Hardshell jackets are designed for the alpine: they’re highly windproof, waterproof, breathable, and durable. This is the outer layer you turn to for ultimate protection while backcountry and resort skiing, mountaineering, alpine climbing, and 4-season trekking. Below we break down our top hardshell jackets of 2017, from minimalist models for those who want to move fast and light to burly jackets made to withstand the worst winter conditions. For more information, see our hardshell comparison table and buying advice below the picks. And for lighter weight and more compressible jackets for everyday use and hiking, see our article on the best rain jackets.
Waterproofing: Gore-Tex Pro
Denier: 40D & 80D
Weight: 16.2 oz.
What we like: Excels in just about every category.
What we don’t: Expensive, and not ideal for fast and light trips.
Women’s: Arc’teryx Beta AR
Hands down, Arc’teryx makes our favorite hardshell jackets. You pay a premium over the competition, but nothing else on the market matches the combination of performance, fit, and craftsmanship. Their Beta AR jacket is the quintessential do-all hardshell and our top pick for 2017. If we were to choose a single shell for all uses, this is the one. It’s plenty tough to withstand brutal alpine conditions without compromising on comfort and breathability for ski trips or backpacking.
The Beta AR’s top-end Gore-Tex Pro fabric offers a high level of performance, but it’s the detailing that sets the jacket apart. The shell is thoughtfully designed for mountain use with a tall collar, fantastic hood, and just-right fit for mobility and layering. And it’s downright comfortable for a hardshell with lightweight 40-denier fabric on the body. The 80-denier Gore-Tex on the shoulders may add weight, but it’s built to handle backpack straps and rain or snowfall. The Alpha SV is a tougher, and you can save weight by choosing one of the thinner options below, but for all-around backcountry use Beta AR stands out as best in class.
See the Arc'teryx Beta AR
Waterproofing: Gore-Tex Pro
Weight: 17.3 oz.
What we like: Bombproof shell, fantastic detail work.
What we don’t: Very expensive.
Women’s: Arc’teryx Alpha SV
For the toughest alpine conditions—think piercing wind, driving rain, sleet, and snow—you won’t find a tougher shell than the Arc’teryx Alpha SV. The jacket sits at the very top of the Arc’teryx lineup in both weather resistance (the SV is for Severe Weather) and price, and its performance while ski touring and mountaineering has not disappointed. Arc’teryx updated the jacket this winter with a sturdier face fabric, new zipper design, and reduced weight. We’ve had zero issues with the durability of the substantial 100-denier Gore-Tex Pro—the highest denier fabric to make our list. Given the strong build, it’s impressive that the Alpha SV is only about 1 ounce heavier than the Beta above and slightly less packable. Nor is it lacking in any features: you get pit zips, plenty of interior and exterior pockets, and trustworthy zippers.
There is literally nothing negative we can say about the weather protection or durability, but its high price is a significant downside. $749 is an eye-popping total, and for the average backcountry explorer, the Alpha SV’s tank-like design is more than you’ll ever need. You can save money and weight with the Beta AR above, but if you’re looking for the toughest hardshell, this is it... Read in-depth review
See the Arc'teryx Alpha SV
Waterproofing: Gore-Tex Active
Weight: 14.2 oz.
What we like: Lightweight, stretchy fabric, and excellent breathability.
What we don’t: Less durable than the options above.
Women’s: Outdoor Research Clairvoyant
At just under half the price of the Alpha SV above, the Outdoor Research Axiom is an excellent value for a quality hardshell. The jacket is built with Gore’s breathable “Active” membrane, and weight is kept nicely in check for overnight trips without compromising on the feature set. The stretchy face fabric gives it a comfortable feel, and we think the trim fit is just right for wearing either with only a baselayer or a lightweight puffy. While we would prefer pit zips, you can open the front pockets to generate a little airflow in mild conditions.
The primary downside of the Axiom is durability. Even with the change in 2017 from 20 to 30-denier, the fabric and Gore-Tex Active membrane put a premium on weight and breathability, and aren’t as tough as the jackets above. For alpine use in and around sharp gear like crampons and skis, this can be a cause for concern. Fit and finish also falls a little short of the Arc’teryx picks above, but the clear benefit is the approachable cost. Even with the $10 increase for 2017, the Axiom is priced right for 4-season fun.
See the Outdoor Research Axiom
Waterproofing: Gore-Tex w/C-Knit Backer
Weight: 15 oz.
What we like: Comfortable; typical Patagonia quality.
What we don’t: Lower levels or durability and breathability.
Women’s: Patagonia Refugitive
Surprisingly, Patagonia is lacking in hardshell options compared to the extensive lineups from Arc’teryx and Outdoor Research. But this does not mean that their premium Refugitive shell is an afterthought. This Gore-Tex jacket is among the most comfortable to make our list with panels of built-in stretch and a smooth Gore C-Knit liner. The jacket’s great fit and mobility, along with features like a RECCO reflector and snap system that connects to Patagonia snow pants, makes it an excellent hardshell option for resort and backcountry skiing.
We like the addition of the C-Knit backer on the Refugitive, which has a soft feel and isn’t as crinkly as a standard hardshell, but this isn’t Gore’s highest performing laminate. The Gore-Tex “Pro” models above beat it in durability and the “Active” models are better breathers. But if you’re looking for a shell primarily for use on the slopes—and the occasional backcountry foray—the Refugitive offers high levels of comfort and a quality Patagonia build.
See the Patagonia Refugitive
Waterproofing: Gore-Tex Pro
Weight: 11.5 oz.
What we like: It’s just about perfect for minimalist climbers.
What we don’t: No pit zips.
Women’s: Arc’teryx Alpha FL
The Arc’teryx Alpha FL is one of the few hardshells on the market to successfully mix alpine-worthy protection and low weight. From the specs, it’s clear the jacket is a standout: durable and high-end 40-denier Gore-Tex Pro, 11.5-ounce weight, and sub-$400 price tag. For reference, the Axiom and Refugitive above use lower quality and less durable shell materials and weigh more. For weight-conscious alpinists, it’s hard to beat the Alpha FL.
We drop the Alpha FL in our rankings, however, because it lacks the universal appeal of the jackets above. To start, the FL only has a single chest pocket and no pit zips, which are limiting factors for use as a backcountry skiing or mountaineering shell. And given its climbing intent, we’re surprised that Arc’teryx did not follow OR’s lead with the Axiom and include a two-way main zipper. But the Alpha FL still is winner: you get Arc’teryx’s fantastic trim fit and detailing in a stripped down and packable design.
See the Arc'teryx Alpha FL
Waterproofing: Outdoor Research AscentShell
Weight: 10.9 oz.
What we like: Softshell-like comfort and excellent weather resistance.
What we don’t: A little thin and less burly than a standard hardshell.
The Outdoor Research Realm isn’t your typical hardshell—in fact, some retailers mistakenly refer to it as just a rain jacket—but its performance has earned it a spot on our list. We’ve taken the Realm fat biking and packrafting through torrential rain in Southeast Alaska and backcountry skiing and ice climbing in Colorado, and it’s more than held its own. Unlike the Gore-Tex builds above, the Realm uses a stretchy 3-layer AscentShell fabric. The design is one of the best in-house efforts we’ve seen: the lining is very comfortable and the stretch face fabric offers fantastic mobility while keeping price in check.
What are the downsides of the Realm jacket? The most significant is the thin materials. To be fair, we haven’t had any failures despite hard use and an extended 6-month test period, but the fabric is more delicate than a traditional hardshell. More, the Realm has a pretty minimalist build that doesn’t include hand pockets (there are 2 chest pockets) or pit zips. But as a hardshell jacket that performs in many ways like a comfy softshell, the Realm is a fantastic lightweight and packable option... Read in-depth review
See the Outdoor Research Realm
Waterproofing: Gore-Tex Pro
Weight: 16 oz.
What we like: Classy looks, premium feel and performance.
What we don’t: We prefer the hood designs from Arc’teryx.
Women’s: Black Diamond Sharp End
Black Diamond is relatively new to apparel, but quickly has put together a strong, performance-oriented lineup. Their flagship Sharp End hardshell does a fine impression of an Arc’teryx piece with a great fit, premium materials and construction, and a clean, technical look. With a 16-ounce weight, burly 70-denier fabrics, and features like pit zips and harness-compatible pockets, the jacket is well rounded for both serious alpine climbing and casual uses like resort skiing.
At this price point and intended high mountain use, the Beta AR above is the natural competitor to the Sharp End. The BD makes a strong case with a nearly identical weight, Gore-Tex Pro build, and slightly cheaper price tag. We do give the slight edge to the Beta for its more adaptable hood—the Sharp End doesn’t squeeze over all ski helmets—and Arc’teryx has a longer track record in long-term durability. But it’s hard to fault Black Diamond for just getting started, and their Sharp End jacket is proof they likely are here to stay.
See the Black Diamond Sharp End
Waterproofing: Gore-Tex Pro
Weight: 14.8 oz.
What we like: High-end build and reasonable weight.
What we don’t: Drop-in pocket doesn’t fit a ski goggle; hood is a little small.
Montane received a Gore license for the 2016-2017 season, and have quickly assembled a number of fantastic shells. The one that caught our eye was the Alpine Pro, which uses Gore-Tex Pro and a 40-denier face fabric for a great mix of performance and packability. Through a season of testing, the Alpine Pro has gone about its business as a solid shell for backcountry skiing, winter camping, and cold-weather climbing. It has fantastic mobility and a thoughtful feature set that includes a two-way zipper for use as a belay shell.
We like to think of the Alpine Pro as an Arc’teryx Alpha FL with a more complete feature set—high praise, indeed. The Montane adds pit zips, hand pockets, and a drop-in mesh pocket on the interior with only a 3-ounce weight penalty. This makes the Montane better as an all-around shell, although we were disappointed to find that the drop-in mesh pocket is too small to comfortably fit a ski goggle and the hood didn’t fit over our ski helmet (it does fit a climbing helmet). In the end, we think the Alpha FL is better for the fast and light alpinist, but we heartily recommend checking out the Montane if you value the extra features... Read in-depth review
See the Montane Alpine Pro
Denier: 40D & 70D
Weight: 15.9 oz.
What we like: eVent breathability, beautiful detail work.
What we don’t: No pit zips.
Women's: Sherpa Lakpa Rita
Named after one of Nepal’s most famous Sherpas, the Lakpa Rita is a beautiful, lightweight piece. The jacket uses an eVent membrane, which was one of the first to truly threaten the Gore giant with its excellent breathability and weather protection. What sets this shell apart from other eVent designs is the detail work: the zipper teeth are brass and supremely reliable, the main zipper pull has coloring that resembles a Nepalese prayer flag, and the jacket is cut for excellent mobility. In a full arctic blast, we still prefer the impenetrable feeling of a Gore-Tex Pro jacket, but the Lakpa Rita is nearly as good and saves you a lot of money in the process.
Compared with the other eVent jacket on our list, the REI Stormrealm below, the Lakpa Rita is the preferred alpine piece. The jacket has a tall collar, helmet-compatible hood (it even fits over most ski helmets), and 40-denier and 70-denier fabrics that have protected us from hail, sleet, and driving rain. More, the jacket undercuts the Stormrealm in weight by 4 ounces. But we do miss having pit zips—even with the highly breathable shell fabric. We still love our Lakpa Rita, but we turn to a jacket with pit zips if we’ll be working hard in mild temperatures.
See the Sherpa Lakpa Rita
Weight: 19.8 oz.
What we like: Beautiful design, functional FuseForm panels.
What we don’t: A little heavy and overkill if you’re not mountaineering.
Women’s: The North Face Summit L5 Shell
In our experience, a lot of products from The North Face fall short in performance and build quality, but one clear exception is their Summit Series. After a brief hiatus, the line was re-launched in 2015, and the lone hardshell offering is the L5 Gore-Tex. This jacket was made for top alpinists like Conrad Anker and is an encouraging sign that The North Face still has its performance chops. Durability on the L5 is impressive with panels of high-density fabric in areas prone to wear: the chest, arms, and hood. This “FuseForm” construction technique keeps seams to a minimum, reducing the risk of failure, and looks good to boot.
The L5 Gore-Tex unapologetically is an alpine piece, and as a result falls a little short for all-around use. Toughness wins out over weight and packability, and the jacket is overkill if you’re not mountaineering. And among expensive high alpine options, we still prefer the Alpha SV above, which manages to be more durable and 3 ounces lighter. But this still is a gorgeous jacket that shows no signs of shortcuts or compromise. You can count us among the many that are happy to see The North Face once again making this type of high quality performance gear.
See the North Face Summit L5 Shell
Waterproofing: Patagonia H2No
Weight: 9.4 oz.
What we like: Light and extremely packable for a hardshell.
What we don’t: Drop in durability.
Women’s: Patagonia M10
The Patagonia M10 has a strong following among climbers and backpackers for its minimalist build and easy packability. At 9.4 ounces and with 12-denier fabrics, it’s the lightest and thinnest jacket to make our list by a good margin. The M10 also is competitively priced at just under $400—something we rarely say about Patagonia apparel. Part of the explanation for the price is their proprietary H2No fabrics, which are slightly cheaper than a like-for-like Gore-Tex build, but still have a quality feel and impressive breathability.
In many ways, the M10 straddles the hardshell and emergency shell categories—for better and for worse. On the plus side, the jacket offers solid performance considering its weight, compresses easily into its chest pocket, and includes niceties like hand warmer pockets and adjustable cuffs. But if you’re getting into really tough mountainous conditions, we think a jacket with better protection may be warranted. The shell on the M10 doesn’t have the substance of a 40-denier or even 20-denier face fabric in sustained moisture or high winds, and the simplistic hood design isn’t as easy to dial in a secure fit. For lower elevations and less extreme weather, the M10 is a standout, but we think there are better lightweight hardshell options.
See the Patagonia M10
Waterproofing: DVAlpine eVent
Weight: 20 oz.
What we like: Complete feature set and fantastic price.
What we don’t: Heavy; less alpine-ready than the other jackets here.
Women’s: REI Co-op Stormrealm
It’s hard to beat the value of the REI Stormrealm: the jacket features breathable 3-layer eVent construction like the Sherpa above for about $150 less. And the cost cutting is not obvious. The jacket has a complete feature set that includes sturdy zippers and easily adjustable cuffs, hem, and hood. More, you get an important feature the Sherpa omits: pit zips. In all, the Stormrealm cannot match the build quality or tailored fit of the more expensive jackets on this list, but its trail performance is very competitive.
What hurts the Stormrealm in our rankings is that the jacket is caught in between categories. The 20-ounce weight implies serious alpine use, but the materials are a little thin and the hood is too small to fit over most climbing helmets. Instead, the jacket is best for hiking in harsh weather. And if you’re willing to carry a little extra weight, the Stormrealm is a fantastic value for a well-made hardshell. REI also makes a lighter weight variation of the Stormrealm, the Rhyolite, which has a greater appeal to backpackers with its 12-ounce weight.
See the REI Co-op Stormrealm
Waterproofing: Polartec NeoShell 500
Weight: 17 oz.
What we like: Excellent breathability and stretch.
What we don’t: Bulky fit.
Polartec’s NeoShell waterproof breathable laminate is one of our favorites on the market: it is air permeable so it keeps you cool better than standard Gore-Tex, and the fabric is stretchy and comfortable. There aren’t as many NeoShell hardshells offered as we’d hoped when the technology was released in 2010, but the Westcomb Apoc is a fantastic choice for high-output work in rough conditions. Its durable face fabric, quiet materials, and excellent breathability make it a great pairing for backcountry skiing.
There is a lot to like about the Apoc, but we still prefer the Gore-Tex Pro competition for their proven reliability and more abrasion resistant feel. Our other complaint with the Apoc is its fit. For one, the jacket runs big—depending on how you plan to layer under the shell, you may need to size down—and it lacks the precise tailoring that you get with Black Diamond, Arc’teryx, and Patagonia. Overall, the Apoc is a good choice and we hope a sign of more quality NeoShell jackets to come.
See the Westcomb Apoc
Waterproofing: Gore-Tex Pro
Weight: 20.5 oz.
What we like: Burly, alpine-ready shell.
What we don’t: Falls short of the Alpha SV above in most categories.
Norrøna may not be on everyone’s radar, but the Norway-based outdoor company has a serious lineup of quality hardshells. Their flagship model is the Trollveggen, which goes head-to-head with top-end models like the Alpha SV above. The Trollveggen is meant for high alpine adventure with a burly 80-denier Gore-Tex Pro shell and feature-rich build.
With a top-end price tag comes really high expectations, and we think the Trollveggen comes up short when compared to the Alpha SV. To start, the Arc’teryx shell is even more durable with its 100-denier shell fabric, yet undercuts the Norrøna in weight by over 3 ounces. More, the Trollveggen can’t keep up with the Arc’teryx in premium fit and finish and just-right tailoring. That being said, the Trollveggen is an impressive fortress of a jacket for serious alpine use. If the price were to undercut the Alpha SV, we’d be more than willing to move it up our list. But at $750, we give the nod to Arc’teryx.
See the Norrøna Trollveggen Gore-Tex Pro
Waterproofing: Gore-Tex Active
Weight: 11.8 oz.
What we like: Breathable fabric and small pack size.
What we don’t: No pit zips; less durable than the Alpha FL above.
La Sportiva is one of the few brands to focus almost exclusively on hardcore athletes. And that’s particularly true in their line of ski gear and apparel—it seems to be serious backcountry or nothing. From their fast and light line is their updated Storm Fighter 2.0 GTX jacket, which appeals to minimalists that want a shell they can stuff in a pack for quick ascents or multi-day tours.
At less than 12 ounces and with a lightweight backcountry skiing and alpine climbing intent, the Storm Fighter is a natural competitor to the Arc’teryx Alpha FL above. Both jackets keep things simple with a single chest pocket and trim fit. And they share the same complaint: we want pit zips, despite the small penalty in weight and packed size. In the end, we prefer the Alpha FL to the Storm Fighter because the 40D Pro face fabric is tougher than La Sportiva’s 20D Active shell and easier to trust in the alpine without any real difference in weight. The La Sportiva is still is a great shell, but we’d gladly spend the extra $20 for piece of mind... Read in-depth review
See the La Sportiva Storm Fighter 2.0 GTX
|Arc'teryx Beta AR||$575||All-around||Gore-Tex Pro||40D & 80D||16.2 oz.||Yes|
|Arc’teryx Alpha SV||$749||Alpine/all-around||Gore-Tex Pro||100D||17.3 oz.||Yes|
|Outdoor Research Axiom||$399||Minimalist/all-around||Gore-Tex Active||30D||14.2 oz.||No|
|Patagonia Refugitive||$499||All-around||Gore-Tex w/C-Knit||30D||15 oz.||Yes|
|Arc'teryx Alpha FL||$399||Minimalist/all-around||Gore-Tex Pro||40D||11.5 oz.||No|
|Outdoor Research Realm||$279||Minimalist/all-around||AscentShell||20D||10.9 oz.||No|
|Black Diamond Sharp End||$549||All-around/alpine||Gore-Tex Pro||70D||16 oz.||Yes|
|Montane Alpine Pro||$520||All-around/minimalist||Gore-Tex Pro||40D||14.8 oz.||Yes|
|Sherpa Lakpa Rita||$395||All-around||eVent||40D & 70D||15.9 oz.||No|
|The North Face Summit L5||$600||Alpine||Gore-Tex||70D||19.8 oz.||Yes|
|Patagonia M10||$399||Minimalist||H2No Performance||12D||9.4 oz.||No|
|REI Co-op Stormrealm||$249||All-around||DVAlpine eVent||20D||20 oz.||Yes|
|Westcomb Apoc||$520||All-around/alpine||Polartec NeoShell||50D||17 oz.||Yes|
|Norrøna Trollveggen||$749||Alpine||Gore-Tex Pro||80D||20.5 oz.||Yes|
|La Sportiva Storm Fighter||$379||Minimalist/all-around||Gore-Tex Active||20D||11.8 oz.||No|
- What Is a Hardshell Jacket?
- Hardshell Categories: Alpine, All-Around, and Minimalist
- Waterproofing Designs: Gore-Tex, NeoShell, eVent, and More
- Fabric Thickness and Durability (Denier)
- Weight and Pack Size
- Comfort: Crinkly Hardshells
- Helmet-Compatible Hoods
- Pit Zips and Breathability
- Harness and Backpack-Friendly Pockets
- Hardshells vs. Rain Jackets and Softshells
To be clear, there isn’t a perfect and universally accepted definition of a hardshell, but there are a number of common features that define this non-insulated jacket type. The most important is weather resistance: hardshell jackets offer high levels of waterproofing and windproofing for sustained exposure in harsh conditions. More, hardshells share a common 3-layer construction type that bonds an interior liner and exterior face fabric to a waterproof and breathable membrane. This differentiates them from rain jackets, which commonly use 2 or 2.5 layers as a way to cut costs and weight.
The combination of durability, weather protection, and breathability makes hardshell jackets popular for downhill and backcountry skiing, mountaineering, alpine and ice climbing, and 4-season hiking. The construction doesn’t come cheap: the most affordable jacket to make our list is the $249 REI Co-op Stormrealm, and you can easily spend upwards of $500 on a quality shell. But these jackets are made to last and are the kind of apparel you rely on when Mother Nature gives you her worst.
All hardshells do share a basic design and construction, but we’ve separated them into 3 general categories: alpine, all-around, and minimalist. Moving from alpine to minimalist, the jackets lose weight, features, and weather protection. Alpine shells are the most expensive and built for the extremes. From our list, the Arc’teryx Alpha SV, The North Face Summit L5, and Norrøna Trollveggen are alpine shells. They’re heavy, durable, and capable of withstanding brutal high mountain conditions.
If we were to pick a single shell for all backcountry uses, however, we would go with an all-around jacket. These designs balance the alpine and minimalist categories with enough creature comforts to work well in most conditions. They’re usually more durable than a minimalist design and feel less compromised with a full array of pockets. As the name implies, the jackets have a wide range of uses, from hiking to ski mountaineering.
At the lightweight end of the spectrum, minimalist hardshells are streamlined with very few features (they typically omit pit zips and hand pockets) to keep weight and pack size to an absolute minimum. They’re a great choice for milder activities like backpacking or climbing when weight is a top priority, but generally lacking in durability and weather protection compared to heavier models.
The quality and performance of a hardshell’s waterproof laminate is this jacket type’s defining feature. Gore-Tex still dominates the market—it’s no coincidence you’ll see their name on 10 of the 15 jackets that made our list. For top-of-the-line performance, Gore’s “Pro” laminate is the class leader. It balances high mountain durability with waterproofing and breathability better than anything on the market, but does come with a significant increase in price. Gore’s “Active” shell isn’t as hard wearing as the “Pro” models, but it’s their most breathable membrane and is becoming popular for high-output activities like backcountry skiing and hiking.
We’ve found that eVent, NeoShell, and Outdoor Research’s Ascentshell all are formidable competitors to Gore-Tex. eVent was one of the first to really break through with their direct venting design. An eVent jacket like the Sherpa Lakpa Rita is highly wind and water resistant, with a noticeable bump in breathability over standard Gore-Tex. The downside is durability and all-out weather protection. Polartec NeoShell and Outdoor Research’s AscentShell also use an air permeable 3-layer build to encourage airflow. And these jackets come with the added bonus of a stretchy, softshell-like construction. Overall, while there aren’t as many options on the market that utilize these 3 waterproofing designs, they are all worth considering if breathability is a priority.
There are a number of factors that impact a jacket’s durability, but denier is a helpful indicator of strength. Denier is a measurement of fabric thickness, and the higher the number the thicker the thread. Most all-around jackets for alpine climbing and skiing fall in the 30 to 80-denier range. Low denier jackets usually weigh less and are slightly less durable, while high number shells won’t pack down as small but can handle more abuse. Jackets that fall outside of the range above are more specialized: the very thin 12-denier Patagonia M10 is best for fast and light climbing missions or when weight is very important, and the 100-denier Arc’teryx Alpha SV is absolutely bomber but comes with a very high price tag.
Depending on how a hardshell will be used, weight and pack size may or may not be a priority. In most cases, we’re willing to carry a little extra weight into the alpine for an added sense of security. As an example, there have been very few instances where we’ve regretted packing our 17-ounce Alpha SV on a trip. On the other hand, for multi-day tours or if you’re traveling in mild conditions, it may be worth choosing a lightweight hardshell. The lightest and most compressible option from the list above is the Patagonia M10—it’s simplistic design and thin shell makes it nearly as packable as a rain jacket.
In ranking the jackets above, we placed a high priority on a quality fit. A good hardshell should be relatively trim but without becoming restrictive if you throw on a puffy underneath. In particular, we aim to avoid a boxy fit: those jackets have excess fabric that inhibits movement and flaps in the wind. Within the hardshell landscape, Arc’teryx consistently has our favorite fit—the time and effort that’s gone into the design and tailoring of their shells is immediately apparent when you slip them on. They’re comfortable with or without a midlayer jacket, and fit most body types very well. This is a primary reason that many professional mountain guides and serious outdoorspeople are willing to spend up for Arc’teryx.
Some of the biggest complaints of hardshell jackets are their rigid feel and crinkly sound. And the criticisms are typically warranted—the tough face fabric isn’t as flexible as a rain jacket and can be pretty noisy for activities with a lot of movement like skinning, belaying, or hiking. It’s a compromise we’re willing to accept, but there are some jackets that are less noisy and more comfortable than others. In particular, jackets made with Polartec NeoShell and AscentShell membranes, and Gore-Tex’s C-Knit backer are reasonably flexible and quiet.
A hood that can fit over your helmet is a pre-requisite for alpine use. When the wind is really blowing, throwing on a hood is your best form of protection. Almost all of the jackets on the list above include a hood that can fit over a climbing helmet (the REI Co-op Stormrealm is one exception, and it really has a hiking focus). If you’ll be skiing with the jacket, you’ll need a hood that’s even larger to fit the bulkier shape of a ski helmet. Most manufacturers list the jackets only as being “helmet compatible,” so we’ve called out hoods that run a little small—such as the Montane Alpine Pro—in our write-ups above. Our favorite hoods consistently come from Arc’teryx: they’re highly adjustable, easy to use, and don’t feel ungainly when you’re not wearing a helmet.
If you’ll prone to running hot or need a waterproof shell for high-output activities, we recommend choosing a jacket with pit zips. Even the best waterproof breathable membrane will make you overheat in mild temperatures on the skin track, and we value the ability to quickly dump heat. We also prefer pit zips to ventilated chest pockets, because the location under the arms is better protected from falling rain or snow. There are some cases where you may want to pass on the feature—such as for fast and light trips—but we’re usually quite willing to accept the extra ounces and slightly larger pack size.
Most hardshell jackets have hand pockets placed midway up the torso to accommodate a backpack hipbelt or climbing harness. The high placement means you can open and close the pocket without needing to pull up on the jacket or unclip the belt. The end result is that the pockets are slightly less comfortable—the location isn’t as natural of a resting place for your hands—but it’s something we’re willing to tolerate to make the pockets usable. Some of the lightweight hardshell options, including the Arc’teryx Alpha FL and Outdoor Research Realm, forego hand pockets altogether. You lose a little storage and don’t have a place to put your hands going this route, but many weight-conscious backcountry adventurers are happy to make the trade.
There are three general options for an outer layer: rain jackets, softshells, and hardshells. As the name indicates, rain jackets provide good water and wind protection. Compared with a hardshell, rain jackets are less durable and won’t breathe as well, but are quite a bit cheaper (prices range from approximately $80 to $200), lighter weight, and compress smaller for packing. We prefer rain jackets for daily wear, on summer backpacking trips, or as emergency shells when bad weather isn’t in the forecast. But if you’re headed to the alpine or are out in winter conditions, we turn to a hardshell.
As the names indicate, softshell and hardshell jackets are differentiated by the type and feel of their face fabrics. Softshell jackets are pliable, stretchy, and soft to the touch (especially on the interior), while hardshells are smooth and more rigid. In terms of weather resistance, it isn’t even close—even waterproof softshell jackets don’t offer nearly the same level of protection. Many softshells are only water and wind resistant instead of waterproof, instead focusing on breathability for working hard in mild conditions. We prefer a softshell in good conditions or on the climb up at lower elevations, but if weather really moves in, there’s no replacement for a quality hardshell.
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