Meet the most versatile piece of gear you can own.

What’s the most versatile piece of gear in your closet? For me, the thing that I always stash along for an adventure (ride, run, climb, ski tour, hike) is an ultralight shell. Lightweight nylon shells are hardly new—but the development of tightly woven, featherweight fabric that are deceptively tough and very weather-resistant has fueled a new surge of windshells on outdoor store racks.

These shells range from windshirts with partial zips and no hoods to full-featured jackets with hoods pockets and draw cords. They can’t replace a true waterproof/breathable shell, but these new windshells prove effective in all but the worst downpours, especially when on the move and body heat drives out sweat and dries wet fabric.

Patagonia’s Houdini

I became reacquainted with windshells while on a expedition to Denali where I wore an old pocketless and zipperless Lowe Alpine Dragonfly. Since then they’ve steadily gained an ever more prominent place in my outdoor wardrobe with each passing year. Most recently the full-zip Patagonia Houdini ($125; has been my go-to piece. On sunny but cool or windy days, I’ll layer it over a single light base layer, and then additional mid-layers if I need them. On breaks, topping out on a peak or when I ski/bike downhill, I put a down or synthetic insulation piece right over the windshirt to keep warm. When the skies open up with snow or heavy rain, I pull out the true waterproof shell, which I often layer right over the windshell. It’s like a second skin.

Beyond the Houdini, here are a few other models I’ve recently been able to try out and that are definitely worth a look:

Arc’teryx Squamish:
The sturdy fabric and anorak design create a shell that can handle fairly serious weather all on its own. This year-round piece is a great winter option that can often replace a waterproof shell for ski touring and downhill skiing.

CAMP magic Anorak/Jacket:
An amazingly light and weatherproof shell, this baby tucks into it own pocket for stowage. You can even clip it into your gear rack for long alpine climbs. Beware the Euro sizing though—this shell runs seriously on the small size. Available in both hoody and hoodless versions.

Marmot Trail Wind Hoody/Jacket:
Marmot’s new ultralight windshell includes features well suited to running. (Hey, it’s reflective) It’s perfect for the budget-minded looking for a high performance piece, with its competitive price. $70/65;

Mountain Hardwear Geist:

Also new, the Geist sits in the middle of the pack price-wise and delivers a slew of high performance features, including reflectivity, water resistance, smpockets designed with earpiece egress points, and stretchy fabrics for mobility.