How to Choose the Best Hardshell Jacket
By Andy Wellman ⋅ Review Editor, OutdoorGearLab - Wednesday December 17, 2014
Hardshell jackets are extremely expensive and selecting the best one for your needs will get you the best return on your investment. Below we describe the difference between a hardshell and a rain jacket, the pros and cons of the various materials, and the specific attributes to look for in hardshell jackets.
Hardshell Jacket versus Rain Shell
When they're new, hardshells are no more waterproof than rain shells. Making a fabric waterproof is easy. What's hard is making a fabric waterproof and breathable, and making the material durable enough to retain its water resistance and breathability over time. If you measured the water resistance of shells over time and plotted that against price you'd see a strong correlation: more expensive shells stay waterproof for longer.
Hardshell jackets, which represent the best of waterproof breathable technologies, are made with better materials and with better construction techniques than rain shells. Choosing between a hardshell (which cost an average of $500) and a rain shell (roughly $150) comes down, ultimately, to durability. Do the activities you participate in, and the places you go, warrant the more durable jacket?
We believe that rain jackets will be best for the "average user" because they provide reliable waterproof protection and reasonable durability. If you find yourself sprinting to the car or the coffee shop in the rain more than you find yourself thru-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail or alpine climbing, then a rain jacket is likely a better buy. Rain jackets are more than capable of backpacking trips and some of our testers have brought them on extended travel trips to places like Antarctica. On the other hand, a hardshell jacket is ideal for hardcore users that travel through high abrasion environments or who spend extended periods (weeks to months) outside. They are unquestionably a more technologically-advanced piece of gear. They have better materials, are constructed with more advanced techniques, and have higher quality and better-designed features (hoods, pockets, zippers, adjustment cords).
Hardshell Jacket Construction
The shells tested here have 2.5 or 3 layers. Three-layer shells consist of: 1) an internal material that protects the membrane and reduces friction by allowing your undergarments to move freely beneath the jacket, 2) a "waterproof breathable" membrane, and 3) an external face fabric made of nylon or polyester. Three-layer hardshell jackets are generally the heaviest, most durable, most expensive, and also the most comfortable. Shells with 2.5 layers have a face fabric, membrane, and non-textile coating on the inside. Most two-layer shells have a face fabric and coating; they're the lightest, cheapest, and least durable, and fall squarely into the rain jacket category. All waterproof breathable shells have durable water resistant (DWR) coatings that aim to prevent the external face fabric from "wetting out," or becoming saturated with moisture.
Durable Water Resistant Coatings (DWR)
The primary conclusion from our testing is that the specific waterproof breathable technology matters less than the type of jacket (heavy duty, medium, or lightweight) and its fit and features. All of the waterproof/breathable membranes on the market work, to some degree, and have a heap of marketing money standing behind them to try to prove their "superior" technology to you, the consumer. The reality is that even after months of daily hands-on testing, it is nearly impossible to determine exactly which one works best. All the evidence is anecdotal and dependent on the varying conditions of the day. Basically, a hardshell's performance is as much, or more, a factor of an individual's metabolism, weather conditions, and product specific features such as sizing, ventilation, and the ability to resist abrasion, body oils, and dirt, as it is a product of the materials used in its waterproof/breathable membrane. That said, we'll briefly discuss water resistance and breathability.
Although the industry lacks a uniform testing system that would provide comparable results, water resistance can be quantified with the water column test. That procedure measures the height that water can be held vertically over a fabric swatch before it leaks. The majority of hardshell jackets tested here have water column ratings of 20,000mm, which far exceeds the pressures found in environmental conditions. Hurricane force rain, for example, produces the equivalent pressure of 7,000mm and a fire hose held at 30ft., 11,000mm. Thus all of the shells tested here are functionally waterproof.
Breathability is the ability of a fabric to allow moisture vapor to be transmitted through the material. It's a function of the difference between the relative humidity (rH) inside the jacket compared to that outside (when actively exercising, the rH rapidly rises close to or to 100 percent inside the jacket). Moisture can pass through a fabric in two ways. (1) Ventilation: a permeable fabric allows air, which may carry moisture vapor, to pass directly through it. Fabrics with large pores or lots of pores (mesh netting) breathe better than those with tiny holes or few holes. But air can pass through the fabric both ways: a cold breeze can come in from the outside and hot air from exercise can escape. EVent, DryQ, and Polartec NeoShell are membranes that purport to allow air flow, and thus ventilation, through them. (2) Moisture can pass through a fabric in solid-state diffusion: some non-porous textiles allow moisture transmission. This is how Gore-Tex works since it has air holes (pores) so tiny that it does not effectively allow air flow to pass through the membrane. For this reason, Gore-Tex is often described as more "waterproof," than "breathable." In order for a jacket to noticeably breathe in this manner there must be a significant difference between the rH inside and outside the jacket. If rh is 95 percent inside and 10 percent outside, you'll likely feel that water vapor is passing through the jacket. But if rH is 95 percent inside and outside the jacket (perhaps it's raining) it will not be observably breathable although moisture can still pass through it.
Specific Waterproof Breathable Technologies
W.L. Gore & Associates makes four primary waterproof breathable membranes that are designed for specific end uses:
The standard Gore-Tex three-layer membrane, called Performance Shell, is found in mid-level jackets, hardware, and footwear, but none of the models we tested.
The Pro membrane, formerly Pro Shell and XCR (Extended Comfort Range) before that, is their premium product that offers a 35%+ increase in breathability over Performance Shell, and it offers the company's best abrasion-to-weight ratio. Pro is W.L. Gore's most expensive membrane. All jackets that feature it have three layers and are designed for professionals, such as athletes and guides, who spend extended periods (weeks to months) outside. Both the Pro and Performance Shells consist of an outer face fabric, an ePTFE membrane, and a micro grid liner fabric. Starting in Fall 2013 the Pro membrane is now air permeable, whereas the Performance Shell membrane has an ultra-thin polyurethane (PU) layer that is not air permeable. Many of the products we tested feature a Gore-Tex Pro membrane, including the Patagonia Super Alpine, the Outdoor Research Maximus, and all four Arc'teryx jackets.
PacLite is W.L. Gore's most affordable membrane. It was developed for people who are outside for shorter durations, want something lighter than Pro Shell, and don't need Pro Shell's increased breathability and durability. PacLite is a 2.5-layer membrane designed for less intensive use and is less breathable and less comfortable than Pro Shell. Of the shells we tested, the Outdoor Research Foray Jacket is the only one that uses a PacLite membrane.
Active Shell is W.L. Gore's newest, lightest, and most breathable membrane. It is an improved version of PacLite intended for high output activities of shorter duration (weekend backcountry ski trips, fast and light alpine climbs). It is not intended to be worn under a 70 lb. pack. Active Shell achieves its lower weight and increased breathability through improved construction; the polyurethane layer serves as an adhesive that bonds the inner lining to the membrane, a process that uses less glue than Pro and Performance Shell. Additionally, the Active membrane is thinner than Gore's other membranes, so it weighs less. Our testing shows that Active Shell is more breathable than all other Gore membranes. It was slower to steam up, steamed up slightly less, and dried faster during times of low output. Also important, it looks and feels softer, like a wind shell, whereas Performance, Pro, and PacLite - depending on the face fabric - can be stiffer, crinkly, and can feel like you're wearing a trash bag. The Outdoor Research Axiom features a Gore-Tex Active Shell.
Finally, all W.L. Gore membranes have oleophobic properties – they resist body oils, which tend to build up in the neck, shoulders and hood areas. Each type of Gore membrane has the same film and liner and manufacturers choose from different face fabrics. In general, higher denier and tighter weaves increase the face fabric's price. This is one of many reasons why the Arc'teryx Alpha SV is more expensive than the other Arc'teryx shells, even though they all use the Pro membrane.
All waterproof breathable technologies are different. Gore-Tex Performance Shell membrane contains over nine billion microscopic pores per square inch. These pores are 20,000 times smaller than a water droplet, but 700 times larger than a water vapor molecule. Contrary to popular belief, water vapor does not pass through any type of Gore-Tex. Instead, the Performance Shell membrane's thin PU (polyurethane) layer forces moisture to move through the membrane via solid state diffusion – the PU layer absorbs water vapor which moves through the film as water droplets until it reaches the outside, when it can then return to water vapor and evaporate. Consequently, Gore-Tex Pro Shell is slightly less breathable than Mountain Hardwear's DryQ Elite and eVent. But, as we discussed above, the difference in breathability is both minute and largely irrelevant when you consider all of the other components of a hardshell jacket, such as face fabric, construction, fit, features, and environmental conditions.
Another thing that differentiates W.L. Gore from its competition is the company's role in the design and construction of every garment that bears its name. Any company that uses Gore-Tex is required to use W.L. Gore-certified factories and machinery. The fabric maker is also closely involved in the design and production processes. Every product must adhere to specific, often controlling, standards set by W.L. Gore. For example, if a company wants to make a jacket with Gore-Tex, the process works roughly like this: W.L. Gore sends the company material samples and the company designs and assembles the product. W.L. Gore then approves its style. It analyzes things like zippers, seam tape, hood design, wrist closures, etc. (For example, all Active Shell products must have a trim fit, few pockets or mesh lined pockets, as little seam tape as possible, and must weigh under 14 oz.) After style approval W.L. Gore subjects the gear to rigorous water resistance, wind resistance, and durability testing. If it meets all qualifications, W.L. Gore gives the go-ahead for production, but not without branding – every product that uses Gore-Tex must have a large hang tag and W.L. Gore logo. Though costly and time consuming, this system has a dramatic consequence: there are no "bad" Gore-Tex products. Every W.L. Gore hardshell jacket we tested is well constructed and reasonably well designed. Better yet, all Gore-Tex products come with an unconditional lifetime warranty. You can return any product at any point if you're dissatisfied with its performance. This includes all issues that pertain to water resistance, durability, and breathability. No other waterproof breathable manufacturer offers the same warranty.
W.L. Gore's largest competitor is eVent, which produces three-layer air permeable ePTFE membranes that are slightly more breathable than Gore-Tex (there's no PU layer), yet allegedly less durable. EVent works using a system that they call "Direct Venting." The eVent membrane allows air flow directly through it, allowing for direct evaporation of sweat liquid through the membrane without the need for a difference in relative humidity to force diffusion. Of course, while eVent claims that their layers are windproof, with airflow allowed through the garment they are not going to be as windproof as Gore-Tex, with its PU liner. There are trade-offs for everything, but the important thing to note is that eVent works differently than Gore-Tex. EVent is available with a wide range of face fabrics that offer various levels of tear and abrasion resistance. EVent was created by BHA Group, which was purchased by General Electric in 2004. Unlike Gore-Tex, eVent can be obtained without restriction and is sold as an unbranded fabric. EVent is the membrane used in the Rab Latok. EVent also has a membrane technology which they call eVent DVL which stands for Direct Venting Lite. It is meant to be even lighter and more breathable than traditional eVent, and accomplishes this by being essentially a 2.5-layer membrane instead of a three-layer membrane. None of the hardshell jackets we reviewed feature eVent DVL.
Mountain Hardwear Dry.Q
In an effort to separate their products from Gore-Tex, Mountain Hardwear launched Dry.Q, a family of air permeable waterproof/breathable fabrics whose technology comes from the same brains as eVent's. There are several different versions, with Dry.Q Elite representing the top of the line. To create Dry.Q, Mountain Hardwear bought the "film" layer, or middle membrane layer from GE, owners of eVent. So essentially the technology is the same as eVent, but Mountain Hardwear chose to develop their own face fabrics, liners, and laminating processes rather than use the ones GE does to create eVent. Like Gore-Tex and eVent, Dry.Q Elite pairs with different face fabrics for specific end uses. Mountain Hardwear claims that Dry.Q "prevents the wearer from getting soaked from the inside by their own perspiration at all levels of exertion." Our testers found Dry.Q Elite to be highly breathable, more so than Gore-Tex Pro, but it was almost impossible to discern any real world difference between the breathability of Dry.Q Elite and the other membranes tested. We tested the Mountain Hardwear Quasar which features a Dry.Q Elite membrane. The Mountain Hardwear warranty covers defects in material and workmanship for the life of the product. Think seams and zippers, but not necessarily the fabric itself.
Westcomb Shift LT, and loved it. Polartec claims that NeoShell is a "dynamic" fabric that allows for high performance in stretch weaves, and Westcomb used this stretch weave liberally under the arms and along the sides in place of alternatives like pit zips, to our approval. In terms of real world application, we found that the Shift LT breathed at least as well as any other product that we tried, although we were able to exert ourselves hard enough that sweat built up on the inside, so it's not perfect. The Westcomb Shift LT was by far the quietest, most mobile, and most supple layer that we tried, a far cry from the other stiff and crinkly options.
Patagonia H2NO Performance Standard
Patagonia M10, the only jacket from Patagonia that we tested, is undisclosed. In Patagonia's own words, the H2NO Performance Standard involves testing fabrics to 20,000mm in the water column rating (see above) before abuse, and 10,000mm after their "Killer Wash" test. The Killer Wash test is something they do to all of their prospective fabrics which involves washing them in specially designed abusive washing machine for 24 hours, which they claim simulates years of abuse in a short period of time. In our field tests, it was impossible to tell if the three-layer H2NO membrane used in the M10 was more or less breathable than other membranes. We do know that it was breathable and waterproof.
Choosing the Right Hardshell Jacket
The first step in deciding what is the best hardshell jacket for you is determining what the intended use will be. Are you better served by having a lightweight or a heavy duty one, or perhaps something in between? If long term durability, months or even years of sustained use, or extremely abrasive or abusive environments are in your future, then you are probably better served by looking at heavy duty models. On the other hand, if you will use it infrequently, need or want something very light, flexible, and packable, then a lightweight product is probably your best bet.
Another major consideration is what type of weather your jacket will be subjected to on a regular basis. "Normal" weather is completely different in the Cascades than it is in the Rockies. If heavy rain is a normal part of going into the mountains for you, like it often is in the Cascades, then you may want to look at a shell which features Gore-Tex, which is probably going to be more waterproof than an air permeable waterproof/breathable shell. On the other hand, if you live in Colorado, where it seemingly never rains and then only in very short spurts, absolute waterproofness may not be your biggest concern and an air permeable shell may serve you better.
Lastly, consider the outdoor activities where you will need your hardshell jacket. Backcountry skiing is intrinsically aerobic, you spend 90% of the time moving and sweating, so a lightweight, air permeable shell will probably keep you dryer from within. On the other hand, ice climbing tends to be a colder activity with long periods of sitting or standing still and potentially getting dripped on. In this case a heavier Gore-Tex shell will most likely keep you dryer from the outside and warmer.
The products described in this review range from $200ish on the low end all the way to more than $650 on the high end. Like most things in this world, you probably get what you pay for, although there are always trade-offs which may make a cheaper model more worth your while. In general, hardshell jackets are worth the money they cost if you really need one! For the especially budget conscious, you may consider checking out our Rain Jacket Review. In many circumstances, these layers can serve your needs, and if they wear our too quickly, you can often buy another one for cheaper than one hardshell.
Specific Attributes of Hardshell Jackets
Once you have narrowed down the field a bit by considering our intended use and price range, the final deciding factor will probably be an individual jacket's specific attributes. See our main Hardshell Jacket Review for details on specific attributes.
Hardshell Jacket Tricks
The Hood Trick
Preserving the DWR coating and the integrity of its face fabric is paramount to keeping you warm and dry. Store the jacket rolled up in its hood whenever you aren't wearing it. How: 1) lay it down on a clean surface or drape the shoulder area over one of your arms, 2) fold its arms in across the chest, 3) fold the sides of the torso in so that it is roughly in thirds, 4) roll it up and tuck it into the hood. This minimizes the area that contacts the dirt and grime on the inside of your pack or duffel bag, and rolling any fabric is better than stuffing it because it creates fewer creases.
The Sleeping Bag Trick
Wrap the bottom of your sleeping bag in your hardshell jacket to prevent it from getting wet from condensation absorbed from the tent wall. How: close the front zipper, tuck the hood and arms inside, and slide it over the foot of the bag. This prevents condensation (on the inner wall of the tent) from getting your bag wet. It's more important with down bags than synthetic, and don't do it if your jacket is wet. Keep the arms out and open the pit zips slightly if you find that it isn't breathing enough.
The Windshell Trick
When bushwacking through very dense brush and trees cover your expensive hardshell jacket with a windshell. Although this reduces the jacket's breathability, it protects your better jacket and concentrates dirt and abrasion on the windshell, which is cheaper to replace and easier to repair. See our Wind Jacket Review if you don't have one.
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