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How to Choose the Best Women's Running Jacket

Off in the Sierra Nevada with the Airshed.
By Lauren DeLaunay ⋅ Senior Review Editor
Thursday June 18, 2020
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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 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?


If you're wondering what exactly a running jacket is, don't worry. We know how many different types of layers exist out there, from windbreakers to rain jackets, hard shells to mid-layers. But in this review, we looked for products that are specifically made for high-output cardio activities. There are certain things that runners need that you might not find in your average jacket, so we'll break down those metrics and how we looked for them.

Breathability


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.

The Cool-Lite has large back panels for ventilation  one of our favorite features of this jacket!
The Cool-Lite has large back panels for ventilation, one of our favorite features of this jacket!

During our testing process, we found that running jacket manufacturers tend to choose one of two different methods for adding breathability. The first of these is to choose an inherently breathable fabric. This method has some great advantages and tends to be more breathable overall. However, breathability in this way typically compromises weather protection.

The other method is by using venting. Many of the jackets in this review have a breathable fabric in the places where the body builds up the most heat — usually the underarms and back — with a shell fabric on the rest of the torso. If you're looking for the best combination of protection and breathability, which we believe most of you are, we'd highly suggest looking for a jacket with a "body-mapped" venting system.

Weather Resistance


It's not always sunny, warm, and perfect for running, and on days when the weather turns foul, you can't just let your 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.

Wind

Wind is the weather type that we are most often protecting ourselves from when running, and the one that most of the jackets we tested were able to achieve. A slight breeze can really cool you down when you're sweaty, and you need a jacket that can take the sting off. The vast majority of jackets we tested did great in the wind. With proper ventilation, as we described above, it's totally possible to get protection from the wind while maintaining breathability.

Rain

Very few of the jackets in this review are real rain jackets. While a true rain jacket or hardshell is waterproof, most running jackets are water resistant. Usually, a hardshell protects you from moisture in the construction of its fabric. A running jacket, on the other hand, typically uses a treatment (like DWR) to help repel moisture.

Most of the running jackets we tested have a rain resisting finish, but this only goes so far. While it'll help fend off moisture during short spells of mist, they will not be able to keep up with the water levels of a real rainstorm. Typically, the more water-resistant a jacket is, the less breathable it is. We suggest really thinking about the conditions you typically run in. If you want an all-around jacket, look for products whose scores balance breathability with weather resistance.

Cold

Finally, there's cold. We found that it had to be pretty cold, with temperatures at or below freezing, to really warrant an insulated jacket while running. It might feel cold when you're getting started, but you'll be surprised at how quickly you warm up. So while we did look for true winter running jackets, that's not the primary focus of this review. Consider the primary climate where you will be running and decide if you truly think you'll need insulation or a thicker fabric. And remember the ever-important rule of running: always start cold.

There are two different types of fabrics used in this review to help add some warmth: fleece and wool. The merino wool jackets we tested are more breathable but not quite as warm as the fleece. We would only suggest one of these warmer, insulated jackets if you're planning on spending time in near- or below-freezing temperatures, as for anything warmer than that, you'll probably be happier with a long sleeve base layer or a light jacket.

Comfort and Mobility


Here at GearLab, 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.

What better place to show off our Editors' Choice Award winner than the beautiful Eastern Sierra?
What better place to show off our Editors' Choice Award winner than the beautiful Eastern Sierra?

The main things we evaluated for in this category were: stretch, softness, fit, adjustability, sleeves, and hood. While not many of the jackets we tested had a lot of stretch, we awarded heavily when they did. Softness was key. We found that jackets with itchy or stiff internal material could lead to chafing and rubbing over time, especially if we had a pack on over the jacket, bringing it even closer to our body. If you're able to inspect a jacket before buying, be sure to look at the inside seams and really feel the fabric. While it may feel nice at first, will it still feel nice after rubbing on your skin for an hour or two?

We like sleeves that stretch and that are long enough to cover the hands and provide a little warmth. We also like hoods that are either soft and stretchy or have enough adjustability to stay close to the head. Many of the hoods we tested wouldn't get snug enough and then just acted like parachutes when we picked up speed. Again, if you can try before you buy, this is something to consider. If you're online and trying to decide, check if the hood is adjustable and if it can be tightened around the face for security when the wind is howling.

Portability


Running is hard work. And no one wants their 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 or go on a hike, is portability. Two key factors constitute a portable jacket: weight and packability.

Weight

Jackets in this review ranged in weight from 2.3 ounces to 9.7 ounces, which is a really large gap. We found that our favorite products weighed around 4 ounces because that weight allowed for some nice features and materials that the ultralight jackets do not have. This will be something you'll want to consider when buying: what's more important to you, an ultralight weight, a few extra features, or maybe a slightly thicker material?

Packability

Nearly all the jackets in this review have some sort of way to pack into themselves. Whether they fold into their own pocket or a built-in backpack, it's nice to be able to carry a jacket when the weather changes, and not have to tie it around your waist. If, however, you typically run with a pack, this may not be a feature you care about, though it's always a nice option to have.

Features


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.

Runners love the rear stash pockets on the Gaea.
Runners love the rear stash pockets on the Gaea.

If you run in urban areas, and especially if you run at night, we can't stress how important visibility is. Your jacket should feature some reflective markings, especially on the back, to help drivers see you. If you run trails, or if you only run during the day, this may not be quite as important to you. Another important feature we look for is unique storage solutions. Zippered front pockets are great, but we generally prefer chest pockets for minimizing bounce. Other options on the market to consider looking for are media ports, hoods that can stow away, thumbholes or hand covers, hem cinches, vents, and two-way zippers.

Conclusion


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. 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.

The LSD has tons of great features  making it an easy choice for running in the city or on the trail.
The LSD has tons of great features, making it an easy choice for running in the city or on the trail.

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