Hardshell jackets offer the most technologically advanced weather protection available to the outdoor enthusiast, but with so many to choose from it's hard to know which one to buy. To help, we conducted research on over 60 different models and purchased the 10 best and most popular to compare head-to-head for this review. Our expert reviewers tested these jackets in some of the worst weather we could find while backcountry skiing and ice climbing in British Columbia and the Colorado Rockies. Building on our knowledge gained from seven years of reviewing hardshell jackets, our testing evaluated a jacket's weather protection, the performance of features, and overall weight to help decide which was the best overall jacket. We also have great recommendations for alpine climbing, backcountry skiing, aerobic activities, and ultimate durability. If you are in the market for a hardshell jacket, this review is the best place to start.
The Best Men's Hardshell Jackets of 2018
Analysis and Award Winners
These hardshell jackets are all supremely waterproof and highly breathable, making them the perfect outer layer for winter climbing, backcountry skiing, and adventures where durability is a necessity. Even before the snow had begun to fly we had purchased 10 brand new hardshell jackets for testing, posting the most up-to-date review by late January. However, we soon learned that Outdoor Research was replacing the award-winning Realm jacket with the freshly released Outdoor Research Interstellar, similar in many ways, but with a few key updates and revisions. After thorough testing, we updated this review in late February to include the Interstellar, which remains our Best Bang for the Buck award winner, and a top choice for aerobic activities. Read on below to find out more about this and the other award-winning jackets!
Best Overall Hardshell Jacket
Arc'teryx Alpha FL
The ideal characteristics of a hardshell jacket for alpine climbing include bombproof weather protection and unconstrained mobility; all rolled into a simplistic and lightweight design. The Arc'teryx Alpha FL is the perfect manifestation of these attributes in jacket form and is our Top Pick for Alpine Climbing. Not only that, but it was once again the highest overall scorer in our comparative rankings, and thus for the fourth year in a row we are happy to proclaim it the Best Overall Hardshell Jacket. This year marked the first significant revisions this jacket has undergone in at least the past four, with the notable upgrade of easy to manipulate Cohaesive drawcord buckles that live recessed within the fabric of the jacket itself. With dual buckles inside both the hem and on the side of the hood, the new design is simultaneously easier to use with bulky gloves on and has a lower profile with fewer cords and buckles hanging on the outside of the jacket. While these revisions are minor, they improve an already fantastically fine-tuned product to make it even better. What remains is the sleek fitting, lightweight N40p-X face fabric with a Gore-Tex Pro waterproof/breathable membrane, and one of the best and most protective hood designs available on a jacket today. While it still lacks weight-adding hand pockets or pit zips, this jacket represents the gold standard when it comes to serious (or mellow) alpine climbing objectives, and offers optimal protection from blowing snow and face shots on glorious descents as well.
Read review: Arc'teryx Alpha FL
Best Bang for the Buck
Outdoor Research Interstellar
The Outdoor Research Interstellar is the perfect antidote to the common hardshell. Where other waterproof/breathable jackets are often heavy, hot, bulky, and very expensive, the Interstellar is extremely light, super packable, and pretty darn 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, ensures awesome mobility at a very light weight. This shell is the perfect layer for dry climates such as Colorado where protection from chilling wind or blowing snow is still necessary, especially since it's lighter and more easily packable than a softshell. The super breathable AscentShell membrane paired with mesh-backed pockets for increased ventilation makes this an optimal hardshell for aerobic activities like uphill skinning, doing an effective job of managing both heat and moisture. We would have loved to garnish it with an award for this purpose if it wasn't also the clear favorite for our Best Bang for the Buck award. Topping the charts in three separate metrics that we assessed for, weight, mobility and fit, and venting and breathability, the Interstellar was the second highest overall rated jacket in this review. Paired with an almost unbeatable retail price of only $299, we feel this jacket offers the best performance for the money, and think that you will too.
Read review: Outdoor Research Interstellar
Top Pick for Backcountry Skiing
Mountain Hardwear CloudSeeker
Backcountry skiing presents perhaps the most difficult crucible of conditions that a hardshell jacket must overcome. Not only does it have to protect a person from the very worst kind of mountain weather (snow, rain, wind, and sun), but it must also keep them dry and cool on the inside as they work up an incredible sweat on the way up the mountain. But where thousands of hardshell predecessors have tried and failed, the Mountain Hardwear CloudSeeker resoundingly succeeds. Pairing an air-permeable Dry.Q.Elite membrane with the largest and most extensive array of zippered vents we have seen on a jacket, the CloudSeeker doesn't rely simply on technology and physics to try and convince you that you are staying dry, it bombards you with ventilation that truly ensures your sweat is evaporating. When it's time for the downhill, the CloudSeeker seals up nicely and uses some skiing specific features, such as an included (and removable) powder skirt, to protect you from the outside. With a winning combination of weather protection, ventilation, and skiing specific features, there was no other jacket that we wanted to wear more on our backcountry tours, and so we highly recommend this jacket as our Top Pick for Backcountry Skiing.
Read review: Mountain Hardwear CloudSeeker
Top Pick for Extreme Weather Protection and Durability
The North Face Summit L5 FuseForm GTX
If it seems like the only thing we ever give kudos for is a product's light weight, you might be right! With good reason, as weight and bulk translate directly to decisions that must be made on alpine adventures: how much extra energy do we have to carry something up a mountain? How much space do we have for it in our packs? However, it seems that super light weight often comes at the expense of durability and weather protection, as ultralight products are certainly thinner and more fragile. What if you don't care about weight as much, and instead want a jacket that is the most durable and protective that you can buy? We recommend checking out The North Face Summit L5 FuseForm GTX. This jacket uses 90D Cordura as its face fabric, which essentially means you might need a chainsaw if you hope to cut through it. It uses this unbelievably heavy face fabric in a design that is both trim enough so as not to impede movement when climbing or skiing, but also spacious enough for a warmth layer underneath. Even more importantly, the designers of this jacket have so perfectly fine-tuned the fit, especially around the face with the collar and hood, that you can hang out in this jacket in any sort of weather comfortably and never feel a drop of water on your face. While it comes with some notable and predictable downsides, like heaviness, bulkiness, and mildly compromised mobility, there is no doubt this jacket is F-ing bombproof. For this, we awarded it our Top Pick for Extreme Weather Protection and Durability, and encourage you to check it out.
Read review: The North Face Summit L5 FuseForm GTX
Analysis and Test Results
The jackets tested for this review all include three-layer waterproof/breathable membranes, which is mandatory to be considered a "Hard Shell." 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. For much more information about the materials and construction of hardshell jackets, check out our Buying Advice Article.
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 was 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. Below we describe each performance metric in detail, including the critical aspects, how we tested for it, the best products for that metric, and its relative weighting. While our overall scores paint a pretty clear picture of the performance of a jacket compared to others, be sure to decide which metrics are most important to you, and delve into the individual reviews to find your perfect match.
Nothing is more important when considering a hardshell jacket than how well it protects you from the weather. After all, if it wasn't for the weather, you wouldn't even need a jacket. Hardshell jackets are different than 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.
No matter what kind of membrane technology is used, every one of these jackets is waterproof. Since we tested these jackets during the Colorado Rockies' winter, we encountered snow more than its non-frozen cousin, rain. To be sure these jackets were indeed fully waterproof, we zipped each contender up, tightened down the hood and wrists, and stood under the downpour of a shower for three minutes. All of the jackets were waterproof, and not a single one showed signs of water permeating through the membrane. However, the type of membrane and face fabric are not the only things that keep you dry.
Hardshell jackets also come with a Durable Water Resistant (DWR) coating applied to the face fabric. This chemical coating is designed to repel water when it hits the outside of the jacket and leads to the "beading" effect you notice when water hits a new jacket. The water has no chance to soak in, so it beads up and falls off. The reason why the DWR layer is important is that it improves the breathability of the membrane. Without it, the jacket will "wet out," meaning that the water no longer beads and falls off but soaks the face fabric instead. In this case, the jacket still retains its waterproof qualities because it still incorporates a waterproof membrane below the face fabric, but the breathability of this membrane becomes impaired.
We performed the shower test after three months of winter testing and noticed that all of the jackets showed slight signs of wetting out, meaning that the friction and abrasion of our activities had worn off some DWR coating. In most cases, the wetting out occurred in predictable patterns: the mid-back, shoulders, and front waist, all places where pack straps ride or rub. Some models had also lost their coating on the sleeves, another high abrasion area. It is well known that DWR coatings wear off over time, and to keep your hardshell jacket both waterproof and breathable, you must wash it and reapply a DWR coating.
The more significant factor when it came to weather protection, and one that helped differentiate the jackets, was the design and fit. The most important feature in keeping water out of a jacket, especially in a downpour, is the hood design. Some hoods, like the Arc'teryx Alpha FL's, worked magnificently in the shower, while others 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 years past 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, 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.
The final part of assessing weather protection came from our field testing. If you wipe out in powder often enough or climb enough dripping ice pillars, and you will see where a jacket lacks or has you covered. Of course, our powder wipe-outs were purely intentional, you know, for testing purposes (wink). A big offender here was hemlines that were too short and rode up above the waist with arms overhead or, worse, allowed snow up when skiing. Another problem encountered was sleeves that were too short for the size, especially when lifting the arms overhead or to the sides, which is common while ice climbing.
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 a outstanding job protecting us from weather, but two, in particular, were remarkably more robust than their competitors. The North Face Summit L5 FuseForm GTX (trying saying that five times fast!) sealed us off from the weather so tightly that we couldn't get water inside of it, even when we tried! Similarly, 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.
To test for weight, we measured each jacket straight out of the box and ignored what the manufacturer's website said the item weighed. However, we found that due to changing sizing among many manufacturers, we needed to order men's large jackets for some brands, and men's size medium in others, complicating our weighting metrics. Regardless of the stated size, we found that each of the jackets fit our head tester reasonably well, and so compared weights straight across the board.
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 low.
Despite adding close to an ounce in weight by incorporating new Cohaesive buckles on its drawcords, the Arc'teryx Alpha FL maintains a meager 12.1-ounce weight for a size large. Using 30D face fabric and eschewing once again the underarm ventilation, the Outdoor Research Axiom was the third lightest jacket in this review, weighing in at 13.7 ounces for a men's large. The majority of the jackets weighed in right around a pound, so still not what one would consider overly burdensome.
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.
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 jacket 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.
Packability is also considered in the weight metric. Climbing or skiing in good weather or warm climates means that the jacket will often live in the pack, and so having one that packs small and doesn't weigh a ton is a bonus. Unlike lighter and smaller wind breakers or rain jackets, these jackets don't usually stuff into their own pockets, although the Interstellar does, and the Alpha FL comes with a tiny dedicated stuff sack. When not given one of these options, we typically roll them up and stuff them into their hood for compact packing and to protect their DWR coating. Weight and packability accounted for 20% of a product's final score.
Mobility and Fit
Another critical component of hardshell jacket performance is its fit, including how mobile it is.
We aren't using these jackets to watch an arctic football game in Buffalo, NY — though they would stand up to the test. No, we are using these as our outer shells for climbing up and skiing down mountains. They need to move as we move, and they need to fit like a perfectly designed suit of armor.
The best jacket designs used membranes and face fabrics that were soft and supple, and in the best cases, quiet. Uncommon in hardshells as recently as a few years ago, more and more jackets are being made with stretch fabrics. In this year's review, four of the ten models jackets tested used stretch fabric: these were the Outdoor Research Interstellar, Outdoor Research Axiom, Mountain Hardwear CloudSeeker, and the Rab Firewall. Stretch fabrics are appreciated by us because they allow a jacket to have a sleeker and trimmer fit, while not reducing its mobility.
When it came to fit, we prefer an athletic fit around the torso. We like a hood that doesn't constrict our view (even with a helmet on), a collar that was as comfortable as it was protective, and fabric quiet enough that we could hear ourselves thinking (or our partner yelling commands) even while moving inside the jacket. The more we tested these jackets in powder and on ice, the more we realized that some of them just didn't fit their intended purpose. Not only did we want them to move well and not inhibit our range of motion (Mobility), we also wanted them to keep us covered no matter what position we were in (Fit).
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.
Over the last few years, the sizing of garments for many companies has changed. In years past, we could count on ordering a men's size large and having it fit, but now a size large often means a wide fit in the torso. It seems that companies now cater to two different types of people — the slim mountain person who is annoyed by the bagginess of his jacket but probably represents a small market share, and the "average American" who still wants a technical jacket but feels stifled by an athletic fit. For this review, we paid close attention to the companies' sizing charts before placing our orders and were surprised to end up ordering as many mediums as larges. Luckily for us, we found that designers must read OutdoorGearLab, because, for the most part, our larges weren't excessively baggy, and our mediums had longer sleeves and lower hems. We complained about these problems loudly last year, and while there were a couple of exceptions, it seems we (and you!) have been heard.
The best jacket for Mobility and Fit was once again the Outdoor Research Axiom. It is athletically sized, has long sleeves and a low hem, and the fabric is supple and quiet, leading to significant mobility and a perfect fit. Our size large could undoubtedly accommodate a few extra layers or someone who has been hitting the bench press, or the bar, harder than we have but wasn't at all what we would consider baggy. The Outdoor Research Interstellar seems like it was cut to the same specifications, and was thus also a high scorer for mobility and fit. 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.
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?
In an attempt to accurately test these jackets for breathability, we wore them while riding on a stationary bike in a controlled environment and made notes of the differences we felt from jacket to jacket. While the results of this test could not be considered scientific, we were able to draw a few broad conclusions.
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. 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 air permeable models were the Outdoor Research Interstellar and Axiom, as well as 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.
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.
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 most 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. Venting and Breathability accounted for 15% of a jacket's final score.
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 quantity 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. Likewise, although not blowing our minds with things we hadn't seen before, the features found on The North Face Summit L5 FuseForm GTX were super reliable and obviously well thought out.
Jackets come in all different colors, and these change year to year based on fashion. While color is not a feature, per se, it is important to mention concerns we have with jackets that are white. Here is our advice: We DO NOT recommend buying a white jacket for use in the mountains. We have noticed that for 2018 the Arc'teryx Alpha FL and Mountain Hardwear CloudSeeker are being sold in white options; we have voiced our concerns and asked them to discontinue these colors. These are technical mountain jackets, designed for use while backcountry skiing and alpine climbing. In the mountains in winter, everything is white: the snow, the ice, the mountains, avalanches. If you are caught in an avalanche or take an injurious fall high on a mountain, your life could depend on your friends and rescue personnel finding you quickly. Wearing bright clothes can greatly stack the deck in your favor; there is a reason that avalanche airbags are bright orange. You may end up digging your own grave by wearing white in the mountains, which is reason enough to consider that bright red, electric blue, or neon yellow color option, even if it isn't your "favorite."
Below is a short description of some pertinent features and how they perform on a hardshell jacket.Pockets
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.
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.Wrist Enclosures
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.
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 (if we wanted to tighten the hood, we usually wanted the jacket to stay zipped up!). Cohaesive buckles, which live inside the fabric of a model and are very easy to release with thick gloves on, were our favorite sort. Quite a few jackets have switched over to this type of buckle, and there are more of them being used than we have found in the past. Many jackets still use buckles that are very small, making them hard to grip and squeeze to release with gloves.
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 movement of your head. They also feature a soft micro-fleece lining that doesn't chafe. The bad ones do the exact opposite. Then there are the collars that are so rad they make you realize you never paid attention to collars before. The internal collar that lives inside the hood on the Arc'teryx Beta AR is, without doubt, the most comfortable and protective collar available.
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, OR Axiom, 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.
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!
Still not sure? Take a look at our buying advice article for more info.