Wind jackets have changed a lot recently. These are not the wind breakers of old years that were made of cheap non-breathable nylon. Modern wind jackets are much lighter, more breathable, 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.
Below is what to look for if you are buying a wind jacket.
All the windbreakers we tested used DWR coatings on top of breathable fabrics. In contrast, most rain jackets and hard shells use waterproof breathable 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.
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 breathable 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 breathable 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.
Be sure to check out our article Introduction to Layered Clothing Systems