The Best Hardshell Jacket for Men Review

Investigating all of the various ski options from the top of the mountain. A relatively windless storm meant the powder was undisturbed and hadn't formed into a dangerous slab. This jacket was the perfect choice for such a perfect day.
What is the best hardshell jacket for men? To find out, we selected 11 of the most popular and highest performing hardshells and used them side-by-side for three months. Hardshell jackets are defined by their high-quality, three-layer waterproof/breathable membranes, and are an indispensable outer guard against the harshest weather that nature can throw at you. We tested them in howling blizzards and perfect blue-bird skies; while ice climbing, backcountry skiing, resort skiing, and even while performing our daily mountain town chores like snow shoveling. After all this hard "work," we are confident we've identified the best overall hardshell jackets, as well as the most appropriate jackets for all of your favorite winter activities. Keep reading to discover which contenders came out on top!

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Test Results and Ratings

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Analysis and Award Winners


Review by:

Senior Review Editor
OutdoorGearLab

Last Updated:
Tuesday
February 14, 2017

Best Overall Hardshell Jacket


Arc'teryx Alpha FL


Editors' Choice Award

Price:   Varies from $279 - $319 online
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Lightweight
Form Fitting
Great Storm Hood
Superior Construction Quality
Affordable
Crinkly and Noisy
Only One Pocket
No Pit Zips
In the six years that we have been testing and reviewing the best hardshell jackets, we have yet to find a jacket that we feel is better than the Arc'teryx Alpha FL. For the alpine or winter climber, no other jacket attains the perfect balance of lightweight indestructibility. If it wasn't our Best Overall Award winner, we would surely recognize this jacket as our Top Pick for Alpine Climbing. The low hem line and long sleeves are designed with climbing in mind, and the storm hood provides ultimate protection. One of this jacket's only drawbacks is that it lacks some of the extraneous features that more casual users may desire (hand pockets, pit zips), but this pared-down approach is ideal for maintaining low weight and maximum mobility. We love that this jacket is light enough and packs down small enough to double as a practical summertime rain jacket, and the GORE-TEX Pro membrane has proven to be very durable. Simply put, we love doing everything in this jacket and, especially when you consider the price tag of $399, the Alpha FL is still a jacket that can't be beat.

Best Bang for the Buck


Outdoor Research Axiom


Best Buy Award

Price:   Varies from $272 - $389 online
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Athletic Fit
Extremely Mobile
Great Features
Good Weather Protection
Affordable
Front Zipper Can Be Difficult
Drawstring Buckles Hard to Manipulate
No Pit Zips
The Outdoor Research Axiom uses soft and supple fabric along with an athletic trim to produce the best jacket for mobility and fit that we have tested. At only $389 retail, it is very nearly the most affordable jacket in this year's review, second only to the Top Pick Award-winning Outdoor Research Furio. This jacket has not changed from years past, and remains the same remarkable design that inspired us to award it our Top Pick for Skiing in last year's review. We have tested it countless times backcountry skiing and not once did we wish we were wearing another jacket. It also proved to be a great jacket for resort skiing and ice climbing. Little design features like the headphone port in the upper chest pocket, or the two-way front zipper for easier access to the waist of your pants, show that OR was thinking of all the little things. Why change something that works? We commend Outdoor Research not only for their thoughtful designs, but also the commitment to make them among the most affordable on the market, and so happily recommend the Axiom as our Best Bang for the Buck winner.

Top Pick for High Exertion Activities


Rab Latok Alpine Jacket


Rab Latok Alpine Jacket Top Pick Award

Price:   $400 online
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Great Venting Ability
Highly Breathable Membrane
Useful and Practical Features
Good Weather Protection
Affordable
Somewhat Heavy
DWR Coating Not as Durable as Some
Hardshell jackets are defined by their three-layer, waterproof/breathable membranes that simultaneously serve to keep the wearer dry from the outside as well as the inside. While much attention is given to the type, quality, or innovation of a product's membrane, the reality is that breathability is simply a backup strategy to help a person dry out once soaked with their own sweat. However, overheating to the point of copious sweating is anathema to a climber or skier's hydration strategy, not to mention a very easy way to end up dangerously chilled in a wild mountain environment. The primary way to combat overheating while wearing a hardshell jacket is through the use of air vents, and the Rab Latok Alpine Jacket has the perfect combination of innovative zippered vents to keep even the hardest working uphill athlete dry and cool. Instead of the usual pit zips, Rab has chosen to extend the zipper on each arm all the way out the forearm, ending close to the wrist. They also include a two-way front zipper in combination with buttons at the bottom of the jacket to allow for optimum venting of the chest and torso - without the jacket flapping in the wind. Through extensive amounts of uphill skinning, we found that this jacket's features vented better than any other in this review, making it our Top Pick for High Exertion Activities, where staying dry and cool are of primary importance.

Top Pick for Rainy Climates


Outdoor Research Furio Jacket


Outdoor Research Furio Jacket NEW Top Pick Award

Price:   Varies from $262 - $281 online
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Amazing Ventilation Options
Super Affordable
Uses Areas of Paclite 2.5L Gore-Tex to Lower Cost
Heavy
Bulky
Some Features Do Not Work Very Well
Strange Fit
Based in Seattle, Washington, Outdoor Research is a company that understands what it means to tackle mountain objectives in the rain. Whether one is plodding to the world-renowned summits of Mt. Rainier or Mt. Baker, or searching for the bountiful powder of the North Cascades, there is one constant in the Pacific Northwest – the threat of rain. The Outdoor Research Furio jacket is the most versatile jacket in this review, equally as able to keep you comfortable on the freezing, windswept summits as in the soaking rain during the bushwack up to the glaciers. It features a mix of both three-layer (hood, shoulders, arms) as well as two-layer (back, front) Gore-Tex membranes designed to minimize weight while not compromising on protection. Much like the Outdoor Research Foray jacket, a two-layer rain shell, it also has full-length side zips in addition to the two-way front zipper, that give the greatest possible amount of venting options without exposing under-layers to the elements. While all hardshell jackets should keep you dry in the rain, the Furio does the best job of also keeping you dry and cool on the inside, and so is our Top Pick for Rainy Climates.

Top Pick for Resort Skiing


The North Face FuseForm Brigandine 3L Jacket


The North Face FuseForm Brigandine 3L Jacket NEW Top Pick Award

Price:   Varies from $324 - $483 online
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Good Features for Skiing
Supple and Comfortable Material
Warm
Hood Doesn't Protect Well from Rain
Heavy & Bulky
Very Warm with Few Venting Options
The North Face Fuseform Brigandine 3L jacket is unique to this review in that it is optimally designed as a resort skiing jacket, surely one of the most popular uses of a hardshell jacket. While The North Face does a thorough job of mentioning all the trendy tag-words on its website – "low-profile…light-weight…skinning uphill" – we aren't buying it. This is the second heaviest and bulkiest jacket in this review, and runs very hot with only lip service paid to venting options. That said, its heavy weight means it is warm, an attribute one won't dismiss when exposed to the arctic winds at Loveland, Colorado, the highest (and coldest?) ski resort in North America. It is also equipped with an arsenal of features so plentiful as to almost seem gluttonous – forearm pocket with goggle wipe, thumb loops to hold sleeves in place, a powder skirt with buttons and clips for attaching to pants, double internal stash pockets, hand pockets, and napoleon pockets, a smartphone pocket with headphone port accessible from both inside and outside the jacket– you get the idea. While it scored poorly in this review due to its weight, warmth, bulk, and a hood that didn't keep rain out, most of these attributes make it the perfect choice for resort skiing, an activity where weight doesn't matter, warmth is appreciated, features are a bonus, and you hopefully won't encounter rain. With many of the same attributes and a similar design, we liked this jacket better than The North Face Free Thinker Jacket due to its supple and mobile fabric and fit, and much lower price tag. If hitting the slopes at Vail or Park City is your primary reason for owning a hardshell jacket, then we can recommend this one as our Top Pick for Resort Skiing.




Analysis and Test Results


Choosing the right hardshell jacket can be daunting, especially given that these jackets are some of the most scientifically advanced garments in the outdoor industry. Many of them also have very high price tags, which means you want to make sure you end up with the right one. In this review, all the products we tested have 3-layer technology (one, the Outdoor Research Furio has a combination of 3-layer and 2-layer membranes); by comparison, all the rain jackets that we test in our rain jacket review are constructed with 2- or 2.5-layer technology.


Generally speaking, this means that hardshells are more durable and protective than their less expensive rain jacket cousins, while also wicking the moisture away from the body faster. We recommend hardshell jackets for activities like backcountry skiing, ice climbing, and alpine climbing, where you need protection from the very worst weather, but might also be working up a sweat inside of them.

Stephen comes rocketing out the bottom of the steep  rocky gulley. While the snow was still a bit shallow  the fresh powder was very nice! Hardshell jackets thrive in cold  alpine environments like these.
Stephen comes rocketing out the bottom of the steep, rocky gulley. While the snow was still a bit shallow, the fresh powder was very nice! Hardshell jackets thrive in cold, alpine environments like these.

When you're thinking about which hardshell in this review might be best for you, consider what activities you normally participate in. For ice climbing, you might prioritize mobility; for light and fast alpinism, you might prioritize weight; for backcountry skiing, you might prioritize venting and breathability. Also consider the weather conditions you're likely to encounter: although all of these jackets will generally keep you dry (we'll get to that below), some do a better job than others.

Our reviewers have put literally thousands of user days into testing hardshell jackets over the past seven years, and this extensive body of testing has led us to be able to make some strong conclusions about waterproof breathable technology. Without a doubt, these jackets ARE waterproof, and without a doubt, these jackets ARE breathable. The differences between jackets does not lie in whether they work or not, but rather how well they protect you from the outer elements, and how comfortable you will be on the inside.

Glory! The Alpine Shell serving us well while skiing the super stable high altitude powder after another amazing storm.
Glory! The Alpine Shell serving us well while skiing the super stable high altitude powder after another amazing storm.

As the number of outdoor enthusiasts has continued to grow over the years, the development of new and proprietary waterproof breathable membranes has turned into a big business. Represented in this year's testing were six different membranes: GORE-TEX Pro, GORE-TEX Active, GORE-TEX 3L with C-knit backer, eVent, GORE-TEX Paclite 2L, and The North Face DryVent. When shopping for a hardshell jacket, it can be helpful to know about the different membranes, and we have detailed each in depth in our Buying Advice Article. However, like mentioned above, they all serve their intended purpose, and so in our opinion, it is better to focus on the type of jacket that will best serve your needs, rather than obsessing over membrane types. Our reviewers put much more stock into the fit and mobility, weather protection, venting ability, weight, and features of a jacket than they did in the specific membrane used within, and believe that is the most practical way to go about purchasing a jacket.

This light and fast jacket is designed for the biggest alpine ascents. Although not the "biggest " this climb (Bird Brain Boulevard) and its technical chimneying on both rock and ice put the Alpha FL to the test. We were happy every minute with our choice.
This light and fast jacket is designed for the biggest alpine ascents. Although not the "biggest," this climb (Bird Brain Boulevard) and its technical chimneying on both rock and ice put the Alpha FL to the test. We were happy every minute with our choice.

Criteria for Evaluation


In order to decide which jackets performed the best, we compared them side-by-side based on five separate criteria: Weather Protection, Weight and Packability, Mobility and Fit, Venting and Breathability, and Features. We weighted each of these five categories based on their importance to the average hardshell user. Our testing included extensive use in the field while backcountry skiing, resort skiing, ice climbing, and manual labor in winter conditions. We also designed specific tests to measure certain characteristics of each jacket head-to-head. In each category, we gave a jacket a score from one to ten, combined that score with the weight of the category, and added the scores together to come up with our final rankings. An in detail description of each category, as well as how we tested, is described below.

Weather Protection


Nothing is more important when considering a hardshell jacket than how well it protects you from the weather. After all, if it wasn't for the weather you wouldn't even need a jacket. Hardshell jackets are different than Softshell Jackets in that they are meant to be waterproof, and should keep you dry even in a downpour, whereas softshells are designed primarily to be breathable. Hardshells are also different than Rain Jackets because they have waterproof breathable membranes that are designed to allow moisture from sweat (that builds up on the inside of the jacket) to transfer through the jacket where it can evaporate on the outside. All of the hardshell jackets in this test include some sort of waterproof and breathable membrane.


There is no doubt that this jacket offers fantastic protection from the blowing snow and wind found on this backcountry tour  although it can get real toasty skinning uphill while fully zipped up.
There is no doubt that this jacket offers fantastic protection from the blowing snow and wind found on this backcountry tour, although it can get real toasty skinning uphill while fully zipped up.

What we found during our tests is that no matter what kind of membrane technology is used, every one of these jackets was waterproof. Since we tested these jackets during the winter in the Colorado Rockies, we more often encountered snow flying through the air then its non-frozen cousin, rain. So, in order to be sure these jackets were indeed fully waterproof, we put each jacket on, zipped it up fully, tightened down the hood and the wrists, and stood under the downpour of a shower for three minutes. All of the jackets were waterproof, and not a single one showed signs of water permeating through the membrane to begin soaking the inside of the jacket. However, the type of membrane and face fabric is not the only thing that keeps the wearer dry.

Hardshell jackets also come with a Durable Water Resistant (DWR) coating applied to the outside of the face fabric. This chemical coating is designed to repel water when it hits the outside of the jacket, and is what leads to the "beading" effect you will notice when water hits a new jacket. Where the water has no chance to soak in, it just beads up and falls off. The reason why the DWR layer is important and necessary is to improve the breathability of the membrane. Without it, the jacket will "wet out," simply meaning that the water no longer beads and falls off, but soaks into the face fabric instead. In this case, the jacket still retains its waterproof qualities, because it still incorporates a waterproof membrane below the face fabric, but the breathability of this membrane becomes impaired.

Testing the Refugitive's ability to stand up to the harsh cold and rigors of multi-pitch ice climbing on the second gully above Eureka in the San Juan Mountains.
Testing the Refugitive's ability to stand up to the harsh cold and rigors of multi-pitch ice climbing on the second gully above Eureka in the San Juan Mountains.

We performed the shower test after three months of intensive winter testing, and noticed that all of the jackets showed slight signs of wetting out, simply meaning that the friction and abrasion of our activities had worn off some of the DWR coating. In most cases, the wetting out occurred in predictable patterns: the mid back and shoulders and front waist, all places where pack straps would ride or rub. Some of them had also lost their coating on the sleeves, another high abrasion area. It is well known that DWR coatings do wear off over time, and that in order to keep your hardshell jacket both waterproof and breathable, you must frequently wash it and re-apply a DWR coating. As a result, we did not penalize jackets that suffered from DWR wear, but made note in the individual reviews how they fared.

The far bigger factor when it came to weather protection, and one that really helped differentiate the various jackets, was the design and fit. The most important feature in keeping water out of a jacket, especially in a downpour, is the design of the hood. Some hoods, like the Arc'teryx Alpha FL's, worked magnificently in the shower, while others proved to have not nearly enough of a bill for protection (the Patagonia Refugitive). The way that the collar was designed when fully zipped up also played a role in how well the individual hoods kept water out. In the worst cases, water ran straight off the sides of the hood and poured right down the neck like a rain gutter spout, such as the The North Face Free Thinker Jacket. In the shower test, we also noticed that all of the main front and pocket zippers of every single jacket passed the test and didn't allow leaks. This year we were also happy to report that none of the pit zips leaked either.

Despite only having a single draw cord in the back to adjust and tighten  the hood on this jacket did a great job of protecting our face and the collar from allowing water in.
Despite only having a single draw cord in the back to adjust and tighten, the hood on this jacket did a great job of protecting our face and the collar from allowing water in.

The final part of assessing weather protection came from our copious field testing. Wipe out in deep powder often enough, or climb enough dripping ice pillars, and you will see where a jacket lacks or has you totally covered. Of course, our powder wipe-outs were purely intentional, you know, for testing purposes (wink). One big offender was hem lines that were too short and therefore rode up above the waist with arms overhead, or worse allowed snow up your jacket when skiing. Another problem encountered was sleeves that were simply too short for the size, especially when lifting the arms overhead or to the sides.

As the most important metric in assessing a jacket's performance, weather protection accounts for 35 percent of each product's final score. Many of the jackets did a very good job protecting us from the weather, and since we couldn't choose one over the others, we gave the Marmot Cerro Torre, Arc'teryx Beta AR, Arc'teryx Alpha FL, and the Outdoor Research Furio, each 9 out of 10 points for weather protection. On the other end of the spectrum were the jackets with hoods that inexplicably allowed water to run down our necks: both Patagonia jackets, as well as both of The North Face jackets.

Testing hardshell jackets in some great early season powder. The slide shown here was remote triggered from across the slope while uphill traveling on the ascent. Even though it wasn't actively snowing  the wind was frigid and made us happy to have hardshell protection.
Testing hardshell jackets in some great early season powder. The slide shown here was remote triggered from across the slope while uphill traveling on the ascent. Even though it wasn't actively snowing, the wind was frigid and made us happy to have hardshell protection.

Weight and Packability


To test for weight, we measured each jacket on a scale straight out of the box, and ignored what the manufacturer's website said the item weighed. However, we found that due to changing sizing among many manufacturers, we needed to order men's large jackets for some brands, and men's size medium in others, complicating our weighting metrics somewhat. For that reason, we also made note of the manufacturer's stated weight in our specs table.


The jackets selected for this year's review had a pretty wide range of weights. The lightest jacket was the Arc'teryx Alpha FL, weighing in at a mere 11.4 ounces for a size large. This is a jacket that has been stripped of many features such as under-arm ventilation and hand pockets, all in the name of weight savings. The majority of the jackets fit in the range of 14-20 ounces, hovering close to one pound. Then there were the two North Face jackets, which both weighed in at close to 25 ounces, fully five ounces heavier than any other jacket tested. These jackets proved to be great choices for resort skiing where weight doesn't matter, but didn't make much of an effort to truly trim ounces.

A select sample of the differences in packable size between jackets. On the bottom is the Arc'teryx Alpha FL in its stuff sack. In the middle  almost as small  is the Black Diamond Helio Alpine Shell rolled into its hood  again  very small. On the top is the heavy and bulky TNF Free Thinker jacket  more than double the size and weight of the one on the bottom.
A select sample of the differences in packable size between jackets. On the bottom is the Arc'teryx Alpha FL in its stuff sack. In the middle, almost as small, is the Black Diamond Helio Alpine Shell rolled into its hood again, very small. On the top is the heavy and bulky TNF Free Thinker jacket, more than double the size and weight of the one on the bottom.

How much weight matters to an individual user is certainly subjective. As the evolution of gear and materials progresses, manufacturers are continually finding ways to produce gear that matches the "light and fast" demands of the world's elite alpinists. But not everyone is an elite alpinist, or even aspires to be one, and so for those people it is important to note that the difference between the lightest and heaviest jacket in the review was only about 14 ounces, or close to a pound. In other words: not much. For most, other performance characteristics may be far more relevant.

There is no clear correlation that we found amongst weight and the overall performance of a jacket. Besides differences in fabrics, the other way that manufacturers typically save weight from a design is by cutting out extraneous zippers and pockets, features that many users demand. So while we believe that wearing a hardshell jacket that feels as light as an extra shirt is far preferable to wearing a jacket so heavy it feels like you just donned a movable tent, there are other factors to consider when choosing to cut the ounces.

Our Editors' Choice winner, the Arc'teryx Alpha FL is a fast and light jacket that does forgo some features, including hand pockets, in order to cut down on weight. If you're looking for a high-performing jacket with more features, consider our Best Bang for the Buck winner, the Outdoor Research Axiom.

Also considered into the weight metric is packability. Climbing or skiing in good weather or warm climates means that the jacket will often live in the pack, and so having one that packs down small and doesn't weigh a ton is a bonus. Unlike lighter and smaller rain jackets or wind breakers, these jackets don't stuff into one of their own pockets. We typically rolled them up and stuffed them into their hood for the most compact packing and to protect their DWR coating. Weight and packability accounted for 20 percent of a product's final score.

Mobility and Fit


Equally as important as a jacket's weight is how well it fits and how easy it is to move around in. We aren't using these jackets for sitting still watching an arctic football game in Buffalo, NY – though they would stand up to the test. No, we are using these as our outer shells for climbing up and skiing down mountains. They need to move as we move, and they need to fit like a perfectly designed suit of armor.


Showing the relative differences between sleeve length  hem length  and hood fit over a helmet. From left to right: Arc'teryx Beta AR  Arc'teryx ALpha FL  TNF Fusform Brigandine 3L  TNF Free Thinker  Marmot Cerro Torre  Rab Latok Alpine.
Showing the relative differences between sleeve length, hem length, and hood fit over a helmet. From left to right: Arc'teryx Beta AR, Arc'teryx ALpha FL, TNF Fusform Brigandine 3L, TNF Free Thinker, Marmot Cerro Torre, Rab Latok Alpine.

The best jacket designs used membranes and face fabrics that were soft and supple, and in the best cases, quiet. The Patagonia Refugitive even used stretchy material under the arms and along the sides that ensured that no matter how we moved, our jacket didn't stop us. Things we wanted were an athletic fit around the torso, a hood that didn't constrict our view (even with a helmet on), a collar that was as comfortable as it was protective, and fabric quiet enough that we could hear ourselves thinking while moving inside the jacket.

Showing the relative difference between sleeve length  hem length  and hood fit with the arms stretched overhead. From left to right: OR Axiom  Patagonia Triolet  OR Furio  Patagonia Refugitive  BD Helio Alpine Shell.
Showing the relative difference between sleeve length, hem length, and hood fit with the arms stretched overhead. From left to right: OR Axiom, Patagonia Triolet, OR Furio, Patagonia Refugitive, BD Helio Alpine Shell.

The more we tested these jackets in the deep powder and on steep and drippy pillars of ice, the more we realized that some of them simply didn't fit very well for their intended purpose. Not only did we want them to move well and not inhibit our range of motion (Mobility), but we wanted them to keep us covered no matter what position we were in (Fit). Three things drove us especially crazy when it came to bad fit: short sleeves, high hem lines, and ultra baggy chests. When a climber raises their hands above their heads to swing their ice tools, they need the sleeves to stay put up by their wrists, not ride down to the middle of the forearm. Likewise, when one is skiing through the glorious bounty of powder that last night's storm graced the earth with, a high hem line can only lead to snow filling the inside of the jacket. And lastly, both skiing and climbing require you to be able to see your feet, and a hugely baggy front of the jacket simply gets in the way. Any or all of these things caused us to dock points for fit, and their absence made us very happy.

Displaying the issues with finding the correct fit. Obviously  the sleeves of this jacket were a few inches too short.
Displaying the issues with finding the correct fit. Obviously, the sleeves of this jacket were a few inches too short.

Sizing Your Jacket
Over the last few years, we have noticed that the sizing of garments for many companies has changed. Where in years past we could count on ordering a men's size large and having it fit, we are now finding that size large often means an expansively wide fit in the torso. It seems that companies must now cater to two different types of people – the slim mountain person who is annoyed by the bagginess of his jacket but probably represents a small market share, and the "average American" who still wants a technical jacket but feels stifled by an athletic fit. For this review, we paid very close attention to the companies' sizing charts before placing our orders, but have often encountered short hems and sleeves in size medium, and super baggy torsos in size large. What gives? On the bright side, most Canadian and European companies seem to have stuck with the traditional athletic fits for their garments, so you may check one of them out if you want a jacket in tall and slim.

The best jacket when it came to Mobility and Fit was the Outdoor Research Axiom. It is athletically sized, has long sleeves and a low hem, and the fabric is supple and quiet, leading to great mobility and a perfect fit. The Arc'teryx Alpha FL also has a great fit and wonderful mobility, docked only by its very loud and crinkly nature. On the other hand, we found that both the Patagonia Triolet (size M), and the OR Furio (size L), had sleeves that were too short, while the Patagonia Triolet and The North Face Fuseform Brigandine 3L were too tight and constrictive in the shoulders, under the arms, and the chest. Mobility and Fit accounted for 20 percent of a product's final score.

Venting and Breathability



The hardshell jackets we tested in this review all purport to be waterproof and breathable, so it only makes sense that we test them for their breathability. While an interested reader can spend days reading about the science of breathability on manufacturers' websites, the sweaty outdoor enthusiast slogging up that mountain might notice that these jackets don't seem very breathable. So what gives?

Fresh snow and blower powder  perfect conditions for a day of "work" in the mountains testing hardshell jackets.
Fresh snow and blower powder, perfect conditions for a day of "work" in the mountains testing hardshell jackets.

In years past, we attempted to accurately test these jackets for breathability by running in them on a treadmill in a controlled environment, and making notes of the differences between various products. From these tests, we came to a few broad conclusions. First, there is no doubt that these jackets DO breathe, but it is virtually impossible for our testers to definitively state which one breathes the best or the worst. The second obvious conclusion that could be drawn from the treadmill test was that in order to produce the correct atmospheric conditions inside the jacket for breathing to occur, the user is going to feel uncomfortably hot and moist.

Due to the laws of physics, a certain amount of heat and moisture must be generated before efficient transfer of the moisture from the inside to the outside of the jacket is going to take place. Our treadmill test simply proved what longtime hardshell jacket wearers have long known: venting and airflow will keep you far more comfortable than keeping your jacket zipped to the chin and letting it breathe. So, while breathability is an important characteristic of a jacket, it is really more useful as a backup, meaning if you get wet or sweaty inside your jacket, it's nice that it will work to dry you out. However, the first option to avoid getting wet and sweaty in the first place is to aggressively ventilate.

Displaying the full length side zips for ventilation on this jacket  as well as the ability to go "full cape mode." This feature allowed for awesome ventilation while staying protected from the rain  which is why we named it our Top Pick.
Displaying the full length side zips for ventilation on this jacket, as well as the ability to go "full cape mode." This feature allowed for awesome ventilation while staying protected from the rain, which is why we named it our Top Pick.

For that reason, we chose to ditch the treadmill test this year and instead focus our energy on field testing these jackets in hot and sweaty environments. While skinning uphill in the backcountry of Colorado, we almost never choose to wear an outer layer, as we will almost always end up too hot and sweaty way before we reach the top of the mountain. But for three months this winter, we donned our hardshell anyway for every uphill, testing out how effectively we were able to regulate our temperature and sweat levels while working hard. Besides the ubiquitous front zipper, most of these jackets featured pit zips of varying lengths and easy ability to open them and close them.

A couple jackets, such as the Rab Latok Alpine Jacket, our Top Pick for High Exertion Activities, and the OR Furio featured much longer and more effective arm or side zips, originating in the arm pits. The Furio even had mesh backed pockets and a two-way front zipper. These attributes helped us stay relatively cool and dry. While the Arc'teryx Alpha FL and OR Axiom did not have any pit zips, they were thinner and lighter than most, meaning we didn't heat up as quickly. The two North Face jackets proved to be very heavy, thick, hot, and had very small pit zips that didn't help us regulate our temperature well while traveling uphill. Breathability accounted for 15 percent of a jacket's final score.

This jacket  the Latok  was our Top Pick for High Exertion Acitivities such as backcountry skiing  where most of your time is spent working hard skinning uphill  due to its great venting options that allowed us to stay dry and cool.
This jacket, the Latok, was our Top Pick for High Exertion Acitivities such as backcountry skiing, where most of your time is spent working hard skinning uphill, due to its great venting options that allowed us to stay dry and cool.

Features


We chose to weight our "Features" metric as just 10 percent of a product's final score because we believe that features are far less important to how effective a jacket actually is compared to the other metrics described here. However, the specific features that a jacket includes in its construction and especially how well they function can make the difference between smiling with appreciation every time you wear the jacket or frowning with annoyance every time you have to screw with something that doesn't work right. All the jackets we tested share such features as pockets, collars, wrist enclosures, zippers, and draw cords, and so the quality, placement, and how well they function is an important characteristic to consider.


We assessed this metric based on the quantity of features (because more is always better, right?), as well as the quality of the features. The Rab Latok Alpine Jacket ended up with the highest score, as it had what we consider a perfect blend of practical features that worked well, including some not found on other jackets, like the Velcro hood stow strap and full arm zips. The Patagonia Refugitive and The North Face Fuseform Brigandine 3L also had good feature sets. The lowest scorers were the Alpha FL and the Black Diamond Helio Alpine Shell; both jackets intentionally designed with few features to save weight.

Below is a short description of some pertinent features and how they perform on a hardshell jacket.

Pockets
Pockets come in all shapes and sizes: hand pockets, breast pockets, interior pockets that zip or don't, sleeve pockets…you name it. One thing is for sure, pockets are pretty handy for holding your things. With this in mind, we love pockets that hold your stuff in convenient-to-reach places. Our favorites are "Napolean" style breast pockets, that live high on the chest and are situated for crossover access. We also like interior non-zip stash pockets that are great for storing bulky accessories like gloves or a hat or even water bottle where it can stay warm.

We find less use for hip height hand pockets as we usually wear gloves, and they tend to sit underneath a waist belt on a harness or waist strap on a pack. Of the jackets tested, The North Face jackets had the most pockets, while the lightest jackets tended to have only one single chest pocket. The Editors' Choice winning Arc'teryx Alpha FL only has one napoleon-style pocket, while the Black Diamond Helio Alpine Shell has two Napolean style chest pockets.

To save weight  this jacket has only two exterior pockets  shown here as cross-over napolean style pockets. We find these to be easier to access and more practical whether climbing or skiing  when handwarmer pockets are often trapped or inaccessible beneath pack straps or harnesses.
To save weight, this jacket has only two exterior pockets, shown here as cross-over napolean style pockets. We find these to be easier to access and more practical whether climbing or skiing, when handwarmer pockets are often trapped or inaccessible beneath pack straps or harnesses.

Wrist Enclosures
All of the jackets in this review use the same system for wrist enclosures: Velcro. However, they are not all made equal. Some of the Velcro used was not very sticky, and some of them had much too tiny Velcro swatches. A couple had wrist enclosures that simply wouldn't shrink down tight enough for our tiny wrists, like the Marmot Cerro Torre, while others were too bulky to easily fit our gloves over, like The North Face Free Thinker Jacket. In general, the Arc'teryx model jackets (the Arc'teryx Alpha FL and the Arc'teryx Beta AR) had the best quality and size of Velcro wrist enclosures.

Our biggest complaint with this jacket was the seemingly misplaced Velcro tabs on the wrist enclosures. Although hard to see here  the two pieces of Velcro do not line up  meaning its pretty hard to secure these wrists tightly.
Our biggest complaint with this jacket was the seemingly misplaced Velcro tabs on the wrist enclosures. Although hard to see here, the two pieces of Velcro do not line up, meaning its pretty hard to secure these wrists tightly.

Draw Cords
Draw cords are used liberally in all of these jackets to help tighten up openings around the face and the hem line. What we noticed was that the positioning of the pull tab end of the cord and the quality of the buckles that hold the cord taut can both make a big difference in performance. We loved hood draw cords that have the pull tab on the outside of the jacket, rather than inside, so we didn't have to unzip the jacket to find the tab (if we wanted to tighten the hood, we usually wanted the jacket to stay zipped up!). We loved the buckles that we found on the Patagonia Refugitive and the Black Diamond Helio Alpine Shell because they released so simply. Most jackets used buckles that were very small for use with gloves on and hard to grip and squeeze to release.

The Cohaesive embedded cord lock system on the Refugitive was the single best draw cord buckle that we found on any of the jackets. It releases by simply pushing on the circle and was easily to manipulate with gloves on.
The Cohaesive embedded cord lock system on the Refugitive was the single best draw cord buckle that we found on any of the jackets. It releases by simply pushing on the circle and was easily to manipulate with gloves on.

Collars
When it's really storming, you want your jacket zipped all the way to the top, and that's when you notice whether the collar is awesome or not. The good ones ride comfortably high up, just under your nose, but aren't tight and don't restrict movement of your head in any way. They also feature a soft micro-fleece lining that doesn't chafe your face. As you could infer, the bad ones do the exact opposite. Then there are the collars that are so rad they make you realize you never paid attention to collars before. The internal collar that lives inside the hood on the Arc'teryx Beta AR is without doubt the most comfortable and protective collar available.

The hood tightens on the front with these two external pull cords. Also notice the way the collar is a separate piece of fabric inside the hood. This was the best collar design in the test.
The hood tightens on the front with these two external pull cords. Also notice the way the collar is a separate piece of fabric inside the hood. This was the best collar design in the test.

Zippers
Zippers these days are tight – water tight. In our shower testing and use out in the field, we didn't encounter a single instance of zippers failing or leaking. We loved two-way front zippers, like those found on the Rab Latok Alpine, and OR Furio and Axiom, and Marmot Cerro Torre, because they allow easy access to the top of our pants or harness, and also allow for easier venting.

This two-way front zipper also has a button at the bottom that holds the hem of the jacket together. Venting in this manner keeps the jacket in place  protecting from precipitation better than if it's simply wide open  as generally happens with a single zipper.
This two-way front zipper also has a button at the bottom that holds the hem of the jacket together. Venting in this manner keeps the jacket in place, protecting from precipitation better than if it's simply wide open, as generally happens with a single zipper.

Conclusion


Skiing doesn't get any better than this. Perfect fresh snow with no wind effect enabled skiing some great alpine runs mid-season  a rare treat.
Skiing doesn't get any better than this. Perfect fresh snow with no wind effect enabled skiing some great alpine runs mid-season, a rare treat.

Donning your new hardshell jacket is a great feeling, while picking which one to buy can be rather daunting. Getting the features you desire, the weather protection you need, at the weight you want, all while keeping an eye on the price, is a tricky balancing act. However, we hope our tests and analysis of this field of jackets will have you on your way to finding the right product for your cold-weather activities and your budget. Our Buying Advice for hardshells article provides even more tips on how to deduce which is the best jacket for your specific needs.
Andy Wellman
Helpful Buying Tips
Unbiased.