Wind breaker jackets 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 resistant to boot. Plus, most are constructed to be much lighter than previous iterations. If you have never worn a wind breaker jacket, 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 or stashed in the lid of your pack.
A wind breaker jacket is a unique layer because it is so lightweight, compressible and versatile. Not only does it add a layer of warmth when the wind kicks up, but it also keeps you dry in a light rain. This is a perfect go-to layer when you don't want to add bulk to your getup but want the comfort of wind protection. Since it is made of lightweight material, this piece layers well on top of base layers as well as underneath an insulated or rain jacket, making it useful in a wide variety of conditions. We field tested eight models while hiking snowy peaks, climbing off-width cracks and cycling around town. At the end of our testing cycle, we found that a windbreaker is useful for a variety of applications.
In this guide, we'll go into detail on what features to consider when purchasing your next wind breaker jacket, from the cuffs to the hood and everything in between. Browse our full review to see how the different models compared to each other in our side-by-side tests.
How to Choose the Right Wind Breaker Jacket
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 Eddie Bauer Uplift 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 wind breaker 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.
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 Marmot Ether, 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 Outdoor Research Tantrum 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 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 wind breaker 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 models that we tested also happened to be the among the highest rated pieces in our testing, including our Editors' Choice winner, the Patagonia Houdini and our Best Buy winner, the Eddie Bauer Uplift. These jackets both weigh just 3.4 ounces and are made with a thinner material, but they still block 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.
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. One, the Outdoor Research Tantrum, features a waistbelt system that allows you to wear the jacket around your waist when it is stowed. Although this method made this piece ideal for running, it made hiking and climbing in a harness difficult with this model on, as the waistbelt stores in a pocket at the base of the user's back and is uncomfortable with a pack or harness on top of it.
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, come with a fleece liner. This jacket feels cozy and warm, but it's 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.
Durable Water Repellent Coating
DWR (durable water repellent) is a coating added to fabrics by the manufacturer to make them resist water. When added on top of a breathable membrane, it prevents the outer surface from becoming saturated by making water bead up and roll, which allows for more breathability. But when the material gets thoroughly "wetted out," its moisture transport and breathability are impeded. As the DWR wears off over time, re-treating the garment with a 'spray-on' or 'wash-in' product, such as Nikwax Tech Wash, is recommended to maintain water repellency.
If you wash your jacket with a harsh detergent, you'll accelerate the DWR loss; be sure to follow the manufacturer's instructions carefully when cleaning. All but three of the models we tested have a DWR coating on top of a breathable nylon or polyester membrane, but none keep you dry in an intense rain. The thin layers all 'wet-out' fast, but some models, such as the Patagonia Houdini, kept us drier longer and dried off faster than others. The models that did not feature a DWR finish were the Marmot Ether, Adidas Shield, and Outdoor Research Tantrum.
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. Wind breaker 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, Eddie Bauer Uplift, and Outdoor Research Tantrum are all 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 wind breaker jacket you are purchasing. The models we tested ranged from $80 to $159. What does an extra $80 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. 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 wind breaker 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.