Hardshell Jacket versus Rain Shell
When they're new, hardshells and rain shells are equally waterproof. 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 a long period of time.
Hardshell jackets, which represent the best of waterproof breathable technologies, are made with better materials and construction techniques than rain shells. Choosing between a hardshell (which costs an average of $400) and a rain shell (roughly $150) comes down to two factors: durability and breathability. Do the activities you participate in, and the places you go, warrant a more durable jacket? If so, then consider a hardshell. Do you need simple rain protection in warm climates or seasons, or is staying dry in sub-zero temperatures of critical importance? If you really need a breathable jacket, we recommend the hardshell.
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 adequate for long 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 in harsh weather, especially in winter. They are unquestionably a more technologically-advanced piece of gear, and do a much better job of moving heat-generated moisture from the inside to the outside of the jacket. 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 all have three layers. Three-layer shells consist of: 1) an internal material that protects the membrane and reduces friction by allowing your undergarments or base layers to move freely beneath the jacket, 2) a "waterproof breathable" membrane, and 3) an external face fabric made of nylon or polyester that protects the jacket and user from the outside. Three-layer hardshell jackets are generally the heaviest, most durable, most expensive, and also the most comfortable waterproof jackets available. In terms of construction, the main difference between the jackets tested here are the type of proprietary waterproof breathable membrane that they incorporate. The specific membrane types are described in greater detail a bit lower.
Shells with 2.5 layers (which are not included in this review) have a face fabric, membrane, and non-textile coating on the inside. These shells tend to be a bit cheaper, but again, not nearly as durable. Most two-layer shells have a face fabric and coating; they're the lightest, cheapest, least durable, and fall squarely into the rain jacket category. All waterproof breathable shells have durable water resistant (DWR) coatings applied to the outside of the shell that aim to prevent the external face fabric from "wetting out," or becoming saturated with moisture, which compromises the fabric's breathability.
Durable Water Resistant Coatings
However, a DWR coating is simply that, a coating. When it wears off (which can happen in a surprisingly short amount of time if the jacket is used regularly), then the face fabric will "wet out" when exposed to water. Wetting out means that water droplets no longer bead up and roll off of the outside of the shell, they are instead absorbed into the face fabric, making the outside layer of your premium jacket, well, wet. (Don't worry, when this happens, you still stay dry thanks to the waterproof membrane). 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 shells 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.) What this means is that a waterproof breathable product will not breathe if the face fabric has wetted out. Thus, you must clean your hardshell jacket and restore its DWR coating regularly in order for it to breathe properly (see the bottom of this article for advice on cleaning your hardshell jacket and reapplying the DWR coating). It is worth pointing out that even if your DWR coating has worn off and the face fabric is wetting out, it will still be waterproof, because the waterproof membrane, the middle of the three layers in your jacket, will still provide a barrier and keep you dry.
The primary conclusion from our testing is that the specific waterproof breathable technology matters less than the design, weight, fit, and features of your jacket. All of the waterproof/breathable membranes on the market work, 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. Even when conducting our "treadmill test," where conditions were normalized for every jacket, it was very difficult to tell which technology was the best. 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 poured 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, which can be uncomfortable). 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, Dry.Q, 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 the company's premium product that offers a 35%+ increase in breathability over Performance Shell. It also offers the company's best abrasion-resistance-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. The Pro membrane is 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 Arc'teryx Alpha FL, the Arc'teryx Beta AR Jacket, the Arc'teryx Theta AR, and the Patagonia Refugitive.
The Patagonia Refugitive jacket uses GORE-TEX Pro backed by GORE C-Knit technology, new for winter of 2015/16. C-Knit is not a new type of membrane, but rather a new type of laminate that comprises the inner of the three layers. The laminate uses a new "circular knit form" (hence C-Knit) that according to Gore allows layers to be up to 10% lighter and 15% more breathable using less bulky construction. It was not really possible for us to test whether these numbers are true, but on our treadmill test the Refugitive felt perhaps a shade less breathable than the other GORE-TEX Pro jackets without C-Knit. However, the Refugitive did feel more supple, less crinkly, and less bulky than the Arc'teryx jackets without C-Knit, but this jacket also used a lighter weight face fabric that could account for this difference as well. The jury is still out
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. None of the jackets in this hardshell review incorporate PacLite, but if you are interested in layers that do, check out our Rain Jacket Review.
Active Shell is W.L. Gore's newest, lightest, and most breathable membrane. It is an improved, three-layer version of PacLite that is 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 treadmill test again failed to quantify that Active Shell is more breathable than Pro, but it is noticeably more mobile and supple, and less crinkly and loud when moving inside the jacket. The Outdoor Research Axiom and the Marmot Nano AS both feature 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 Theta AR 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. As we described above, this process most certainly does work, but it can be uncomfortable to experience the 95% relative humidity levels that may be required on the inside of the jacket to force solid state diffusion.
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 supposedly 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 to 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 its layers are windproof, with air flow allowed through the garment, jacket made with eVent 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. The only jacket tested in this review to incorporate eVent was the REI Shuksan II. Despite supposedly containing a more breathable membrane, the Shuksan II felt less breathable than its GORE-TEX sporting competition, although this may have been due to any number of other factors.
Mountain Hardwear Dry.Q Elite
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 its 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, 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 Torsun which features a Dry.Q Elite membrane. Despite its apparent superior breathability, the Torsun was the heaviest jacket we tested. 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 another recent addition to the air permeable waterproof/breathable fabrics. Polartec, the company famous for its excellent fleece products, uses an air permeable sub-micron polyurethane membrane. NeoShell's oleophobic 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. We only reviewed one product that features a Polartec NeoShell membrane, the 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's H2NO Performance Standard is not an actual brand of fabric like the ones listed and described above, but rather a standard of testing that Patagonia holds its garments to. The actual membrane used in the 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 that 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 treadmill test, the three-layer H2NO membrane used in the M10 seemed to be significantly less breathable than some of the other membranes, leading to the dreadful "plastic bag effect" where obvious and visible condensation built up on the inside of the jacket. While it is obviously waterproof, to us it seemed to be the least breathable option.
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 more of a Fast & Light or All-around user? If you are alpine climbing on big mountains, or you live in a relatively warm and dry climate and your jacket may live in your pack as often as on your back, then we would probably recommend something from the Fast & Light category. On the other hand, if you are just as likely to wear your jacket at the ski resort or around town as you are out climbing, or you need an insanely durable jacket that you want to live forever, we would encourage you to look at All-around models.
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.
Also be sure to 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. An additional consideration might be weight. If you're counting ounces, then light is right; however be sure that you don't sacrifice too much on weather protection.
The products described in this review range from $250 on the low end all the way to more than $550 on the high end. Like most things in this world, you probably get what you pay for, although there are always trade-offs that 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.
Once you have narrowed down the field a bit by considering your intended use and price range, the final deciding factor will probably be an individual jacket's specific features and its fit. Does it have pockets where you want them? Does the hood cinch down well enough to keep out the rain? When you put on the jacket, can you raise your hands above your head without the sleeves falling down to your forearms and the hemline riding up above your waist?
Waterproof Breathable Care Tips
A key part of maintaining the breathability and weather resistance of your hardshell jacket is keeping it as clean as possible. Dirt and abrasion are your shell's enemies. Both will wear away the DWR coating and fray the face fabric, which in turn reduces the shell's breathability. Without a healthy DWR finish, the face fabric will absorb more water and become heavier and less breathable.
Wash your hardshell 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 jacket.
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. Spray-on or topical DWR restoratives are better than wash-in treatments because they don't affect the garment's breathability. Nikwax TX Direct Spray-On and ReviveX Spray-On are both good options.