We’ve all been there. An ambiguous weather pattern rolls in, wind whips at your hair, but you’re charging too hard to throw on a rain jacket — and it’s too cold for your tiny T-shirt. It’s time to break out the most versatile layering piece of them all: the windbreaker jacket.
Offering stellar protection from the elements in dry, cool conditions, windbreaker jackets are our favorite breathable, packable solutions for just about any adventure you could cook up. Plus, with most models hovering around a scant 5 ounces, they barely register in your kit.
While you don’t get the same level of insulation or weather defense as burly hardshells, the simple act of thwarting the wind dramatically boosts your ability to retain warmth without overheating. Lash ‘em to your harness, or chuck ‘em in your pack and forget they’re there — windbreakers are the ultralight, ultra-packable jacket of your dreams.
Over a seven-month testing period, we took over 20 windbreaker jackets on big wall ascents in the Sierras, backpacking excursions through Appalachia, and international climbing expeditions, whittling the selection down to include the most capable windbreakers money can buy. For desperate assaults on wind-swept alpine peaks, or casual jaunts in mild weather, we’ve included jackets for every adventure and budget. We tested each jacket with a mind for a variety of different performance metrics, including breathability, durability, and weather resistance.
Chris Carter, our lead author, brings over 10 years of gear testing experience to the table, and has used windbreakers in the most demanding, desperate conditions imaginable. He knows what makes a jacket worth its salt, and included only the best in this roundup.
Editor’s Note: We refreshed this article on August 30, 2023, sprucing up our buyer’s guide section with additional information regarding mountaineering-specific windbreakers, and adding the Arc’teryx Squamish Hoody to the lineup.
The Best Windbreaker Jackets of 2023
- Best Overall Windbreaker Jacket: Patagonia Houdini
- Best Budget Windbreaker Jacket: Cotopaxi Teca Half-Zip Windbreaker
- Runner-Up Best Windbreaker Jacket: Mountain Hardwear Kor AirShell Hoodie
- Best Windbreaker Jacket for Running: Black Diamond Deploy Wind Shell
- Most Breathable Windbreaker Jacket: Patagonia Houdini Air
- Best Windbreaker Jacket for Mountaineering: Black Diamond Alpine Start Hoody
- Best Ultralight Windbreaker Jacket: Enlightened Equipment Copperfield Wind Shirt
- Weight 3.7 oz. (men's medium)
- Materials 100% recycled ripstop nylon with PFC-free DWR coating
- Pockets 1 zippered chest pocket (stuff sack)
- Versatile protection for a range of different conditions
- Affordable but hard-working
- Ultralight and packable
- Stellar wind and weather resistance
- Not as breathable as other models
- Minimal elasticity
- Weight 4.4 oz.
- Materials 100% repurposed polyester taffeta & ripstop with DWR finish & PU backer
- Pockets Kangaroo hand pocket, front zip pocket (stuff sack)
- Sustainable construction
- Solid weather-resistance
- Not very breathable
- Not as packable as other models
- No cinch cords at hem or hood
- Weight 4.8 oz.
- Materials Pertex Quantum Air 20D stretch ripstop & 59% recycled nylon
- Pockets 2 zippered hand pockets, internal drop pocket (stuff sack)
- Extremely soft fabric
- Flexible materials
- Fully featured
- On the heavy side
- No cinch cord at hem or hood
- Wets out fast
- Weight 1.6 oz.
- Materials 5D Japanese ripstop nylon with DWR treatment
- Pockets None (pouch in collar is stuff sack)
- Absurdly ultralight
- Surprising water resistance
- Peerless packability
- Not very durable
- No pockets or hood
- Weight 4.2 oz.
- Materials Pertex Equilibrium 90% nylon/10% polyester double weave with PFC-free DWR coating
- Pockets 1 zippered chest pocket (stuff sack)
- Top-shelf breathability
- Extremely comfortable
- Stretchy fabric
- Small pack size
- Less water and wind-resistance than other models
- On the expensive side
- Weight 7.3 oz.
- Materials 93% nylon, 7% elastane with Schoeller Eco-Repel Bio DWR finish
- Pockets 1 zippered chest pocket (stuff sack)
- Stellar durability
- Great mobility for rock climbing or scrambling
- Comfy fabric
- Adjustable hood
- New iteration removes cinch cord at hem
- Weight 1.8 oz. (7D fabric, men's size medium)
- Materials 7, 10, or 20D ultralight nylon with DWR finish
- Pockets None
- Mega ultralight
- Solid feature set
- Super packable
- Highly wind-resistant
- No pockets or stuff sack
- Quick wet-out time
- Minimal durability
- Long lead times on custom orders
- Weight 4.6 oz.
- Materials 20D Atmos woven nylon with PFC-free DWR coating
- Pockets 2 zippered hand pockets (separate stuff sack)
- Fully featured
- Wire-brimmed hood
- Solid wind resistance
- Comes with a separate stuff sack to keep track of
- Not the most breathable fabric
- Wets out fast
- Weight 4.5 oz.
- Materials 20 and 50D flexible Aero60 nylon with PFC-free DWR treatment
- Pockets 1 zippered chest pocket (stuff sack)
- Subtle, thoughtful features
- Durable but lightweight
- Wire-brimmed, packable hood
- Breathable but wind-resistant fabric
- No cinch cord at hem
- Wets out fast
- Weight 3.4 oz.
- Materials Recycled polyamide & polyester with elastane & a PFC-free DWR coating
- Pockets None (mesh pouch in collar is stuff sack)
- Ultralight and packable
- Fantastic breathability
- Above average wind and water-resistance
- No cinch cord at hem or hood
- No pockets
- Weight 5.2 oz.
- Materials Pertex Quantum with Diamond Fuse Technology, 100% 30D ripstop nylon
- Pockets 1 zippered chest pocket (stuff sack)
- Durable, nearly windproof construction
- Higher than average wet out time
- Plenty of room to layer underneath
- Good adjustability
- Heavier than most
- Not the most breathable material
- More of a crinkly feel to the fabric than some
- Weight 4.6 oz.
- Materials Texashield Ecosphere Pro 100% recycled polyester
- Pockets 1 zippered chest pocket (no stuff sack)
- Funky, stylish look
- Next-to-skin comfort
- Impressive wet out time
- Solid adjustability
- Chest pocket isn't a stuff sack
- Not much layering room underneath
- Weight 4.9 oz.
- Materials 100% Tyono nylon 30-denier shell with DWR coating
- Pockets 1 zippered chest pocket (stuff sack)
- Stellar athletic fit
- Fabric has solid mobility
- Cinch cord at hem and back of hood
- Functional wire-brimmed hood
- On the heavy end of the spectrum
- Weight 3.3 oz.
- Materials Dynashell Ultralight Miniripstop polyamide
- Pockets None (pouch in collar is stuff sack)
- Ultralight and packable
- Thumb loops
- Snug but stretchy fit
- Stellar breathability
- Difficult to cram jacket into stuff pouch at collar
- Niche, running-specific design is limiting on some activities
Windbreaker Jackets Comparison Chart
|Patagonia Houdini||$109||3.7 oz.||100% recycled ripstop nylon with PFC-free DWR coating||1 zippered chest pocket (stuff sack)|
|Cotopaxi Teca Half-Zip Windbreaker||$80||4.4 oz.||100% repurposed polyester taffeta & ripstop with DWR finish & PU backer||Kangaroo hand pocket, front zip pocket (stuff sack)|
|Mountain Hardwear Kor AirShell Hoodie||$150||4.8 oz.||Pertex Quantum Air 20D stretch ripstop & 59% recycled nylon||2 zippered hand pockets, internal drop pocket (stuff sack)|
|Black Diamond Deploy Wind Shell||$180||1.6 oz.||5D Japanese ripstop nylon with DWR treatment||None (pouch in collar is stuff sack)|
|Patagonia Houdini Air||$179||4.2 oz.||Pertex Equilibrium 90% nylon/10% polyester double weave with PFC-free DWR coating||1 zippered chest pocket (stuff sack)|
|Black Diamond Alpine Start Hoody||$185||7.3 oz.||93% nylon, 7% elastane with Schoeller Eco-Repel Bio DWR finish||1 zippered chest pocket (stuff sack)|
|Enlightened Equipment Copperfield Wind Shirt||$120||1.8 oz.||7, 10, or 20D ultralight nylon with DWR finish||None|
|Rab Vital Hooded Jacket||$85||4.6 oz.||20D Atmos woven nylon with PFC-free DWR coating||2 zippered hand pockets (separate stuff sack)|
|Nørrona Falketind Aero60||$199||4.5 oz.||20 and 50D flexible Aero60 nylon with PFC-free DWR treatment||1 zippered chest pocket (stuff sack)|
|La Sportiva Blizzard Jacket||$119||3.4 oz.||Recycled polyamide & polyester with elastane & a PFC-free DWR coating||None (mesh pouch in collar is stuff sack)|
|Outdoor Research Helium Wind Hoodie||$129||5.2 oz.||Pertex Quantum with Diamond Fuse Technology, 100% 30D ripstop nylon||1 zippered chest pocket (stuff sack)|
|Jack Wolfskin Prelight Wind Jacket||$130||4.6 oz.||Texashield Ecosphere Pro 100% recycled polyester||1 zippered chest pocket (no stuff sack)|
|Arc’teryx Squamish Hoody||$160||4.9 oz.||100% Tyono nylon 30D shell with DWR coating||1 zippered chest pocket (stuff sack)|
|Dynafit Alpine Wind 2 Jacket||$140||3.3 oz.||Dynashell Ultralight Miniripstop polyamide||None (pouch in collar is stuff sack)|
How We Tested Windbreaker Jackets
Be it slow plods along breezy trails, or full-on big wall assaults tethered to wind-battered cliffs — we take our windbreaker testing seriously. Senior Editor Chris Carter put over 20 windbreaker jackets through their paces over a seven-month testing period in demanding locations around the world — from remote tours in Africa to long rock climbs in Mexico — and winnowed the selection down to include nothing but the best for this roundup. For a slew of different tasks, there’s a jacket here to answer the call.
The models in this roundup were analyzed based on a handful of key factors: wind resistance, weather/rain resistance, breathability, value, and durability. Different windbreakers fit the bill for different outings, but each jacket had to stand out in one or more of these areas to merit any real estate in this article, or in our packs on an adventure.
Each model was taken on rigorous real-world tests according to their categories and unique design (running-specific jackets were taken on trail runs, mountaineering-specific models on rock climbs, etc.). As a standardized test, we put each jacket through a shower-simulated downpour test to gauge the water resistance and/or DWR coating of each shell. We wore a thin fleece jacket under each windbreaker in the shower, and timed how long it took before the fabric completely wet out (soaked through the fabric entirely). Some wet out in seconds — others took nearly half an hour.
Finally, this is an evolving guide, and we add the newest jackets and revisit our old favorites each season. We work hard to stay on top of the newest and best windbreaker jackets on the market to bring you the most relevant suggestions possible.
Buyer’s Guide: How to Choose the Best Windbreaker Jacket
Why Do You Need a Windbreaker?
You aren’t out to lunch if a $150 wearable tissue that barely registers in your hand gives you pause at the checkout page. But all that is gold does not glitter — and given some time these packable, hardworking wonders could just become the ultralight layer you’ve always wanted.
Though first impressions may be bleak, there is a lot of bleeding-edge technology woven into the threads of these flimsy wonders, and much to discover under the hood. But why do you need one for your next foray into the wild?
Before taking the famed Patagonia Houdini on a thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail in 2018, our author was skeptical of windbreakers, to say the least. They provide subpar rain protection, take up precious pack space — and are expensive to boot.
Cue endless miles of windswept ridge walks, freezing gusts on exposed knife edges, and chilly morning starts, and that tiny jacket got more love than any layer in his kit. He’s now a full-fledged windbreaker believer.
Below we’ll explore the various elements that make windbreaker jackets our favorite layer for just about any adventure, but the root of it lies in their lightweight, packable versatility. Wear it as a standalone piece in mild weather, pair it with insulation in strong gusts, and cram it down to nothing when it’s served its time — you’ll be using it much more than you would ever imagine.
Eschewing the waterproof durability of hardshells and rain jackets, and the insulating power of fleece or down jackets, windbreakers boast minuscule weights and stuff down ridiculously small. For this reason, they disappear in your pack or float behind you on your harness, and provide vital protection while maintaining breathability and mobility.
When you are outdoors, temperature and the effects of wind chill have a significant impact on how cold you feel. Wind chill can make the temperature feel much colder than the mercury suggests — so consider every environmental factor when packing your layers. Skin begins to feel cold once thermal energy leaves your body into the air around you, which is exacerbated by cold air flowing past your body at a faster rate in high wind.
With wind accelerating convective heat loss, the presence of a thin, simple barrier to block the wind from flowing past your skin greatly reduces the effects of windchill. This allows you to better regulate your temperature while cranking hard in the mountains.
Windbreakers are made with tightly woven synthetic fabrics designed to strike a healthy balance between flexibility, breathability, and durability. They are much lighter and more malleable than hardshells, making them prime choices for dynamic activities where weight and performance are paramount.
Granite crack, skin track, or midday snack; windbreakers take the cake for fast and light missions or casual jaunts where a rain jacket is overkill, and a fleece lacks the wind protection you crave.
Let’s get down to brass tacks — these things weigh nothing. For how hard they work and the level of weather resistance they provide, windbreakers will frequently clock in well under 5 ounces, with some premium niche models (like BD’s Deploy Wind Shell, or EE’s Copperfield Wind Shirt) dipping down as low as 1.6 ounces. That’s as much as, say … a fancy fountain pen.
Our biggest question was: “Are they worth it, though?” Jackets like the Deploy Wind Shell represent the lighter end of the spectrum, and 4 to 5 ounces may be a dealbreaker for an ultralighter cutting every other tooth off his comb to shave weight.
After years of testing numerous models in all sorts of extreme environments, we’d intimate yes, they are definitely worth it. You just can’t beat the degree of wind and weather protection they offer for such a variety of scenarios, or the weight-to-performance ratio they boast. Even for the mega-weight-conscious, the level of insulation and versatile protection they bring to the table allows you to cut some corners in other areas of your base weight.
That said, different adventures merit windbreaker jackets of different weights, and the intensity of your trip will help determine the level of durability you require. Pushing the pulse on that PR of a remote mountain trail? A sub-2-ounce shell may be the only layer you’d let tag along. Setting off on an extended climbing expedition in Chile? The durability and thicker stretchy fabric of the legendary Black Diamond Alpine Start Hoody might be in order.
Whatever the objective, a windbreaker needs to meet certain criteria to merit any real estate in your luggage. It must be lightweight but durable, weather-resistant but breathable, and flexible but form-fitting. Those are big asks — but thankfully we live in 2023 — with more and more tech coming out each year to boost windbreakers’ level of protection while cutting weight and packed size to a minimum.
Packed Size and Stuff Sacks
Packed size is another area where windbreaker jackets shine, and a key factor we consider when testing their mettle. The joy of a windbreaker lies largely in its ability to deploy in seconds from a tiny pouch or pocket, and cram down easily for quick stowing while pushing hard on demanding adventures.
Many of the jackets on our list feature stuff sacks that are integrated into the jacket itself, while others (like Rab’s Vital Hooded Jacket) come with a separate pouch to keep track of. The most common integrated stuff sack is either a zippered hand or chest pocket with a double-sided zipper that the jacket can be shoved into. This is by far our favorite design for quickly stowing our jackets on the go. An included carabiner loop for easy lashing to packs or harnesses is also a bonus.
It’s not uncommon for windbreakers to fold down into a package you can easily fit in your pocket. At that size, why wouldn’t you bring it along? However, some brands strive so much for a small pack size that it is almost impossible to jam the thing into its included stuff sack. Sure, we love a jacket that compresses to the size of a tangerine as much as the next guy, but if we have to blow a gasket to get it in the pouch — that’s an immediate turnoff for us.
There’s so much to like about Dynafit’s Alpine Wind Jacket, but we feel like we’ve put in our workout for the day after finagling it into the tiny stuff sack in its hood. On the other end of the spectrum, you can almost casually drop Outdoor Research’s Helium Wind Hoodie into its generous zippered pouch, and we wish it featured a snugger package for a more streamlined kit.
There is obviously a balance that must be hit with the size of your jacket’s stuff sack. A small size is key for minimizing bulk on a climbing harness or in a backpack, but it shouldn’t be a battle to pack it down.
A windbreaker’s packed size often directly correlates to its level of weather protection and durability. The microscopic compressed size of Black Diamond’s Deploy Wind Shell may be an ultra-runner’s dream, but for mountaineers deep in the rugged Karakoram Range, Mountain Hardwear’s bulkier Kor AirShell may be the move. It won’t pack down as small, but also won’t rip to shreds on the first fourth-class scramble.
Wind Resistance and Breathability
We feel like the same guy who named “walkie-talkies” must have dubbed these jackets “windbreakers” — and we’re fans of simple, straightforward nomenclature. If windbreakers excel at anything, it’s this.
But breaking the wind while moving fast outside isn’t as easy as it sounds, and developers face the difficult challenge of effectively reducing convective heat loss while retaining breathability, mobility, and packability. No small feat for that flimsy 5-ounce fabric.
The level of wind resistance a shell boasts changes wildly depending on the model and type of activity it is designed for. Jackets made for hiking and alpine use will tend to block more wind, while those created for intense trail running often afford greater breathability and ventilation.
This varying degree of wind resistance is measured (in the United States) by a simple unit dubbed CFM. Simply put, this is the amount of “cubic feet per minute” of a 30-mile-per-hour gust of wind that can pass through one square foot of fabric. Therefore, the lower the CFM, the higher the wind resistance of a jacket, with 0 CFM representing an entirely windproof shell.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, an extremely permeable fleece jacket may have a 60 CFM rating since wind will cut right through it. Many softshells fall in the 10 to 5 CFM range, while burly hardshells may clock in at around 1 CFM. As a general rule, you don’t want an entirely “windproof” windbreaker unless you are going to be completely static during the duration of your adventure. At that point, you might as well just wear a clammy trash bag.
Thankfully, most companies have nailed a CFM sweet spot that maximizes wind resistance, while still offering a certain degree of breathability for active adventures. The more wind-resistant a jacket is, the less breathable it is, which can result in the stuffy buildup of sweat while exercising.
Prioritizing weight and packability, windbreakers are designed to reduce the chilling effect of wind, while preventing overheating. This is something that most waterproof rain jackets or hardshells can’t boast, and they will almost always feel too warm and stifling while charging hard.
We’ve found that a jacket’s CFM is rarely listed on the company’s website, so this technical spec takes a bit more sleuthing to find. You usually have to gauge a jacket’s breathability to wind-resistance ratio by the product’s description, or a scale that shows where it lands relative to the company’s other layers — though sometimes this figure will be advertised.
CFM and thin materials aren’t the only factors that contribute to a jacket’s level of wind resistance. Vents, stretch-woven fabrics, or mesh side panels will often be used to boost a shell’s breathability, which are frequently found in running-specific models. Dynafit’s Alpine Wind Jacket and La Sportiva’s Blizzard have almost entirely mesh back panels, shielding your front from wind, while cranking up the A/C on your back during demanding runs.
It’s important to consider the type of activity you plan on using your windbreaker for most before making your selection. We found the ultra-breathable, durable Mountain Hardwear Kor Airshell to be perfect for fast-paced simul-climbing missions in the hot but breezy Mexican climate on a recent multipitch climbing trip.
On the other hand, when temps dropped and brutal gusts bullied us around on knife edges in the Pacific Northwest, the regular Patagonia Houdini offered stellar protection at the cost of some breathability. Different environments merit different layers, and you want to strike a healthy balance between comfort, weight, and performance for whatever you may encounter.
Weather and Water Resistance
Ultralight minimalism, breathability, and packability always come at a cost. In the case of windbreakers — that would be weather and water protection. Circumventing the bombproof impenetrable fabrics of hardshells and rain jackets, windbreakers simply don’t suffice as quiver-of-one shells for long forays in variable conditions or prolonged rain.
That said, many windbreakers are no slouch in light to moderate precipitation, and most of the models on this list feature at least a thin DWR (Durable Water Repellent) coating to fend off small amounts of rain. Moisture will bead up and roll off new jackets well, but this DWR coating will diminish over time, resulting in quicker wet-out times. A good cleaning, or the addition of a new DWR spray like Nikwax’s TX.Direct, can help revive your jacket’s water resistance. Be sure to scope out models with PFC-free DWR coatings whenever possible, as this is made without environmentally and biologically harmful perfluorinated chemicals.
We were admittedly shocked at the level of rain protection many of the jackets we battled around with offered, with Black Diamond’s Deploy, Outdoor Research’s Helium, and Patagonia’s Houdini standing out. On multiple occasions we were caught unaware by surprise showers while cragging in remote ranges, and trotting along on casual day hikes — and these models took much longer to wet out than we anticipated.
To test the water resistance of each jacket, we put them through the same shower test. Simulating a constant downpour, we wore each jacket over a thin fleece layer in our shower, and ran a timer to see how long it took before the fabric completely wet out (soaked through the fabric entirely).
Shockingly, our lightest jacket, the Deploy Wind Shell, held rain out the longest. We stood there for over 20 minutes and it still didn’t wet out. This comes with a decrease in breathability, but is incredibly impressive for such a thin layer. Most of the jackets wet out in less than 3 minutes, with some taking a mere 30 seconds or less before our fleece underneath was soaking wet.
No matter how beefy the DWR coating is on a windbreaker, it will never hold a candle to the waterproof nature of rain jackets or hardshells. When mother nature shows her savage side with sustained downpours, we’ll always pull windbreakers’ heavier cousins out.
To grasp this, a smidge of technical jargon may lend a hand. Waterproofness is measured in millimeters using what is called a Hydrostatic Head (HH) test, in which a jacket’s fabric is pulled taught under a one-inch diameter sealed tube of water. The tube is then painstakingly observed over a 24-hour period to determine how many millimeters of water the fabric can support before the moisture penetrates the material.
Windbreakers will generally have a rating far below 1,500mm — the British Standard minimum to be considered a waterproof layer. Most technical rain jackets clock in at a respectable 5,000 to 10,000mm, with burly hardshells at the battle-ready end of the spectrum touting blistering ratings of up to 30,000mm (30 meters). That’s a tall glass of water.
In the shadow of these seasoned giants, windbreakers may seem useless. But, considering their featherlight weight and absurd packability, the weather and rain resistance they offer are nothing to sneeze at. Despite their flimsy first impressions, they fend off serious brutality on wind-battered missions, hold out a modest amount of moisture, and often have surprisingly durable constructions.
Materials and Durability
No need to sugarcoat it — these shred pretty easily. Take ‘em on a few serious bushwhacks and you’ll quickly have more ventilation than you paid for. But, for a weather-resistant technical shell that folds into your back pocket, we’d say they punch well above their weight. Baby them a bit more than your everyday rain jacket, and they will follow you on years of ultralight excursions.
As a general rule, if off-trail travel or desperate scrambles over razor-sharp granite are on the docket, we throw on a thicker shell. However, we’ve had fantastic luck with some top windbreakers, like Patagonia’s Houdini and Mountain Hardwear’s Kor Airshell, on season-long thru-hikes and international climbing tours where day after day torture couldn’t break them down.
We still use these jackets today, and they offered key protection from angry elements. We did make sure to steer clear of jagged brambles or full-on chimney squeezes while wearing them, but light bush bashing was inevitable on several of our excursions.
So how do you make a sub-5-ounce jacket last for months upon months of sustained use? Most of the jackets we tested are constructed with a combo of nylon, polyester, or elastane — but ripstop fabric, DWR coatings, and stretch-woven materials are key ingredients in the secret sauce.
Denier is one of the primary specs you’ll see when researching technical apparel, in addition to ounces per square yard (oz/yd²), or grams per square meter (gsm; generally found with fleece jackets). But higher values denote a thicker, heavier, and less packable shell, so these aren’t the only features you should consider when narrowing in on the best ultralight windbreaker for your needs.
Ripstop fabric is made by using a special weaving technique that reinforces the fabric with a square grid pattern of thicker nylon or polyester threads at regular intervals. If a small tear or puncture occurs, the grid prevents it from continuing beyond the first square and compromising the integrity of the fabric. This greatly increases the lifespan of thin, light materials.
Stretch-woven fabrics flex under pressure instead of puncturing, and DWR coatings keep debris and body oils out of the fabric, boosting its lifespan. Throw a power concoction of ripstop, stretch-woven, and DWR-coated fabrics into a windbreaker like the legendary Kor Airshell — and you get that ultralight durability we’ve grown to cherish.
For far-flung expeditions in exceptionally taxing conditions, a windbreaker should be used as an element of your layering system as opposed to a standalone barrier. It will hold up to a good deal of moderate torment, but you’ll want to lean on the trusty hardshell and rain jacket when the clouds break loose, or the terrain turns gnarly.
Minimalism is key with windbreakers, in an effort to hold true to their lightweight, packable roots. Developers trim any fat they can off their models to keep up with the mounting competition of feathery but hardworking jackets, and only the bare necessities are included.
Despite their modest silhouette, there is a lot of variety in windbreaker designs. Little tweaks here and there separate these jackets into different categories, and either amplify or diminish their useability and functionality.
You will generally see at least one zippered chest pocket on windbreakers, with some including two zippered handwarmer pockets, at the cost of extra weight and bulk. One of these pockets will often double as the jacket’s stuff sack. Many models will have a hood (often helmet-compatible), and you’ll see simple cinches on the back of the hood on more technical jackets, like the BD Alpine Start Hoody, or Velcro adjustments to snug it down like on Rab’s Vital Jacket.
Cinches at the hem are also common, which play a substantial role in sealing in warmth and thwarting the wind, and elasticated cuffs serve the same purpose. Most windbreaker jackets have a lightweight, full-length zipper, which we have found to be a potential weakness of these thin shells — so close with care.
Some, like Black Diamond’s Deploy, feature a pullover design with a tiny, ½- or ¾-length front zipper to truly cut weight. For the ultralight backpacking or running crowd, these check all the boxes of a minimalist setup.
The type of adventure you plan to bring your jacket on will help to dictate the feature set you need. Windbreakers for hiking will generally offer more pockets and adjustability, while a streamlined running jacket may prioritize lightweight ventilation over function.
Categories of Windbreaker Jackets
As we have discussed above, windbreakers vary greatly in the degree of weather protection, durability, breathability, and feature sets they offer. They all serve the core purpose of preventing thermal energy loss by keeping wind off your skin, but are designed to carry out this role to different capacities depending on your preferred activity.
These are the gram-weenie ounce counters of the windbreaker family. Every speck of weight has the potential to hold you back while pounding the pavement on casual jaunts or eating up vert on the Leadville 100, so a dialed kit is paramount for performance.
Windbreakers designed for running axe any superfluous features, pack down small for storage in pockets of running shorts or hydration packs, and maximize breathability so you won’t overheat. They sport extremely thin fabrics for ventilation, and often include mesh panels or open vents for increased airflow. They also tend to have more tapered, form-fitting designs for unencumbered comfort while hitting your tempo.
Some of our favorite windbreakers for serious trail or road running include Dynafit’s Alpine Wind Jacket, La Sportiva’s Blizzard, and the minuscule Black Diamond Deploy Wind Shell. All of these will waft away in a light breeze at under 4 ounces, with the Deploy taking the cake at a ridiculous 1.6 ounces.
For exposed ridgelines or blustery winter mornings, these are key for keeping wind off your skin while regulating moisture buildup. Wander off trail, however, and they won’t last for long. Their thin design is perfect for lightweight breathability, but they cower in the face of more brutal adventures.
Jam up granite splitters, battle through ridgeline gusts, or break trail on remote alpine snowfields — these are the shells for the job. If any windbreaker could be called a workhorse, it would be these.
With impressively low weights, jackets like Black Diamond’s Alpine Start, Arc’teryx’s Squamish Hoody, and Mountain Hardwear’s Kor AirShell shrug off significant abuse and provide breathable protection while charging hard in far-flung ranges.
Expect to find a handful of helpful extras on these bad boys, including helmet-compatible hoods (often with wire reinforcements), stretch-woven rip-stop materials, water-resistant coatings, and adjustable hems. They will also often feature sleek stuff sacks with carabiner clips for securing to a harness.
The thicker durable material used in these does nudge them towards the heavier, more bulky fringe of the spectrum, with several models inching as high as — gasp — a dreaded 7 ounces. While it may not seem like much, there’s no shortage of die-hard ultralighters who will turn their nose up at the addition of a few mere grams.
This could be broken up into a couple of subcategories: fully-featured hiking windbreakers, and ultralight hiking windbreakers. “Hiking” is such a broad term, and might include gear-intensive plods to a remote base camp for weeks of hunting, or blindingly fast thru-hikes where weight and efficiency are of chief concern. For the former, something like the specced-out Helium Wind Hoodie or no-fuss Houdini may be a prime choice, while the impossibly light Copperfield Wind Shirt would better serve the latter.
Regardless, windbreakers crafted for hiking need to be lightweight and packable, while still offering reliable protection from the mishmash of messy weather patterns you might encounter on trail. Hiking windbreakers don’t necessarily need the same level of bombproof durability as their alpine-ready cousins above, or the see-through breathability of those made for running. They instead inhabit a space somewhere between the two, shielding the hiker from mucky conditions, while offering adequate ventilation for low-output activities where you won’t be sweating like a pig.
Developers of hiking windbreakers often bite the bulky bullet and tack on a number of handwarmer pockets, chest pockets, and various cinch cords to boost their useability and versatility on trail. They also tend to be slightly oversized in order to easily layer underneath. Additionally, the fabric must be abrasion resistant to deal with the constant rubbing of your backpacking backpack’s shoulder straps.
Others, like the insane 1.8-ounce Copperfield, provide just the essentials and will float away if you don’t hold on to it. These preserve that precious 5-pound base weight in your ultralight backpack, but won’t provide the same level of protection or comfort as heavier, more featured models.
Hiking windbreakers can also be less demanding on your wallet, skirting the high-tech stretch-woven fabrics of posh mountaineering shells and subbing out some breathability and ventilation for thicker, less upscale fabrics. For that reason, in a bout with brutal off-trail terrain, these may tap out early. They will definitely last longer than windbreaker jackets for running, though, and if you stick to the well-trodden path they will serve you for years of backcountry use on that good mountain singletrack.
Layering With Windbreaker Jackets
A windbreaker jacket truly begins to shine when paired with other compatible layers of your kit. While windbreakers work hard as standalone shells in mild temps, in cold, gusty conditions a breathable fleece or synthetic jacket becomes a much more formidable shield with a windbreaker over top, at the cost of barely any weight.
Many windbreaker jackets, particularly in the hiking or mountaineering categories, are sized a bit larger to accommodate additional layers underneath, while others have a slim cut that hugs your core and arms more. If you plan on coupling your windbreaker with a few other pieces of insulation, make sure it has the space for the job.
Sleeves that closely hug your arms won’t get in the way or flap around while running or climbing, but can quickly become stiff, restricting tubes with too many additional jackets underneath. If you plan on rocking your windbreaker jacket in particularly chilly weather, consider how much room they have underneath for when the mercury plummets.
As is the case with rain jackets, the addition of a light fleece or long-sleeve synthetic shirt underneath will greatly increase the time before your windbreaker wets out in prolonged rain. No windbreaker is fully waterproof, but they can fend off a good deal of moisture if layered correctly. While this combo offers marginal protection, if the heavens really open up and you’re fleeing Thor’s hammer, whip out the hardshell or rain jacket.
Though windbreaker jackets may seem like glorified trash bags at first glance, we hope this compendium has exposed a bit of the unique value they bring to the table for any adventure you could concoct.
From budget picks to technical, specced-out masterpieces, we’ve included a broad range of models for a variety of different uses. The $80 Cotopaxi Teca will serve you well on casual strolls in the woods or breezy days around town, but you’ll probably want to shell out some more cash if truly technical objectives are on the docket. Jackets like Nørrona’s Falketind Aero60 and Patagonia’s Houdini Air may come with some sticker shock, but won’t let you down when reliable, lightweight durability and protection make the difference between successful missions and potential rescues.
Higher-end models weave cutting-edge fabric technology and adventure-specific features into their materials, helping you reduce your pack weight and access more remote areas of the globe. Care for them well, and windbreakers will become some of your favorite companions.
With such negligible weights and inconspicuous packed sizes, there’s no excuse to leave these at home. You’ll forget they’re in your pack but will love them to death when the wind begins to howl.
The best windbreaker jacket for your use obviously boils down to the activity you plan on using it for — of which there are many. Setting off on a mountaineering expedition through Kazakhstan? Few windbreakers will hold up to the demands of such a trip like Black Diamond’s Alpine Start Hoody. Enlightened Equipment’s Copperfield Wind Shirt is a great companion for dialing in a 5-pound base weight for a thru-hike on the Pacific Crest Trail, while La Sportiva’s Blizzard may be the jacket of choice for a desperately fast trail marathon.
For all-around versatility and protection in a wide range of conditions, we narrowed in on the legendary Patagonia Houdini as the best overall windbreaker. It doesn’t feature a necessarily specialized design, but is packable, durable, and technical enough to bring on just about any adventure you could conceive of. We’ve been using different iterations of the Houdini for many years, and it seems to just keep getting better.
If windbreakers are pistols, rain jackets are bazookas and hardshells are tanks. Each serves different roles in our battle against the elements, and are deployed in different ways depending on the type of adventure you are on. The maneuverability, breathability, and packability of windbreakers knock rain jackets and hardshells out of the park, but they can’t touch the weather protection offered by their burlier peers.
Rain jackets and hardshells are generally constructed with waterproof durability in mind, and prioritize that over breathability and mobility. While fancy rain shells with fabrics like GORE-TEX, Dermizax NX, or LIFA Infinity Pro boast impressive breathability to water-resistance ratios, they will never match the ventilating abilities of windbreakers. Conversely, windbreaker fabrics will wet out blindingly fast compared to these high-tech materials.
Consider the full range of weather conditions you may face before heading off on your trip, and bring a healthy mix of layers to keep you comfortable in each scenario.
No windbreaker jacket is entirely waterproof, but thicker fabrics and DWR coatings can often allow windbreakers to fend off a good deal of rain when a storm takes you by surprise. We recommend always bringing a rain jacket or hardshell jacket with you into the backcountry, but in a pinch, these will help you stay dry at least until you can find shelter.
For our testing purposes, we put each jacket through a simulated downpour test in our shower, gauging how long it took each jacket’s fabric to wet out (soak through entirely). The wet-out time of each shell varied drastically, with some drenching us in a mere 25 seconds, and others lasting upward of 20 minutes before showing signs of weakness.
It’s important to note that a windbreaker’s weather resistance is often tied to its DWR coating, which can quickly diminish with use. If you notice your jacket wetting out faster than it used to, you can always reapply a DWR coating with something like Nikwax’s TX.Direct spray.
A windbreaker jacket’s weight and packability depend on its feature set, fabric durability, and level of breathability. Jackets like Mountain Hardwear’s Kor AirShell are decorated with two handwarmer pockets, a full front zipper, cinch cords, and soft stretchy fabrics — which all contribute to its relatively high 4.8-ounce weight and bulky nature. Black Diamond’s Deploy Wind Shirt lands squarely on the other end of the spectrum, clocking in at 1.6 ounces, but rocking a simplified, streamlined design.
In general, windbreakers are the most lightweight, packable shells you can buy for outdoor use. They provide a surprising amount of wind and weather protection for how much they weigh, which can be the difference between comfortably trekking through gusty weather, or miserably trying to stay warm.
Objectively, a windbreaker jacket serves as a thin, lightweight barrier between your skin and the wind while tramping about outdoors. It reduces convective heat loss by blocking the wind’s ability to snatch heat from your skin while blowing across it. But for us, the primary value of a windbreaker lies in its versatility on any assortment of adventures.
While we wouldn’t necessarily battle into the backcountry without packing a thicker rain jacket or hardshell, a windbreaker can be everything you need for some day hikes, mountain biking excursions, and climbing trips without adding superfluous weight.
Additionally, the breathability of most windbreakers can allow you to run or hike faster than if you were protecting yourself with a rain jacket. For long trips, bringing it as an element of your layering kit in addition to a heavier shell allows you to break it out for those “in-between” conditions on extended journeys.
Whether you’re getting good sticks in hero ice or traversing the snowfields of some foreign range, a good hardshell jacket will have your back. After months of testing in the harshest of conditions, these are the best hardshell jackets to brave the alpine with in 2023.