The featherweight jacket has become an indispensable item in any trail runner’s gear arsenal. Warmth, weather protection, packability, and weight all come into play when selecting a jacket for your particular weather patterns and altitude. Where one lightweight shell may shine at providing lightweight wind protection and a small degree of warmth, it may fail at providing any sort of rain protection. Knowing what a jacket is capable and not capable of can be the difference between being relatively comfortable and slightly hypothermic in certain conditions. The featherweight jacket is a piece of gear that we have no excuse for not stuffing in our packs or the back of our shorts when heading into the high country, or on any day when less-than-ideal weather is on tap.
Here I review some of my favorite offerings which have been released thus far in 2016 with the goal of helping runners pick the ideal lightweight jacket for their needs. Keep in mind that all jackets are not created equal, and while the lightweight offerings may seem sexy, they may lack the protection to do much for us in the middle of an alpine thunderstorm.
Best All Arounder
Outdoor Research has been making quality gear, not necessarily aimed at the trail running market, for many years. The Outdoor Research Helium II Jacket ($159) is a perfect example of a lightweight jacket capable of handling most spring and summer conditions. At 6.4 ounces it’s not ultralight, but the combination of Pertex and nylon ripstop fabric creates one of the best waterproof barriers at this weight on the market. I’m also incredibly impressed with how this jacket breathes, to the point that I’ve even started using it as a warm-up jacket for workouts on warmer days.
The Helium II also has fully taped seams and the fabric seems to have a little bit of a stretch to it. A well-fitting hood with a small and pliable brim keep rain at bay, and somehow Outdoor Research was able to create a zipper that isn’t stiff and doesn’t scratch up your chin when fully zipped. There are also small thumb loops inside the cuffs which keep the sleeves pulled down over the wrists. Combine that with an absolutely ingenious stowaway design, the Helium II has a velcro pocket which sits on the small of the back and can be used for storage. It also has a elastic strap with a clip on it that allows the jacket to be stowed inside the pouch and worn around the waist when not needed.
Additionally, I found that keeping the elastic strap fastened around my waist allows me to take the jacket on and off while simply stuffing and wrapping the jacket around the belt when not in use.
Runner-Up All Arounder
The Patagonia Houdini Pullover ($89) has long been a favorite of many trail and ultrarunners. The stylish good looks of the pullover (this jacket also comes with a hood) were so coveted that mine was nicked in rural India, and I promise the recipient is getting much more use out of it than I ever could. Made of nylon ripstop fabric coated with Durable Water Repellent (DWR), the Houdini works great for cool mornings or in storms that don’t get colder than 50 degrees Fahrenheit or so. It also packs down incredibly small into its own chest pocket, and even has a loop that can be used with a carabiner. At 3.1 ounces, you don’t even notice you’re carrying it.
Of note are the incredibly handy snaps which work as more than a fashion statement. When I was warm I appreciated the ability to unsnap, and keeping the pullover fully snapped actually provides a good deal of warmth and weather protection around the neck.
The Featherweight Champion
[Editor’s 2020 Update: No longer available.] For the last two months my Montane Featherlite 7 Jacket ($149) has been my constant companion. Weighing in at 2 ounces with the capability of stowing in a tiny pouch built into the collar, the Featherlite 7 is your barely there friend for alpine starts and windy ridges when the weather isn’t too hairy. Again, nylon ripstop fabric is combined with a durable water repellent (DWR) coating which provides water resistance, but with such a thin material the Featherlite does get soaked through in downpours. While fairly breathable this jacket material does stick to my arms when I’m sweaty, but it’s the kind of gear that I’ll have in my pack all summer just in case.
I also think that Montane crafted the fit of this jacket well, with elastic waist and cuffs the Featherlite 7 doesn’t feel too form fitting, and it fits comfortably over a race vest with bottles up front. This is an absolute requirement for me with a racing jacket as it allows me to unzip and take the jacket on and off with ease on the fly. After taking a superman-style fall several weeks ago directly onto the elbows of the Featherlite 7, I am amazed that it shows absolutely no wear or damage. If you’re looking for absolute minimalism, this is your jacket.
Weighing in at 2.75 ounces, I’m really splitting hairs by giving the Dynafit React Jacket ($174) the runner-up position here. With a excellent hood that hugs the head nicely to keep weather out, the React Jacket also works well for colder conditions in the 30’s or 40’s degrees Fahrenheit. Extra-long sleeves provide some extra hand protection when needed and the transparent nature of the nylon fabric allows aid stations and checkpoints to see your bib number. The stowaway pocket on the React Jacket is on the left sleeve which theoretically allows the wearer to store their jacket on the go, but a fairly small pouch made securing the jacket feel tenuous at best. Potential U.S. buyers should also be aware of the European-style zipper which zips from the left as this threw me off on the run.
I’ve been wearing The North Face Flight Series Fuse Jacket ($250) for quite some time now, and I’m continually impressed with how well it does in even the heaviest downpours. For colder weather down to 20 degrees Fahrenheit, I can layer underneath it and cinch the hood down to feel absolutely cozy in fairly horrendous conditions. This jacket features taped seams throughout to keep out moisture but somehow manages to breathe remarkably well thanks to a perforated membrane and venting in important areas. Additionally, the nylon fabric seems to have just enough stretch to allow it to be worn comfortably over a race vest.
For training and race conditions during which I may encounter heavy downpours, massively cooling temps, and even hail, the Fuse Jacket offers just enough protection while still feeling incredibly minimal and lightweight. It is important to note that this jacket does not come with a stow pocket and won’t be available to consumers until this fall.
How to Choose the Right Lightweight Jacket
Honestly, minimal rain/wind jackets are one of my favorite pieces of gear due to their versatility. They can keep me warm without adding layers, they’re easy to take on and off and stow with a bungee or tie around my waist, and they make me feel a little more secure when heading into the high country, even on bluebird sunny days. It’s important to figure out what is going to work best for your needs, and especially your upcoming races. While minimal weight may look sexy, escaping hypothermia in a driving rain storm on a mountain ridge is nearly priceless. This is a piece of gear that I personally wouldn’t skimp on, and with proper care it may be a piece of gear that you can weatherize repeatedly (spray-on DWR coating) and may never have to buy again.
It’s also important to understand that not all nylon/DWR combos are created equal and they may keep water out variably. Test your jackets by spraying some water on them and seeing if the water beads and does not cause a darkening wet spot which means it has penetrated the fiber. Additionally, you should be able to shake a lightweight shell and the water should run off. However, if water resistance isn’t as important to you, and you’re just looking for lighweight wind protection and a bit of warmth, then the lightest jackets mentioned here will work for you.
Call for Comments (from Meghan)
- Are you wearing any of these featherweight jackets? Can you speak to how and in what conditions they function best for you?
- What is your favorite featherweight jacket for trail running?
[Editor’s Note: If you’re affiliated (i.e., an employee, ambassador, etc.) with a brand that produces running apparel, please share your relation in each of your comments on this article. Thanks!]