We're committed to helping you find the right gear, from sleeping bags to climbing shoes and yes, even running jackets. To show our dedication, we spent months testing 14 of the most popular running jackets on the women's market today. We ran around the pampas of Argentine Patagonia, the trails of Yosemite Valley, and the dirt roads of Bishop, California. We ran in a variety of conditions, from warm spring sunshine to cool, rainy fall mornings. And after all that testing, one of the most important things we learned was how different every runner, as well as every jacket, really is. Depending on where you live, what type of running you do, and how often you run, your needs for a jacket will differ. Through our testing process, we identified five scoring metrics that helped us get to know each product. In this article, we'll explain a bit more about what to look for in those categories and, depending on your type of running, which of these metrics you should be paying close attention to.
What's a Running Jacket, And Do I Need One?
You may be wondering what exactly constitutes a running jacket, but don't worry, so are we! Many of the products we browsed through for this review could also serve as climbing windbreakers, lightweight rain shells, or insulated skiing layers. Below, we explain the five components of a great running jacket and what you should be looking for when making your purchasing decision.
The single most important trait in any running jacket is its breathability. Unlike other outdoor activities where a slower pace can be used to maintain a pleasant body temperature, running requires working up a sweat. No matter how new or how seasoned of a runner you are, and no matter how hot or cold it is, you're going to need clothing that lets your body breathe.
During our testing process, we found that there were two things a jacket can do to facilitate breathability, which involves careful selection of materials and venting. Most of the jackets we tested this year were made of nylon or polyester, and we found breathable (and not so breathable) jackets made out of both. The Patagonia Airshed, for example, is made with a lightweight nylon that is one of the most breathable fabrics we tried on. Some jackets also include venting, or paneling, to increase airflow to the body's warmest spots. The Arc'teryx Gaea did a phenomenal job at insulating the cold spots and letting airflow to the warmer spots (the underarms and back).
If you know that you'll be wearing your new jacket in warmer climates, or if you know that your body is always warm when you're running, this category is going to be even more important to you. While our scoring system allotted 25% of a product's overall score to this metric, for some runners, breathability is worth much more than that.
It's not always sunny and warm (not even in California), and on days when the weather turns foul, we can't just let our training come to a halt to wait out a storm. Weather protection comes in a wide spectrum of qualities, and in this review, our testing team wanted to know how each product protected us from three things: wind, rain, and cold temperatures.
By far, the most reliable protection in the jackets we tested was for the wind. Nearly every jacket in this review did an acceptable job of blocking some wind, though many of these did such a great job that they couldn't let air escape, either. The North Face Flight RKT, for example, does a remarkable job at blocking wind, but it also leaves us feeling sweaty and clammy when things start heating up.
We want to stop right here to admit that none of the jackets in this review are rain jackets, and if it's a torrential downpour outside, none of these are going to provide you with adequate protection. We do, coincidentally, have an awesome review of women's rain jackets that could be a better fit for you if a truly rainy climate is your thing. That being said, there are a handful of models that can easily protect you from a surprise sprinkle. The Ultimate Direction Ultra Jacket V2 is one of them, but, like the Flight RKT described above, this jacket also struggles to find the balance between weather resistance and airflow. Jackets with a DWR finish, like the Airshed and Arc'teryx Gaea hold up during a light rain, but would not keep you dry during a true rainstorm.
The last weather condition we tested for was cold temperatures. Most of the jackets in this review are not insulated, and while they do make you warmer than you would be without them, the lightweight jackets that we tested are not designed for winter days. A few products stand out here, however, for their superior breathability-to-warmth ratios. The first of these is the Brooks Canopy. This jacket is an awesome companion for chilly spring or fall mornings. Next up is the Icebreaker Cool-Lite Rush which we found to be super comfortable, very breathable, and impressively warm. Last, we have the Arc'teryx Gaea. This is the only truly insulated jacket that we tested, and we were immediately impressed with how warm it kept us without sealing in sweat. We were able to get away with a light layer like the Airshed during winter track workouts, but we needed to be working hard to warrant such a light layer on cold mornings.
Here at OutdoorGearLab, we take our comfort seriously. We know that being comfortable leads to more excitement, which ultimately may lead to more days outside and better performance. Comfort is a pretty personal category, but we used friends, colleagues, and other runners to provide feedback on the fit and feel of each jacket until we reached a consensus. We were surprised at how easily our testers agreed with one another when it came to the fit and feel of the products in this review.
Up first are some very comfortable pieces. The Smartwool Merino Sport, Gaea, Rush, and Airshed achieved the highest scores in this category for their luxurious materials and excellent fits. Each of these jackets has a bit of stretch we felt aided in our mobility, and all three were sized with the perfect balance between practical and stylish.
On the other hand, we disliked products with awkward fits, heavy constructions, or less-than-luxurious materials. Like we anything we test, however, we still recommend trying on a garment before purchasing to make sure its fit works for you.
Running is well, pretty hard work. And we don't want our clothing to make it any harder. One of the key qualities of a running jacket, as opposed to a jacket you'd wear to run errands and go on a hike, is portability. Two key factors constitute a portable jacket: weight and packability. We scored each product based on a combination of these two qualities.
The most portable jacket we tested was without a doubt, the Arc'teryx Cita SL. At just 2.33 ounces, this jacket packs into its own pocket without a zipper, saving weight and effort. The Brooks LSD was one of the lightest jackets we reviewed, and its elastic armband made it uniquely suited to runners. While most of the garments we tested fold away into their own pockets, only the LSD and Brooks Canopy have this armband for easy transport. The others include a clip loop which is great for many activities but not necessarily running.
Other notable mentions for portability were The North Face Flight RKT, Mountain Hardwear Ghost Lite, and Airshed. If time is of the essence, or if you're traveling far and looking to cut down on ounces, this is a significant category to pay extra attention to.
The devil is in the details, as they say, and our review team found this to be especially true with running jackets. These are the small characteristics that set each product apart from your everyday windbreaker or rain shell. If you're truly looking for a product to use on your runs, this category is important. We wanted to know how each manufacturer thoughtfully planned for running and what features they included to improve the running experience.
If you run in urban areas, and especially if you run at night, we can't stress how important visibility is. We want our running layers to feature some reflective markings, especially on the back, to help drivers see us. If you run trails, or if you only run during the day, this may not be quite as important to you. Earning high marks for visibility was the Merino Sport, whose entire back panels glows when illuminated. The Brooks LSD and Canopy earn bonus points for their long reflective stripes down the back, as well as the Altra Performance Half-Zip.
Another important feature we looked for was unique storage solutions. Zippered front pockets are great, but we generally preferred chest pockets for minimizing bounce. We also really liked the Gaea's rear, open stow pockets that provide easy access to snacks and accessories. A few of the jackets we tested, including the Gaea, even included media ports in their pockets that let you slip your headphones through your pocket to the inside of the jacket. Smart touches like these that let us know the manufacturer really did have runners in mind.
After months of hands-on testing, we learned a thing or two about jackets; and honestly, one of the biggest lessons of this review is how personal clothing choices can be. Every body is different: some run warm, some run cold; some sweat and some stay dry. Depending on your body, your running preferences, and the climate in which you adventure, your needs could be drastically different. In this review, we evaluated a wide range of products that suit a variety of needs, from the lightweight, wind-resistant Patagonia Airshed to the insulated Arc'teryx Gaea and everything in between. The best advice we can offer is to think about which of the scoring metrics are most important to you and then check out the top scorers in that category.