Fall has arrived, and with it comes the cooler weather. Be it for an alpine ultra or a Sunday long run, you’ll need a lightweight shell to keep the chill off. We sought out the best wind-resistant shells available, and put six through our testing battery. After months of use in a wide variety of conditions and activities, testers gave feedback on which jackets were designed best for each purpose. The running shells chosen for this test are supremely breathable, lightweight and packable. Each piece uses subtle differences in order to serve the user best. This guide offers strengths and weaknesses for each jacket, plus suggested applications. We’ll elaborate on the five test criteria used to score the jackets and how they were tested. Read on to discover which shell best suits your needs.
This impressive piece from Patagonia blocked a surprising amount of wind and offered one of the most comfortable fits in its category. The Houdini’s limited DWR finish means you’ll get wet in anything heavier than a light misting.
Salomon created yet another fantastic, high-end product for mountain runners that stands heads and shoulders above the competition. At a scant 2.55 ounces, the Fast Wing W offers exceptionally light, packable weather protection, with a number of thoughtful, innovative design touches that really take this jacket to the next level. A few areas wetted out more quickly in heavier rain.
While the Surge was the heaviest jacket in our test at 263g, it is fully loaded with features and style. Zippered vents at the armpit make this jacket breathable, while hood storage in the collar gives users the option to go hoodless.
Saucony’s Exo Jacket is a light, bright, and weatherproof jacket. While the fit of the jacket is not as comfortable as others in this test, the Exo’s phenomenal water-shedding place it at the front of the testing line-up but comes at a cost.
Mountain Hardwear’s Ghost Lite Jacket uses the same shell fabric as the renowned Ghost Whisperer Down Jacket, and is one of the lightest minimalist running shells available. It’s wind and water resistant qualities outperformed many jackets in its category, making it an ideal cold weather or emergency shell for gram-counting athletes.
The highest performer in the Fit/Comfort category was the Patagonia Houdini. This product outperformed its counterparts by being soft against the skin, articulated for a range of movement and accommodating a variety of athletic body shapes. Salomon’s Fast Wing and Outdoor Research’s Tantrum also earned good marks in this category, while the Saucony Exo performed poorly. The Exo’s fit felt boxy to our testers, plus the laminated fabric was less comfortable against bare skin compared to other materials.
The product that proved to be the most water-tight was the Saucony Exo. This jacket not only performed well outdoors in rainy conditions, but also kept the majority of water out during five minutes under a high-pressure shower head. The Exo was the only shell in this test which featured a laminate construction and sealed seams, alluding to its shower test performance. Lululemon’s Surge Jacket performed second best in this test, with leaks occurring around the zippers and seams. The Outdoor Research Tantrum Jacket was the worst performer in the shower test, allowing water through its fabric almost immediately.
The top picks for packability were the Patagonia Houdini, Salomon Fast Wing, and Mountain Hardwear Ghost Lite. These products were exceptionally compressible and lightweight, and all stuffed into their own pocket for convenient storage. Testers preferred the packed size of the Fast Wing and Houdini because they had the smallest volume, perfect for stuffing into the running vest. The Exo Jacket from Saucony and the Surge Jacket from Lululemon were the heaviest products in the test, and because they featured no self-storage pocket or stuff sack, did not pack well.
The most breathable piece in this test was easily Salomon’s Fast Wing Hoodie. Testers praised the built in venting at the armpit and innovative chest-snap that allowed zipper-down running. Second best breathability was awarded to Patagonia’s Houdini Jacket, despite its lack of vents. Saucony’s Exo and Lululemon’s Surge Jacket offered the least breathable construction in the test.
The most functional jackets in this test were the Outdoor Research Tantrum and Lululemon’s Surge. The Tantrum featured an innovative waist-belt carry option, while the Surge had an adjustable waist and cuffs, zippered pit vents and multiple pockets. The Exo Jacket from Saucony and Ghost Lite Jacket from Mountain Hardwear offered the least functionality of the testing lineup.
In this test, we saw an example of how a well-balanced product, the Patagonia Houdini, can make for a GI best-in-class rating. Our testers gravitated towards this piece for its ultimate versatility. Jack of all trades, master of none: this product performed well, but not necessarily best, in every category. While specialized athletes should look for a piece suited directly for their needs, the Houdini will serve the rest of us well. The Houdini scored particularly well in the fit and comfort category, which became an important aspect when scoring the jackets. Details like pocket placement, hood shape, and cuff diameter affected the product’s user interaction, and thus the grading of each and every piece.
The shower test shows that a shell’s weather-readiness is only as good as its zippers and seams. We saw several shells in this test with highly water-resistant fabric, but we cannot expect a jacket to keep water out if the seams are not fully sealed and zippers not watertight. A good example is Mountain Hardwear’s Ghost Lite Jacket. The 15 denier Z-Grav face fabric on the Ghost is incredibly wind- and water-resistant, however, without taped seams, water entered through the seams and zippers under pressure. Even in the case of the Exo from Saucony, a seam-sealed piece does not always guarantee dry garments beneath, as some leakage did occur. Our testers observed the most common leak in the testing was at the zipper, while the second most common was through the shoulder seams.
Our mini-rating criteria scores and descriptions give you in-depth information about the performance of each product before you make the investment. Different products are best used for certain activities, and the large range of materials used can perform optimally depending on the conditions. Use our analyses to aid your choice, and invest in the product that will suit you best.
Athletes demand clothing that move with them: sleeves long enough for a wide range of movement, a waist band that doesn’t ride up, and a hood that stays put in windy conditions are all part of a complete package. In addition, the fabric against the skin should be comfortable to avoid chaffing, and pockets should be placed strategically to minimize jostling of items.
An outer layer’s ability to resist weather is not only a matter of comfort and performance, but also a matter of safety. Outdoors folks need shells they can trust when the weather turns for the worst, which is why we test our lineup in a range of conditions. In addition to field testing, our lineup is subjected to the shower test, which is exactly what it sounds like. Five minutes of exposure to a high-pressure, cold shower allows our testers to simulate downpour conditions and make notes of when and where any intrusions occur.
An item’s packability not only refers to the item’s packed size, but also the ease of storage, compressibility and net weight. A simple scale allows us to verify the actual weight of the product compared to the manufacturer’s listing. By testing these products in a range of activities, testers develop a sense for how small they pack down to stow in a running vest pocket or small pack. Our testers preferred products that have a stuff sack built in, usually by reversing a pocket with a dual-sided zipper. While separate stuff sacks are one more thing to keep track of, one of the most common fail points on self-stowing jackets is the dual-sided zipper.
Given that running is a sweaty endeavor for most people, breathability in a running shell is paramount. Instead of using cup methods to measure air permeability, which can poorly simulate real-life use, our testers use products in a wide variety of environmental conditions and energy outputs to represent the gear use of outdoor athletes. Our testers charge uphill on rainy trails, cruise the streets on early morning outings, and sweat buckets on warm days to make observations about what range of outputs and weather are suited to each piece.
The functionality of a running shell might include features like pockets, elasticized waist bands, zippered vents and how they all work together. The ingenuity of outdoor gear manufacturers shines in this category. We look for innovative approaches to the running jackets that really work and point out the ones that still need modifications.