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So, does this jacket really exist? From us here at Nordic Outdoor the answer you get is “no”.
To examine this statement further let’s start with the concept of layering. The idea is that you wear a base layer, an insulation layer and finally an outer layer. The base layer is supposed to transport moisture away from the body, the insulation layer (as the name would suggest) is the layer that keeps you nice and snug, and finally the outer layer is supposed to keep the elements out.
That being said, the layers you are wearing must be adapted to the level of activity you are undertaking. Take the time to consider what you are wearing before you start up that next hill. The advantage of having dressed in layers in the first place is that you can put layers on and take layers off depending on what you are doing. What good is it to have a stellar waterproof jacket on, if by the end of the day you are soaking wet in sweat from the inside? Instead, it’s probably better to leave the membrane jacket safely stowed away until you really need it and use a more breathable polyester/cotton mix as your all-round jacket.
Many people see it as a matter of selecting either a polyester and cotton jacket or a membrane jacket. There is no grey area, either you are on one side or the other. The reality is not as simple. While I have said that polyester and cotton is probably better as an all-round jacket, I will be the first to admit that there are situations where the use of a membrane jacket is preferable. A polyester and cotton jacket is not water proof. It will handle showers but if you are wearing it for a whole day of heavy rain you will get wet. It’s as simple as that. Membrane jackets are water proof, and in some cases pretty breathable as well.
The explanation of how the breathability of a membrane jacket works can easily get pretty technical, but basically the diffusion of moisture through the fabric, which is what breathability means, is built around the fact that moisture vapour wants to move from higher pressure to lower pressure. Higher temperature leads to higher moisture pressure. This means that the breathability of a membrane jacket is good when the vapour pressure outside is low (dry, cold, and windy weather) and that it’s poor when the vapour pressure outside is high (warm and wet conditions), leaving you with the undesirable choice between getting wet from the inside or the outside. It’s worth keeping in mind that if you are going to be active in conditions where a membrane jacket is effective, a polyester and cotton jacket will still be more breathable. All this means that a membrane jacket is a good option if you aren’t planning on being very active in cold weather, or if it’s used as a complement to your polyester and cotton jacket during more strenuous activities.
So, the closest you can get to the perfect jacket is really a combination of jackets, used depending on the level of activity and weather. Getting all the necessary layers and variations is probably not something that will be purchased in one shopping trip. For the average user, a good place to start is to get a versatile jacket that can get you through most conditions and then move on to the layers that protect you from the most extreme conditions later. I am of the firm belief that it is better to feel great nine times out of ten, and get wet the one time, rather than sacrificing comfort every time I’m out. After all, the highest praise I can give a jacket after a day of hiking is that it allowed me to concentrate on what I was doing rather than what I was wearing.