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 for 2021, 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.
Weight: 1 lb.
Waterproofing: Gore-Tex Pro
Denier: 40D & 80D
What we like: Excels in just about every category.
What we don’t: Expensive, and not ideal for fast-and-light trips.
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. Among the many options in their extensive lineup, the Beta AR is the quintessential do-all hardshell and our top pick for this winter. The proven design is plenty tough to withstand brutal alpine conditions without compromising on comfort and breathability for everything from ski hut trips to backpacking. And Arc’teryx honed things in even further for 2021 with improved durability and a RECCO reflector for avalanche scenarios.
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 properly outfitted for mountain use with a tall collar, fantastic hood with easy adjustability, and just-right fit for layering and mobility. 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. It’s true that the Alpha SV below is tougher and has a slimmer and longer cut, and you can save weight by choosing one of the thinner options below, but for all-around backcountry use, the Beta AR is best in class... Read in-depth review
See the Men's Arc'teryx Beta AR See the Women's Arc'teryx Beta AR
Best Performance Hardshell for Extreme Conditions
Weight: 1 lb. 2 oz.
Waterproofing: Gore-Tex Pro
What we like: Bombproof shell, fantastic detail work.
What we don’t: Very expensive.
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 recently updated the jacket with Gore’s latest “Most Rugged” Pro construction and a RECCO reflector with only a minimal increase in weight. Given the strong 100-denier build (the most substantial on our list), it’s impressive that the Alpha SV is only 2 ounces heavier than the Beta AR above and slightly less packable. Nor is it lacking in 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. $799 is an eye-popping total, and for the average backcountry explorer, the Alpha SV’s tank-like construction is more than you’ll ever need. Moreover, you do lose out on hand warmer pockets with the alpine-focused design. In the end, you can certainly save money and weight with an alternative like the Beta AR above, but if you’re looking for the toughest hardshell, this is it... Read in-depth review
See the Men's Arc'teryx Alpha SV See the Women's Arc'teryx Alpha SV
Best Budget Hardshell Jacket
Weight: 14.6 oz.
Denier: 30D & 40D
What we like: Great price for 3-layer Gore-Tex.
What we don’t: Doesn’t excel in any specific category.
It’s not all that often that we see a 3-layer Gore-Tex jacket for less than $400, so REI Co-op’s Stormbolt GTX is an immediate standout. And on paper, there’s a lot to like: for just $279, you get a waterproof hardshell with a well-rounded feature set, including pit zips, a chest pocket and two handwarmer pockets, and helmet-compatible hood with a large visor. What’s more, it clocks in at a fairly competitive 14.6-ounce weight. There are signs of cost cutting like a cheaper-feeling face fabric and uncoated zippers on the underarm vents, but there’s no denying the Stormbolt GTX delivers a lot of bang for your buck.
Our biggest gripe with REI’s hardshell is that it feels caught in between categories: for hiking and everyday use, the fit is too baggy and the hood is hard to cinch down evenly. On the other hand, for winter sports or mountaineering, the thin shell fabric doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence. In our opinion, beefing up the construction to more closely resemble Patagonia’s Triolet below (another standard GTX jacket) would be a logical move for a future update of the Stormbolt. That said, the REI undercuts the Patagonia by over $100 and is still pretty formidable in rough weather. For another budget option, check out the Outdoor Research Microgravity below, which has a trimmer fit (some might find it too trim) and improved breathability... Read in-depth review
See the Men's REI Co-op Stormbolt GTX See the Women's REI Co-op Stormbolt GTX
Best Ultralight and Packable Hardshell
Weight: 12.7 oz.
Waterproofing: Gore-Tex Pro
What we like: Fairly uncompromised weather protection in a lightweight and packable design.
What we don’t: No pit zips and relatively thin 40-denier shell.
It’s nice to have the all-out security of a jacket like the Alpha SV or Beta AR above, but for weight-conscious missions like mountaineering, backcountry skiing, and alpine climbing, you can get away with a lot less. Many minimalist designs will be compromised in one way or another (like the REI Stormbolt above), but Arc’teryx’s Beta FL stands out as a fully functional hardshell in a lightweight, 12.7-ounce package. Most notably, you get Gore’s top-end and trustworthy Pro waterproof membrane, along with a protective StormHood and simple yet well-rounded feature set. It all adds up to a jacket that puts up a solid defense against the elements but stuffs away into a corner of your pack when not in use.
The Beta FL sheds most of its weight with a relatively thin shell fabric (40D), a trimmer fit (although we’ve found its dimensions to be plenty roomy), and a design that forgoes pit zips. In our testing, the combination of Gore-Tex Pro (including Gore’s Most Breathable technology) and 40-denier nylon proved to be impressively breathable, but those prone to overheating might want to opt for a design with better venting. And while the Beta FL’s shell won’t be the most hardwearing option for sustained bad weather (a multi-day winter expedition, for example), it’s a reliable companion for day trips and quick overnight excursions. Keep in mind you can go even lighter with a jacket like Arc’teryx’s Alpha SL Anorak below (7.4 oz.), but with standard Gore-Tex (no “Pro”) and a half-zip pullover style, it’s a more compromised design... Read in-depth review
See the Men's Arc'teryx Beta FL See the Women's Arc'teryx Beta FL
Best of the Rest
Weight: 1 lb. 2.6 oz.
Waterproofing: H2No Performance
What we like: Stretchy and very comfortable design.
What we don’t: Falls short of a full-on hardshell in very wet conditions.
Toeing the line between a hardshell and softshell design is the Patagonia Galvanized. At the hardshell end, its 3-layer H2No Performance construction and seam taping block wind and do a nice job repelling snowfall. Additionally, the jacket is outfitted for alpine use with a helmet-compatible hood, pit zips, adjustable cuffs, and harness-friendly hand pockets. On the other hand, the 12-percent spandex in the Galvanized's construction and brushed lining provide softshell-like mobility and comfort for activities like backcountry skiing and ice climbing.
As with most hybrid pieces, there are some compromises with the Patagonia Galvanized. Most notably, in very wet snow and heavy rainfall, the shell is more prone to absorbing moisture than a Gore-Tex option like the Arc'teryx Beta AR above. It’s also fairly heavy at 1 pound 2.6 ounces, and the jacket’s burly 50-denier face fabric doesn’t pack down very small. But if you prioritize a stretchy build for high-output adventures, there’s a lot to like with the Galvanized... Read in-depth review
See the Men's Patagonia Galvanized See the Women's Patagonia Galvanized
Weight: 1 lb. 7 oz.
Waterproofing: Gore-Tex Pro
What we like: Burly, alpine-ready shell.
What we don’t: It’s the heaviest jacket on our list; limited online availability.
Norrøna may not be on everyone’s radar yet, 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 designs like the Arc’teryx Alpha SV above. This Gore-Tex Pro shell is meant for high-alpine adventure with a long cut, burly 70-denier face fabric (and it feels even tougher in person), helmet-compatible hood, and oversized pit zips. Further, Norrøna included thoughtful touches like a secondary main zipper that allows you to widen the fit around the torso by about 1.5 inches to accommodate thick midlayers. All told, we’ve found the Trollveggen to be a seriously capable shell that excels in wet and rowdy winter conditions.
Where does the Norrøna Trollveggen come up short? The feature-rich build and extras like the second main zipper add a fair amount of weight and bulk, and at 1 pound 7 ounces, it’s the heaviest shell on our list. For reference, that’s more than 5 ounces heavier than the Alpha SV above, but the Trollveggen does include hand pockets and comes in a significant $150 less. Also, it’s worth noting that the jacket can be hard to track down online and its sizing runs a little small, so we wound up going up a size. Outside of these complaints, the Trollveggen more than lived up to expectations, combining premium build quality with bombproof protection... Read in-depth review
See the Men's Norrøna Trollveggen Gore-Tex Pro
Weight: 1 lb. 3.4 oz.
What we like: A solid and trustworthy Gore-Tex shell at a reasonable price.
What we don’t: Fairly heavy; fits and feels a little too much like a ski jacket.
It’s easy to get excited about all the fun tech working its way into the hardshell world, but there’s something to be said for a simple 3-layer Gore-Tex jacket. Patagonia’s Triolet is just that: its 75-denier face fabric and standard Gore-Tex membrane are plenty burly for alpine use, they didn’t skimp on organization with four exterior zippered pockets (plus a drop-in interior pocket), and its regular fit can easily accommodate a midlayer underneath. Plus, the Triolet excels as a ski jacket thanks to its extended cut, embedded RECCO reflector, and loop at the back for attaching to compatible Patagonia snow pants. All in all, that’s a lot of features and versatility for $399.
Where the Triolet comes up short is for high-output activities or fast-and-light missions. The thick shell can’t match the breathability of thinner alternatives or more advanced waterproof membranes (like what you get with Patagonia’s pricier Pluma below). Further, its 1-pound-3.4-ounce weight can be a burden to carry for extended stretches, and the jacket’s substantial build and regular cut have a negative impact on mobility (it feels more like a ski jacket than alternatives like the Beta AR above). But despite its shortcomings, the Triolet’s no-nonsense, trustworthy design makes it a go-to hardshell option for a wide range of winter sports at a good price... Read in-depth review
See the Men's Patagonia Triolet See the Women's Patagonia Triolet
Weight: 1 lb. 5.8 oz.
Waterproofing: Gore-Tex Pro
Denier: 80D x 80D
What we like: An intriguing competitor to the legendary Arc’teryx Alpha SV above.
What we don’t: Heavier than the Alpha SV and can’t match its proven track record.
Few jackets can compete with Arc’teryx’s Alpha SV in price and performance, but Mammut is giving it a real go with their $825 Nordwand Pro HS. Intended for serious alpine adventuring and backcountry skiing, the shell prioritizes mobility, climbing-focused features, and sturdy protection. Using familiar Gore-Tex Pro but with a burly 80D x 80D mix of the brand’s Most Rugged fabric, the jacket is built to withstand tough weather conditions and use around sharp rock and climbing equipment. And Mammut put some real effort into enhancing range of motion with panels of Gore’s new Pro Stretch material and a body-mapping cut that limits pinch points in the shoulders and underarms.
How does the Nordwand Pro stack up with the aforementioned Alpha SV? Both jackets are extremely protective with tall collars and extended back lengths, and both include harness- and hipbelt-friendly storage. The Mammut has the advantage in features with extras like a zip-out powder skirt for skiing, a two-way main zipper, and more pockets, but it can’t touch the Arc’teryx’s burly 100-denier construction or its 1-pound-2-ounce weight. In addition, the Nordwand has a ways to go to match the excellent track record of the beloved Alpha. These things matter if you’ll be heading out in the worst of conditions, which is why the Mammut ends up with a midpack finish.
See the Men's Mammut Nordwand Pro HS See the Women's Nordwand Pro HS
Weight: 14.6 oz.
Waterproofing: Gore-Tex Pro
What we like: Impressively lightweight and affordable for a winter-ready hardshell.
What we don’t: Overkill for some, colorways are polarizing.
Mountain Hardwear’s Exposure/2 series is like a fashion show for Gore-Tex’s various waterproof membranes: take your pick from Paclite, Paclite Plus, Active, and Pro. And while Paclite and Active technologies are at home amongst our favorite rain jackets (thanks to their lightweight and breathable nature), Gore-Tex Pro is the go-to membrane for most premium hardshells. Along with this top-shelf weather protection, the Exposure/2 here features a burly 80-denier face fabric and a competitive 14.6-ounce weight, which are simply remarkable specs given its $450 price tag. In short, if you’re looking for a high performance hardshell for winter conditions, you’d be hard pressed to find a better deal (most GTX Pro jackets are $550 or more).
We have yet to test the Exposure/2 Pro Lite, so we hesitate putting it any higher on our list, but all signs are quite positive that it’s a high-quality option (other Exposure/2 products we’ve tested have been well-made). And while you can bump up to the Exposure/2 Pro (no “Lite”) for a few more features (including an extra chest and arm pocket), we don’t think it justifies the extra $200. Something both “Pro” models share, however, is a fairly short back length of 30 inches. For reference, the Beta AR above measures 30.4 inches and we’ve found it a bit short for skiing. Finally, it’s worth noting that Mountain Hardwear doesn’t have the brand legacy of names like Patagonia and Arc’teryx, but we’ve seen their quality improve a lot in the past few years. As a result, despite being unproven—and featuring some rather polarizing colorways—the Exposure/2 Pro Lite’s combination of toughness and protection in an impressively lightweight build earn it a spot on our 2021 list.
See the Men's MH Exposure/2 GTX Pro Lite See the Women's MH Exposure/2 GTX Pro Lite
Weight: 1 lb. 3.4 oz.
Waterproofing: Gore-Tex Pro
Denier: 70D & 40D (stretch panel)
What we like: Gore-Tex Pro construction with stretch improves range of motion and comfort.
What we don’t: Climbing-focused build impacts versatility.
Gore released a new stretch variation of its Pro membrane for 2021, and Outdoor Research’s Archangel is one of the first products to feature the material. In short, this hardshell incorporates a large, stretchy panel along the upper back of the jacket for improved freedom of movement and comfort (the rest of the shell is standard Gore-Tex Pro). The added “give” is most valuable when reaching up, so OR has tailored the Archangel for activities ranging from ice climbing to ski mountaineering with a trim cut and extended back length. Plus, it’s harness and backpack hipbelt-friendly with raised hand pockets and a two-way main zipper. Added up, the Archangel is a capable and mobile option for rugged alpine use.
Among premium hardshells, the Archangel makes a strong case by mixing stretch with Gore’s bombproof Pro membrane. That said, the build is pretty focused on climbing, which impacts its versatility for backcountry and downhill skiing. You can save weight and get a more layering-friendly fit with the Beta AR above, and the Alpha SV and Norrøna Trollveggen win out in durability. It’s also worth noting that the stretch panel uses a relatively thin 40-denier face fabric, making it less ideal for extensive wear under a heavy pack. But for those looking for a premium alpine climbing shell, the Archangel is a well worth a look.
See the Men's Outdoor Research Archangel See the Women's Outdoor Research Archangel
Weight: 1 lb. 1.5 oz.
Waterproofing: Gore-Tex Pro
Denier: 30D & 40D
What we like: Thin fabrics enhance breathability.
What we don’t: Surprisingly heavy considering the lightweight materials.
Rab has been an alpine-oriented brand since its inception, so it’s no surprise that they make an excellent hardshell. In the past, they’ve used a range of waterproof options including eVent and NeoShell, but recently went all-in with Gore-Tex. The partnership produced the unique Muztag GTX, which combines lightweight 30-denier Gore-Tex Pro in the body (the thinnest Pro material available) with slightly sturdier 40-denier reinforcements. The hybrid concept is built for high-output mountain activities, and the combination of breathability from the thin fabrics and solid weatherproofing from the Pro membrane pair well for ski touring and climbing.
Where does the Rab Muztag fall short? Our primary issue is weight as the jacket comes in at 1 pound 1.5 ounces. When you consider that the Arc’teryx Beta AR above undercuts it while utilizing thicker 40- and 80-denier materials, it’s surprisingly hefty for lightweight alpine travel. Moreover, the use of thinner fabrics makes it less durable than the Beta AR, and its pricing is pretty ambitious at $500. That said, you are getting an upgrade in breathability, and its solid feature set that includes Rab’s signature wire-brimmed hood and lots of pockets makes the Muztag a capable backcountry piece.
See the Men's Rab Muztag GTX See the Women's Rab Muztag GTX
Weight: 14.6 oz.
Denier: 20D x 45D
What we like: Softshell-like comfort and excellent weather resistance.
What we don’t: Not as refined as our top picks.
The Microgravity isn’t your typical hardshell jacket, foregoing Gore-Tex for Outdoor Research’s in-house waterproof membrane. But that’s not to say it doesn’t hold its own: we’ve taken the Microgravity hiking in the stormy Cerro Castillo range of Patagonia, and were impressed with the jacket’s performance, comfort, and breathability. Key to its success is the 3-layer AscentShell build, which has also been used in OR’s Interstellar, Realm, and Skyward jackets. All in all, it’s one of the best in-house efforts we’ve seen: the lining is soft next to skin and the stretch face fabric offers fantastic mobility (unlike the rigid, crinkly material of some jackets here) while keeping price in check.
What are the downsides of the Microgravity jacket? We found the fit to be pretty darn trim for a hardshell—it’s especially tight in the waist when layering. In addition, the hood design could use some work: when tightened down over a ballcap, the cinch cord sits awkwardly and uncomfortably right over the ears (on a positive note, the hood is helmet-compatible with climbing and skiing lids). If OR ironed out some of the finer details, we think it could give the REI Stormbolt above a real run as our favorite budget hardshell. As it stands, the Microgravity is a slightly flawed but suitable option for hiking and fast-and-light mountaineering... Read in-depth review
See the Men's OR Microgravity See the Women's OR Microgravity
Weight: 14.6 oz.
Waterproofing: Gore-Tex Pro
What we like: High levels of performance and comfort.
What we don’t: Hood doesn't fit easily over a ski helmet.
Patagonia has a rich history in alpine exploration, so it comes as little surprise that their high-end Pluma is a real standout. As expected at this price point, you get a premium build including top-end Gore-Tex Pro, a cozy micro grid liner for exceptional comfort and sweat absorption, and pit zips—all at under 15 ounces. In keeping weight in check, we like that Patagonia didn’t skimp on features with three large exterior pockets, a zippered interior chest pocket, and a highly adjustable hood. All told, the Pluma checks off all the boxes for high-mountain adventures where weight and comfort are the priorities.
With a 40-denier face fabric and 15-denier backer, the Patagonia Pluma is on the thin side for an alpine shell. Compared with the brand's Triolet above, the Pluma lacks the thick 75-denier shell for protection against ski equipment or pack straps. Further, we found it difficult to get the hood fully cinched over a ski helmet (although it fit fine over a climbing helmet). As a result, the Triolet is the better all-rounder, but the Pluma’s weight, comfort, and features make for an appealing package... Read in-depth review
See the Men's Patagonia Pluma See the Women's Patagonia Pluma
Weight: 12.7 oz.
What we like: A stretchy and light hardshell at a good price.
What we don’t: Less bombproof and versatile than a Gore-Tex design.
Building on the success of their StormLine and FineLine rain jackets, Black Diamond took that expertise upmarket with the Highline Stretch. Here’s the story: this latest design includes a 3-layer variation of their in-house BD.dry membrane, has a light amount of stretch incorporated into the nylon build, and keeps things pretty light at 12.7 ounces all-in. The Highline sticks to BD’s roots with a climbing helmet-compatible hood (it’s too small for a standard ski helmet), and includes useful features like pit zips, hand pockets, and a tall collar. For fast-and-light alpine trips when you need a shell with good mobility and the weather won’t be too rough, the Highline certainly can do the trick.
Like Outdoor Research’s Microgravity above, the Highline does a nice job balancing price, weight, and all-around performance, but it can’t compete with a Gore-Tex shell in terms of outright protection and refinement. The construction is undeniably thin—it feels almost paper-like along the interior—and the zippers are fairly stiff and have a cheaper feel to them. As such, the Black Diamond can’t come close to matching the versatility of a burlier competitor like Arc’teryx’s 4-season-ready Beta FL (plus, the Beta's larger hood makes it fully functional as a backcountry ski shell). If you don’t need full-on winter protection, however, the Highline is a comfortable and well-designed hardshell jacket that costs significantly less than the Gore-Tex-equipped alternatives.
See the Men's BD Highline Stretch See the Women's BD Highline Stretch
Weight: 15 oz.
Waterproofing: Gore-Tex w/C-Knit
What we like: Tough, feature-rich hiking shell.
What we don’t: Expensive and its hood can’t fit over a ski helmet.
Arc’teryx’s Zeta series is tuned for hiking and backcountry trekking, and the AR (“all round”) is their top-end design. This jacket fits an interesting mold: it’s heavier, much burlier, and hundreds of dollars more than hiking hardshells like the OR Microgravity above, but it’s also not a true alpine option given its feature set and smaller hood that can’t fit over a ski helmet (we got ours comfortably over a climbing helmet, however). And yet, in testing the jacket, we found the 'tweener status to not be a problem at all—it’s surprisingly well-rounded and ready for anything from extended backpacking trips in rough weather to climbing and long-distance bikepacking.
What sets the Zeta AR apart is its feature-rich and highly weather-protective design. Despite weighing 15 ounces, you get a tough 70-denier shell and a surprisingly long cut for added protection (almost 2 inches longer than the Beta AR). And you also don’t have to compromise on niceties like pit zips and large hand pockets, plus its soft C-Knit backer along the interior is comfortable even when wearing just a t-shirt. In the end, however, its small hood is a problem for those looking for a one-quiver shell, which drops it lower down the list... Read in-depth review
See the Men's Arc'teryx Zeta AR See the Women's Arc'teryx Zeta AR
Weight: 1 lb. 1.6
Waterproofing: Gore-Tex Pro
Denier: 40D & 80D
What we like: Proven weather protection and a great fit.
What we don’t: A bit heavy and bulky for an all-rounder.
U.K.-based Mountain Equipment isn’t a household name in the U.S., but it’s starting to gain traction. One of the reasons is they make a great product—their Lhotse jacket can stand up to just about anything in terms of weather protection and build quality. This shell is designed as an all-rounder for various uses like mountaineering, skiing, and winter trekking, and features a familiar mix of 40- and 80-denier Gore-Tex Pro, a helmet-compatible hood with a tall collar, and pit zips. In addition, the Lhotse is known for having a great fit: it’s cut long to accommodate a harness and offers plenty of space for layering without impacting mobility.
Despite its one-jacket-quiver intentions, the Lhotse is less of an all-rounder than our top picks. The durable sections of 80-denier fabric and three large zippered pockets add bulk and weight, and we think there are better values to be had (the Patagonia Pluma above, for example, has a similar construction, weighs less, and will save you around $50). And a downside for those in the U.S. is availability: there aren’t nearly as many retailers selling Mountain Equipment as competitors like Arc’teryx, Outdoor Research, and Patagonia. But given the quality of their product, we’re hopeful that changes soon.
See the Men's Mountain Equipment Lhotse
Weight: 7.4 oz.
What we like: Hardshell performance for just 7.4 ounces.
What we don’t: Pullover styling and single pocket makes this a niche piece.
And now for something a little different. Arc’teryx has long experimented with minimalist jackets in their climbing-centric Alpha collection, but the Alpha SL Anorak here is their best effort yet. Clocking in at a scant 7.4 ounces, the Alpha SL manages to pack in a 3-layer build and impressively durable face fabric, which is a real feat in terms of hardshell design (previous versions of the SL resorted to 2.5L GTX in order to shave weight). This impressive performance-to-weight ratio is achieved via Arc’teryx’s innovative Hadron fabric, which has a ripstop grid of liquid crystal polymer (in laymen’s terms: its materials are cutting edge). As a result, the Alpha SL Anorak is able to compete with emergency rain jackets in weight and packability yet still maintains protection and toughness on par with many hardshells here.
Everything about the Alpha SL Anorak is streamlined, from the half-zip pullover styling to the single-adjustment Stormhood and lone chest pocket. But we were blown away by the jacket’s practicality during our testing: on Vancouver Island’s wet Juan de Fuca Trail, protection and breathability were on par with other 3-layer Gore-Tex jackets we’ve tested, and coverage was great despite the trim fit (we even layered it over our lofty Cerium SV down hoody). Of course, there are inherent limitations to an anorak design, and some might prefer more stretch in their face fabric for high-output activities. Further, at $375 you’re paying a lot for a niche piece that’s fairly impractical for daily use. But for fast-and-light climbers or mountain runners who want uncompromised performance in a lightweight and packable build (we stuffed ours into a 600ml mug), it’s hard to beat Arc’teryx’s new Alpha SL Anorak... Read in-depth review
See the Men's Arc'teryx Alpha SL Anorak See the Women's Arc'teryx Alpha SL Anorak
Weight: 1 lb. 1 oz.
Waterproofing: Polartec NeoShell 520
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 Arc’teryx, Rab, and Patagonia. Overall, the Apoc is a good choice and we hope a sign of more quality NeoShell jackets to come.
See the Men's Westcomb Apoc
|Arc'teryx Beta AR||$599||All-around||1 lb.||Gore-Tex Pro||40D & 80D|
|Arc’teryx Alpha SV||$799||Alpine/all-around||1 lb. 2 oz.||Gore-Tex Pro||100D|
|REI Co-op Stormbolt GTX||$279||All-around/minimalist||14.6 oz.||Gore-Tex||30D & 40D|
|Arc'teryx Beta FL||$549||Minimalist/all-around||12.7 oz.||Gore-Tex Pro||40D|
|Patagonia Galvanized||$349||All-around/alpine||1 lb. 2.6 oz.||H2No Performance||50D|
|Norrøna Trollveggen||$649||Alpine||1 lb. 7 oz.||Gore-Tex Pro||70D|
|Patagonia Triolet||$399||All-around||1 lb. 3.4 oz.||Gore-Tex||75D|
|Mammut Nordwand Pro HS||$825||Alpine||1 lb. 5.8 oz.||Gore-Tex Pro||80D x 80D|
|MH Exposure/2 GTX Pro Lite||$450||Alpine/all-around||14.6 oz.||Gore-Tex Pro||80D|
|Outdoor Research Archangel||$699||Alpine||1 lb. 3.4 oz.||Gore-Tex Pro||70D & 40D|
|Rab Muztag GTX||$500||All-around/minimalist||1 lb. 1.5 oz.||Gore-Tex Pro||30D & 40D|
|OR Microgravity||$249||Minimalist/all-around||14.6 oz.||AscentShell||20D x 45D|
|Patagonia Pluma||$549||All-around/minimalist||14.6 oz.||Gore-Tex Pro||40D|
|Black Diamond Highline||$299||Minimalist/all-around||12.7 oz.||BD.dry||Unavail.|
|Arc'teryx Zeta AR||$525||Minimalist/all-around||15 oz.||Gore Tex w/C-Knit||70D|
|Mountain Equipment Lhotse||$600||Alpine/all-around||1 lb. 1.6 oz.||Gore-Tex Pro||40D & 80D|
|Arc'teryx Alpha SL Anorak||$375||Minimalist||7.4 oz.||Gore-Tex||20D|
|Westcomb Apoc||$550||All-around/alpine||1 lb. 1 oz.||Polartec NeoShell||50D|
- What Is a Hardshell Jacket?
- Hardshell Categories
- Waterproofing Technologies
- Durable Water Repellent Finish (DWR)
- Fabric Thickness and Durability (Denier)
- Weight and Packed 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. In addition, 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 Outdoor Research Microgravity, and you can easily spend upwards of $700 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 three 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, Norrøna Trollveggen, and Mountain Equipment Lhotse 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 packed 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 are 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 most 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 standard shell isn’t as hardwearing as the “Pro,” but it can be used with much lighter fabrics, resulting in more minimalist pieces great for fast-and-light endeavors. Finally, we don't see Gore-Tex Active being used as much as we used to, but this membrane excels in the breathability department (plus it isn't as crinkly), making it a nice pick for high-output activities like backcountry skiing and hiking.
We’ve found that eVent, NeoShell, Outdoor Research’s AscentShell, and Patagonia's H2No Performance all are formidable competitors to Gore-Tex. eVent was one of the first to really break through with their direct venting design, and The North Face's Futurelight, Polartec NeoShell, and Outdoor Research’s AscentShell use an air-permeable 3-layer build to encourage airflow. Further, the latter two constructions (along with certain types of Patagonia's H2No) 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 waterproofing designs, they are all worth considering if breathability is a priority.
In addition to the 3-layer waterproof construction, another key piece of a hardshell’s protection and breathability is its durable water repellent finish (commonly referred to as DWR). This coating is applied to the exterior of every jacket that made our list above to prevent moisture from absorbing into the face fabric by beading up the droplets. A fresh DWR is an impressive thing and can offer sufficient protection and maximize a membrane’s ability to ventilate in light to moderate conditions. That said, heavy and sustained rain and snowfall will eventually overwhelm the coating, which is where the waterproof membrane and seam sealing come into play. Over time, the DWR finish will wear down, although you can keep it fresh by washing and drying the shell or reapplying a new coating (Nikwax’s TX.Direct Wash-In is our personal favorite).
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 thin 20 x 45-denier OR Microgravity is best for lightweight backpacking 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 packed 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 1-pound-2-ounce Alpha SV on a trip. On the other hand, for multi-day tours or if you’re traveling in mild conditions, it's best to leave a heavyweight like the 1-pound-7-ounce Norrøna Trollveggen at home and instead bring a trimmed-down hardshell. The lightest and most compressible option from the list above is Arc'teryx Alpha SL Anorak—its simplistic design and thin materials make it as packable as a rain jacket. The compromise, of course, is durability and rough weather protection. Jackets that nicely balance weight and toughness include Arc'teryx's Beta and Zeta ARs, the Westcomb Apoc, and the Patagonia Pluma.
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 Active and C-Knit backer designs are reasonably flexible and quiet. And if you're dead set on finding a quiet jacket, check out Patagonia's Galvanized, which has a softshell-like stretchy face fabric and supple lining.
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. 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 Patagonia Pluma—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 packed 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. At the extreme end of the spectrum are designs like the alpine-focused Arc'teryx Alpha SV, which foregoes hand pockets altogether and instead boasts dual chest pockets. 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 $100 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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