The Best Hardshell Jacket for Men Review
What's the best hardshell jacket for men? To find out, we selected ten of the most popular and best performing hardshells on the market and used them side-by-side for three months. We tested them in winter conditions ranging from howling blizzards to perfect blue-bird skies, while ice climbing, backcountry skiing, resort skiing, and even daily mountain town tasks like snow shoveling. Our testing team chimed in on what features they liked the best and least, and which jackets made the cut and which ones simply didn't. After all this hard "work," we are confident we've identified the best hardshells for your favorite winter activities.
Read the full review below >
Test Results and Ratings
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Analysis and Award Winners
Best Overall Hardshell Jacket
Arc'teryx Alpha FL
Top Pick for Skiing
Outdoor Research Axiom
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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; 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, burly, and protective than their less expensive rain jacket cousins. We recommend hardshell jackets for activities like backcountry skiing, ice climbing, and alpine climbing. So, when you're thinking about which hardshells 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 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 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 in these models of 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.
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, Polartec NeoShell, eVent, Dry.Q Elite, and Patagonia H2No. When shopping for a hardshell jacket, it can be helpful to know about the different fabric membranes, and we have detailed each in depth in our Buying Advice Article. However, like mentioned above, they all work, 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, weather protection, mobility, 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.
Different Types of Hardshell Jackets
One of the most obvious trends in the hardshell jacket market is the constant effort to make the products lighter. To achieve this goal, manufacturers are using every tool available to them, including lighter face fabrics, lighter waterproof breathable membranes, as well as lighter and fewer features such as zippers and pockets. While there is still significant variation in the weight and durability of these jackets, the overall trend can be noticed by observing that the heaviest jacket in this year's review weighed in at 19.1 ounces, while in years past, the heavier models were well over 24 ounces. At the other end of the spectrum, the lightest continue to get lighter; this year's Patagonia M10 weighed only 8.1 ounces. We found that the jackets we tested this year fell into one of two broad categories: All-around or Fast & Light.
These jackets made up the majority of the ones we tested, and placed their emphasis on providing bombproof winter weather protection. They tended to have more features (like added pockets and beefier zippers) than the Fast & Light crew, and in some cases included pit zips. They also tended to use heavier face fabrics on the outside, a feature that tends to lead to better durability and longevity. In general, these jackets can be used for any sort of outdoor winter activity, whether it is expedition climbing, ice climbing, backcountry skiing, or even resort skiing. In fact, if you live or work in a harsh climate and want one jacket that can handle it all, then this is the type we recommend for you. The top performers from this group were the Outdoor Research Axiom and the Arc'teryx Beta AR.
Fast & Light
These jackets put weight at a premium and were thus the lightest ones of the test. The way they achieve this is by cutting features like pockets and added ventilation, choosing smaller and lighter zippers, and by using thinner face fabrics on the exterior. These jackets also tended to feature a sleeker, more athletic fit. These jackets are great for athletes who need to save weight at all costs, or who live or play in drier climates where the jacket may spend most of its time in the pack rather than being worn. In most cases, they will not live up to the sustained everyday use and abuse that an "All-around" jacket can endure. But, seeing as they are less jacket, they tend to run a little cheaper as well. The Arc'teryx Alpha FL and the Westcomb Shift LT were our two top "Fast & Light" performers in side-by-side testing.
Criteria for Evaluation
In order to decide which jackets performed the best, we compared them side-to-side based on five separate criteria: Weather Protection, Weight, Mobility & Fit, 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. What you need to know about each category, as well as how we tested, is described below.
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. Harshells 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.
What we found during our tests is that no matter what kind of membrane technology is used, every one of these jackets was waterproof. In order to test this, 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 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. 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 quite impaired.
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 also had 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.
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 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 (the REI Shuksan II). In the shower test we also noticed that while all of the main front and pocket zippers of every single jacket passed the test and didn't allow leaks, unfortunately a few of the pit zippers did allow tiny amounts of water to leak through (the REI Shuksan II again). We made note of this in a jacket's individual review.
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. 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 (the Marmot Nano AS). 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 the final score. The Editors' Choice Award winning Arc'teryx Alpha FL scored the best with a perfect 10. An even more protective option for those traveling to the harshest climates in the world is the Arc'teryx Alpha SV. The jackets that we found to be unfit for keeping you dry in the gnarliest of mountain conditions were the Patagonia M10 and the REI Shuksan II.
Weight & 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. In general we found that this year's selection of jackets was a bit lighter than in previous years, although that only seemed to be the case when it came to the heavier end of the spectrum. The lightest jacket in the review is still the Patagonia M10 at 8.8 ounces for a size large. (One caveat, we had to order a medium size this year, due to the nature of Patagonia's garment sizing. Our size medium weighed in at only 8.1 ounces.) The heaviest jacket in our review was the Mountain Hardwear Torsun at 19.1 ounces, but this was much lighter than the 24.1 ounce Rab Latok we reviewed in years past. Although the M10 is incredibly light it earned very poor weather protection scores. We like to think of this shell more as a "just-in-case" layer rather than the jacket that you want to have along when you know it's going to rain.
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 10 ounces, or 2/3 of 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, but in most cases heavier jackets will protect you better from the elements. 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 Top Pick 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. Weight and packability accounted for 20% of a product's final score.
Mobility & 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. 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.
The best jacket designs used membranes and face fabrics that were soft and supple, and in the best cases, quiet. The Westcomb Shift LT 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. Poorer movers and shakers like the REI Shuksan II and the Arc'teryx Beta AR were very bulky and had very loud and crinkly fabrics.
The more we tested these jackets in the deep powder and on steep, 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. A couple of jackets with high hemlines, the Arc'teryx Beta LT and the Marmot Nano AS, left us cursing by allowing the snow in. 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.
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. Despite having other desirable characteristics, the Marmot Nano AS scored lowest in this metric, largely due to its excessively short sleeves and high hem line that never stopped riding up above our waists. Overall Mobility and Fit accounted for 20 percent of a product's total score.
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?
In order to see whether these jackets actually breathe like their marketing managers say they do, we put them through the treadmill test. For the treadmill test, our head tester ran on a treadmill at a moderately intense pace that made him sweaty. During the test, he also wore a breathable Patagonia Capilene long-sleeve base layer to further increase heat. After a 20 minute warm-up, he then wore each jacket for seven minutes while continuing to run at the same sweat-inducing pace. He was sure to pull the draw strings around the waist closed, seal all the Velcro wrist enclosures, and zip the jacket up all the way to the top, with all the pockets closed to simulate how the jacket is worn during outdoor activity. He did not wear the hood. The temperature in the room stayed at a consistent 62.5 degrees, and there was no wind or fan blowing on him, and no window open. During each test, he paid close attention to how he felt while exercising vigorously in the jacket, later taking notes. Immediately after each test he felt and observed the insides of the neck, sleeves, and rest of the jacket for condensed perspiration that had not managed to "breathe" through the jacket. From conducting this test, some broad conclusions became very obvious.
The first obvious conclusion was that these jackets actually DO breathe like they claim to. The tester's Capilene undershirt was wet with sweat throughout, and yet even in the worst cases, there was very little evidence of condensed water on the inside of the jackets. Compared side-by-side, it was obvious that some jackets performed better than others by remaining completely dry on the inside, while in some others there was light condensation, especially around the collar and the sleeves. It is our belief that if the user was outside in cold temperatures, (thereby increasing the temperature gradient to aid in vapor transfer) and if each jacket was tested for more than seven minutes, then the positive or negative effects of each jacket's ability to breathe would have been even more noticeable. However, as it was, it was a challenge to decipher which jackets breathed better than others, and not really possible to crown any one given brand of membrane as an undisputed breathability winner.
The second most 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. Thus, yet again, the intended use of the jacket will likely dictate whether ventilation options like pit zips are worth their weight and expense.
Since it was difficult to say that any one jacket or membrane performed better than others, we didn't award any perfect 10s for this metric. We were surprised to find that the highest scorers included the heavy Arc'teryx Theta AR and Arc'teryx Beta AR Jacket, both of which sport Gore-Tex Pro. The lowest scoring product in this metric was the Patagonia M10, which is constructed with Patagonia's H2No membrane. It was the least efficient at transferring water vapor, with considerable condensation built up on our arms and neck area. Breathability accounted for 15 percent of a jacket's final score.
We chose to award our "Features" metric 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 based on the quantity of features (because more is always better, right?) as well as the quality of the features. The Arc'teryx Theta AR and the Patagonia Refugitive jackets had what we considered to be the best selection and quality of features, while the Marmot Nano AS and the Westcomb Shift LT had the fewest. Described below are what we like and dislike about each given feature.
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 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 we tested the Arc'teryx Theta AR 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 pocket; if this is a deal-breaker for you, consider our Top Pick, the Outdoor Research Axiom.
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. In general, the Arc'teryx model jackets had the best quality and size of Velcro wrist enclosures.
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 Mountain Hardwear Torsun jackets 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.
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 collars that live inside the hood on the Arc'teryx Beta AR and Arc'teryx Theta AR are without doubt the most comfortable and protective collars available.
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. (The only exception was that the pit zip zippers on a couple of jackets leaked just a bit). Finally, two jackets, the Outdoor Research Axiom and the Mountain Hardwear Torsun feature two-way front zippers that we really loved.
Donning your new hardshell is a great feeling, while picking which one to buy can be rather daunting. Getting the features you desire, the weather protection you need, and the weight you want, 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
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