Best for Aerobic Performance
Patagonia Houdini Air
Weight: 4.0 oz (size Medium) | Pockets: 1 zip (chest)
In the few ways we have to criticize the award-winning Houdini, the Patagonia Houdini Air makes up for when it comes to fast-and-light performance. Truly incredible in breathability, this super lightweight shell works as a running jacket and doubles equally well as a mid-layer for ski touring. This windbreaker is built with textured nylon — 51% of which is post-consumer recycled material — that is soft to the touch and airy to wear. We also find that the fit is more athletically cut than the original, more flattering to wear out on the town, and more comfortable to layer underneath a harness.
With all of the benefits of the Houdini Air, there must be a few sacrifices. Otherwise, this windbreaker would have easily taken the top spot in our review. As a trade-off for leaping improvements in breathability, a stiff wind easily cuts through the thin, single-layer nylon. Even though there are thoughtful additions to improve water resistance, like fully taped seams on the chest pocket, the DWR finish is not enough to stop anything more than a quick passing storm. It’s an ideal choice for uphill athletes but not for those looking at a questionable forecast.
Read more: Patagonia Houdini Air review
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Why You Should Trust Us
To effectively test these products, we identified key metrics that help define a great windbreaker jacket. Through research and personal experience, we developed a series of comprehensive and mutually exclusive tests. To test key criteria like wind resistance, we sought windy mountaintops and coastlines to evaluate these jackets in the field. But for other metrics, like water resistance, we conducted laboratory-style tests that we could easily recreate.
Our overall score breaks down into five rating metrics:
- Wind Resistance (30% of total score weighting)
- Breathability and Venting (30% weighting)
- Weight and Packability (20% weighting)
- Fit and Functionality (10% weighting)
- Water Resistance (10% weighting)
Our windbreaker jacket expert is Aaron Rice. Growing up on the Atlantic coastline, learning to ski in Vermont and Maine, and living up and down the Rocky Mountains for over a decade, he knows about all types of wind and weather. Just ask him, and he will happily tell you that “weather is his jam” — he even holds a bachelor’s degree in atmospheric and climate science. Now living in Santa Fe, NM, Aaron wears many professional hats, dividing his work seasonally between farming and writing in the summers and ski patrol and avalanche education in the winters. He spends much of his time outside and draws on his experience as a retail buyer to dissect and discuss the nuances of technical gear. Aaron often finds himself in some questionably windy situations, whether in the high mountains or out in the desert. If you don’t know what we’re talking about, visit New Mexico in the spring, and you’ll understand.
Analysis and Test Results
The high desert of the American Southwest provides a perfect testing ground for our field research — in one day, we can easily travel from chilly alpine ridges down to sun-soaked desert landscapes. We tested these jackets through various activities, including mountain biking, trail running, uphill and downhill skiing, backpacking, camping, and climbing, as well as simple, everyday activities like walks in the park or trips to the store. All along the way, we continually made notes on special features and nuanced differences in fit, evaluating and re-assessing each jacket’s relative strengths and weaknesses.
We acknowledge that some criteria are more important than others when considering windbreaker jackets. For example, we give greater weight to critical metrics like wind resistance and packability. It is also important to recognize that all the jackets we chose to include in this review are among some of the best products available today. Since our scoring is based on direct, side-by-side comparisons, a low score doesn’t mean that a jacket isn’t worth your while. It simply means that it didn’t perform as well relative to the competition. We also recognize that your specific needs may differ from how heavily we scored each metric. We offer various windbreakers in this review to accommodate all situations — but be sure to carefully consider your own preferences before settling on a particular jacket.
It is essential to consider the value of any potential purchase. While it is often true that items that cost more often correspond with higher performance, this is not always the case. We have found time and again that some more affordable items perform nearly as well as the most expensive options and therefore present a much better value overall.
The Patagonia Houdini represents an exceptional value in this category. Not only is it our top overall scorer, but it is cheaper than many other options and remarkably durable. This windbreaker jacket should continue to perform well for years across a variety of activities. We recognize that price affects every gear budget and that sometimes even a few dollars can make or break the bank. As an outstanding value for an incredibly versatile jacket, the Rab Vital Hoody is a technical shell with a much more reasonable price tag.
Wind resistance is understandably one of the most important features these jackets can offer — we weighted this metric as 30 percent of a product’s final score. Made of lightweight nylon or polyester, most jackets utilize an incredibly tight fabric weave to muster wind resistance. The tighter the fabric is woven, the less space between individual fibers, and the less air-permeable the fabric becomes. The Ortovox Merino Windbreaker is special in this case, utilizing a proprietary weave that incorporates Merino wool and nylon into a single layer, resulting in an exceptionally wind-resistant jacket.
Aside from sporting these windbreaker jackets practically every day for months and assessing how we felt, we conducted a wind resistance test. This process involved forcing air through the fabric at close range via a hairdryer and our mouths. The combination of these methods gives us an idea of how easy it is for air to pass through the fabric of each model. To test this in the field, we braved the elements and wore each jacket on a 12,000-foot summit in the Sangre De Cristo Mountains with gusts up to 35 mph and wind chill temperatures as low as zero degrees Fahrenheit. We compared our previous findings with how each jacket felt in the strong, cold winds we experienced. Through this side-by-side testing, we are confident in our ability to determine the most and least wind-resistant options.
In addition to the nylon fabric weave used in construction, a couple of other factors are vital in a jacket’s performance to fight the wind properly. Fit is critical, and windbreakers work better when they fit close to the body. Features that help seal out the wind, like elastic sleeve cuffs and drawcords on the hem and hood, make a huge difference if you are battling a strong, sustained wind. These are easy entry points where the wind can circumvent your carefully woven nylon barrier.
The Outdoor Research Helium Wind Hoodie is a shell featuring Pertex Diamond Fuse technology. The interlocking yarns significantly increase wind resistance without adding any weight. An alpine-inspired design is suitably minimalist for fast-and-light objectives. However, the jacket still employs many key features — half-elastic cuffs, a drawcord on the hem, a storm flap behind the front zipper, and an elastic hood that can be locked down — to enhance its wind resistance.
Since these jackets are often used as an alternative, lightweight outer layer for high-intensity activities, we chose to weigh breathability and venting as 30 percent of a product’s final score. After all, a jacket with no breathability would trap all of your heat and sweat inside its shell — leading to a horrible cycle of overheating, soaking, and then overcooling you. Wind resistance and breathability are often contrasting ideas regarding fabric weave and performance. Many manufacturers compensate for poor fabric breathability by including features designed to help with venting. Since these two concepts accomplish the same thing — removal of heat and moisture — we included them together in this metric.
Besides the notes we acquired from field testing, we wanted to judge each jacket side-by-side in a situation that would not incorporate the sun’s heat — a major factor here in the Southwest. To analyze which jackets built up the most moisture or helped us feel the coolest, we cranked up the heat in our gear room to 75 degrees Fahrenheit and put each jacket through a 15-minute workout.
All of these jackets give bias towards protecting you from the wind, so none of them breathe that well. However, some jackets performed better than the rest, but often for different reasons. Some include vents. The fabric of the Patagonia Houdini Air offers max breathability for athletes engaging in high-octane activities in their wind jackets.
Weight and Packability
The lightest windbreakers weigh less than a quarter-pound. That’s substantially less than your average, lightweight rain jacket. Every windbreaker in our review tips the scales at less than eight ounces. These jackets are not only exceptionally light, but they often pack down to a size smaller than your average Nalgene bottle — so you have little excuse not to throw one of these into your pack for extra weather protection. We weighted this metric as 20 percent of a product’s final score.
With all of them weighing seemingly next to nothing, does it make sense to penalize the ones that are just slightly heavier — but in the grand scheme of things — still lightweight? To balance out this question fairly, we rated each product based on its weight but then adjusted the score slightly based on how small and easily the jacket packs up.
Every jacket tested manages to stuff into one of its pockets for easy portability. However, the size they pack down to is not equal, nor is the ease of stuffing them or transporting them afterward. A smaller stuffed size is valuable for attaching a windbreaker to a harness on a long climb or fitting in a hydration pack for a long mountain bike ride or trail run. Still, it doesn’t apply to every situation.
The Black Diamond Distance Wind Shell is the lightest jacket in the entire review and stuffs down to a tiny package. The Patagonia Houdini and the Houdini Air are slightly heavier than the Distance Wind Shell but packed into their chest pocket to relatively the same size. All of the jackets pack into their own pockets in one way or another, and many have zippered pockets that double as stuff sacks. Additionally, many of these stuff sacks — like the one on the Black Diamond Alpine Start Hoody — often include clip-in loops for carrying or racking up on a harness easily. The Rab Men’s Vital Hoody lacks a dedicated stowable pocket; it instead includes a separate stuff sack.
Fit and Functionality
It is important for any outdoor garment to fit well for its intended purpose and whether all of the features work as they were intended. When it came to fit, we checked to see if the sleeves were long enough, if the hood fits over our head well (even with wearing a helmet), and whether the jacket was too baggy or tight compared to the same sizing in other jackets. We weighed this metric as 10 percent of a product’s final score.
We considered whether a jacket was designed to be used as a single layer — in which case, we expected it to fit sleeker and closer to the body for optimal performance. If it was meant to be worn more as an outer layer, we wanted to see if you could layer underneath. Unlike any other jacket in our review, we loved the softshell-like fit and feel of the Arc’teryx Squamish Hoody and the Black Diamond Alpine Start Hoody, though this comfort does come at the cost of additional weight.
Often, point deductions came from features that annoyed us: hard-to-manipulate zippers, hood stowing systems that don’t hold, drawcords that are hard to pull or release with one hand, or elastic cuffs and hood liners that aren’t tight enough to keep the weather out.
While all of these windbreakers purport to be water resistant, none of them are meant to be waterproof. It is a tall order to ask for a jacket that is already wind-resistant, super breathable, super light, packable, cheap, also to be waterproof. We have yet to find such a unicorn of a jacket. We only weighted this metric as 10 percent of a product’s final score.
A little water protection is necessary from time to time, so most of these jackets come with a durable water-resistant (DWR) coating applied to the shell. DWR coatings are chemical applications that repel water while allowing the fabric underneath to breathe properly. But they wear off — especially if you wear a pack over the jacket — or it is subject to lots of abrasion or scuffing. Once the DWR coating is gone, these jackets will no longer be water-resistant, and you will get wet. Luckily, you can re-apply DWR coatings.
Living in a dry climate, we did not have the good fortune of frequently being drenched by real rainstorms during our testing. However, we needed to objectively test how these jackets performed in the rain compared to one another, so we employed a garden hose or showerhead to simulate a passing rain shower. We performed this test towards the end of the test period to assess how well their DWR coating had held up over time. The results spanned the range from impressively good to very bad.
For single-layer jackets, the DWR coating applied to the Patagonia Houdini is effective against passing showers — the interwoven treatment of the Black Diamond Distance is not. Regardless, we wouldn’t choose any of these jackets if we knew we were walking out the door on a rainy day. Water resistance is a nice feature in a windbreaker, but it is certainly not what these jackets are designed for.
Choosing the perfect windbreaker jacket can be challenging with the nuances of sport-specific design. The products we reviewed here certainly did a good job of protecting us from the wind. Some were better suited to water resistance, while others were much more lightweight. The trick to figuring out which jacket to buy is to figure out how you’ll use it.