No matter what kind of riding you do, your jacket is the crown jewel of your cycling kit; it keeps the elements at bay, allowing you to cycle in comfort despite the conditions. Packing multiple jackets in your bottomless backpack or panniers is a reality that just doesn’t exist, so you need to be smart about getting the right jacket for your rides.
When you step into a store, you may get trapped in a Pandora’s Box of lingo-laden information hangtags that are filled with more jargon than you can shake a stick at. BikeRoar is here to help you understand the options and answer the question, "What makes a good cycling jacket?"
The key characteristics of an outdoor jacket are: waterproofing, breathability, weight, and fit. These define the performance of any decent jacket that you should consider taking along on your bicycling adventures. However, like most things in life, none of the four stand alone; optimizing one takes some level of sacrifice for another. To get maximum waterproofing you sacrifice breathability and fit, while a breathable jacket usually means it won’t keep all the rain out. The best balance can be hard to achieve without further looking into the aspects of a good jacket
What makes a jacket waterproof?
It’s easy enough to understand; a waterproof jacket will keep the water out, but there’s more to waterproofing than that. Most jacket manufacturers either employ a waterproof coating on their products or they use a waterproof membrane between the layers of fabric that makes up their jackets. Higher end products will use both these methods to keep water out. How does fabric manage to do this? Well buckle up and let’s dive deeper.
Gore-Tex© has become synonymous with keeping you dry, as it is the most widely recognized brand of waterproofing fabric technology. What makes Gore-Tex fabric waterproof is the method used by most manufacturers; they sandwich a semi-permeable membrane between two different layers of polyester to make a fabric that lets some moisture out (that's breathability), but none back in.
The ability to manage moisture can be negatively impacted if jacket fabric is dirty, which clogs the pores, or if you use abrasive detergents when washing. Proper care of your rain jacket is a must and your should follow manufacturer instructions to maintain and restore water repellency of the durable water repellent (DWR) surface treatment.
Proper seam stitching is another crucial aspect of a jacket's ability to be waterproof. When you think about it, a seam in a jacket is a series of holes that can allow for water to seep in, and don’t be fooled, if your jacket has unprotected seams it will leave you soaking wet in minutes. Unprotected seams? Most lower-end jackets will use a waterproof fabric, but will not protect the seams, whereas a better-quality product will apply a rubberized "seam tape" inside of the jacket, to all the seam work, making the seams waterproof. This is why we DO NOT recommend jackets with extra sewn on reflective strips or piping without seam sealing, as they render the jacket useless in the rain.
Why does a waterproof jacket need to be breathable?
If a fabric is really good at keeping water out, then it runs the risk of trapping heat and sweat in, essentially defeating its purpose of keeping you dry. A quality jacket must employ fabrics that are both waterproof and breathable so you don’t get soaked from the outside or the inside. The membrane layer of a jacket's fabric is porous, or sorry, microporous, with very small perforations to allow smaller water vapor (gas) to escape while keeping out larger rain water molecules (liquid) because they're too big to transfer through. This membrane process is referred to as diffusion. These layers are often doubled up to provide surer, longer lasting protection, and work in combination with an outer polyester layer coated with a water-hating (hydrophobic) solution, which causes water to bead on its surface rather than soak in.
Jacket weight and fit
Where all the tech in a cycling jacket comes to a crux is in its ability to repel water and dispel heat while being lightweight and packable enough to be useful and with you when you need it. This is where you start to see jackets vary greatly in their prices. Technology like Gore-Tex, Polartec’s NeoShell©, and eVent© are incorporated into more expensive jackets for maximum waterproofing and breathability in extremely lightweight and packable forms. Lower priced jackets tend to be bulkier and have boxy fits.
If a jacket doesn’t fit, then it doesn’t matter what fancy technology has been employed to make it waterproof and breathable. Often, all the fancy bells and whistles, such as extra pockets, reflective stripes, elastic cinches, and others, can make a jacket extra bulky, fit poorly, and create wear points that allow water to penetrate. A good jacket will be simple, slim, and lightweight, will utilize a high-quality fabric that can repel water and dispel heat, and it should last a long time, as should its waterproof capabilities. A good cycling jacket should be comfortable in almost all conditions and looks good off the bike, working as a dual-use piece of clothing.
The long tail commuting jacket, with all its reflective patches, may help you getting from work to home, but nothing screams “rifle through my panniers because I’m obviously a tourist” like wearing one of these out on a bike tour or on the trail. Plus, they really look goofy when you’re out for a nice dinner at a winery somewhere in Tuscany, so look for a jacket that will suit every aspect of your cycling lifestyle.
This is not the place to pinch your pennies. A bad jacket can lead to a ruined ride, so up your budget or looks for savings and compromises elsewhere – gloves, glasses, shoes, shorts, bag – so you have enough to spend on the right jacket.
5 cycling jackets that we love
With all this talk of what makes a good cycling jacket, what would this article be without some solid suggestions? Here are five fantastic suggestions that reiterate all the points we've made above about what makes a jacket worth owning.
The Paclite from Gore is a simple, lightweight, and slim jacket that has all the features you might be looking for: rear zipped pocket, high collar, taped seams, adjustable draw cords, reflective piping, and a fully adjustable over-the-helmet hood. The Paclite comes in 3 colors including a black with high vis yellow and is built with a Gore-Tex membrane making it extremely waterproof.
The Paclite from Gore is the perfect mid-range jacket that has all the features in a decent fit that one could want.
The Stormshell from Bontrager is a reasonably priced, good looking shell that offers you a good fit combined with some nice tech features. The Stormshell is waterproof with reasonable breathability and a slim fit. The jacket is made from Profila Stormshell fabric, which gives it a generous amount of stretch considering its 2.5-layer construction and waterproofing capabilities. The Stormshell is available in a number of hi-vis and subtle colors, offering a look for everyone.
The jacket features subtle reflective details, a slight drop tail, draw cords, wrist cinches, and a water-resistant zipper, making it light, packable, comfortable, and most importantly, waterproof.
If anyone knows how to get by in bad conditions it’s the Scots, and Scottish brand Endura have made one of the most useful and best looking cycling jackets on the market. The Endura Pro SL jacket is a good looking jacket with a retro flare that features 3-layer construction for ultimate waterproofing and breathability. The jacket has a subtle external pocket for gels or tools, a high collar, generous yet not tacky reflective parts, stretch panels on the shoulders, sides and cuffs, and back zippers to access your bib pouches.
The Pro SL folds up quickly with the hidden strap to make it extremely packable despite its weatherproof capabilities. The jacket is cool, well thought out, and extremely practical, which is why we at BikeRoar love it.
7Mesh broke the mold when they made the Oro as they managed to strip it of anything that adds weight, alters fit, or compromises the waterproof capabilities of the Gore-Tex Shakedry material. The jacket is essentially just the waterproof layer of Gore-Tex without a front or back poly layer, which has been accomplished through a series of proprietary construction techniques. The result of this is arguably the most waterproof and breathable jacket on the market and it’s under 100 grams. You will not find a better quality jacket that’s as lightweight and packable anywhere else on the market.
The serious minimalism of the Oro means you don't get pockets, a hood, drawcords, or most anything else you get on other jackets; however, what you do get makes it worth it. Oro is small enough to fit in your pocket, your seat bag, your stem bag; you can even tuck it into your sock. This means you will never go without top quality protection from the rain no matter where you are or what you’re doing.
The Meridian Alpine is our best cycling jacket pick for many reasons, starting with the handmade, quality construction done in Canada. Acre uses high-end materials, like Polartec's top shelf NeoShell, then ensures the seams are all taped and the zippers coated, giving it unmatched waterproof and breathability.
Meridian Alpine is simple and clean looking, with a fantastic cut and fit. The jacket includes smart details like hidden thumb loops in the sleeves, a removable hood, and pockets that keep their contents flat against your sides, while still keeping it light and packable. The jacket is backed with a lifetime repair or replace warranty, making it a dependable, long term purchase.