Durable water-repellent outerwear like rain jackets and hiking boots are indispensable pieces of gear for every backcountry outdoor activity from mountaineering to snowboarding to backpacking. Whether it’s wet out or the trail is full of snowy obstacles and water crossings, high-performance oleophobic waterproof shell fabrics help keep water out. They should also be designed with high-breathability so hikers’ perspiration and body heat can vent out.
Abrasion-proof waterproof shell fabrics are always best for the rigorous conditions of outdoor activities in the backcountry. All these requirements may sound like a tall order for manufacturers, but two high-performance waterproof designs have risen to the top of the market to become standard-bearers for backpacking enthusiasts. One is called DryVent, the other is Gore-Tex, and the debate over which of these oleophobic waterproof shell fabric designs is superior has been raging since their inception.
DryVent, designed and manufactured by The North Face, has some advantages over Gore-Tex, the accidental invention that first shifted the paradigm in the waterproof fabrics sector. When comparing these two giants of the waterproof fabrics industry the common standards of high-performance outerwear apply. Durability, longevity, comfort, breathability, weight, and effectiveness will all factor into whether you find DryVent or Gore-Tex more favorable. The hierarchy of these constituent characteristics will depend on the particular task you put them to. Ultralight backpackers might prefer a lighter DryVent product that surrenders some waterproofness in favor of ultralight flexibility. Mountaineering or snowboarding enthusiasts probably prefer a tougher, durable water repellent Gore-Tex product.
The main physical difference between The North Face’s DryVent waterproof fabric treatment and Gore-Tex’s lord-of-the-outerwear oleophobic waterproofing is in their individual constructions. Read on to see our full breakdown and see which high-performance waterproof fabric will suit you better when it’s wet out on your next hiking trek through the backcountry.
Gore-Tex, master of the market
Let’s start our comparison with Gore-Tex since most of the qualities associated with waterproof shell fabrics were pioneered by this durable water repellant material. In a Gore-Tex product, layers are the most important thing. In between the outer layer and the inner layer is a microporous waterproof membrane that is stretchy, flexible, breathable, oleophobic, and waterproof. That material is the defining element of Gore-Tex shell fabrics, and it was created completely by accident. If you’ve never met a polymer scientist, they are an absolute hoot.
In that special way polymer scientists have, the creators of Teflon’s main ingredient decided to name it something impossibly long and clunky: polytetrafluoroethylene. It doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. Then the inventor of Gore-Tex was attempting to construct electrical wire insulation with polytetrafluoroethylene and accidentally discovered that polytetrafluoroethylene has tons of qualities desirable in oleophobic waterproof fabrics one you make it stretchy with heat, form it, and let it cool back down.
That formed polytetrafluoroethylene is then called ePTFE, and that is thankfully what we can call it for the rest of this guide instead of saying “polytetrafluoroethylene” over and over again. ePTFE has high porosity, is great for use in high and low temperatures, and provides UV resistance in addition to its waterproofness. For our rad aspiring polymer scientists out there, ePTFE has a low coefficient of friction, is chemically inert, and has a high additive loading capacity. That doesn’t mean anything at all to us non-polymer scientists, so let’s just say ePTFE is a magical polymer that performs fantastic waterproofing… somehow… when it’s placed in between the inner layer and outer layer of a breathable fabric.
The C-KNIT Backer Technology from Gore-Tex is a 3-layer construction made out of a special laminate which is made up of an outer fabric that forms the upper layer, then the ePTFE waterproof membrane as the middle layer and finally, the nylon backer layer. The C-KNIT was one of the many innovations Gore-Tex provides on the waterproof and breathable layer fabric market.
Gore-Tex changed the game with their waterproof fabrics, which were the first to provide hikers, backpackers, and mountaineering enthusiasts with a reliable, durable, windproof, waterproof shell fabric to stay dry and moving out on the trail. Gore-Tex offers many models of gear for outdoor activities, including the ShakeDry, with which water droplets sit on the surface and literally shake off it, and the ultralight Gore-Tex PacLite, which features a 2-layer construction and fits into a rucksack easily when not in use. We’ll come back to Gore-Tex a little further on; for now just remember that its standout feature is the ePTFE layer.
DryVent, the up-and-comer
The North Face has been hard at work to develop a challenger that will uproot Gore-Tex’s staying superiority in the waterproof shell fabrics market. There’s an argument to be had about whether they’ve completely succeeded with their high-performance DryVent durable water repellent fabric. In any case, it is a solid oleophobic waterproofing method that definitely gets the most essential job done, which is to keep the wearer dry when it’s wet out. DryVent, F.K.A. HyVent, is a polyurethane fabric (which we thankfully get to refer to as “PU” instead of “polyurethane” from here on out) that is lightweight and offers a great range of motion during outdoor activities like hiking and mountaineering. Contrary to the interior-focused ePTFE in the Gore-Tex fabrics, The North Face created DryVent as an external PU coating to make fully waterproof fabrics.
Don’t get the impression that The North Face is only selling a waterproofing treatment, though. The North Face is selling outerwear that has this PU coating already incorporated. There are many benefits to this PU coating versus the ePTFE Gore-Tex method which will become clear very soon. It also has some drawbacks which are hurdles in The North Face’s quest for waterproof fabric market domination. That being said, The North Face DryVent has the upper hand in some applications. They also have a DWR (durable water treatment) on the outer layer that causes water droplets to form during downpours and light rain that easily shake off the rain jacket without permeating the waterproof layer and getting the wearer wet.
DWR is designed to prevent what is called a “wet out” or “wetting out,” terms which describe the waterlogging of shell fabrics. Imagine the effect downpours have on non-waterproof fabrics and you know what a wet out is. Wet outs diminish or completely destroy functions of outerwear like breathability. Moisture coming from inside the rain jacket cannot escape just as air from outside cannot enter, creating sweaty, clammy conditions that not only sap hikers’ energy but can also lead to blisters forming and wrecking longer-term hiking. DWR, PU coatings, and ePTFE are all designed to prevent a wet out of the oleophobic waterproof fabrics. But there is not just one degree to which waterproof fabrics are designed to be waterproof. There are, in fact, at least 5 waterproof ratings that describe the amount of precipitation a rain jacket should keep out.
Both The North Face and Gore-Tex use the universal waterproof rating system to describe their various models. The North Face, for example, offers its breathable jacket in three models, each with their own degree of layering for waterproofness. They are the 2-layer construction, 2.5-layer construction, and 3-layer construction, and their waterproof ratings increase with increases in the number of layerings. The outer layer is of course constructed with the PU coating and DWR. Bear in mind that this layering is likely not visible, as the layers are in the waterproof inner layer and not on the outer layer.
Gore-Tex operates its rain jackets with their waterproof membrane, but they have also constructed several different models that have different waterproof ratings. A few of these are the Gore-Tex Paclite, which is lightweight and packable like The North Face 2-layer construction, as well as the Gore-Tex Infinium rain jacket, which is not claimed to be waterproof but rather just water-resistant.
The waterproof ratings increase and decrease according to this scale:
Water resistance provided
Light rain, fresh snow
6,000 – 10,000 mm
Protection against light rain and water vapor
Light rain, normal snow
11,000 – 15,000 mm
Protection under all but the highest pressures
Moderate rain, normal snow
16,000 – 20,000 mm
Waterproof in downpours and heavy precipitation
Downpours, wet snow
20,000 mm +
Waterproof in downpours and the most extreme conditions
Downpours, wet snow, high-pressure precipitation
The first impulse might be to reach for the high-hydrostatic head, 20,000 mm + waterproofing model. If you want a waterproof rain jacket, may as well get the highest waterproof rating you can find, right? Actually, that’s not always the case. The tradeoff for a high waterproof rating is low breathability. Just like the popular horror story, sometimes the moisture is coming from inside the rain jacket. For long hikes and outdoor activities that require lots of physical exertion, you don’t want to wear a completely waterproof rain jacket if that means venting body heat and sweat will be impossible. Perhaps the outside of the rain jacket is oleophobic and waterproof, but you’ll still wind up soaked to the bone with your own sweat if venting is rendered impossible by too high a waterproof rating.
What waterproof rating do I need?
This question is key and since it calls immediately into question the breathability of the waterproof article, it is oftentimes the singular answer to whether a given hiker prefers DryVent or Gore-Tex to protect them from downpours on their hiking trips. Neither brand is automatically going to be universally more beneficial in hiking conditions, but there are some general rules of thumb you can use to decide for yourself which brand of rain jacket you need. You should also consider how your own body handles heavy exertion and how much sweat you produce. This can alter the degree of breathability, and therefore the degree of waterproofness, that you will need on your hiking trip.
One general truth is that a waterproof Gore-Tex membrane has higher breathability than a PU coating. This is because the PU coating acts like a laminate and is itself blocking venting through the usually-breathable fabric. DWR applied to the outer layer of an oleophobic waterproof rain jacket can also act as a laminate and prevent venting, which means even rain jackets like Gore-Tex that are constructed with a microporous waterproof membrane can lose breathability when a DWR is applied to buff up their waterproofness. Without the DWR, the microporous waterproof Gore-Tex membrane offers more breathability than the PU coating. That’s one point generally in Gore-Tex’s favor, which is why they’ve maintained such a high position in the waterproof jacket market for so long.
So in order to find out what waterproof rating you need, you should consider physical factors of your particular hike and also your own physical self. If your intended hiking trail is rated very difficult or for experts only, you should bear in mind that not only will additional waterproofing lose you breathability and potentially turn a non-breathable jacket into a private sauna, but a downpour necessitating the highest waterproof rating is likely to make your expert-level hiking trail impassable. You’re probably better off making sure you have some sort of portable shelter along with you so you can take an unplanned rest stop in case of a sudden downpour requiring a high hydrostatic head. Having a waterproof rain jacket is no reason to get over-confident and risk great personal injury on the hiking trail.
Another factor is to consider your own comfort and the flexibility of the rain jacket. The rain jacket should remain stretchy enough that you still have enough range of motion to do any rock climbing, snowboarding, or running on a particularly adventurous mountaineering trip if the opportunity arises. But you’ll also want to have enough waterproofing in the rain jacket to not risk a wet out that could ruin the fun of those outdoor activities. Similarly, if you are a really raucous hiker, you should also consider durability. Many waterproof rain jackets are also abrasion-resistant, which means rubbing up against a rock wall or tree branch isn’t going to damage them. But some PU coating-treated oleophobic waterproof rain jackets may risk that PU coating coming off after too many abrasions or other run-ins with natural elements.
So, which is better for hiking? Gore-Tex or DryVent?
Unfortunately for the North Face, there are some advantages that the ruling Gore-Tex has that keep it just out of reach of the newer contender. This won’t go for every single hiker or every single hike, but there are some functionality issues and some housekeeping and upkeep shortcomings that hold DryVent just shy of Gore-Tex. While DryVent is more lightweight overall and more packable than Gore-Tex, the PU coating and reliance on DWR that all exists on the outer layer of the DryVent waterproof rain jacket make it less a breathable jacket, which can undermine the entire purpose and function of an oleophobic waterproof rain jacket in the first place if hikers using it are soaked with their own sweat in the middle of strenuous outdoor activity. The PU coating and DWR are also less lasting than the Gore-Tex microporous waterproof membrane. Over time, the outer layer treatments will wear away or wash off.
Now, given that a DWR can always be reapplied if the waterproofing function stops working on down the line, it’s still an annoyance that doesn’t exist with Gore-Tex jackets. Hikers who want to be able to throw their rain jackets into the washing machine with other gear or regular apparel will want to get the Gore-Tex. The DryVent line has special washing instructions that are required to preserve the waterproof treatment on the other layer. The Gore-Tex membrane can become filled with debris, sweat, or other moisture, but tossing it in the washing machine is enough to avoid clogging the microporous waterproof membrane and rendering the waterproofing useless.
All this being said, on some occasions, hikers won’t need to spring for the durability or waterproofness of the Gore-Tex line. For shorter trips or trips where a high hydrostatic head is not needed and a downpour is unlikely, The North Face DryVent will be much more lightweight and packable than even the Gore-Tx PacLite. If it isn’t going to be a hike through constantly wet conditions like wet snow or a heavy downpour requiring a high hydrostatic head, then hikers can generally get by and stay dry with a DryVent model. Ultralight packers especially will want to take a look at their models to shed some unneeded weight of their shoulders while hiking. The super-light and imminently packable 2-layer construction variety are among the lightest you can find, although as we discussed earlier, they do have a lower waterproof rating than the 2.5-layer construction or the 3-layer construction. If you can handle less waterproofing, then the DryVent from The North Face should be just fine for you.
Waterproofing technology is constantly evolving and the fact that The North Face has managed to pull ahead of the standard-bearer in the oleophobic waterproof fabrics market is impressive enough. There is an added packable ultra lightness to DryVent jackets and they don’t make the swishy sound we associate with waterproof rain jackets now, or at least they don’t make as loud of a swishy sound, generally speaking. The DryVent reliance on laminate methods of waterproofing do sacrifice breathability down the line, and that laminate waterproofing also tends not to last as long as the more durable Gore-Tex membrane. One drawback to the Gore-Tex is that it’s only waterproof where the waterproof membrane is, which means features like zippers can sometimes let water in.
As far as a comfort and flexibility comparison go, the majority of hikers probably won’t notice a massive difference in GoreTex and DryVent models that have comparable waterproof ratings. More advanced hikers who have very specific tasks they want to accomplish during mountaineering hikes, such as snowboarding or skiing, will probably find the Gore-Tex more restrictive and prefer the wider range of motion of the DryVent line. Which is more comfortable is entirely up to personal taste, with some hikers preferring the more fixed body feel of the Gore-Tex and others preferring a lightweight and more easily moveable style found more often in the (especially lighter-weight model) DryVent.
Hikers have to consider everything about themselves and their intended hiking trip to really know for sure which of these two waterproof fabrics will be better to take along on a hike. There are many hikers around the world who have both models and alternate depending on the planned severity of the hike and the expected weather conditions. High-hydrostatic head Gore-Tex for slower hikes in a downpour and DryVent for hiking that may involve rock climbing or softer-pressure precipitation is one example of a rule of thumb that works for the majority of hikers when trying to choose between the two models. There are other brands of breathable jackets that are waterproof, among them Marmot, Arc’Teryx, Polartec, and Patagonia, which sells the H2NO; the Pertex Shield is also widely available, although DryVent and GoreTex reign supreme.
Bear in mind that DryVent and Gore-Text are most often associated with waterproof rain jackets, but The North Face and Gore-Tex both manufacture other waterproof equipment for outdoor activities. Hiking boots and rucksacks are also available on the market that have similar waterproofing designs to the waterproof rain jackets we’ve talked about in this article. In addition, it’s also good practice to learn how to reapply waterproofing treatments like DWR to your rain jackets when the waterproofing wears off. Otherwise, you may find yourself choosing between DryVent and Gore-Tex much more often than you need to. At the end of the day, for its versatility and superior waterproofness overall, we think Gore-Tex is still the king of the market. But the only way you can know for yourself is to take the DryVent and the Gore-Tex out on the trail to determine which is better for hiking the way you do it.
Bonus tip: Watch this short DWR-explainer for more information about the science of waterproofing!