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 climbing harness, stashed in the lid of your pack, 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 slight breeze on sweaty clothes or a slight drop in temperature can make a big impact to your body temperature and comfort level.
Even the slightest breeze is magnified as to its effect on your body, as convection (aka cold wind blowing directly on your skin) is one of the main ways we lose body heat. If you're out for a brisk hike or quick run, you're likely working up a sweat which will magnify this loss of body heat. A windbreaker adds an extra barrier between you and the elements and most are so light and easy to carry they're a cinch to bring along. Since they tend to be made of lightweight material, they frequently work well on top of base layers for added comfort in even colder conditions.
Windbreakers also have several advantages over other outer or thermal layers. They're incredibly lightweight - the lightest is barely more than an ounce! They're ridiculously packable and most pack up into their pocket and can be clipped to the outside of a bag, on a bike or even just tossed in a purse. And they're pretty cheap compared to most rain jackets, hardshells, or fleece jackets.
Windbreakers vs. Rain Jackets, Hardshells, and Softshell Jackets
This can be a bit of a confusing topic, as there's a lot of overlap between these layers. Windbreakers tend to be lighter, thinner, and less expensive than these other options, though they may not always be the right choice for your adventure. However, because of their absurd portability, increased breathability, and greater affordability, we find ourselves wearing a simple windbreaker more often than any other type of three-season jacket. But to make sure you're getting the right jacket for your usage, here's a quick breakdown of the different types of jackets:
check out our Best Rain Jackets for Women Review.
Best Softshell Jackets for Women Review.
Best Hardshell Jackets for Women 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 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. The Patagonia Houdini and Rab Vital are good examples of this category. 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.
The Arc'teryx Squamish Hoody is a good example of this type of jacket. 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.
Water Resistance and DWR
Since windbreakers are only constructed of a single layer of fabric, this layer is not waterproof, unlike the multiple layers of rain jackets or hardshell jackets. To avoid having this single layer get completely soaked in even the lightest rain, many manufacturers coat windbreakers with DWR treatment; durable water resistant treatment. A few of the models we tested used different coatings other than DWR that effectively do the same thing, though some were less effective than others. DWR coating (or similar treatment) helps water to bead up on fabric and roll off rather than soak right in. Under light rain conditions, this is relatively effective but under even medium or longer-term precipitation water collects on the jacket faster than it can fall off, causing the fabric to soak. Soaked windbreakers not only make the wearer colder and wetter than they had been, but the water in the fabric takes away the breathability of the jacket at the same time.
It's important to note that even the best DWR treatment will wear off over time and must be reapplied. You can do this by minimizing abrasiveness to your windbreaker from things like backpack straps or climbing harnesses and with regular reapplication of water-resistant treatment such as Nikwax Tech Wash. For more information on caring for garments treated with DWR, check out this article on DWR Care from REI.
We tested windbreakers with a wide range of water resistance and DWR effectiveness. We were most impressed with the Rab Vital at keeping us dry with just a single layer of fabric. The Columbia Flash Forward was also quite water resistant, though it also boasts an inner microfleece layer that helps keep you warm even if you do manage to get completely soaked wearing this jacket.
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 is needed, a fleece-lined wind shirt may suit your needs. The only fully fleece-lined windbreaker in our review was the Columbia Flash Forward. The Marmot Ether is nearly fully lined but features a single layer hood and the Adidas Shield featured added Pertex insulation in key areas. 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 liked wearing a fleece-lined jacket in town or for more mellow missions. However, in most cases, the fleece makes jackets bulkier, much more challenging to wear on top of other layers, and detracts from their overall versatility. With that said, the Adidas Shield did well in our review, as its insulation was sandwiched between dual layers of nylon ripstop, eliminating annoying pull when adding on top of a layering system, and because it is only in targeted areas, it doesn't add much to the jacket's weight overall.
When selecting your outdoor gear, it's important to consider what climate you'll be adventuring in. A hot and humid climate requires different layers than a cold, alpine environment. If you are looking for a wind shirt for the tropics, then the Patagonia Houdini is a good choice. If you plan to be in an alpine setting with the potential for rain, then a Patagonia Houdini or Arc'teryx Squamish are the way to go. You also need to factor in your body mechanics; if you typically run cold, then consider a partially insulated jacket like the Adidas Shield or a fully lined piece like the Columbia Flash Forward or even Marmot Ether.
If going ultralight is essential for your next adventure, be it a 100-mile hike or one long day hike, you'll want to shave ounces from all of your gear, including your windbreaker jacket. While a few ounces here or there doesn't seem like much, the combined savings add up and can make the difference between a successful mission and having to turn around. The lightest model that we tested also happened to be the highest rated jacket in our testing and took home our Editors' Choice for the third year running - the Patagonia Houdini. This jacket weighs just 1.2 ounces and is made with a shockingly thin material that still the wind admirably.
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. All of the models we tested come with similar features, such as breathable fabric, elastic cuffs, and a chest pocket. Then there are the add-ons, like hand pockets, hood visors, and zipper draft flaps. Since these layers are designed to be lightweight, it is always worth considering whether these "extra" features are worth their weight. We'll weigh in on all the different options out there below, from stowable pockets to fabrics and more.
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, like the Patagonia Houdini and Black Diamond Alpine Start are better choices. They both still come with a chest pocket to stash your maps, keys, or phone, and they are more comfortable for a long day with gear on. If you mostly day hike and use a smaller pack or CamelBak without a waistbelt, then you might be happier with a model that has hand pockets like the more technical Rab Vital.
A hood always adds weather protection and warmth to your core when the cold winds gust. All of the jackets we tested had hoods, and they were all compatible with a bike or climbing helmet. For the most part, we prefer to have a hood on our jacket, except in the case of running, where you are generating so much heat that a hood feels suffocating even in the most blustery conditions. Some jackets have unique ways to tie the hood down and keep it from flapping when not in use. Hoods add warmth, protection, and peace of mind from howling winds, and make a real difference on a blustery day.
When it comes to cinching your hood down, there is either a cinch cord at the back of your head or on the sides of your face. The side cinch method tends to pull the hood forward and blocks your side views. This is annoying at best and a real issue when cycling or skiing. Rear hood cinches pull the material back from your face and allow for unobstructed peripheral vision, which we preferred.
Another feature to consider is how well the jacket compresses and stows away. All of the models we tested stow in their own pocket and eight have a loop for clipping onto a harness or pack, with one exception. The Columbia Flash Forward not only lacks a loop to clip it to your gear but doesn't stow into its own pocket or come with a carry bag. While this may not be a problem for a jacket that lives in your closet, it may make you hesitate to bring it on a longer outdoor adventure where packing it away is important.
Velcro adjustable sleeve cuffs keep windy drafts and wetness from seeping into your sleeves, keeping you warmer and dryer. Adjustable cuffs are also nice for cinching over a thin glove. The downsides are that they add more weight, may get caught on gear and can lose their sticky grip over time. As well, they are not as comfortable when layered with an outer shell that also has a Velcro cuff. This one comes down to personal preference, and if you like the ability to lock down your wrists, then they're worth the extra weight.
Zipper Draft Flap
If you plan on using your jacket for sailing, cycling, bike commuting, or any adventure moving at high speeds, a zipper draft flap helps to keep strong drafts from penetrating the zipper teeth. This keeps you warmer, but a draft flap gets annoying if it regularly catches in the zipper. It can also impede breathability when body temps are up. In that case though, simply unzipping helps ventilate in a pinch on that unexpected hill climb around the bend. The Arc'teryx Squamish is a perfect fit for a cyclist because, in addition to a draft flap, the zipper comes undone with only one hand by pulling at the material on the opposite side.
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 racing position or heel hooking your way up a sport climb. We liked the design of the Patagonia Houdini — it's slightly longer in the back and provides coverage for almost any endeavor.
Some models, like the Marmot Ether, Adidas Outdoor Agravic and Columbia Flash Forward, come with a fleece liner. These jackets feel cozy and warm, but they're not the best choice when using a layering system for multi-climate or many day adventures. A fleece-lined model is an excellent option for cold weather aerobic activities, like winter running or cross-country skiing. However, it can be frustrating to put on over under layers, as the fleece lining catches the layer underneath in an uncomfortable way.
Ripstop fabrics are usually nylon or polyester that have an interwoven and reinforcing crosshatch pattern. The aim is to make the material resistant to tears and less prone to splitting. Windbreaker jackets are often made of ripstop material and are thin. This helps to prevent tears in an otherwise flimsy material. If you plan on using your jacket in rugged terrain with sharp objects everywhere, then you'll want one made out of ripstop. The Patagonia Houdini is made of ripstop material. You can also purchase nylon repair tape to combat holes in regular and/or ripstop fabric.
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. All of the models we tested had reflective logos somewhere, except for the Adidas Shield, Cotopaxi Teca, and Black Diamond Alpine Start.
As a final consideration, you'll want to think about the price of the windbreaker jacket you are purchasing. The models we tested ranged from $70 to $160. What does an extra $90 get you? In some cases, a lot. A glance at our Price vs. Value Chart shows how much better performing certain more expensive models were over some of the cheaper ones.
However, our Editors' Choice winner, the Patagonia Houdini, was a mere $99, which we think is reasonable for a jacket that can do so much. It is good to consider how much you plan on using this layer and if you need the extra bells and whistles of a more expensive model like the Arc'teryx Squamish or Black Diamond Alpine Start. While it may be hard to justify spending a hundred dollars (or more) on a piece of clothing you only wear a few times a year, if you are like us, a windbreaker jacket is one of your "must have" layers for most of your outdoor adventures. A lightweight wind protection layer can make or break an adventure, and it is always better to be comfortably safe then have to bail because you aren't well equipped.