The first time I encountered the word “windshirt” was most definitely while reading a blog post written by someone who moves through time and space much, much faster than me. I remember thinking, This is probably one of those clothing items used solely by über-athletes—ultra-runners, record-smashing long-distance hikers—not something that I, a person who moves at the speed of sloth, needs to have in her wardrobe.
But oh, how wrong I was.
A while back, my interest was piqued by Montbell’s Tachyon Parka, and I decided to see if maybe I was a windshirt person after all. What arrived in the mail, however, perplexed me a bit—laid flat, it looked like a jacket, complete with a hood, waist pockets, elastic cuffs and hem, and a full zip down the front. But it was impossibly light (2.3 ounces), spun from a fabric that felt like a sort of wispy nothingness. I had to wonder—what the hell is a windshirt, anyways?
To answer that question, I turned to the lightweight hiking community, scouring blogs and message boards to figure out just why people love these things so much—and then I went and tested the thing out myself. What I discovered is that a windshirt is sort of the missing element of my (and perhaps your) layering system, an item that pulls multiple duties to both extend the limits of your current outdoor wardrobe and fill gaps you didn’t even know existed.
I first donned the Tachyon during a trip to the northwest corner of New Mexico, where the weather displayed its impressive range in the span of about four very fickle hours. As we moved through the seasons, I caught withering glances from the others in my group as they faced the biting wind in shorts and T-shirts, shivering as rain spittles morphed into small hail bombs, then became gentle snow flurries. I, on the other hand, was surprisingly comfortable as the light precipitation beaded across the water-repellent Polkatex®-treated rip-stop nylon and sailed over the reinforced brim of my tightly-cinched hood. Windshirt 1; skepticism 0.
Bolstered by the experience, I decided to test the windshirt’s purported multi-function use on the Colorado Trail. What I discovered is that it quickly became my favorite piece of clothing. I tossed it over my base layer for an extra bit of trapped heat in the mornings, and used it in lieu of a long-sleeve shirt when I wanted a bit of sun or bug protection in the afternoons. It also served as a perfect windbreaker (well, obviously) and as adequate protection against light precipitation—and acted as a much less sweat-inducing option than the ultralight rain jacket that I typically use.
Beyond that, I was shocked that despite my wearing it through thousands of feet of uphill on very hot twenty-mile days with a stupid heavy pack, the Tachyon took an impressively long time—about a week and a half of daily use without laundering—to truly absorb my uniquely off-putting brand of backpacker funk. I credit this less to the micro-openings located in each pit (as a prolific sweater, I would have preferred if these were zips or at least larger openings) than to the impressively breathable fabric.
By the end of our Colorado trip, the windshirt and I had become BFFs. Due to its nearly nonexistent weight and extreme compactness (it folds into its own pocket, but is highly smooshable regardless), it’s become a steady companion on hikes, during runs, and while I’m traveling, taking up so little space that I can shove it into a running vest pocket, my purse, or even a fanny pack (don’t laugh). On top of that? This thing is freakishly durable—I’ve brushed against cacti, scraped against the angriest of Joshua Tree boulders, and fallen into at least one gnarly catclaw bush (again, don’t laugh) with nary a rip or hole to show for it.
So ultimately, while owning a windshirt certainly hasn’t caused me to move any faster through time and space, it does help me feel a bit more comfortable and adaptable when I’m slogging along at my own pace. And that, honestly, is worth its weight in gold—or in space-age nylon, I suppose.
More lightweight windshirt magic
The Patagonia Airshed seems to be made from helium and breathes better than most wind shirts out there. $119
It weighs more than the other pieces on this list, but the Cotopaxi Palmas Wind Shell is durable, feels great, and can handle a bit of precip. $100
Rab Vital Windshell Hoody. 5.6 ounces, adjustable hood, made from windproof Hyperlite™ material. On sale for $45.