I spent five hours reading through guides from other outdoor gear sites, like OutdoorGearLab, Runner Click, and Hike Ventures. I spent another five hours reading up on materials like nylon and polyester and cotton, considering the pros and cons of each. (Spoiler alert: Cotton sucks.) I also read through hundreds of customer reviews on Amazon, REI, and company websites. Then I spent five hours interviewing experts.
We started this guide with a list of 50-plus wind jackets, including both men’s and women’s models. Then we shrunk that lineup using these criteria:
1. Windproof: There are no hard-and-fast industry rules for when the term “windproof” can be applied to fabrics, which is why you see that term used a lot on clothing labels. After learning this, we knew that we needed to be specific about whether or not an object was actually windproof, labeling aside. We read dozens of reviews for each jacket, watching for complaints about the jackets being too thin or cold on windy days. In the field, we used a handheld anemometer (a wind meter) to gauge true wind speeds.
2. Breathable: Outdoor gear should keep you warm, but it should also allow your sweat to vent. When you’re in cold temperatures, your skin is first to sense the cold. Giesbrecht explained that our skin’s receptors send information to the brain telling it to conserve heat, which decreases blood flow to your hands, feet, arms, and legs and increases the flow of blood to your vital organs. You need to wear warm clothing in cold conditions to keep your limbs warm.
Breathability is more complicated, though. When you’re working hard, you sweat—and that’s important for cooling your body down. “You sweat so you can put liquid on your skin and cool down,” Giesbrecht said. “It’s a mechanism of heat loss. But people often get fooled while exercising in colder weather. They start to sweat, then they take a break and remove layers of clothing. But now you have a wet underlayer, and the wind is blowing and suddenly you’re cold.”
Giesbrecht explained that if you can’t sweat, or if your your heat gets trapped in a jacket rather than evaporating, you can overheat or freeze. That’s why you need to make concessions in any jacket to allow for some ventilation. Generally, a good wind jacket will be windproof with a nod to breathability—you want something that’s close to 80 percent wind-resistant and 20 percent breathable (this breathability is generally achieved with pit zips, ventilation openings, mesh, and fabric weaves). A jacket that’s 100 percent windproof won’t breathe at all and isn’t worth buying.
We’ve found this breathability-weatherproofing equation to be a common stumbling block for jackets. The big question for any jacket that you plan to wear while working hard is: How well does this jacket remove heat and moisture from my body? The answer should be “fairly well”—if not, again, the jacket isn’t worth buying. Again, we evaluated this by reading dozens of user reviews for each jacket, looking for comments about trapped sweat, poor ventilation, and overheating.
3. Lightweight and packable: A good lightweight wind jacket should be easy to take with you on a hike or backpacking trip. Most of the jackets we chose weighed less than 10 ounces, so they’d be easy to throw into a bag during a hiking or kayaking trip. The best windbreakers pack up easily in their own hoods or pockets, too.
4. Well-fitted and comfortable: This is a jacket meant for layering, so it should fit close to your body with a bit of room for a wool sweater or a base layer underneath. This jacket should be relatively unnoticeable, too—you shouldn’t have to worry about chafing, uncomfortable sleeves, or sticky zippers. Again, we turned to customer reviews and product listings to evaluate fit and features before choosing our final test pool.
5. Made with strong materials: We spent a while researching the differences between nylon and polyester and concluded that each has its advantages. According to Diffen, a “compare anything website,” nylon tends to be more durable and more weather-resistant than polyester. However, some people hate the swish-swish noise that a nylon jacket makes. Polyester tends to be a bit cheaper, and it’s also lighter and dries more quickly than nylon. In the end, we didn’t adhere to one material or another for our test pool: Some of our picks were made with nylon, and some were made with polyester. (We didn’t find any significant differences between the two when it came to functionality during testing, either.)
6. Water-resistant: Although windbreakers aren’t meant to be rain jackets, a good one should at least be water-resistant. It should protect you in light rain or mist, but you’ll need something heavier if you’re headed into a downpour for an extended period of time. In most good windbreakers, water resistance is usually achieved with a DWR (durable water repellent) coating. To evaluate water resistance before testing, we looked for jackets with DWR coating and read wearer reviews with an eye toward comments about water resistance.
7. Suitable for three seasons: We didn’t include insulated jackets in this guide, but the jackets we tested should serve you well in 40°F to 60 °F weather and 5 to 20 mph winds.
8. Reasonably priced: For this guide, we chose jackets priced between $40 and $160. Most good-quality wind jackets cost around $100. Jackets less than $75 lacked certain important features—they were heavier, made of a nylon-polyester-spandex mix or lacked DWR coating. However, we included a few of these cheaper models in our test pool for comparison’s sake. During our research, we found that most jackets more than $130 weren’t worth the extra spend so we included only a few in our testing lineup.
(We initially felt like even $100 was a high price for such a thin jacket, but once we started using the jackets in the field, we were converted. A lightweight wind jacket is the first thing you’ll pull out when the weather turns and you’re likely to take it everywhere, from summer camping trips to alpine summits. Plus, a jacket like this should last for at least five years.)
8. Durable: A good windbreaker should be able to withstand rain and wind and wear and tear for several years before showing any signs of use. You should be able to throw this jacket into the washing machine easily without ruining the DWR coating. You should be able to smash it into a backpack and coat it with mud and dirt, with no lasting consequences. We used product listings to look at the quality of DWR used on each jacket and scanned customer reviews for comments about durability issues.
9. Has a solid warranty: Because this is an expensive purchase, a good wind jacket should be something you can return if needed. It should be backed by a long warranty, and we’d hope that you could return it if needed—even after you’ve used it in the field for a few weeks. Most of our top picks boasted solid return policies, and a few even had lifetime warranties.
After narrowing our model list down to 27 men’s and women’s wind jackets, we ordered those models for testing.