(Left) A woman smiles widely while wearing a light purple Columbia Sportswear rain jacket. (Right) A man wearing a white Columbia Sportswear windbreaker sits at a picnic table in a campground playing cards.

Rain Jackets vs. Windbreakers:
What’s the Difference?

Our expert breaks down the differences between these two important types of outdoor jackets
When it comes to choosing the right type of outdoor jacket, the decision between rain jacket or windbreaker is one that can prove challenging. Some outdoor enthusiasts may not even realize there’s a difference between the two lightweight jackets. Others may think the name tells you everything—rain jacket for the rain, windbreaker for the wind. This isn’t wrong, but it’s a little more nuanced than that.

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.
A man wearing a burgundy-colored Columbia Sportswear rain jacket stands in the rain in front of a cascading waterfall. 

Rain jackets: what are they for?

As any fan of the outdoors can tell you, rain is part of spending time outside. And a good rain jacket is just the thing to help you embrace it, whether you’re trail running in a steady drizzle, hiking through spring showers, or surviving a rain-soaked camping trip.

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.”
A man wearing a white Columbia Sportswear windbreaker walks along a rocky trail atop a beautiful mountain landscape. 

Windbreakers: what are they for?

It’s important to remember that windproof and waterproof are different things, which is why windbreakers are the jacket of choice for dry, breezy days. Even in mild weather, windchill can lead to a drop in body temperature, so it’s important to have a jacket with wind-stopping power.

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

There are three key differences between rain jackets and windbreakers:
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
In terms of similarities, the main thing rain jackets and windbreakers have in common is that they’re both highly breathable. This is an important feature because without it, sweat and moisture build up inside the jacket, leaving you wet and miserable in any conditions.

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.”
A woman stands in the rain in a forest smiling at a fellow hiker who is wearing a bright red rain coat. 

Is one jacket better for different activities like hiking, trail running, or fishing?

What you’re doing plays a role in your jacket choice, too, but the conditions occurring while you're doing that activity is the bigger consideration. Here are Baltazar’s recommendations for several popular activities to help you make a choice:
  • 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?

Both jackets have the ability to keep you warm, but they do it in different ways and to different degrees.“Rain jackets can be insulated to keep you warm and dry in the winter, and even non-insulated rain jackets will keep you warm by keeping moisture and cold wind out. Windbreakers are solely designed to keep wind out, which keeps you warmer on days that may have a windchill factor.”

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.

Are windbreakers worn year-round?

Rain jackets can be worn year-round, but windbreakers are typically better for shoulder seasons, particularly in the spring, summer, and fall when you have “‘in-between conditions,” Baltazar explains. They’re not usually the best choice for winter unless you live in a warm, mild climate. There is a range of styles, so choosing the best windbreaker will depend on what activity you have planned. “A lightweight UPF windbreaker can be perfect for summer days spent hiking or fishing, where a slightly thicker, lined windbreaker can be worn on chillier fall or spring days when keeping colder winds out during your outdoor activity is ideal.”
A girl wearing a pink windbreaker stands by a fire pit at a campground in a scenic forest setting. 

Rain jacket or windbreaker? Sometimes the answer is both.

If you’re heading out for a longer adventure where you might face a variety of conditions, whether it’s a multiday hike or a weeklong RV camping trip, why not bring both jackets? Neither take up a lot of space (windbreakers often pack into their own pocket) and you’ll be ready for any sudden turns in the weather.
Ready for some jacket shopping? Check out our favorite rain jackets and windbreakers.