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, you barely even notice you are wearing one. It 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 these different models while hiking 13,000 foot peaks, climbing off-width cracks and cycling around town, and found that they are 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. Also check out our Full Review to see how the different models compared against each other in our side-by-side tests.
How to Choose the Right Wind Breaker Jacket
In order 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.
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 something light and airy like The North Face Flyweight Hoodie or the Columbia Flash Forward - Women's is a good choice. If you plan to be in an alpine setting with the potential for rain, then a more water resistant layer such as the Patagonia Houdini or Arc'teryx Squamish Hoody - Women's is the way to go. You also need to factor in your own body mechanics; if you typically run cold, one with a more hardy fabric such as the Sierra Designs Microlight 2 - Women's is a warmer option.
If going ultralight is important 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 highest rated ones in our testing, including our Editors' Choice winner, the Patagonia Houdini, our Top Pick for Alpine Climbing, the Arc'teryx Squamish Hoody, and our Best Buy winner, The North Face Cyclone. These jackets all weigh under five ounces (the Houdini only 3.6!) and are made with a thinner material. They still block the wind effectively and are more breathable than some of the heavier and thicker models, which is great for high aerobic activities when your body is pumping out excess heat.
Features to Consider
Certain features are appealing to one person and undesirable to another. Sometimes this comes down to personal preference, and other times to the specific activity you'll be using it 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, an adjustable hem, and elastic cuffs. Then there's the add-ons, like hand pockets 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 it mainly for climbing or backpacking, then a model without zippered pockets, like the Patagonia Houdini and Arc'teryx Squamish Hoody are better choices. They both still come with a chest pocket to stash your maps, keys or phone, and 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 North Face Flyweight pictured below.
A hood always adds weather protection and warmth to your core when the cold winds gust. Six of the seven jackets we tested had adjustable 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. 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. The Patagonia Houdini and Arc'teryx Squamish Hoody are the only models we tested that cinch from the rear.
Another feature to consider is how it compresses and stows away. Some models stow in their own pocket and have a loop for clipping onto a harness or pack. Others come with a separate stuff sack, and some fit in a pocket even if it wasn't designed that way. Overall, we prefer the pocket stow method, as a separate stuff sack is one more thing to forget or misplace. And while we managed to cram all of the jackets into their pockets, if the pocket didn't have a reversible zipper then it was hard to secure it and also unzip it after.
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 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 Hoody 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. Once again we liked the Arc'teryx Squamish Hoody — it's longer in the back and provides coverage even when you're in an ultra-race position in the saddle.
Some models 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 a great option for cold weather aerobic activities, like winter running or cross-country skiing.
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 completely "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, so follow the manufacturer's instructions carefully when cleaning. All of the models we tested have a DWR coating on top of a breathable nylon or polyester membrane, but none keep you dry in a strong rain. The thin membranes all 'wet-out' fast, but some models, such as the Patagonia Houdini and The North Face Cyclone, kept us drier longer and dried off faster than others.
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 because they are so 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 North Face Cyclone Hoodie and Patagonia Houdini are both made of ripstop material. You can also purchase nylon repair tape to combat holes in regular and/or ripstop fabric.
An added 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. The models we tested with reflective logos are: the Patagonia Houdini and Arc'teryx Squamish Hoody.
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 $49 to $149. What does $100 extra get you? Frankly, a lot. A glance at our Price vs. Value Chart shows how much better performing the more expensive models were over some of the cheaper ones. However, it is good to consider how much you plan on using this layer and if you need the extra bells and whistles. 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. Like Maya Angelou says, "It's not about the number of breaths you take, but the moments that take your breath away." So layer up, get out there and let nature take your breath away.