In this article, we will discuss how to select a running jacket that suits both your needs and your style. After putting 9 of the top-rated and most popular running jackets through a rigorous months-long testing period of running through rainstorms, freezing temperatures, and high wind, we have a clear idea of the best models on the market. We tackled both urban and backcountry environments in order to bring you the most helpful information possible.
We aim to walk you through the process of deciding what your needs are as a runner and which jacket will satisfy those needs. All our tested models focus on some degree of breathability, weather resistance, and comfort to protect from the elements during high output aerobic activity when there's an excess of heat and sweat. Continue reading to learn what to look for when hunting for your ideal jacket.
A lot has changed in running jacket tech over the past decade. Surely we all remember the matching bottom/top tracksuits from back in the day. They were heavy, stiflingly hot, had no weather-resistant treatments, and couldn't breathe. Fast forward to 2020 to the advent of ultralight single layer Gore-tex and other highly breathable weather-resistant materials. We don't have shoes lacing themselves up magically like in Back-To-The-Future, but we're pretty close. Nowadays, there is no reason to suffer because of your jacket choice; there are so many ultralight and breathable options on the market. You just need to figure out which one is best for you.
Running vs. Rain vs. Softshell
What sets a running jacket apart from other jackets such as rain jackets or soft shells? Running jackets are designed with one purpose in mind: to protect from the elements while running. This means providing resistance to weather while being able to handle the considerable excess of heat and moisture our body's release when in an aerobic state. Rain jackets do a similar job, but the ability to vent and breathe is decreased, while the water resistance is turned up to eleven. Softshell jackets are tuned more towards breathing but are typically created from multiple layers (and thusly much heavier) and are suited for much colder environments than your run of the mill running jacket.
Venting and Breathability
Breathability is the single most crucial aspect of a running jacket. Running is a highly aerobic exercise that will cause you to sweat heavily. Even if you're not much of a sweater, some level of heat and moisture will still be released. No matter how a jacket may protect you from the elements, if you are wearing a layer that restricts airflow, or doesn't allow moisture to dissipate, you're undermining the purpose of wearing a running jacket. We start with venting and breathability because the majority of your running will not be done in inclement weather; since our goal is to remain as dry as possible, our jacket must be able to handle the excess heat and moisture.
Throughout our testing process, we discovered that breathability depends not only on the jacket construction and fabric type but also on its ability to vent well. Some fabrics themselves are designed to wick away moisture, but not all. If the fabric doesn't do this, it's up to the ventilation design to provide enough air circulation to pull out as much moisture as possible. Mesh panels are a common method of venting moisture, as well as vent flaps that overlap the fabric. The placement of the mesh or breathable panels is critical for the breathability and ventilation of the jacket. Even if you don't sweat a lot in general, when you're traveling uphill and your heart rate is at its max, you will be surprised with the differences between a jacket that is properly vented and one that isn't.
Purchasing a running jacket that doesn't offer you any protection from the elements undercuts your goal of being able to remain as dry as possible and run as much as possible. If you don't have the option of running when it's drizzling outside because, for example, you only have a fleece to run in, you're missing an opportunity to maximize your training.
These jackets aren't a substitution for a rain jacket. If you go for a run in the pouring rain for more than a few minutes, you will get wet with any of the jackets we tested except for the Norvan SL which utilizes an incredibly water resistant, borderline waterproof, Gore-Tex material. That being said, most companies use a DWR finish to repel water. This technology does perform reasonably well and has the benefit of adding weather protection to a single layer of fabric; however, it requires some maintenance.
After some time, a DWR finish will wear off, and it's up to you to use a special wash and then reapply the DWR coating (which can be found as a spray-on or wash-in product). Some pieces use a combination of DWR coating and uniquely designed fabrics to accelerate evaporation time. There are even fabrics that use the runner's body heat to aid the already accelerated process further.
As far as wind is concerned, the goal is to find a jacket that buffers the wind and keeps it from battering you. However, a completely windproof jacket would most definitely hinder the breathability of a running jacket. We recommend checking out our windbreaker review if you are looking for something that is completely windproof. While offering substantial wind resistance is desirable, the real goal with a running jacket is to find something that pairs wind resistance with breathability and venting. Strategically placed vents are the key.
Comfort and Mobility
Comfort and mobility are unquestionably going to be different for each individual. We looked at attributes that we feel all jackets should have to figure out a baseline. Things like taped seams and gusseted body mapping panels are indicators of both quality and a high potential for comfort. Initial indicators of discomfort are points that cause any pressure with arms outstretched or overhead. Tight wrist cuffs or arms that aren't long enough are easy indicators of a jacket that will cause you more misery than protection from the elements.
In our experience, even slight discomfort felt on a jog around the park will be exacerbated tenfold when out in the mountains. It's also good to consider whether you will be wearing a running pack over the top of your jacket or if you want something that could fit over a small pack. Answers to these questions will indicate if taped, chafe-free seams are critical or just a bonus.
Being able to pop your jacket on and off quickly and without excessive effort is critical. Many of the jackets we tested pack into cleverly sized-and-shaped storage pockets with double-sided zippers, making them easy to hide away in a running pack or backpack. Other jackets, with less portability, neglect double-sided zippers or have ill sized pockets. Obviously, finding a jacket that suits your running style and needs is critical, but portability can mean the difference between actually bringing the jacket or not.
Some of the lowest scoring jackets in this metric are cold weather-specific softshells. The multi-layer, highly breathable material just doesn't pack well and is quite heavy compared to single-layer jackets. This isn't all bad, as there are many situations where these jackets will likely never be taken off for the duration of whatever activity you're doing. When running in the heart of winter, fat biking, or cross-country skiing, we keep our softshell on the entire time, making poor portability irrelevant. The moody shoulder seasons when weather can change in an instant necessitates a higher level of protection than portability.
Day and Night Visibility
Safety is a primary concern when running both in urban environments and out on the trail. Ideally, your running jacket will be your outermost layer and thus will need to provide visibility. Even if you are alert, not listening to music, and aware of your surroundings, other people might not be. Drivers are more distracted today than ever. The brighter and more reflective your jacket, the higher the chance that a driver with a minivan full of youth soccer kids will notice you crossing the street.
While there are many things you should do and be aware of while running, wearing a bright and reflective jacket is a passive way to protect yourself from motorists. You should be looking for reflective material on all four planes. You need reflective material in front, back, and ideally wrapping around both arms. The movement and swinging motion of your arms help the reflective fabric stand out against other urban reflective materials.
During daylight hours, the sun washes out the reflective material on jackets, and we rely on having colors that stand out against the environment. Having earth tones is not advised as you will blend into your surroundings. One thing the 80s jackets did get right was their incredibly bright fluorescent colors and random patterns. While there is no way to be entirely protected while road running, bright colors certainly give you an edge.
Are you looking for a running jacket to wear nearly all the time during cooler weather regardless of rain or wind? Here's the deal. You want a jacket that is equipped with a high level of breathability and venting. If the jacket isn't breathable to a high degree, you will remove it as soon as you start to sweat. After selecting a breathable jacket, take into consideration what your primary running climate will be. If you live somewhere like Seattle, you probably want the most water-resistant jacket you can find. Keep in mind, the more weatherproof, probably the less breathability and venting you will get — and vice versa. After selecting a breathable and weather-resistant jacket, you need to dial in the comfort and fit. Don't be afraid to send a jacket back that isn't right — if it doesn't feel good and isn't comfortable for your frame, you aren't going to wear it. Finally, if you have two jackets that appear equal and can't make a choice, pick the more packable option. When you do remove the jacket, having something that stows easily can go a long way in your overall satisfaction with the product.