It’s a pretty common misconception that waterproof and water-resistant mean basically the same thing. And the issue extends beyond just consumer understanding. In fact, there are even some brands that will use the terminology interchangeably. Let us be the first to tell you, these two concepts are very different from one another and should not ever be swapped as synonyms.
Why, you ask? For starters, knowing the difference between water-resistant and waterproof can mean the difference between a hiking pack full of soggy gear and one whose contents are bone-dry. And that’s on the milder end of the spectrum. Because it can also mean the difference between staying safe and warm and potentially contracting a cold, pneumonia, frostbite, or worse. So whether you are trying to get your hands on a running jacket to wear in a light drizzle or you want a water-tight hiking bag to keep all your gear safe and secure, you’ll need to be able to tell one from the other. To help you out, we’ve put together the following explanation on the difference between waterproof and water-resistant.
What Is Water Resistance?
Not Invulnerable To H2O
First and foremost, we’d like to make one thing clear: there are a couple of different terms and/or phrases that are just fancy or overly specific ways of saying that gear will not immediately soak up liquids. For the sake of argument, we’re going to lump them into this category together. They include – but are not limited to – water resistant, water repellant, and hydrophobic. These terms, most typically, can be applied to anything made from fabric – jackets, pants, bags, camping tents, etc. And, in all cases, they will not keep you completely dry forever, but they can be depended upon to mitigate wet conditions for a time.
Water Resistant: Typically, density of fabric is what makes something resist water. Think of it like a leaky boat – the tighter the ship is built, the less likely it is to sink. The more holes there are into which water can creep, the faster it goes down. Water-resistant fabrics aren’t going to keep you from getting wet forever, but because they are so dense, it takes a lot longer for the water to seep in. The most common fabrics that can be called water resistant are nylon and polyester, and their water resistance can be credited to how tightly they are woven. Cotton, for reference, is a much more delicate fabric and, therefore, cannot be as tightly woven and is, by comparison, more like a sponge.
Water Repellant: This terminology differs from the previous one, most often, for how it is achieved. You see, whereas water-resistance is a natural quality of the fabric itself, a water repellant quality is imbued into a fabric via a coating or treatment. Keep in mind, however, that a coating or treatment can also make something waterproof, but that’s not always the case – so make sure you double check that you’re getting exactly what you want, as there’s not really a standardization or rating scale for things that are water repellant.
Hydrophobic: In truth, hydrophobic is just another term for water-repellant. It differs, however, in that things labeled as such tend to resist water much better. If you see that a bag or jacket is noted as having a DWR coating (which stands for “Durable Water Repellant”), it’s safe to assume that it meets the criteria to be considered hydrophobic. One very important thing to keep in mind, however, is that all coatings and treatments that make fabrics water repellant and/or hydrophobic will wear off over time. You can think of it kind of like erosion – sure, the coating or treatment will keep the water out for a time, but it will eventually wear down and become less effective. In that case, you can always look into getting the fabrics retreated professionally or seek out a spray-on or wash-in treatment (like Scotch Guard, for example) and do it yourself.
First and foremost, it’s important that we make one thing very clear: “waterproof” does not mean impervious to water infinitely. “waterproof” does not mean impervious to water infinitely. That may seem counterintuitive to some, as the very definition of the word would suggest a complete and overall invulnerability to H20, but it’s the truth in this case. On the plus side, there is actually a system, which applies to most tech items – like smartphones, digital cameras, and so on – that will allow you to tell exactly how waterproof something is so long as you know its rating. Called the IP (for either “International Protection” or “Ingress Protection”) Rating scale, this rating will – in almost every case – appear on a product’s packaging or, at the very least, in its tech specs on the brand website. The way that the ratings work is simple – the higher the number, the better the water resistance. The protection scale is as follows:
IPX-0: Absolutely no protection against water whatsoever.
IPX-1: Protected against vertically dripping water for a short amount of time when the object is oriented normally.
IPX-2: Protected against vertically dripping water when the object is tilted up to 15° from normal orientation.
IPX-3: Protected against water falling as spray when the object is rotated up to 60° from normal orientation.
IPX-4: Protected against a splash of water from any direction.
IPX-5: Protected against 6.3mm nozzle stream of water from any direction.
IPX-6: Protected against 12.5mm nozzle stream of water from any direction.
IPX-7: Protected against ingress of water when object submerged up to a 1-meter depth.
IPX-8: Object suitable for continuous immersion in water at a depth of more than 1 meter.
What’s most important to keep in mind about this scale is that it does not apply to fabrics, like those used in jackets, camping tents, or hiking packs. It does, however, apply to things like smartwatches, phones, non-textile carry cases, coolers, and various other pieces of camping and high-tech gear. If you find something like that and it doesn’t have a rating attached to it, you can safely assume that it’s rated at IPX-0 and offers absolutely no water protection at all.
Tips and Tricks
As outdoor gear becomes more technical and technologies are upgraded, more and more things are being labeled with a “waterproof” stamp. We’re not here to tell you what’s legitimate and what’s hokey (and we probably couldn’t if we wanted to, because the industry is so big), but we can give you some information to help you navigate the gear landscape and make sure that you’re getting and taking proper care of some good gear. The following are some tips regarding waterproof fabrics.
Trust Reputable Brands: You can count on Patagonia, The North Face, Columbia, and other massive brands to keep their word. They all have reputations to uphold and they are far too ubiquitous in the gear world to mislead consumers for too long, if at all. So, if one of them offers up an item with the claim that it is completely waterproof, that’s because it probably is. Even smaller and independent brands can, in most cases, be believed. After all, the bags, jackets, and whatever else they’re producing are their livelihood. One thing to be very wary of: obscure/cheap imitations. If you see a “waterproof” bag that looks an awful lot like a well-known brand’s but at a fraction of the price, it’s probably not actually waterproof or even well-constructed.
It’s All In The Seams: Just like with water resistance, waterproofing in regards to fabrics is on a sliding relativity scale. Even if a product is made from tarp, it’s not going to keep all water out forever if its seams and zippers aren’t waterproof, too. Most of the time, waterproofing of seams is achieved via a coating or treatment (just like water-repellant fabrics). As such, the coating or treatment will wear off after a time. There’s also something called Sonic Welded Seams. The way it works is complicated, but the basic idea is this: two fabrics are literally fused together via vibrations of sound. It’s probably the most effective way to waterproof seams, as it doesn’t wear off over time. If you find a garment with sonic welded seams, you can trust that it’s absolutely waterproof.
Know Your Rating: Although there is no true standardization for waterproofing in regards to bags and garments, most brands are forthright about how impervious to water their products are. All you have to do is be willing to look into it. Either on the brand website or on the packaging itself, there should be some indication of how long a piece of gear will stay dry and what kind of water exposure it can endure. This applies to other bits of gear as well. For example, watch brands generally put a depth and period of time at which any of their given products can survive. It’s not an exact science, per se, but these indicators can at least give you a basic idea of what you can expect from your gear.
What's The Difference?
A Sliding Scale
Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to tell whether something is waterproof or just water-resistant at a glance. And it’s made even harder by a lack of standardized testing practices. Most brands have in-house facilities in which they develop their own determining factors for things like water resistance, weatherproofing, and so on.
On the plus side, there is a wide array of things you can rely upon to tell whether or not gear stands up to being submerged – such as brand websites, product specs, user reviews, and more. Just remember that the difference between what’s water resistant and what’s waterproof isn’t a defined line, but rather a sliding scale. Even within the category of waterproof, some things are more impervious to water than others. As is the case with most gear, your absolute best bet is to figure out exactly what kind of exposure you’re to preparing for and then shop around for whatever you need accordingly.