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Our hard-charging experts have spent the last 8 years pushing over 40 products to the max. For this update, we purchased and tested 12 of the best hardshell jackets side-by-side. We've skinned up backcountry missions, shredded at ski resorts, and shivered on ice routes. In addition to field testing, we've subjected them to various lab tests, in which each model has been analyzed based on five critical metrics, including weather protection and breathability. We've hit the High Sierra, Colorado, and British Columbia to bring you our reporting on the best of the best and budget-oriented hardshells. We're ready to help you find something for your next ski touring date or gnarly big mountain adventure.
The world of apparel for men is abundant. We're here to help bring you targeted reviews, which highlight the ins and outs of each model, as well as the highest performing and best value for your dollar. We offer complete testing for the best rain jackets, down jackets, winter jackets, fleece jackets, and the like. We also perform rigorous testing by female reviewers of some of the women's specific version of these hardshells. We find the same model jacket often gets slightly different performance ratings from our men's and women's testers.
Editor's Note: We updated this review on June 1, 2022, to include four new hardshells. New additions are the Black Crows Ventus Light, Ortovox 3L Ortler, Patagonia Ascensionist, and the Arc'teryx Alpha SL Anorak.
Material: Gore-Tex Active 3L 100% nylon | Weight: 13.6 oz. (L)
REASONS TO BUY
Full-featured yet lightweight
Impressive breathability and venting
Generous cut improves mobility
REASONS TO AVOID
Good, but not great, weather protection
The DWR treatment wore off early in our tests
Although the Mammut Nordwand Advanced is our favorite jacket for the absolute harshest conditions, the Patagonia Ascensionist is our favorite for everything else. This jacket offers an exceptionally well-balanced set of characteristics that make it ideal for an array of winter uses. It's impressively lightweight, but it doesn't compromise on features. Our testers appreciated its four accessory pockets, particularly the internal stash pocket for storing a pair of gloves or a hat. They were also pleased with the extra venting ability supplied by the underarm zippers. Finally, a low hemline and long arm sleeves achieved excellent mobility and ensured precip couldn't sneak inside.
We believe the Ascensionist is the best all-around hardshell, but there are better choices for some specific situations. Its Gore-Tex Active fabric proved to be somewhat prone to wetting out during heavy rain so you may want to opt for a Gore-Tex Pro model if you're regularly out in downpours. Even though this jacket is svelte, there are lighter choices for ultralight applications. We also don't consider this hardshell nearly as excellent as one past top scorer: the Arc'teryx Alpha FL. However, until that jacket is back in stock, the Ascensionist deserves significant praise and a top spot in this product category.
Material: Gore-Tex Pro 3L 100% nylon | Weight: 1 lb. 1 oz. (L)
REASONS TO BUY
Serious weather protection
Long waist and long sleeves enhance mobility
Impressive DWR finish
REASONS TO AVOID
A bit heavier than the lightest models
No hand pockets
Below average breathability
The "light and fast" attitude is taking hold in the hardshell scene, but there are still plenty of occasions when better weather protection is worth a few extra ounces. The Mammut Nordwand Advanced HS is designed for those occasions. It's extraordinary weatherproof, harkening back to a bygone era when scaling a big north face required weeks of suffering rather than hours of sprinting. Like several other jackets we tested, it's made with bombproof 3-layer Gore-Tex Pro fabric. The Nordwand, however, has a DWR finish that was still beading water months after some of its rivals had started to wet out. This jacket also boasts a low hem, a snug hood, long sleeves, and strong wrist cuffs that together ensure moisture can't sneak in from anywhere.
The Nordwand's biggest downfall is its huge price tag. It's also twice the weight of the lightest model we tested, and during sustained exertion, it doesn't breathe as well as others. Nevertheless, if you can stomach the price and shoulder the added weight, it's excellent for the harshest of conditions. Most people probably don't need a jacket this burly, but for winter expeditions or those who refuse to let a bad forecast spoil their fun, this is our top recommendation.
Material: Gore-Tex Active with Hadron face fabric | Weight: 7.6 oz (L)
REASONS TO BUY
Simple but effective design
Surprisingly durable fabric
REASONS TO AVOID
High waist hemline
Limited feature set
Not optimized for packability
When weight is paramount, the Arc'teryx Alpha SL Anorak is our favorite choice. This minimalist pullover weighs in at an astonishing 7.6 ounces for a size large. That's less than half of what many other high-performing models weigh. We were also pleasantly surprised by the durability of its lightweight materials. In field tests, it proved to supply an adequate degree of weather protection for skiing or climbing in less than ideal conditions.
Any jacket in this weight class is bound to come with some compromises. With only a single pocket, the Alpha SL has a very limited set of features. Some of our testers were also frustrated because the high waist hemline was prone to coming untucked from their climbing harnesses. Although we were impressed with the durability and weather resistance of its Gore-Tex Active fabric, it isn't nearly as burly or weatherproof as the Gore-Tex Pro found on many of the priciest hardshells. Still, the Alpha SL presents an excellent option for those willing to accept some sacrifices for maximum weight savings.
To find the very best hardshells, we put together a strong team consisting of Jack Cramer, Matt Bento, and Andy Wellman. Jack is a National Outdoor Leadership School alumnus and climber whose resume includes more than a dozen alpine first ascents. His specialty is scrappy mixed routes, where a combination of melting ice and coarse rock provides an ideal testing environment for any hardshell. As a past member of Yosemite Search and Rescue, Matt learned to abuse technical gear in a professional setting. Additionally, the ten years he spent as an itinerant climber enhances his critical eye for hardshell design. Andy completes the team, bringing extensive outdoor experience of all kinds. He's traveled throughout the world, climbing everything from high altitude mountains in South America to boulders back home, and formerly owned a climbing guidebook publishing company.
The task of finding the best hardshells began by examining the wide selection of models that are currently available. We initially considered 70 jackets before choosing 14 for hands-on testing. This is the eighth year we've tested hardshells, and with more than 40 jackets tested to date, this review is a culmination of what we've learned over that time. Testing took place while climbing, skiing, and ice climbing in Colorado's San Juans, the Columbia Mountains of British Columbia, and California's High Sierra. We supplemented this field testing with controlled experiments for weather protection, weight, and breathability. For example, we stood in the shower for three minutes with the hoods drawn to carefully compare water resistance among models and wore the jackets on a stationary bike, with controlled base layers, heart rate, and run time, to compare ventilation and breathability.
If your aspirations include steep descents or snowy summits, you'll need a great hardshell to keep you dry and comfortable. For this update, we pursued another season of winter adventures to evaluate a selection of the top-rated models on the market, including a couple of recent entrants: the Arc'teryx Alpha SL Anorak and the Black Crows Ventus Light. Read on for some discussion of the most important factors influencing hardshell performance and the top scorers in each aspect.
Most jackets in this review are made with three-layer waterproof/breathable fabrics. These three layers typically consist of a face fabric on the outside, a waterproof/breathable membrane in the middle, and an inner backing to protect the membrane. Together they combine to create a fabric that's designed to stop liquid moisture from getting in while allowing moist air from your body to escape. Three-layer hardshell jackets are some of the most technologically advanced and expensive pieces of outdoor clothing on the market. The primary difference between hardshells and less expensive rain jackets is that rain jackets are made from thinner materials and 2- or 2.5-layer fabrics so they're usually less durable and breathable.
We graded each product in this review based on the five metrics that we believe are most critical to the performance of a hardshell jacket: Weather Protection, Weight, Mobility & Fit, Venting & Breathability, and Features & Design. We weighted each metric based on its contribution to overall performance and graded each jacket in each area on a scale from 1 to 10. For example, weather protection contributes 30% to the overall score, while weight accounts for 20%. In all cases, we awarded scores for the performance of a jacket in comparison to other products.
Getting your hands on a hardshell jacket isn't cheap. These are among the highest-tech pieces of clothing available, and the price tags reflect that. The REI Drypoint GTX defies convention by scoring well and being one of the lowest-priced options, taking our award for an outstanding value. Another tempting less expensive model is the Arc'teryx Alpha SL Anorak. While this ultralight jacket provides adequate weather protection, it's not as burly as many of the more expensive models so we don't consider it quite as good of a value.
Nothing is more important when considering a hardshell jacket than how well it protects you from foul weather. After all, if it weren't for the weather, you wouldn't need a jacket. Hardshell jackets are different than softshells because they are meant to be fully waterproof and thus able to keep you dry even in a downpour. On the other hand, softshell jackets are designed primarily to be breathable. Hardshells are also different from rain jackets. Both are designed to be fully waterproof and breathable, but hardshells are typically more durable and able to resist punctures from climbing sharp rock or skiing tight trees to some degree.
Most of the jackets described in this review come with a Durable Water Repellent (DWR) coating that has been applied to the outer fabric of the jacket. This hydrophobic coating is applied to ensure the outside of the jacket stays dry so moisture beads up and rolls off a jacket rather than soaking in. Keeping this face fabric dry is necessary to allow the jacket to "breathe" and let humidity generated by your body escape through the waterproof/breathable membrane sandwiched in the middle of most 3-layer constructions. Essentially, manufacturers apply a DWR coating to the jacket to ensure this breathability.
We used all of the jackets for a couple of months before performing a shower test to assess weather protection. With the initial DWR coating partially worn off, all of the hardshells showed some signs of wetting out, particularly in the shoulders where backpack straps rub and across the back of the neck where it is exposed to dirt and oil from your hair. To avoid this wetting out, you need to keep your jacket clean and maintain the DWR coating by reapplying your own DWR treatments periodically.
The more significant factor when it came to weather protection, and one that helped us differentiate the jackets, is the design and fit of the jacket closures. An essential feature for keeping water out, especially in a downpour, is the hood. Some hoods worked magnificently in the shower, while others proved not to have enough of a bill on the forehead for optimal protection. The height and looseness of the collar when it's fully cinched also plays a role in directing water dripping off the hood from falling inside the jacket.
In past years, we encountered some poor designs, including a few instances when water ran straight off the sides of a hood and poured down the neck like a rain gutter spout. Luckily, hood designs have improved, and we didn't encounter anything particularly awful in recent testing. Another closure that can be a source of problems is the wrist cuff. All the jackets we tested feature similar adjustable cuffs. However, we were disappointed with the excess fabric on the cuffs of the Ortovox Ortler because the fabric was prone to snagging and releasing the cuff.
In the shower test, we also examined the main and pocket zippers. All of the jackets have watertight main zippers, but some accessory pockets showed some minor flaws. The Mountain Hardwear Exposure 2, Black Crows Ventus Light, for example, employ burly zippers on their accessory pockets. These large-toothed zippers, however, leave tiny gaps at their terminuses where water can see through.
Many of the jackets did an outstanding job protecting us from weather, but two, in particular, provide noteworthy performance compared to their competitors: the Mammut Nordwand Advanced HS and the Arc'teryx Alpha SV. Both of these jackets feature sturdier face fabrics, ergonomic hoods, and reliable cuffs that you can trust to keep you dry in the worst conditions.
The jackets selected for this year's review have a wide range of weights. A few jackets tipped the scales under 12 ounces. The Arc'teryx Alpha SL Anorak even weighed in at an astonishing 7.6 ounces. All of these lightweight models, however, have a reduced feature set and potentially lower durability.
We didn't identify a clear relationship between weight and overall jacket performance. Besides differences in fabric, manufacturers typically save weight by cutting out extraneous zippers and pockets, which many users like. So while wearing a hardshell jacket that feels as light as an extra shirt is preferable to wearing a model that feels like you donned a movable tent, you will need to decide whether cutting a few ounces is really worth it. Lighter jackets are also usually less durable, so a heavier model is more appropriate for users working outside every day or embarking on long expeditions.
How much weight matters is also a subjective preference. As gear and materials have evolved, manufacturers have continually looked for ways to produce gear that meets the "light and fast" demands of elite alpinists. But most hardshell owners are not elite alpinists, and weight is not as critically important to these users. It is thus essential to note that the difference between the lightest and heaviest jackets in the review is less than a pound. In other words: not much. For many people, performance characteristics other than weight should be more important.
Another performance area that's closely related to weight is packability. Although we didn't designate it as its own performance metric, many users will appreciate a jacket that packs down smaller. In our tests, packed size corresponded closely to weight (i.e., lighter jackets pack smaller). We also appreciated jackets that included their own stuff sack for more convenient packing.
Mobility and Fit
Another critical component of hardshell jacket performance is the fit and the way it impacts your movements.
Some new school hardshells feature fabrics that are waterproof and stretchy, allowing for a slimmer fit without compromising mobility. While these designs continue to improve every year, we feel the stretchy models tend to lose their DWR treatment quicker than the traditional, non-stretchy hardshells. The Ortovos 3L Ortler is one such jacket that seemed to lose its DWR treatment faster than expected. In contrast, the clever design of the Outdoor Research Archangel avoids this issue to some extent. It uses non-stretch nylon in most areas but incorporates a stretchy panel across the upper back to enhance mobility.
The Mountain Hardwear Exposure/2 and Arc'teryx Alpha SV have a baggier fit, which can make climbing more challenging, but they're less stifling for wider folks who want plenty of room to layer up.
Three things drove us crazy when it came to fit: short sleeves, high hemlines, and baggy chests. When a climber raises their hands above their head to swing their ice tools, they need the sleeves to stay put at their wrists, not ride down to the middle of the forearm. Likewise, when skiing through glorious powder from last night's storm, a high waist hemline can lead to snow sneaking inside your jacket or pants. Lastly, skiing and climbing require you to see your feet, and a baggy torso can obstruct this view. These issues caused us to dock points for fit, while their absence made us very happy. In general, the jackets we tested this year showed a marked improvement in mobility over models we have tested in the past.
Venting and Breathability
The hardshell jackets we tested all purport to be waterproof and breathable, so it only makes sense that we examined their breathability. Although an ambitious reader could spend days researching the science of breathability on manufacturers' websites, the sweaty outdoor enthusiast slogging uphill will quickly notice that hardshell jackets don't actually seem to be very breathable. So what gives?
First, there is no doubt that these jackets DO breathe; just try walking uphill in a garbage bag, and you'll see how much sweatier you get than in a non-breathable shell. Nevertheless, our testers found it extraordinarily difficult to definitively state which hardshells breathe the best. We considered relative humidity monitors and duck taping the cuffs and hem tight to test the breathability of the membranes alone, but that ultimately wouldn't translate well to the actual user experience. There is also the fact that some people just don't sweat much, while others quickly turn the inside of any jacket into a rain forest.
Due to the laws of physics, a certain amount of heat and moisture must be generated before an efficient transfer of the moisture from the inside to the outside of the jacket will take place. Our stationary bike test proved what hardshell wearers have long known: venting excess heat will keep you more comfortable than leaving your jacket zipped to the chin and relying on the breathability of the fabrics. So, while breathability is an important characteristic, it is more useful as a backup to venting. The best option, in our view, is to avoid getting wet and sweaty in the first place by layering properly and venting as much as possible.
After considerable testing, we were able to determine that jackets that are air permeable performed better than jackets that relied on solid-state diffusion through their membranes. The most obvious conclusion drawn from the stationary bike test is that to produce the proper atmosphere inside the jacket for breathing to occur, the user is going to feel uncomfortably hot and moist. It also helps if conditions outside the jacket are cold, dry, and windy.
Features that allow one to ventilate include pit zips and two-way main zippers that allow you to unzip the front of the jacket from the top or bottom. It seems to us that manufacturers are also getting more creative with their use of venting zippers as well. The accessory pockets on the REI Drypoint GTX, for example, incorporate a simple mesh lining to allow for extra airflow and venting.
In general, the more venting options, the better, but all those zippers and any extra fabrics are usually going to add to a jacket's weight. One exception is the Marmot Knife Edge, which incorporates pit zips in a 12.4 oz jacket. It's an excellent choice for anyone that desires pit zips and an ultralight design. In fair weather, however, the best way to avoid turning the inside of your jacket into a swamp is to take it off before you get too hot. This may force you to stop briefly, but take it from our sweatier testers: it's worth it. Preventing moisture before it starts is much better than dealing with it after.
Features and Design
We chose to have the "features & design" metric account for just 10% of a product's final score because this metric seems more subjective and indirectly related to a jacket's overall performance. The features, however, that a jacket offers and how well they function can make the difference between smiling with appreciation or frowning with annoyance every time you wear your jacket. All the jackets we tested include features like pockets, collars, wrist cuffs, zippers, and drawcords, so the quality, placement, and functionality of these features is an important characteristics to consider.
We assessed this metric based on the number and quality of the features and how well they are assembled together to meet the jacket's advertised use. More ultralight designs usually offer fewer features and generally receive lower scores for this metric.
Pockets come in all shapes and sizes: hand pockets, breast pockets, interior zippered pockets, interior drop pockets, sleeve pockets, you name it. One thing is certain; pockets are handy for holding things. With this in mind, we love pockets that hold stuff in convenient-to-reach places. Our favorites are "Napolean" pockets which are vertical-zippered pockets that live high on the chest and allow crossover access with the opposite arm. We also like interior non-zip stash pockets to store bulky accessories like gloves, a hat, or climbing skins for the downhill.
We find less use for hip-height hand pockets because they tend to sit underneath a waistbelt of a backpack or a climbing harness. Of the jackets tested, the Black Crows Ventus had the most pockets at five, while the lightest jackets generally only feature a single chest pocket.
A hood can make or break a hardshell. Our favorite hoods have a stiff brim to keep the rain off and enough adjustability to perform well with or without a helmet on. The best hoods include a cinch in the back to keep them in place while you look to the left and right, plus a cinch on either side of the collar to adjust the brim's position. Without these cinches, a hood can slide around, get in our way, and or be ineffective at keeping rain out.
Drawcords are used liberally in all of these jackets to tighten openings around the face and the hemline. The positioning of the pull-tab on the cord and the quality of the buckles that hold the cord taut make a big difference in performance. We love hood drawcords with the pull tab on the outside of the jacket rather than the inside, so we didn't have to unzip the jacket to find the tab. Many jackets have switched to cord locks that reside inside the fabric, offering smooth operation with a one-handed pinch. This type of cord lock is our favorite and is the most natural kind to use with gloves on. The Black Crows Ventus Light and Arc'teryx Alpha SL Anorak lost points because their waist drawstrings are excessively long when cinched.
All of the jackets in this review use the same system for wrist enclosures: Velcro or a non-branded "hook and loop" alternative. These wrist cuffs, however, are not all made equal. Some of the Velcro was not very sticky, and some models had Velcro swatches that were too small. In general, the Arc'teryx jackets had the best wrist enclosures. The Ortovox 3L Ortler, in contrast, features wrist cuffs with an excess of fabric that leaves them prone to coming undone.
Most zippers these days are tight — watertight. In our shower test, however, we observed tiny leaks on the Mountain Hardwear Exposure 2, Outdoor Research Archangel, and Black Crows Ventus Light accessory zippers. The issue was that their fashionable large tooth zippers left tiny spaces on either side where water could creep in.
All the main zippers we tried are fully waterproof. However, we particularly love the main zippers that allow two-way opening, like those found on the Mammut Nordwand Advanced HS and Outdoor Research Archangel, because they give easy access to the top of our pants or harness and allow for extra venting possibilities.
When it's storming, you will want your jacket zipped all the way up, and that's when you'll notice whether the collar works properly or not. The good ones ride comfortably high up, to the edge of your nose, but aren't too tight to restrict the movement of your head. They also feature a soft micro-fleece lining to eliminate chafing. The bad ones fail in some regard, either causing a claustrophobic nightmare or a loose closure that doesn't keep precip out. 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.
It's important to select the right hardshell the first time because these are some of the most expensive pieces of clothing you can buy. That's not an easy task, though, because there are hundreds of options out there, and each one claims to be the epitome of waterproof-breathable excellence. Our tests were designed to differentiate the perfect jackets from the posers. We hope they help you identify the ideal hardshell for your needs and budget.
A solid base layer is at the core of keeping you warm...
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