How to Choose a Hiking Jacket

Men's Hiking Jacket: Close-up of a male hiker wearing a down hiking jacket

In this post, we'll take a look at:

Choosing a hiking jacket is confusing. There are a lot of options – fleece, rain, down and more. The right jacket will keep you warm and dry as you explore outdoors.

This post covers different jacket types. We discuss weather protection, features, and other factors to consider like size and budget. You’ll learn how to choose a hiking jacket that fits your needs.

Interested? Let’s begin.

Key Takeaways

  • Base your choice on expected weather conditions and temperatures – rain jackets for wet weather, insulated jackets for cold, softshells for mild temps.
  • Ensure proper fit and room for layering underneath – try on in person if possible, read size charts.
  • Factor in weight, materials, breathability and features like hoods, pockets and zippers based on intended hiking style and conditions.

Types of Hiking Jackets

There are various jackets made for hiking, and the one you choose depends on the weather and hiking conditions. Picking the right jacket might seem confusing, so let’s go through the choices.

Fleece Jackets

How to Choose a Hiking Jacket: Rab Ascendor Light Fleece Hoodie

Fleece jackets are good options when temps are 35-60°F (2-16°C). The soft synthetic material traps heat to keep you warm even as the mercury drops to freezing. Fleece is breathable and dries quickly if sweaty.

Some features of fleece jackets:

  • Lightweight, soft and comfortable material.
  • Moisture-wicking to keep sweat away.
  • Dries quickly if it gets wet.
  • Often worn as a mid-layer with another jacket on top.

In our TOP 5 guides, we’ve highlighted the lightest fleece jackets for both men and women.

Down Jackets

How to Choose a Hiking Jacket: REI Co-op Magma 850 Down Hoodie

Down jackets have a special filling called down, which comes from duck or goose feathers. These feathers help trap heat, keeping you nice and warm. These jackets work well to keep you cozy in temperatures ranging from about 20°F to 50°F (-6°C to 10°C), and how warm they are depends on how thick they are. Because of the down filling, these jackets are super lightweight and easy to pack or tie around your waist.

Features of down jackets:

  • Excellent warmth for their light weight.
  • Pack down small so easy to carry.
  • Work best when kept dry, can wear another jacket on top.

In our TOP 5 guides, we’ve highlighted the lightest down jackets for both men and women.

Insulated Jackets

How to Choose a Hiking Jacket: Arc'teryx Atom Insulated Hoodie

Insulated jackets are like down jackets but use synthetic materials to provide warmth. Commonly worn from around 25°F to 50°F (-4°C to 10°C). Some jackets combine both down and synthetic insulations for maximum warmth. But stand-alone synthetic insulated jackets can be excellent lightweight and breathable cold weather layering options. Benefits of insulated jackets:

  • Continue providing warmth even when wet.
  • More affordable than down jackets.
  • Dry more quickly than down.
  • Ethically sourced materials (no live-plucking of goose down).

Rain Jackets

How to Choose a Hiking Jacket: REI Co-op Rainier Rain Jacket

Wear rain jackets as outermost layer in wet weather to stay dry. Rain jackets can be worn year-round but excel when skies open up. Waterproof and breathable fabrics like Gore-Tex keep you dry in drizzle to downpour. Especially useful from 50-75°F (10-24°C) to retain comfort. Useful features of rain shell jackets include:

  • Waterproof and breathable fabrics.
  • Hoods, adjustable cuffs and hem.
  • Zipper flaps and storm flaps to seal out moisture.
  • Pit zips for ventilation.

In our TOP 5 guides, we’ve highlighted the lightest rain jackets for both men and women.

Windbreaker Jackets

How to Choose a Hiking Jacket: Patagonia Houdini Jacket

Windbreakers are thin jackets specially designed to block wind chill while allowing good ventilation. They are more breathable but less weatherproof than softshell or hardshell jackets.

Features of Windbreakers:

  • Lightweight, packable and minimalist
  • Durable water repellent (DWR) treatment to resist moisture
  • Tightly woven fabric prevents wind penetration
  • Good for aerobic activities to avoid overheating

Windbreaker jackets work well for hiking and backpacking in conditions where wind is the primary element you need protection from. Windbreakers tend to be thin, so they fit comfortably over most mid layer insulation.

In our TOP 5 guides, we’ve highlighted the lightest windbreaker jackets for both men and women.

Softshell Jackets

How to Choose a Hiking Jacket: Rab Borealis Jacket

Softshell jackets are stretchy jackets made with breathable fabrics. They resist light rain and wind but allow sweat and moisture to escape. They manage well from around 35°F to 60°F (2-16°C) as everyday and activewear. Benefits of softshell jackets:

  • Breathable materials that don’t trap sweat.
  • Stretchy for extra movement and comfort.
  • Versatile for mild to cool weather.
  • Can layer under a rain jacket when colder.

Hardshell Jackets

How to Choose a Hiking Jacket: Artilect Formation 3L Shell Jacket

Hardshell jackets, closely related to rain jackets but thicker. Usually, these jackets follow a 3-layer design, which includes a waterproof and breathable membrane sandwiched between an inner liner and a sturdy outer face fabric. Choose hardshell jackets when the temperature ranges from 0 to 45°F (-18 to 7°C), depending on the insulation you have underneath. Features of hardshell jackets:

  • Waterproof and completely blocks wind.
  • Less breathable so best for cold, harsh weather.
  • Durably resists scrapes, branches, wear-and-tear.
  • Works well layered over fleece or insulation layers.

3-in-1 Jackets

How to Choose a Hiking Jacket: Outdoor Research Foray 3-In-1 Parka

3-in-1 jackets feature an outer shell for weather protection and an inner insulated layer for warmth. You can wear them together or separately, making them convenient for those who prefer not to bother choosing separate layers themselves. Benefits of 3-in-1 jackets:

  • Versatile for changing conditions – wear both layers when cold or wet, only inner layer when warmer.
  • Outer shell can be paired with other insulating layers you may have.
  • Allows you to adapt on the go without carrying extra layers.

How to Choose a Hiking Jacket

Hiking Jacket: Female hiker wearing a light hiking jacket on a dark forest trail

Key Factors to Consider

Choosing the right hiking jacket depends on more than just keeping dry or warm. Here are some important things to think about:

Weather Conditions

  • Consider the usual temps and rainfall where you’ll use the jacket most.
  • If hiking in hot weather, focus on breathable fabrics that release heat and moisture.
  • Cold or extreme weather calls for more insulation and weather protection.

Size and Fit

  • Leave room for base layers underneath.
  • Arms and torso should have range of motion without pulling.
  • Trying on is best to ensure good fit.


  • Focus first on weather protection needs (waterproof or water-resistant fabrics like Gore-Tex or nylon, tightly woven materials like ripstop polyester).
  • Also consider breathability based on exertion level and temps (fabrics like polyester wick sweat better for aerobic activities).
  • Stretch fabrics allow greater freedom of movement.


  • Lightweight jackets easier to pack and carry all day.
  • Under 16 ounces (450g) is ideal for most hiking and backpacking activities.
  • Okay to have more weight if extra cold weather performance needed.


  • Hoods that fit over helmets or hats and adjust for good visibility.
  • Zipped pockets keep essentials secure and handy.
  • Adjustable hems and cuffs block out wind and moisture.
  • Pit zips allow ventilation as you heat up.
  • Thermosealed seams ensure that rain doesn’t get in through the seams.

Other Things to Consider When Buying a Jacket

Hiking Jacket: Young hiker wearing a light The North Face jacket

Consider the Layering System

Think about what layers you’ll wear under your jacket. If going light, you may need one thicker jacket. If wearing multiple thinner layers, an uninsulated shell jacket could work. Your base, mid, and outer layers should all work together.

Have Realistic Expectations

No jacket is 100% waterproof-breathable in extreme weather for extended periods. Focus when buying on matching features and performance to realistic conditions for those big adventures.

Going with a dependable brand that offers replacements when seams fail or zippers jam also gives peace of mind.

No matter what jacket you choose, proper care is key to ensuring it lasts for seasons to come. Be diligent about DWR (durable water repellent) treatments, washing when dirty and checking for tears.


Selecting the perfect hiking jacket involves thinking about a few important factors, such as the weather, how you plan to use it, and its weight. This overview should give you a good starting point to figure out which jacket is right for you.

As you gear up for your next outdoor expedition armed with the knowledge of how to select the perfect hiking jacket, may your travels be filled with comfort, safety, and unforgettable memories.


Is Gore-Tex jacket good for hiking?

Yes, a Gore-Tex jacket is an excellent choice for hiking. Gore-Tex is renowned for its waterproof and breathable qualities, making it ideal for outdoor activities like hiking. It effectively keeps you dry during rainy conditions while allowing moisture and sweat to escape, keeping you comfortable and preventing overheating. Additionally, Gore-Tex jackets are often durable and built to withstand rugged outdoor environments, providing reliable protection and lasting performance on your hiking adventures. So, if you’re looking for a reliable and comfortable hiking jacket, a Gore-Tex option is definitely worth considering.

Should you size up in hiking jackets?

Choosing the right size for your hiking jacket is crucial. Some hikers like a bit more room for layering and freedom of movement, but going too big can be uncomfortable and less useful. Think about what you’ll do and how many layers you’ll wear underneath. Also, check reviews and the manufacturer’s sizing chart to make sure your jacket fits well and works great for your outdoor trips.

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At Hikinglite, we're all about helping you hit the trails with lightweight and ultralight outdoor gear that won't weigh you down. Our crew of content creators? Real outdoor enthusiasts who've logged countless miles on the trails.

Leading the pack is our editor-in-chief, Alex Jardine – an ultralight evangelist who's hiked over 10,000 trail miles across the globe. He's basically a walking outdoor encyclopedia. This dude loves testing out the latest and greatest products, so you can trust his recommendations are always well-informed and reliable.

We treat all our suggestions like advice from close trail buddies. No fluff, just real insights from folks who live and breathe the outdoor life.

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