Wind shells are about the least glamorous piece of outdoor clothing out there, and the most versatile.
This is the fifth in a series of articles outlining a simple outdoor clothing system for all conditions. For an overview of the system, click here. Previous articles cover baselayers, lightweight fleece and midweight insulating jackets.
Wind shells are a simple, ultralight and essential part of anyone’s outdoor clothing system. Why are they so underappreciated? Rarely are ultralight wind shells prominently displayed or actively promoted in outdoor gear stores. Yet, there isn’t a single piece of outdoor clothing that ticks as many boxes. Worn over insulating layers, wind shells keep the wind from stealing your body heat. Worn alone, they prevent sunburn and seal you off from biting insects. You can layer a shell jacket inside your insulation for extra warmth in deep cold conditions. All this versatility comes in a tiny package that weights only a few ounces.
At their most basic, wind shell layers are simple nylon or polyester garments with limited features. Minimizing extra bells and whistles makes these shells lighter and more compressible, which means they’re easy to have on hand all the time whether on trail or around town.
Ultralight backpacking guru Ray Jardine sews his own pull-on nylon pants and lightweight windbreaker from uncoated nylon or polyester material. In his book, Beyond Backpacking, Jardine explains that he uses these shells for wind, sun and bug protection and frequently wears them over shorts and his short sleeve shirt when hiking. In colder conditions he layers his ultralight shells over his base layer and fleece jacket for added warmth.
The US Army issues a lightweight wind shirt as part of its cold weather clothing system (discussed here). The shirt is intended to be worn over the standard uniform blouse in conjunction with the uniform trousers, or within the full layering system for extra warmth. For backpacking, canoeing, sea kayaking and most other outdoor activities it makes more sense to look at this layer in the way Jardine does: as a replacement for heavier shirts and pants.
Commercial wind shells are fairly easy to find, although you may need to look in the fitness section of the outdoor store rather the outdoor clothing section. For some reason, many stores consider wind shells to be useful for running or cycling, but not for backpacking.
For years my go-to shells have been Patagonia Houdini Jacket and a pair of athletic wind pants purchased at a thrift store. The Houdini is a 4-ounce, hooded jacket with a front zip, elastic cuffs, drawcord waist and small chest pocket. The pants have a drawcord waist and fitted ankles with short zips. The pair weigh next to nothing and have been extremely durable.
For a simple jacket, the Patagonia Houdini is hard to beat. It’s lightweight, breathable and windproof and packs small enough that there’s no reason to leave it at home. One thing the Houdini lacks is pockets. If you like to have a pair of pockets to slide your hands into you’ll be disappointed. On the other hand, if you insist on pockets you’ll be adding weight and bulk to the jacket. For example, the Houdini hits 4 ounces on my kitchen scale. A similar jacket from my closet with no hood and zip handwarmer pockets comes in at 6 ounces. If you’re carrying all your gear on your back it makes sense to focus in on the lightest option.
On the question of hoods, some folks like them, and some folks don’t. I like a hood for the extra warmth and bug protection that it offers. That said, the most ultralight wind shirt options out there will skip the hood in order to shave a little weight. As with pockets, the choice will come down to personal preference.
Quality windbreakers have been made for a long, long time and they don’t really wear out, so you can find some excellent options second hand if you take the time to look. My wife has a Patagonia windbreaker from the early 1990’s that she found at a thrift store several years ago. We replaced the elastic drawcords at the hem and hood and it was ready another 20 years of use.
The current fashion in wind pants tends toward wider cuffs that don’t seal out bugs and wind as well as older, fitted styles. Brands focused on running or cycling frequently offer more fitted pants. Often a functional pair of pants can be found at a thrift store. Whatever you choose, make sure to avoid any liners or coated materials. These add unnecessary weight and limit breathability.
If you’re building a system for ultralight backpacking it makes sense to go for the lightest pants that you can find, but if you spend more time in a canoe than hiking trails a pair of hiking pants can do the job. I have a pair of nylon trail pants from REI that I’ve used on canoe trips for the past five years. They turn the wind, dry quickly when wet and have a few more pockets than my wind pants. Wide cuffs make them easy to pull on over shoes even though they don’t have zips at the ankles. I added a draw cord to the hem of each leg so I can seal them off from bugs.
I’ve never been a fan of zip-off hiking pants. They don’t make any sense to me. The zippers make them heavier than needed, and it’s just as easy to wear your shells over a pair of lightweight running shorts in the summer if you need to be able to switch from pants to shorts at a moment’s notice.
A final thought on hiking pants has to do with fabrics. There is currently a move toward stretch woven fabrics in hiking pants. Stretch wovens are ideal for a winter soft shell outer layer but even the lightest of these fabrics are heavier that what you need for a pair of shell pants. If you’re going the hiking pant route for your shell pants steer clear of stretch fabrics and stick to ultralight nylon or polyester.
Shell layers should fit loosely enough to allow you to wear your baselayer and lightweight fleece top and bottom underneath. Windbreakers are typically cut a little closer than rainwear or soft shell jackets, so you shouldn’t expect to fit both your lightweight fleece and midweight jacket underneath. If it’s cold enough to require that much insulation under your shell you’ll likely be packing the heavier soft shell jacket and pants in place of your ultralight shells. These cold-weather specific shells should be sized larger to accommodate bulkier insulating layers.
It is a good idea to try on shell jackets and pants with your lightweight fleece when you’re buying them so you can be sure that everything will fit underneath. Make sure sleeves and inseam are long enough–bugs love to find gaps at wrist and ankle so you want to be sure you have full coverage.
Back in the mid 1990s WL Gore introduced an ultralight laminated fabric called Activent. It featured a micro-thin PTFE (polytetrafluorethylene) membrane laminated inside an ultralight face fabric. Unlike Gore-Tex, Activent lacked the oleophobic polyurethane membrane on its inner surface. This, together with the thinness of the membrane made it much more breathable than Gore-Tex. The membrane also offered impressive water resistance although it was not rated as a truly waterproof fabric. If memory serves it was sometime in the early 2000s, that Gore re-branded Activent as Windstopper, merging it with the existing Windstopper fleece brand in the company’s product lineup.
The benefit of Windstopper is that it makes ultralight wind shells completely windproof and very water repellent. The downside is that the membrane reduces breathability and comfort in warmer weather. Part of the utility of a nylon or polyester wind shell is that, worn next to skin, it will absorb sweat from your body in warm weather and allow that sweat to pass through to the environment. This is what makes it possible to wear a windbreaker as bug protection on a hot day. The Windstopper membrane effectively prevents liquid water from passing through the shell fabric, so if you are really warm your sweat will be trapped inside the garment.
Other companies offer their own, proprietary versions of windproof membranes for lightweight shells. My experience is that none of these breathe well enough to function as bug or sun protection. They also share the weaknesses described in the section on windproof fleece in this article. The bottom line is that membranes don’t breathe well enough to work with this system. For maximum versatility you’ll want to skip membranes of all kinds in your shell layer.
Off the shelf most wind shells feature a durable water repellent (DWR) treatment that causes moisture to bead up and roll off. My experience is that these treatments tend to wear out pretty quickly, leaving you with a standard piece of nylon or polyester that will quickly wet-out in the rain. This isn’t a big deal. Wind shells get wet, but they dry quickly once the weather changes. While it is possible to retreat your shell layers to restore their water repellent properties, this doesn’t seem necessary. In practical use the DWR seems to be relatively unimportant to the functioning of a shell.
Since you’ll be using your shell layers for sun and bug protection it makes sense to go with the lightest color that you can find. Dark colors will be hotter in the sun and there is some evidence that darker colors attract bugs more than lighter colors.
Jackets are fairly easy to find in light colors, but ultralight wind pants can be a challenge. Mine are navy blue (supposedly the WORST color for attracting mosquitoes) and aren’t too hot for me to wear on summer trips. Hiking pants are frequently sold in tan, so if you are going that route for your shell bottoms you should be able to find a light color without difficulty.
Buy This, Not This
You can’t go wrong with a Houdini Jacket in a light color as your shell top. Pair this with a pair of ultralight running wind pants or lightweight hiking pants and you’re set. Size your shells to fit over your baselayer and lightweight fleece layers. Simple.
Don’t buy shells with any sort of membrane or coating on the fabric. Don’t buy dark colors, especially in a jacket. Steer clear of heavy stretch fabrics and hiking pants with zip-off legs.
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