The Best Hardshell Jacket for Women
What's the best women's hardshell jacket? For our first-ever edition of this review, we took seven of the industry's top picks and ran them through a gauntlet of tests. We handed them out to friends, stuffed them into packs, and found adventure in the mountains and deserts. Ice climbing, cross country skiing, running, backcountry touring, ski mountaineering through the San Juan Hut System, hanging out in rainstorms, and hiking up steeps were just a few sports we exposed these shells to. Our high-quality research and in-field testing will guide you through purchasing one of the most expensive pieces of outerwear that money can buy. A hardshell jacket is fully weatherproof, incredibly durable (lasting up to 10+ years!), and filled with many features that makes it comfortable when the weather turns.
Read the full review below >
Test Results and Ratings
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Analysis and Award Winners
Best for Specific Applications
Best for Ice Climbing: Norrona Trollveggen Dri3
Best for Comfort: Patagonia Piolet
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Analysis and Test Results
So what sets a hardshell jacket apart from a wind, rain, or softshell? It's quite simple really. An expensive and high-end hardshell has components that make it both extremely weatherproof and somewhat breathable. In the past, fabrics for an ultra waterproof garment truly lacked breathability, but as technology has advanced, garments are becoming more breathable and lighter weight. Not only that, but different manufacturers are integrating different types of technology. Some make ultralight and super breathable shells, like the Outdoor Research Clairvoyant, while others are less breathable and incredibly durable, like the Arc'teryx Alpha SV. Hardshell jackets also differ from other shell types because of their features. Adjustable helmet-compatible hoods, wrist closures, high collars (some are detached from the hood), and other sizing adjustments are among the many details manufacturers work to perfect. The face fabrics are continuous with minimal, intricate stitching and heat sealed seams to increase weatherproofing.
During our research we learned that most hardshell jackets that weren't made of GORE-TEX Pro fabrics, wetted out roughly one minute after being under water. That said, they still maintained their waterproofing. Really high-end models like our Editors' Choice Award winner, Arc'teryx Theta AR, kept repelling the water even after 10 minutes of torrential downpour. In correlation with high price is incredibly high durability and weather protection. A good hardshell jacket will last you upwards of 10 years and is a good investment if you intend to be outside in wet and cold environments.
Rain jackets, on the other hand, don't integrate many of the uber-well-designed features of hardshells and they aren't as durable. Generally speaking, rain jackets feature 2- or 2.5-layer construction, while hardshells usually use 3-layer construction. However rain jackets are WAY more affordable. If you're looking for a shell just to cut the wind or keep the rain off during day or multiday backpacking trips and you don't want to break the bank, a rainshell may be the way to go. To learn more, check out The Best Rain Jacket for Women Review.
Softshells are a much breathable shell that are water and wind resistant. They are best used in situations where you won't encounter wet weather (i.e. drier, non-coastal climates). For example, in Colorado many mountain and ice climbing guides will choose a softshell over a hardshell jacket because they are far more breathable and integrate mobile and lightweight fabrics. They can withstand big winds and will still keep you dry in dry snow. To find out more, check out The Best Softshell for Women Review.
How do breathable fabrics work?
Breathability in a fabric depends on a three different factors. The first is the size of the pores in the membrane. The pores are not big enough to allow water or wind molecules to pass through, but these pores are large enough to allow moisture vapor to pass through so your body perspiration can escape. The second factor is the number of pores for a given area. The higher the number of pores, the more breathable the fabric and vice versa. The third factor is the type of polymer used. GORE-TEX, for example, uses a rigid polymer while other less rigid (more mobile) fabrics use hydrophilic (hydo=water, philic = repelling) molecules to keep the water out, and allow the air to pass through. Throughout our testing we found that different fabrics had different functions as a result of the differences in these three factors. Read on to learn more!
One of the conclusions about fabrics that we came to through this review was that each type of fabric tested utilized a different technology. To start, we'll introduce the different types of fabrics that we will see in this review. Gore-Tex leads the charge in the breathable fabric and membrane industry. However, new fabrics like Dri.Q.Elite and dri3, respectively utilized in the Mountain Hardwear Torsun and Norrona Trollveggen Dri3 - Women's are more breathable, less rigid, with a similar level of waterproofing. To start, we will go over the different types of fabrics you will see through this review and outline their specific purposes.
In 1969, Bob Gore (son of the founding Bill and Vieve Gore) discovered a polymer that would later be integrated into hardshell jackets in 1976. Polytetrafluoroethylene (ePTFE), used in Gore-Tex shells, is a rigid polymer that repels water and oxygen molecules and allows water vapor molecules to pass through its membrane allowing for ample breathability and weather proofing. Today, Gore-Tex is still the leading producer of breathable fabrics used in hardshells. Brands like Arc'teryx, Patagonia, and Outdoor Research are just a few companies (of the many) that integrate Gore-Tex into their garments. The company also offers a variety of different types of weatherproofing for different functions. Take a look below at the different levels found used in this review.
GORE-TEX Pro (Extended and Extreme Solution): This three-layer material is made of face fabric, membrane, and liner, which are all welded together. It is designed to be extremely rugged, breathable, and versatile.
Best Uses: Any conditions requiring superior weather protection like long extended mountaineering trips, nasty and wet weather situations, or highly abrasive trips that require a rugged outer.
Products in this review that utilize Gore-Tex Pro include our Top Pick for Mountain Expeditions - Arc'teryx Alpha SV, the Arc'teryx Beta AR Jacket - Women's, and our Editors' Choice winner - the Arc'teryx Theta AR
GORE-TEX Multi-purpose Solution: This material features two-layer technology - a welded face fabric and membrane - with a third separate (un-welded) liner. It is designed to be versatile, durable, and stylish.
Best Uses: Anything from hiking, biking, to just hanging out in town.
The only model in this review that utilize this Gore-Tex technology is the Patagonia Piolet - Women's.
GORE-TEX Active (Highly Aerobic Solution): This material also uses three-layer technology but prioritizes breathability, light weight, and minimalist design over other attributes.
Best Uses: Any aerobic activity (i.e. backcountry skiing, cross country skiing, snowshoeing), light wear around town uses.
In this review, our Top Pick for Lightweight Design, the Outdoor Research Clairvoyant, uses Gore-Tex Active technology.
Other fabric technologies like Dri3 and Dry.Q.Elite are more breathable than the regular Gore-Tex and Gore-Tex Pro products. Dri 3, used by the Norrona Trollveggen Dri3, is more flexible and breathable than the Gore-Tex Pro products, but not as breathable as Dri.Q.Elite used in Mountain Hardwear Torsun. Dry.Q.Elite breathes better because the pore size is a little larger, allowing moisture to pass through the fabric from your body without having to build up a sweat first. dri3 works in a similar fashion with a slightly smaller pore size. As a result, the Norrona is a warmer layer that is more suited for hanging out in cold snow caves when the weather turns.
We also explore the differences between a hardshell, softshell, and rain jacket in our How to Choose the Best Hardshell Jacket for Women article.
Types of Hardshell Jackets
Now that we've learned all about different types of fabrics and how they compared during our testing, it's time to talk about different types of hardshell jackets. Some come with a built-in liner, others have liners that can be zipped in and out, while others (like the ones in this review) have no liners at all. The idea behind these liner-less shells is that it gives you more freedom to choose your layers and use them when you please. Some of these shells might come equipped with a powder skirt and are ideal for skiing or snow activities. The products in this review are designed with a more ascent-oriented focus, so they do not have built-in liners, zip out liners, or powder skirts. Instead they have features such as pockets that are positioned to accommodate wearing a harness or backpack that are more specialized for moving up mountain. For your reading ease, we have divided the products in this review into three different categories.
Heavy Duty: These are best for extended expedition-based trips, for big mountain guides, or for those who work or spend a lot of time in the backcountry (multiple days at a time). These shells prioritize durability, which means they are a little heavier and pretty much bomb proof. Heavy duty models like the Arc'teryx Alpha SV, Arc'teryx Theta AR, and the Arc'teryx Beta AR tend to have very durable face fabrics and provide excellent weather protection.
Medium: These are your all-purpose warriors. Built to take you to top the mountains and through the streets of rainy coastal cities. They tend to have fabrics that are more flexible and more breathable, along with a higher number of comfort features than the heavy duty shells. Their durability is still high and you'll have more mobility in a medium weight hardshell jacket than in one of the heavy duty models. These will still keep you protected from the elements when you're not looking for a severe weather rated shell. Check out the Patagonia Piolet, Norrona Trollveggen, and the Mountain Hardwear Torsun if you're interested in a medium weight model.
Lightweight: These models are for the minimalist who is looking for a no-frills hardshell with few features and a super lightweight design. They tend to be less than 13 oz with incredibly breathable membranes and an affinity for protecting you from the elements. They are designed to help you move fast and pack down quickly. They also work as great wind shells on long missions and will keep you dry if the sky decides to cry. These lightweight models can get as light as 8 oz, like the Patagonia M10 - Men's. However, our lightest shell tested, and winning the Top Pick for Lightweight Design, was the Outdoor Research Clairvoyant, weighing in at just 11.70 oz.
Criteria for Evaluation
When evaluating hardshell jackets, we rated them according to the seven most important metrics that you should consider before purchasing one of these bomber behemoths. These metrics included Weather Protection, Mobility, Breathability & Venting, Weight & Packed Size, Features, Durability, and Versatility. Read on to learn how we tested each metric, and how the products compared to one another.
One of the main reasons to buy an expensive hardshell jacket is for its ability to combat the elements. So it's no wonder that we awarded 20% of each product's score to weather protection. When testing to see how weather protective these products were, we considered three main variables. First we measured each one's windproof factor. Given that some fabrics like the Outdoor Research Clairvoyant and Mountain Hardwear Torsun are more breathable, it's unavoidable that they will be less windproof. So to test, we rode bikes around, got out in the backcountry on windy days, and glided on cross country skis with just a t-shirt and the shell over top to test to see if we felt the wind against our skin. The second variable tested was how waterproof the hardshell was. To test this, we put on a cotton t-shirt and climbed into the shower to see if the water leaked in any places, if the hood prevented water from funneling down the hood or collar in any strange way, or if the fabric simply wetted out after any period of time. Last but not least, we considered how relatively warm we felt while riding out storms or wearing the products on cold jaunts around town.
After a lot of rain, snow, and wind, we weren't surprised to rate the Arc'teryx SV and the Arc'teryx Theta as our top performers for weather protection. Both feature great hoods that provide amazing coverage. The SV had a little more coverage than the Theta with its storm hood. Not only that, but they were the only two hardshell jackets that did not "wet out" after a minute of being in a continuous stream of water. All others tested, including the Arc'teryx Beta, beaded the water for a few minutes before the fabric became saturated. All the products across the board are waterproof thanks to their membranes, but many of the face fabrics absorbed more water than we expected.
The product we were the least happy with was the Patagonia Piolet. The hood does not provide adequate coverage, and actually funneled water down into the collar after being cinched down. In terms of warmth, the Norrona and the Arc'teryx SV provided the most warmth. The Norrona has a thicker shell than the others tested, which is really nice when hanging out at wet, windy belays for long periods of time.
You know that 'swish swish, crinkle crinkle' sound that some hardshells make with every movement? That swishy sound equates to a shell that is fairly rigid and does not have a whole lot of stretch and mobility. This mobility (or immobility) is a result of the different types of polymers used in the membranes of each jacket. To test mobility we lifted our arms, stretched the fabric, did some yoga, and busted out some kung-fu moves to see if the jacket moved with us. We also researched the different types of fabrics and learned about why and how some jackets were more mobile than others.
It's no surprise that the most lightweight and minimalist shell tested, the Outdoor Research Clairvoyant, was the most mobile. It has a soft fabric that moves with you. However, it's not a very roomy jacket, so wearing many layers underneath can be restricting. The Patagonia Piolet was the most flexible of all the medium weight jackets, while the Arc'teryx jackets scored at the lower end of the mobility scale, encompassing the heavy duty category. Even though the Arc'teryx jackets scored low for fabric mobility, they had the most room through the arms and body to accommodate movement in other ways.
Breathability & Venting
So you are hiking through the snow, and the weather is pretty bad. You don't want to take off your shell, for fear of getting wet, but you need a way to get that moisture and sweat away from your skin. This is where fabric breathability and venting comes into play. What we found in our testing is that having pit zips are much more important for breathability than just relying on vapor diffusion through the fabric. During our testing period we looked at fabric breathability by taking each shell out for early morning winter runs, accompanied by just a simple base layer. We observed how warm or how swampy the jacket kept us throughout the run. Once we stopped running to walk home, we noticed how cold we got from water vapor that stayed on the skin. We also looked at the number of vents each jacket had, how big they were, and how well they worked in their particular positions. Some jackets like the Arc'teryx Beta AR had pit zips, while others like the Mountain Hardwear Torsun just had simple hand pockets with mesh.
In terms of fabric breathability, we found that the Gore-Tex Active fabric used in the Clairvoyant provided the most breathability. Other fabrics like two-layer Gore-Tex (Piolet), dri3 (Norrona) and Dry.Q.Elite (Torsun) were also quite breathable, with the Torsun leading the way of these three. We were actually surprised to learn that the Gore-Tex Pro layers (Arc'teryx Beta, Theta, SV) were somewhat breathable, but not so much as the other fabrics in this review.
Pit zips were prevalent on the Gore-Tex Pro shells, and provided ample relief while hiking, running, or cross country skiing. The Norrona actually had the biggest pit vents of all the products tested. All Arc'teryx shells had similar vents with similar sizes. Neither the Clairvoyant nor the Torsun have pit zips, but they do feature mesh pockets that when opened, turned into a ventilation system. Even though this offered some relief on warmer days or amped up workouts, we were really hoping for pit zips to accompany the ultra breathable fabrics.
Weight & Packed Size
If you're considering buying an ultra durable shell to take with you on a long multi-day expeditions, it's important that it can pack into a backpack without taking up too much room and weighing you down. In general, you might sacrifice an ounce or two for extra durability and weather protection, found in a heavier shell like the Alpha SV, when it comes to really nasty weather conditions. But if you're just out skiing for the day, or looking to get in touch with your inner aerobic self, take a look at a lighter shell. To look at weight and packed size, we simply rolled each up into their hoods and compressed them down as far as they would go. We also looked to see if any would fit into their pockets - Outdoor Research Clairvoyant did very well in this test.
In general, we feel that a hardshell jacket that weighs more than 17 ounces is too heavy for ascension-based activities (only the Patagonia Piolet is over this threshold). Most of the products we tested compressed to a similar size without a significant difference. The Clairvoyant turned out to be the most compressible and lightweight model tested, earning its Top Pick for Lightweight Design. Following behind was the Arc'teryx Beta AR, weighing in at just 14.45 oz, and compressing to a size just a tad larger than a 1 liter water bottle. The Patagonia Piolet weighed the most at 18.90 ounces, making it a poor choice for light multi-day excursions. The Alpha SV and Piolet were the least compressible, making them better worn than packed.
Ahhh sometimes its the little things that really make the difference. When looking at features, we took into consideration a bunch of different things that make a hardshell jacket more versatile, comfortable, and functional. For example, we looked at how big the pull tabs were to adjust hoods and hems, and whether we had to take the gloves on or off. We also looked at pocket design - their number, depth, and position. We are happy to report that all the products we tested turned out to be harness/backpack strap compatible, as well as helmet compatible. We also looked to see if there were any cozy chin warmers, how much room there was in the collar, and how far it came up on the face when the hood was cinched down. Finally, we took into consideration any fancy features that stood out on each product.
Of all the products tested, we really feel in love with the Norrona for its exceptional balance of little comforts with functionality. In fact, it was in the running with our Editors' Choice Award Winner - the Alpha Theta for that very reason. Following closely behind was the Alpha SV, which has many functional features, like a harness compatible system and pockets that have cross-body access, but fewer comfort features. The Norrona on the other hand hosts super cozy chin warmers that keep you toasty when the frost is nipping. It also has long arms and a cut that doesn't allow the hem to ride up when you put your hands above your head. Other products like the Clairvoyant are minimalist in design and lack a number of features. The Patagonia Piolet was another cozy hardshell jacket that has a warm liner, felted chin warmers AND hand warmers as well (the only one with this feature!).
When considering purchasing an uber-expensive shell, you better know if it's going to last you for a long period of time. To be honest, because of our short testing period, this was the hardest metric to test. So we made our observations based on the quality of stitching, fabrics used, and zipper design. Models with big burly zippers are more likely to last than ones with tiny zippers with teeth that might fall out of sync. We also put these hardshell jackets in the washer to see if it affected the DWR after just one wash, or if anything part looked worn afterwards. To top it all off, we did our research. We talked to long-term owners of shells like the Piolet, and looked at consumer reviews online. In the end, we were able to comment on the durability of each shell.
In general, the Arc'teryx models scored top marks for durability. Their construction is supreme with complex stitching and welded overlays that ensure the shell will last close to a lifetime. Many Arc'teryx owners gloat about the durability with a huge trade-off for price. One thing we did not like about the Beta AR was that after tugging on the pulltab of the hood's cinching system, the top popped off. This happened with the Norrona jacket on the waist adjustment tab as well. Aside from that, we didn't notice any wear and tear after three months of testing. We also loved the bomber zippers on the Arc'teryx, Norrona, and Outdoor Research products. On the other end, we are wary of the tiny toothed zippers used in the Mountain Hardwear and Patagonia pieces. However, no need to worry because all these manufacturers, with the exception of Norrona, back their products with a lifetime guarantee. This includes zippers. So if it breaks, send it in for a fix.
It's nice to have a hardshell jacket that you can take with you on all your favorite activities that require bomber weather protection everything from resort skiing, snowshoeing, running, hiking, ice climbing, mountaineering, and all else in between. To test this metric - we simply did all those things. We noted which shells were suited more for one purpose and which seemed to offer high performance for multiple activities. We noticed which ones our friends reached for when headed out for different activities like backcountry touring and cross country skiing. With these tests, we were able to determine which shells were versatile, and which weren't.
We found that the most versatile models were the ones that were more breathable. We gave top marks to the Mountain Hardwear Torsun because of its great breathability and its ability to perform in adverse conditions. The Arc'teryx products, the Norrona, and the Outdoor Research still earned top marks because you can use them for pretty much anything. From skiing to ice climbing to wearing around town. The only product that did not perform for all fun outdoor adventures was the Piolet due to its heavy weight, and its wavering weather protection. It is better suited for more mellow recreational activities, shovelling snow outside, or just for a quick cross country ski at the track.
The jackets in this review are intended to protect you from the most fierce of weather conditions. Depending on where you live and what you plan to use your jacket for, the type of hardshell you choose may vary. After reading through the details of our thorough testing, we hope that you were able to find the jacket that suits your taste. Still unsure? Have a look at our Buying Advice article for tips on what to consider when selecting your hardshell.
— Amber King
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