Windbreakers vs. Rain Jackets

When it comes to backpacking, what you take with you is undeniably important. Each piece of gear comes with the price of weight & space taken in your backpack. It's best to only take what you really need to you're not overly burdened on the trail. 

With that in mind, many have asked, "What's the difference between a rain jacket & a windbreaker?" or, "Do I need both?"

To answer that question, let's dive briefly into the purposes of each of these performance apparel layers.

What is a Windbreaker Used For?

 A windbreaker's primary purpose is to help your body maintain a comfortable temperature by reducing wind chill. 

Wind is arguably the most underrated cause of heat loss in the outdoors, & it's incredible how warm & comfortable you'll stay if you can get rid of wind chill's effect. 

The best windbreakers not only block wind, but are also somewhat breathable so you don't overheat while being active. A good example of this is the Nebo Windbreaker Jacket.

Many windbreakers have a DWR coating on the fabric that helps with water resistance. However this coating eventually wears away or becomes overwhelmed, making windbreakers quite unsuitable for use as protection from rain.

For more information about windbreakers & when to use them, click here.

What is a Rain Jacket Used For?

Rain jackets, on the other hand, have a completely different purpose. A rain jacket is supposed to keep your body comfortable by preventing heat loss through wet clothing. 

Moisture can suck heat right out of your body, so staying dry in the backcountry is important. A good rain jacket will provide a completely waterproof layer between you and the outside environment so you stay dry & comfortable for the duration of your trip. 

Some might argue that if a rain jacket can block moisture, couldn't it block wind also?  


Well, yes. But there is a cost.


In order to be completely waterproof, rain jackets often use waterproof membranes as well as a face fabric. These membranes are NOT inherently breathable. 

While some newer rain jacket technologies allow the jacket to be both waterproof AND somewhat breathable (see the Tushar Rain Jacket), that doesn't mean they are air permeable. And when you call a rain jacket "breathable," you have to remember it is still a rain jacket & will never be as breathable as a fleece layer. 

To put it simply, rain jackets are NOT the best choice for reducing wind chill because their lack of breathability will cause other problems. 

Do I Need Both?

Yes! A windbreaker does NOT work well as a rain jacket, & a rain jacket isn't breathable enough for extended use on days when there's no rain. 

Having both a windbreaker AND a well-designed rain jacket in your gear kit will enable you to stay much more safe and comfortable on your adventures. 


Here's something that maybe you didn't know:

Windbreakers actually have the HIGHEST benefit to weight ratio out of almost any other piece of gear (the exception being a base layer that's used year round.) 

This is because a good breathable windbreaker can be used any time of year, as a part of any layering system. 

Essentially, you'll use a windbreaker for more hours per year than any other gear item besides a base layer. 

At only 4 oz, the Nebo Windbreaker Jacket also has the highest weight to warmth ratio out of any other piece of gear. When not in use, you'll never notice those 4 oz in your pack.  But once the wind picks up and you need to maintain a warm body temperature, the Nebo gives you an amazing amount of warmth by eliminating some of that wind chill!


Of course, you also need a rain jacket. 

There's no substitute for it when you get caught in a storm! Having a rain jacket that's breathable (as far as rain jackets go), durable, & completely waterproof is a necessity for staying safe.  The Tushar Rain Jacket checks all of those boxes.


Rain Jacket vs. Windbreaker

In conclusion, both rain jackets & windbreakers each serve a unique purpose. One is made for protection from the wind, and the other is made for protections from moisture.

By including an efficient and lightweight option of each in your gear kit, you'll have a lot of versatility to be able to face different environments with confidence. 

For just a few ounces, you can have peace of mind knowing you're ready to face even the most unexpected surprises during your adventures!


Thank you for the insights and breakdown!

Scott Snyder May 01, 2023

What are the benifits of a 20D material that your windbreaker is vs one that has a material of a 12D or even a 7D ?

DAVID A LOGAN May 01, 2023

I am on the far end of the bell curve. I sweat, a lot, and I mean a lot. Winter hiking is particularly a difficult time for me. Getting the correct gear is very important and I totally agree with the difference between a windbreaker and a rain jacket. The one feature missing from the Nebo, and what’s preventing me from buying it, is that lack of Pit Zips. My current rain jacket has these and they make a significant difference. I think they would on a windbreaker too. As I said I’m on the far end of the bell curve and I’m not the market you are building the Nebo for, so I can understand the lack of Pit Zips. Just disappointed.

Thanks for letting me gripe!

Marc Cohen May 01, 2023

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Living Ultralight is not just about the lowest pack weight. It's about more enjoyable experiences!

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