Hardshell Jacket versus Rain Shell
The first question you should ask yourself when shopping for a new jacket is whether you really need a hardshell, or whether a rain shell might serve you just fine. When they're new, hardshells and rain shells are equally waterproof. Making a fabric waterproof is easy. What's hard is making a fabric waterproof and breathable, and making the material durable enough to retain its water resistance and breathability over a long period of time.
Hardshell jackets, which represent the best of waterproof breathable technologies, are made with better materials and construction techniques than rain shells. Choosing between a hardshell (which costs an average of $400) and a rain shell (roughly $150) comes down to two factors: durability and breathability. Do the activities you participate in, and the places you go, warrant a more durable jacket? If so, then consider a hardshell. Do you need simple rain protection in warm climates or seasons, or is staying dry in sub-zero temperatures of critical importance? If you really need a breathable jacket, we recommend the hardshell.
We believe that rain jackets will be best for the "average user" because they provide reliable waterproof protection and reasonable durability, at a more affordable cost. If you find yourself sprinting to the car or the coffee shop in the rain more than you find yourself thru-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail or alpine climbing, then a rain jacket is likely a better buy. Rain jackets are more than adequate for long backpacking trips and some of our testers have brought them on extended travel trips to places like Antarctica. On the other hand, a hardshell jacket is ideal for hardcore users that travel through high abrasion environments or who spend extended periods (weeks to months) outside in harsh weather, especially in winter. They are unquestionably a more technologically advanced piece of gear and do a much better job of moving heat generated moisture from the inside to the outside of the jacket. They have better materials, are constructed with more advanced techniques, and have higher quality and better-designed features (hoods, pockets, zippers, adjustment cords).
Types and Construction of Hardshell Jackets
Generally speaking, the hardshell jackets that you will find in this review represent the most protective outerwear available on the market today. Since they use the strongest fabrics paired with the most innovative and top-of-the-line waterproof breathable membranes, they are also among the most expensive. In the past, we made an effort to divide these jackets into a couple of groups, such as "all-around," and "fast & light." However, with more testing, we have found that these distinctions have broken down over time, so we are dropping them for this review. Furthermore, we found that many of the very lightest "hardshell" jackets offer weather protection barely better, and in some cases worse, than rain jackets. If elite alpinists want to tackle the world's gnarliest peaks with clothing akin to a rain jacket to save a couple ounces then we applaud them, but for this review we chose to include only the highest quality and most protective jackets available today.
Hardshell jackets are generally comprised of three layers. Below we have a rough breakdown of their purpose:
Also known as the face fabric, this layer is what you see on the outside of a jacket. It is made of nylon or polyester fibers woven together to provide a durable protective layer. The thickness of these fibers and tightness of their weave is known as denier, and the higher the denier number (i.e. 70-denier or 70D) means a thicker, heavier face fabric. All face fabrics are coated in a DWR, or Durable Water Resistant, chemical application which helps repel water on contact, causing it to bead up and fall off the outside of a jacket.
Waterproof Breathable Membrane
Sandwiched in the middle is the membrane that gives the jacket its waterproof and breathable attributes. The membrane is waterproof because it is woven so tightly that water droplets are not able to penetrate it. It is also breathable because at the same time there are holes in the weave so tiny that nothing but water vapor can pass through to the outside. There are countless different proprietary membranes on the market today, but for decades this niche has been dominated by products designed by W.L.Gore, known as GORE-TEX.
On the inside of a three-layer jacket is a fabric designed to add durability to the membrane by protecting it from abrasion and body oils. It also reduces friction and allows inner garments to move easily against one another, and in some cases helps wick moisture away from the body and toward the membrane. C-knit backet, made by W.L.Gore and paired with their standard three-layer GORE-TEX, is an inner layer that has recently exploded onto the scene and is found in many of the jackets reviewed here.
Hardshell Jacket Construction
The shells we tested are all constructed with three layers. Three-layer shells consist of: 1) an internal material that protects the membrane and reduces friction by allowing your undergarments or base layers to move freely beneath the jacket, 2) a "waterproof breathable" membrane, and 3) an external face fabric made of nylon or polyester that protects the jacket and user from the outside. Three-layer hardshell jackets are generally the heaviest, most durable, most expensive, and also the most comfortable waterproof jackets available. In terms of construction, the main difference between the jackets tested here are the type of proprietary waterproof breathable membrane that they incorporate. The specific membrane types are described in greater detail a bit lower.
Shells with 2.5 layers (which are not included in this review, although the Outdoor Research Furio is made of a roughly 50/50 blend of 2.5 and 3-layer membranes) have a face fabric, membrane, and non-textile coating "painted" onto the inside. These shells tend to be a bit cheaper, but again, not nearly as durable. Most two-layer shells have a face fabric and coating; they're the lightest, cheapest, least durable, and fall squarely into the rain jacket category. All waterproof breathable shells have durable water resistant (DWR) coatings applied to the outside of the shell that aim to prevent the external face fabric from "wetting out," or becoming saturated with moisture, which compromises the fabric's breathability.
Durable Water Resistant (DWR) Coatings
However, a DWR coating is simply that: a coating. When it wears off (which can happen in a surprisingly short amount of time if the jacket is used regularly), then the face fabric will "wet out" when exposed to water. Wetting out means that water droplets no longer bead up and roll off of the outside of the shell, they are instead absorbed into the face fabric, making the outside layer of your premium jacket, well, wet. (Don't worry, when this happens, you still stay dry thanks to the waterproof membrane). Unfortunately, both for your comfort and your wallet, all DWR coatings eventually fail due to abrasion, dirt, body oils, and prolonged use. This inevitable failure (which could come in as little as a month of use) is the downfall of waterproof breathable technology. Waterproof shells are only breathable when their face fabric is dry. (Water vapor that passes from within the jacket through the membrane will condense into liquid form when it hits a wet face fabric.) What this means is that a waterproof breathable product will not breathe if the face fabric has wetted out. Thus, you must clean your hardshell jacket and restore its DWR coating regularly in order for it to breathe properly (see the bottom of this article for advice on cleaning your hardshell jacket and reapplying the DWR coating). It is worth pointing out that even if your DWR coating has worn off and the face fabric is wetting out, it will still be waterproof, because the waterproof membrane, the middle of the three layers in your jacket, will still provide a barrier and keep you dry.
Waterproofness and Breathability
The primary conclusion from our testing is that the specific waterproof breathable technology matters less than the design, weight, fit, and features of your jacket. All of the waterproof breathable membranes on the market work, and have a heap of marketing money standing behind them to try to prove their "superior" technology to you, the consumer. The reality is that even after months of daily hands-on testing, it is nearly impossible to determine exactly which one works best. All the evidence is anecdotal and dependent on the varying conditions of the day. Even when conducting our "treadmill test," where conditions were normalized for every jacket, it was very difficult to tell which technology was the best. Basically, a hardshell's performance is as much (or more) a factor of an individual's metabolism, weather conditions, and product specific features such as sizing, ventilation, and the ability to resist abrasion, body oils, and dirt, as it is a product of the materials used in its waterproof/breathable membrane. That said, we'll briefly discuss water resistance and breathability.
Although the industry lacks a uniform testing system that would provide comparable results, water resistance can be quantified with the water column test. That procedure measures the height of water that can be held vertically in a column over a fabric swatch before the inherent pressure causes the fabric to leak. The majority of hardshell jackets tested here have water column ratings of 20,000mm, which far exceeds the pressures found in environmental conditions. Hurricane force rain, for example, produces the equivalent pressure of 7,000mm and a fire hose held at 30ft., 11,000mm. Thus, all of the shells tested here are functionally waterproof.
Breathability is the ability of a fabric to allow moisture vapor to be transmitted through the material. It's a function of the difference between the relative humidity (rH) inside the jacket compared to that outside (when actively exercising, the rH rapidly rises close to or to 100 percent inside the jacket, which can be uncomfortable). Laws of physics dictate that masses of air with different temperature, pressure, and moisture content will always attempt to equalize themselves. So, the large body of cool air outside of your jacket will draw out the warm, moist air within your jacket, through the millions of microscopic pores in the breathable membrane. This happens faster when the differences in atmospheric conditions are greatest. The best "breathing" conditions for a jacket are when you are very hot and sweaty, and the air outside is very cold and dry, and even windy. The worst conditions are when it is warm and humid outside; a jacket likely won't breathe at all in a warm rain forest. Similarly, when it is very cold and humid outside, warm moist air inside your jacket can condense when it encounters the cool liner of your jacket, causing liquid to build up on the inside of your jacket (the coke bottle effect), and inspiring you to swear at the inadequacy of your expensive clothing. With these physical limitations, be happy you are not charged with trying to design the perfect breathable membrane!
Specific Waterproof Breathable Technologies
As we stated above, we do not think that specific waterproof breathable technologies should be a starting point for determining which hardshell jacket to buy. However, for the curious, we have done our best to briefly describe the various technologies available on the market today.
The standard Gore-Tex 3-layer membrane is found in mid-level jackets, hardware, and footwear. Garments using this technology are marketed as being "durably waterproof, windproof, and highly breathable." In this year's review, we found that most of the jackets using this technology paired it with W.L. Gore's new C-knit backer technology (more on that below). The only jacket we tested the relies on a simple three-layer construction without the C-knit backer is the Patagonia Triolet, where it is paired with a burly 70 denier face fabric.
The GORE-TEX Pro membrane, formerly Pro Shell and XCR (Extended Comfort Range) before that, is the company's premium product that offers a 35%+ increase in breathability over its standard 3-layer GORE-TEX. It also offers the company's best abrasion-resistance-to-weight ratio. Pro is W.L. Gore's most expensive membrane. All jackets that feature it have three layers and are designed for professionals, such as athletes and guides, who spend extended periods (weeks to months) outside. Both the Pro and Standard 3-layer consist of an outer face fabric, an ePTFE membrane, and a micro grid liner fabric. The Pro membrane is air permeable, whereas the Standard 3-layer membrane has an ultra-thin polyurethane (PU) layer that is not air permeable. GORE-TEX Pro jackets must be paired with face fabrics of at least 40 denier for higher abrasion resistance and longer durability. Three of the products we tested feature a GORE-TEX Pro membrane, including the Arc'teryx Alpha FL, the Arc'teryx Beta AR, and The North Face Free Thinker Jacket.
GORE C-Knit backer technology was new for winter of 2015/16, and was only used on one jacket that we tested that year. However, this year we find it used in conjunction with most of the GORE-TEX 3-layer jackets we tested. C-Knit is not a new type of membrane, but rather a new type of laminate that comprises the inner of the three layers. The laminate uses a new "circular knit form" (hence C-Knit) that according to Gore allows layers to be up to 10% lighter and 15% more breathable using less bulky construction. The Marmot Cerro Torre, Black Diamond Helio Alpine Shell, Outdoor Research Furio, and Patagonia Refugitive all use this technology as the inside layer of their shell construction.
PacLite is W.L. Gore's most affordable membrane. It was developed for people who are outside for shorter durations, want something lighter than Pro Shell, and don't need Pro Shell's increased breathability and durability. PacLite is a 2.5-layer membrane designed to be lighter and more packable than standard 3-layer jackets. The only jacket in this review to use Paclite is the OR Furio, which uses it in limited low abrasion areas on the front and back of the torso, in conjunction with standard 3-layer with C-knit backer on the hood, shoulders, arms, and sides of body. The use of select panels of Paclite makes this jacket less expensive than its other hardshell counterparts. Paclite is most common for use in rain jackets.
Active Shell is W.L. Gore's newest, lightest, and most breathable membrane. It is an improved, three-layer version of PacLite that is intended for high output activities of shorter duration (weekend backcountry ski trips, fast and light alpine climbs). It is not intended to be worn under a 70 lb. pack. Active Shell achieves its lower weight and increased breathability through improved construction; the polyurethane layer serves as an adhesive that bonds the inner lining to the membrane, a process that uses less glue than Pro and Performance Shell. Additionally, the Active membrane is thinner than Gore's other membranes, so it weighs less. Our treadmill test again failed to quantify that Active Shell is more breathable than Pro, but it is noticeably more mobile and supple, and less crinkly and loud when moving inside the jacket. The Outdoor Research Axiom is the only jacket in this year's review to feature a GORE-TEX Active Shell.
Finally, all W.L. Gore membranes have oleophobic properties — they resist body oils, which tend to build up in the neck, shoulders, and hood areas. Each type of Gore membrane has the same film and liner and manufacturers choose from different face fabrics. In general, higher denier and tighter weaves increase the face fabric's, and thus the jacket's, price.
All waterproof breathable technologies are different. GORE-TEX 3-layer membranes contain over nine billion microscopic pores per square inch. These pores are 20,000 times smaller than a water droplet, but 700 times larger than a water vapor molecule. Contrary to popular belief, water vapor does not pass through any type of GORE-TEX. Instead, the shell's membrane's thin PU (polyurethane) layer forces moisture to move through the membrane via solid state diffusion — the PU layer absorbs water vapor which moves through the film as water droplets until it reaches the outside, when it can then return to water vapor and evaporate. While this process most certainly does work, but it can be uncomfortable to experience the 95% relative humidity levels that may be required on the inside of the jacket to force solid state diffusion.
Another thing that differentiates W.L. Gore from its competition is the company's role in the design and construction of every garment that bears its name. Any company that uses GORE-TEX is required to use W.L. Gore-certified factories and machinery. The fabric maker is also closely involved in the design and production processes. Every product must adhere to specific, often controlling, standards set by W.L. Gore. For example, if a company wants to make a jacket with GORE-TEX, the process works roughly like this: W.L. Gore sends the company material samples and the company designs and assembles the product. W.L. Gore then approves its style. It analyzes things like zippers, seam tape, hood design, wrist closures, etc. (For example, all Active Shell products must have a trim fit, few pockets or mesh lined pockets, as little seam tape as possible, and must weigh under 14 oz.) After style approval, W.L. Gore subjects the gear to rigorous water resistance, wind resistance, and durability testing. If it meets all qualifications, W.L. Gore gives the go-ahead for production, but not without branding — every product that uses GORE-TEX must have a large hang tag and W.L. Gore logo. Though costly and time consuming, this system has a dramatic consequence: there are no "bad" GORE-TEX products. Every W.L. Gore hardshell jacket we tested is well-constructed and reasonably well-designed. Better yet, all GORE-TEX products come with an unconditional lifetime warranty. You can return any product at any point if you're dissatisfied with its performance. This includes all issues that pertain to water resistance, durability, and breathability. No other waterproof breathable manufacturer offers the same warranty.
W.L. Gore's largest competitor is eVent, which produces three-layer air permeable ePTFE membranes that are supposedly slightly more breathable than GORE-TEX (there's no PU layer), yet allegedly less durable. EVent works using a system that they call "Direct Venting." The eVent membrane allows air to flow directly through it, allowing for direct evaporation of sweat liquid through the membrane without the need for a difference in relative humidity to force diffusion. Of course, while eVent claims that its layers are windproof, with air flow allowed through the garment, jackets made with eVent are not going to be as windproof as GORE-TEX, with its PU liner. There are trade-offs for everything, but the important thing to note is that eVent works differently than GORE-TEX. EVent is available with a wide range of face fabrics that offer various levels of tear- and abrasion-resistance. EVent was created by BHA Group, which was purchased by General Electric in 2004. Unlike GORE-TEX, eVent can be obtained without restriction and is sold as an unbranded fabric. The only jacket tested in this review to incorporate eVent was the Rab Latok Alpine Jacket. While it was hard for us to verify that the eVent membrane in this jacket worked better than the GORE-TEX membrane's in other jackets, we especially liked it because it featured unparalleled venting capabilities and features, something that we find to be more practically important than the membrane itself.
The North Face DryVent
DryVent is a proprietary membrane designed by The North Face to be less expensive than GORE-TEX. It used to be known as HyVent, but has now been rebranded. DryVent uses a PU layer just beneath the face fabric, so breathing takes place more by direct diffusion like in GORE-TEX layers, and not by active venting like eVent. For this reason, DryVent will require a high level of relative humidity inside the jacket in order to stimulate the breathing process. The North Face pairs DryVent with outerwear garments in 3L, 2.5L, and 2L constructions. The North Face Fuseform Brigandine 3L uses DryVent 3L as its waterproof breathable membrane. While it had many of the same features as the GORE-TEX Pro equipped Free Thinker Jacket, we found the Fuseform to be more supple, mobile, quieter, and comfortable than the Free Thinker, and couldn't help but notice that it also cost $100 less.
Choosing the Right Hardshell Jacket
The first step in deciding what is the best hardshell jacket for you is determining what the intended use will be. Are you more of a Fast & Light or All-around user? If you are alpine climbing on big mountains, or you live in a relatively warm and dry climate and your jacket may live in your pack as often as on your back, then be sure to prioritize weight and packability in your selection. On the other hand, if you are just as likely to wear your jacket at the ski resort or around town as you are out climbing, or you need an insanely durable jacket that you want to live forever, weight might not be such a big deal.
Another major consideration is what type of weather your jacket will be subjected to on a regular basis. "Normal" weather is completely different in the Cascades than it is in the Rockies. If heavy rain is a normal part of going into the mountains for you, like it often is in the Cascades, then you may want to look at a shell which features GORE-TEX, which is probably going to be more waterproof than an air permeable waterproof/breathable shell. On the other hand, if you live in Colorado, where it seemingly never rains and then only in very short spurts, absolute waterproofness may not be your biggest concern and an air permeable shell may serve you better.
Also be sure to consider the outdoor activities where you will need your hardshell jacket. Backcountry skiing is intrinsically aerobic (you spend 90% of the time moving and sweating), so a lightweight, air permeable shell will probably keep you dryer from within. On the other hand, ice climbing tends to be a colder activity with long periods of sitting or standing still and potentially getting dripped on. In this case, a heavier GORE-TEX shell will most likely keep you dryer from the outside and warmer. An additional consideration might be weight. If you're counting ounces, then light is right; however be sure that you don't sacrifice too much on weather protection.
The products described in this review range from $375 on the low end all the way to $599 on the high end. Unlike most things in this world, we found that price does not accurately correspond to the best product when considering these hardshell jackets. In fact, four of our award winners were under $400 retail, signifying that perhaps the desire to create more affordable jackets has actually contributed to more innovative designs and materials. In general, hardshell jackets are worth the money they cost if you really need one! For the especially budget conscious, you may consider checking out our Rain Jacket Review. In many circumstances, these layers can serve your needs, and if they wear our too quickly, you can often buy another one for cheaper than one hardshell.
Once you have narrowed down the field a bit by considering your intended use and price range, the final deciding factor will probably be an individual jacket's specific features and its fit. Does it have pockets where you want them? Does the hood cinch down well enough to keep out the rain? When you put on the jacket, can you raise your hands above your head without the sleeves falling down to your forearms and the hemline riding up above your waist? These considerations will end up being far more important than membrane type for most people, because features that don't function perfectly or a jacket that is too tight or loose will end up bothering you every day you use it.
Most hardshell jackets come in a very wide range of color options. While our head tester used to exclusively prefer colors that would help him blend in with the natural environment, helping him fulfill his "mountain ninja" fantasies, there is a very compelling argument for wearing the very bright and highly visible colors that are in vogue these days. Backcountry skiing and alpine climbing are inherently very risky activities. The threat of being caught in an avalanche or taking a fall high on a mountain are very real and possible, and there is no doubt that highly visible colors will greatly assist your friends and search and rescue operations should something bad befall you, increasing your chances of being seen and subsequently rescued. So next time you are thinking of buying a black, brown, or navy jacket, consider whether it might not actually be more prudent to be wearing bright red, electric blue, or neon yellow out in the hills instead, your life might end up depending on it.
Waterproof Breathable Care Tips
A key part of maintaining the breathability and weather resistance of your hardshell jacket is keeping it as clean as possible. Dirt and abrasion are your shell's enemies. Both will wear away the DWR coating and fray the face fabric, which in turn reduces the shell's breathability. Without a healthy DWR finish, the face fabric will absorb more water and become heavier and less breathable.
Wash your hardshell frequently
Body oils that accumulate in the hood, neck, and shoulder areas will reduce the membrane's performance. Machine-wash warm (104° F/40° C), powder or liquid detergent, no fabric softener. ReviveX Synthetic Fabric Cleaner, Granger's Performance Wash, and Nikwax Tech Wash are tried and true soaps. The excellent video below describes how to wash a hardshell jacket.
Restore the DWR coating
A fabric's DWR coating has worn off when the fabric "wets out," i.e. starts absorbing water instead of shedding it. Restoring the DWR will improve breathability and user comfort. Do this after washing the jacket. Spray-on or topical DWR restoratives are better than wash-in treatments because they don't affect the garment's breathability. Nikwax TX Direct Spray-On and ReviveX Spray-On are both good options.