The Best Wind Jacket Review
What is the best windbreaker for protecting you from a cool morning breeze or a mountain top gale? We identified 10 of the leading jackets available on the market today and put them through months of testing to determine which was the best. We affirmed our conviction that these super thin and lightweight jackets might just be the most important component of any high tech layering system, and are perhaps the most useful outdoor garment that you can own. We wore and tested these 10 jackets daily while running, biking, hiking, climbing, camping, fishing, and while simply chilling outside on summer and fall days. Keep reading to find out which ones are the best overall and for a variety of different activities.
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Test Results and Ratings
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Analysis and Award Winners
As such a rad jacket, this one can be hard to find in stock. Be persistent, it's worth it! Despite shortages, Rab has informed us that this jacket is not being discontinued; it's simply really popular. However, if you can't find it and can't wait, then check out the other Top Pick Award winners described below. The Patagonia Houdini is a great substitute at a low price, and is our recommendation for rock climbers. For running and mountain biking we prefer the Outdoor Research Tantrum. If you need a light jacket for colder temperatures, then the Marmot Ether DriClime Hoody is the way to go. Lastly, if you need a super light shell for warm ski days, look into the Arc'teryx Squamish Hoody.
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Analysis and Test Results
First and foremost, the purpose of a wind breaker jacket is to protect you from the wind. They are typically made of lightweight nylon that is tightly woven to limit the amount of air that can make its way through. Wind breakers are typically worn directly over a t-shirt or other thin under-layer, although depending on the fit and design, they can also at times be used as an outer shell over the top of warmth layers. Breathability is another important quality for a successful wind breaker, as these layers are common for high intensity activities where there is a need to release excess heat and sweat. While they might protect you from a light rain or drizzle, they are not really designed to be waterproof, like a dedicated rain jacket or waterproof/breathable hardshell. Check out our Best Rain Jacket for Men or Best Hardshell Jacket for Men reviews if you are interested in a more weatherproof layer.
The Need for a Wind Breaker Jacket
In our opinion, wind breaker jackets might just be the most versatile and useful outer garment you can buy. Why is this? Well, if you are like most people you will typically recreate outdoors when the weather is fairly pleasant. However, even a slight breeze or a drop in temperature can vastly effect how warm or cold your body feels, especially when working hard.
Due to the laws of physics, convective heat loss is greatly magnified when there is air movement, whether that's a gentle breeze or a howling mountain top wind. If you are running, biking, hiking, or otherwise working out in a way that heats you up enough to produce sweat, then this effect will be further magnified. We have all experienced a time when we stopped running in a cool breeze, dripping in sweat, and felt relieved to feel our body cooling down. However, due to the nature of convective heat loss that is taking place, mere moments later we are freezing cold and have a very hard time warming back up again. A wind breaker jacket provides the perfect barrier to slow this heat loss, by wind and by sweat, and simply broadens the range of comfort in all types of outdoor weather.
The advantages of a wind breaker over other forms of outer or thermal layers is that they are super lightweight (the lightest in this review weighs a mere three ounces!), they are extremely packable (all but one reviewed here easily fits into its own pocket), and relatively cheap compared to rain jackets, hardshell jackets, or fleece jackets. For almost any outdoor adventure from spring through summer and into fall, we find that we tend to reach for the wind breaker as our go-to first layering option (unless, of course, it's raining or snowing).
Purposes and Activities
We feel that wind breaker jackets are perhaps the most versatile piece of outdoor clothing you can own. While testing the 10 products we have reviewed here, we found ourselves reaching for a wind breaker nearly every day, for almost everything that we did. We used these jackets and found them beneficial for sport climbing and especially long trad climbing, for mountain biking, hiking, trail running, peak bagging, backpacking, fly fishing, dog walking, and even just hanging out around the campfire in the evening and morning. They could also be a great clothing option for sailing, canoeing, paragliding, SUPing, backcountry skiing, road biking, or any other outdoor activity where it is not blazing hot or there might be a slight breeze or more. For more information about which jackets we feel best suit specific outdoor activities, check out our How to Choose the Best Wind Breaker article.
Types of Wind Breakers
For this review we tested 10 of the best and most popular wind breakers on the market today, and found that they generally fit into three different categories. These categories are not defined by the manufacturers or the industry, but are merely our way of differentiating the types of jackets and the situations that we most often found ourselves using them in. They are defined below.
Single Layer Nylon
Most of the wind breakers we tested fit into the designation of "single layer nylon." What we mean when we say single layer is that they are by and large designed to be used as the only layer in the system, and tend to fit sleeker and tighter to the body. They fit in such a way that they would be difficult to layer underneath. These jackets tend to be best for warmer seasons and high output activities, such as running, biking, climbing, or hiking. The jackets that fit this mold are the Patagonia Houdini, Rab Windveil Jacket, Outdoor Research Tantrum, Salomon Fast Wing Hoodie, and the Mountain Hardwear Ghost Lite Jacket.
Two of the jackets we tested were designed with a wicking liner inside that ensured that they were a fair bit warmer than the other jackets listed above. The liner is designed to increase the wind resistance, which it does, and also to help wick moisture away from the body to help it breathe better, which it also does. In addition, we found that the liners simply added a fair bit of insulation, which caused us to heat up much quicker, and also inspired us to only reach for these jackets on cold mornings or once fall hit and the temperatures cooled down drastically. The two jackets that fit into this category were the Marmot Ether DriClime and the Mountain Hardwear Ghost Lite Pro.
Three of the jackets we have reviewed here were designed with fit and features such that they work best as very lightweight outer shells, and were not our first choices for stand alone wind protection due to their larger fit. These jackets look and act more like lightweight rain jackets, although it is worth mentioning that only the Patagonia Alpine Houdini actually contains a waterproof membrane. The Arc'teryx Squamish Hoody and the Sierra Designs Exhale Windshell are lightly water resistant jackets that emphasize wind protection and breathability, and fit large enough for layering beneath.
Criteria for Evaluation
In order to be able to tell you which are the very best wind breaker jackets, we rated them based on five separate metrics: wind resistance, breathability and venting, fit and functionality, water resistance, and weight and packability. We gave each jacket a score from 1 to 10 for each metric, determining the scores based on how they compared to the competition. While we rated for each metric, some of them we determined to be more important than others, so weighted those scores more. Read on below to find out more about each metric, how much we weighted them, and what were the best and worst performers for each category.
Since we are reviewing wind breakers, wind resistance is understandably one of the most important features these jackets can have. Made of lightweight nylon, most of these jackets acquire their resistance to wind from the incredibly tight weave of the fabrics they employ. It stands to reason that the tighter a fabric is woven together, the less space there will be between individual fibers, and the less air will be able to penetrate through them. Interestingly, the makers of these jackets also understand that since wind breakers are most often used as a lightweight layer for high intensity activities, then breathability is also a top concern. Very few people would enjoy owning a wind breaker that was 100 percent wind resistant and not at all breathable. Therefore, in order to also offer some breathability, there must be some ability for air to pass through. While balancing these necessary attributes, we found that most jackets that were very wind resistant were not very breathable, and vice versa.
Besides wearing these jackets nearly every day for months on end and noticing how we felt, we tested for wind resistance by forcing air through the fabric at close range, by both a hair dryer, and by our mouth. By combining these two methods, we were able to get a pretty good idea of how easily air passed through each fabric. Then, to back up our findings, we took all of the jackets to the top of a 12,500 ft. pass in the San Juan Mountains in the evening when the winds were sustained at about 20 mph and gusting to 30. We compared our previous findings with side-by-side testing of how each jacket felt in the strong, cold winds, and are confident that we can tell which jackets are the most and least wind resistant.
The Marmot Ether DriClime Hoody was the most wind resistant jacket, aided without doubt by its interior liner. Also scoring well was the other lined jacket, the Mountain Hardwear Ghost Lite Pro. Our third top scorer was the Patagonia Alpine Houdini, whose 2.5 layer waterproof/breathable membrane was thicker and heavier than any other in this review. The lowest scorers were all among the most breathable in the review, represented by the Outdoor Research Tantrum, the Sierra Designs Exhale Windshell, and the Arc'teryx Squamish Hoody. It is of course worth noting that despite being comparatively poor in terms of wind resistance, we felt that they still did a good job at this task. We weighted wind resistance as 30 percent of a product's final score.
Breathability and Venting
Equally as important in our minds as wind resistance is breathability. After all, a jacket with no breathability at all would trap all of the heat and subsequent moisture from sweating inside its shell, soaking and overheating the wearer in a very uncomfortable way. However, since wind resistance and breathability are often polar opposites in terms of fabric weave and performance, many manufacturers choose to compensate for poor fabric breathability by including features designed to help with venting. Since we think these two concepts accomplish the same thing – removal of heat and moisture – we included them together in this metric.
While some jackets like the Arc'teryx Squamish Hoody or Outdoor Research Tantrum had very breathable fabric, others like the Rab Windveil Jacket and the Salomon Fast Wing Hoodie included armpit vents, mesh hand pockets, and venting buttons across the front to hold the jacket together while allowing you to move with the front zipper completely open. The Marmot Ether DriClime Hoody and the Mountain Hardwear Ghost Lite Pro did a great job of helping wick away moisture to allow it to breath through their outer layers and mesh pockets and underarm vents. Unfortunately one jacket, the Patagonia Alpine Houdini, proved to be very wind resistant, but also not very breathable, and really didn't include any handy venting features. It was our lowest scorer for this metric. Like wind resistance, we chose to weight breathability as 30 percent of a product's final score.
Fit and Functionality
Important for any outdoor garment is whether it fits well for its intended purpose, as well as considering whether all of the features work as they were intended. When it comes to fit, we checked to see if the sleeves were long enough, if the hood fit over our head well, and whether the jacket was too baggy or too tight. We took into consideration whether it was designed to be used as a single layer, in which case we expected it to fit sleeker and closer to the body for optimal performance. On the other hand, if it was obviously meant as an outer layer, then we wanted to see if it could be layered beneath.
When looking at functionality we assessed based on whether all of the included features worked well. Often deductions came for things that simply annoyed us, like hard to manipulate zippers, hood stowing systems that simply didn't keep the hood put away, draw cords that were hard to pull or release with one hand, or elastic cuffs and hood liners that simply weren't tight enough to keep the weather out.
Only one jacket, the Arc'teryx Squamish Hoody, scored a perfect 10 for this metric. Its gusseted athletic fit was perfect for active use or layering underneath, and all of its features, including the storm hood, draw cords, and Velcro wrist cuffs worked optimally. On the other hand, we experience many problems with the Sierra Designs Exhale Windshell (poor fit and super short sleeves), the Mountain Hardwear Ghost Lite Jacket (baggy fit that always rode up, loose elastic cuffs and hood), and the Patagonia Alpine Houdini (terrible zipper, bad hood stowage, barely fit in stuff pocket). We weighed this metric as 20 percent of a product's final score.
While all of these wind breakers purport to be water resistant, none of them, except the Patagonia Alpine Houdini, are meant to be waterproof. It is a tall order to ask for a jacket that is wind resistant, super breathable, super light and packable, cheap, and waterproof, and indeed, we have yet to find such a jacket. As they are not rain jackets, these wind breakers focus on other attributes before water resistance, and so that is not a top priority in their construction. However, a little bit of water protection is necessary from time to time, and so most of these jackets come with a durable water resistant (DWR) coating applied to the outside of the shell when you purchase them. DWR coatings are a chemical application that repels water while still allowing the fabric underneath to breathe properly, but they come with the limitation that they wear off, especially if you wear a pack over the jacket or it is subject to lots of abrasion or scuffing. Once the DWR coating has worn off, the jacket will no longer be water resistant, and in the case of these wind breakers, you will get wet! Luckily, DWR coatings can be purchased and re-applied to jackets that have lost theirs.
Living in a very dry part of the world, we did not have the opportunity to be doused in real rainstorms in all of these jackets. Honestly, we wouldn't want to, as most of these jackets are resistant up to only a light shower or gentle drizzle. If you have to tackle real rain, bring a rain jacket. While we did get rained on plenty, we also needed to objectively test how these jackets handled the rain in comparison to each other, and so employed our trusty shower for the test. We jumped in the shower in each jacket to see how well they handled a dousing. But recognizing their inherent limitations, we were nice enough to simply jump in for one quick turn about, and subjected each jacket to less than 10 seconds of full shower exposure. We tested these jackets at the end of the months-long test period, to get an idea of how well their DWR coating had held up over time. The results spanned the range from impressively good to very bad!
The Patagonai Alpine Houdini, with its 2.5 layer waterproof/breathable membrane, was the clear winner when it came to water resistance. One could argue that we should have designated it as a rain jacket, but we wanted to see how it compared head-to-head with the standard Houdini. Other impressively water resistant jackets were the Rab Windveil and the Salomon Fast Wing Hoodie. Disappointingly low scorers were the Outdoor Research Tantrum and the Mountain Hardwear Ghost Lite Jacket. As water resistance is a nice feature to have in a wind breaker, but is certainly not specifically what these jackets are designed for, we only weighted this metric as 10 percent of a product's final score.
Weight and Packability
The lightest wind breakers that we tested are as light as feathers. Weighing in at only 3.0 ounces, the Salomon Fast Wing Hoodie weighs roughly the same as three slices of bread, a small apple, or a deck of cards. That's not very much! On the other end of the spectrum, the Mountain Hardwear Ghost Lite Pro checked in at 9.5 ounces, which is still only slightly over half a pound. These jackets are truly exceptionally light.
With all of them weighing seemingly next to nothing, does it make sense to penalize the ones that are just slightly heavier and still feather weight? In order to be fair, we did rate each product based upon its weight, but then bumped the score up, left it the same, or dropped it down slightly based upon how small and how easy the jackets pack up. Every jacket but the Sierra Designs Exhale Windshell stuff into one of their own pockets for super small and easy portability. However, the size they pack down to is not all the same, nor is the ease of stuffing them or the ease of transporting them afterwards.
The Salomon Fast Wing Hoodie was the lightest jacket in the entire review, but it was nearly matched by the Mountain Hardwear Ghost Lite Jacket and the Patagonia Houdini. The heaviest options were the two insulated wind breakers – the Marmot Ether DriClime Hoody and the Mountain Hardwear Ghost Lite Pro. The Outdoor Research Tantrum received the largest bump of two positive points for how easily it stuffed into its lower back pocket, and far more importantly how versatile and awesome the included waist strap was for carrying it without a pack. Most of the stow pockets came with a clip-in loop for attaching to a pack or harness if climbing. The Sierra Designs Exhale Windshell did not stuff in its own pocket, nor did it have a clip in or carrying method like the other jackets, so we deducted two points from its weight score. Overall, we weighted this metric as 10 percent of a product's final score.
Choosing the perfect wind breaker jacket can certainly present a challenge. While all of the products we have reviewed here did a good job at protecting us from the wind, the complicating factor in determining which one will be the best for you is most likely your intended purpose. We have highlighted a number of different jackets as award winners for specific individual purposes to help you figure out which one is best for you. We hope that our wind breaker review and test results have helped you to make a decision on the best wind breaker to purchase, but if you would like even more information on choosing the right one, we invite you to read our How to Choose the Best Wind Breaker article.
— Andy Wellman
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