When the wind starts to blow, you'll need the best windbreaker jacket to keep the chill at bay. Our team of experienced outdoors folk has searched for the best windbreaker for over 8 years, testing 31 models in rigorous, side-by-side comparisons. We've put these jackets through the wringer, from gentle sea breezes to alpine gusts, and for our latest update, we bought 12 of the best models to discover which jacket blows away the competition. We've identified which model is the lightest, the most weather-resistant, and the best bang for your buck, so you've got no excuse not to carry this essential, packable layer in your kit.
The Best Windbreaker Jackets
The Houdini is an iconic windbreaker jacket and sets the standard for all other jackets in this category. It performs as a windbreaker jacket should — easily stowed away until you need to break it out to protect you from wind and light rain. The entire jacket stuffs into its chest pocket, resulting in a tiny package that is, all-in-all, about the size of a small banana. It easily clips to a belt, climbing harness, or stashes into the smallest corner of your pack. It even fits in those tiny, under-the-bike-seat (saddle) bags. The DWR coating is at the top of its class — in comparison to other ultralight options — and does a solid job of balancing wind resistance with breathability.
With this new makeover, the historically too-small chest pocket of the Houdini has been updated to accommodate the ever-growing size of newer smartphones. If biking, running, or skiing downhill — or in any aggressive wind — the hood catches a lot of air, with no easy way to stow it. Since pushing up the sleeves is one of the best ways to help increase ventilation, we would also like to see full-elastic wrist cuffs. These small criticisms aside, this is still our favorite windbreaker jacket. We think it is optimal for all-day mountain adventures, long trail runs or free climbs, and evening mountain bike laps.
Read review: Patagonia Houdini
Best Bang for the Buck
The North Face Fanorak
The North Face Fanorak may look more like your traditional windbreaker than others in this review, but this street-wear inspired jacket offers a modern spin on some classic qualities. The Fanorak, with its double-layer polyester build, impressed us with its ability to shed a little more than just a passing shower. When the sun comes back out, this jacket easily packs up into a large kangaroo pouch, and can be carried around as a fanny pack. We loved this feature for mountain bike rides — the fanny pack has its own zippered pocket, only adding to the functionality of this pack-jacket hybrid. Combined with a large hood that easily accommodates a bike helmet, this is a great option for commuters.
For all of its flair, the Fanorak is lacking a bit in a few critical areas. Still significantly lighter than many other lightweight rain jackets on the market, it does tip the scales at nearly three times the weight of the lightest jacket in our review. For all of its weather resistance, this jacket is easily penetrated by cold, biting winds. While normally this would mean that a jacket is more breathable, the Fanorak lacks any sort of venting, and we found it overwhelming to wear during anything much more than casual activity — but ventilation is not really necessary with the ability to convert to a fanny pack. For functional weather protection, the Fanorak is a fun, fashionable, and price-conscious option for anyone who spends lots of time on a bike.
Read review: The North Face Fanorak
Best Overall Function
Rab Vital Windshell
The Rab Vital Windshell is packed with pockets, loaded with features, and still costs less than many jackets in this review. 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 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 a 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 a 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 Cool Climates
Marmot Ether DriClime
While spring and fall are some of the most pleasant times of the year for playing outside, the air is often cold enough to warrant more than a light nylon shell. For those times, we recommend the Marmot Ether DriClime Hoody. Lined on the inside with a soft layer of light insulation, this jacket also employs underarm vents to maintain a nice balance of warmth and breathability. With this added liner, this jacket's wind resistance remains unmatched in our side-by-side tests — particularly in cold, summit winds.
On the downside, this jacket is a bit too warm for summer wear, except for maybe on alpine adventures. It is also heavier than much of the competition and does not stuff down very efficiently into its storage pocket. While its DWR coating will ward off snow squalls, be aware that the Ether Hoody is hardly water resistant. This is a great jacket for those seeking an active layer for cold-weather activities, such as ski touring.
Read review: Marmot Ether DriClime
Notable 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 midlayer 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 has to be a few sacrifies, 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 simply 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, when considering the Houdini Air it 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" — even earning a degree in atmospheric and climate science.
Now living full time in Santa Fe, Aaron works as a writer, outdoor educator, farmer, and ski patroller. 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. Whether in the high mountains or out in the desert, Aaron often finds himself in some questionably windy situations. If you don't quite know what we're talking about, go and visit New Mexico in the spring… you'll understand.
Related: How We Tested Wind Jackets
Criteria for Evaluation
We rated these windbreaker jackets on five scoring metrics: wind resistance, breathability and venting, weight and packability, fit and functionality, and water resistance. Some metrics are more important than others — in this case, namely wind resistance, breathability, and packability — so we weighted those scores more. Read on below to learn more about how we tested for each metric, how the products compared to one another, and which jackets we selected for top performance in each metric.
Related: Buying Advice for Wind Jackets
Two things are especially worth pointing out when discussing scoring metrics. The first is that all of these jackets are among the best available today, which is why we included them here. Since our scoring is based on comparisons, a low score doesn't mean the jacket is not functional, but simply that it didn't perform as well as the others we tested in this review.
The second important point is that your specific needs may differ from how heavily we weighted each metric. Be sure to identify your own preferences carefully before choosing a wind 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.
While the Patagonia Houdini is the top overall scorer, it is also relatively inexpensive, presenting great value. To identify our Best Buy award-winner, The North Face Fanorak, we looked for a jacket that is more affordable, but scores highly enough in terms of performance to present a solid value for years to come.
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 acquire their resistance to wind from the incredibly tight weave of their fabrics. The tighter the fabric is woven together, the less space there is between individual fibers and therefore less air-permeable.
Since these jackets are most often used as a lightweight layer for high-intensity activities, breathability is also a top concern. Very few people would enjoy owning a windbreaker jacket that was 100 percent wind resistant and not at all breathable. Therefore, some air must be able to pass through. These attributes are hard to balance. Most jackets that are very wind resistant are not very breathable, and vice versa.
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 hair dryer 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 simply circumvent your carefully-woven nylon barrier.
Lastly, while ventilation gaps and panels can help shed extra heat, they are also areas where a fierce wind can penetrate your jacket. So there is a tough balance to strike with including such features. The top scorers in this category incorporate both tightly woven material and thoughtful features to seal off the jacket to the wind, while lower scorers often missed both of these important factors.
The Marmot Ether DriClime Hoody is the most wind resistant jacket, aided by its comfortable interior liner, which serves as extra insulation between you and the cold winds. The Rab Vital Windshell, an unlined jacket seems to have either a tighter weave than the rest or use a different type of nylon all together — both 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 fully elastic hood — to bolster its wind resistance.
Breathability and Venting
Almost equally as important as wind resistance, 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. Since 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 heat from the sun — a major factor here in the Southwest. To analyze which jackets built up the most moisture, and 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. The KUHL Parajax breathes well by effectively wicking moisture from sweat away from the body with a mesh liner. Others include underarm vents. 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 10 ounces — these jackets are exceptionally light.
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 did rate each product based upon its weight, but then adjusted the score slightly based upon how small and how 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 the ease of 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.
The Black Diamond Distance Wind Shell is the lightest jacket in the entire review and it stuffs down to a very small package. All of the jackets pack into their own pockets — most of which double as stuff sacks — and many come with clip-in loops for easy carrying. However, many of them are bulky or unwieldy packages to carry outside of a pack or attached to a climbing harness. Overall, we weighted this metric as 20 percent of a product's final score.
Fit and Functionality
Important for any outdoor garment is whether it fits 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 took into consideration 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, then we wanted to see if it could be layered underneath.
Often point deductions came from features that simply 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.
Only one jacket, the Arc'teryx Squamish Hoody, scored perfect marks in this metric. Its gusseted, athletic fit is perfect for active use or layering underneath — all of its features, including the storm hood, drawcords, and Velcro wrist cuffs worked optimally.
While the Squamish Hoody is loaded with features, the Vital windshell earned a Top Pick 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. We weighed this metric as 10 percent of a product's final score.
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 jacket.
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 a chemical application 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 in all of these jackets during our testing. Honestly, we wouldn't want to, as most of these jackets are resistant up to only a light shower or gentle drizzle. If you have to tackle real rain, bring a rain jacket.
While we did get rained on plenty, we also needed to objectively test how these jackets handled the rain in comparison to each other, and so employed a garden hose to simulate a passing rain shower. We rotated under a misting hose in each jacket to see how well they handled a solid dousing. We tested 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!
The DWR coatings applied to The North Face Fanorak did an effective job, causing water to bead up and roll off — the interwoven treatment of the Distance did 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 to have in a windbreaker but is certainly not what these jackets are designed for. We only weighted this metric as 10 percent of a product's final score.
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. We highlighted award winners for specific purposes to help you decide which of these options is best for you.
— Andy Wellman, Aaron Rice