanging loop. And the two large, zipped front pockets are mesh on the interior, which made me think they might not be sturdy enough to support the weight of my iPhone.
Unfortunately, stripped-down features did not necessarily mean a stripped-down price. Most packable raincoats retail for between $150 and $200, and some brands are priced considerably higher. (Although I quote manufacturers’ suggested retail prices here, during Memorial Day sales many of these coats were available for between 20 and 50 percent less.)
In pursuit of the perfect packable coat, I narrowed the choices online and ordered 12 raincoats (all returnable, most with free shipping). As is my policy, I didn’t receive complimentary samples from any of the manufacturers or compensation for mentioning them. If you purchase a coat on Amazon using one of the links below, I receive a small commission. But since available sizes, colors and prices differ from one retailer to the next, it pays to compare each coat on various sites before you make your purchase.
Besides the coats already mentioned, or featured below as leading contenders, I tried on the Cole Haan Signature Back Bow Packable Hooded Raincoat ($200), which I rejected because of its matronly styling and shiny fabric, and the shapeless Patagonia Torrentshell City Coat ($199); though attractive on the model in the Patagonia video, it made me look like I was wearing a tent. Of the various offerings from The North Face, I eliminated the Laney Trench II Rain Jacket ($180) and the City Breeze Rain Trench ($179), both of which were boxy, with exterior tabs at the waist that gave them an unflattering, smock-like shape.
That left the following six coats or jackets, any one of which would have served me well. Ultimately, I made the choice based on fit, and the primary purpose for which I intended to use the coat. Here they are, arranged according to each one’s greatest appeal.
Best value, trail-to-city
With a drop hem in back that came to mid-thigh on me, this jacket offers a lot of coverage at an affordable price. And though it weighs only 14.1 ounces, it incorporates an impressive combination of features: a wide placket over the zipper secured by snaps; breathable mesh lining; interior security pocket; adjustable cuffs; a two-way zipper; toggled hood and hanging loop. The only thing I might miss on the trail were zippered underarm vents.
Available in a range of colors and prints, the black version makes the transition from trail to city most readily. There’s no mistaking it for anything but a rain jacket, but it’s one you’ll want to carry with you, just in case.
Most versatile and lightweight, trail-to-city
Marmot Celeste ($185)
Like the Columbia Splash A Little II, this trail gear, which comes to mid-thigh, can make it in the big city, especially if purchased in black. It costs significantly more because it’s constructed of a heavier, more attractive fabric – Marmot’s MemBrain® Eco Waterproof. A narrow placket, which avoids the need for snaps, helps keep it at a wispy 8.4 ounces.
The big surprise is that, feature by feature, it hit almost all the items on my wish list: two-directional zipper, internal security pocket; large, zippered exterior pockets; adjustable cuffs. Its hood tucks into the neck, though that adds bulk around the collar. A rear drop hem and kick pleat in the back is a fashionable touch and practical for bikers. The cinchable waist can be adjusted for a variety of body types or for layering. The only things that would make this jacket even better are underarm vents and a hang loop.
Best coverage, trail-to-city
Slimmer cut than the Celeste, the Marmot Essential fit well without cinching, whether or not I had another layer underneath. It also had the underarm vents and a hang loop that I missed in the Celeste.
The Essential is longer (with a center back length of 32.5 inches), which provides more coverage and a silhouette that looks better in the city. The Gore-Tex fabric used in its construction, and a sturdier (also two-way) zipper, contribute to the fact that the Marmot Essential weighs about six ounces more (14.2 ounces) than the other model. But it rolls into its own hood to form a very compact bundle.
If you’re sick of basic black, this coat is available in two different shades of gray and in Arctic Navy, which is much darker and richer in person than it looks online. One quibble: Thin Velcro pieces that secure the placket (in lieu of snaps) collect lint and could snag scarves or sweaters.
Most compact, stylish coat, trail-to-city
Kühl Jetstream Trench ($199)
A relatively sleek emergency raincoat that weighs only 10.6 ounces and stuffs into its own pocket? That’s the appeal of the Kühl Jetstream Trench. Paper-thin, without a lining, it cinches at the waist and is lower in the back, with a curved hem and small kick pleat – giving you extra coverage if you sit down on the trail. In black (it also comes in wine, medium blue and olive), it’s a coat you could wear in any European city without looking too much like a backpacker.
If I were buying two raincoats, this would be my second – to carry during New York summers in my tote bag instead of a foldable umbrella (which weighs about the same and is a lot less useful); to pack for weekend getaways; and to take to Asia during the rainy season, when downpours tend to be intense and intermittent.
What kept it from being my first choice was that it was too baggy when worn uncinched, and too blousy with the waist toggle tightened. For a trip in which I might be spending a lot of time in a raincoat, mostly in cities, and with some hiking in between, this wasn’t the silhouette I wanted. Still, it’s a fabulous coat for the times when every ounce counts.
Best value, city-to-trail
This slender-cut jacket is meant for the city but can do double duty on the trail. It has all the features I was looking for: a hang loop; an interior security pocket large enough to hold an iPhone 8; two large side pockets, also with zippers; and a sturdy two-way zipper in the front. It adjusts without Velcro: The hood has a toggle, and there are snaps on the cuffs, though they don’t help the fact that the sleeves are much too long (a common complaint online). This coat has no adjustment in the waist.
Unlike other waterproof rain gear, this one is constructed of fabric that doesn’t make a crinkly sound (it’s waterproofed twill), and the coat has a breathable liner. The trade-off is that all these amenities add to its weight of 17.8 ounces, which is about one-half pound more than the Kühl Jetstream, for example. If you don’t mind that, the Urban Navy is a deep dark color that’s a refreshing alternative to black.
High-tech elegance, city-to-trail
I would not have even considered this coat but for the fact that it was on sale. Once I tried it on, I was torn between the Codetta and the City Midi Trench from The North Face. This one was slightly lighter (15 ounces), but its most unique element was that it was made of Gore-Tex, with a breathable backing, so did not need a lining. Two rear pleats would appeal to bikers; for me they were just an attractive architectural detail.
The drawbacks: There was no interior pocket, and the waterproof zippers, both on the front and on the side pockets, were sticky. Unlike the City Midi Trench, this coat couldn’t be closed by just using the snaps on the storm flap, because there weren’t enough of them for that. Still, the Codetta fit me much better, both in the torso and the sleeves.
Though the Arc’teryx Codetta and the Kühl Jetstream Trench are made in China, all my other final contenders are manufactured in Vietnam. I would have been happy to have any of them with me a few months ago during that sudden downpour in Hanoi.
Deborah L. Jacobs is the author most recently of Four Seasons in a Day: Travel, Transitions and Letting Go of the Place We Call Home, about her adventures – and misadventures – living in France. Follow her on Twitter at @djworking and join her on Facebook here. You can subscribe to future blog posts by using the sign-up box on her website’s homepage.