So much of successful outdoor recreation relies on you having the right equipment. Many people will deliberate forever on the right climbing gear, the right tent, the right backpacking equipment, and so on. These sorts of people are smart because they want to be certain they are spending their money on the right products for them. So, why is this same level of care so often not given to your clothing?
Shoes are normally a huge consideration and for good reason. It is hard to do much of anything outdoors without having to walk somewhere. But a category that most people settle for far too often is their outerwear. You may be insistent that your old hoodie is good enough to get you through, but the right coat can really make the difference.
Two of the most common outdoor wear coats are rainjackets and windbreakers. Their popularity comes from their versatility to tackle many of the weather conditions nature throughs at you. Everyone from backcountry campers to hardcore hikers and dedicated hunters can get tons of use from one of these kinds of coats. Plus, they are usually pretty comfy for casual wear.
On the surface, the decision of which one to get seems pretty obvious. If you’re going to be facing the rain, get a rain jacket, and if you’re expecting wind, get the windbreaker. But most modern coats from good brands like Marmot or The North Face can pull double duty — there are plenty of water-resistant windbreakers and plenty of wind-resistant raincoats.
So, to help you figure out which is the type of outerwear best suited for you here’s a discussion of some of the key qualities to look for, and how the types of coats stack up.
Jackets are meant to help keep the wearer warm and shield them from precipitation. You want one thick and dense enough to accomplish this, but you don’t want to end up getting stuffy and sweaty when you start doing physical activities. Coat designing has started taking this into account more and more as the importance of a breathable jacket becomes more clear. So, most jackets you pick up these days will still be breathable, even if they aren’t designed specifically with breathability in mind.
There is a specific measure for breathability. It is rated as the total grams of water vapor that can pass through a sheet of fabric in 24 hours. When you are looking for your next coat, you can probably find this rating on websites for bigger brands like Patagonia. The higher the number, the more breathable it is.
All other things being equal, your average windbreaker jacket will be more breathable than your average rain jacket. This has to do with their primary design goal. Getting fabric woven tight enough to keep water out usually means it is also hard for water to escape.
Many jacket manufacturers have found ways to help combat this issue. Gore-tex, for example, has a unique microporous waterproof membrane in their jackets that manages to let water vapor out while not letting water droplets in. A more common way to deal with these is zipper vents.
If you’ve ever looked at a quality jacket and wondered why there were so many zippers that weren’t pockets, here’s your answer. These are typically located around the neck, back, arms and armpits — you’ll sometimes see people referring to those at pit-zips. These offer a quick way to adjust the layering on certain parts of your body that accumulate the most sweat during physical activity. By opening up these zipper vents, the jacket allows moisture to get in and out much easier, meaning you sweat can evaporate faster and you can keep cool.
As you can probably imagine, rain jackets have the advantage over windbreakers in this category. This has to do with the differences between a hardshell jacket and a softshell jacket. A hardshell jacket means the outermost layer of the jacket is made of much thicker and sturdier fabric, almost resembling a sheet of pliable plastic. Softshell is basically everything else. You can find hardshell and softshell varieties of both, but typically rain jackets are hardshell and windbreakers are softshell.
That doesn’t mean you’ll just be waterlogged in a windbreaker. Most modern outdoor jackets are at least water-resistant. This means your windbreaker can roll off a light rain for a while before you start to get soggy. But if you’re expecting a downpour, you’ll need the water-proof power of a hardshell rain jacket.
Even a softshell rain jacket can handle more than a softshell windbreaker, and that is because rain jackets usually come with a pre-applied layer of DWR — that stands for durable water-repellent. Think of it a bit like laminate over important documents or the top-coat on your nails. It’s an extra level of protection and water resistance that isn’t a physical layer of the jacket.
DWR can eventually wear out though, so you’ll have to reapply it to your favorite jacket to keep it just as waterproof as when you bought it. Or, you can also apply some DWR to a windbreaker to help it fight off precip even more. If this sounds like something you’d be interested in, have a look at our list of the best waterproofing sprays for jackets.
That having been said, no amount of extra help will turn a softshell jacket into a waterproof rain jacket. If you are looking for something that is by all accounts a waterproof jacket, get a hardshell coat, and keep it well maintained with DWR.
You might expect the windbreakers to be the clear winner in the wind-proof category, but it isn’t as simple as the names would first imply.
Being able to resist wind is a bit more complicated than just being a thick coat. It’s a similar issue to breathability, only instead of being water porous, it’s about being heat porous. It’s much trickier than with water because you want the warmth to be able to escape so you don’t overheat, but not be able to get pulled out too much by outside forces so you don’t freeze.
The exact science of how this works is confusing, but it can be explained in a fairly simple way. The reason wind is so good at making you cold over ambient air is a result of convection. The wind blows because colder, denser air higher in the atmosphere is pushing around warmer air, so you are being bombarded with colder air than normal, first of all. Second, if the cold air can get inside your jacket, it can easily force out the warm air that is way less heavy. Windproof layers are designed specifically to prevent the cold air from getting to the warm air inside the jacket, allowing it to stay inside and keep your body heat from constantly being sapped by the elements.
Because of the science at play, a hardshell rain jacket is about as good if not better than a windbreaker at repelling wind. However, it’s a bit like using a machete to cut your sandwich. A windbreaker is usually lighter, less expensive, and less bulky than a hardshell rain jacket that is as good at blocking the wind.
So, technically, a hardshell jacket does the windproofing job just as well on top of being more water-resistant, but it’s a considerable level of overkill. On top of that, softshell jackets are in no way as good at resisting wind as windbreakers are at resisting water.
Looking at the average jacket from Columbia or Arc’teryx as examples of top brands, one thing good windbreakers and rain jackets have in common is that they are not cheap. That’s not bad though, you get what you pay for, after all. Still, not everyone can afford to buy quality outerwear more than once every so often. That’s why you want to make sure whichever type of coat you decide on will last you a while.
As hard as you try to take care of your equipment and keep it in perfect condition, things are going to happen. Scuffs, falls, rips, and tears are the signs that you are getting good use out of your gear. But you’ll want something that isn’t going to unravel just because it snagged on a branch. If you go with a trusted brand, you’re bound to get something that’s decent, but there are some things to consider when deciding on a particular coat.
The first point of picking a durable coat goes back, once again, to the distinction between hardshell and softshell. Hardshell jackets are way sturdier on average. The rugged outer layer on their exteriors can take scratches, scrapes, and punctures way better than softshell fabric.
The one metric that softshell beats hardshell in is the ability to stretch. That outer layer is thick and tough, but it also tends to be rigid. If you were to play tug-of-war with both a hardshell and softshell jacket, the former will be the first to split or rip 9/10 times. But a good hardshell can still take a beating, and they aren’t so stiff that they will bust a seam over a good tug.
The second thing to look for when considering the sturdiness of your coat is its layers. Most outdoor jackets are layer jackets by default, but how many layers and how they are made are important considerations. Usually, the more layers a jacket has, the more durable it is, but also the heavier and bulkier it will be. Some of the most common varieties are:
- 2 Layer: This construction features fabric with a durable water repellent coat on the outermost layer. The inside layer is typically loose and porous, and a bit more comfortable on the body. 2 Layer jackets are close in overall design to a poncho. They are the least expensive on average, but, despite having the fewest layers, are also the heaviest.
- 2.5 Layer: The outermost waterproof layer on these coats is a bit thinner, but just as water-repellent. The extra “half-layer” comes from a thin laminate or polyurethane coat that prevents the outer layer from getting clogged with dirt, sweat, and oil from your body. The inner layer is usually a bit more robust too since the half layer is not pleasant against the skin. These tend to be less breathable and more expensive, but the nature of the construction allows you to get a great deal of water resistance from an ultra-lightweight jacket.
- 3 Layer: By combining the technology from the two other coat types, you get the more durable and most precip resistant type of jacket. The outermost layer is the same laminated DWR fabric, but with a breathable and waterproof membrane bonded underneath it — the second layer. The inner layer is a more thick version of the polyurethane membrane from the 2.5 layer jacket. This means it can keep the other two layers from having their pores clogged while also becoming significantly more breathable. Parkas are typically 3 Layer jackets.
Why layering matters is that the longer you use a coat, the more clogged the pores in the fabric become. This isn’t just gross, but it also severely dampens a jacket’s ability to ward off the elements since the highly engineered fabrics can’t work as well as they normally would. You can wash the jackets to restore some of their effectiveness, but they will deteriorate over time no matter how many times you wash them.
So, the better a jacket is from keeping crude out of its important layers, the more durable it is, because the longer it will last. While there is a bit of a price jump in 3 Layer jackets, there is a much bigger increase in durability. So, if you can afford it, it’s in your best interest in the long-term to invest in a 3 Layer jacket.
These are some of the less prominent things to think about when purchasing a jacket. Rain jackets and windbreakers are both likely to have these things, and there is no appreciable difference between the two, with some small exceptions.
It has been alluded to throughout this article, but the bulk of a jacket is a real concern. It can hamper your movements and weigh you down while you wear it for one, but you aren’t always going to be wearing the jacket. Backpack space is already precious, and devoting half of your bag to even an awesome coat can feel bad. Rain jackets and windbreakers are roughly equal in terms of how packable they are, it all just depends on the specific model. For recommendations on the best lightweight rain jackets, check out this review.
For the most part, windbreakers are going to be waist length or at least in that range. It’s much more common to see rain jackets that can go past your waste, but it isn’t a hard and fast rule. This doesn’t factor into the discussion because it is truly a matter of personal preference.
You would have to intentionally look for an outdoor coat that doesn’t at least have hand pockets. Some models go really nuts with this and have pockets along the arms, hidden pockets, pockets on the inside, etc. The number and placement are up to you. Two things to look out for are pocket zippers and storm flaps. Some pockets zip shut to secure whatever valuables you put inside them and provide some resistance to precipitation. For a fully downpour-proof pocket, you need a storm flap, which is a little extra piece of fabric that folds over the seam of the pocket. Rain jackets tend to have storm flaps more than windbreakers, though you can find windbreakers with storm flaps without too much effort.
Rain jackets appear to be the more heavy-duty option, but that is not strictly a good quality. They tend to be heavier, bulkier, and not quite as breathable as a windbreaker. Thus resulting in this verdict.
If you are expecting to face harsher elements on the regular, a rain jacket is well worth the extra bulk. They are hardier, have a huge edge in warding off precipitation, and a smaller one in wind, and the stuffiness won’t bother you too much if you aren’t doing intense outdoor activities.
If you are looking for a more casual coat, or plan to be doing intense activity in said coat, start looking at some windbreaker options. Their slight lack of resistance won’t be a concern as long as you don’t get caught off guard by extreme weather. In general, you’ll be happier with a lighter and slimmer piece of outerwear overall, especially if you plan on doing something like rock climbing or snowboarding.
Bonus tip: If using DWR to boost your jackets water resistance sounded interesting, be sure to watch this video tutorial on how to apply DWR spray to a jacket:
Related article: The Best Windbreaks for Camping.