Air Permeability, Breathability, and Protection

You may have heard someone refer to a rain jacket, a pair of soft shell hiking pants, or hiking shirt as breathable. What does this mean? Is there a difference between air permeability and breathability? If so, which one is more important for rain jackets?

Breathability and air permeability are often used interchangeably. While the two terms are similar, and air permeability affects how breathable a garment is, they aren’t quite the same thing.

What does breathability mean?

“There’s nothing more breathable than a mesh tank top.” -Anonymous

Breathability, when used in the context of outdoor apparel, refers to how well a garment dissipates body heat. Breathable garments dump heat and prevent sweat buildup, which helps keep you comfortable.

Waterproof rain jackets, organic cotton t-shirts, and synthetic fleece pullovers can all be judged in terms of breathability. Of course, there’s a drastic gap between how well a t-shirt and a hard shell jacket can release moisture and heat buildup.

That being said, there’s also a big difference in the amount of protection you get from a t-shirt and a rain jacket.

What does air permeability mean?

“There’s nothing more air permeable than a mesh tank top.” – Anonymous

Air permeability refers to how well air can pass through a material. Air permeability can be measured, whereas breathability is more subjective.

Increased air permeability, of course, means increased breathability. However, when you’re considering a shell to keep you safe from the elements, you should prioritize breathability over air permeability.

Breathable jackets vs. air permeable jackets

“A mesh tank top won’t keep you dry in a rainstorm.” – Anonymous

Generally speaking, the more weather protection you get from a garment, the lower the air permeability and breathability. A mesh tank top is highly breathable and air permeable, but it is useless for protection from the sun, wind, and water. A hard shell rain jacket offers the most protection from the elements, but sacrifices breathability and air permeability.

So which one is more important when choosing a shell – air permeability or breathability?

Air permeability is a two-way street, whereas breathability is more one directional. Increased air permeability means less wind protection and less water protection, whereas increased breathability may not.

If weather protection is your main priority, you want the windproof and waterproof protection of a hard shell jacket. Look for a breathable jacket rather than an air permeable jacket.

We carry a great selection of breathable waterproof hard shell rain jackets, as well as breathable soft shell jackets. Stop by and see us in Fayetteville, Arkansas!

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