Rain Jackets vs. Windbreakers:
What’s the Difference?
To help us explore the differences between these two jacket types and ensure you choose the right one for the right activity, we talked with jacket expert Shelley Baltazar, senior apparel design manager for Columbia Sportswear.
Rain jackets: what are they for?
Baltazar points out that the kind of rain jacket you want to have will depend on the amount of rain that’s headed your way. “For heavy-rain days, you want something that is seam-sealed to be fully waterproof. But for light rain, a water-resistant jacket or one that is just critically seam-sealed will work great.”
So what qualities make for the best rain jackets? Look for those constructed using polyester or nylon fabric with a waterproof membrane or coating, Baltazar says. “To really stay dry, you also want it to have special waterproof technology such as OutDry Extreme,” she explains. “The advantage of this is that it offers waterproofing that’s also breathable.”
Windbreakers: what are they for?
While not designed to repel rain, some windbreakers do have the additional advantage of UPF protection, which makes them a great option when you want a lightweight trail running jacket that provides both wind and sun protection.
Baltazar sums up what to look for in a windbreaker: “Lightweight and easily packable polyester or nylon fabrics make for the best windbreakers. Technologies like Omni-Wind Block keep the cool wind out but allow breathability to keep you comfortable in any outdoor pursuit, while the addition of UPF technologies like Omni-Shade are important to keep you safe from harmful sun damage.”
Rain jackets vs. windbreakers
- Water resistance: As the name implies, rain jackets are specifically designed to take on the rain through waterproof or water-resistant fabric, while windbreakers aren’t made to withstand consistently wet conditions. “Some windbreakers have water-resistant finishes that can keep light rain out for a short amount of time, but they’re not designed to be worn in continuous wet weather,” Baltazar explains.
- Number of layers: Rain jackets are constructed with multiple layers of fabric to keep you dry, and may also include an insulating layer for warmth. Windbreakers, on the other hand, typically feature a single layer of fabric to repel the wind, though they can sometimes be lined for cooler temperatures.
- Weight: The multiple waterproofing layers in rain jackets tend to make them a bit heavier while windbreakers are extremely lightweight, often capable of being packed into their own pocket for storage.
Historically, windbreakers were slightly more breathable, but improved rain jacket technology has made this difference minimal. “Depending on the construction, some waterproof fabrics these days are just as breathable as wind fabrics,” Baltazar says. “Things like weight, weave structure, and coating all factor into this.”
Is one jacket better for different activities like hiking, trail running, or fishing?
- Trail running: A trail runner will want a lightweight breathable rain jacket on a day with forecasted heavier rain, and a windbreaker on a sunny day that may have wind they want to block out while running.
- Hiking: A hiker who’s going out in a rainstorm or backpacking in changing weather should look for a comfortable rain jacket that works with their pack or has lots of pockets to hold anything they bring with them. On days when the weather is mild and a hiker just needs some wind protection, a lightweight windbreaker can work great.
- Fishing: If fishing in wet weather, a rain jacket will keep an angler dry and comfortable so they can fish longer. A windbreaker is great for sun protection and to block out cool breezes on sunny fishing days.
Rain jacket and windbreaker FAQs:
Which jacket is better at keeping you warm?
If you’re up against more extreme cold temperatures, it might be wise to add a midlayer, even possibly a puffer jacket, under a rain shell to keep you that much warmer.