We outdorks all have our pet gear obsessions. I like to think that mine (packs, shoes, windshirts) are especially practical. Windshirts are important because it’s windy a lot around here, and because I put out a lot of heat and thus try to avoid wearing a waterproof-breathable jacket at almost all costs. Weatherproofing and breathability have an indirect but nonetheless distinctly inverse correlation. Thus the challenge for a windshirt is thus to provide just enough wind and precip resistance, without going overboard.

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The Rab Cirrus, pictured above on me at far right, is what I’ve taken to calling a traditional or hardshell windshirt. It’s made of a light, densely woven fabric (Pertex Quantum) and treated with a water repellant from the factory.  Such shells won’t keep you dry in sustained rain, but will shrug off snow and drizzle while venting well enough through the fabric to keep sweat managed.  In warmer conditions (say, above 50F) these windshirts can be not breathable enough.  There are minor variations in fabric durability and DWR longevity (as detailed in my BPL state of the market report), but performance-wise the Cirrus is representative of the majority of windshirts currently available.

What sets the Cirrus apart are the exceptional features and fit.  Rab is currently at the top of the heap of outdoor clothing manufacturers because both their fabrics and designs are tailored to practical outdoor use, as opposed to many of the other A-list names who make many concessions to fashion.  As seen above, the fit is tailored and slim, and arms are long, and the plain hood crafted so that even without cinch cords it sits well and doesn’t interfere with vision provided it is zipped up.  Not seen above, at least no easily, are the twin a-line pockets.  These have easy running zippers, are backed with quality mesh which doesn’t interfere too much with breathability, and are placed such that neither waist belts nor shoulder straps sit over either the openings or the contents.  The Cirrus is simply a pleasure to wear and live in.  In a men’s medium it weighs 4.2 ounces.

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The Rab Boreas (above, on orange) is another windshirt of which I’ve been very fond. It’s heavier, at 8.6 ounces in medium, but breaths much better and has proven very durable. The lack of a DWR has not proven enough of a downside to keep it from becoming my most-worn piece of outdoor clothing. The main flaw is that the high spandex content in the fabric has the Boreas drying rather slowly.

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Because I can never leave well enough alone in this area, I recently purchased a Rab Alpine jacket (pictured above) to continue my search for the most versatile windshirt.  I may have found it.

The Alpine has all the features I would want in any serious-weather shell, and executes them perfectly.  The pockets are identical to those on the Cirrus.  The hood is big and adjusts around the face and across the back of the head; it is functional with a helmet and a bare head.  The arms and torso are long, even moreso than the Cirrus.  The hem has a full cinch cord, and the cuffs are simple elastic which is snug enough for bad weather but flexible enough to pull up over your elbows for venting.   The main zip is a #5, which I’ve found to be much more durable than the increasingly common #3s (like that on the Cirrus).  The real guts of the Alpine is the fabric, Pertex Equilibrium.  Equilibrium is a denier-gradient nylon, meaning that the outer face of the fabric is tight and DWR treated, while the inner is gently textured, which increases moisture uptake.  This means that the Alpine wicks and dries very fast.  I’ve yet to quantify it, but I think the Alpine wicks faster than the Boreas, and dries faster when soaked than the Cirrus.  Equilibrium is a bit lighter than the Boreas fabric (115 grams per meter compared to 131), and even with all the features the Alpine weighs 7 ounces in men’s medium.

If, as I suspect it will, the Alpine equals the Boreas in warmer-weather breathability the things holding it back from replacing both will be few.  Durability will be one, with the Boreas having proven surprisingly abrasion resistant.  Equilibriums greater air permeability, when compared to something like the Cirrus, would seem to be a potential disadvantage under nasty conditions, but I don’t think that will prove to be the case.  The shortcomings of light windshirts in serious wind has a much to do with the pumping effect promoted by light fabrics than air permeability of the fabrics themselves, and thus there will likely always be a place for stiff Goretex and the like.

Rab Alpine jacket; get one. Red isn’t a bad color, either. Not stealth, but it will make is easier for your ski partners to see you through the trees and fog, and keep you from getting shot off your bike during hunting season.