Nothing makes jackets work harder than mountain biking. We produce a ton of heat and sweat that needs getting rid of to stay dry but we don’t move fast enough on climbs for easy ventilation. We get coated in mud and charge through wet bushes so fabrics can’t function properly. We also bounce off walls, snag thorn bushes and slide along the ground far too often for a fragile fabric to survive. Yet we still want to stay warm and as dry as possible whatever the weather.
Thankfully jackets like Gore’s Phantom II and 7 Mesh’s Guardian lead the way in performance while brands like DHB and Altura prove you don’t have to pay a fortune to stay comfortable riding all year round.
How to buy the best jacket
There are loads of things to think about when buying a mountain biking jacket and we work through all of them whenever we unwrap a new coat and hit the trails for testing. We’ve been doing that in all weathers for knocking on 30 years now too, so here’s what you need to know.
1. Softshell vs. Waterproof
We’ve got both softshell and waterproof jackets here, because while everyone thinks they need a waterproof most riders would actually be better off with a softshell. That’s because while softshells let the weather in more, they breathe really well and stay warm when wet. That means you get damp but stay comfortably warm even if you’re going up and down hills in filthy weather when a waterproof would cook on climbs and then chill on descents. If you tend to cruise/uplift climbs and it’s really filthy weather though, a breathable enough waterproof will keep you driest.
You’d hope that the more you pay, the fancier fabric and better performance you’d get, but it’s not always that simple.
As a general rule though, sub-£50 will get you a packable emergency shell and sub-£100 will get you bearable weatherproof performance if you’re not killing yourself on climbs. Depending on brand, decent breathability and well-designed features for hard riding kick in at 3 figures and the real cutting edge cloth and fancy cuts will take you over £200 and beyond. That’s also when crapping yourself in case you crash and tear a massive hole in your new coat might make you sweat more than any fabric can cope with though so remember durability is a big part of value.
Breathability is how fast a fabric can shift your sweat from inside to out. The bigger the WVT (Water Vapour Transmission) number the drier you’ll stay for longer if you’re working hard. Anything under 5k is poor, 20k is appreciably better than a bin bag but still sweaty, 50k plus will let you work pretty hard and only get moist rather than creating a monsoon in your coat. Vents, sleeves you can pull up and other air conditioning features make a big difference to overall heat and sweat management though. The best performance jackets will minimise the area covered by seam sealing tape too as that doesn’t breathe at all.
Whatever jacket you choose give it the best possible chance of performing by wearing the best wicking base layer you can afford underneath.
Incidentally you’ll rarely find WVT data on softshells but because they stay warm when wet it’s less of an issue than a clammy shell.
The first thing to realise is that no waterproof yet made will keep you totally dry all day on the bike. Yes, the fabric might be waterproof and you can watch water roll miraculously off fresh DWR coats or Gore One gear for an hour or more too. Rain will eventually soak up even the tightest sleeves and down the snuggest collars, at which point, those wicking layers will spread it as fast as possible. However good the theoretical performance, lots of water/mud on the outside stops water ‘breathing out’ from the inside. Warmer days also reduce breathability rates and make you more likely to sweat on the inside too. This all means you will always get wet eventually, it’s just a question of how soon.
There are loads of minimalist jackets for racers and roadies designed to tuck into pockets ‘just in case’ you need them. Superlight fabrics tend to be fragile though, so not good for crashing or charging through bushes in. Then there are the mid weight coats you can cram into (or strap onto) a Camelbak and then the proper heavyweight 'I’m wearing this all day long' options. You know what suits you best and we’ve rated all the jackets here for how easy they are to stuff and carry.
The thinner the fabric, the more likely it is to tear if you hit the deck, so if you’re a regular diver, look for reinforced elbows/forearms etc. Bag straps can also wear out waterproof coatings so if you’re doing big miles with a pack look for reinforced shoulders too. Otherwise all waterproof (DWR or Durable Water Repellency) coatings will degrade and wear off over time so be ready to reproof them once they start wetting out.
7. Fabric care
How you wash and look after your jacket makes a massive difference too. For anything breathable, fabric conditioner is an absolute killer as, simplification alert: the bits that make it feel 'nice' block the pores that breathe. Strong detergents will also strip off DWR coatings. In other words just rinse clean with water wherever you can, hand wash with simple laundry soaps if you have to and never chuck your coat into the normal wash if you want it to work properly afterwards.
There are a huge amount of extra features on jackets but don’t buy features you don’t need as they add cost, weight and potential leaks/broken zip etc. problems. Hand warming pockets are great for coats you’ll use off the bike but useless on it. If you want a hood, do you want it to go under or over your helmet? Do you want big vents to blow hot air out on climbs or is a really well-fitted cuff that keeps your gloves dry too what you’ll really value on the vilest days?
Finally, while you might get a bargain online and we’ll try and describe fit here as best we can, nothing matches actually trying a jacket on before you buy. Not just for sleeve and back length, but also whether it squeezes your forearm on descents and causes arm pump, or the hood bangs against your helmet.
The best soft shells you can buy today
If I had to pick one jacket to always have available from the tons I’ve ridden over the years it would be the Phantom. For a start out of the vast fabric range available from Gore, the thin Windstopper cloth is the perfect balance of protection, warmth retention when wet, quick drying and reasonable pack size. It’s totally bombproof too and we’ve got several Phantoms that have been going strong for years. The non Windstopper back panel keeps you cool and the sleeves zip off to create a short sleeved spring/autumn shirt that’s more versatile and less redneck looking than a gillet. While the twin zip process can be a bit tricky the resulting junction gives fantastic mobility without compromising comfort or protection even with a bag on. It also lets you tune under arm air con and the sleeves pack easily into the 3 rear pockets along with other essentials. Overall cut is really well judged to be snug without being tight and the zipped chest pocket stays stable even with a phone in. Add a huge range of colours and it’s the perfect single one jacket all seasons solution that’s comfortable from below freezing to double figure days depending on your base layer.
DHB is always a good place to look for a steal and if a hoodie is your style this is a winner. A gridded fleece inner shifts sweat fast off the skin and feels comfy when cold or damp if you’re wearing a thin or short-sleeved base layer. The windproof fabric has DWR treatment to bead water off too, so rain will take a while to seep through and be warm when it gets to you. Big mesh-backed chest pockets can be used without contents banging off your knees but also work as vents for cooling if they’re empty. The cuffs are well-shaped with extra inner cuffs to keep wrists (and therefore hands) warm and the back is long without looking daft walking the dog. The hood is draw corded to stay put and gets a stiffened peak to help fend off the rain. It is a bit bulkier and warmer than most shells but the casual cut means mobility is great even for bulkier riders.
Fox is undoubtedly one of the icons of MTB fashion, but this jacket delivers outstanding function too. It’s one of the first biking jackets to use Polartec’s Alpha technology which mixes impressive insulation and excellent breathability. Add a water shrugging DWR treatment and the result is a jacket that bounces most weather straight off and delays even the heaviest rain long enough to keep you warm and comfortable. The cut is really smart too, with stretch side panels keeping it snug enough to boost sweat shifting speed but not so clingy it compromises movement or looks weird in the lift line or at the bar. Reinforced Cordura elbows mean it’ll last longer than your first lie down which boosts long term value and offsets the high initial cost. There’s only one zipped chest pocket for essentials but that keeps pack size down and at 400g it’s not going to weigh your pack down if the weather really warms up.
The best packable jackets you can buy today
Based up in Scotland, Endura knows a thing or two about bad weather, often in a fast changing format and the MTR Spray is bred to deal with that exactly those conditions. Waterproof, highly breathable, seam sealed ExoShell40 fabric is used for the upper half, hood and outer sleeves which take the brunt of bad weather. Stretchy windproof water repellent panels are then used on the rest for a snug but unrestrictive fit. Long sleeves are well shaped for heat retaining glove fit and the hood fits under a helmet fine when it’s really beating down. It packs down pocket size and secures with a built in strap when you don’t need it too. The half zip ‘smock’ design keeps weight and costs down but there’s a full zip version for an extra £20 if you don’t want a pullover.
Alpkit’s Arro gives you everything you need to stay comfortable when the weather turns bad without taking up excess room or revenue. The windproof fabric gets a water repellent coating but it isn’t taped so rain will get through pretty quick. It breathes well though and dries very fast so it’s great for fast movers who are generating their own heat. Because it doesn’t sweat much it’s good on dry but cold days when windchill becomes the enemy. The collar is tall enough to add a bit of warmth and the lycra cuffed sleeves are generously long for pulling over frozen hands. The full length YKK zip can be relied upon not to burst when you need it most and the zipped rear pocket swallows the Arro whole when you’re not wearing it. At under £40 it’s a day saving bargain too
Gore’s ShakeDry fabric offers a truly outstanding mix of breathability, barely-there weight and rain-shrugging protection, but it’s eye wateringly expensive and worryingly vulnerable. By removing the outer protective fabric layer from the Gore Tex membrane, water beads on the surface in all but the heaviest storms and literally just shakes off as soon as the rain stops. Breathability is also brilliant for a full waterproof so while you will eventually get sweaty working hard it takes a long time and it copes with cruising fine. It also keeps this premium piece super light and the whole jacket packs into its zipped chest pocket for convenience and stowed protection. That’s crucial as the rubbery membrane is very vulnerable to snag and scuff damage on or off the bike. That definitely restricts our recommendation to more careful XC riders who don’t crash and keep clear of bushes though. Back and waist pack users should look elsewhere too as the fabric doesn’t like being rubbed the wrong way either. The C5 version is definitely the best fit for mountain bikes but there are tighter C7 roadie versions, hooded running versions and a cheaper Windstopper ‘Rescue’ jacket that isn’t waterproof but is more durable.
The best waterproof jackets you can buy today
7Mesh emerged quietly but purposefully from the Canadian outdoor gear aristocracy a few years back, rapidly building a cult following for fantastic performance from anyone who could afford their kit. The recently evolved 2nd generation Guardian uses Gore Tex Active shell with minimal width seam tapes for excellent breathability. Gore’s C-Knit backer gives it a really soft and mobile feel that reduces clamminess and cooling on descents so it’s noticeably nicer to wear than any other jacket we’ve tried. The 3 layer fabric is still day in day out tough though and the more you wear it, the more you’ll appreciate the subtle cut and shaping details such as the scooped and elasticated cuffs, dropped hem and full coverage, but not intrusive under helmet hood. Even the torso pockets wrap around your ribs for stability rather than dangling onto your knees, making them far more useable than most. It’s impressively light at just 250g too and packs down water bottle sized for relatively easy stashing. The cut isn’t so close it looks weird off the bike, which is a good thing as the price means you’ll want to wear it at every opportunity to get your money’s worth.
Altura have been a favourite cost-effective brand for over 22 years and always score for solid practical performance with an impressive feature list. The Mayhem 2 uses Stormshield fabric that’s on the tough and sturdy side with solid waterproofing and a WVT rating of 20k. That’s OK for cruising or uplift days but means you’ll be reaching for the pit zips as soon as you start working. They’re not very long though so air con is limited and like the other waterproof zips, they’re awkward to pull with one hand so stop and pre-vent to prevent overheating. The fully taped construction, generous tabbed cuffs and a full hood means it keeps water out well but you’ll need to go hood under hat with bigger helmets or it’ll tug on your neck. Chest pockets and general styling make it off bike versatile too and it’s generally bombproof build means we see loads of Altura jackets on dog walks and school runs as well as the trail. We’d definitely try before you buy though as the sizing is definitely on the large side unless you’re wearing big layers and/or body armour underneath. That’s starting to sound like a lot of grumbles, but compared to other jackets for a similarly affordable price Altura have ticked a lot of boxes for riders who need tough over tech.
The latest MT500 jacket isn’t just loaded with tons of useful features, it’s made from a killer cloth too. With its rubbery inner feel, we were concerned the ExoShell60 fabric would feel clammy as soon as we started blowing hard, but the 64k WVT rating is no joke. It’s PFC and environmentally friendly too. Exceptional breathability is backed up by super long side/underarm/upper arm vents with two-way zips and mesh-backed pockets that also work as vents. That gives more cooling flow through than any other jacket we’ve used which really helps control temp and speed up drying on extended exertions. The soft fabric doesn’t rustle or crinkle and stretch panels give a barely-there feel when you’re throwing the bike around. The sleeves are generous enough to stop arm pump or pull up for extra cooling, but still snug down cosily if things get draughty. The hood stows neatly with a QR strap, but gives extra, tall necked, peaked and draw corded protection under your helmet when you need it. The shoulders even get silicon grippers to keep bag straps in place and there’s a hidden inner pocket, a tethered glasses/goggles wiping cloth and a lift pass pocket on the left sleeve for park convenience. If you really want the ultimate protection, the MT500 waterproof suit joins the jacket onto waterproof zip-off legs to create a high tech onesie, that’s our go too for grim weather testing.
Sometimes you have to look outside the obvious options to find the right kit, but even we were cynical when this bombproof foresters jacket turned up for test. In normal trail use the BreatheDry fabric heats up fast when you hit a climb so you’ll need to open the pit zips early to try and stay dry inside. It’s relatively stiff and noisy and the super tall neck can feel awkward on the back of your helmet. The tunnel pocket across the front can’t be used when pedalling either. If you’re a gravity focused rider pushing up a climb or taking an uplift though, the limited breathability isn’t an issue. The fact that rain, wind, snow or whatever bounces off all day long to keep you warm and dry is awesome though. The tall neck and long cowled cuffs with soft inner sleeves and an extended tail stop draughts and drips and the detachable hood designed for a tree surgeon’s helmet will swallow a full face fine. Even that barrel pocket comes into its own when you stuff cold hands together inside it to warm up and the big chest pocket will take a phone and essentials without getting in the way. Add the survivability of the fabric if you hit the deck and it’s become our go too jacket for gravity sessions and its longevity makes it a black run bargain too.