Wind Breakers vs. Rain Jackets and Hardshell Jackets
Wind breakers are without doubt the lightest weight and thinnest outer shell garment that you can own, but have a surprising amount of usage 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 wind breaker more often than either a hardshell or rain jacket, which is why we describe them as the most versatile of all layering options.
To fully understand when a wind breaker is the right call or whether a rain jacket or hardshell is clearly needed, we offer this quick summary of the three types of jackets:
Made primarily of wind resistant and breathable nylon or similar lightweight material. Their single layer construction makes them cheaper, lighter weight, more compact, and potentially allows greater breathability by easier air and vapor transfer. No waterproof membrane; water resistance is usually gained using a durable water resistant (DWR) coating.
Two- or 2.5-layer construction, meaning a waterproof/breathable membrane is affixed to an outer face fabric. The membrane, in combination with a DWR coating, makes these jackets far more waterproof than single layer wind breakers. However, the membrane also tends to make them less breathable, heavier, bulkier, and more expensive. These are the best option if guaranteed to encounter rain. Check out our Best Rain Jackets for Men Review if this better fits your needs.
The burliest and most expensive type of shell jacket, these jackets are constructed of three layers, one of which is a waterproof/breathable membrane. The membrane is sandwiched in the middle between a typically 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, as well as cold, snowy, bad weather environments. 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 hardshells are designed for even gnarlier winter weather. This leaves wind breakers as the obvious choice for all other times. When the weather is warm and breezy, cool, cool and breezy, pleasant with a slight chance of rain, or anything besides heavy, consistent rain or dumping snow, a wind breaker provides an optimal choice.
Water Resistance and DWR
Constructed of only a single layer of fabric, wind breakers 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 but one 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 upon 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, we have found that wearing a pack causes enough abrasion to quickly rub off a jacket's DWR coating, exposing it to water absorption. 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 effectiveness of the DWR coatings and water resistance of the wind breaker jackets we tested in this review varied considerably. One jacket, the Patagonia Alpine Houdini, is constructed with a 2.5 layer waterproof/breathable membrane, and thus understandably provided greater water protection than the others in this test. If you are going to face considerable rain in your life or adventures, we recommend this jacket or other rain jackets from our rain jacket review. For light or occasional rain, a few wind breakers we tested proved themselves certainly up to the challenge. The DWR coatings on the Salomon Fast Wing Hoodie and the Patagonia Houdini proved to be very effective, even after a fair amount of testing and abrasion. For the most part, the rest of the wind breakers had 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 wind breaker to have, and are both dependent on the type and weave of the fabric used in constructing a wind breaker. In our experience testing, these two attributes tend to work at odds with each other. Consider: 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 of course be very breathable. For single layered wind breakers, we found that these attributes tended to work against each other, and jackets were either vey breathable but not super wind resistant, the exact opposite of that, or fell in the middle of the spectrum in both.
There are two notable techniques that companies used to try to get around this apparent offsetting of desirable features. Two jackets, the Marmot Ether DriClime Hoody and the Mountain Hardwear Ghost Lite Pro included felt or mesh liners inside of the jacket. These liners had the effect of greatly increasing wind resistance, as they provided more material for wind to travel through. Using this feature, the manufacturers could use far more breathable face fabrics without suffering the consequences. While both of these jackets ranked pretty highly in both attributes, the unfortunate downside to this approach was 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 copious amounts of venting. The Salomon Fast Wing Hoodie took this approach. Underarm vents, zip pockets with mesh lining, and buttons to hold the front of the jacket together with the front zipper fully unzipped helped greatly with venting. Of course, the thing worth noting in this discussion is that our rating scores for each of these metrics are based upon comparison testing, and we found that 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 wind breakers we tested ranges from $99, represented by the Patagonia Houdini and the Mountain Hardwear Ghost Lite Jacket, up to $159 for the Arc'teryx Squamish Hooded, and $200 for the Patagonia Alpine Houdini. The average price for one of these jackets is around $125. On the one hand, this seems to be a lot of money for the amount of fabric and material that you end up purchasing. But on the other hand, this is not much money compared to the price of rain jackets and hardshells, and considering how often you will get quality usage out of your jacket. The reality is, this is not a high priced clothing item, nor is there a wide range of price points to choose from, and so we would not recommend factoring cost heavily into your decision, and instead focus on which jacket will work best for your specific activity.
Recommendations for Specific Activities
After determining that you do want to buy a wind breaker and don't instead want to spend your money on a rain jacket or hardshell, we recommend that you choose the jacket that best suits your intended outdoor activities. These jackets are incredibly versatile and for the most part will work well no matter what form of adventure you might commonly partake in, but described below are the jackets that we would recommend for any given activity:
Running is one activity that just begs for a windbreaker, especially trail running. While the most comfortable running outfit is clearly 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 wind breaker of some sort. Due to the really handy elastic waist belt for carrying without a pack, we recommend the Outdoor Research Tantrum as our Top Pick for Running. It is highly breathable and wind protective, stretching easily with the body and moving silently, but is no good in the rain. The Salomon Fast Wing Hoodie is designed specifically for trail running, and includes nice venting capabilities and is better in the rain. The Patagonia Houdini is also specifically designed for running. The Marmot Ether DriClime Hoody and the Mountain Hardwear Ghost Lite Pro are good options for colder temperatures or as a winter running jacket. The Mountain Hardwear Ghost Lite Jacket 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.
Hiking and Peak Bagging
Hiking and Peak Bagging are generally slow moving activities that can never-the-less work up a great amount of sweat if it is hot out or you are moving uphill. You are also very likely to encounter wind, rain, or even simply cool air and shade that might make you chilled. A wind breaker is the perfect type of jacket for spring, summer, and fall hiking, and a fantastic choice for summer peak bagging. Its extreme light weight 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 recommendations, then, would be to focus on the highest ranked products or the ones we gave awards to. The Marmot Ether DriClime is our Editors' Choice winner, and does the best job of covering all the bases for hiking and peak bagging. Other top scorers and award winners were the Patagonia Houdini, the Salomon Fast Wing Hoodie, the Arc'teryx Squamish Hooded, and the Outdoor Research Tantrum. 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 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 wind breaker. 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. We would only bring one jacket to save weight, and the Patagonia Alpine Houdini is the logical choice among the wind breakers tested here. Consider also looking at rain jackets for backpacking use.
A wind breaker 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 but two of these jackets stuff down into one of their pockets and contain clip-in loops for attaching to your harness.
For the average day of long trad climbing like you would find in Yosemite, the Black Canyon, Red Rocks, or Squamish, we think the Patagonia Houdini is the best choice. The Houdini packs up into the smallest package of any jacket we tested 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 are made of ripstop nylon, it is extremely thin and may not stand up to much off-widthing or chimneying. While the Mountain Hardwear Ghost Lite Jacket is also designed for the same purposes as the Houdini, we simply don't think it performs 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 the Patagonia Alpine Houdini. It is the only wind breaker that we tested here that is fully waterproof. It is heavier and doesn't pack down quite as small as the Houdini, and furthermore barely fits into its stuff pocket, but these issues can be overlooked when needing the extra security and protection it offers.
For serious bikers and serious biking missions, a dedicated biking jersey and biking jacket are likely 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 Outdoor Research Tantrum for mountain biking missions because it allowed us to carry it around our waist with the included waist belt without needing to carry an additional pack, either on our back or on the bike. However, it doesn't hold up well to the rain. A few great choices for bike commuting are the Marmot Ether DriClime Hoody for cooler temperatures and seasons, and the Arc'teryx Squamish Hoody for wearing over the top of other layers and clothing.
A wind breaker for backcountry skiing? You might be surprised that we say "Yes!" While our go-to backcountry skiing jacket is without doubt the Arc'teryx Alpha FL, our Editors' Choice Award winning hardshell jacket, there are countless days when simply carrying a wind breaker can save a lot of weight and space in the bag, and is more than sufficient. The majority of ski days in Colorado and California are dry and mostly clear, meaning that we don't really need waterproof protection. If the air is calm we typically skin up in only an underlayer, utilizing a shell exclusively for the descent. And if the wind is howling, as it often is, then a wind breaker shell can often be more comfortable than a hardshell due to its ability to breathe easier. Similarly, on spring ski days we find that it is usually perfectly sunny and borderline hot, where the only protection we need from a shell, if any, is 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 in a season in places like the Sierras or Colorado, a wind breaker is enough.
Our Top Pick for Backcountry Skiing is the Arc'teryx Squamish Hoody. It is designed to fit and look almost exactly like their much higher priced hardshells, but is constructed with only a single layer. Its storm hood, adjustable cuffs, and lower drop hem in the back make it a great option for sunny weather skiing. Its fit also allows for layering beneath. The Patagonia Alpine Houdini is also appropriate option for skiing, giving enough protection and room to layer beneath. We wouldn't really use any of the other jackets here for skiing, mostly because they are harder to layer winter clothing beneath.
Hanging Around Town
Due to their versatility, wind breakers 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, these jackets don't really stack up. Outdoor clothing these days is trending towards the very bright, super flashy, neon spectrum of colors, and these jackets are no exception. Only the most subdued jacket we tested would we consider wearing out in town, unless we were on a run or bike ride. That would be the Arc'teryx Squamish Hoody. Every other option is best reserved strictly as performance wear, in our opinion.