Let’s get right to the point: we love windbreaker jackets. In our opinion, a good windbreaker is the most versatile outdoor jacket money can buy. These small but mighty outerlayers pack a punch, offering serious protection from the elements for hikers, mountain bikers, climbers, and backcountry skiers alike. And more good news: today’s designs are increasingly breathable and comfortable. Below we break down our favorite wind jackets of 2020, including models for hiking, alpine use, and running. For more background information, see our comparison table and buying advice below the picks.
Weight: 4.1 oz.
Materials: 90% nylon, 10% polyester
What we like: Impressive comfort and breathability in a tiny package.
What we don’t: Expensive and not as protective as some of the options below.
It’s not always this easy to narrow down competing models and make a top pick, but among windbreaker jackets, the Patagonia Houdini Air is head and shoulders above the rest. Building off the beloved Houdini below, the new Air takes the old formula but adds a ton of breathability and comfort to the mix. The jacket pairs a double-weave liner with a standard nylon shell, offering great wind protection and a softer feel than any other design in its weight class. In many ways, the Houdini Air is the Swiss Army Knife of windbreaker jackets and makes a great option for hiking, running, mountain biking, and a wide variety of other outdoor uses.
Keep in mind that with such a thin shell and air-permeable weave, you do give up some of the bombproof protection of a 100-percent nylon jacket like the original Houdini. That said, we took the Air out in 60mph, knock-you-over gusts near Patagonia’s Cerro Castillo and felt sufficiently sheltered from the storm. And although the jacket’s DWR coating is impressive, a thicker shell fabric (like that of the Black Diamond Alpine Start below) will offer better wet-weather protection. That said, no other design can match the minimalist build and performance chops and of the Houdini Air, making it our top windbreaker of 2020... Read in-depth review
See the Men's Patagonia Houdini Air See the Women's Patagonia Houdini Air
Best Mountain-Ready Windbreaker Jacket
Weight: 7.4 oz.
Materials: 93% nylon, 7% elastane
What we like: Softshell-like fabric is breathable, stretchy, and very protective.
What we don’t: Not super lightweight or packable.
Ah, the Black Diamond Alpine Start: where do we begin? Since purchasing this jacket months ago, we rarely go a day without wearing it. In fact, it’s become our layer of choice for everything from windy hikes to daily runs, multi-pitch climbing, and even ski touring. What makes the Alpine Start stand out is its stretchy, softshell-like fabric, which offers great range of motion, impressive breathability, and serious durability. Perhaps most significantly, the shell’s robust nature, in addition to Black Diamond’s proven NanoSphere finish, means you get exceptional protection in wet weather. We’ve worn the Alpine Start in all-day drizzles and blowing snow and never once wished for more jacket.
The Black Diamond Alpine Start isn’t the lightest or most packable jacket here, but it might be the best-performing. In fact, it tops the Patagonia Houdini Air above in most categories except for weight and packed size, and it's so breathable that we keep it on even during the most high intensity of runs. A relatively roomy fit and helmet-compatible hood round out the mountain-specific build, which ups the ante for windbreakers with a great next-to-skin feel and slight insulative properties. We can wax poetic for days, but we’ll leave you with this: since we bought the Alpine Start, our softshell, hardshell, and rain jacket haven’t left the closet. Now that’s saying something... Read in-depth review
See the Men's BD Alpine Start See the Women's BD Alpine Start
Best Budget Windbreaker Jacket
Weight: 8.1 oz.
Materials: 100% ripstop polyester
What we like: Affordable, stylish, and functional jacket for hiking and casual use.
What we don’t: Plasticky interior and doesn’t pack down small.
If your idea of a good time looks more like a casual hike than a fast-paced trail run or slog up the skin track, you probably won’t need a top-of-the-line windbreaker—and you shouldn’t have to pay for one either. Enter The North Face’s Cyclone 2 (and women’s Cyclone) jacket, which, at only $65, provides ample wind protection for most everyday pursuits. Like many jackets twice its price, the Cyclone features a DWR coating for protection against light rain, has an adjustable hood, and packs into its pocket. On top of that, 50-denier fabric and a robust front zipper mean the TNF can handle abuse better than much of the competition.
With a roomy fit and the convenience of both handwarmer pockets and interior dump pockets, the Cyclone 2 is a better choice for everyday use than the more minimalist jackets here. However, if you’re on the hunt for a high-performance design, we encourage you to look elsewhere. To keep the cost low, The North Face built the Cyclone 2 with polyester rather than nylon, which sacrifices breathability and next-to-skin feel (when you are working up some body heat, the plasticky interior can turn into a sweat box). Further, it clocks in at a relatively heavy 8.1 ounces and has a packed size that’s about three times as big as the Houdini Air above. But it’s all about priorities, and the Cyclone 2 is a nice value for casual adventures and daily use.
See the Men's The North Face Cyclone 2 See the Women's The North Face Cyclone
Best Windbreaker Jacket for Running
Weight: 4 oz.
Materials: 100% stretch nylon w/ knit arms & hood
What we like: Super breathable and great running-specific features.
What we don’t: Not particularly protective in wind and rain.
Designed to sweat, Patagonia’s Airshed Pro is built for great temperature regulation during high-output pursuits. Soft and stretchy nylon in the body keeps wind and rain out, while lightly insulating Capilene Cool knit (Patagonia’s thin baselayer fabric) on the hood and sleeves wicks sweat and offers a great next-to-skin feel. A number of running-specific features round out the build, including a two-way front zipper that lets you vent your body while still keeping your head warm, and sleeves that comfortably push up (and stay up). All in all, it’s an extremely breathable windbreaker jacket that can worn on all but the coldest of days.
With such a thin nylon body and minimal weather resistance in the knit hood and sleeves, the Airshed Pro is not as protective (or durable) as jackets like the Patagonia Houdini below. In fact, as part of Patagonia’s mountain running system, it actually can be worn as a midlayer with the waterproof Storm Racer jacket over top (in our opinion, a more versatile middle ground can be found in a jacket like the Alpine Start above). Finally, keep in mind that the Airshed Pro is very trim-fitting and designed to be worn over a thin baselayer and not much more. All that said, it’s our favorite windbreaker for fair-weather running and can handle a sweat better than most jackets here.
See the Men's Patagonia Airshed Pro See the Women's Patagonia Airshed Pro
Best of the Rest
Weight: 4.9 oz.
Materials: 100% stretch nylon
What we like: A great all-around windbreaker in a lightweight package.
What we don’t: Not as breathable as the Patagonia Houdini Air and less protective than the BD Alpine Start.
For years, the Patagonia Houdini (below) was our go-to wind jacket for multi-pitch climbing—and then we discovered the Arc’teryx Squamish Hoody. At 6.0 ounces (the latest version drops the weight to 4.9 ounces), the Squamish was noticeably heavier and bulkier than the 3.7-ounce Houdini, but its increased performance was worth the extra burden. We particularly loved the slightly stretchy nylon fabric—compared to the Houdini, the boost in freedom of movement and breathability was significant. And our experience speaks for itself: we were much more likely to wear the Squamish than have it hanging from our harness.
Who should buy the Arc’teryx Squamish Hoody? It’s a nice option for those looking for something in between the minimalist Houdini Air and burly Alpine Start jackets above. You can go lighter with the Patagonia and get an even more breathable jacket, but the Squamish’s hood is better suited for use over a helmet, and its thicker fabric is more durable around sharp rocks. On the other end of the spectrum, the Alpine Start is a better jacket for true mountain weather, but you’ll pay for it in weight and bulk. All told, it’s hard to argue with Arc’teryx’s high level of quality, and the Squamish holds its own as a stretchy and lightweight wind jacket for alpine adventures... Read in-depth review
See the Men's Arc'teryx Squamish See the Women's Arc'teryx Squamish
Weight: 7.4 oz.
Materials: 86% nylon, 14% spandex
What we like: A stretchy windbreaker at a good price.
What we don’t: Packed size and feature set are intended for casual use.
REI Co-op is known for well-designed gear that doesn’t break the bank, and their Flash Stretch windbreaker jacket fits that bill. At $100, it’s not as cheap as the budget The North Face Cyclone 2 above, but the extra $35 gets you a softer, more breathable jacket that’s great for all-day wear in wind, light rain, or a slight chill. In fact, with 14 percent spandex (twice as much as the Alpine Start), the Flash has more stretch than any other design here and is a far cry from the sticky, rigid windbreakers of old. And when you’re not wearing it, the jacket packs up into a unique fanny pack-like system, which even features a small external zip pocket for accessing items on the go.
The Flash gets the job done in casual environments, but for the backcountry, it can’t compete with more performance-oriented windbreakers on this list. The jacket lacks a hood adjustment (the Flash’s hood does not fit over helmet), its packed size is far too large to dangle off a harness, and the two hand pockets add weight and are difficult to access under a pack’s hipbelt. But the Flash’s roomy fit works well for daily use and allows ample room for layering underneath, and the pockets will come in handy around town. Added up, REI Co-op’s Flash is a nice step up from the budget Cyclone 2 without the high price tag of many of the more technical jackets here.
See the Men's REI Co-op Flash Stretch See the Women's REI Co-op Flash Stretch
Weight: 4.4 oz.
Materials: 100% ripstop nylon
What we like: Great venting and running-specific features.
What we don’t: Compared to the Patagonia Airshed Pro, the Incendo is heavier, pricier, and not as stylish.
The Arc’teryx Incendo (and women’s Cita) Hoody is designed to protect runners from wind and light rain without weighing them down. The jacket is built with a 20-denier ripstop nylon with a DWR finish, along with a unique hybrid design that is reminiscent of other Arc’teryx products. Specifically, it has breathable mesh panels that extend from the elbow, through the underarm, and partially down the side of the jacket, giving you protection where it counts and ventilation where you need it most. The Incendo won’t keep you fully sheltered from gusts like the Houdini Air above, but runners will benefit from the added airflow.
One of the Incendo’s primary competitors is the Patagonia Airshed Pro above. With the Arc’teryx, you get more wind and water protection on the hood and arms, but the underarm panels are a big area of vulnerability. The Incendo does come with a number of reflective blazings for visibility at night (the Airshed Pro has none), and its chest snap allows you to keep the entire jacket unzipped for ventilation, unlike the partial zip of the Airshed Pro. But we prefer the Patagonia’s cuffs—especially when sliding them up our arms to dump heat—and the Airshed Pro also is lighter (by 0.4 ounces) and $10 cheaper. And keep in mind that Arc’teryx also makes the Incendo (and Cita) SL, which omits the hood, adds mesh across the entire back, and weighs a featherlight 2.8 ounces.
See the Men's Arc'teryx Incendo Hoody See the Women's Arc'teryx Cita Hoody
Weight: 3.5 oz.
Materials: 100% ripstop nylon
What we like: PFC-free DWR is environmentally friendly and durable.
What we don’t: Not as breathable or comfortable as higher-end options.
On the surface, Black Diamond’s Distance is your quintessential windbreaker jacket. Like the Patagonia Houdini below, it’s made with 100-percent ripstop nylon (read: no stretch), has a trim fit and minimal feature set, and clocks in at a low sub-4-ounce weight and very small packed size. Added up, it’s a lightweight jacket that can hold its own in inclement mountain weather, although breathability won’t measure up to heavier or pricier models like the Houdini Air and Alpine Start above.
With an increasing number of windbreakers offering great performance alongside comfort and stretch (like the two we just mentioned), we find ourselves opting for simple designs like the Distance less and less. However, with a PFC-free DWR treatment, this particular jacket does stand out—unlike standard DWR, you can rest easy knowing that your jacket’s not carrying around harmful chemicals. As a bonus, this new finish is permanent too, meaning that there’s no need to reapply (we anticipate seeing this improved DWR on more jackets in the future). For $30 more, Patagonia’s Houdini below is a very similar jacket, but we rank the Distance higher for its slightly lighter weight and sustainable design.
See the Men's Black Diamond Distance See the Women's Black Diamond Distance
Weight: 4.9 oz.
Materials: 100% stretch nylon
What we like: Great performance at a low weight; more affordable than the competition.
What we don’t: Heavier and thinner than the Squamish Hoody.
The Mountain Hardwear Kor Preshell fits into a similar mold as the Arc’teryx Squamish Hoody above, with noticeable stretch built into its 100-percent nylon fabric. This means that the jacket moves and breathes with you better than a no-stretch build, which is great news for everyone from hikers and climbers to backcountry skiers. The Kor Preshell’s Pertex Quantum Air design is impressively windproof and water-resistant as well, resulting in a windbreaker that checks all the boxes for high-performance use. And at 4.9 ounces, it’s competitive with the likes of the Squamish Hoody and Houdini Air too.
We rank the Kor Preshell lower than the Squamish for a few reasons. First, the Kor uses a thinner fabric (20 denier vs. the Arc’teryx’s 30 denier), which results in a slight decrease in weather protection and durability. Second, the Mountain Hardwear has two handwarmer pockets rather than the standard single chest pocket on most windbreakers, which add bulk and can be difficult to access underneath a harness or hipbelt. On the other hand, these pockets might be a big bonus for some and increase the Kor Preshell’s chops as a functional in-town jacket.
See the Men's MH Kor Preshell See the Women's MH Kor Preshell
Weight: 3.7 oz.
Materials: 100% ripstop nylon
What we like: Great wind protection in a lightweight and affordable build.
What we don’t: Not very breathable or weather-protective.
Patagonia’s Houdini is synonymous with the term windbreaker jacket and for good reason. For years, we’ve trusted this jacket to do one thing and do it well: keep wind out. Is the Houdini breathable? Not particularly. Is it water-resistant? Moderately. Does it insulate? Heck no. But does it disappear in our pack or on our harness and get the job done when we need it? Absolutely. For $99, the Patagonia Houdini is all the wind protection that most climbers, hikers, and mountain bikers need.
This paper-thin Patagonia Houdini (you literally can see through it) is a perfect example of how much warmth you can retain just by blocking airflow. We’ve worn the jacket in some serious mountain squalls and been fully sheltered from the wind. But the new Houdini Air, our top pick, wins out in breathability and comfort by a wide margin, plus you don’t get the mobility of stretchy models above like the BD Alpine Start or REI Flash above. But when weight matters or you don’t anticipate working up a sweat, the Houdini still is a reliable windbreaker from one of the top brands in the business... Read in-depth review
See the Men's Patagonia Houdini See the Women's Patagonia Houdini
Weight: 5.1 oz.
Fabric: 100% nylon & merino/polyester blend
What we like: Softness and temperature regulation of merino wool.
What we don’t: Too much airflow for backcountry use.
If you’re reading closely, you’ve noticed that one of the biggest challenges windbreakers face is balancing wind protection and breathability. We’ve seen a range of strategies used to tackle this issue, but nothing quite like Smartwool’s Merino Sport Ultra Light Hoodie. The jacket features generous panels of mesh wool under each arm and small vents across each shoulder, resulting in increased airflow while still keeping the most exposed parts of the body protected from the wind. Not only that, but the merino also adds small dose of insulation (even when wet), along with a nice bit of stretch and mobility.
But in the windbreaker world, you rarely can have your cake and eat it too, and the Merino Sport’s mesh panels allow an avenue for air to enter the jacket. This won’t be a big deal for runners or casual hikers (it may even be welcomed), but we wouldn’t recommend this windbreaker for mountain bikers (your jacket will turn into a sail) or those looking for bombproof wind protection. Further, the Merino Sport’s water resistance is no match for models like the Alpine Start above. But the Smartwool is ideal for daily runs (it even has reflective elements for visibility at night) and hiking, and with dual handwarmer pockets, it’s practical for everyday use as well.
See the Men's Smartwool Merino Sport UL See the Women's Smartwool Merino Sport UL
Weight: 12.2 oz.
Materials: 54% nylon, 46% cotton
What we like: Thick and good-looking.
What we don’t: Heavy and expensive.
Fjallraven does things a little differently than most brands on this list, overlooking factors like weight and packed size in favor of toughness, build quality, and good looks. But don’t be fooled: for certain uses and conditions, we’ve been very impressed with what Fjallraven has to offer. The High Coast Wind Jacket is the heaviest model on this list at 12.2 ounces, uses a combination of polyamide and cotton instead of polyester or nylon, and comes with ample storage including two hand pockets and a zippered chest pocket. Clearly this isn’t your typical wind jacket.
In practice, we’ve found that Fjallraven gear performs best in cool to cold conditions, which makes sense given the company’s Swedish roots. And given the weight, this jacket is ideal for hiking from your car or cabin without worrying about shaving ounces. That said, the heft does have its upsides: the High Coast probably is the thickest jacket on this list, which bodes well for wind resistance and toughness. It’s also extremely well-built, more durable than most, and even downright stylish. At the end of the day, it might be the only windbreaker here that transitions from trail to around-town use with ease.
See the Men's Fjallraven High Coast See the Women's Fjallraven High Coast
Weight: 5.6 oz.
Materials: 55% merino, 45% nylon
What we like: The temperature regulation of merino and the wind protection of nylon.
What we don’t: Not super breathable and no helmet-compatible hood.
Merino wool made its first appearance on our list with the Smartwool Merino Sport UL above, and here it is for a second time. But Ortovox does something different with their Merino Windbreaker, weaving wool and nylon into a single layer of fabric. The result is a jacket that combines the durability and wind protection of nylon with the stretch, temperature regulation, and softness of merino. The combination is not particularly breathable, but the merino wicks sweat and offers great next-to-skin comfort, meaning you don’t get that plasticky, garbage-bag feel of some windbreaker models.
The Ortovox Merino was designed for all-around wind protection, with a relatively thick fabric, a storm flap behind the front zip, robust elastic in the hem, cuffs, and hood, and long sleeves built to cover the backs of the hands. However, its DWR isn’t anything to write home about, and the snug and rather short fit offers less coverage or room for layering than we’d hope for in a mountain-ready windbreaker (we recommend sizing up). Further, the jacket’s hood surprisingly is not big enough to fit over a helmet. We don’t blame you if you’re a merino fan who’s drawn to the complexities of Ortovox’s windbreaker, but for $200, we’d stick to the simpler (and even more protective and breathable) options above.
See the Men's Ortovox Merino Windbreaker See the Women's Ortovox Merino Windbreaker
Weight: 3.3 oz.
Materials: 100% nylon
What we like: Lightweight and breathable at a great price point.
What we don’t: No hood or DWR finish, big logos detract from crossover appeal.
Given that running is such a high-output activity, most runners need a windbreaker that can cut the breeze but still keep air flowing. The Ultimate Direction Marathon delivers on both fronts, with a featherlight build and mesh-backed vent that spans across the shoulders, providing an escape for heat. 20-denier ripstop nylon keeps the rest of the torso sheltered from the wind (similar to the Arc’teryx Incendo above), and a 3/4-length front zip can be snugged to the chin or left undone for increased venting. At only 3.3 ounces, the Marathon is the lightest running windbreaker here and provides ample protection for most weight-conscious runners or fastpackers.
However, when compared to the Arc’teryx Incendo and Patagonia Airshed Pro running windbreakers above, it’s clear that the Marathon is fairly limited. Both offer more venting options in the front, and their mix of mesh panels (Arc’teryx) and Capilene Cool fabric (the Patagonia) is a bump to both breathability and comfort. In terms of water resistance, the Ultimate Direction does not have a hood or a DWR finish, which limits its use for dry days. Lastly, while it looks great for urban use, the Marathon lacks the crossover appeal of the Patagonia in particular, with large logos on the front and back and only one color option for both men and women. But around town and in the lowlands, this lightweight windbreaker will get the job done at a lower price point.
See the Men's Ultimate Direction Marathon See the Women's Ultimate Direction Marathon
Weight: 5.6 oz.
Fabric: 100% nylon
What we like: Hand pockets and a roomy fit are great for everyday use.
What we don’t: No DWR; heavier and bulkier than the competition.
The Rab Vital Hoody is yet another high-quality windbreaker jacket for under $100. What stands out most about the Vital is its generous storage options, which include two zippered hand pockets (rarely seen on a windbreaker) and an internal zippered pouch. You get a few other noteworthy features, namely an elastic collar that helps to keep warm air in (Rab is a UK company where the weather can be challenging) and a snap closure on the chest that allows you a large vent while keeping the jacket in place. However, when zipped up, Rab’s 100-percent nylon build traps heat and can turn it into a sweat factory, giving us pause in recommending it for anything more than cool conditions and low-intensity activities.
Rab’s Vital falls into the same class of jackets as the Black Diamond Distance and Patagonia Houdini above, which also feature minimalist, no-stretch fabrics and prioritize weight savings and packability at the cost of breathability. In this category, however, the Rab is noticeably heavy and bulky and one of the few jackets here without a DWR finish. At the $99 price point, you can get greater weather protection with Patagonia’s Houdini, more breathability with the Ultimate Direction, and better crossover appeal with the REI Flash. But the Rab’s array of pockets make it a winner for everyday use, and unlike many jackets here, the Vital is roomy enough to layer over a down puffy.
See the Men's Rab Vital Windshell See the Women's Rab Vital Windshell
Weight: 1.7 oz.
Materials: 100% ripstop nylon
What we like: Crazylight yet surprisingly wind-resistant.
What we don’t: Too expensive and niche for most people.
We’ll start this off with a caveat: if you’ve never counted ounces past the decimal point, cut tags off your gear, or sawed the end off your toothbrush, you can stop right here. The Deploy is not for you. At 1.7 ounces, this jacket is by far the lightest here (almost half the weight of the next in line) and potentially the lightest wind shell on the market (the Zpacks Ventum comes close). With such a bare-bones build, you get paper-thin 5-denier ripstop nylon (one of jacket’s colorways is actually transparent), no hood or chest pocket (the Deploy stuffs into a pouch on its collar), and a partial-length, “Super Lightweight” zipper.
Who, then, is the Deploy for? Honestly, not many people (it doesn’t even come in a women’s version, and that says something). At $159, it’s expensive for what you get and doesn’t come close to matching the comfort, breathability, or weather protection of the competition. But as an emergency layer for fastpackers (specifically those trying to achieve a low base weight) or mountain runners—and we stress emergency—it does offer a significant barrier from the wind for barely any weight. But our concerns are high regarding durability (thin zippers especially give us pause), and the Deploy should be kept on the shelf for all but the most weight-conscious of missions.
See the Black Diamond Deploy Wind Shell
Materials: 100% polyester
What we like: Inexpensive and good for everyday use.
What we don’t: Marginal wind protection and breathability; no DWR.
Rounding out our list of windbreakers is the inexpensive Columbia Flashback, which is about as classic as it gets. With a roomy fit, deep handwarmer pockets, and a soft interior, the Flashback is ideal for those on the hunt for an everyday jacket for walking the dog around the block or attending a child’s soccer game. And for $40 on sale at the time of publishing, you might be able to outfit your entire family for the price of one of the more performance-oriented jackets above.
Keep in mind that for anything other than casual use, the Flashback has real limitations. With a baggy fit, no waist or helmet cinches, and no zippers on the mesh-backed pockets, you can’t really batten down the hatches. Moreover, its 100-percent polyester face fabric can’t compete with the breathability of other jackets here, and with no DWR finish, it won’t keep water out for long. What’s more, the Flashback is the only jacket on our list that doesn’t pack into its own pocket. But at only $40, it’s one of our top choices for those on a budget, and casual users will appreciate its clean styling and range of color options.
See the Men's Columbia Flashback See the Women's Columbia Flashback
|Patagonia Houdini Air||$169||Alpine/running||4.1 oz.||90% nylon, 10% polyester||Yes||1|
|Black Diamond Alpine Start||$165||Alpine/hiking||7.4 oz.||93% nylon, 7% elastane||Yes||1|
|The North Face Cyclone 2||$65||Hiking||8.1 oz.||100% ripstop polyester||Yes||2|
|Patagonia Airshed Pro||$129||Running||4 oz.||100% stretch nylon w/ knit||Yes||None|
|Arc'teryx Squamish Hoody||$159||Alpine/hiking||4.9 oz.||100% stretch nylon||Yes||1|
|REI Co-op Flash Stretch||$100||Hiking||7.4 oz.||86% nylon, 14% spandex||Yes||2|
|Arc'teryx Incendo Hoody||$139||Running||4.4 oz.||100% ripstop nylon||Yes||1|
|Black Diamond Distance||$129||Hiking/alpine||3.5 oz.||100% ripstop nylon||Yes||1|
|MH Kor Preshell Hoody||$130||Alpine/hiking||4.9 oz.||100% stretch nylon||Yes||3|
|Patagonia Houdini||$99||Hiking/alpine||3.7 oz.||100% ripstop nylon||Yes||1|
|Smartwool Merino Sport UL||$125||Running/hiking||5.1 oz.||100% nylon w/ merino||Yes||1|
|Fjallraven High Coast||$175||Hiking||12.2 oz.||54% nylon, 46% cotton||No||3|
|Ortovox Merino Windbreaker||$200||Hiking||5.6 oz.||55% merino, 45% nylon||Yes||1|
|Ultimate Direction Marathon||$100||Running||3.3 oz.||100% nylon||No||1|
|Rab Vital Windshell Hoody||$99||Hiking||5.6 oz.||100% nylon||No||3|
|Black Diamond Deploy||$159||Running/alpine||1.7 oz.||100% ripstop nylon||Yes||None|
|Columbia Flashback||$40||Hiking||Unavail.||100% polyester||No||2|
- What is a Windbreaker Jacket?
- Windbreaker Categories: Hiking, Alpine, and Running
- Wind Resistance
- Water Resistance
- Weight and Packed Size
- Stretch vs. No Stretch
- Fit and Sizing
- Windbreaker Jacket Features
- Windbreaker Jacket Care
- Windbreakers vs. Softshells and Rain Jackets
A windbreaker, often referred to as a wind jacket or a windshirt, serves as a barrier between your body and wind and light precipitation. These jackets are small but mighty—you don’t get full waterproofing or insulation like you might find with a rain jacket or softshell, but the simple act of blocking the wind has a noticeable impact on your body’s ability to hold its warmth. Plus, in addition to a nylon, polyester, or sometimes wool shell material, most have a DWR coating that helps water bead off instead of soaking in. Due to their minimalist build, windbreaker jackets keep weight and bulk to a minimum (many weigh less than 5 ounces and pack up into their own chest pocket) and generally are more affordable than other styles of jackets.
In our opinion, windbreakers are the most versatile piece of outdoor clothing available. For one, they’re so small that there’s always enough room to bring one along, whether it’s stuffed into your hiking pack or clipped to your climbing harness. Second, if you’re anything like us, chances are that most of the time you head outside in mild temperatures and under dry skies. In these conditions, a windbreaker jacket is fully sufficient to keep you warm when a breeze picks up or the sun goes behind a cloud. And with a DWR finish for added water resistance, they are a great option for a lightweight and breathable emergency layer.
All windbreaker jackets share the common intent of keeping wind at bay but differ in terms of features, weight and packability, weather protection, and more. While some are clearly intended for casual use, others offer great performance where it counts. To help you choose, we’ve separated windbreaker jackets into three general categories: hiking, alpine, and running.
Windbreakers in our alpine and running categories below are designed to offer the best in weather protection and breathability for high-performance activities, but not everyone’s idea of fun looks like a high-intensity run or mountain scramble. For lower-output activities when you don’t anticipate generating much of a sweat—think hiking, downhill mountain biking, or traveling in a particularly windy region like Patagonia—there are a variety of windbreakers that can get the job done. Jackets in our hiking category often keep prices low by using thicker and less technical fabrics (you usually don’t see stretch weaves here) which also sacrifice a bit of breathability. In general, these jackets have roomier fits and often feature handwarmer pockets, which are great for everyday use. A few of the most popular windbreakers for hiking (and other low-output activities) are the REI Flash Stretch and Patagonia Houdini.
Whether we’re embarking on a multi-pitch climb, backcountry ski, or cross-country bike ride, we won’t leave home without a windbreaker. For sports that require a high degree of mobility and breathability, alpine-specific windbreakers often feature stretch in their design, and some are even sized more generously to allow for layering. Here you’ll also see helmet-compatible hoods (often with a simple cinch), packable builds (great for carrying on a harness), and water-resistant finishes. Due to their increased performance, mountain-ready windbreakers can be slightly heavier than the competition, often clocking in above 4 ounces and sometimes as heavy as 7.4 ounces. Our favorite all-around jacket for alpine environments is the Black Diamond Alpine Start Hoody, and the Patagonia Houdini Air makes an excellent lightweight and packable choice, albeit with a little less protection from the elements.
Running-specific windbreakers are designed to keep you protected from the wind without weighing you down or causing you to overheat. Jackets in this category are characterized by trim-fitting builds, minimalist hoods (or no hood at all), low weights (3 to 4 ounces is common), and thin fabrics that offer the height of breathability. Because a jacket’s ability to dump heat is the main priority when you’re constantly building up a sweat (even in cold weather), many running windbreakers incorporate vents or mesh panels into their design as well, which can result in compromised wind and water resistance. In this category we also see reflective strips for road running and built-in carrying features, such as the Ultimate Direction Marathon’s built-in clip that can easily attach it to a waistbelt or backpack strap. Some of our favorite running windbreakers include the Patagonia Airshed Pro and the Arc’teryx Incendo.
Similar to waterproofness, trying to quantify wind resistance can be a bit tricky. From a technical perspective, manufacturers measure a fabric’s wind resistance in terms of CFM, or cubic feet per minute per square meter. A 0-CFM rated fabric will not allow air to pass at all, and the higher the CFM rating, the more air permeable the fabric. Luckily, brands have found that there’s a certain range at which you can experience a significant increase in breathability without a big difference in wind protection. Thus, each jacket finds a sweet-spot CFM depending on its intentions. Some will forgo a little breathability for wind resistance (the Patagonia Houdini is a great example), and others will increase breathability for the tradeoff of a bit of protection (that you might not even feel).
In practice, we’ve found these jackets to be quite impressive in blocking out wind despite their low weight and feathery feel. On a recent 2020 testing trip to Chilean Patagonia and its legendarily strong gusts that never seem to stop, all four of us basically lived in our respective windbreakers. On one particularly windy trek in the Cerro Castillo region, we literally were blown to the ground on multiple occasions to the point where we had to lay down to avoid getting toppled down the mountain. At some point that type of situation evolves into hardshell territory where you want maximum thickness and material, but throughout the trip, our wind jackets punched well above their weight and were a true staple.
Ah, the great debate. Would you rather have a jacket that blocks air completely (windproof) or one that allows air to move freely from one side to the other (breathable)? As you can imagine, it’s no small task for a fabric to do both. But for those who want to have their cake and eat it too, it’s a good thing you live in 2020. This category is evolving quickly and many of the windbreaker jacket models included in this article are fairly competent at both, including our top pick, the Patagonia Houdini Air.
Before you go looking for the most breathable jacket money can buy, it’s important to consider your end use. If you just plan on using your windbreaker for lower-intensity activities like casual hiking or travel, a less air-permeable jacket will do the trick. Look for 100-percent nylon or polyester builds here (many of the models in our “hiking” category fit this bill), and the good news is that these models generally come with lower price tags. For high-output activities like running, climbing, backcountry skiing—even rigorous hiking and backpacking—we recommend a more breathable windbreaker. These jackets often are made with stretch-woven fabrics or more complex blends, incorporate features like vents or mesh panels, and are more expensive. To help you navigate these complexities, keep an eye on our category designations—hiking, alpine, and running—to find the best fit for you.
By definition, a windbreaker is not waterproof, but many of the jackets here are impressively water-resistant. Whereas rain jackets or hardshells use a waterproof membrane to keep moisture at bay, windbreakers keep it simple with a durable water repellant (DWR) finish on their outer shell fabric, which causes water to bead up and roll off rather than soak through. It’s important to note that DWR will wear off over time, resulting in diminished water resistance, but it can be reapplied with a spray like Nikwax’s TX.Direct or revived by washing and drying your jacket. And importantly, be on the lookout for jackets like the Black Diamond Distance, which features environmentally friendly (PFC-free) DWR, which is claimed to be more durable as well (we expect this technology to be widespread soon).
Not every windbreaker will offer added water protection aside from the added barrier of the shell material, so make sure to be on the lookout for a mention of DWR. In the end, we think the water resistance of these windbreakers is good enough for the majority of outings in light precipitation, especially considering that most of us venture outside when the conditions are good. Our experience of late has been very positive: We’ve worn the Black Diamond Alpine Start in everything from all-day drizzles to wet snow and never once felt the need to pull out our shell. Of course, in a sustained downpour, nothing can offer the water protection of a dedicated rain layer. For true backcountry trips, we always bring a waterproof rain jacket or hardshell.
Windbreakers are lightweight and packable by nature, which is one of the main reasons they are such a functional type of jacket. Some designs prioritize minimalism more than others—the ultralight, 1.7-ounce Black Diamond Deploy, for example, miraculously packs down to the size of a pudgy Clif Bar. But unless you’re a fastpacker or mountain runner with militant weight guidelines, we encourage you to first think about your intended use. Here’s our reasoning: for many people and outdoor activities, the weight difference between a 3.7-ounce jacket like the Patagonia Houdini and a 4.9-ounce jacket like the Arc’teryx Squamish Hoody is barely perceptible. But here’s what is perceptible—the Houdini is $60 less and just as windproof, while the Squamish offers much more mobility and breathability.
That said, there are a few things you can expect with lighter jackets. Most of the time, these are 100-percent nylon builds (read: no stretch), and can feel akin to wearing a plastic garbage bag during high-intensity activity (unless they have built-in vents or mesh). Lightweight jackets often feature just one chest pocket or no pocket at all, and we see hoodless or pullover styles here too. Often, lighter jackets are very trim fitting. But not all performance drops with weight. For example, running jackets typically are among the lightest windbreakers, but their thin fabric and generous venting is more suitable for high-output activities than a thicker build. Further, lightweight jackets are not necessarily less wind resistant than heavier options. In short, weight only tells part of the story when it comes to windbreakers. In the end, we encourage you to first determine your end use (do you prioritize a highly breathable jacket, weather protection, a hood, etc.) and then use the weight spec to help you whittle down your choice.
In terms of packability, the majority of windbreaker jackets are designed to stuff into their own chest or hip pocket, which usually includes a carabiner loop on the inside. For on-the-go activities such as climbing, this feature is invaluable: you can clip your jacket to your harness with a carabiner and eliminate the need for a backpack (which can be very burdensome when climbing). You’ll want to consider the bulk of the packed jacket as well, as some will be more onerous for harness or hand carry than others (the Black Diamond Deploy, for example, fits in the palm of your hand, while the REI Flash Stretch is as big as a fanny pack). Usually weight, features, and fabrics (100-percent nylon is the most packable and stretch-woven fabrics will be the least packable) are a good indicator of bulk. To help guide your decision, we’ve included a column in our comparison table above to indicate which models come with integrated stuff pockets.
The majority of windbreaker jackets are made with 100-percent nylon or polyester. With just a few exceptions, these simple weaves have little to no stretch, meaning they don’t offer great freedom of movement. Further, 100-percent nylon or polyester jackets often suffer in terms of breathability, with tight weaves that aren’t particularly air permeable. But these jackets still have a lot going for them: they are the lightest and most packable designs (particularly nylon) and often the most affordable (particularly polyester). Additionally, with features like gusseted underarms and drop tail hems, many are able to add ample mobility. We wore the 100-percent nylon Patagonia Houdini for years as our climbing windshirt of choice, benefitting from its lightweight wind protection while embracing its compromises as simply part of the windbreaker package.
However, in 2020, more and more designs incorporate stretch into their fabric, either by way of their weave (like we see in the Patagonia Houdini Air) or by adding a small amount of elastane (as with the Black Diamond Alpine Start). No matter how it’s accomplished, the result of added stretch is better mobility, increased breathability, and a softer next-to-skin feel. In other words, these are your premium windbreakers. Of course, top-notch performance comes with tradeoffs: most of the time, stretch woven fabric is heavier and bulkier than straight nylon or polyester, and it’s often more expensive too. Further, as we learned above, increased breathability (read: air permeability) inherently impacts wind resistance—although in our experience not to a noticeable extent. In the end, the proof is in the pudding: since stretchy options started appearing on the market, our Houdini has stayed in the closet in lieu of jackets like the Black Diamond Alpine Start (see our in-depth review here) and Houdini Air.
Given that windbreaker jackets are minimalist in nature, most are designed with a trim fit. In addition to shedding ounces and bulk off the build, this also means you won’t have any excess material getting in the way, which is great for activities like running and climbing. For this reason, we see the most streamlined fits in our ultralight running models (like the Patagonia Airshed Pro) and some ultralight alpine designs (the Patagonia Houdini, for example), both of which can accommodate a thin shirt or baselayer underneath—but not much more. On the other hand, some of the styles in our hiking category (the REI Flash Jacket and The North Face Cyclone 2, for example) and a few mountain-specific designs have a roomier fit that can be layered over an insulated jacket.
In our experience, the trim fit of windbreakers makes sense for most uses. If you’re running, working hard on the skin track, or climbing on the sharp end, you’ll likely be building enough heat to only need a light baselayer underneath. At the belay or during a transition, you can always throw your insulative jacket on over top. For some, however—especially those who run cold, need the extra freedom of movement, or plan to use their windbreaker in the cold—it can be a good idea to size up to accommodate more layers underneath (we’ve appreciated the extra room in the Black Diamond Alpine Start for ski touring this winter). Many of our product descriptions above include comments on fit.
In general, windbreakers have stripped-down feature sets that place a priority on weight-savings and packability. Most jackets have a single chest pocket that doubles as a stuff sack, a simple hood adjustment, and a hem cinch. Some models, particularly those in our alpine category, will have larger helmet-compatible hoods, while other designs will cut weight by removing the hood completely. In terms of the zipper, most jackets have a full-length zipper, although some ultralight models cut weight with a pullover design (like the Patagonia Airshed Pro or Black Diamond Deploy). If you’re looking for a step up in features, our hiking category is a good place to start. With less of an emphasis on ounce-counting, many of these jackets offer a larger range of adjustment and more pockets (the Rab Vital Windshell has two handwarmer pockets, an internal zip pocket, Velcro hood adjuster, and hem adjustment).
Ultralight and thin by design, you aren’t out to lunch if you are worried about the durability of windbreaker jackets. To stack the odds in your favor, it’s a good idea to look for ripstop fabrics (like the Patagonia Houdini Air) or stretch-woven material that gives under pressure rather than rips (like on the BD Alpine Start). Thicker shells—indicated with higher denier ratings, grams per square meter (gsm), or ounces per square yard (oz./yd)—will be more durable than thinner varieties, but you’ll pay a price in weight and packability. Additionally, keep in mind that a DWR coating does more than just protect against rain—it also keeps dirt and oils from soaking into the shell, preserving the life of the fabric. Finally, the small zipper is a key failure point on windbreakers, but few are designed with more robust options. Your best bet is to treat it with extra care and buy from a manufacturer with a great repair policy.
All that said, we’ve been incredibly impressed with the lifespan of most windbreakers that we’ve tested. They’re nowhere near as durable as hardshell jackets, but over the years, our collective windbreakers have endured excessive groveling in chimneys while climbing, being stuffed into packs beside crampons and sticky skins, and day in and day out use. In the end, we can recall a few durability issues, including one rip (which took place while alpine rock climbing) and one busted zipper (that Patagonia dutifully repaired). All in all, the impressive durability of windbreakers is just one more feather in the cap of these small but mighty jackets.
Windbreakers are fairly low-maintenance, but there’s a few steps you can take toward increasing the life of your jacket. First, we never recommend storing a jacket stuffed in its pocket. Like a sleeping bag, your windbreaker needs to breathe and should be hung alongside your other jackets when not in use. Second, it’s best to follow the manufacturer instructions for washing and drying, which usually entail machine washing with cold water and tumble drying (take note that your windbreaker will dry much more quickly than the rest of your laundry). It might seem counterintuitive, but a regular laundering is actually vital to maintaining the water-repellant finish. And if your DWR begins to lose its effectiveness, it’s fairly simple to reapply with a product like Nikwax’s TX.Direct.
When it comes to choosing your outer shell, you have a few options, including a windbreaker, softshell, rain jacket, or hardshell. Especially given the increasing amount of crossover between categories, it can be difficult to determine what style is best for your needs. In general, a softshell jacket is an ideal layer for active pursuits when you want a bit of wind and water protection but don’t want to give up breathability and freedom of movement. On the other hand, a rain jacket (or burlier hardshell) will provide full protection from the elements, but often at the expense of breathability, comfort, and mobility. For active pursuits when the conditions aren’t nasty, we think that windbreakers offer a nice alternative to both full-on waterproof jackets and softshells, and here’s why.
Unless you live in the rainforest of British Columbia or are particularly inclined towards sufferfests, we’re guessing that the majority of your outdoor activities take place during fair weather (at worst, a light drizzle, wet snow, or sustained wind). We’re also guessing that you’re moving during these activities, which means you’re generating body heat. You could bring a rain jacket along, but chances are it doesn’t breathe very well and will be overkill for most weather (our rain jacket spends most of its life at the bottom of our pack). On the other hand, a softshell will give you all the protection you need, along with great breathability and freedom of movement, but most are prohibitively heavy and bulky.
Enter the windbreaker jacket. Windbreakers are lightweight and packable and easily stay stuffed away until you need them. They’re capable of cutting a serious wind (most of the time, this will be enough to keep you warm), and most are fairly impressive at keeping out a light rain (all but a few in our round-up feature a DWR finish). In 2020, many windbreakers are highly breathable too, and we’ve begun to see more and more with built-in stretch for better freedom of movement. If you’re keeping score, this means you get all the benefits of a softshell jacket in a more streamlined package. In the end, we’re not shy in our opinion that a high-performance windbreaker (the Patagonia Houdini Air and Black Diamond Alpine Start, for example) is the most versatile style of jacket on the market, and the best outerlayer for the majority of active pursuits.
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