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How to Choose a Waterproof Membrane

See also: Gore Tex Fabrics Explained and Washing and Reproofing Clothing.

One of the filters on our waterproof jackets page is for the waterproof membrane used in the garment - so which one is best?

It really depends on what you're going to be doing whilst you're wearing it. The exact performance of the membranes very much depend on the design of the garment they're used in, though this is tightly controlled by the membrane manufacturer to ensure a high level of performance between pieces. It's therefore very difficult to say one membrane is "better" than another.

Before we get into it it's a good idea to understand how they work and exactly what you can expect from a waterproof and breathable item of clothing.

How does it work?

Keeping water out is easy, if it was that simple then waterproof clothing could just be made of a single layer of thick plastic. For a waterproof to work it has to breathe, otherwise moisture from the body would build up on the inside and you'd end up just as wet as if you were out in the rain without wearing a waterproof. Simply put a membrane works by having a layer of very thin material which has holes in it small enough to stop water droplets getting through but large enough to let water vapour out. This layer is bonded to a face fabric and sometimes an inner fabric to protect the membrane.

As well as having a membrane waterproof clothing will have a Durable Water Repellency (DWR) treatment applied to the face fabric. The DWR is what causes the water to bead on the outside of the garment so that much of the water just runs off the surface and doesn't even reach through to the membrane, thus increasing the breathability.

The different membranes provide different performances through different construction methods. As the membrane will perform differently depending on the fabric it is bonded to there are no useful statistics that attest to this because even garments by the same brand with the same membrane will have different levels of waterproofing and breathability. They will all meet the minimum standards set by the manufacturer of the membrane, however. Below is a run down of the different membranes available and the sort activities in which they give their best performance. They all offer the best in waterproofing and breathability on the market today.

There are 3 types of Gore-Tex waterproof membranes:

  • Gore-Tex Pro: The ultimate for protection and durability, it is designed for start/stop intense activity over a prolonged period. It is the hardest wearing of the Gore membranes and offers excellent all weather protection whilst retaining breathability and minimum weight. It does tend to have a rough, stiff texture and is best not worn directly against the skin for more comfort. Ideal for all kinds of mountaineering as it's durability and weatherproofing will stand up to the toughest environments.
  • Gore-Tex Active: Excellent lightweight breathability, it is designed to be used in continuous, high output activity. It's construction means that it is comfortable against skin and remains fully waterproof. It is more breathable than Gore-Tex Pro and is thinner and lighter, so not as durable. It is ideal for highly aerobic activities such as running or cross country skiing where its low weight and increased breathability at the expense of durability will be appreciated.
  • Gore-Tex: This is best for continuous, low to mid intensity activity, it offers a high standard of breathable, durable and completely waterproof fabric. It is also very versatile so it is available in a number of different constructions providing varying levels of performance making it suitable for any activity. There's more on these in the link below.

Due to the construction of the membrane used in Gore-Tex Active and Gore-Tex the fabric will not start breathing until a climate has built up inside the garment. This means it doesn't breathe as soon as you put it on, but it does provide more temperature regulation than other membranes and requires less washing and reproofing.

For more information on Gore-Tex fabrics and construction please have a look at Gore Tex Fabrics Explained.

There are 3 types of eVent waterproof membranes:

  • DValpine: All round excellent protection and breathability, its high level of breathability and durability make it suitable for constant activity as well as start/stop activities. It feels softer than Gore-Tex Pro but still has a fairly tough feel to it. Ideal for climbing, trekking and winter sports.
  • DVstorm: This is lighter weight, more breathable but less waterproof than DValpine. It's perfect for constant high exertion activities where having the ultimate protection isn't vital. It has a softer feel and is OK to wear directly against the skin. Perfect to keep you dry when the rain comes in when running or road cycling.
  • DVlite: This is packable and lightweight with good weather protection and breathability. Perfect for general use walking, travelling or just as an everyday throw on layer.

Unlike Gore-Tex and Gore-Tex Active eVent allows vapour to move through it at all times, this means that it has a cooler feel than Gore-Tex and doesn't require a climate to build up on the inside of the garment before the breathing starts to work. Due to the nature of this construction it will require more washing and reproofing to retain it's high levels of waterproofing and breathability.

There's just the one NeoShell membrane. It's incredibly breathable though not as waterproof any of the Gore-Tex membranes, DValpine or DVlite. The feel of it is much more like a softshell than the harder feeling Gore-Tex Pro or DValpine fabrics and is very comfortable to wear. It's construction makes it the most breathable of all the membranes available (though on a similar level to DVstorm), and it is noticeably cooler to wear than the tougher Gore-Tex and eVent membranes. As with all the membranes it will require some care to keep it performing well - I don't have any direct comparisons with the other membranes - but I would think it sits nearer to eVent in terms of the amount of care required than it does to Gore-Tex. It's good for most activities, but ideally suited to high exertion such as running, ski touring or biking where the high level of breathability will really be appreciated.

Shield+ offers high levels of wind and water protection, with a similar performance to eVent's DValpine and Gore-Tex Active. It has excellent breathability and is used in very lightweight, waterproof garments. It has a softer feel to it, similar to NeoShell, but its lightweight construction does mean that it needs to be looked after. It's ideal for fast moving outdoor activities such as alpine climbing, cycling, adventure racing and skiing where the high performance and low weight of the fabric at the expense of some durability will be appreciated.

Other Membranes

Strictly speaking if they're in our 'other' filter then it may not be a membrane but a polyurethane coating on the garment to provide the waterproofing and breathability. These can come in a huge range of applications and can be suitable for any activity. They do tend to be considerably cheaper than membrane garments, though they're generally not as hard wearing.

Summary

The different membranes are all very good and it's probably better not to get hung up choosing your clothing based purely on which membrane it uses - though for very specific uses or if you've had recommendations or experienced excellent performance from one in the past then you might want to go for a specific membrane. In general it's best to read the descriptions of clothing you're interested in and let the brand decide which membrane is best to use for the activity that it's designed for. It's all so tightly controlled, and the brands we stock at Facewest have strong reputations to live up to, so the level of performance from the garment will be extremely high in it's intended use.