Waterproof vs Weather Resistant Gear: A Traveler’s Guide to Each

Laura Lopuch

Waterproof testing is not standardized.

That word, “waterproof,” means different things to different manufacturers.

So, how do you know what you’re getting?

What is Waterproof?

The honest-to-God-truth is: no item of clothing is completely waterproof unless it’s welded seam rain gear. Why?

Because all clothing need some breathability. Otherwise, no one would buy them because they’d be so danged uncomfortable.

Nowadays, waterproof fabrics have several layers to ensure waterproofing and breathability coexist.

For textiles — like clothing, jackets, or backpacks — the difference between waterproof and water-resistant is in the fabric and the construction.

Waterproofing in Textiles

For truly waterproof in textiles, you’re looking for taped or welded seams and a waterproof, breathable membrane (or similar waterproof technology) within the fabric itself. What does that mean?

Let’s back up for a moment. Seams are the weakest link in a fabric. A seam is made of little holes in the fabric. Meaning: those little holes are entry points for water to enter into and wreak havoc. So, to have a waterproof jacket or backpack, your seams should be sealed or welded.

Two kinds of sealed seams:

  • Critically seam sealed: Only the upper body of the garment has sealed seams
  • Fully seam sealed: All seams are sealed for max water tightness

And there are two ways to seal seams:

  • Taped seams: Sealed with a waterproof tape
  • Welded seams: Joined without stitching by using glue or conic bonding

If your gear doesn’t have welded seams, it’s not truly waterproof, even if the fabric is waterproof.

Outbreaker and Homebase travel backpacks are made of waterproof sailcloth, but they are only water resistant, because the seams are stitched, not welded.

For waterproof clothes — specifically jackets — check out the hydro-static rating:

Waterproof for Tech

Smartphones are rated depending on how resistant they are to elements, like dust particles and water. And that’s before you add a case to it.

For example, the Samsung Galaxy S8 earned a IP67 rating. Let’s break that down.

IP stands for International Protection marking. The International Electrotechnical Commission created this standard.

The second number — 6, in this example — represents the smartphone’s resistance to dust, dirt and sand. A 6 rating means “no ingress of dust; complete protection against contact (dust tight)” after an 8-hour test.

The third number — 7 in this example — represents the water-tightness of your smartphone. A 7 rating means if your smartphone is immersed in water for up to 30 minutes, it should emerge in working order. An 8 rating — the highest rating — means the device survives for 30 minutes at depths of up to 1.5m.   

What is Water-Resistant?

It repels water.

Water beads up and rolls off the fabric. Setout travel backpack is made with water-resistant fabric.

Here’s why: water-resistant fabrics have a durable water repellent (DWR) finish on the exterior to fight moisture, keeping you dry in light rain or snow. They don’t have the extra layer of impermeable plastic membrane (like a waterproof fabric would).

But with repeated exposure to water, the DWR finish wears off. When that happens, you’ll need to reapply the DWR. (Buy a can of DWR on Amazon, take your jacket or backpack outside, and spray it down.)

Don’t expect your water-resistant jacket or backpack to hold up under a monsoon of moisture. It’s not engineered for that type of battle.

Which One Do You Want?

Short answer: it depends on what you intend to do with your gear.

Luggage

Traveling during the rainy season and need a backpack to keep water 100% out of your gear? The only thing that will be totally waterproof is a seam sealed dry bag, like the kinds used on white water rafting trips. But it’s likely that a highly water-resistant bag, made of waterproof fabric with water resistant zippers, like the Outbreaker will do the trick. 

Going to a destination that could be damp and rainy (but not torrential downpour), and you’re not planning to hike for hours in the wet, then water resistant is going to be plenty.

 Outerwear

Where outerwear is concerned, should you go for waterproof or water-resistant? If you’re going skiing, snowboarding, or taking long walks in tons of rain, go for waterproof. Realize, however, that you’ll still get a little bit wet in waterproof gear. Why? There are big holes in it where your head, hands and torso fit. 

If you’re just about town, in a moderate climate where the rain isn’t likely to be torrential or last for hours, water-resistant is probably adequate.

If you don’t want to spend the big bucks to invest in Gortex fabric and welded construction, remember that you can get light water resistance with spray on coatings that you do at home to beef up the gear you already have.

What About Tech Gear?

My advice: if you can’t live without that tech gear or it’s crazy expensive to replace, spring for a waterproof case.

There are a range of options for waterproofing your tech. From glorified clear plastic bags with roll top and velcro and zip seals, to high end waterproofing that will allow you to take your electronics to depth while SCUBA diving. For most people that’s too much. 

For good waterproof cases that are going to go the distance under everthing but extreme use cases, Lifeproof and Otterbox are solid choices.

When is Waterproof Too Much?

Answer: When you need breathability in your gear.

When you buy your jacket, you’re seeking a balance between water protection and breathability. If you’ve ever worn a plastic bag — like at a football game or riding the Maid of the Mists under Niagara Falls — you remember that hot, sticky feeling as your skin fights to breathe. 

The very definition of waterproof means water can’t get in.

Meaning water (i.e. sweat) also can’t get out.

Meaning your skin can’t breathe and you’re trotting around in a portable swamp cooler if you’re in a humid part of the world.

True waterproof material isn’t breathable.

When is Waterproof Perfect?

Exploring rainforest and equatorial jungles during the rainy season? Planning to watch a baseball game in a downpour?

What about sailing around the world or spending lots of time out on the water?

Waterproof is what you want. For your outerwear and dry bags, pick fabric that has a waterproof rating of 11,000 mm and above.

As for gear, your smartphone has an average risk of 20% of being liquid damaged as estimated by Scott Adam Gordon of Android Authority. Yep, that’s including the risk of dropping it in the toilet. You can buy a water-resistant phone, but they’re more expensive. My recommendation? Buy a waterproof case for your smartphone.

Waterproof or Water-Resistant Gear?

If you’re looking for a thorough breakdown of the best waterproof gear, read this post before you make your purchases.

Luggage

For all but the most extreme trips (white water rafting, rainforest hiking, serious monsoon travel, or sailing journeys) water resistant luggage is usually enough. If you’re going to be only a few minutes in the rain then simple DWR coating is going to be plenty. If you’re going to spend some time standing in the rain, then perhaps a more robust water-resistance, like the waterproof sailcloth construction of our Outbreaker and Homebase bags, is a better choice. 

Jacket

If you’re going to be spending some serious time outside in winter then check out ski jackets. They’re formulated to withstand moisture, but keep that delicate balance with breathability.

My favorite is FlyLow Gear’s Vixen jacket with 20,000m waterproofing and taped seams.

Shawn breaks down the best options for winter jackets in this post.

Smartphone Case

Amazon has three choices for you in waterproof cases, depending on your needs:

TL;DR

Truly waterproof gear means you can submerge the product under water and no moisture will get inside. Waterproofing is measured in permeability of the fabric and in the last digit of the IP00 rating system for tech.

Weather resistance has a wider range of meaning. Sometimes, water-resistant means the fabric is sprayed with a DWR coating and doesn’t have coated seams or zippers. You’ll be fine in a drizzle, but should seek shelter (or buy a rain cover) for heavy rain. Highly weather resistant products use more weather resistant materials. Simple as that.

  • For all but the most extreme situations, weather resistance is usually enough
  • In luggage, waterproof fabric is going to be more water resistant than DWR coated fabric. The seams and zippers are the only points of weakness.
  • For a truly waterproof jacket, pick a raincoat with taped seams and zippers.
  • Unless you’ve upgraded to a fancy waterproof phone, by a waterproof case and protect your investment.

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