How To Choose the Best Wind Shell for Rock Climbing

Stay comfortable and climb longer with the right wind shell.

You’re high off the ground, perched on a tiny ledge. You’re only wearing a T-shirt—after all, it was warm when you started. But as you climb, the wind kicks up and your thin shirt offers zero protection, and before you know it, you’re chilled to the bone and 100 feet above any hope of shelter.

This is a pretty common scenario in rock climbing. After all, climbers are in constant pursuit of airy clifftops, wide-open boulder fields, and high peaks—all places where the wind thrives. When gusty weather intrudes, having an ultralight wind shell can make or break the day.

While you can bring any windbreaker to the cliff, a climbing-specific wind shell is a pretty specialized piece of equipment. Most models come with special features like enhanced breathability, harness-compatible pockets, and sleek, low-profile silhouettes that remain unobtrusive while climbing. The best wind shells block gusts entirely, keeping the wind from sucking away your body heat, and even deflect light rain.

Because there’s a ton of variability among the features and materials used in different jackets, we put together this guide to help you choose the best wind shell for your climbing needs. In it, we’ll cover: 

  • Common materials 
  • Features to look for 
  • How light is ultralight? 
  • Fit considerations for climbing wind shells 
  • How to choose the best climbing wind shell  

Common Materials 

Wind shells are nearly alway made of synthetic fabrics. Each material has distinct characteristics.

Nylon

Nylon offers some stretch and good durability, especially when it’s densely woven. However, nylon does absorb a little water when it gets soaked and can be slow to dry.

Polyester

Like nylon, polyester is a strong synthetic material that can be woven into thin, lightweight fabrics. Unlike nylon, it repels water instead of absorbing it.  

Softshell 

Softshell is a woven fabric, usually made from nylon, polyester, or some blend of multiple materials. Softshell jackets are sort of a hybrid between a standard rain shell and an athletic top. The goal is a fabric that’s comfortable (soft), weather resistant, stretchy, and durable. Most unlined softshells are quite breathable. They provide moderate wind resistance and some water repellency, though high-end versions can do an amazing job of both. Softshell jackets also tend to be lightweight.

DWR (Durable Water Repellent) Treatment

Many wind shells come with a chemical treatment that deflects water. Keep in mind that DWR coatings are only good for light rain and won’t keep you dry in a downpour. They’re also most effective when new: After washing and a little abrasion, the coating will begin to wear off. (However, you can renew the water repellency at home with a DWR wash.) When possible, look for “PFC-free” or “short-chain” DWRs, which are less toxic to the environment.

Features to Look For 

Climbing wind shells are designed with tons of climber-friendly features in mind. Here are some things  to look for.

Cuff Adjustment

Hook-and-loop tabs or sewn-in elastic to keep cuffs snug around the wrists. 

Pockets

Zippered compartments for stashing a phone or snack for on-route use. Chest pockets are handiest when you’re wearing a harness.

Stuff-it Pouch

A small, ultralight bag that contains your wind shell and lets you clip it to your harness. Better: Some shells stuff into their own pockets, which, turned inside out, have a small loop for clipping.

Gusseted Underarms

Swaths of fabric sewn into the underarms that let you reach overhead unimpeded.

Hood

Adds weight, but nice for keeping necks and ears warm on gusty days. Some come with water-shedding brims or back-of-the head adjustment. 

Underarm Ventilation

Zippers or mesh panels that let sweaty pits breathe.   

Drop-back Hem

Added length in the back for extra coverage while sitting in a harness.

Liners

A fabric, brushed, or fleece interior. Pro: adds warmth. Con: adds bulk.

How Light is Ultralight? 

Most wind jackets that weigh around 6 or 7 ounces are considered lightweight, while jackets under 4 or 5 ounces typically make the cut for “ultralight.” Ultralight wind shells can be pricier than their heavier counterparts, but they come with some advantages. They’re easy to store or hang from your harness. Their thin fabrics make them easy to use by themselves in warm weather or layer with other apparel to customize your insulation. Many ultralight shells are also extremely breathable—which is great if you’re working hard in a stiff breeze but, for some models, can mean reduced wind resistance. The main downside: ultra-thin fabric is not as durable as heavier options.

If you’re planning to spend a ton of time climbing in your wind shell in rough terrain, you may want a heavier, more durable jacket. If you plan to carry it as a just-in-case layer, the best wind shell for you might be an ultralight number. 

Fit Considerations for Climbing Wind Shells

Your wind shell will need to move with you as you’re hiking, belaying, or climbing without impeding your motion or bunching up too much. Here are five tests to make sure your climbing wind shell fits. 

  1. Reach over your head: The arms of the wind shell should move easily, even at your max vertical range.
  2. Cross your arms: Stack your elbows in front of you and give yourself a hug. Make sure you don’t feel uncomfortable tightness across your upper back.
  3. Put on a harness: Make sure the hem is long enough that a few high reaches won’t tug it free from the back of your harness. Also make sure you can reach all the pockets even when geared up.
  4. Helmet up: Try the hood on with a helmet. If you prefer wearing your hood under your helmet, make sure it’s not so snug that you can’t turn your head. It shouldn’t impair your peripheral vision or fall over your eyes either. If the hood is designed to go over a helmet (more common with wind shells), make sure it fits over yours comfortably. 
  5. Add a layer. Your wind shell should fit trimly; piles of fabric around your wrists or waist can get in the way while you’re jamming your hands in cracks or clipping gear to your harness. However, make sure it’s not so trim that you can’t fit a warm layer underneath on cold days. 

How to Choose the Best Wind Shell for Rock Climbing

Ultimately, the best wind shell for you will depend on your climbing goals, your budget, and your personal preferences. Here are some guidelines to help you choose.

If you’re multipitch climbing…

Look for a lightweight shell that stuffs into its own pocket or a pouch that clips to your harness. 

If you’re bouldering or single-pitch sport climbing…

Stretchy, breathable materials are a must (but ultralight weights may not be).

If you like long approaches… 

Choose a lightweight or ultralight wind shell that’s fairly packable. 

If you’re into trad climbing…

Consider a thicker, more durable option that can take abrasion from cracks and chimneys. 

If you’re a cold-weather fan…

Size your shell to fit your favorite climbing layers underneath, and consider a warmer softshell with a lining. 

If you expect a little rain…

Consider a polyester material with a DWR coating.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.

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