8 Pound Base Weight With a Wind Jacket AND a Rain Jacket
Every time I wore my ultralight wind jacket during day hikes, I used to think, “I should try bringing this backpacking.” Until this spring, though, I never brought my wind jacket on a backpacking trip. Every time I was loading my 30-liter backpack for a trip I would see the wind jacket and leave it behind.
I just couldn’t bring myself to add weight to my pack, especially with something I didn’t need. Well, I wasn’t just adding weight. I was also adding versatility to my backpacking kit.
Wind jackets are great. They block the wind and small amounts of precipitation. And, they dry quickly. So, if you do weather a storm in a wind jacket it won’t be wet for long. I’ve been caught in wet winter storms with only a wind jacket to keep me protected and it kept me surprisingly dry. It didn’t keep me completely dry, but I stayed dry enough.
Wind jackets breathe well, too. I think their breathability is what makes them so useful. It’s what makes them dry quickly and what keeps you just warm enough. And just warm enough is key because once you start sweating under a jacket you won’t be warm for long. Anyone who has used a rain jacket to keep themself warm likely knows what it’s like to sweat under that jacket.
The wind jacket I use is a Topo Designs Ultralight Jacket. With most of the extras trimmed off, it weighs 3.4 ounces and packs into its own pocket. I prefer a wind jacket that is light, simple, and has a hood. This model checks all those boxes. There are wind jackets out there that are even lighter than this one, but I’m happy with mine.
You can even lower your base weight by adding a wind jacket. What I thought was the “three-ounce weight penalty” of a wind jacket isn’t even that, because wind jackets are so versatile.
My base weight is still right around eight pounds with a wind jacket and rain jacket.
Versatility, Not Weight
A wind jacket is an active layer that keeps you very warm and breathes much better than a rain jacket. Wind jackets keep you especially warm when you pair them with a long sleeve base layer or fleece. Wind jackets will protect you from light precipitation almost as well as rain jackets, too. And, they don’t get clammy on the inside in the process.
On a recent trip, I hiked through a spring storm blowing across the Kaibab Plateau in northern Arizona. What fell from the sky was a nice mixture of rain, sleet, and snow. After an hour of hiking through this, we got to where we planned to set up camp on the Grand Canyon north rim.
I quickly pitched my tent and got inside. And to my surprise, my wind jacket was still mostly dry. It dried completely after wearing it for a few more minutes inside my tent. At that point, I became a believer.
Can’t you use a rain jacket to block the wind?
Technically you can, yes. But they get so clammy that you won’t end up using a rain jacket in this way much. And if you do use your rain jacket as a wind-blocking layer, then it won’t be as waterproof when it does rain.
Let’s go back to the example above. I now carry an ultralight rain jacket that is not at all breathable. If I had used that jacket while moving quickly through a spring storm I would have sweat, a lot. My rain jacket would have been wet on the inside until I hung inside out for at least 30 minutes. I would’ve gotten cold from sweat if I didn’t take the jacket off quickly, too.
Good rain jackets aren’t breathable. Their intended use is to keep the rain out. How can you expect a rain jacket to let moisture out if they don’t allow moisture in? Sure, breathable rain jackets do exist, but none breathe as well as a wind jacket.
And, breathable rain jackets aren’t very waterproof in the long term. If you’re constantly wearing your breathable rain jacket for warmth, you’ll wear out the waterproof properties of the jacket. Wearing a rain jacket for warmth will cause that the breathable membrane will get dirty. And, when those breathable membrane fibers get dirt on them, those fibers absorb water.
So yes, you can use a rain jacket as a wind-blocking layer, but then your waterproof jacket probably won’t be waterproof when you need it to be. Or, if your rain jacket is a delicate ultralight jacket (I’m looking at you Frogg Toggs), it will be all ripped up and it really won’t keep you dry when you need it to.
I wore a breathable rain jacket as a wind jacket for the first 700 miles of the PCT. It worked fine to keep the wind off, but by mile 500 it wasn’t waterproof anymore.
In case you can’t see the moisture absorbed in this jacket, I’ll tell you, I wasn’t dry here. On a thru-hike, you want your rain jacket to keep you dry, not just block the wind. So carry something else to block the wind, like a three-ounce wind jacket.
What about a wind-blocking fleece?
Shortly after mile 500 on the PCT, I started carrying a non-breathable rain jacket and a grid fleece hoodie to keep me warm in windy conditions. A fleece works great in cold, windy conditions. And, I was happy with this setup.
But, a wind jacket paired with an ultralight baselayer provides just as much warmth at a lower weight than the Melanzana grid fleece I carried. Fleece is great, but for summer conditions there are lighter-weight options.
A wind jacket and an insulating base layer combined work better than fleece for keeping you warm when active. And, you can regulate your body temperature more using two layers instead of one. You’ll have more versatility and the same amount of warmth by ditching the fleece and adding a wind jacket.
Hiking With a Wind Jacket and a Rain Jacket: Breaking It Down by Weight
We’ll start with a traditional layering system for backpacking that involves a fleece. This is the layering system I eventually settle on for my PCT thru-hike:
Hooded fleece (10 oz) + rain jacket (5 oz) = 15 oz
I wore that fleece on every pass and kept it on for the downhills when I wasn’t generating as much body heat.
Or, go even lighter and use a non-hooded fleece:
Non-hooded fleece (7.5 oz) + rain jacket (5 oz) = 12.5 oz
The following is the layering system I use currently. I used it on another trip this spring, this one in southern Arizona, where I also weathered a snow storm. I plan to use this for a CDT thru-hike this summer, too:
Polartec Alpha fleece (5 oz) + wind jacket (3 oz) + rain jacket (5 oz) = 13 oz
This isn’t a post about how awesome Polartec Alpha fleece, but it is awesome. And, an Alpha fleece combined with a wind jacket is warmer and lighter than a traditional grid fleece hoodie. The real benefit here is versatility, though. If you’re getting too warm, just shed the wind jacket and only wear your lightweight midlayer. Or, throw your wind jacket on over your hiking shirt. It has a zipper, so putting on a jacket is quick.
You can go even lighter with a wind jacket, too. The lightest weight option using the wind and rain jacket method uses an ultralight base layer for an insulating layer:
Ultralight base layer (3 oz) + wind jacket (3 oz) + rain jacket (5 oz) = 11 oz
You can go even lighter here by wearing a thin wool long sleeve shirt as your hiking shirt. But, if you’re going to be facing cold temperatures you probably want another insulating layer than just your hiking shirt, even if it is wool.
And, if you know you won’t see too much rain, ditch the rain jacket and just bring an emergency poncho:
Polartec Alpha fleece (5 oz) + wind jacket (3 oz) + emergency poncho (1.7 oz) = 9.7 oz
This is what I carried on a recent hike across the Kaibab Plateau in northern Arizona when I hiked through a rain-snow-and-sleet-storm in my wind jacket. You should be prepared to either pitch your tent or hunker down under your poncho if you’re caught in a big storm, though. I eventually pitched my tent before I got too wet.
So tell me, when was the last time you were smiling this big less than an hour after hiking through sleet? Okay, I had just walked five days to see the Grand Canyon and was finally there, but look at that wind jacket.
Disclosure: I worked at Topo Designs for the 2020 winter season.
Featured image: Photo by Sam Schild. Graphic design by Stephanie Ausfresser.
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