Buying a new windbreaker jacket should be a pain-free experience. To help, we created this article to take a better look into the nuances of each jacket. We also point out the main things to consider when narrowing down your selection, and then make recommendations for which windbreakers work best for specific outdoor activities.
The Need for a WindBreaker Jacket
In our opinion, windbreaker jackets are among the most versatile and useful outer garment you can buy. Why is this? Well, if you are like most people, you typically recreate outdoors when the weather is pleasant. However, even a slight breeze or a drop in temperature can vastly affect 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 mountaintop wind. If you are running, biking, hiking, or otherwise working out 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 with sweat, relieved to let our body cool down. Then, due to convective heat loss, mere moments later we were cold and couldn't warm up. A windbreaker jacket provides the perfect barrier to slow this heat loss and broadens the range of comfort in all types of outdoor weather.The advantages of a windbreaker over other outer or thermal layers are:
- They are super lightweight (the lightest are just over three ounces!)
- They are incredibly packable (they easily stuff into their own pocket)
- They are relatively cheap compared to rain jackets, hardshell jackets, or insulated jackets.
We find that we tend to reach for the windbreaker as our go-to first layering option for almost any outdoor adventure — from spring, through summer into fall, and in some cases even into winter. (Unless, of course, it's raining.)
Wind Breakers vs. Rain Jackets vs. Hardshell Jackets
While windbreakers are the lightest weight and thinnest outer shell garment that you can own, they also have a surprising amount of overlap with higher priced and more durably constructed rain jackets and hardshell jackets. Due to their incredible portability, lower price, and increased breathability, we are inclined to wear a simple windbreaker more often than either a hard shell or rain jacket.
To fully understand when a windbreaker is the right choice, we offer this quick summary of the three types of jackets:Wind Breakers
Made primarily of wind resistant and breathable nylon or similar lightweight material. Their construction makes them cheaper, lighter weight, more compact, and allows greater breathability — easier air and vapor transfer. These have no waterproof membrane. Water resistance is usually achieved with a durable water resistant (DWR) coating.
Rain jackets have 2- or 2.5-layer construction, fixing a waterproof/breathable membrane to an outer face fabric. The membrane, in combination with a DWR coating, makes these jackets far more waterproof than single layer windbreakers. However, the membrane also tends to make them less breathable, heavier, bulkier, and more expensive. These are the best option if you're guaranteed to encounter rain. Check out our Best Rain Jackets for Men Review if this type of jacket better fits your needs.
The burliest and most expensive type of shell jacket, these jackets are constructed of 3-layers, one of which is a waterproof/breathable membrane. The membrane is sandwiched in the middle — typically between a more durable and stronger face fabric, and the protective layer that sits against the body. The inner layer protects the membrane from abrasion and body oils, and also helps wick moisture toward the breathable membrane. These jackets tend to be the most durable, hold onto their waterproof and breathable qualities the longest, and are the best option for working or very high abrasion environments. They are also the best for staying out for hours in cold, snowy, or all-around bad weather. For more information, check out our Hardshell Jackets for Men Review.
From the above breakdown of the three types of outer layers, you can see that rain jackets are meant for when it is raining, and hard shells are designed for even gnarlier winter weather. This leaves windbreakers as the obvious choice for all other times. When the weather is cool and breezy, or warm and pleasant with a slight chance of rain — basically anything besides heavy, consistent precipitation, a windbreaker is a great choice.
Types of Windbreakers
For this review, we tested the best and most popular windbreaker jackets on the market today, and found that they generally fit into three categories. These categories are not defined by the manufacturers or the industry but are our way of differentiating these jackets and the situations when we found ourselves using them.Single Layer Nylon
Most of the models we tested fit into the designation of "single layer nylon." What we mean when we say single layer is that they are just that — one piece of thin, nylon fabric. They are generally used as the only layer in the system (above a shirt) and tend to fit sleeker and tighter to the body. 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, Black Diamond Distance Wind Shell, Rab Vital Windshell, Outdoor Research Tantrum II, and KUHL Parajax.
One of the jackets we tested is designed with a fleece liner that ensured it is 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. Also, we found that the liner simply added a fair bit of insulation, which caused us to heat up much quicker, and also inspired us to only reach for this jacket on cold mornings or once fall hit and the temperatures cooled down drastically.
Three of the jackets we have reviewed here are 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 they are not waterproof. They also constitute great options for bike commuters. The Arc'teryx Squamish Hoody and The North Face Fanorak fit large enough to allow for layering even a bulky, casual sweatshirt underneath.
Water Resistance and DWR
Constructed of only a single layer of fabric, windbreakers do not contain a waterproof membrane like their heavier duty counterparts. This means that in theory, they would get soaked by even the slightest amount of rain. To combat this, manufacturers applied a DWR coating to the outside of all of the jackets that we tested. DWR coatings are important for two reasons. First off, they cause water to bead up and fall off a fabric, rather than soak in. This is what is meant by water resistant. Secondly, they help a fabric to breathe by keeping it dry. If a fabric is soaked through, it cannot allow water vapor to pass from the inside to the outside, and breathing is effectively stopped.
The limitation of DWR coatings is that they wear off with time. This process is dependent on the quality of the coating applied by the manufacturer but is also affected by the amount of abrasion that a jacket is exposed to. Unfortunately, wearing a pack causes enough abrasion to quickly rub off a jacket's DWR coating, exposing it to water absorption. New technologies are being developed to create DWR finishes that are fused to individual fibers — but time will tell how effective this is as an alternative to traditional DWR finishes. For more information on the importance of maintaining your jacket's DWR coating, as well as how to restore a jacket's DWR coating, check out this article on DWR Care from REI.
The range of DWR effectiveness and water resistance of the windbreakers we tested varied considerably. If you are going to face consistent rain in your life or adventures, we recommend a rain jacket. For light or occasional rain, a few windbreakers we tested proved themselves certainly up to the challenge. The DWR coatings on the The North Face Fanorak, and even the ultralight Patagonia Houdini proved very effective, even after a fair amount of testing and abrasion. For the most part, the rest of the windbreakers offered disappointing levels of water resistance, such that we wouldn't recommend them for any sort of real rain exposure.
Wind Resistance vs. Breathability
Wind resistance and breathability are both attributes that are highly desirable for a windbreaker, and both are dependent on the type and weave of the fabric used in constructing a windbreaker. In our experience, these two attributes tend to work at odds with each other. Consider that both wind resistance and breathability have to do with the ability of air to move through fabric. If no air can move through, then the fabric will be very wind resistant. If lots of air can pass through, then it will be very breathable. For single layered windbreakers, we found that these attributes tended to work against each other, and jackets were either very breathable but not super wind resistant, very wind resistant but not at all breathable, or sometimes struck a nice balance between the two extremes.
There are two techniques that companies used to try to get around this apparent offsetting of desirable features. Including a fleece liner has the effect of greatly increasing wind resistance, forcing wind to travel through more fabric. Using this feature, the manufacturer could use far more breathable face fabrics without suffering the consequences. The unfortunate downside to this approach is that you are far more likely to need the added breathability, because the extra material makes it likely that you will be hot and sweating.
The other strategy is to have a fairly impermeable face fabric, meaning it is wind resistant but therefore doesn't breathe well, and offset that with features to improve ventilation. Of course, the thing worth noting in this discussion is that our rating scores for each of these metrics are based upon comparison testing. Even when we rated a product pretty low for wind resistance, it was still doing a good job. There were no jackets in this test that we felt were simply not wind resistant.
The price of the windbreakers we tested ranges from $79, represented by The North Face Fanorak, up to $159 for the Arc'teryx Squamish Hoody. The average price for one of these jackets is around $120. On one hand, this seems like a lot of money for the amount of fabric and material that you end up purchasing. On the other hand, this is not much money compared to the price of rain jackets and hard shells, especially when considering how often you will get quality use out of your wind jacket. For an article of technical clothing, this is a fairly reasonable cost. With a relatively narrow range of price points, we don't recommend factoring cost heavily into your decision. Instead, focus on which jacket will work best for your intended activity.
Recommendations for Specific Activities
After determining that you do want a windbreaker and don't instead want to spend your money on a rain jacket or hard shell, we recommend that you choose the jacket that best suits your preferred outdoor activities. Saying that, these jackets are incredibly versatile — for the most part, they will work well no matter what form of adventure you might wear them for.Running
Running is an activity that just begs for a windbreaker, especially trail running. While the most comfortable running outfit is a pair of shorts and a very light top, it is common to feel like you need a little bit more protection. Sweating profusely can make the arms and core feel chilled in a wind, and full coverage is really nice on cool mornings or during winter runs. We commonly run in the mountains where fickle weather guarantees that we never leave home without a light windbreaker of some sort. Due to its stretchy and highly breathable fabric, the Outdoor Research Tantrum II is one of our favorites for running. Unfortunately, it is no good in the rain. The Patagonia Houdini is also great for running. The Black Diamond Distance is also an option worth investigating for running. It is worth noting that while all of these jackets pack down very small, they will all require some sort of running vest to carry them. We also have a Best Running Jackets Review, so check that out as well.
Hiking and Peak Bagging
Hiking and Peak Bagging are generally slow-moving activities that can still work up a great amount of sweat if it is hot, sunny, or you are moving uphill. You are also very likely to encounter wind, rain, or even simply cool air and shade that might chill you. A windbreaker is a perfect jacket for spring, summer, and fall hiking, and a fantastic choice for summer peak bagging. The incredible lightweight and great packability give you no excuse for not bringing one.
All of the jackets we tested would work well for hiking and peak bagging. Our recommendation is to focus on the highest ranked products or the ones we gave awards to. These are the Patagonia Houdini, Black Diamond Distance, or Outdoor Research Tantrum II. While the rest of the jackets in our review are also totally appropriate for hiking or peak bagging, our test results have shown that the ones recommended here are the best, so why not stick to them?Backpacking
Backpacking involves hiking and camping for many days on end, where weather resistance is an important factor, as is weight savings. Because we are trying to carry as little as possible, we are more likely to only want to bring one single jacket while backpacking, instead of both a rain jacket and a windbreaker. A smart backpacker will certainly bring a waterproof layer on a backpacking trip, as the chances of getting wet are likely high, and the consequences of getting wet are also high. Consider also looking at rain jackets for backpacking use.
A windbreaker is virtually a must-have for long trad climbing missions. If you are going to be out on the face all day, then surely you are going to experience plenty of wind, be in the shade a lot, potentially get rained on, and for sure deal with the temperature spikes and chills that come from intense effort broken up with a lot of sitting or standing around at a belay. A windbreaker can perfectly address all of these concerns. All of these jackets stuff down into one of their pockets, and most contain clip-in loops to attach to your harness.
For the average day of long trad climbing like you find in Yosemite, the Black Canyon, Red Rocks, or Squamish, we think the Patagonia Houdini is the best choice. The Houdini packs up into a tiny package, and can be deployed in a moment from its clip-in point on the back of a harness. Keep in mind that while this jacket is made of ripstop nylon, it is extremely thin and may not stand up to much off-width climbing or chimneying. While the Black Diamond Distance is designed for the same purposes as the Houdini, we simply don't think it performs quite as well.
In more alpine situations, like climbing in Rocky Mountain National Park or on the high peaks of the Cascades or Sierras, when wet weather is far more likely and more disastrous if you were to get soaked, we would recommend bringing a rain jacket.Biking
For serious bikers and serious biking missions, a dedicated biking jersey and biking jacket are probably the way to go. However, for bike commuting, biking casually around town, or for a person who wants to cross-purpose their jackets, there are a few great options in this review for biking.
We loved the KUHL Parajax for mountain biking missions because of its breathable material, zippered pockets, and small, packed-down size that easily fit in our pack.Backcountry Skiing
A windbreaker for backcountry skiing? You might be surprised that we say "Yes!" While our go-to backcountry skiing jacket is our award-winning Mountain Hardwear CloudSeeker, there are days when a windbreaker is more than sufficient, and can save a lot of weight and space. This primarily works in places like Colorado where ski days are often dry and mostly clear, meaning that we don't really need waterproof protection. If you're on the East Coast or North West, you'll benefit from the hardcore waterproofing of a hard shell.
When the air is calm we typically skin up in only an underlayer, and utilize a shell jacket exclusively for the descent. But if the wind is howling, as it often does in the mountains, then a windbreaker shell can often be more comfortable than a hard shell due to its ability to breathe easier. Similarly on sunny, spring days where the weather seems borderline hot, we find that we only need a shell for protection from the wind. Granted if it is a powder day, storming at all, or likely to storm, we would always choose a hardshell first. But for the majority of the ski days out of the season in places like the Sierras or Colorado, a windbreaker is enough.
Hanging Around Town
Due to their versatility, windbreakers can also be a functional around town piece, providing warmth and protection from the wind, shade, or chilly temps. However, when assessing their feasibility as around town garments, they suddenly need to compete with every other piece of clothing on the planet, and from a fashion standpoint, most of these jackets don't really stack up. Technical-outdoor clothing these days is trending towards the very light fabrics and bright colors, and these jackets are no exception. Unless we were out for a run or on a bike ride, we were uncomfortable wearing many of these jackets to hang out downtown. In our opinion, these options are best reserved strictly as performance wear.
Windbreaker jackets are extremely versatile. While testing windbreakers, we found ourselves reaching for one nearly every day, for almost everything that we did. We used these jackets ski touring, climbing, 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, or any other outdoor activity where there is a chance of light weather. With so many potential uses and virtually no downside to simply bringing one along, we feel that everyone should own a windbreaker. We hope this article was helpful for you while narrowing down your decisions.