You’re high off the ground, perched on a tiny ledge. You’re only wearing a T-shirt—after all, it was warm when you started. But as you climb, the wind kicks up and your thin shirt offers zero protection, and before you know it, you’re chilled to the bone and 100 feet above any hope of shelter.
This is a pretty common scenario in rock climbing. After all, climbers are in constant pursuit of airy clifftops, wide-open boulder fields, and high peaks—all places where the wind thrives. When gusty weather intrudes, having an ultralight wind shell can make or break the day.
While you can bring any windbreaker to the cliff, a climbing-specific wind shell is a pretty specialized piece of equipment. Most models come with special features like enhanced breathability, harness-compatible pockets, and sleek, low-profile silhouettes that remain unobtrusive while climbing. The best wind shells block gusts entirely, keeping the wind from sucking away your body heat, and even deflect light rain.
Because there’s a ton of variability among the features and materials used in different jackets, we put together this guide to help you choose the best wind shell for your climbing needs. In it, we’ll cover:
- Common materials
- Features to look for
- How light is ultralight?
- Fit considerations for climbing wind shells
- How to choose the best climbing wind shell
Wind shells are nearly alway made of synthetic fabrics. Each material has distinct characteristics.
Nylon offers some stretch and good durability, especially when it’s densely woven. However, nylon does absorb a little water when it gets soaked and can be slow to dry.
Like nylon, polyester is a strong synthetic material that can be woven into thin, lightweight fabrics. Unlike nylon, it repels water instead of absorbing it.
Softshell is a woven fabric, usually made from nylon, polyester, or some blend of multiple materials. Softshell jackets are sort of a hybrid between a standard rain shell and an athletic top. The goal is a fabric that’s comfortable (soft), weather resistant, stretchy, and durable. Most unlined softshells are quite breathable. They provide moderate wind resistance and some water repellency, though high-end versions can do an amazing job of both. Softshell jackets also tend to be lightweight.
DWR (Durable Water Repellent) Treatment
Many wind shells come with a chemical treatment that deflects water. Keep in mind that DWR coatings are only good for light rain and won’t keep you dry in a downpour. They’re also most effective when new: After washing and a little abrasion, the coating will begin to wear off. (However, you can renew the water repellency at home with a DWR wash.) When possible, look for “PFC-free” or “short-chain” DWRs, which are less toxic to the environment.
Features to Look For
Climbing wind shells are designed with tons of climber-friendly features in mind. Here are some things to look for.
Hook-and-loop tabs or sewn-in elastic to keep cuffs snug around the wrists.
Zippered compartments for stashing a phone or snack for on-route use. Chest pockets are handiest when you’re wearing a harness.
A small, ultralight bag that contains your wind shell and lets you clip it to your harness. Better: Some shells stuff into their own pockets, which, turned inside out, have a small loop for clipping.
Swaths of fabric sewn into the underarms that let you reach overhead unimpeded.
Adds weight, but nice for keeping necks and ears warm on gusty days. Some come with water-shedding brims or back-of-the head adjustment.
Zippers or mesh panels that let sweaty pits breathe.
Added length in the back for extra coverage while sitting in a harness.
A fabric, brushed, or fleece interior. Pro: adds warmth. Con: adds bulk.