On the hunt for a new hardshell? Whether you're looking to up your alpine game with the lightest, warmest, most breathable shell out there or need something for winter weather where a rain shell just won't cut it, we've sorted through 60 models of hardshells and selected the top nine models for some intense side-by-side comparison. Our testers have braved (more like enjoyed) winter conditions in the backcountry, at ski resorts, and on ice climbs in Colorado, British Columbia, and the High Sierra, evaluating each model's performance in five critical metrics. Additionally, we identify the best hardshell jacket for your specific needs, be it lightweight for the alpine, protection from the most savage winter weather, or a do-it-all quiver of one.
The Best Men's Hardshell Jackets of 2018
|Price||$279.00 at REI||$599.00 at Amazon||$474.87 at Amazon|
Compare at 4 sellers
|$157.99 at MooseJaw|
|Pros||Lightweight, inexpensive||Extremely durable face fabric, superior weather protection, very protective hood||Durable, great weather protection, excellent features, awesome storm collar||Mobile stretchy fabric, great zippered vents, very affordable|
|Cons||Baggy fit, lighter shell fabric less durable than heavier models||Expensive, heavy, not super packable, not very breathable||A bit large and bulky, baggy fit, expensive, face fabric easily stains||Poor performance from DWR coating, heavier than most|
|Bottom Line||The Stormbolt keeps out the snow and rain and ensures you stay within a reasonable budget.||A bombproof hardshell for consumers who want their jacket to last forever.||A fantastic hardshell that has a great set of features and an amazing collar, but comes at a hefty price.||A solid hardshell at a very reasonable price.|
|Rating Categories||Stormbolt GTX||Summit L5 FuseForm GTX||Arc'teryx Beta AR||Rab Firewall|
|Weather Protection (35%)|
|Mobility And Fit (20%)|
|Venting And Breathability (15%)|
|Specs||Stormbolt GTX||Summit L5 FuseForm GTX||Arc'teryx Beta AR||Rab Firewall|
|Measured Weight (Size)||13.9 oz. (S)||1 lb. 5.1 oz. (M)||1 lb. 0.6 oz. (L)||1 lb. 1.4 oz. (L)|
|Material||Gor-Tex 30D Ripstop nylon||90D Cordura nylon x 40D nylon Gore-Tex 3L shell||N40r-X GORE-TEX Pro 3L||Pertex Shield + 3L stretch fabric|
November has us checking the forecast daily with hope and anticipation of the first winter dump so we can strap on some skis and start testing hardshells. To help you get ready for some cold weather fun, we've given you a pre-season update, including the REI Co-op Stormbolt GTX. REI really flexes its W.L. Gore approved muscle with this jacket, offering a model with Gore's waterproof breathable membrane at an affordable price. The Arc'teryx Alpha FL hangs on to our Editors' Choice award. The Alpha is one of the lightest shells in the line-up, and we like to have it on all our adventures that require waterproof protection thanks to its well-designed features and great packability. Fierce competition waits in the wings from The North Face and Black Diamond, and we'll be adding more hardshells to the mix as winter weather shows its face.
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 fifth year in a row we are happy to proclaim it the Best Overall Hardshell Jacket. 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. That being said, the Alpha FL 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
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 lightweight. 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.
The only place this jacket doesn't excel is in our features metric. We feel the handwarmer pockets are situated in such a way that they are uncomfortable to store anything in while wearing a backpack waistbelt strap. Additionally, the hood cinches are inside the collar, so you'll have to open up and expose your neck to the elements when you want to adjust them. These minor gripes aside, the Interstellar is a screamin' deal for $299.
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.
All these great features come with a price, and the Cloudseeker is one of the heavier models in the review. We don't recommend it for alpine climbing or longer spring ski tours where weight can be an issue. For days where to powder keeps falling, the Cloudseeker offers the best combonation of ski-friendly features and weather protection, making it 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 lightweight 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.
The tough face fabric isn't the most breathable, nor is this jacket particularly lightweight. We feel most folks will be happier with more versatile model like the Arcteryx Alpha FL, but for people in need of the most bomb-proof weather protection on the market, this is the one.
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.
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. It is interesting to note, however, that the best jackets we tested weren't necessarily the most expensive. Usually, you pay incrementally more to take steps up in performance. Here, we find the highest scoring hardshells in the mid to lower end of the price range. Our favorite among the group, the Arc'teryx Alpha FL goes for $425. With many competitors in the $500-$650 range, we feel this is a good value. Not unlike the Alpha FL in defying convention, the Outdoor Research Interstellar placed second, yet is one of the lowest priced options at $299, and took our Best Buy award for outstanding value. Once you get used to the idea of spending around $300 or more on a hardshell, you're already at the high end of performance.
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.
All 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 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 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, 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.
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. While we were mostly able to order one size across the board, we had to size up in a few models for optimal fit, making our weight metric a little complicated. Overall, the lightest models were the lightest by a sizeable margin, ditto for the heaviest.
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 the 90D Cordura used on The North Face Summit L5 Fuseform GTX, 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 $600 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 12.1-ounce weight for a size large. The majority of the jackets weighed around a pound, so still not what one would consider overly burdensome.
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.
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 take packability into consideration in this metric. Since your jacket is likely to stay in your pack for the majority of the time your climbing, skiing, or traveling with it. The Arcteryx Alpha FL is the only jacket we reviewed that came with its own tiny stuff sack, while the Outdoor Research Interstellar is the only model we tested that stows away into an internal pocket.
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, 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.
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. 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 the Outdoor Research Interstellar. 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.
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 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. It also helps if conditions outside the jacket are cold, dry, and windy.
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. In general, the more venting options, the better, but all those zippers and any extra fabric is going to add to a jackets weight. The Arc'teryx Alpha FL doesn't provide the best ventilation but makes up for it with lightweight packability and weather protection. 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 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.
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.Hoods
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.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. 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.
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.
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.
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!
— Matt Bento & Andy Wellman