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 2018-2019, 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: 16 oz.
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. Their Beta AR jacket is the quintessential do-all hardshell and our top pick for 2018-2019. 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 that now has upgraded cord locks for better security, 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 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 stands out as best in class... Read in-depth review
See the Men's Arc'teryx Beta AR See the Women's Arc'teryx Beta AR
A Close Second (For the Toughest Conditions)
Weight: 17.3 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 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 Men's Arc'teryx Alpha SV See the Women's Arc'teryx Alpha SV
Best Budget Hardshell Jacket
Weight: 11.6 oz.
What we like: Softshell-like comfort and excellent weather resistance.
What we don’t: Thinner and less burly than a standard hardshell.
The Outdoor Research Interstellar isn’t your typical hardshell jacket, foregoing Gore-Tex for an in-house design, but its performance in the field has earned it a top spot on our list. We’ve taken the Interstellar fat biking and hiking through torrential rain, wind, and even snow in Alaska’s Wrangell and St. Elias Ranges, and it’s more than held its own. Key to its success is the 3-layer AscentShell build, which we’ve used in the past in OR’s Realm and Skyward jackets. All in all, it’s 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 Interstellar jacket? The most significant is the thin materials. To be fair, we haven’t had any failures despite hard use, but the 20-denier face fabric is more delicate than a traditional hardshell (most are 40D or more). Further, the Interstellar has a pretty minimalist build that omits pit zips, although the pockets have mesh linings for use as core vents. Overall, as a budget-friendly hardshell jacket that performs in many ways like a comfy softshell, the Interstellar is an excellent lightweight and packable option.
See the Men's Outdoor Research Interstellar See the Women's OR Interstellar
Best Hardshell for Hiking and Backpacking
Weight: 10.5 oz.
Waterproofing: Gore-Tex Active
What we like: Lightweight, breathable, and an excellent value.
What we don’t: Designed more for hiking than skiing or climbing.
REI recently received a Gore license and has jumped into the hardshell category in a serious way. As we’ve come to expect, their new lineup delivers big-time value considering the performance and quality. The $249 Drypoint is a top-notch jacket that undercuts the competition by $100 or more: you get 3-layer Gore-Tex Active, a light and flexible shell, and nice detailing like hipbelt-friendly mesh-lined pockets that double as core vents for staying cool. This isn’t your hardcore alpine piece—the hood won’t fit over a helmet and the jacket is pretty thin overall—but the Drypoint GTX is a great option for year-round backpackers.
At 10.5 ounces, the Drypoint is one of the lightest hardshells on our list, but it’s also one of the least durable. Gore-Tex Active prioritizes breathability and comfort over toughness—at least compared to premium Gore-Tex Pro—and the 20-denier face fabric won’t hold up as well to scrapes against rock or sharp gear as the pricier Outdoor Research Refugitive or Arc’teryx Alpha FL. But for its intended uses as a backpacking shell, it’s just about perfect—we wore the Drypoint extensively on a trek in Patagonia and it shed rain, high winds, and even a little snow with ease... Read in-depth review
See the Men's REI Co-op Drypoint GTX See the Women's REI Co-op Drypoint GTX
Best Hardshell for Fast-and-Light Adventures
Weight: 11.5 oz.
Waterproofing: Gore-Tex Pro
What we like: It’s just about perfect for minimalist climbers.
What we don’t: No hand pockets or two-way zipper.
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 price tag of just over $400. For reference, the Optimizer and Refugitive below 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 Optimizer 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... Read in-depth review
See the Men's Arc'teryx Alpha FL See the Women's Arc'teryx Alpha FL
Best of the Rest
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 been surprisingly lacking in the high-end hardshell market of late, but they’re back in a big way with the Pluma. This new jacket is the real deal: you get 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 3 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 Beta AR above, the Patagonia lacks the beefed-up panels of 80-denier nylon 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 Beta AR is the better all-rounder, but the Pluma’s weight, comfort, and features make for an appealing package.
See the Men's Patagonia Pluma See the Women's Patagonia Pluma
Weight: 12.9 oz.
Waterproofing: Gore-Tex Active
What we like: Loaded with features but still lightweight.
What we don’t: Less of an all-rounder than the Beta AR and Pluma above.
For 2018, Outdoor Research has replaced the popular Axiom with the Optimizer jacket. This new shell retains the Axiom’s breathable Gore-Tex Active membrane, but sheds more than an ounce of weight without compromising on the feature set. It’s also more alpine-ready with a helmet-compatible hood, two-way main zipper, and fit that can accommodate puffy midlayers. As with their Interstellar above, the focus on trimming weight does mean you don’t get pit zips, but you can open the Optimizer’s front pockets to generate a little airflow in mild conditions.
What pushes the new OR Optimizer down our list is that it’s not as well-rounded as the Arc’teryx Beta AR or Patagonia Pluma above. The thin 20-denier shell isn’t as durable as a 40D or 80D design for skiing or climbing, and it’s an expensive choice for backpacking (the REI Drypoint above has the same Gore-Tex Active membrane and is $150 less). We’re also sad to see that the comfortable and stretchy shell of the Axiom has been replaced by a more rigid face fabric. All that said, the Optimizer does offer a compelling mix of features and weight.
See the Men's Outdoor Research Optimizer See the Women's OR Optimizer
Weight: 16 oz.
Waterproofing: Gore-Tex Pro
What we like: Classy looks, premium feel and performance.
What we don’t: We prefer the hood designs from Arc’teryx.
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 Men's Black Diamond Sharp End See the Women's Black Diamond Sharp End
Weight: 18 oz.
What we like: eVent breathability and massive pit zips.
What we don’t: Heavy.
Rab has been an alpine-oriented brand since its inception, so it’s little surprise that they make an excellent hardshell. Among eVent designs, their Latok Alpine is one of the best we’ve seen. Featuring massive pit zips that extend far up the sleeves—you can even slip your arms out of the sleeves without removing the jacket to cool off—the shell has phenomenal ventilation, and the eVent membrane lives up to its billing as one of the best designs on the market in terms of breathability. Rab also nailed the little details like a piece of Velcro at the back of the neck for rolling and securing the hood when it’s not needed.
Where does the Latok Alpine fall short? The focus on features has added a fair bit of weight and bulk, and at 18 ounces it’s among the heaviest hardshells on our list. More, the eVent fabric isn’t as tough as Gore-Tex’s Pro, so you’re not getting a super durable jacket even with the extra ounces. But for activities like ski touring where ventilation and features really matter, the Latok Alpine is a great option. And at $400, we also think it’s a fantastic value.
See the Men's Rab Latok Alpine See the Women's Rab Latok Alpine
Weight: 18.7 oz.
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 3 large zippered pockets all add bulk and weight, and at 18.7 ounces, the jacket even outweighs the 100-denier Alpha SV above. 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 Marmot. But given the quality of their product, we’re hopeful that changes soon.
See the Men's Mountain Equipment Lhotse See the Women's Mountain Equipment Manaslu
Weight: 15 oz.
Waterproofing: Gore-Tex w/C-Knit Backer
What we like: Comfortable; typical Patagonia quality.
What we don’t: Lower levels of durability and breathability.
The big news for 2018 from Patagonia is the new Pluma above, 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 Men's Patagonia Refugitive See the Women's Patagonia Refugitive
Weight: 14.8 oz.
Waterproofing: Gore-Tex Pro
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.
In only a couple years, Montane has quickly assembled a number of fantastic Gore-Tex 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. The biggest challenge may be tracking one down as the brand is only sold through a few online retailers in the United States... Read in-depth review
See the Men's Montane Alpine Pro See the Women's Montane Alpine Pro
Weight: 5.8 oz.
What we like: Surprisingly tough given its ultralight build.
What we don’t: Odd fit and not as weatherproof as most hardshells.
Hyperlite’s The Shell is a whole different breed of hardshell. At less than 6 ounces, it undercuts the old ultralight favorite, Patagonia’s M10 Anorak, by over an ounce. It’s also more durable and breathable with an eVent membrane sandwiched between high-tech Dyneema layers. Formerly known as Cuben Fiber, Dyneema is ultra-strong for its weight and a popular fabric for minimalist packs and shelters. Overall, The Shell’s design is unapologetically technical: the exterior seam taping and crinkly look and feel don’t play well around town, but it’s a suitable UL option for climbers, thru-hikers, and other backcountry explorers.
The Shell truly is an impressive piece, but it has its fair share of downsides. For one, we didn’t like the unisex fit: we originally tried our typical medium size, which was massive, but the small was tight in the hips and chest when wearing a puffy underneath. Further, its thin construction is less weatherproof than a traditional Gore-Tex build. We felt more wind penetrating the jacket than usual (granted this was extremely rough Patagonian wind), and the material pressed against our skin in heavy rain showers. Relative to its weight, the Hyperlite is a strong performer, but we’d consider it one step below a full-on hardshell in overall protection.
See the Hyperlite The Shell
Weight: 17 oz.
Waterproofing: Polartec NeoShell 500
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 Men's Westcomb Apoc
Weight: 7 oz.
Waterproofing: Patagonia H2No
What we like: Light and extremely packable for a hardshell.
What we don’t: Only available in an anorak style; drop in durability.
The Patagonia M10 has had a strong following among climbers and backpackers for its minimalist build and easy packability. Surprisingly, the standard jacket version has been discontinued. We’re hopeful it’ll return soon, but the good news is that Patagonia has kept the Anorak half-zip. At just 7 ounces and with 12-denier fabrics, it’s the lightest and thinnest hardshell to make our list by a good margin. The M10 also is competitively priced at under $400—something we rarely say about Patagonia apparel. Part of the explanation 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 pullover jacket offers solid performance considering its weight and compresses easily into its chest pocket. But if you’re getting into really tough mountainous conditions, 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 above.
See the Men's Patagonia M10 Anorak
Weight: 19.9 oz.
What we like: Beautiful detailing and high-quality materials.
What we don’t: Not a standout performer in any specific category.
We’ve enjoyed Sherpa’s high-quality eVent hardshells in the past, but the California-based company recently moved exclusively to their in-house Himaltec waterproof design. From the current lineup, their Lithang checks the boxes for a standard hardshell: it’s tough and weather worthy with a thick 3-layer construction and full-coverage, helmet-compatible hood. As with their previous jackets, Sherpa continues to impress with thee details: the unique brass zippers feel bulletproof and have a reassuring heft that you typically don’t find in a performance piece. Unfortunately, the extras do add weight, and at nearly 20 ounces, this isn’t a jacket to stuff away into a pack. But for shorter ski and climbing trips, the Lithang is a fine choice.
The biggest challenge for the Sherpa Lithang is the level of competition at the $300 price point. Outdoor Research’s Interstellar above is significantly lighter, easier to pack, and more comfortable with its stretchy construction. Further, the OR’s air-permeable design is the better breather, although the Lithang’s pit zips make it easier to quickly dump heat. We like the detailing on the jacket and the durability that comes with the 65-denier shell, but the Lithang fails to stand out in other ways.
See the Men's Sherpa Lithang See the Women's Sherpa Lithang
Weight: 20.5 oz.
Waterproofing: Gore-Tex Pro
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 Men's Norrøna Trollveggen Gore-Tex Pro
|Arc'teryx Beta AR||$575||All-around||16 oz.||Gore-Tex Pro||40D & 80D|
|Arc’teryx Alpha SV||$749||Alpine/all-around||17.3 oz.||Gore-Tex Pro||100D|
|Outdoor Research Interstellar||$299||Minimalist/all-around||11.6 oz.||AscentShell||20D|
|REI Co-op Drypoint GTX||$249||Minimalist||10.5 oz.||Gore-Tex Active||20D|
|Arc'teryx Alpha FL||$425||Minimalist/all-around||11.5 oz.||Gore-Tex Pro||40D|
|Patagonia Pluma||$549||All-around/minimalist||14.6 oz.||Gore-Tex Pro||40D|
|Outdoor Research Optimizer||$399||Minimalist/all-around||12.9 oz.||Gore-Tex Active||20D|
|Black Diamond Sharp End||$549||All-around/alpine||16 oz.||Gore-Tex Pro||70D|
|Rab Latok Alpine||$400||All-around/alpine||18 oz.||eVent||Unavail.|
|Mountain Equipment Lhotse||$600||Alpine/all-around||18.7 oz.||Gore-Tex Pro||40D & 80D|
|Patagonia Refugitive||$499||All-around||15 oz.||Gore-Tex w/C-Knit||30D|
|Montane Alpine Pro||$520||All-around/minimalist||14.8 oz.||Gore-Tex Pro||40D|
|Hyperlite The Shell||$450||Minimalist||5.8 oz.||eVent||Unavail.|
|Westcomb Apoc||$520||All-around/alpine||17 oz.||Polartec NeoShell||50D|
|Patagonia M10 Anorak||$379||Minimalist||7 oz.||H2No Performance||12D|
|Sherpa Lithang||$300||All-around||19.9 oz.||Himaltec||65D|
|Norrøna Trollveggen||$749||Alpine||20.5 oz.||Gore-Tex Pro||80D|
- 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 Drypoint, 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 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 17 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 (plus it isn't as crinkly) 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 Rab Latok Alpine 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 Hyperlite's The Shell—it’s simplistic design and thin materials 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 Active and C-Knit backer designs 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 Drypoint 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, 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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