Wondering what the difference between a 2L and 3L jacket is? Don't worry, so is everyone else! We get into the differences below and lay out all the need-to-know info for you.
If you’re in the market for a new jacket, you’ve probably seen that some tote 2L and some have 3L in their names. And all of them claim to be the hottest thing since sliced bread. So what’s the difference, and are you at risk of making the wrong choice here? The short answer is no, providing you make an informed decision. And the good news is that we’ve got all that information right here. So let’s take it from the top, go step by step, and learn all about 2L and 3L jackets.
The ‘L’ in 2L stands for ‘layers’, and it refers to the number of bonded layers within the outer shell of the jacket. Much like with a snail, the ‘shell’ is the tough exterior that keeps the elements away from the smushy inner — in this case, you.
2L is often the industry’s standard for this outer shell. It’s likely that most of the jackets you’ve bought, worn, and checked out online have a 2L outer shell. All the snowboard and ski jackets as well as ski pants in the Dope and Montec lineups have a 2L, for example (except for the Fenix, which has a 3L, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves, here).
2L has only started to be called 2L since the introduction of 3L. So let’s discuss what a 2L is first, and then talk about how a 3L is different. As we mentioned above, the ‘L’ stands for layers.
And with a 2L, that’s the outer layer — the tough, durable, textured, coloured fabric that makes the jacket look and feel how it does. This is a ‘fabric’, often Polyester or Nylon — in some cases polyamide — but nonetheless, it’s a tightly woven fabric composed of ‘fibres’ that can take coloured dyes, be made in different thicknesses, and essentially, these days, is able to absorb a Durable Water Repellent coating, which helps to repel water.
The ‘inner’ layer is where the magic happens. This is where the ‘membrane’ sits. This membrane is the actual waterproof layer — and is made of something known in the industry as PTFE. Or polytetrafluoroethylene if you want to get technical. Now, this awesome material was around before waterproofing, but it was discovered by Bill Gore in ‘69 that by rapidly stretching the material, it could be formed into a thin, waterproof film that had hydrophobic properties — water wouldn’t sink in. On its own, this material had the right waterproof properties, but not the durability needed. So it had to be bonded under heat and pressure to a more durable outer fabric, combining the properties of the two.
And so, 2L technology was born, and the waterproof jacket industry was born. Now, if you haven’t already put two-and-two together, Bill and Genevieve Gore founded a company based on this te(x)nology… Yep. GoreTex, global standard in waterproof fabric. And since, they’ve been improving and innovating.
Now, the trick with this sort of thing isn’t making a waterproof material. That’s easy. But creating a waterproof material that keeps water out from one side, but lets it through from the other? That’s the tricky part. We call that breathability.
GoreTex uses a microporous PTFE membrane which is just 0.1mm thick, and has nine billion pores (9,000,000,000) per square inch. Each of which is 20,000 times smaller than an average water droplet. Which is insane. But even more insanely, each pour is 7,000 times larger than a water vapour molecule. Which is what your sweat is. So, sweat can pass through these pores, but rain and snow can’t get in. Which is essential, because if your sweat can’t get it out, then it condenses against the fabric and makes you wet anyway. And then there’s no real point in having the waterproof protection at all, is there?
Now, 2L only refers to the actual shell of the jacket. And in those two layers, we don’t count any insulation or lining. In a non-insulated jacket, you’ll always have a lining with a 2L jacket. The lining, as well as being more comfortable on the skin, and offering the possibility of pockets and that sort of thing, protects the membrane from excess wear. Sometimes, you’ll see 2.5L which means that the inner PTFE membrane will be sprayed with a protective coating to extend its longevity even further. When it comes to 3L jackets, things start to change a little. So bear with us.
The classic 2L construction always needs a liner to protect it. But in the pursuit of lightweight performance, boffins and scientists operating in their fabric labs hidden in the depths of the earth asked a dangerous question… What if the lining was bonded to the shell?
Cue the thunder, lightning, erupting volcanoes, etc, etc. The third layer in a 3L construction is a protective layer that sandwiches the waterproof membrane between itself and the outer layer. This offers protection for the membrane, while cutting down on bulk, and offering enhanced comfort.
This third layer is usually what’s known as a Tricot, which is just fancy speak for a tightly woven and highly durable fabric. As it’s going to be completely ‘stuck’ to the membrane, it will move with the jacket, rubbing on your clothing continually. In a 2L construction, a super soft lining creates a barrier between the membrane and your clothing, reducing friction. In a 3L, this isn’t possible, so that inner layer has to be super strong to withstand the constant abuse.
The third layer will add weight to the fabric, and will also make it feel stiffer and less malleable. Overall, the jacket will be lighter, as it won’t have any insulation or lining — it will just be a single (well, 3L) layer — but the fabric heavier in comparison to a 2L jacket.
A 2L jacket can vary from a lightweight lined shell to a heavily insulated winter parka. So comparisons between the two aren’t really all that black and white. Though when seeing and feeling a 3L jacket for the first time, it’s easy to think that it feels ‘thin’ or ‘flimsy’, or even ‘cheap’ because of its thickness — or lack thereof.
But you know better. There’s a lot going on under the surface, and each will be fit for its own purpose.
Each has its purpose. 2L jackets are the standard and are great for everything. It’s why they’re so widely used. 3L jackets on the other hand have a more ‘technical’ application, and are often favoured by those who are looking for maximum versatility.
Offering no conceivable warmth (because they have no insulation or lining), they have to be used in conjunction with a layering system in order to emulate the insulation they’re lacking. You often see the 3L badge on higher-end jackets made for the backcountry.
So why do 3L jackets seem to cost so much more than 2L then? That’s a good question, and one we’re happy to dig into!
Over time, the waterproof membrane will wear on a 2L jacket. Made for broader applications, the 2L construction will usually feature a more functional construction. In short, 2L jackets are designed for every day, more casual use, so the processes used to produce the 2L fabric may not be as refined. Produced en-masse, these fabrics can be bought and utilised in bulk, reducing cost. They don’t need to perform quite as well, and only have two components, so they’re easier to produce.
3L jackets need to be made with a more involved, detailed process. Bonding 3 layers together has to be done more carefully. And adding that third tricot layer increases production cost, as well as making the fabric more durable. Because of this lengthier process, the membranes can be more carefully produced, and the performance is often higher. Because production is slower, costs rise, which are then passed onto you.
In short, because they’re taking longer to make them, they make sure they’re a lot better than 2L fabrics in terms of performance. Otherwise, if a 3L functioned the same as a 2L, but considerably more, who would buy it? They’re intended for different uses and audiences, so they make the 3L with more focus on technical performance, meaning you can go further, push harder, and be confident your jacket will keep you dry and riding ‘til you can’t ride no more.
Now that you know what 2L and 3L constructions are, we should probably talk about how waterproofing works. Waterproofing is measured in a ‘water column’. In short, it’s measured in millimetres, and the higher the number, the more water the fabric can withstand before it lets water in.
Lots of companies will offer a 2L and a 3L range with varying water columns. The higher the water column, the more waterproof, but generally, the more expensive, too. Fabrics with better ratings take more time and effort to make, and blah blah blah, we covered this above.
Some examples in the industry are Montec’s Shield-Tec 20k (2L) shell, which is featured on most of their jackets, and their Shield-Tec 3L 30k shell, featured on their Fenix jacket. You also have The North Face’s standard DryVent 2L fabric and then their 3L version and their 3L FUTURELIGHT range. Or DC’s Weather Defense 15k 2L shell and their SYMPATEX 30k and 45k 3L shells. And while some companies have their own versions, many use the old reliable GoreTex. Burton, for example, have their own DryRide 10k 2L shell which they use on their core range, and then for their AK performance range, it’s Gore-Tex Pro, which offers 28k of waterproofing and ‘guaranteed dryness or your money back’.
Now, we’ve thrown around figures from 10k to a whopping 45k here, which is a huge difference. But at the end of the day, once you get up into the 25K+ range, everything is going to be pretty dang waterproof (providing all seams are taped — which very likely will be at this sort of level of jacket). Sure, if you jump in a pool you’re going to get wet. But snow and rain should be kept at bay no problem at all.
Gore-Tex vs. SYMPATEX vs. FUTURELIGHT vs. PERTEX vs. Shield-Tec 3L might just be the waterproof fabric industry’s equivalent of rumble in the jungle. And we’ll be digging into that more in the next article. But for now, be safe in the knowledge of what a 3L jacket is. Hopefully you’re in a place where you can make an informed decision, now. So have fun out there in your new, perfectly chosen, jacket. Happy trails, everyone. And stay safe!