By Michael Lanza
You’re out on an all-day hike in the mountains, or a long climb or trail run, or backpacking. The weather forecast looked pretty good before you set out—but no one shared that memo with the wind that just started hammering your summit ridge, or the spitting rain and hail now pelting you as you contemplate the sudden drop in temperature and the miles between you and shelter. The question now is: What’s in your pack?
If you’re smart, it’s an ultralight jacket that takes up little space, but is about to gift you with just the right amount of weather protection when you need it. This article offers my expert tips on how to choose the best ultralight shell for your needs, followed by my freshly updated picks for the best models on the market today, based on real-world, backcountry field testing and my 25 years of experience reviewing outdoor gear and apparel as the lead gear reviewer for Backpacker magazine for many years and now with this blog.
Ultralight Jackets Explained
What is an ultralight shell jacket? There’s no consensus definition, and considerable variation among today’s models. But basically, the term “ultralight jacket” explains their primary advantage: They weigh under about 10 ounces—and some a fraction of that—and are very packable, often stuffing down to the size of a fist. In other words, they are usually less than half the weight and bulk of a standard waterproof-breathable jacket. While a few may be partly or even fully waterproof, many are water-resistant and windproof, providing a minimum level of protection from the elements.
While these jackets, also known as ultralight wind shells, are marketed primarily to trail runners, they are often a better choice than a heavier, bulkier rain jacket for dayhikers, climbers, and lightweight/ultralight backpackers who don’t expect to encounter heavy rain. I’ve used many of the models reviewed here for lightweight dayhikes and some of the more durable models for backpacking and climbing when the forecast threatened no more than passing showers or thunderstorms.
Although they certainly look very minimalist, they deliver all the protection you need from wind and light rain—the conditions many of us often encounter, far more often than full-on storms. Some of them are partly or fully waterproof-breathable, and kept me dry in steady rain; but they lack the full hood coverage, features, and degree of waterproofing that a heavier rain jacket provides, and I don’t recommend ultralight jackets for hours or days of sustained rain.
The truth is, because standard, heavier, waterproof-breathable shells are, by definition, not as breathable as shells that are simply water-resistant, they are not the best choice for activities where you sweat a lot, like running or rigorous uphill hiking with a pack on, because they often cause you to get soaked from perspiration. Waterproof-breathable shells have their place, for sure. (See my top picks for the best rain jackets for hiking, backpacking, and climbing.) But they are heavier, bulkier, and more expensive than an ultralight jacket, in addition to being generally less useful in the situations we commonly encounter in the backcountry.
The notion seems counterintuitive, but it’s possible to have too much of a jacket. If you rarely pull on a rain jacket because it’s too much for most circumstances, then you need an ultralight jacket.
Whether you’re a dayhiker, backpacker, ultra-hiker, runner, or climber, when you choose the right ultralight shell for your activity and climate, it will probably become the jacket you grab and actually wear most often—and possibly the most versatile piece of outerwear you own, useful in a layering system tailored to any season and multiple outdoor sports.
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How to Choose an Ultralight Jacket
While many ultralight shells are similar in appearance and weight, they can vary significantly in functionality.
Simply put, the best ultralight jackets for trail running may be different from the best models for cool-weather hiking, climbing, or ultralight backpacking, and your choice will also depend on the typical weather you encounter.
Here’s what to look for:
• Breathability vs. weather resistance. Ultralight jackets generally trade off fully waterproof protection for better breathability. However, models in this category can vary greatly in how each balances breathability and wind protection, and some have partially or completely waterproof fabrics while remaining ultralight and packable. But “waterproof” in an ultralight jacket doesn’t generally equal the protection of a two-layer or three-layer, heavier waterproof-breathable jacket (like Gore-Tex); sustained hard rain can cause it to wet through.
• Hybrid vs. uniform shell. “Hybrid” in this context refers to the shell blending some fully waterproof-breathable fabric—usually in the shoulders, torso, and hood—with more breathable, non-waterproof fabric in the sides and underarms, allowing the jacket to release body heat and moisture in areas not likely to receive much direct precipitation. These jackets are versatile for a wide range of conditions and activity levels. By “uniform” shell, I mean either a water-resistant soft-shell fabric or a waterproof-breathable fabric—but one or the other, not a hybrid combination of both.
• Insulated or not. While it’s not usually the case, ultralight jackets occasionally feature a light amount of strategically placed insulation—typically in the torso—making them more of a cool-weather, shoulder-season garment, but also versatile for everything from climbing bigger mountains in summer to aerobic activities like running, Nordic skiing, or hiking and snowshoeing in winter.
• Hood or no hood. For the most part, I find a simple, uninsulated shell hood almost essential in an ultralight jacket—it provides a noticeable boost in warmth and weather protection at very little cost in terms of weight, bulk, or dollars. Many ultralight shells, but not all, have a hood or a hooded version, and this comes down to personal preference as well as typical usage: If you need a shell simply for local runs of an hour or two in wind or cool temps, with a chance of a light shower, you may not need a hood. If you’re heading into the mountains for hours or days, you probably want a hood.
The Best Ultralight Jackets
I’ve listed the following jackets in order from lightest to heaviest.
My advice: Look at each of the reviews below to narrow your choices to the two or three that sound best for your needs, and then go to the complete reviews of those jackets to help you make your pick. You will support my work on this blog by purchasing any of these jackets through the affiliate links provided here or in the complete reviews, at no cost to you; in fact, you’ll usually find the best prices at those links. Thanks for doing that.
I encourage you to share your thoughts and experiences with any of these jackets, or another ultralight shell that you like, in the comments section at the bottom of this story. I try to respond to all comments.
Need a new rain shell? See “The 5 Best Rain Jackets For Hiking and Backpacking.”
|Arc’teryx Incendo SL and Cita SL||3.9||$129||2.8 oz.||75%||100%||70%||95%|
|Black Diamond Distance Wind Shell||3.9||$129||3.5 oz.||80%||85%||80%||95%|
|Smartwool PhD Ultra Light Sport Jacket||3.7||$115 to $120||4.5 to 5 oz. (men's and women's)||75%||90%||75%||85%|
|Outdoor Research Helium II Jacket||3.9||$159||6 oz.||90%||80%||85%||90%|
|Black Diamond Alpine Start Hoody||3.5||$165||7.5 oz.||80%||85%||90%||80%|
|Outdoor Research Helium Hybrid Hooded Jacket||3.6||$145||8 oz.||80%||90%||85%||90%|
|The North Face Flight FutureLight Jacket||3.6||$280||8.5 oz.||90%||85%||85%||80%|
|Arc’teryx Atom SL Hoody||3.7||$229||9 oz.||85%||85%||80%||80%|
On numerous spring and late-winter trail runs and mountain bike rides, in conditions running the gamut from sunny, cool, and breezy to cold wind, rain, and blowing snow flurries, the men’s Arc’teryx Incendo SL (the women’s version is the Cita SL Jacket) walked a fine line between breathability and weather protection like no other ultralight shell I’ve seen. Even wearing it on long ascents when I sweated hard, it got no more than slightly damp inside and dried within a few minutes once my exertion level dropped. What strikes me as most unique is that it simply does not accumulate much moisture inside.
The men’s Incendo SL and the women’s Cita SL are made from extremely thin Canim 100 percent polyester fabric in the front and outer arms that blocks wind effectively, although not completely, as some ultralight shells do. The even wispier Permair 20 nylon delivers a high level of air permeability across the back and through the undersides of the sleeves extending nearly to the cuffs. One caveat: These fabrics, especially the highly breathable Permair 20, makes these shells only appropriate for running, hiking, mountain biking and similar activities with only a light pack or running vest or none.
Both the men’s Incendo and women’s Cita come in hooded and vest versions, too.
See my complete review of the Arc’teryx Incendo SL and Cita SL jackets.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking any of these links to purchase an Arc’teryx men’s Incendo SL Jacket at Moosejaw.com; or Incendo Hoody at backcountry.com or Moosejaw.com; or Incendo Vest at backcountry.com or moosejaw.com; or a women’s Cita SL Jacket at backcountry.com or Moosejaw.com; or Cita Hoody at Moosejaw.com; or Cita Vest at Moosejaw.com.
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The more I wore the Black Diamond Distance Wind Shell—the second-lightest and second-most packable shell in this review—the more I liked and used it. Those outings ranged widely, including running the Grand Canyon 42 miles rim to rim to rim in one day in early October, a five-day June trek through Spain’s Picos de Europa Mountains, a September weekend of rock climbing in cool temps and gusty wind at Idaho’s City of Rocks, and mountain biking through a sudden downpour. And not only does this shell perform well, but it may be the greenest ultralight wind shell on the market.
The Distance Wind Shell has a basic suite of features found in other ultralight shells: It stuffs easily into its one zippered chest pocket, packing down tosmaller than a baseball, and has elasticized cuffs, an adjustable hem, and an adjustable, helmet-compatible hood. But it replaces a traditional DWR (durable, water-resistant) fabric treatment with a PFC-free, water-repellent finish that gets permanently hyper-fused to the fabric fibers, making it more durable and greener than DWRs. Best of all, of course, its breathability and weather resistance compare with the best in this category.
See my complete review of the Black Diamond Distance Wind Shell.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking any of these links to purchase a men’s or women’s Black Diamond Distance Wind Shell at backcountry.com, moosejaw.com, or blackdiamondequipment.com.
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Smartwool Men’s PhD Ultra Light Sport Jacket
Best for: High breathability and packability at a good value.
$115, 4.5 oz. (men’s medium)
Smartwool Women’s PhD Ultra Light Sport Jacket (hooded)
$120, 5 oz.
From a chilly and very windy October dayhike of 11,749-foot Mount Timpanogos in Utah’s Wasatch Range, to numerous fall and winter trail runs and rides, in cool temps and conditions all over the meteorological map, Smartwool’s PhD Ultra Light Sport Jacket distinguished itself for its breathability. The key to that is a blend of Merino wool and stretchy polyester mesh under the arms and between the shoulder blades, which creates good ventilation without exposing you to much wind or precipitation. When I sweated hard on trail runs in temps in the 40s and 50s, the jacket protected me from cold wind and breathed well enough that it never got more than slightly damp on the inside when my base layer was quite wet.
The jacket also features Smartwool’s thinner-than-a-wafer PhD Ultra Light nylon shell fabric through most of the torso and sleeves, with small vent holes (covered to keep rain out) at the front of the shoulders. A DWR (durable, water-repellant treatment) on the fabric fends off light rain, although it wets through in a steady rain. The high breathability also means limited wind and weather protection, making it better for short, aerobic outings that, say, an all-day hike in the mountains.
See my complete review of the Smartwool Men’s PhD Ultra Light Sport Jacket and the hooded Smartwool Women’s PhD Ultra Light Sport Jacket.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking any of these links to purchase a Smartwool Men’s PhD Ultra Light Sport Jacket at backcountry.com or the men’s hoodie version at backcountry.com; or a Smartwool Women’s PhD Ultra Light Sport Jacket at backcountry.com or ems.com, or the women’s anorak version at backcountry.com.
Which puffy should you buy? See my “Review: The 10 Best Down Jackets” and
“Ask Me: How Can You Tell How Warm a Down Jacket Is?”
In the world of waterproof-breathable outerwear, the Outdoor Research Helium II Jacket pushes the extreme low end in weight and packability—very appealing to hikers, ultralight backpackers, and trail runners. I’ve worn this six-ounce hooded shell on trail runs in my local foothills, sometimes in biting wind and temps in the 30s, and at times on an early September, five-day backpacking trip on the Wonderland Trail in Mount Rainier National Park, where it fended off heavy mist and cool winds—and for a trip with no serious rain in the forecast, it saved me from carrying twice the weight and bulk in a standard rain jacket.
Constructed from 30-denier ripstop nylon, waterproof-breathable Pertex Shield, it employs Diamond Fuse technology, which uses yarns with diamond-shaped filaments that lock together, lending it relatively good durability and snag-resistance for a fabric this light. It has an adjustable hood, comfortable fit, and one zippered chest pocket that the shell stuffs inside. Breathability is mediocre. But for anyone needing a just-in-case ultralight shell for wind and rain, the Outdoor Research Helium IIJacket delivers waterproof protection in a compact package at a good value for its performance and low weight.
See my complete review of the Outdoor Research Helium II Jacket.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking any of these affiliate links, at no cost to you, to purchase the men’s or women’s Outdoor Research Helium II Jacket at backcountry.com or moosejaw.com, the men’s Helium II Jacket at outdoorresearch.com, or the women’s Helium II Jacket at outdoorresearch.com.
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The range of uses to which I’ve put my Alpine Start Hoody speaks volumes about its versatility. I’ve worn it in strong wind, light rain, and cool temps on a 17-mile dayhike through New Hampshire’s Northern Presidential Range; on a 25-mile dayhike in light rain in the Grand Canyon; trail running in the hills of central Massachusetts and standing on the blustery summit of New Hampshire’s Mount Monadnock in spring; while climbing in February in Joshua Tree National Park; during a November overnight hike of The Narrows in Zion National Park; on a chilly, October hike and scramble up 9,820-foot McGown Peak in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains; and on numerous local trail runs and rides and bike commuting.
The highly breathable Schoeller stretch-woven, soft-shell fabric blocks most wind, sheds light rain, and dries within minutes from body heat in temperatures ranging from the 30s to the 60s. The athletic fit leaves room for a midweight base layer and a light vest underneath, and the gusseted underarm panels let me reach high overhead without the jacket hiking up. The adjustable hood closes around your face to stay put in wind and when turning your head side to side, and fits over a helmet.
See my complete review of the Black Diamond Alpine Start Hoody.
BUY IT NOW: You can support my work on this blog by clicking any of these links to purchase a men’s or women’s Black Diamond Alpine Start Hoody at backcountry.com, moosejaw.com, or blackdiamondequipment.com.
In the small field of hybrid ultralight jackets, OR’s Helium Hybrid Hooded Jacket stands out for both exceptional breathability and weather protection in a wide range of conditions. It kept me comfortable through weather events ranging from a violent, 20-minute thunderstorm with torrential rain and hail—I got home with my base layers only damp from sweat—to a wet April snowstorm, and cool, windy days of rock climbing and mountain biking.
The Helium Hybrid blends waterproof-breathable Pertex Shield fabric and taped seams throughout most of the jacket with OR’s highly breathable, water- and wind-resistant, stretchy soft-shell fabric in the side panels and undersides of the sleeves. The result is solid protection from precipitation where it tends to hit you—on the front, back, and head—with superior breathability where your body needs to dump it: in the core, underarms, and forearms. Multiple times, I sweated hard while trail running or riding, and the fabric moved moisture so well that my base layer got only somewhat damp and dried out under the jacket when my exertion level dropped. It features an adjustable hood that stays put in wind, a zippered chest pocket and two mesh-lined hand pockets, and lightweight, reasonably durable 30-denier ripstop nylon fabric.
See my complete review of the Outdoor Research Helium Hybrid Hooded Jacket.
Planning your next big adventure? See “America’s Top 10 Best Backpacking Trips” and “The 25 Best National Park Dayhikes.”
While trail running in rain showers and cool wind, backpacking through thunderstorms with strong gusts, and even backcountry skiing in variable spring weather, The North Face Flight FutureLight Jacket demonstrated impressive breathability and a comfortable fit. And unlike most ultralight shells, it’s truly waterproof-breathable.
TNF’s nano-spinning process creates a membrane with millions of microscopic fibers that allow air but not moisture to pass through, resulting in excellent breathability and functional waterproofing. It doesn’t offer the weather protection of a fully technical rain shell—nor do the other jackets on this list—and it has some minor flaws, most notably that it’s heavier and less packable than most UL shells. But for trail runners, dayhikers, and ultralight backpackers, this is a nice, light, packable shell.
Read my complete review of The North Face Flight FutureLight Jacket.
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The warmest and only insulated shell in this review, the Atom SL Hoody has been a go-to piece for me in situations as varied as backpacking in August in Canada’s Kootenay National Park and in October in Idaho’s White Cloud Mountains; scrambling a 10,000-foot peak in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains and hiking to the very windy summit of 10,243-foot Mount Washburn in Yellowstone National Park in September; and numerous times Nordic skate-skiing in temps in the 20s and 30s.
Essentially an ultralight wind shell with some strategically placed insulation, it delivers just enough warmth for being active in cool temps without causing you to overheat. Credit the fleece under the arms and 40 grams of insulation in the torso, but no insulation in the hood or on the outside of the sleeves, where there’s just windproof shell fabric that breathes reasonably well. Arc’teryx’s Coreloft synthetic insulation is very compressible, retains heat when wet, and dries quickly. The adjustable hood stays put on your head, with or without a helmet. Whether I was standing on a windblown 10,000-footer, carrying a backpack through the mountains in conditions that shifted frequently between warm sunshine and overcast with cold wind, or perspiring profusely while skate-skiing, the Atom SL keep me warm but didn’t make me too hot. It’s ideal for cool to cold temps or anyone who gets cold easily in moderate temperatures.
See my complete review of the Arc’teryx Atom SL Hoody.