How to Choose the Best Hardshell Jacket and Care Tips
By Chris McNamara and Max Neale - Saturday January 18, 2014
Hardshell jackets are ridiculously expensive. Selecting the best one for your needs will get you the most return on your investment. Below we describe the difference between a hardshell and a rain jacket, the pros and cons of the various hardshell materials, specific attributes to look for in hardshells, and care tips and tricks for keeping your ultra pricey jacket in tip-top condition.
Hardshell 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.
Hardshells, 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 through 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 . A hardshell jacket is ideal for hardcore users that travel though high abrasion environments or who spend extended periods (weeks to months) outside. Hardshell are unquestionably a better. They have better materials, are constructed with more advanced techniques, and have higher quality and better-designed features (hoods, pockets, zippers, adjustment cords). You can't go wrong with a hardshell. But do you really need the Ferrari or the V8 Turbo Diesel?
Hardshell Jacket Construction
The shells tested here have 2, 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 hardshells 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, least durable, and least comfortable. All waterproof breathable fabrics have durable water resistant (DWR) coatings that aim to prevent the external face fabric from "wetting out," or becoming saturated with moisture.
DWR, the downfall of waterproof breathable technology
When a face fabric wets out the jacket's breathability is severely compromised. Unfortunately, both for your comfort and your wallet, all DWR coatings eventually fail due to abrasion, dirt, body oils, and prolonged use. This inevitable failure (which could come in as little as a month of use) is the downfall of waterproof breathable technology. Waterproof jackets are only breathable when their face fabric is dry. (Water vapor that passes from within the jacket through the membrane will condense into liquid form when it hits a wet face fabric.) Thus, you must clean a hardshell and restore its DWR coating regularly in order for it to breathe (see the bottom of this page for more info).
The primary conclusion from our testing is that the specific waterproof breathable technology in a hardshell matters less than the type of jacket (heavy duty, medium, or lightweight) and its fit and features. A hardshell's performance is as much a factor of its materials as it is an individual's metabolism, weather conditions, and product specific features such as sizing, ventilation, and the ability to resist abrasion, body oils, and dirt. 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 hardshells 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 and that outside the jacket (when actively exercising the rH rapidly rises close to or to 100 percent). 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 (eVent, Dry Q). But air can pass through the jacket both ways: a cold breeze can come in from the outside and hot air from exercise can escape. (2) Moisture can pass through a fabric is solid-state diffusion: some non-porous textiles allow moisture transmission. Drop clothes used for painting do not, but the polyurethane layer in some Gore-Tex membranes do. For example, the Gore PacLite membrane has been chemically altered to absorb moisture vapor through the material, in a solid state, to the exterior where it can evaporate. (Vapor to liquid to vapor.) In order for a jacket to noticeably breathe 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
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 jackets we tested. The Pro membrane, formerly Pro Shell and XCR (Extended Comfort Range) before that, is their premium product that offers a 35%+ percent increase in breathability over Performance Shell, and the company's best abrasion-to-weight ratio. Pro is Gore's most expensive membrane. All jacket that feature it have 3 layers and are designed for professionals, such as athletes and guides, who spend extended periods (weeks to months) outside. Both Pro and Performance Shell 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. PacLite is Gore's most affordable membrane. It was developed for weekend warriors: people who are outside for shorter durations, want something lighter than Pro Shell, and don't need Pro Shell's increased breathability and durabilty. PacLite is a 2.5 layer membrane designed as an insurance piece; it's not intended to be used for extended periods; it's less breathable and less comfortable than Pro Shell. Of the shells we tested, the Beyond Clothing Ridgeback is the only one that uses a PacLite membrane. Active Shell is 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 same is true for different versions of eVent and Dry Q). Finally, all Gore membranes have oleophobic properties – they resist body oils, which tend to build up in the neck, shoulders and hood areas. Curiously, Patagonia found the oleophibic properties in first version of Active Shell to be unsatisfactory. They delayed a product launch (while all other companies introduced Active Shell products) and worked with Gore to fix the problem. Way to go Patagonia!! Each type of Gore membrane has the same film and liner; manufacturers choose from different face fabrics. In general, lower denier and tighter weaves increase the face fabric's price. This is one of many reasons why the Arc'teryx Alpha SV is nearly twice as expensive as the L.L. Bean Ascent even though both 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 layer forces moisture to move through the membrane via solid state diffusion – the PU 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 Dry Q 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, such as face fabric, construction, fit, features, and environmental conditions.
Another thing that differentiates Gore from its competition is the company's role in the design and construction of every garment that bares its name. Any company that uses Gore-Tex is required to use 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 Gore. For example, if a company wants to make jacket with Gore-Tex the process works roughly like this: Gore sends the company material samples and the company designs and assembles the jacket. 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 Gore subjects the jacket to rigorous water resistance, wind resistance, and durability testing. If the jacket meets all qualifications, Gore gives the go-ahead for production, but not without branding – every jacket that uses Gore-Tex must have a large hangtag and Gore logo. Though costly and time consuming, this system has a dramatic consequence: there are no "bad" Gore-Tex products. Every Gore hardshell 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.
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 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. Companies can sew up anything they want and call it whatever they want.
eVent is about to release their new 2.5 layer Direct Venting Lite (DVL) technology, which aims to increase the breathability of lightweight waterproof breathable materials. This will have a face fabric, the same ePTFE as traditional eVent, and a protective pattern printed directly on the membrane. eVent DVL prodcuts will hit stores in 2013.
Mountain Hardwear Dry Q
In an effort to separate their products from Gore-Tex, Mountain Hardwear launched Dry Q, a family of waterproof breathable fabrics whose technology comes from the same brains as eVent's. Like Gore-Tex, there are several versions. Dry Q Elite, their top-tier fabric, is most similar to Pro Shell and offers the most durable weather protection. Like Gore-Tex and eVent, Dry Q Elite pairs with different face fabrics for specific end uses. Mountain Hardwear falsely 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 Pro Shell, but we could discern no real world difference between the breathability of Dry Q Elite and Active Shell. 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.
NeoShell is the most recent addition to the "ultra-breathable" waterproof fabrics. Here Polartec, the company famous for its excellent fleece products, uses an air permeable sub-micron polyurethane membrane. NeoShell's oleophibic properties are incorporated into the membrane, not glued on top of it, like with Gore-Tex. Polartec claims NeoShell is "the first truly breathable, fully waterproof, temperature regulating fabric ever" and has numerous tests and graphs that purport to support it. But our testers didn't find this to be the case. We only tested one jacket made with the material, the climbing specific Rab Stretch Neo, and found that its breathability and comfort was comparable to that of Pro Shell. The folks at BackpackingLight have conducted more extensive quantitative tests and were disappointed with NeoShell's performance. We're interested to see if NeoShell holds up to the rigors of long-term testing. Polartec is new to the lamination business and has significantly less experience than Gore.
Columbia uses Omni-Dry, another proprietary technology that claims to be more breathable than the rest. Our testers found Omni-Dry to be similar to ActiveShell, Dry Q Eilte, and eVent in terms of breathability, but more importantly, the model we tested (Columbia's top-of-the-line Compounder) had a feature set ill suited to any specific sport, and was disappointingly heavy.
Specific Attributes of Hardshell Jackets
Weight and Packed Size
Improving face fabrics and waterproof breathable membranes means that a hardshell no longer needs to be bulky and heavy in order to the durable. Unless you want a very long jacket we see no need get a hardshell that weighs over 16.9 ounces (the weight of the ultra durable and versatile Arc'teryx Alpha SV). Packed size is a function of a jacket's interior volume, face fabric thickness, and the presence or absence of bulky features like pit zips and pockets. Our testers consistently reached for the more compact and lighter shells. If presented with a bag of twenty hardshells we think you would, too.
The most basic requirement for any performance-oriented jacket is to have pockets that lie above a backpack's waistbelt. Many rain jackets and some hardshells (L.L. Bean Ascent, Mountain Hardwear Drystein II) miss this feature. Having high pockets is essential for hiking and climbing, but they're less comfortable to put your hands in than pockets that sit low, by your waist.
Some shells skip handwarmer pockets. If it's raining and you're traveling in the backcountry your hands will get wet. And you'll almost always have gloves with you. Handwarmer pockets are best for circumstances when you don't have gloves, like when you're walking around a city. Our favorite chest pocket design is found on the Arc'teryx Alpha SV because the shell has bellowed crossover pockets that are huge, easy to open, and don't throw you off balance when you're opening them (see that shell's review for more info). Crossover chest pockets are arguably the best for storing things, but they cannot comfortably accommodate your hands. Thus, some jackets have handwarmer pockets, which make the jacket better suited to a wider variety of activities- especially walking around urban areas. Curiously, very few hardshells have handwarmer pockets that are truly comfortable. Of the nineteen shells tested the Millet K Pro has the most comfortable hand pockets and the Rab Latok has the best combination of handwarmer and chest pockets. Though we don't recommend choosing a shell based on its pocket design alone, it is a very important consideration.
After the pocket design we believe that the hood is a shell's next most important feature. This is what covers your head, seals out the falling elements, and having a hood that's comfortable and easy to adjust can make terrible weather much less terrible. The best hood we tested was Arc'teryx's Storm Hood, found on the company's Alpha SV and Theta SV. The Storm Hood has four adjustment points (not the normal three) is gigantic and unrestrictive when worn over a helmet, and adjusts wonderfully to be comfortable when worn without one.
Nearly every shell tested uses velcro to adjust the wrists. This is the most versatile, but frozen snow and ice render it useless. Thus serious alpine and ice climbers often prefer fixed cuffs without velcro. Of the shells that skip the velcro the Mountain Hardwear Quasar has our preferred cuff design. The Arc'teryx Alpha SV has the best (stickiest) velcro cuffs.
All hardshells tested are more than sufficiently waterproof for even the worst conditions nature can dish out. Breathability varies based on the specific technology employed in each shell and on the type and thickness of the face fabric. Though marketing departments focus their efforts on touting breathability, we believe that this is just one of many factors that contribute to a quality shell (see our ratings for how the shells compare and see our main article for a more detailed discussion of breathability). No waterproof breathable technology is sufficiently breathable for high output activities and sufficiently windproof for low output activities in high winds. In general, air permeable membranes and thinner face fabrics help to increase breathability. For more information see: our main hardshell article, REI's "Rainwear: How It Works", Backpacking Light's "Field Testing Waterproof-Breathable Technologies", and Outside Magazine's "Insane in the Membrane" (mostly about industry drama). Again, we'd like to reinforce that the specific waterproof breathable technology used in a hardshell is just one of many factors that influence its performance. The best way, in this author's opinion, to improve waterproof breathable materials is to develop ultra durable DWR coatings. The future likely lies with nano technology.
The Hood Trick
Preserving a hardshell's 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 the jacket down on a clean surface or drape the shoulder area over one of your arms, 2) fold the jacket's arms in across the chest, 3) fold the sides of the torso in so that the jacket 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 to prevent it from getting wet from condensation absorbed from the tent wall. How: close the jacket's front zipper, tuck the hood and arms inside, and slide the jacket 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 jacket's arms out and open the pit zips slightly if you find that the jacket isn't breathing enough.
The Windshell Trick
When bushwacking through very dense brush and trees cover your expensive hardshell 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.
Waterproof Breathable Care Tips
Keep your jacket as clean as possible
Dirt and abrasion are your shell's enemy. Both will wear away the DWR coating and fray the face fabric, which in turn reduces the shell's breathability (it will absorb water).
Wash your jacket frequently
Body oils that accumulate in the hood, neck, and shoulder areas will reduce the membrane's performance. Machine-wash warm (104° F/40° C), powder or liquid detergent, no fabric softener. ReviveX Synthetic Fabric Cleaner, Granger's Performance Wash, and Nikwax Tech Wash are tried and true soaps. The excellent video below describes how to wash a hardshell.
Restore the DWR coating
A fabric's DWR coating has worn off when the fabric "wets out," i.e. starts absorbing water instead of shedding it. Restoring the DWR will improve breathability and user comfort. Do this after washing the jacket. Topical water repellency restoratives are better than wash-in treatments because they don't affect the garment's breathability. Nikkwax TX Direct Spray-On and ReviveX Spray-On are both good.
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