Remember the rain and wind shells of yore? Stiff and a little crinkly, with Velcro cuffs and micro-fleece chin guards? We hardly can. Performance apparel has evolved over the past decade, and jackets are lighter, thinner, and more streamlined than ever.
In fact, apparel makers have grown so obsessed with shaving weight that a profusion of technical shells have appeared weighing less than a smartphone, packing small enough to fit in your back pocket, and designed to make you feel like you’re wearing nothing at all.
Of course, you might reasonably wonder how these über-pared-down jackets manage to stand out from one another, and how light they can go before they start to lose functionality. We rounded up a few to find out.
The North Face Flight RKT ($160)
This shell is so freakishly thin that the cuffs and bottom hem are pretty much all you notice. It’s made from a single layer of DWR-treated, ten-denier ripstop nylon—enough to block wind and repel light precipitation—and folds into an arm pocket roughly the size and shape of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich (though it’s much lighter: just 2.8 ounces for the men’s version).
As with most featherweight apparel, the Flight RKT makes some compromises. There are no adjustment cords, and the fabric is more snag-prone than some other shells in the same category. But if you’re going fast and light for long distances, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more lightweight option.
The North Face bills the Flight RKT as a running shell, and the jacket performs well in high-output situations that call for protection without the encumbrance of layers. Given how thin it is, we'd be wary of taking it on scrambling missions where we know we'll be dragging our gear over rock.
Mountain Hardwear Ghost Lite ($100)
The Ghost Lite is similar to the Flight RKT—it’s made from DWR-coated nylon and designed primarily for running—but it’s a bit more built up. The men’s version is 3.1 ounces, and it’s longer and baggier. The loose fit is a boon if you want to wear your shell over lots of layers, but can also impede movement. That’s partially alleviated by the cinched hem and a Velcro tab to fold away the hood.
The 15-denier ripstop nylon has a soft, buttery feel, and it’s substantial enough to add confidence in brambles and on abrasive rock. When folded into its chest pocket, the Ghost Lite is a tad bigger than the North Face jacket; it’s also slightly easier to zip up, since the zipper falls on the side of the pouch instead of across the top. The slightly longer fit also makes this jacket a great trail-to-town crossover piece; it’ll keep you warm and relatively dry in the hills but won’t look (as) out of place in a coffee shop or bar.
Patagonia Houdini ($100)
The Houdini is sleek and trim, hitting right at the hip, without excess fabric. But at 3.6 ounces in the men’s version, it’s the heaviest jacket here. That’s because it doesn’t skimp on features or durability. In addition to a chest pocket, it has a drawcord at the waist and in the hood, and the fabric is 15-denier nylon, the same as the Ghost Lite.
The papery quality of the Houdini offers superior next-to-skin comfort; you can wear it over a short-sleeve shirt without that clammy shell sensation against your arms. It also makes the jacket a little more rugged than the others we looked at. The Houdini is billed as a trail-running shell, but we wouldn’t think twice taking it climbing or scrambling.
The lightweight, DWR-treated wind shell deserves a place in your pack. It’s the perfect layer for windy summits, drizzly mornings, and other occasions when a thick fleece or full-on waterproof piece would be overkill, and it's great insurance against unexpected storms. It won’t keep you from getting soaked in a downpour, but the DWR coating goes further than you’d expect.
That said, there's no need to shell out extra cash just to save a few tenths of an ounce. All of the shells in this review function the same, differing only in price. They weigh within an ounce of one another, they're made with similar fabrics and DWR finishes, and they have similar features. If you're tackling fast and light missions or long hauls in high-alpine terrain, it's worth the added expense to have the absolute lightest, most packable gear. But the average athlete could be served just as well with a slightly heavier, less expensive option. Buy the one that fits best, and you can't go wrong.