Windbreakers have become a crucial layer for the active outdoor adventurer. Unlike past versions made of non-breathable nylon, today's models are more breathable, durable, versatile, with a bit of water resistance to boot. Plus, most are constructed to be much lighter than previous iterations. If you have never worn a windbreaker, you don't know what you are missing. These jackets are an integral part of most layering systems, and once you start using one, it will likely be the layer that always ends up clipped to your daypack, stashed in your purse, or stowed under the seat of your car.
In this guide, we'll go into detail on what features to consider when purchasing your next windbreaker jacket, from the cuffs to the hood and everything in between. We'll help you narrow down your selection and find the right option for your favorite activities.
Why a Windbreaker?
A windbreaker is a unique layer because it is so lightweight, compressible, and versatile. It might just be the most useful layer you can own. Though you may typically recreate outside in perfectly pleasant weather, just about everyone has had an experience where the weather took a turn while they were outside. Even a mild breeze on sweaty clothes or a slight drop in temperature can make a big impact on your overall comfort level.
Windbreakers have several advantages over other outer or thermal layers. Unlike a bulky hardshell or rain jacket, windbreakers are incredibly small and lightweight. They're ridiculously packable — many of them into their own pocket — and can be easily tossed in or clipped onto whatever bag you're wearing. This low weight and packability make them a perfect emergency layer for every season's adventures.
Windbreakers vs. Rain Jackets, Hardshells, and Softshell Jackets
This can be a bit confusing, as there's a fair amount of overlap between these layers. Windbreakers tend to be lighter, thinner, and less expensive than these other options, great for all but the coldest weather. But to make sure you're getting the right jacket for your usage, here's a quick breakdown of the different types of jackets:
These are typically made of lightweight, wind-resistant, but relatively breathable material. They are often DWR (durable water-resistant) treated to help repel rain but are not waterproof. They may offer some protection against light rain or intermittent showers, but we didn't find a single windbreaker that withstood a full downpour. With single-layer construction, these jackets are usually lighter and more compact, offering better breathability for high-output activities and in warmer weather and rapidly shifting conditions. They also tend to be cheaper than many other jackets.
Rain jackets typically have multiple layers in their construction that connect an inner waterproof layer to an outer, more durable fabric. The external layer is often also treated with DWR coating. This, in combination with the inner membrane, helps make these jackets more waterproof than a simple windbreaker with just a single DWR treated layer. The cost of this waterproofness is at the expense of breathability, weight, and overall size. These are best when you know you'll be exposed to plenty of precipitation and don't need to prioritize dumping excess heat during strenuous activities. If this sounds like what you need, check out our women's rain jackets review.
Softshell jackets are similar to windbreakers in that they offer protection from the wind and limited protection from the rain. They differ in that they are made of thicker, more durable materials that keep you warmer and are best used in colder weather. They are typically both heavier and bulkier than either windbreakers or rain jackets but are an excellent choice to combat very active outdoor adventures on days that are too cold for a thin windbreaker but require more breathability than a rain jacket or hardshell. If you plan to spend more time adventuring in the cold, check out our review of women's softshells.
Hardshell jackets are the most protective of all the jackets and the least breathable. They offer serious element-blocking power, providing warmth and wind and rain protection, using multi-layered construction. These jackets tend to be very durable and hold onto their waterproof and windproof qualities the longest. They're the right choice for cold, harsh environments and high-abrasion activities when you really need to stay warm. If that's what you're after, check out our women's hardshell review.
How to Choose the Right Wind Breaker Jacket
Now that you know you need a windbreaker, to figure out which jacket is for you, it's important to consider which outdoor activities you'll be using it for, as well as the different features available, like hoods, adjustable cuffs, and the number of pockets. We'll break all these categories down with useful tips to help you choose the best one for you.
Some windbreakers are designed to be super light and minimalist, perfect for trail runners and climbers. Some models are made of a more durable fabric and have a few more features while remaining lightweight, designed for hikers, bikers, and climbers in mind.
Lightweight windbreaker jackets are designed for high-exertion aerobic activities where robust wind protection is needed, but water resistance is less important. However, since these jackets are so lightweight, they layer exceptionally well underneath a waterproof layer when Mother Nature is ready to drop buckets of moisture. Another great feature of lightweight models is that they are highly compressible, and most of them stuff right into their own pockets for easy storage and carrying when climbing or backpacking.
Manufacturers rely on many different modern methods to add a level of water resistance to windbreakers, while others don't bother worrying about water at all. The most common way to treat these single-layer jackets is with a DWR (durable water-resistant) coating. This chemical treatment helps to repel water but wears off over time and must be reapplied regularly with a water-resistant treatment like Nikwax Tech Wash. More and more jacket makers are developing proprietary fabrics that combine unique blends of fabrics with new weave patterns that shed water without needing additional treatments.
Some jackets are simply made of polyester, which is a type of plastic and soaks up far less water than most other fabrics. Any level of water resistance often makes the jacket less breathable, so if you're searching for a layer that can withstand a little rain, also look for strategic venting options to keep you from becoming too sweaty while wearing it.
When a cold wind starts gusting, a hood adds extra warmth to your entire body. It keeps the drafts out while protecting your neck and head from the cold, and it adds some mental relief as well by preventing your hair from flying all over the place and protecting your ears from the noise of the ripping wind. While some manufacturers offer hoodless versions of their lightweight models, we prefer to have a hood on our windbreaker jacket whenever possible, as the added weight is minimal and the added benefits are nearly immeasurable. All of the models that we tested in this review are hooded.
When added warmth and a built-in layer are needed, a fleece-lined wind shirt may suit your needs. A cozy, breathable lining feels soft next to your skin and offers more warmth, but it's not the best choice for warmer climates or if you are building a comprehensive layering system for multi-climate or multi-day adventures. We like wearing a fleece-lined jacket in town or for mellow missions where sweatshirt-like comfort is desired. However, fleece also makes jackets bulkier and is often more challenging to wear over other layers or pack away into a small corner of a bag.
Sometimes you find yourself battling the wind on your way to work or while exploring a city abroad. There are situations in which having a technical-looking windbreaker makes you stand out like a sore thumb. If you're looking for a jacket you can wear seamlessly into the gym or office, that might require a different solution than one you'd take with you on a summit expedition.
Some windbreakers sacrifice technical details and more intense protection or performance to be more stylish. Some others go in the opposite direction, emphasizing functionality over style. And yet, a small few fall into the "Goldilocks" category, blending technical functions with casual style and can just as easily be worn climbing your favorite pitch as they can in your favorite coffee shop. And, of course, your personal style also comes into play with any garment you choose to wear.
Features to Consider
Certain features are appealing to one person and undesirable to another. Sometimes this comes down to personal preference, and other times it is due to the specific activity you'll be using your jacket for. While most people like having pockets to keep their hands warm, those pockets are not comfortable (or much needed) under a climbing harness. The vast majority of windbreakers have similar features like elastic cuffs and a chest pocket. Some also have hand pockets, hood visors, and zipper draft flaps.Pockets
Several of the jackets we tested have zippered hand pockets, which are great for holding snacks, keys, and media devices and for tucking your hands into when the wind picks up. However, they can create a friction spot when you wear a backpack waist belt or a climbing harness over it. If you plan on using this piece mainly for climbing or backpacking, then a model without zippered pockets is a better choice. Even without hand pockets, just about every windbreaker comes with at least a chest pocket to stash your maps, keys, or phone and is often more comfortable for a long day with gear on. If you mostly day hike and use a smaller pack without a waistbelt, then you might be happier with a model that has hand pockets for added storage — or just resting your hands. Still, others have kangaroo pockets in addition to hand pockets, adding even extra potential storage options to your ensemble.
A dropped hem is a nice addition when your active body position involves crouching, bending, or flexible, gymnastic-like moves. Consider this feature if you are often biking in a racing position or heel hooking your way up a sport climb. Some models even combine this with a waist hem cinch for added versatility based on your activity and the weather.
A bonus without additional weight, reflective logos are beneficial when you want to be seen at night. Whether you are descending an alpine climb or bike commuting in those fall/winter months when the sun sets early, reflective logos mean safety when spotlighted.
Though you may never have considered a windbreaker before, these versatile 3-season jackets are our go-to companion on every adventure, from vacationing in Europe to backpacking through the Sierras. No matter what you like to do or where you like to go, there's a windbreaker perfectly poised to be your clutch companion.