Fabric Choice: There are loads of different choices here, all with varying levels of waterproof-ness and breathability. You need to decide what will be the main activity you will need the waterproofs for, and this will influence the type of fabric your gear is made from. For instance waterproofs made for high energy activities such as biking, running and climbing will be cut short, and made from lighter weight and more breathable fabrics than those intended for general hill and valley walking. However, lightweight fabrics simply won't last as long as heavier ones. If you're into Scottish mixed climbing or off on a heavy duty, year-long backpacking trip, light isn't necessarily right.
You can tell the difference between two and three-ply fabrics since two-ply materials have an internal mesh liner to protect the coating or membrane from abrasion. A moisture-pumping lining avoids condensation problems which other fabrics are sometimes prone to and breathability is good, however if you run hot, you may find the material simply too warm for you.
Reinforcements: Many jackets intended for hard use have panels of harder wearing fabric to protect against abrasion and wear from rock and packs. Good modern materials should be hardwearing anyway, but if you're into climbing or heavy backpacking, look for reinforced shoulders, upper back and the sides of the hips where pack belts run and harnesses hang. Forearm reinforcement is great for thrutchy climbers. Shoulders should also be without seams for maximum comfort and durability when wearing a pack,
Fit And Flex: It's not just vanity, fit has a major effect on performance. What you're looking for is a close fit, which will eliminate chilling internal air pockets and improve breathability, but without restricting your movement, particularly if you're a climber.
To check this, reach up high and make sure the hem of the jacket doesn't pull up and the sleeves don't pull down. Reach forward as well, since that's actually a common climbing movement. Try with a harness and a pack to make sure there's no loose billowing fabric.
Stretch fabrics: These are a great way of improving fit by making the jacket able to cling to you, but without restricting movement. Look for stretch panels in the back and shoulder areas. A stretch area at the base of the hood lets you remove and replace it without adjusting the drawcords or volume adjuster.
A decent hood is essential, but not always easy to find. The best designs have an adjustable shock cord which grips the top of the head and means that the hood turns when your head does. A stiffened or wired hood, will stop rain dripping down your face in wet and windy conditions and a snorkel rather than cut away design will help protect your face from savage sidewinds. If you intend to climb, the hood needs to be large enough to cover a helmet, but still effective without. Ideally the adjusters should be easy to use one handed and wearing gloves. Make sure that any cord grips don't slip.
Once cinched down, the fit should be close to your face to minimise drafts in windy conditions. Finally, watch out for overly bulky chin-guard areas - stiffened flaps and zips can make for an uncomfortable press fit against the chin.
If you're a mountain biker or runner, then a roll down or zip-away hood is well worth having instead of the free-flapping menace of an unsecured head protector.
Main Zips: Always look for a protective flap over the main front zip of the jacket and preferably two doubled over each other, often called a 'double-storm flap' for obvious reasons. Some jackets use a flap behind the zip for neatness, but unless it's a neoprene coated water-resistant one, an external one might be better.
Finally, you'll want a 'chin guard' at the top of the zip to stop it chewing your chin. Fleece may feel warm and luxurious, but in really cold conditions may freeze unpleasantly. A thinner microfleece surface might be better instead.
Vents and Pockets: Pockets are very much a personal choice. Some people feel the need for loads, others are happy without any at all. If you carry a map, then a protected map pocket, usually under the main storm flap is a good move and big chest pockets will allow you to stow bulkier items like snacks, light gloves and maybe a hat.
If you're going to be using a harness, then lower handwarmer pockets will be unusable and maybe even uncomfortable under the webbing. For extreme conditions, an inner mesh water-bottle pocket will keep drinks close to your body and stop them freezing.
Vents, again, are a personal thing. Pit-zips started as an option for climbers and should be useable with packs and harnesses. Zip them up when hanging around on belay, open them again when moving to keep cool. The other common option is core vents, often combined with pockets. Neither types are essential, particularly if you run cool and you can always open the main zip instead, but in breezy conditions, the added ventilation can help to prevent you from boiling over. Zips need to be accessible and easy to pull up and down, so check. Few pockets are really waterproof - if the pocket or vent opens directly into a mesh pocket or direct into the lining then make sure the opening has some sort of storm flap.
Drawcords and Openings: Again drawcords and cuff fastenings should be easy to use and simple (such as laminated velcro tabs on cuffs). Make sure toggles and cord ends are captive to avoid jamming in belay devices, or in the case of the hood cords, whipping painfully into your face in windy conditions.
One neat refinement, is a partial waist cord which pulls the front of the jacket flat for an unimpaired view of your feet and footholds when you're climbing. A tidy and effective idea.
Salopettes, bibs, high-waisted pants or just simple waterproof overtrousers - which should you choose?
The first question to ask yourself is whether you really need waterproof shell trousers or bibs / salopettes. The advent of highly weather-resistant soft shell materials mean that in many cases super technical overtrousers may actually be unnecessary or, a very light pair may be enough.
If, on the other hand, you still subscribe to the full waterproof solution, the legwear world is your oyster with lots of options to choose from.
How Long Should You Go? The first choice you need to make is between straight trousers and salopettes or bibs with shoulder straps to keep things secure. For most walking use, normal high-waisted trousers should be fine. They're generally lighter and smaller to pack, not to mention cheaper than higher-cut alternatives.
However, when clombing with a harness, waterproof trousers do tend to slip inexorably downwards as your upper layers levitate. The result is a cold spot in the small of your back. Salopettes or, as the American brands call them, 'bibs' are a solution.
Elasticated shoulder straps keep the waist hitched up and secure. The downsides are that they're heavier, more expensive, more difficult to take on and off without removing a shell jacket as well and, by creating a double layer of fabric in some areas, tend to reduce breathability. When all hell's breaking loose in a Cairngorm blizzard however, they have a nice, bombproof feel.
A halfway house is a pair of high-waisted pants with braces, which share some of the plus points of both designs. They are more protective in the waist area than plain trousers and less prone to pulling down, but lighter and simpler than full-on bibs. So here are some pointers to help you choose the ideal waterproof legwear.
Fabric Choice: The good news is that legs seem less sensitive to breathability than the upper body, so you don't have to agonise quite so hard over material choice. Breathable, waterproof fabrics will both do a decent job, as will many 'own brand' breathables.
In general, as with jackets, the lighter and thinner the fabric, the less durable it will tend to be, so if you're in the habit of thrutching up rocky chimneys, then you're probably best off avoiding the really lightweight kit.
Cunning Cut: Over-tight or badly cut overtrousers will restrict your leg movements, a particular nightmare for climbers, but not great for anyone. Fortunately increasingly cunning design means that well-designed variants can offer a good compromise between a snug, non-flappy fit and good freedom of movement.
Look for articulated knees - made to allow acute bending for those high step-ups - and stretch panels in the seat and knees, again to help you move. With high-cut pants, look for a raised section at the small of the back for enhanced protection.
Try before buying and simulate some big steps. Make sure that you have enough length in the legs and that they don't get tight across the knee at full stretch. Try bridging across too, as if climbing. If they restrict your movement, don't buy them.
Zippety Zip: In an ideal world you want to be able to put on or remove shell trousers without removing your boots. This is even more important if you need to use crampons or skis, since often it simply won't be possible at all unless you have full-length side-zips - double-ended zips running the full length of the legs. Putting such trousers on is still a faff, but removing them is easy. Next best solution is a pair of pants with a very long side-zip that will allow you to pull them on over your boots. Shorter zips can be problematic unless you're prepared to remove footwear.
If in doubt, full-length is probably the way to go. Don't count on putting the trousers on over, say, crampons, being hassle free, but it is at least possible.
A secondary point is to beware of bulky side-zip systems with double Velcro-fastened flaps, which cause bulk and increase complexity. A water-resistant zip with a storm flap should be enough. You can also use full zips as side vents in some cases - great on a hot glacial trudge.
Reinforcements: If you're a winter mountaineer or ice climber, reinforcement on the inside of the ankle - some sort of Cordura Nylon patch is the most common version - will reduce the chances of you cramponing your trousers to death in a moment of careless abandon. They're not infallible though and your best hope of preserving the material is simply careful crampon technique.
If you habitually wear gaiters over your trousers then you don't need to worry about these. For non-crampon use, the patches will also reduce abrasion damage from boots. Other commonly reinforced areas include the seat - great for sitting on abrasive things, like, erm, armchairs - and the knees. A great idea if you are terminally clumsy or have awful climbing technique...
Ankles and Waists: At the waist, look for a fastening that's secure, but won't get pressed into you uncomfortably by a harness or pack belt. Big plastic buckles aren't great for this reason. Some elastic in the waistband will help with fit and reduce falling trouser syndrome, particularly on models without braces.
At the ankle, look for an adjustable cuff that can be worn either inside gaiters - for snowy conditions - or outside when it's raining hard. The difficulty is that anything with that sort of versatility can get bulky, so check carefully for both slimmish lines and for a secure fastening system. Most use Velcro for quick and easy adjustment.