Best Overall Hardshell
Arc'teryx Alpha FL
N40p-X GORE-TEX Pro 3L | Weight:
11 oz. (S)
Lightweight weather protection
Packs away small into included stuff sack
Lacks hand pockets
No pit zips
The ideal characteristics of a hardshell jacket for alpine climbing include bombproof weather protection and unconstrained mobility; all rolled into a simple, lightweight design. The Arc'teryx Alpha FL is the perfect manifestation of these attributes in jacket form and is the best overall. Even without pit zips, the Gore-Tex pro membrane keeps this jacket highly breathable.
We realize fast and light isn't everybody's top priority, and this trimmed down hardshell is lacking a few features some folks will miss. There aren't any pit zips, and even our ounce-counting testers took a minute to adjust to the lack of handwarmer pockets. This jacket has been our Editors' Choice for seven seasons and packs away into a stuff sack so small that its no big deal to throw it in your pack or clip it to your harness, ensuring it will see plenty of action in the mountains this winter.
Read review: Arc'teryx Alpha FL
Best Bang for the Buck
Outdoor Research Interstellar
AscentShell 3L 100% nylon 20D mechanical stretch ripstop face with 100% polyester 12D backer | Weight:
11.5 oz. (L)
Inexpensive for a waterproof/breathable jacket
AscentShell membrane is stretchy, waterproof, and breathes great
Stuffs into its pocket
No pit zips
DWR coating wears off quickly
The Outdoor Research Interstellar is not your average hardshell. Other waterproof/breathable jackets are often heavy, hot, bulky, and expensive, while the Interstellar is extremely light, super packable, and quite affordable. Its use of the OR proprietary AscentShell, an air-permeable membrane that is woven out of tiny polyurethane fibers, combined with the thin and light 20D stretchy face fabric provides awesome mobility at a very light weight. It's a good match for dry climates such as Colorado, where chilling wind or blowing snow is common. The Interstellar is more easily packable than a softshell. The super breathable AscentShell membrane and mesh-backed pockets for increased ventilation make this a fine hardshell for aerobic action like uphill skinning. The result is our Best Bang for the Buck award.
The one place where this jacket doesn't excel is in our features metric. Handwarmer pockets are placed so they are uncomfortable for storing items while wearing a backpack waistbelt strap. The DWR treatment wears off quickly, and while this doesn't affect waterproofness, it does increase drying times. Also, hood cinches are inside the collar, which means you must open up and expose your neck to the elements when you want to adjust them. But minor gripes aside, the Interstellar is a screamin' deal.
Read review: Outdoor Research Interstellar
Top Pick for Backcountry Skiing
Mountain Hardwear CloudSeeker
Air Permeable Dry.Q.Elite 3L membrane with 20D 100% Nylon Stretch Ripstop | Weight:
1 lb. 6.4 oz. (M)
Geared for skiing
Hood fit is excellent
The collar is slightly constricting
Backcountry skiing presents presents a real challenge for a hardshell jacket. It must provide protection for all sorts of mountain weather (snow, rain, wind, and sun), but also keep you dry and cool on the inside as you work up a big sweat on you way up the mountain. A long list of hardshell predecessors have tried and failed, but the Mountain Hardwear CloudSeeker is an impressive success. The air-permeable Dry.Q.Elite membrane is paired with the largest array of zippered vents we have seen on a jacket. As a result the CloudSeeker has the technology to keep you dry, plus ventilation that ensures your sweat is evaporating. Then, when it's time to head downhill, the CloudSeeker seals up nicely and provides skiing specific features, such as an included (and removable) powder skirt, to protect you from the outside.
These impressive features come with a price, plus the Cloudseeker is among the heavier models tested. It is not recommended for alpine climbing or longer spring ski tours where weight can be an issue. But for those days when powder keeps falling, the Cloudseeker provides the best combination of ski-friendly features and weather protection, making it our Top Pick for Backcountry Skiing.
Read review: Mountain Hardwear CloudSeeker
Why You Should Trust Us
To search down the very best hardshells, we put together a strong team consisting of OutdoorGearLab Senior Review Editors Matt Bento and Andy Wellman. As a member of Yosemite Search and Rescue, Matt uses technical gear like hardshells in a professional setting. Additionally, the ten years he previously spent as an itinerant climber further enhance his critical eye for technical gear. 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 work of finding the best in hardshells began with simply looking at all of them that are available. We initially considered 60 models before choosing the 10 that are discussed here. As the seventh year we've tested hardshells, with over 80 jackets tested to date, this is a culmination of what we've learned over that time, in addition to new information about the current models. Most testing took place in the field over about three months in Colorado's San Juans and the Columbia Mountains of British Columbia, while climbing, skiing, and ice climbing; however, this was supplemented with controlled tests of water resistance, weight, and ventilation. 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 properties.
Related: How We Tested Hardshell Jackets
Analysis and Test Results
Our pursuits of snowy adventures and top-notch reviews give us some brand new entries to this season's line-up: the Black Diamond Sharp End and the stretchy Patagonia Galvanized. Read on so you'll be able to shell up properly before the season is over, and be ready to jump on early spring sales.
Related: Buying Advice for Hardshell Jackets
The jackets tested for this review all include three-layer waterproof/breathable membranes, which is mandatory to be considered a "hardshell." The three layers consist of 1) a face fabric, the outermost layer of a jacket, 2) a waterproof/breathable membrane that is the middle layer of the sandwich, and can be made of any number of proprietary textile materials, i.e., Gore-Tex, and 3) the inner backing on the inside that protects the membrane and also aids in sweat-wicking and vapor transfer. Three-layer hardshell jackets are perhaps the most technologically advanced, and expensive, pieces of outdoor clothing that you can buy. Hardshells differ considerably from Rain Jackets, which commonly only use 2 or 2.5 layers in their construction, use thinner face fabrics, and cost far less.
We graded each of the products in this review based upon five metrics that we find to be critical to the performance of a hardshell jacket: Weather Protection, Weight, Mobility and Fit, Venting and Breathability, and Features. For each metric, we gave a score of 1-10, and weighted each parameter based on their contribution to the overall performance; for example, weather protection gets 35%. Combining these scores led us to each product's total score. In all cases, we awarded scores in comparison to the performance of the other products.
For skiing deep powder like we found in the Montana Bowl near Revelstoke on this fine day, you will want a hardshell jacket.
Getting into a hardshell jacket isn't cheap. These are among the highest-tech pieces of clothing available, and the price tags reflect that fact. One of our favorites among the group is the Arc'teryx Alpha FL; with many competitors costing more, we feel this is a good value. Not unlike the Alpha FL in defying convention, the Outdoor Research Interstellar scored well, yet is one of the lowest-priced options, and took our Best Buy award for an outstanding value.
Nothing is more important when considering a hardshell jacket than how well it protects you from the weather. After all, if it weren't for the weather, you wouldn't even need a jacket. Hardshell jackets are different than softshells because they are meant to be waterproof, keeping 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 because they have waterproof/breathable membranes designed to allow moisture building up on the inside of the jacket to transfer through the jacket so it can evaporate. All of the hardshell jackets in this test include some waterproof and breathable membrane in a three-layer construction.
Most of the jackets described in this review come with a Durable Water Resistant (DWR) coating applied to the outside of the jacket. This DWR coating is designed to keep the outside of the jacket dry by causing moisture to bead up and simply roll off the jacket.
While the waterproof/breathable membrane sandwiched into the middle of the jacket ensures that the jacket will remain waterproof in all conditions, keeping the face fabric of the jacket dry is necessary for the breathability of a jacket to function. Essentially, manufacturers apply a DWR coating to the jacket to aid in breathability.
After several months of testing, we performed the shower test a second time. All of the hardshells showed some signs of wetting out, particularly in the shoulders where they are rubbed by backpack straps, and also across the back of the neck where the jacket is exposed to dirt and oil from your hair. To maintain the DWR treatment, you need to keep your jacket clean, or even re-apply the treatment periodically.
The more significant factor when it came to weather protection, and one that helped differentiate the jackets, is the design and fit. The most important feature in keeping water out, especially in a downpour, is the hood design. Some hoods, like the Arc'teryx Alpha FL's, worked magnificently in the shower, while others, like the REI Co-op Stormbolt GTX, proved not to have enough bill for optimal protection. The way that the collar is designed when fully zipped also played a role in how well the hoods kept water out.
In past years, we encountered worst cases, like when water ran straight off the sides of the hood and poured down the neck like a rain gutter spout. Luckily, the hood design has improved, and we didn't encounter anything so awful in this year's testing. In the shower test, we also noticed that all of the central front and pocket zippers of every single jacket passed the test, stopping leaks. We are also happy to report that none of the pit zips leaked.
Combining lightweight 20D stretch fabric with a Dry.Q.Elite waterproof/breathable membrane, the CloudSeeker did an awesome job of protecting us from falling snow, and from falling in snow, as Dakota is testing here in the steep pow.
As the most critical metric in assessing a jacket's performance, weather protection accounts for 35% of each product's final score. Many of the jackets did an outstanding job protecting us from weather, but two, in particular, were remarkably more robust than their competitors. The super deep hood on the Arc'teryx Alpha FL easily kept us dry in the most torrential downpour, continuing its remarkable performance for the past seven years. The Dynafit Radical and the Mountain Hardwear CloudSeeker were also among the best when it came to weather protection, and should be strongly considered if you are in the market for the most protective jacket you can find.
The jackets selected for this year's review had a wide range of weights. The lightest jacket was the Outdoor Research Interstellar, weighing in at a mere 11.5 ounces for a size large. This model has been stripped of many features, such as underarm ventilation, all in the name of weight savings, but this isn't the only reason it is light. The stretchy 20D face fabric is easily among the lightest used in this review and has a significant role in the Interstellar weighing in so little. The 20D fabric isn't as tough as heavier fabrics like say 90D Cordura, so carefully consider what you'll be doing in your hardshell. One of our testers rips holes in his hardshell every winter, skiing (crashing) through the trees or remedying automotive issues mid-snowstorm. If this is you, choose a more durable model with a higher denier model, and don't work on your vehicle in a more expensive jacket.
Despite adding close to an ounce in weight by incorporating new Cohaesive buckles on its drawcords, the Arc'teryx Alpha FL maintains a meager 11-ounce weight for a size small.
Measuring the weight of the OR Interstellar on our independent scale.
There is no clear correlation between weight and overall jacket performance. Besides differences in fabric, manufacturers typically save weight by cutting out extraneous zippers and pockets, features that many users demand. So while wearing a hardshell jacket that feels as light as an extra shirt is far preferable to wearing a model so heavy it feels like you just donned a movable tent, you may want to consider whether choosing to cut the ounces is worth it. Additionally, a lighter jacket is usually less durable, so a heavier, tougher model is more appropriate for users who will be working outside every day or on long expeditions.
How much weight matters is subjective. As gear and materials evolve, manufacturers continually find ways to produce gear that matches the "light and fast" demands of 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 less than 10 ounces, a bit less than a pound. In other words: not much. For many, other performance characteristics may be more relevant.
We also consider packability in this metric, since your jacket is likely to stay in your pack for the majority of the time you're climbing, skiing, or traveling with it. The Arcteryx Alpha FL is the only jacket we reviewed that came with its own tiny stuff sack, and both the Outdoor Research Interstellar and the Patagonia Galvanized Jacket stow away into one of their own pockets.
The Interstellar jacket stuffed into its own hand pocket, turned inside out. There is a clip in loop on the upper right corner. While we love how packable this jacket is, it is a loose fit inside the pocket, and could stuff smaller if need be.
Mobility and Fit
Another critical component of hardshell jacket performance is its fit, including how mobile it is.
The new school of hardshells features fabrics that are waterproof and stretchy, allowing for a slimmer fit without compromising mobility. The Rab Firewall, Outdoor Research Interstellar, Patagonia Galvanized, and the Mountain Hardwear CloudSeeker all have great mobility thanks to their stretchy face fabrics. 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.
A look at the fit of the sleeves and hem when moving with arms overhead, with a hood on. From left to right: The North Face Summit L5 FuseForm GTX (previously tested), Arc'teryx Alpha FL, Mountain Hardwear CloudSeeker, Rab Firewall, Patagonia Pluma, OR Axiom, OR Realm (discontinued in favor of the Interstellar), Marmot Speed Light, Arc'teryx Beta AR, Dynafit Radical.
The best jacket for mobility and fit is the Patagonia Galvanized. It is athletically sized, has long sleeves and a low hem, leading to significant mobility and a perfect fit. It has stretchy fabrics that allow for a full range of motion. A tiny step down was the Rab Firewall, which also used quiet and stretchy face fabric, was roomy enough to eliminate any constrictions of movement, and fit long and sleek. Mobility and Fit accounted for 20% of a product's final score. The REI Co-op Stormbolt GTX has a baggy fit, making it difficult to climb in, but less stifling for wider folks who also 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 tools, they need the sleeves to stay put by their wrists, not ride down to the middle of the forearm. Likewise, when skiing through the glorious bounty of powder that last night's storm dumped, a high hemline can only lead to snow filling the inside of the jacket. Lastly, both skiing and climbing require you to be able to see your feet, and a baggy jacket front only gets in the way. Any or all of these things caused us to dock points for fit, and their absence made us very happy. In general, the jackets we tested this year showed a marked improvement over models we have tested in the past.
The stretch material combined with a spacious and non-constricting fit means the Firewall was an optimal choice for activities like ice climbing that require a lot of mobility in an upper-body garment.
Venting and Breathability
The hardshell jackets we tested all purport to be waterproof and breathable, so it only makes sense that we examine 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 a mountain might notice that these jackets don't seem very breathable. So what gives?
First, there is no doubt that these jackets DO breathe, but it is virtually impossible for our testers to definitively state which one breathes the best or the worst. We considered relative humidity monitors and duck taping the cuffs and hem tight to test the breathability of the membranes alone, but then that wouldn't translate well to the actual user experience. There is also the fact that some of our testers just don't sweat much, while others turn the inside of any jacket into a rain forest (that freezes instantly on summits during ski transitions!) However, it was apparent to us that jackets that are air permeable performed noticeably better than jackets that used solid state diffusion, such as most Gore-Tex membranes, to breathe.
These giant pockets, found on each side of the chest on the CloudSeeker, also double as huge vents, as you can see the mesh liner inside. Also visible is the hanging mesh pocket, easily big enough to stuff your skins for a quick transition to the downhill.
These air permeable models were the Outdoor Research Interstellar and the Mountain Hardwear CloudSeeker. Finally, the most obvious conclusion drawn from the stationary bike test was that to produce the correct 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.
The CloudSeeker is our Top Pick for Backcountry Skiing because it provides awesome coverage from the storm, as we tested in the blowing snow and wind on a ridge in BC, but also has by far the most ventilation options for the uphill.
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 longtime hardshell wearers have long known: venting and airflow will keep you more comfortable than keeping your jacket zipped to the chin and letting it breathe for you. So, while breathability is an important characteristic, it is more useful as a backup, meaning if you get wet or sweaty inside your jacket, it's nice that it will work to dry you out. However, the first option to avoid getting wet and sweaty in the first place is to ventilate.
On a steep, powder covered skin track that goes on for hours, like this one, venting is far more important than breathability, cause you are going to be sweating no matter what! We opened all the vents for this grunt fest, but were still pretty hot and moist inside our Radical jacket.
Features that allow one to ventilate include the standard pit zips, as well as mesh lined pockets that can be left open when needing to ventilate, and two-way front zippers that allow you to unzip the front of the jacket from the bottom, which allows for some ventilation while still protecting from the rain. It seems to us that manufacturers are getting more creative with their use of venting zippers as well. Instead of the typical pit zips (which in our opinion may not be in the ideal place for serious ventilation anyway), the Dynafit Radical uses zippered vents on the back and outside of the shoulders.
The Rab Firewall takes this a step further and has zippered vents that run the entire length of the arm, starting just above the wrist. These work very well, although not if it's storming. Taking it even further, the Mountain Hardwear CloudSeeker pairs back of the shoulder zippered vents with two gigantic front pockets, mesh lined, that can be opened nearly the full height of the torso, making this the most thoroughly ventilated jacket that we tested. In general, the more venting options, the better, but all those zippers and any extra fabric is going to add to a jacket's weight. The Arc'teryx Alpha FL doesn't provide the best ventilation but makes up for it with lightweight packability and weather protection. In fair weather, 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 what you're doing for a minute, but take it from our sweatier testers; it's worth it. Don't be lazy when it comes to layering. Venting and breathability accounted for 15% of a jacket's final score.
The Alpha FL cuts weight by eliminating handwarmer pockets and pit vents but still has one waterproof chest pocket.
We chose to weight our "features" metric as just 10% of a product's final score, as features are far less important to a jacket's effectiveness when compared to the other metrics described here. However, the features that a jacket includes 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. All the jackets we tested share features like pockets, collars, wrist enclosures, zippers, and drawcords, and so the quality, placement, and how well they function is an important characteristic to consider.
We assessed this metric based on the number of features (because more is always better, right?), as well as the quality of the features. With its abundance of skiing specific features that also performed just as well as advertised, the Mountain Hardwear CloudSeeker was the highest scoring jacket. We also loved the nearly perfect features found on the Patagonia Pluma, although they weren't quite as innovative as those found on the CloudSeeker.
The best design and location for hood draw cords and buckles, shown here on the Pluma. The pull cord lives on the outside of the jacket where it is very easy to pull and adjust with the collar zipped up. The Cohaesive cord lock buckles, highlighted with the grey circle next to the cheek, are optimal due to their low profile and easy release.
Below is a short description of some pertinent features and how they perform on a hardshell jacket.
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 handy for holding things. With this in mind, we love pockets that hold stuff in convenient-to-reach places. Our favorites are "Napolean"-style breast pockets that live high on the chest and allow crossover access. We also like interior non-zip stash pockets that store bulky accessories like gloves, a hat, or skins while on the downhill.
The CloudSeeker has so many pockets! Here is one of the dual internal mesh drop pockets, handy for storing a hat, gloves, snacks, skins, or whatever else you carry with you, but want close at hand, while out in the mountains.
We find less use for hip-height hand pockets because they tend to sit underneath a waist belt on a harness or waist strap on a pack. Of the jackets tested, the CloudSeeker had the most pockets, while the lightest jackets tended to have only one chest pocket. The Editors' Choice winning Arc'teryx Alpha FL only has one napoleon-style chest pocket, as does the Outdoor Research Interstellar.
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 feature a cinch in the back to keep it in place while you look to the left and right, plus a cinch on either side of the collar to adjust the position of the brim. Without the cinches, the hood slides around, gets in our way, and is ineffective at keeping the rain off.
Drawcords are used liberally in all of these jackets to tighten openings around the face and the hemline. The positioning of the pull-tab end of the cord and the quality of the buckles that hold the cord taut make a big difference in performance. We loved hood drawcords that have 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, operating smoothly with a one-handed pinch; this type of cord lock is our favorite and is the most natural kind to work with gloves on.
The ideal setup for a hem draw cord shown here on the Pluma. Recessed cord lock buckles live inside the fabric and are super easy to release with gloves on. The pull tab lives inside the hand pocket, meaning that no loop or tab hangs down below the hem to catch on anything.
All of the jackets in this review use the same system for wrist enclosures: Velcro (or a non-branded alternative). However, they 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 model jackets (the Arc'teryx Alpha FL and the Arc'teryx Beta AR) had the best quality and size of Velcro wrist enclosures.
Zippers these days are tight — watertight. In our shower testing and use in the field, we didn't encounter a single instance of zippers failing or leaking. We love two-way front zippers, like those found on the Rab Firewall, Dynafit Radical, and Mountain Hardwear CloudSeeker, because they allow easy access to the top of our pants or harness, and also allow for easier venting.
Wearing a hardshell in the cold wind and intermittent snow, even while breaking trail through a foot of fresh. Here being teased upward into the alpine on Roger's Pass, BC.
When it's storming, you want your jacket zipped all the way up, and that's when you notice whether the collar is fantastic or not. The good ones ride comfortably high up, just under your nose, but aren't tight and don't restrict the movement of your head. They also feature a soft micro-fleece lining that doesn't chafe. The bad ones do the exact opposite, causing a claustrophobic nightmare that doesn't end until you take off the jacket. 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.
Hardshell jackets are among the most expensive pieces of outdoor clothing one can buy, so it is important that you make the correct choice the first time. With hundreds of options available, that can be tough to do. We have greatly narrowed down the field to assist you, but the first step is for you to decide what you are going to use your hardshell jacket for. After this has been decided, you will be able to understand which factors and grading metrics described in this review are the most important for your particular needs, and can then use this review to narrow down your selection. Provided you have the clothing to keep you warm and protected, the solitude of winter can be the most rewarding time to spend in the mountains. We hope you enjoy!
Living out powder pillow fantasies on the rocky treed slopes of Roger's Pass was a great way to test the weather protection of these jackets. They did a great job keeping the snow where it belonged, on our faces.