Waterproof, breathable fabrics keep out rain, but let sweat through so you don't get 'boil in the bag cyclist' syndrome.
Even the best breathable fabrics can't transpire the sweat of a cyclist working hard, so look out for zips and vents to help.
Classic 'hardshell' fabrics combine a waterproof, breathable membrane with DWR (durable water repellent) coating to make water run off and usually an inner layer to protect the membrane.
'Softshell' fabrics like Gore Windstopper are softer — the clue's in the name — and thick enough to provide warmth as well as water resistance; they're very well suited to British conditions.
The year-round unpredictability of the UK weather can make dressing for cycling tricky, so whether your typical riding consists of commuting to the office or 100-mile sportives, you need a high quality waterproof jacket in case you get caught in the rain.
The fabric is the most important point to consider when you buy a jacket. Our advice is not to skimp if you want a decent high-quality jacket that is going to provide years of outstanding service. You really do get what you pay for.
Making a waterproof fabric is relatively easy; a bin bag is waterproof. Making a fabric waterproof and breathable, so it lets sweat out, now that is a lot more challenging, but it’s not impossible. With a hard-working cyclist inside a jacket producing a lot of sweat, the fabric needs to let water vapour escape outwards, while stopping the rainwater getting in. Fortunately, water vapour can pass through pores in the fabric that are too small to let water get through as a liquid.
There are all manner of fabrics on the market. Some have a waterproof treatment applied to the actual weave of the fabric (the lightest and most breathable option), some have a Durable Water Repellent (DWR) layer that causes water to bead up and roll off, and some have a membrane sandwiched between several layers. Many fabrics use more than one approach. Membrane waterproofs have a DWR coating that provides the first line of defence against the wet.
It’s also worth considering that many jackets will need to be reproofed regularly to replenish the DWR. If water isn’t beading off your jacket, and it was when it was new, then it needs reproofing. There's plenty of choice of reproofing products. It's typically a matter of just putting your jacket through the washing machine with this special proofing product added.
Pay close attention to manufacturers' descriptions when buying a jacket. They can claim to be waterproof, water resistant or water repellant. To be considered waterproof, a jacket must be made from a waterproof fabric and have taped seams. Anything else is water resistant, which will hold up to some rain but eventually water will find a way in. Water repellant fabrics use a hydrophobic treatment that reduces the amount of water the fabric absorbs. A water resistant jacket might be okay for short showers, but if you're likely to be out in prolonged heavy rain you want a waterproof jacket.
Fully waterproof jackets will have taped seams to stop water getting in, while some might just have taped seams in key places. Fewer seams provide less opportunity for water to get in, but more panels, and therefore more seams, often lead to improved fit, and better fit leads to greater comfort on the bike. Some manufacturers are now combining different fabrics, some with stretchy panels, to improve fit.
Dropped tails and adjustability
Waterproof jackets regularly have dropped tails, to keep your lower back and bum covered up when you're crouched low over the bike. Some jackets even have a stowable drop tail.
For the same reason, the arms are usually given some extra length so they don’t ride up when you're stretched out on the bike, leaving your wrists exposed. The collar and cuffs are places for rain to get inside so look for a design that is close fitting with elasticated and/or adjustable openings. Drawcords at the hem and neck and Velcro cuffs let you adjust the fit.
Even the best fabrics are not breathable enough to cope with the amount of sweat put out by a cyclist working hard, for example while climbing a hill. A full-length zip obviously provides good ventilation, but if it’s raining heavily you don’t want to be opening it up and letting the water in.
Some jackets therefore have various ventilation options — zips on the sleeves or in the arm pits, for example — to let some of the moist air escape. Extra zips and features like pockets cost more money though and will push the price up, plus they add weight.
The reason you get sweaty inside a jacket is because your sweat rate exceeds the capability of the jacket to pass the moisture out. For this reason some jackets have a mesh lining that helps remove the moisture and makes it a lot more comfortable and less clingy on bare arms, but all that mesh adds weight and bulk.
Top jackets for all budget — from £20 to £250
Waterproof jackets range from heavy duty, fully featured designs to ultra minimalist emergency jackets. There’s a huge choice, so you can choose the right hacket for your riding situation, whether it's a jacket for commuting, touring, racing, training or sportives. We've picked 13 of the best that represent the variety of choice and what you can expect to pay. Many of these jackets are offered in both a men and women's cut and different colours too.
The B'Twin 500 High Visibility Waterproof Cycling Jacket provides excellent rain protection with a coated membrane material and taped seams plus plenty of reflective details to help you been seen on the commute to work. There are vents and breathability is very good. For £25 it's a good deal.
Altura's Microlite Showerproof jacket is designed to be packed down and carried for emergency use. It is a simple, single skin waterproof jacket more suited to light showers than prolonged downpours, but at this price (reduced from its usual £40) it's an absoliute steal.
The Proviz Reflect 360's unique feature is that it's entirely made from reflective material. If you spend a lot of time on the roads in the dark it'll certainly get you noticed. The cut of the jacket is more commuter style than race so it's safe to assume that a streetlit urban environment is where the designers expect it to be used most.
The Reflect 360 is water resistant rather than Proviz claiming any waterproofing ratings but the material keeps out moderate rain for a decent amount of time backed up by taped seams and a storm zip. The rear drops slightly to which also adds protection if you aren't using mudguards.
The dhb Classic Rain Shell Jacket does what it says on the tin, at a price that would get you an arm and half a collar from some other brands. It's not loaded with tech – in fact there's almost no tech on show – but if sixty quid is your budget it's hard to go past.
The FS260-Pro Adrenaline Race Cape is a great garment from Endura, proving breathable race capes can be relatively affordable. Packable race-light 'shells' are usually either super-expensive yet breathable and comfortable, or cheap and boil-in-the-bag. I'm delighted to report here that the FS260-Pro straddles the two definitions.
It performs very well. Of course, there's a limit to how effective any breathable fabric can be. Even industry standard Gore-Tex meets its match in the right (or wrong) combination of humidity, warmth and exertion. But, if you're riding at a high tempo, the Endura keeps you as dry as I've experienced in a shell such as this. It works best in cooler conditions – and layering up too much negates its effectiveness – but it really is quite impressive.
The Showers Pass Pro Tech ST is a light weight, clear race cape, so that when the heavens open you can stay dry and your club or team kit can still shine through on race day or just on a training ride.
The Bontrager Velocis S1 Softshell Jacket keeps the cold off your front, lets the heat out at the back and provides an impressive level of winter protection. It might have saved our tester Neil from a dose of exposure on one occasion.
The Altura Podium Night Vision Waterproof Jacket is a bit of a gem: a slim-fitting jacket that provides very good waterproofing and packs down small enough to stow easily in a rear pocket.
Altura says the fabrics it uses (mainly nylon with stretchy polyester panels) have a waterproof rating of 7,000mm. That means this jacket should be able to withstand moderate rain, and that has been our experience. Water doesn't get through in these conditions. The zip isn't waterproof but it has a storm flap behind it that does a pretty good job of stopping water seeping through.
The Altura Podium Elite Waterproof Jacket features added waterproofing to a well fitting softshell jacket.
Stu had it out in the worst of weather and thought that "the rain beads on the outside for a while, but after 15-20 minutes or so of constant rain the fabric does get penetrated. You do stay warm, though, thanks to the insulation, so in my eyes it's not a major concern. I'd rather be warm and wet than dry and cold."
If you're after a highly waterproof jacket and are willing to accept a small amount of extra bulk over some other offerings, the Polaris Fuse is well worth looking at. Its waterproof quality is up with the best, keeping you dry in rain that, speaking from experience, would see others fail. It's really well made, and represents good value for money.
Made with lightweight stretch waterproof fabric, the jacket's breathability is good enough that you don't notice any uncomfortable overheating – even in our wet yet warm UK winter like the one we've just had.
The Pearl Izumi Women's Elite WXB jacket is on the expensive side, but it will keep you warm and dry on horrible days. Lack of storage could be a problem, but there is room for that in your jersey. It is worth the sacrifice just to stay this dry.
The first thing you notice about this jacket is the high visibility colour scheme – in the bright yellow and pink you really shouldn't be missed. Love it or hate it, it's perfect for day time riding visibility, and there are enough reflective accents on the rear and the arms to make sure you stand out come evening too.
The Endura FS260-Pro SL Shell is an exceptionally breathable, fully-fledged miserable-weather jacket with a host of features but no excess faff. It's a cracker.
Endura has used a three-layer Exoshell40 fabric (in black or fluoro green) of amazing thinness and only 70g per square metre (for reference, even a thin merino baselayer is twice that). The fabric can apparently breathe 60 litres of moisture per square metre per day, and has a waterproofness measure of 18,000mm (meaning a tube of water 18m tall with a patch of the fabric over the bottom wouldn't seep through). The whole thing is fully tape-sealed – even around the small square stretchy panels near the hip. It's a masterclass in detailing.
The Parentini Mossa is a race-fit waterproof and windproof jersey that copes well with the rapidly changing and impossible-to-predict British winter conditions.
The Mossa is actually fully waterproof, not just water resistant. This is achieved with the Windtex Membrane fabric, which comprises two layers sandwiching a membrane, plus a hydrophobic treatment providing water repellency. Water simply beads off the fabric and even on a ride of 2-3 hours in steady rain, the Mossa copes admirably.
There are waterproof jackets that are best suited to being emergency jackets, rolled up in a rear jersey pocket in the hope that they'll never actually be required. Then there are jackets that are there to be worn on the wettest, filthiest ride, giving all-day comfort and making a bad day not so terrible. The Showers Pass Women's Elite 2.1 Jacket sits firmly in the latter camp and does a great job of it too.
The first thing that's noticeable about the Women's Elite 2.1 Jacket – aside from the not inconsiderable price – is how well featured and how meticulously designed it is. This is not a walking or outdoor waterproof repurposed for cycling, it's a cycling jacket from the ground up.
Gore has been making bike gear for over 30 years now and some of what it's learned has been distilled into this Oxygen 2.0 Gore-Tex Active jacket, which is an excellent hard shell for winter riding in all conditions. At £200 it's expensive, but you won't be disappointed with the performance.
The Active in the name refers to Gore's Active membrane, which is "built for extreme breathability and ideal for highly aerobic, done in a day activities", according to Gore. "All components are built for optimized sweat management to ensure extreme breathability and optimum comfort in high aerobic conditions. The performance is also supported by a tight fitting and minimalistic garment design.' So there you go: expect a high quality race-fit top that's good for sweaty, high-intensity riding.
POC's Essential Rain Jacket is pretty much the pinnacle of hi-viz cycling kit thanks to its fit and performance but at £250 is it also the most expensive. The POC is a three-layer waterproof. The outer layer of fabric has been treated with a DWR (durable water repellent) coating to give an added layer of water resistance. Next up is a membrane that keeps water out but has holes small enough to allow sweat out as vapour. Finally you get an internal layer for comfort.
Gore stands out in the cycle jacket market because it designs and develops its own fabrics, many of which are used by the leading brands in the market. Gore Bike Wear's stunning One Active waterproof jacket comes as close to the Holy Grail of perfect waterproof jacket as any we've tested.
Gore's One Active fabric replaces the durable water repellent treatment of its previous Active fabric with a new Permanent Beading Surface. This allows Gore to reduce the construction of the jacket from three to two layers, improving breathability, making it very easy to pack away and reducing its weight to not much more than an emergency gilet, It's the benchmark lightweight waterproof jacket.
This thing is crazy-light. At 123g, it's possibly the ultimate pocket-jacket. The idea is that it’ll go more or less unnoticed in a jersey pocket until you need proper protection from the rain.
The Gore-Tex Active technology with a new permanent beading surface is an innovative fabric construction that eliminates the textile on the outer face of the fabric, resulting in a two layer fabric that is lighter weight and doesn’t absorb moisture on the outer face,” says Castelli.
We're eagerly awaiting one to test.
The quality of workmanship really shows in Vulpine's kit, which oozes attention to detail in both design and manufacture. The Harrington Jacket is no different; think of it as a high performing all weather guardian in the guise of high quality classic British tailoring. The men's version is just as good.
Dressing for the UK winter got a whole lot easier with the Sportful Fiandre Extreme Neoshell, a comfortable, warm and waterproof jacket that copes well with a wide range of weather conditions. It really is one jacket to rule in all weathers.
Like the rest of Sportful's Fiandre range, this jacket is designed to cope with variable and constantly changing conditions. It's been race-tested, like all Sportful's top-end clothing, by the Tinkoff-Saxo professional cycling team. It's designed to keep you warm and dry, and be breathable enough to avoid overheating.
David has worked on the road.cc tech team since July 2012. Previously he was editor of Bikemagic.com and before that staff writer at RCUK. He's a seasoned cyclist of all disciplines, from road to mountain biking, touring to cyclo-cross, he only wishes he had time to ride them all. He's mildly competitive, though he'll never admit it, and is a frequent road racer but is too lazy to do really well. He currently resides in the Cotswolds.