After your boots, your walking jacket is probably your most important item of gear. Yet with so many different brands, how do you choose? This article gives a brief run-down of the types available and my opinion of their strengths and weaknesses :

Lightweight 'shell' jackets - This type of jacket is normally made from lightweight 'rip-stop' nylon and either coated with a waterproof compound of some kind or else backed with thin PVC or another waterproof plastic. They're fine for packing into a daysack if maybe you're expecting a shower of rain but, because they don't 'breathe' they are not really suitable for all-day use, especially if you're the type of person who (like me), 'runs hot' when walking. You'll end up as wet as if you hadn't worn it!

Fleece jackets - Walking jackets made from this material have now become almost standard uniform for walkers and hikers the World over. Their combination of light weight, warmth and 'breathability' make them ideal for country walking and rambling and indeed for everyday use. Available in several different weights for differing climate conditions, they can be relied on to keep you snug even in really cold weather. Some also feature 'windstopper' linings to further increase their versatility. They are generally shower-resistant and, if they do get wet, dry pretty quickly.

Breathable 'shell' jackets - Unlike the less costly variants mentioned above, these jackets are lined with a membrane that lets perspiration out of the jacket - but doesn't let rain in. Available from virtually all walking jacket manufacturers, they are light and can be folded into a small pack, and are great for slipping over a fleece in rainy weather. Their only drawback is that they can be a bit 'noisy' to wear, so if you're out wildlife spotting or hunting this can be a drawback.

Breathable 'all-weather' jackets - Similar to the above, this type of walking jacket is also usually insulated against the cold. Its strength lies in the fact that it can cope with almost any conditions you're likely to encounter outside a polar expedition and it is intended for use where climatic conditions are expected to be harsh - high wind, cold, heavy rain etc. The downside is weight - although not really heavy, these walking jackets are substantially made and less easy to stow away if the sun comes out! Too, there is a risk that scunching them up tightly can possibly damage the waterproof membrane, though to be fair this isn't common.

Breathable 'wicking-away' jackets - This type of walking jacket is made by companies such as Paramo and work on a different principle to the membrane-lined type. They are made with a lightweight nylon shell that covers a specialised type of fleece interior that is 'directional' to control relative humidity. They're also quiet to wear and very versatile. I have a Paramo jacket and just love the 'feel' of it. I find it great for Spring and Autumn wear, due to its flexibility. Further information on the technical side can of course be found elsewhere on the internet.

Ventile jackets - I've had a Ventile jacket for over ten years and would not exchange it for any of the above! Ventile isn't seen much these days in the USA but continues to have a loyal following in the UK. Ventile is made from absolutely top-grade long-staple cotton and is extremely slow to manufacture. It was developed by the Shirley Institute in Manchester, UK, during the Second World War to be made into immersion suits for pilots in the RAF - and they're still worn today. Double-layer Ventile jackets were used by Sir Edmund Hillary on the conquering of Everest. My own jacket is double-layer, with and extra layer on the yoke. So what's so special? Well, it's windproof due to the tightness of the weave and yet has 93-98% vapour permeability. That's breathability to you and me! In the rain the cotton fibres swell and the material becomes waterproof, yet it dries very quickly. It's quiet to wear if you're nature watching or out hunting. The downside? Well, it's not cheap. For a jacket like mine now, expect to pay 350+ (about $700). Expensive? Certainly - but I confidently expect never to have to buy another.

It's well to remember that there is nothing to gain from spending huge amounts of money on a high-performance jacket if all you're planning to do is take hikes of a few miles in good weather - a decent fleece and a shell jacket is ideal. However, if you are intending to be out for days on end, maybe on an extended trail hike, consider one of the more durable and higher-performing walking jackets towards the end of the above article. It's too late to get one when you're up Ben Nevis or halfway along the Appalachian Trail!

About the Author :

Steve Dempster is actively involved in running several websites and spends part of his working day creating short, informative articles such as the one above. Get more info on walking in the UK at the Countrywalkers website!

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