How to Choose the Best Wind Breaker Jacket

Buying Advice
By Chris McNamara ⋅ Founder and Editor-in-Chief, OutdoorGearLab - Thursday October 17, 2013


Wind jackets have changed a lot recently. These are not the wind breakers of old years that were made of cheap non-breatheable nylon. Modern wind jackets are much lighter, more breatheable, and a lot more expensive. When most people see the price tags, it seems ridiculous to charge over $100 for such a light jacket. However, these are amazing in their simplicity or perhaps because of their simplicity. Wind jackets are the layer you never knew you needed, but once you use one, it may become your most used piece of outerwear.

Wind jackets stand out because they are so versatile. At their most basic, they are emergency protection from the wind and rain. But more than that they are the perfect layer to add on top of base layers and lightweight insulated and down jackets to become ultralight ways to stay warm and protected from the sun in a wide variety of conditions. We used windbreakers skiing 10,000 foot peaks and at the beach with equal effectiveness.

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The Houdini was our favorite wind jacket for bike commuting. It's so compact that it became permanently stowed in our pannier ready to be deployed for light rain, wind, or just sun protection.
Credit: Lita Collins

Below is what to look for if you are buying a wind jacket.

Water Resistance
All the windbreakers we tested used DWR coatings on top of breatheable fabrics. In contrast, most rain jackets and hard shells use waterproof breatheable membranes like GorTex, eVent, etc. or the less expensive options just use non-breathing coated nylon. No windbreaker we tested will keep you dry in a strong rain. However, you should expect your wind jacket to offer protection in light rain. All the jackets we tested held up about the same amount. It was hard to notice a giant difference in the DWR coatings. So as long as your jacket has a good and DWR coatings, it should work in a light rain. Keep in mind the DWR coatings need maintenance.

Breatheability
Easiest way to test breathability is to hold the fabric to your mouth and blow through it.

Remember that only water vapor can pass through a material. If you profusely sweat, those water droplets ain't passing through your breatheable material. So it is very important to not generate too much sweat in the first place. This is where proper layering and jacket ventilation come in. Look for jackets that will ventilate effectively for your activity. Key jacket ventilation is a zipper that goes all the way down the front. This is where most ventilation occurs.

Of secondary importance are other venting areas:
  • Pit zips
  • Zippered pockets that are mesh lined
  • More breatheable materials in high sweat areas (typically armpits and back)

While all the wind jackets we tested are more breathable than your typical rain jacket or hard shell with a waterproof breathable material, we don't want to overstate how well any of these jackets breathe. They are not nearly as breathable as a performance shirt or long underwear layer. There is always a tradeoff with breathability and wind and rain protection. We feel most of the windbreakers we tested hit the sweet spot but some people will want more breathability or more rain protection from this layer.

Weight and Compactness
There is no point to buy a wind breaker unless it is really light. The whole point is that you have a protective layer that weighs nothing and packs away so small that you have no excuse not to bring one. We take our favorite windbreakers everywhere, even if we don't plan to use them. Heck, throw one in the glove compartment.

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Showing how the windbreakers pack into themselves. From to top to bottom, Marmot DriClime Windshirt, Marmot Trail Wind Hoody, Patagonia Houdini
Credit: Chris McNamara

More info
Be sure to check out our article Introduction to Layered Clothing Systems

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The Marmot DriClime Windshirt is one of the most versatile layers we know of. It comes on almost every hike we take on Mt. Tam.
Credit: Chris McNamara
Chris McNamara
About the Author
Climbing Magazine once computed that three percent of Chris McNamara’s life on earth has been spent on the face of El Capitan—an accomplishment that has left friends and family pondering Chris’ sanity. He’s climbed El Capitan over 70 times and holds nine big wall speed climbing records. In 1998 Chris did the first Girdle Traverse of El Capitan, an epic 75-pitch route that begs the question, “Why?” Outside Magazine has called Chris one of “the world’s finest aid climbers.” He’s the winner of the 1999 Bates Award from the American Alpine Club and founder of the American Safe Climbing Association, a nonprofit group that has replaced over 5000 dangerous anchor bolts.

Chris is a graduate of UC Berkeley and serves on the board of the ASCA, and Rowell Legacy Committee. You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter or ChrisMcNamara.com. He also runs a Lake Tahoe Vacation Rental.