Having the right equipment is the key to enjoying yourself outdoors – there’s no doubt about that. A lot of backcountry exploration enthusiasts will deliberate forever on the right trekking equipment, the right tent, the right climbing gear, and so on. And they are right to do so – they want to be absolutely sure they’re spending money on stuff that is actually practical and useful. This raises a question – how come clothes often don’t receive the same amount of attention?
And when it comes to outdoor wear for trekkers, two of the most common types of it are windbreakers and rain jackets. What turns these garments into an essential part of trekking gear is their capability to tackle all sorts of weather conditions Mother Nature often throws at backpackers. If you’re wondering which of these two types of outerwear would suit your needs the best, you’re in the right place – we’ll be taking a closer look at their key qualities and see how they compare against one another.
If we take a look at an average rain jacket or windbreaker made by brands such as Arc’Teryx or Columbia, we’ll see that these garments are all but cheap. However, the price of these clothes is totally justified by their quality – to put it simply, you get what you pay for.
Unfortunately, not every backpacker can afford to purchase a windbreaker or a great lightweight rain jacket made by a well-known brand. And that’s precisely why it’s so important to make sure that, no matter which type you ultimately choose, it serves you for the years to come.
Even the backpackers who keep their gear in perfect condition and always take proper care of it know that things can and will happen on the trail, whether they like it or not. Tears, rips, falls, and scuffs are bad, but they also mean that you’re getting good use out of your equipment. Still, you will want to buy something that won’t tear apart just because it came into contact with a sharp rock. Even though going with a reliable brand means getting a reliable jacket, there are still some factors you need to take into account when deciding on a particular windbreaker or a rain jacket.
The distinction between softshell vs fleece vs hardshell plays a major role in the process of picking something durable. Obviously, hardshell jackets will be a lot more rugged than their softshell counterparts. Their durable exteriors can handle punctures, scrapes, and scratches a lot more easily than the softshell fabric can.
However, there’s one department where softshell beats hardshell – stretchiness. The tough outer layer of hardshells, which we have mentioned above, can be quite rigid. If you’d take a softshell and a hardshell jacket and play tug-of-war with them, the hardshell one would be the first to rip.
When considering the ruggedness of your future outdoor wear, another important factor to take into account is its layers. These pieces of apparel are layers by default, but they themselves are made out of smaller layers, too. Typically, the more of these layers a certain coat has, the sturdier it is. Here’s a quick overview of the most common varieties:
This kind of construction consists of a fabric that is combined with a water-resistant finish. In most cases, the inside layer will be porous and loose (and therefore quite comfortable on the body).
2-layer garments usually sport a design that is similar to that of a poncho. However, even though they have only 2 layers of fabric, they are the bulkiest and heaviest of the bunch. They are also quite affordable.
Even though the exterior layer found on these garments isn’t as thick, it is just as water-resistant as the one found on 2-layer models. The additional “half-layer” comes from a polyurethane or laminate coating whose job is to prevent the exterior layer from getting clogged with body oils, sweat, and dirt.
The inner layer, on the other hand, is a bit more rugged due to the fact that the “half-layer” mentioned above isn’t really pleasant against the skin. These kinds of inner layers tend to be more expensive and less breathable, but the way in which they’re manufactured makes them very lightweight and water-resistant.
The most precipitation-resistant and durable type is the one that combines the two technologies listed above. The exterior layer is the same water-repellent fabric but with an additional, breathable membrane affixed underneath it – this membrane is the second of three layers.
The interior layer is the same polyurethane one from the 2.5-layer coat but a bit thicker. This allows it to be sufficiently breathable while still protecting the other two layers from getting clogged.
Why is layering so important? Keep in mind that the longer you use a garment, whether it’s a windbreaker or a rain jacket, the more clogged its pores are bound to become. Obviously, this has a negative effect on the coat’s ability to protect its wearer from the elements. While washing the coat can restore its effectiveness to a degree, it will become less and less efficient as the years go by.
So, the better a certain coat is at keeping its layers from getting clogged, the more long-lasting it is. And while the 3-layer models certainly cost more than their 2-layer and 2.5-layer cousins, they are also a lot more durable. If you have the money, go for a 3-layer windbreaker or rain jacket – it’s an investment you certainly won’t regret making.
As their name suggests, rain jackets are much better at protecting their wearers from getting soaked than the windbreakers are. Once again, this has to do with the distinction between softshell and hardshell.
A hardshell coat is the one whose outer layer looks like a sheet of pliable plastic – the fabric is sturdy and thick. Softshell is everything else. Today’s market offers softshell and hardshell varieties of both rain jackets and windbreakers, but the former ones are typically hardshell and the later ones are typically softshell.
However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll end up soaked every time you find yourself in a downpour while wearing a windbreaker. A large majority of modern coats are water-resistant in one way or another. In other words, your windbreaker can and will protect you from the light rain (for a while, at least). However, if you often find yourself trekking in rainy areas, a hardshell rain jacket is a much better choice.
Even a softshell rain jacket is capable of handling more than a regular windbreaker. This is due to the fact that rain jackets typically sport DWR coatings (Durable Water Repellent). This isn’t a physical layer of the garment but more like an extra level of water protection.
However, an important thing to mention here is that DWR degrades over time. In other words, those who want their jacket to stay as waterproof as possible have to reapply this coating. You can even apply a durable water repellent coating to your windbreaker if you want it to be more water-resistant.
With that said, nothing can really turn a softshell model into a fully waterproof rain jacket. If waterproofing is really important to you, your best bet is to go with a hardshell rain jacket with a DWR finish.
Due to its name, a windbreaker may look like the clear winner in this category. However, things aren’t really that simple.
The thickness of a coat is not the only thing needed for successful wind resistance. It’s a similar problem to that of breathability (more on that later), but this time it’s about being heat-porous instead of water-porous. What makes windproofing trickier than waterproofing is that you want to prevent overheating by letting the warmth escape, but at the same time you don’t want to let too much warmth be pulled out by outside forces (since this leads to, well, freezing).
Sounds a bit confusing? Let us try to explain this in a simple way. In case the cold wind gets inside your coat, it is bound to force the warm air out due to the fact that the warm air is lighter than the cold one. Windproof layers are manufactured in a way that makes them capable of preventing the cold air from replacing the warm one inside the jacket. In other words, it allows warmth that your body emits to stay inside the jacket, no matter the outside conditions.
This is precisely why hardshell rain jackets can be just as good as windbreakers when it comes to repelling winds, and sometimes they’re even better at it. However, it’s a bit like using a gun to kill a fly. Most of the time, a windbreaker will be lighter, less bulky, and less expensive than a wind-resistant hardshell rain jacket.
In summary, hardshell jackets do a great job when it comes to keeping the wind at bay (let’s not forget that they’re also waterproof) but they’re usually overkill for this task.
Jackets are made to shield their wearers from precipitation and to keep them warm. You’ll want to get a jacket that’s dense and thick enough to achieve this. However, keep in mind that such a jacket could also cause you to become sweaty and stuffy during physically demanding outdoor activities.
In recent years, coat manufacturers have finally started to take this issue into account, with the result being jackets that are far more breathable than ever before. So, most of the jackets available on today’s market are quite breathable, even the ones that weren’t designed specifically to be breathable.
And when it comes to breathability, there is a specific measure for it – the amount of water vapor grams that are able to pass through a fabric sheet during one day (24 hours). When you’re shopping for your next windbreaker or rain jacket, you’ll be able to check out this rating on websites of reputable apparel manufacturers such as Arc’Teryx. The higher this rating is, the more breathable a particular coat is.
In most cases, a windbreaker will be a more breathable piece of clothing than a rain jacket. This is the direct result of the design goals behind these two types of garments. When a particular piece of fabric is made in such a way that it prevents the water from getting through it from one side, it will usually also prevent water from getting through it from the other side, too.
To combat this problem, many outdoor apparel brands have come up with various solutions. Some of them use Gore-Tex, for example – this patented microporous waterproof membrane prevents the water droplets from getting through it, while at the same time allowing water vapor to get out. A simpler way to combat this issue is to just use zipper vents.
Have you ever looked at a jacket made by a reputable brand and wondered how come it has so many zippers that aren’t pockets? These can typically be found in areas such as armpits, the arms, the back, and around the neck. The ones located at armpits are often referred to as pit-zips.
These types of zippers provide a quick and easy way to cool down areas of your body that are sweating the most during your outdoor activities. When you open these zipper vents, the coat will let the moisture escape (as well as get in) much more easily. In other words, opening them allows the sweat to evaporate faster and cools down the jacket’s wearer.
Rain Jacket vs Windbreaker – The Verdict
One thing is obvious – rain jackets are the more heavy-duty option. However, they are also bulkier, heavier, and they tend to be less breathable than the windbreakers.
Those who often face harsh downpours while trekking should opt for a good rain jacket – the protection these garments offer is undoubtedly worth the extra weight. These clothes have a huge edge in warding off rain, they are more durable, and their stuffiness probably won’t be an issue for you if you’re not that much into intense outdoor activities.
A good windbreaker is a better option if you need a more casual coat that you’re going to use for intense outdoor activities. As long as you don’t use your windbreaker in extremely harsh weather, its slight lack of resistance is not going to be a problem. This slimmer and lighter piece of outerwear is a particularly good choice if you’re an avid snowboarder or rock climber.
I love hiking, backpacking, and camping. From the Camino de Santiago to the West Highland Way in Scotland or simply a great day hike on the weekend. Hiking refreshes me, my mind, and keeps my body reasonably fit. So far I have walked three Camino routes and many other long distance hikes in the UK, Canada, and around the rest of Europe. One of the best was my hike up Ben Nevis.