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 that 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. 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.
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.
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. 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 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. You also need to factor in your body mechanics; if you typically run cold, then consider a partially insulated jacket or even a fully lined piece.
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.
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 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. 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.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 are often 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 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 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. Just over half of the models we tested stow in their own pocket and have a loop for clipping onto a harness or pack. Windbreakers that don't stow into their own pockets or come with a carry bag, make them less ideal backpacking companions and better suited to hanging in your closet when not in use.
Velcro adjustable sleeve cuffs keep windy drafts and wetness from seeping into your sleeves, keeping you warmer and dryer. Adjustable cuffs are nice for cinching over a thin glove. However, this is a less common feature than elastic or half-elastic cuffs, which cut down on weight and are simpler to use.
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.
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. Some models even combine this with a waist hem cinch for added versatility based on your activity and the weather.
Some models 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 underlayers, 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. 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.
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 $60 to $200. 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 than have to bail because you aren't well equipped.