Hard luck finding the best women's hardshell? We've got you covered. We researched the industry's top 40+ models before testing the best 9 in a rigorous head-to-head assessment. These jackets saw a full range of use, from ice climbing to winter trail runs to just about every type of skiing out there — resort, backcountry, cross-country, and ski mountaineering. We take testing seriously, so we hiked in rain and snowstorms to assess each jacket's weather protection. We also climbed and skied to feel which models move effortlessly with our bodies, allowing us to pull technical ice moves and cut steep kick turns. Then we picked up the pace to figure out which ones breathe the best during aerobic activity. This comprehensive review breaks down the pros and cons of each model to help you find the perfect hard shell jacket.
The Best Hardshell Jackets for Women
This winter, we put each model through its paces. This type of outerwear isn't cheap, making your purchase that much more significant. Our experts found that the Norrona Trollveggen was the best overall, while two Arc'teryx models took home Top Picks for Versatility and Ultralight Design. Our Best Bang for the Buck, the Outdoor Research Clairvoyant is a top scorer
Best Overall Women's Hardshell Jacket
Norrona Trollveggen Gore-Tex Light Pro - Women's
The Norrona Trollveggen is an outstanding all-around hardshell jacket. We really liked how easy it was to layer this over warmer layers, allowing us to climb in comfort even in the coldest conditions; yet the shape and fit were still slender enough to keep the jacket out of our way when making technical climbing moves. This was a surprisingly light jacket for the versatility. We could stretch this jacket into extended alpine adventures, and still, appreciate it on shorter missions in milder climates. This jacket is an excellent investment for all around alpine climbing.
Read review: Norrona Trollveggen
Best Bang for the Buck
Outdoor Research Clairvoyant
The Outdoor Research Clairvoyant is an impressively comfortable 3-layer Gore-Tex shell jacket. It is the lightest of all 3-layer jackets in this review, beat just barely by a 2-layer shell jacket. This is made of the lightest and most breathable 3-layer shell material, so it offers outstanding storm protection at a stunning low weight. We liked the soft hand of this jacket, and found it to be highly versatile: breathable enough for aerobic pursuits, but burly enough for winter storms. This jacket feels like a sweatshirt and protects like the burly hard shell that it is. Some of the features could be improved, but overall it is an excellent value for a great all-around shell jacket.
Read review: Outdoor Research Clairvoyant
Top Pick for Versatility
Arc'teryx Beta AR Jacket - Women's
The Arc'teryx Beta AR is the most versatile jacket in this review. It features variable fabric durabilities to save weight in the torso without losing durability where it counts: in the arms. There are some features that make this a great shell jacket, even if there is no precipitation. The high collar inside the hood ensures that you remain well protected from wind even if you're not wearing the hood. This was an interesting and novel feature that worked well, though felt odd at first. We loved the articulation and climbing comfort of this jacket. As with most products from Arc'terx, it comes with a high price point. One might argue, however, that it is worth its weight in gold.
Read review: Arc'teryx Beta AR Jacket - Women's
Top Pick for Ultralight Design
Arc'teryx Beta SL - Women's
Arc'teryx is known to be an industry leader in outerwear. It is also known to be priced as such. With the Beta SL, Arc'teryx offers consumers a much more affordable hard shell jacket, with the same high quality we expect. This is a hardshell that breathes better than most and moves more fluidly than some of the thicker, burlier shells. This became our go-to piece for ski tours in the Pacific Northwet (no, not a typo) as well as ice climbs in Montana. It provides stellar weather protection while allowing freedom of movement for those more technical ascents. For a jacket that weighs under 10 ounces, we could even stuff it in our pack and forget it was there—until the sky cracked open or the snow started blowing. In a gear category that's far from inexpensive, the Beta SL is a knock-out budget option.
Read review: Arc'teryx Beta SL - Women's
Analysis and Test Results
When evaluating hardshell jackets, we rated them according to the seven most important metrics that you should consider before purchasing one of these jackets. These metrics included Weather Protection, Mobility, Breathability & Venting, Weight, Features, Durability, and Versatility. Read on to learn how we tested each metric, and how the products compared to one another.
Hardshell technology pushes the capabilites of garments above and beyond what we formerly thought possible. This type of cutting edge performance pushes price tags up as well. Where rain jackets and softshells top out in price is roughly the entry level for hardshells. Among the models we tested, we recommend the Outdoor Research Clairvoyant if you're attracted to hardshells but have budget constraints. This is a comfortable and solid option, with a legit 3-layer Gore-Tex fabric, all for $325. If you're looking for the best available, the climbing-oriented Norrona Trollveggen Gore-Tex Light Pro is just that. It'll set you back $550, but is still less expensive than some other options.
We know buying a hardshell jacket is a significant investment - that's why we've included the price-performance chart below. After a glance at this, you can identify price and performance information for each jacket relative to the others, and gain confidence that you're making a smart buy. The farther right you go on the chart, the higher the overall score a jacket earned in testing, while the farther up you go, the higher its retail price is. Options in the lower-right, such as the ultralight Arc'teryx Beta SL have the best of both worlds.
One of the main reasons to buy an expensive hardshell jacket is for its ability to combat the elements. So it's no wonder that we awarded 20% of each product's score to weather protection. When testing to see how weather-proof these products were, we considered three main variables. For this metric, we assessed how well the jacket kept out water and snow. A good hard shell must protect well against precipitation of all sorts. Most fabrics are up to par these days, but other features might compromise this important factor—such as a shorter torso length, short arms, or a poorly adjustable hood.
Next, we considered how well the jackets sealed out the wind. This often comes with snow and rain and allowed us to rate how "warm" or "cool" a jacket might feel. Thicker, burlier models scored higher in weather protection but might lose points in breathability. There were several levels of hard shell material used in the jackets we reviewed. The burliest and most weatherproof included the Arc'teryx Alpha SV with the ultra-rugged N100p-X 3L Gore-Tex Pro. This was the most durable jacket in the review and still managed to be relatively lightweight. Some jackets were geared toward more mild climates, reigning in the use of burly fabrics in favor of saving weight or improving breathability. The next level down on the weatherproof spectrum would be the Arc'teryx Beta AR, followed by the lightest 3-layer fabric, Gore-Tex's Active line, as used in the OR Clairvoyant. Finally, one jacket impressed us with the use of 2-layer Gore-Tex PacLite, which was still plenty storm proof and impressively light and breathable, but not a go-to expedition hard shell like the Alpha SV.
After testing extensively in Pacific Northwest storms and cold inland climates while ice climbing in Montana, we found the Arc'teryx Alpha SV to be the burliest for weather protection. This is an excellent shell for expeditions in cold regions. The other award winners, the Norrona Trollveggen and Arc'teryx Beta AR were runners-up in this category, offering stellar storm protection in slightly lighter weight fabrics.
In general, lighter jackets tended to feel more mobile. The OR Clairvoyant, for example, has a soft fabric that moves easily with you. However, it's not a very roomy jacket, so wearing many layers underneath can be restricting.
Most Arc'teryx jackets feel distinctly more plasticky; however, the panel designs and gusseted underarms, as well as some raglan sleeve designs, allow these stiffer fabrics to feel surprisingly mobile. We particularly loved the athletic fit and movement in the Arc'teryx Beta SL.
Breathability & Venting
It's Thursday, time for your dawn patrol ski tour with the ladies. There's a classic midwinter inversion, and the temps are frigid when you leave the cars at the trailhead. Light snowfall sets a lovely ambiance. You slowly warm up, picking up the pace as your body adjusts to the early morning workout.
The coffee is kicking in, and there's a glint of sun on the horizon. As you climb up a few hundred feet, you enter warmer air—you've exited the cold sink of air in the valley! Suddenly, you're overheating. You don't want to stop your crew on the climb; you can tell they've all just started to hit their strides. But you also know you don't want to get all sweaty, especially for the ski back down to the cars through that frigid valley air mass. Plus, it's starting to snow even more, so you need to stay dry from the inside and the outside. You may have exceeded the breathability of your hardshell jacket as you entered the warmer, more humid air—but you're not worried, that's what those pit zips are for. You unzip your side vents without skipping a stride, and you're back in lock-step with your best friends. It's so great when things just flow.
We love a simple jacket that breathes without the addition or need for vents. However, given that you're likely to be working hard in humid environments (if it's raining), sometimes humidity inhibits the osmosis of water vapor from inside your jacket to the outside. In these cases, we found that pit zips are much more critical for breathability. We looked at the number of vents each contender had, how big they were, in what direction(s) they zipped/unzipped, and how well they worked in their particular positions. We liked pit zips that opened from either end of the zipper, like on the Norrona Trollveggen because this design promotes air flow by opening two smaller vent holes at the inner arm and torso.
Regarding fabric breathability, we found that the Gore-Tex PacLite provided the most breathability. However, this is only a 2-layer fabric. Gore-Tex Active fabric is close behind PacLite for weight, but it is a burlier 3-layer fabric. Check out the Arc'teryx Beta SL and the OR Clairvoyant for comparisons of these two fabrics.
If you're looking for an ultra-durable shell to take with you on long, multi-day expeditions, it's important that it balances burly weather proofness with relatively light weight. In general, you might sacrifice an ounce or two for extra durability and weather protection; increasingly, however, technology is allowing for lighter and lighter fabrics that stand up to the worst weather Mother Nature can throw at you.
On the opposite side of the spectrum are the ultralight shells, like the Arc'teryx Beta SL. This is an excellent ultralight shell jacket for the times when every ounce counts. We loved this one for ice climbs where we want to minimize the weight we carry with us up the route, but we also need a fully featured hard shell to fend off cold drips and horrendous spindrift.
We weighed each jacket in this review (all small sizes) to be sure we were comparing apples to apples. This allowed us to rank the jackets objectively, based strictly on their weights. We were shocked to see the spread of weights, from 6 ounces for a small size Arc'teryx Beta SL, to more than double that at 14.5 ounces for the much less versatile Marmot Spire.
The most impressive jackets offered a high level of versatility for an impressively low weight. We loved all of the Arc'teryx jackets for their ability to balance mobility, durability, all in an impressively lightweight for the full suite of features they offer.
This is a category that each consumer must calibrate for their specific uses: for example, we did really like the feel of the Patagonia Triolet and thought it performed well for inbounds skiing and snowboarding. This would be an excellent choice for activities that don't require as much performance in a lighter or more compact product.
Ahhh…sometimes it's the little things that make the difference. When looking at features, we took into consideration a bunch of different things that make a hardshell jacket more versatile, comfortable, and functional. For example, we looked at how big the pull tabs were to adjust hoods and hems. We also looked at pocket design—their number, depth, and position. Most of the jackets in this review were helmet and harness compatible, but some had specific pocket designs we preferred—like Napoleon chest pockets and internal chest pockets. We scanned each jacket, from hood to hem, to pull out any features that matched or confused the ultimate purpose of the jacket. We awarded simple features on ultralight jackets similarly to more extensive and full feature sets on burlier expedition jackets.
The most essential, standout features include, roughly in this order: hood quality, pockets (especially chest), then adjustability features. A hood needed to be big enough to accommodate a helmet, but adjustable enough to be comfortable when not wearing one. These are technical hard shell jackets designed to stand up to alpine and expedition use where you will likely be wearing a helmet. We also felt it was essential to have a hood that moved with you when you turned to look side to side or behind you because it's annoying to turn your head and find yourself looking at the inside of your hood instead of your partner climbing up to meet you at the belay.
Chest pockets are a favorite feature among our reviewers. A decent chest pocket allows ease of access to crucial items like electronics, GPS, maps—and keeps them dry in a downpour. This means internal zippered chest pockets are great, but harder to access, so another good alternative is a waterproof zipper on the outside. Next in pocket design: can you access the hand pockets when you're wearing a harness? The Norrona Trollveggen had an excellent, simple pocket design.
Adjustability is a significant feature for a weatherproof hard shell jacket. This concept overlaps with the Weather Protection metric, but goes a step further: how easy was it to adjust the jacket with warm gloves on?
And last, but not least, we considered how the full set of features matched the best application of each jacket. The Arc'teryx Beta SL is a very simple and lightweight jacket, so it got very high marks because it has a streamlined but very useful feature set. The Arc'teryx Alpha SV, however, is a burly, big-mountain-ready hard shell with many more features, so it matched the utility of the model very well.
When considering purchasing an ultra-expensive hard shell, you'll want to know if it's going to last for a long time. As guides and outdoor professionals, we have extensive experience with the materials used in these jackets. First, we researched each fabric type to be sure of its durability rating and weave. Then we took it out ice and alpine climbing, trying to see how easily it would snag on sharp tools or get scratched up on rock. At the end of our field testing, we looked again at the fabric and searched for any signs of wear. In this manner, we were able to assess real-world durability issues. However, due to our short testing period, it is difficult to know for sure how well these will hold up over time. To more fully answer this question, we polled industry professionals for input on certain fabric types and manufacturing styles. What leads to long-term failure? Which fabrics hold up better to long-term abrasion? In the end, we put it all together to tell the story of each jacket's durability potential.
In general, the Arc'teryx models earned top marks for durability. Their construction is supreme with elaborate stitching and welded overlays that ensure the shell will last close to a lifetime. Many Arc'teryx owners gloat about the strength with a huge trade-off for the price. The stiffer fabrics hold up much better to repeated abrasion, such as that from long-term rubbing from backpack straps. And fortunately, Arc'teryx has figured out stitching patterns that allow a very natural articulation pattern in their jackets.
Durability often comes at a cost to weight, but that was not the case with the Arc'teryx models in this review—however, the price does come up in, well, literally cost. They're expensive! So if that's a deal breaker for you, but lightweight is not, consider the Marmot Spire, a rugged, if heavy, hard shell that will please most resort skiers and snowboarders. And of course, an excellent choice for all-around quality and durability is our Editors' Choice winner, the Norrona Trollveggen.
It's nice to have a hardshell jacket that you can take with you on all your favorite activities that require bomber weather protection…everything from resort skiing, snowshoeing, running, hiking, ice climbing, mountaineering, and all else in between. To test this metric, we did all of those things. We noted which shells were suited better for one purpose and which seemed to offer high performance across multiple activities. We passed the jackets around to our friends, and let them choose which ones they wanted to take out for a day of ice climbing or ski touring. We then listened to their glee or gripes and apologized when testing went sideways—but mostly, they were psyched to try such a stellar lineup of hard shell jackets.
We found that the most versatile models were the ones that were more breathable. The Norrona and Arc'teryx garments and the Outdoor Research Clairvoyant earned awards because you can use them for pretty much anything. From skiing to ice climbing to hiking and even running. Versatility ties directly into value, in our assessment, because if you're spending hundreds of dollars on a shell jacket, it's important to be sure it'll keep you covered on all your mountain adventures. The last thing we want is a one-time use shell jacket that cost us over $500. That's way outside of our annual budget.
The jackets in this review are intended to protect you from the most fierce of weather conditions. Depending on where you live and what you plan to use your jacket for, the hardshell you choose may vary. After reading through the details of our thorough testing, we hope that you were able to find the model that suits your taste. Still unsure? Have a look at our Buying Advice article for tips on what to consider when selecting your hardshell.
— Lyra Pierotti & Amber King