Review: The Packa Hybrid Jacket/Poncho
Excellent breathability and a welcome surge of innovation in the otherwise-predictable rainwear category
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When I wrote the Core 13 Clothing series, three years ago, I was frustrated with the existing rain gear options. Manufacturers were (and still are) too bullish about waterproof-breathable fabrics, which fall short of their hyperbolic claims, and there was little innovation in format, with everyone stuck on traditional jackets and pants.
Subsequently, I was contacted by Edward Hinnant, who designs and distributes the Packa, a hybrid rain jacket/poncho with an integrated pack cover. I was game, of course, and he sent one over.
Since I backpack mostly in semiarid and arid locations in the West, testing rain gear can be a challenge. But after using the Packa for three seasons—specifically, to yo-yo the Pfiffner Traverse, guide trips in California’s High Sierra, and hunt elk in Colorado—I think I can speak fairly to it. I’ve been testing the 2015 model, which has since been slightly updated, as noted below.
Review: The Packa
I grade the Packa as follows:
- A for innovation
- C for execution
- B for overall performance
The Packa successfully protected me and my pack from precipitation and expelled trapped heat and moisture with its generous ventilation. I struggled, however, with its fit and sizing and was annoyed by some unrefined trims and details.
The Packa excels for hiking on-trail in calm weather and cool to warm temperatures. It seems tailor-made for conditions on the Appalachian Trail.
Hiking off-trail and in high winds, however, I longed for a more athletic garment that didn’t snag, flap, or drape, and I would have preferred the warmth of a traditional shell in cold and snowy weather. In hot conditions, the only rain gear I’ve found with adequate ventilation is an umbrella like the My Trail Company Chrome.
Furthermore, the Packa cannot be worn as intended—over your backpack and straps—when sharp or oversized objects like trekking poles, ice ax, or snowshoes are attached to the pack’s exterior. Similarly, it cannot be worn as intended while wearing a hunting safety vest, which doesn’t have the girth to wrap around both your body and backpack. My solution in these cases was to wear the Packa under my backpack, compromising its ventilation.
The Packa I tested was a size medium and made from 20-denier waterproof nylon with taped seams. That fabric is no longer available; the updated Packa comes in two fabrics:
- 30-denier silicone/PU nylon (15 to 16 ounces, $100)
- eVent (18 to 22 ounces, $170)
A 15-denier sil-nylon version will be available around January 2019 and will cost about $130, according to Hinnant. The estimated weight (nine ounces in size small) is attractive, but the seams are not taped, and DIY seam sealing is messy and time consuming.
The 30-denier nylon, commonly used for tent flies and floors, is coated with silicone on one side and polyurethane on the other. A two-sided silicone coating would be stronger and more waterproof but also more expensive, and the seams could not be taped.
I’m generally skeptical of waterproof-breathable fabrics like eVent. Abrasion, dirt, and body oils compromise their waterproofness, and while breathability is measurable, it’s typically insufficient to keep up with normal rates of perspiration.
I chose the nylon option for its more reliable long-term performance. It was also a rare opportunity to experiment with nonbreathable rain gear.
When the Packa is closed up (fully zipped, pit zips closed, and bottom hem cinched), the perspiration buildup inside is noticeable—actually visible, in fact, due to the fabric’s transparency. My hunting partner Steve said he felt clammy just looking at me, although I was more comfortable than I appeared; my fleece midlayer buffered the moisture.
To be fair, clamminess is a common complaint with waterproof-breathable rain jackets. It’s just not visible, because waterproof-breathable fabrics are opaque.
The moisture buildup was solved, however, as soon as I opened the jacket. The Packa’s billowy cut helped the vents allow relatively dry outside air to exchange with the humid air inside. My damp layers even seemed to dry out with the resulting airflow—except my lower arms, which were trapped in an unvented zone.
The Packa is available in three sizes:
- Small (fits people 5'7″ and shorter)
- Medium (5'8″ to 6')
- Large (6' and taller)
The medium and large sizes are also available in medium-X and large-X versions to fit backpacks of 65 liters or more.
This 65-liter cutoff is consistent with my experience. When I wore the Packa with a fully loaded Osprey Aether Pro 70, the pack cover seam was scarily tensioned, and the pack messed with the fit, making it impossible for me to get my arms out of the sleeves without assistance.
How does the Packa compare to more traditional options?
Versus a Rain Jacket
The Packa expels internal heat and moisture much better than a conventional rain jacket. Its secret is ventilation. The Packa:
- Creates an air channel between it and the user, because the Packa is worn over the backpack and backpack straps (like a poncho).
- Has an oversized silhouette that billows with movement or wind.
- Features huge pit zips and an open bottom hem.
In this respect, the Packa is head and shoulders better than any jacket, even fully featured models like the Outdoor Research Foray with pit zips, side zips, and two-way zippers. Without an air channel between the wearer and the jacket, the value of these vents is limited. And “breathable” fabrics are not good enough to offset the difference.
But the Packa is unwieldy and cumbersome. The preponderance of loose, draping fabric is a liability in high winds and off-trail and makes it impractical for athletic activities like running or scrambling. I often felt “lost” in the Packa, like when trying to find its arms and hood so I could put it on or when I wanted to adjust my pit zips or hood cinch. Product familiarity will reduce this sensation, but the Packa will always feel more like a poncho than a jacket.
Versus a Poncho
The Packa rivals a poncho in ventilation but sacrifices the expected low cost and simplicity for enhanced user-friendliness, weather resistance, and added features. Unlike a poncho, the Packa includes:
- Full-length front zipper for easy on/off.
- Full-length arm sleeves with wrist cuffs for enhanced protection.
- Stiffened hood with a cinch cord.
In addition, the Packa stores more easily. Instead of taking it off entirely, you can hang it over your pack, where it’s easily accessible for rapid deployment—very convenient during on-and-off rain showers.
Execution and Room for Improvement
Hinnant has designed an innovative option for hiking in the rain that remedies some problems of traditional waterproof-breathable jackets and pants. But the Packa has a few issues, some inherent to the design (mostly already discussed) and others related to execution. To improve the Packa, I recommend the following changes, generally aimed at improving its finish, which currently feels cottage or garage level.
I have added Hinnant’s responses to my critiques in italics. Some of my suggestions have been addressed over the past two years.
1. Replace the current front zipper with a shorter, smooth-sliding watertight #5 model and an easy-to-grab pull. This would reduce a potential water-entry point. It would also allow the wearer to reach the zipper without leaning over and operate it while wearing gloves. Also, install a plastic snap to retain the option of sealing flush the bottom hem.
Hinnant: “I looked at some waterproof zippers and could not find any that were dual separating. To me, dual separating is key for the front zipper. The front zipper flap now has Velcro closures to keep the flap closed.”
2. Increase the hood height to improve mobility and reduce hood tension when the Packa is worn under a backpack. Be careful, though: More slack may cause water to pool between the shoulders and backpack.
“The hood has been completely redesigned. The length has been increased, and there is an adjustment added to the back of the head.”
3. Reduce the size of the cord locks and the diameter of the shock cord in the hood closure, bottom hem, and pack cover. Move the bottom-hem cord lock to the side, where it won’t interfere with stride.
“Most of the shock cord and toggles have been reduced in size. I did leave the pack-cover cord and toggle big so it is easier to manage behind your head.”
4. Move the bottom-hem cinch to the base of the butt, where it won’t restrict knee lift. Let the Packa drape naturally below this higher cinch point.
5. Replace the nonanchored wrist-cuff cord locks with Velcro closures, which can be adjusted with one hand and distribute pressure more evenly than drawcords.
“For about the first seven or eight years, I used Velcro for the sleeve closures. I didn’t really like them, and they were heavy. I’ve been selling Packas for 18 years now. The thought behind the shock cord closure is that it allows for more airflow when opened.”
6. Reinforce with heavier fabric the parts of the Packa that touch the ground when the backpack is taken off. I fear that a 20-denier fabric will not withstand long-term abrasion from sharp rocks and sticks if it has a 30-pound pack atop it.
“I used a heavier fabric for the bottom of the pack cover when I used to make Packas myself. I don’t let my Packa ever touch the ground. I take it off the pack before setting my pack down. But point noted.”
7. Move the pocket higher so it’s more easily accessible and flops less.