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Rubber vs. Breathable Rain Gear for Hunting in Alaska

Dalton Gray,
November 16, 2022

          One of the most widely disputed gear topics amongst hunters today is rain gear. Having a rain shell to protect your insulation layers from precipitation is not only important for comfort and staying dry, but essential for survival in the backcountry. Even with the dozens of different options in our modern gear technology, rain gear remains a choice between only two options. Rubber and breathable rain gear.

          Rubber rain gear has been around for many years now and has been a proven waterproof solution all over the world, no matter the climate. Rubber rainwear is usually made by taking a nylon fabric and coating the exterior of it with a thin PVC coating that is 100% impenetrable by any exterior, or interior moisture. The fact that it is impenetrable from either side by moisture, however, is what some consider to be the major shortcoming of the design.

Two hunters wearing rubber PVC rain gear while hunting deer in south-east Alaska

When rubber rain gear is worn in a situation where the user is sweating and producing an excess amount of body heat, the shell traps body heat, therefore producing more perspiration and soaking the layers under the rain shell. This of course creates a problem in the backcountry when your layers become saturated, and you have no heat source to dry them out.

The benefit of an impenetrable rubber rain layer is that even if your layers become wet with your own perspiration, you still have a solid layer to protect from the driving rain and wind that will suck the heat right from your body and induce hypothermia in an extreme situation.

James Paine wearing rubber PVC rain gear while hunting caribou in the Interior of Alaska.

You can generally expect to get one or two good seasons of use out of a set of rubber rain gear before you’ll want to replace it. Over time, rubber rain gear will develop thin spots in its PVC coating and small holes or tears will allow water to pass through. The silver lining to replacing rubber rain gear every few years is that it won’t set you back more than $100 dollars per item for a jacket and pants/bibs.

          Now let’s discuss the more popular option, breathable rain gear. There are multiple companies on the market that produce quality breathable rain gear, and for the sake of this article, we’re not going to discuss any specific brands or technology that they use to push their product. We’re going to assume that all breathable rain gear is created equally to understand how breathable rain gear functions.

Author Dalton Gray in Kuiu breathable rain gear

          The W.L. Gore company introduced the first commercially produced breathable rain shell in 1976 and advertised it as protection from not only the elements, but also your body’s own moisture. The advancement in fabrics was achieved by stretching a fabric, PTFE (Polytetrafluoroethylene) and using it as a porous barrier to keep liquid out, and allow water vapor to escape from the underneath. The market was eager to test the new technology and it gained popularity quickly. However, it didn’t take long for its shortcomings to surface.

It was discovered that with enough pressure, the fabric membrane became saturated and allowed water to penetrate the barrier. Over the years this problem has been resolved by laminating multiple layers of fabric together to form a tighter barrier to fight against the incoming moisture, but still affords breathability to fight against overheating and wetting out the layers underneath. It is common in todays market to see 2-layer and 3-layer laminate waterproof apparel, with 3-layer membranes being the most prevalent. The face fabric will vary from one model to the next, depending on if the goal is durability or packability. Most will have a very similar waterproof membrane on the inside of the garment, no matter what the face fabric is. A DWR (Durable Water Repellant) coating is applied to the face fabric to aid in water proofing and helps keep the face fabric from becoming saturated and heavy.  

Harsh landscape with thunderstorm in the mountains. Photo by Madeline Paine

It is important to understand that breathable rain gear does not keep moisture out if the inside of the membrane is wet. Breathable rain gear allows water in its vapor state to exit the pores of the waterproof layer, but does not allow moisture in its liquid state to enter from the exterior. Properly layering underneath the garment protects the inside of the rain gear from sweat saturation. If the inside of the membrane becomes saturated, it will allow moisture to pass through from the outside, and it will no longer protect the user from the elements.

Many hunters choose rubber rain gear because of a past failure with breathable rain gear. In many cases, however, these failures could have been avoided if the user had layered properly underneath of the breathable rain gear. This is not always the case though, and breathable rain gear has one major downfall that there is no solution for.

Coastal storms along Alaska's south-east region.

The waterproofness of a breathable membrane is measured by placing a 1” diameter tube on top of the membrane and adding water one millimeter at a time to the cylinder until the fabric allows moisture to leak through. Waterproof ratings can range from 5,000 – 20,000 millimeters of static water pressure. A premium waterproof/breathable fabric is rated for 20K mm. or more of water pressure before it will wet through. This is an extremely high waterproof rating and will only be matched in the backcountry if gale force winds are encountered with a driving rain. An unlikely scenario, but not impossible.

          There are certainly pros and cons to either choice and neither is right for every task. For the dedicated lightweight mountain hunter who values packability, weight savings, and breathability, breathable rain gear is the clear choice. If you encounter a storm where your premium rain gear is allowing water to pass through it, you’ll likely be hiding under a tarp or in your tent until a storm of such magnitude passes. For the hunter that isn’t concerned about weight savings, packability, or potentially overheating, rubber rain gear is a great choice. There is no storm on the planet that will push water through a solid rubber membrane.

Author Dalton Gray in Stone Glacier M5 breathable rain gear while hunting deer.

          I have personally had experience with both rubber rain gear, and breathable rain gear in the backcountry of Alaska. For coastal hunts where the weather is constantly wet and windy, I choose rubber rain gear. This is also partly due to the fact that most hunts on the coast of Alaska are done out of a camp where you have the ability to dry your gear at night. However, when I’m counting ounces in preparation for a sheep hunt, I choose my lightweight breathable rain gear every time. It dries quickly without a heat source, takes up less space in my pack, and adds very little to my overall pack weight.

Hopefully this comparison provides insight to each product and will help you decide which is right for your intended use in the backcountry.

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