Over the past eight years, our experts have reviewed over 30 of the best wind breaker jackets. For the summer of 2021, we bought nine of the best jackets available on the market for side-by-side testing. Our in-depth analysis combines objective, laboratory-style testing with real-world experience to break down each of these jackets: which are the lightest, which are the most wind- and weather-resistant, and which present the best value. From the chill of autumn to springtime gales, a windbreaker is a lightweight option to keep the elements at bay — there's really no excuse not to carry one of these essential, packable layers in your kit. And our comprehensive review helps you find the best option to fit your needs and budget.Related: Best Windbreaker Jacket For Women
Best Windbreaker for Men of 2021
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|Pros||Low price, simple and effective design, tiny packed-size, impressive DWR coating||Ultimate breathability, next-to-skin softness||Lightest in the category, tiny packed size, larger chest pocket||Well-ventilated, body-mapped Merino panels||Lots of zippered pockets, ease of packing, elastic brim|
|Cons||No feature to stow-away hood, thin material can feel clammy during high-output activity||Cold in a strong wind, expensive||See-through material, under-performing DWR fabric||Lack of drawcords, billowy||Goofy looking brimmed hood, swampy, lack of DWR|
|Bottom Line||The best overall value and performance in a lightweight package that sets the category standard||An ultralight, breathable, versatile layer for those who live by the mantra of fast-and-light||An ultralight jacket purposefully built for fast and light mountain missions||Packable weather protection that skillfully incorporates Merino into a well-ventilated shell||Best-in-class storage in a lightweight, ripstop-nylon shell, all at an affordable price|
|Rating Categories||Patagonia Houdini||Patagonia Houdini Air||Distance Wind Shell||Merino Sport Ultra...||Rab Vital Windshell|
|Wind Resistance (30%)|
|Breathability And Venting (30%)|
|Weight And Packability (20%)|
|Fit And Functionality (10%)|
|Water Resistance (10%)|
|Specs||Patagonia Houdini||Patagonia Houdini Air||Distance Wind Shell||Merino Sport Ultra...||Rab Vital Windshell|
|Measured Weight, (size M)||3.9 oz (size L)||4.0 oz||3.5 oz||4.8 oz||4.7 oz|
|Material||100% nylon ripstop, DWR finish||90% nylon (51% recycled) / 10% polyester double weave, DWR finish||100% nylon ripstop, woven w/ DWR treatment (Green Theme Technology)||100% nylon outer, 54% Merino wool / 46% polyester liner, DWR coating||Hyperlite nylon|
|Pockets||1 zip (chest)||1 zip (chest)||1 chest zip||1 zip (chest)||3 zip (2 external hand, 1 internal)|
|Safety Reflective Material?||No (company states reflective logo on left chest, too small to really be visible)||No (company states reflective logo on left chest, too small to really be visible)||No||Yes reflective logos on chest, back, right arm; stripes on cuffs and seat hem||Yes, reflective logo on chest and back|
|Stuffs into itself?||Yes, stows in chest pocket||Yes, stows in chest pocket||Yes, stows in chest pocket||Yes, stows in chest pocket||Yes, stows in internal pocket|
|Cuff Style||Half Elastic||Half Elastic||Elastic||Half Elastic||Half Elastic|
Best Overall Windbreaker
The Patagonia Houdini is an iconic windbreaker jacket, and as a repeat winner at the top of our podium, continues to set the standard for all other jackets in this category. It performs exactly as a windbreaker should, packing down and stowing away until you need to break it out to protect you from wind or light rain. The entire jacket stuffs into its chest pocket — the resulting package is only about the size of a small banana. The lightweight package easily clips to a belt, climbing harness, or stashes into the smallest corner of your pack — it even squeezes comfortably into the tiniest seat bags, making it a great companion for long bike rides. Though it will never compare directly to a rain jacket, the ultralight DWR coating is at the top of its class and does a solid job of balancing wind resistance with breathability.
With its most recent makeover, the historically too-small chest pocket of the Houdini has been updated to accommodate the ever-growing size of newer smartphones (though it is still a bit of an awkward fit.) If you are biking, running, skiing downhill, or outside in any aggressive wind, the hood tends to catch air like a sail, uncomfortably stretching the collar against your neck. Without any features to improve ventilation, you can only push up the sleeves to cool off — without full-elastic wrist cuffs, this can cut off circulation for those with muscular forearms. These small design criticisms aside, the Houdini is still our favorite windbreaker. It is a multifunctional jacket, well-suited to all-day alpine adventures, long trail runs, exposed free climbs, and evening mountain bike laps.
Read review: Patagonia Houdini
Best Bang for Your Buck
Rab Vital Windshell
The Rab Vital Windshell is packed with pockets, loaded with features, and still costs less than many jackets in this review, earning recognition for its excellent value. While other jackets may weigh fractions of an ounce less, the Vital has an advantage when it comes to additional features. There are two big hand pockets and a large internal pocket at the waist level. A neck snap lets you completely unzip the jacket but still keep it in place, which helps quickly dump heat or adjust midlayers. We're split on the hood brim — it does provide extra rain deflection, but it looks goofy and makes it harder to fit under a bike helmet.
The material — although lightweight, ripstop nylon — does not breathe well. In side-by-side bike climbs with other top-ranking windbreakers, we were much more swampy inside this jacket. Without a DWR finish, this jacket will help in a fog, but don't expect it to keep you dry very long, even in light rain. But, if you value features and pockets over breathability and water-repellency, then the Vital is one of the best options in this review.
Read review: Rab Vital Windshell
Best for Aerobic Performance
Patagonia Houdini Air
In the few ways we have to criticize the award-winning Houdini, the Patagonia Houdini Air makes up for when it comes to fast-and-light performance. Truly incredible in terms of breathability, this super lightweight shell works as a running jacket and doubles equally well as a mid-layer for ski touring. This windbreaker is built with a texturized nylon — 51% of which is post-consumer recycled material — that is soft to the touch and airy to wear. We also find that the fit is more athletically cut than the original, both more flattering to wear out on the town and more comfortable to layer underneath a harness.
With all of the benefits of the Houdini Air, there have to be a few sacrifices. Otherwise, this windbreaker would have easily taken the top spot in our review. As a trade-off for leaping improvements in breathability, a stiff wind easily cuts through the thin, single-layer nylon. Even though there are thoughtful additions to improve water resistance, like fully taped seams on the chest pocket, the DWR finish is not enough to stop anything more than a quick passing storm. An ideal choice for uphill athletes, but maybe not those climbers looking at a questionable forecast, considering the Houdini Air all comes down to what you are looking for in a windbreaker jacket.
Read review: Patagonia Houdini Air
Why You Should Trust Us
Our windbreaker jacket expert is Aaron Rice. Growing up on the Atlantic coastline, learning to ski in Vermont and Maine, and living up and down the Rocky Mountains for the past decade, he knows about all different types of wind and weather. Just ask him, and he will happily tell you that "weather is his jam" — he even holds a bachelor's degree in atmospheric and climate science. Now living in Santa Fe, NM, Aaron wears many different professional hats, dividing his work seasonally between farming and writing in the summers, and ski patrol and avalanche education in the winters. He spends much of his time outside and draws on past experience as a retail buyer to dissect and discuss the nuances of technical gear. Aaron often finds himself in some questionably windy situations, whether in the high mountains or out in the desert. If you don't quite know what we're talking about, go and visit New Mexico in the spring, and you'll understand.
To effectively test these products, we identified key metrics that help define a truly great windbreaker jacket: wind resistance, breathability and venting; weight and packability; fit and functionality; and water resistance. Through research and our own personal experience, we developed a series of comprehensive and mutually exclusive tests. To test key criteria like wind resistance, we sought out windy mountaintops and coastlines to evaluate these jackets in the field. But for other metrics, like water resistance, we conducted laboratory-style tests that could be easily recreated.
Related: How We Tested Wind Jackets
Analysis and Test Results
The high desert of the American Southwest provides a perfect testing ground for our field research — in one day, we can easily travel from chilly alpine ridges down to sun-soaked desert landscapes. We tested these jackets through a variety of activities — mountain biking, trail running, uphill and downhill skiing, backpacking, camping, and climbing — as well as simple, everyday activities like walks in the park or trips to the store. All along the way, we continually made notes on special features and nuanced differences in fit, evaluating and re-assessing each jacket's relative strengths and weaknesses.
Related: Buying Advice for Wind Jackets
We acknowledge that some criteria are more important than others when considering windbreaker jackets. For example, we give greater weight to critical metrics like wind resistance and packability. It is also important to recognize that all of the jackets we chose to include in this review are among some of the best products available today. Since our scoring is based on direct, side-by-side comparisons, a low score doesn't mean that a jacket isn't worth your while. It simply means that it didn't perform as well relative to the competition. We also recognize that your specific needs may differ from how heavily we scored each metric. We offer various windbreakers in this review to accommodate all situations — but be sure to carefully consider your own preferences before settling on a particular jacket.
An essential aspect of any purchase is the value it offers. While it is often true that items that cost more often correspond with higher performance, this is not always the case. We have found time and again that some more affordable items perform nearly as well as the most expensive options, and therefore present a much better value overall.
The Patagonia Houdini represents an exceptional value in this category. Not only is it our top overall scorer, but it is also relatively inexpensive and remarkably durable. This windbreaker jacket should continue to perform well for years across a variety of activities. We recognize that price is a factor affecting every gear-budget and that sometimes even a few dollars can make-or-break the bank. For an outstanding blend of value and functionality, the Rab Vital is a technical piece available at a much lower price point than directly comparable jackets.
Wind resistance is understandably one of the most important features these jackets can offer — we weighted this metric as 30 percent of a product's final score. Made of lightweight nylon or polyester, most of these jackets utilize an incredibly tight fabric-weave to muster wind resistance. The tighter the fabric is woven together, the less space between individual fibers, and the less air-permeable the fabric becomes. The Ortovox windbreaker is special in this case, utilizing a proprietary weave that incorporates Merino wool and nylon into a single layer, resulting in an exceptionally wind-resistant jacket.
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. We used a hairdryer and our mouths. By combining these methods, we can get a pretty good idea of how easily air passed through each fabric. To back up our findings, we wore all of the jackets at the top of a 12,000-foot peak in the Sangre De Cristo Mountains on a windy day when gusts hit 35 mph, and wind chill temperatures reached zero degrees Fahrenheit. 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.
In addition to the nylon fabric weave used in construction, a couple of other factors are vital in a jacket's performance to properly fight the wind. Fit is critical, and windbreakers work better when they fit close to the body. Features that help seal out the wind, like elastic on the sleeve cuffs and drawcords on the hem and hood, make a huge difference if you are battling a strong, sustained wind. These are easy entry points where the wind can circumvent your carefully-woven nylon barrier.
The Rab Vital Windshell, an unlined jacket, seems to have either a tighter weave than the rest or use a different type of nylon altogether — both of which lead to increased wind resistance. The Vital also employs all of the features we mentioned above and more — elastic cuffs, drawcords on the hem, zippered hand pockets, a storm flap behind the front zipper, and a full elastic hood — to bolster its wind resistance.
Breathability and Venting
Since these jackets are most often used as an alternative, lightweight outer layer for high-intensity activities, we chose to weight breathability and venting as 30 percent of a product's final score. After all, a jacket with no breathability would trap all of your heat and sweat inside its shell — leading to a horrible cycle of overheating, soaking, and then overcooling you. Wind resistance and breathability are often contrasting ideas 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 these two concepts accomplish the same thing — removal of heat and moisture — we included them together in this metric.
Besides the notes we acquired from field testing, we wanted to judge each jacket side-by-side in a situation that would not incorporate the sun's heat — a major factor here in the Southwest. To analyze which jackets built up the most moisture or which helped us feel the coolest, we cranked up the heat in our gear room to 85-degrees Fahrenheit and put each jacket through a 15-minute workout.
All of these jackets give bias towards protecting you from the wind, so none of them breathe that well. However, some jackets performed better than the rest, but often for different reasons. Jackets like the KUHL Parajax breathe well by effectively wicking moisture from sweat away from the body with a mesh liner. Others include underarm vents — this is perfected by the Smartwool Merino Sport UL, which puts the naturally moisture-wicking power of Merino wool to use by incorporating it into its large, body-mapped ventilation system. But this quality has been perfected by the Patagonia Houdini Air, which earned a nod for those uphill athletes looking for maximum breathability.
Weight and Packability
The lightest windbreakers weigh less than a quarter-pound. That's way less than your average, lightweight rain jacket. Every single windbreaker in our review tips the scales at less than 11 ounces. These jackets are not only exceptionally light, but they often pack down to a size smaller than your average Nalgene bottle — so you have little excuse not to throw one of these into your pack for extra weather protection. Overall, we weighted this metric as 20 percent of a product's final score.
With all of them weighing seemingly next to nothing, does it make sense to penalize the ones that are just slightly heavier — but in the grand scheme of things — still lightweight? To fairly balance out this question, we rated each product based upon its weight, but then adjusted the score slightly based on how small and easily the jacket packs up. Every jacket tested manages to stuff into one of their own pockets for easy portability. However, the size they pack down to is not equal, nor is the ease of stuffing them or transporting them afterward. A smaller stuffed size is a valuable attribute for attaching a windbreaker to a harness on a long climb or fitting in a hydration pack for a long mountain bike ride or trail run. Still, it doesn't apply to every situation.
The Black Diamond Distance Wind Shell is the lightest jacket in the entire review, and it stuffs down to a tiny package. The Arc'teryx Squamish, the Patagonia Houdini, and the Houdini Air are slightly heavier than the Distance, but all pack into their own chest pocket to relatively the same size. All of the jackets pack into their own pockets in one way or another — many have zippered pockets that double as stuff sacks. Additionally, these stuff sacks often include clip-in loops for easy carrying. Notably, the Columbia Flashback does not have this capability and is bulky compared to the competition.
Fit and Functionality
It is important for any outdoor garment to fit well for its intended purpose and 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 fits over our head well (even with wearing a helmet), and whether the jacket was too baggy or too tight compared to the same sizing in other jackets. We considered 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. If it was meant to be worn more as an outer layer, we wanted to see if it could be layered underneath. We weighed this metric as 10 percent of a product's final score.
Often point deductions came from features that annoyed us: hard to manipulate zippers; hood stowing systems that don't hold; drawcords that are hard to pull or release with one hand; or elastic cuffs and hood liners that aren't tight enough to keep the weather out.
While we loved the fit of the Squamish Hoody and the fact that it is loaded with features, the Rab Vital Windshell earned accolades for a combination of function and value. With a similar slew of features as the Squamish, but with more zippered pockets than any other jacket, the Vital is our choice when you don't want added features to compromise your new lightweight wind jacket.
While all of these windbreakers purport to be water resistant, none of them are meant to be waterproof. It is a tall order to ask for a jacket that is already wind-resistant, super breathable, super light, packable, cheap, to also be waterproof. We have yet to find such a unicorn of a jacket. We only weighted this metric as 10 percent of a product's final score.
A little bit of water protection is necessary from time to time, so most of these jackets come with a durable water-resistant (DWR) coating applied to the shell. DWR coatings are chemical applications that repel water while still allowing the fabric underneath to breathe properly. But 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 is gone, these jackets will no longer be water-resistant, and you will get wet. Luckily, you can re-apply DWR coatings.
Living in a very dry corner of the world, we did not have the opportunity to be doused in real rainstorms very often during our testing. But we also needed to objectively test how these jackets handled the rain in comparison to each other, and so employed a garden hose or showerhead to simulate a passing rain shower. We decided to test these jackets at the end of each 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.
For single-layer jackets, the DWR coating applied to the Patagonia Houdini is effective against passing showers — the interwoven treatment of the Distance is not. Regardless, we wouldn't choose any of these jackets if we knew we were walking out the door on a rainy day. Water-resistance is a nice feature in a windbreaker but is certainly not what these jackets are designed for.
With the nuances of sport-specific design, choosing the perfect windbreaker jacket can be a challenge. All of the products we reviewed here certainly did a good job of protecting us from the wind. Some were better suited to water resistance, while others were much more lightweight. The trick to figuring out which jacket to buy is to figure out how you'll use it.
— Aaron Rice & Andy Wellman