The Best Women's Hardshell Jackets of 2020
Best Overall Women's Hardshell Jacket
Arc'teryx Beta SL Hybrid - Women's
The Arc'teryx Beta SL Hybrid is an excellent upgrade to the non-hybrid version, which won our highest award last year. With the addition of pit zips and a more durable textile, this jacket is fully featured and versatile, ready for all-mountain adventures. It can be used in a variety of climates, coping with a broad range of temperatures and aerobic output levels. It'll inspire confidence on mountaineering, and climbing trips as the durable fibers hold up to wear and tear from scratchy backpack straps and sharp objects like crampons and ice axes.
Unfortunately, the Beta SL Hybrid is not a jacket for expedition use. It uses relatively lightweight fabric that breathes well (in part, because it is thinner), but feel too cold for subzero subpolar blizzards. A thicker option like the Arc'teryx Alpha SV might be a better choice. But for the majority of your urban, suburban, and mountain adventures, the Beta SL Hybrid is a great all-around option, earning our highest accolades.
Read review: Arc'teryx Beta SL Hybrid
Best Bang for the Buck
Arc'teryx Zeta SL - Women's
The Arc'teryx Zeta SL is a phenomenal hardshell jacket for an impressively low price, replacing our previous Best Buy winner, the Beta SL. The main difference seems to be a simple rebranding of the jacket into their hiking and trekking category. It provides an excellent fit and is simple, streamlined, lightweight, and durable, but not as fully featured for mountaineering purposes.
The update makes it slightly less optimized for climbing movements; the jacket does not have raglan sleeves, which provide excellent mobility, but this is inconsequential for a jacket designed for hiking and trekking. With the stellar breathability, durability, light weight, and comfort, we even like this jacket for backcountry ski tours!
Read review: Arc'teryx Zeta SL
An Excellent Bargain
REI Co-op Drypoint GTX - Women's
We love the excellent value presented by the REI Co-op Drypoint jacket. It features a three-layer Gore-Tex active shell that does wonders keeping out rain and wind on nasty days. We appreciate its light and breathable design that makes hiking uphill on cold days easy, with a simple and streamlined look that any woman would appreciate. The price is right where you want it, with an REI guarantee backing its performance.
Unfortunately, while the materials are light and breathable, they aren't very durable. There are no added pit zips which make fast ventilation tough, and since there aren't a plethora of pockets, you don't want any additional items in them if you're planning on using them for added breathability. Aside from that, this jacket will give you the balance of breathability and weather protection you can expect from a high-quality jacket at a low price.
Read review: REI Co-op Drypoint GTX - Women's
Best for Running
Arc'teryx Norvan SL Hoody - Women's
We test a lot of gear, and it's easy to get cynical and critical; after all, that's our job. But the Arc'teryx Norvan got us legitimately excited. This jacket redefines versatility. For so long, we've longed for a lightweight hardshell that's breathable, wishing to leave our windshell behind on those trips where we want to keep things light and simple. The Norvan fits the bill.
It is important to remember that the Norvan is an ultralight specialist. It has zero pockets, and only a simple drawcord on the hood to secure it. But the streamlined features are very well thought out. The brim on the hood keeps light rain out of your eyes, and the cuffs and bottom hem secure the jacket through all terrain and all types of movement. This is an excellent jacket for high output aerobic activities and our Top Pick for such activities.
Read review: Arc'teryx Norvan
Best for Multi-Sport
Norrona Trollveggen Gore-Tex Light Pro - Women's
The Norrona Trollveggen is an excellent all-around hardshell jacket, particularly well suited to a variety of winter activities. It's easy to layer over warm jackets, but still slim fitting enough that the material doesn't get in the way of your movements. This makes it highly versatile when it comes to activity type and activity level. You can add layers to keep you warm and dry while ice climbing, but it was still a good fit for hiking, snowshoeing, and ski touring - when you generate more heat.
The Trollveggen is better suited to mountain adventures than urban activities or hiking and backpacking due to its feature set and slightly looser fit; however, it's still impressively versatile. It is a surprisingly light jacket for the range of activities it can handle. We could stretch this jacket into extended alpine adventures and still appreciate it in milder climates on shorter missions. It's an excellent investment for all-around alpine climbing.
Read review: Norrona Trollveggen
Best for Versatility
Arc'teryx Beta AR Jacket - Women's
The Arc'teryx Beta AR is an impressively versatile jacket due to thoughtful features and excellent design. There is a high standing collar inside the hood, which keeps you protected from the wind even if you're not wearing the hood (i.e., if it's blowing hard but not raining or snowing). This feature seemed awkward at first but ultimately made us feel very well sealed against the elements. The jacket also features variable fabric durabilities so that you get some weight and bulk savings but have the benefit of burlier fabric in areas of high wear and tear.
Like most Arc'teryx products, this jacket comes with a high price point, and it has that signature stiffness. However, the panel design ensures the excellent range of motion with this jacket, and we also know that Arc'teryx has an excellent reputation, so some might argue that this jacket is worth its weight in gold.
Read review: Arc'teryx Beta AR Jacket - Women's
Why You Should Trust Us
Our expert panel consists of AMGA Certified Rock Guide and Mountaineer Lyra Pierotti and endurance athlete Amber King. Lyra guides mountains all over the world and teaches avalanche courses all winter, and trains athletes as a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist. She calls the Pacific Northwest her home "basecamp." Amber lives in the mountains of Colorado, where high peaks yield questionable weather conditions. She currently works full-time as a gear tester and writer, reviewing over 18 different categories of outdoor gear. On the side, she guides rock, trail runs ultra distances, and subs at the local high school. She is currently towards becoming a physical therapist.
To begin this comparative study of women's hardshell jackets, we combed through the industry's leading models and debated the pros and cons of each. From a pool of over 40 models, we selected a dozen that looked most promising and put them to the test. We spent at least three months with the jackets, dragging them along on a variety of mountain adventures from the Pacific Northwest to the wilds of Montana, and all around town as well, just for good measure.
Analysis and Test Results
An excellent hardshell is characterized by its ability to move with the body, breathe, provide comfort, and protection from the elements while heading out into stormy or windy weather. We discuss seven different metrics we use to rate each product below. The metrics culminate in a score based on the criteria that we think are most important for performance.
Here at OutdoorGearLab, we try our best to cut through the hype and marketing of products and steer our readers to the best value. Once we have our jackets scored from our rigorous field testing, we look at the price. While some high-cost jackets may be outstanding, there are likely to be several that perform nearly as well, or at least in the areas you're interested in, for a much lower cost. The most high-value hardshell that we can recommend is the REI Drypoint GTX, one of the lowest-priced options in this review. We also like the Arc'teryx Zeta SL that comes at a slightly higher price, especially if you seek a lighter shell option.
First and foremost, a hardshell jacket must be weather-proof. This is our first and most important metric because ultimately, this layer is critical for your safety in a changing environment. To fully assess each jacket for its ability to weather any storm, we tested each one in inclement weather (rain or snow, depending on the intended use of each jacket). The standards are high for hardshell fabrics, so we look critically at anything that can compromise the jacket's weatherproof performance. This can include sleeves or torso lengths which are too short, or a poorly designed 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 faired better in weather protection but might lose points in breathability. There were several levels of hardshell 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.
Finally, one jacket impressed us with the use of 2-layer Gore-Tex PacLite, which was still plenty stormproof and impressively light and breathable, but not a go-to expedition hardshell 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.
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 Hybrid.
The new winner of this review, the Arc'teryx Beta SL Hybrid, took the best attributes of the original, non-hybrid version and turned it into a much more versatile, all-mountain hardshell jacket. With pit zips and some slightly more durable fabric, this jacket is at home in a variety of climates and activities.
Arc'teryx continues to steal the show, with the Norvan, their trail running jacket. This jacket moves well in the limited ranges of motion when running (swinging your arms), but unlike other running rain jackets, it also allows you to raise your arms overhead. This jacket was a fast favorite.
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 airflow by opening two smaller vent holes at the inner arm and torso. The Arc'teryx Norvan is one of the highest scorers in this metric; as breathable as a windshirt, Arc'teryx has eliminated face fabric, which makes it incredibly breathable and lightweight.
This year's winner, the Arc'teryx Beta SL Hybrid, is made with Gore's Paclite technology, a highly breathable 2-layer fabric. This Hybrid also features pit zips, which makes it one of the most well ventilated and highly breathable hardshell jackets we have tested. The REI Drypoint is also a high scorer in this metric; it does not have pit zips, but the high hand pockets allow you to easily shed heat.
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 protection with relatively lightweight. You might sacrifice an ounce or two for extra durability and weather protection; however, technology is increasingly 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 Zeta SL. This is an excellent ultralight shell jacket for the times when every ounce counts, but it is somewhat limited in scope and optimized for hiking and trekking. Taking the ultralight concept one step further, the Arc'teryx Norvan, designed for trail running, is an ultralight specialist. It has no pockets and few features, but it is a breathable dream come true.
The most impressive jackets offered a high level of versatility for 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 also liked the feel of the Patagonia Cloud Ridge and thought it performed well for inbounds skiing and snowboarding as well as mountaineering and alpine climbing.
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, such as their number, depth, and position. Most of the jackets in this review are 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 that are similar 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), and adjustability features. A hood needs to be big enough to accommodate a helmet, but adjustable enough to be comfortable when not wearing one. These are technical hardshell 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.
The Nordwand Pro is packed full of alpine and snow features, like a snow skirt, pit zips, and a strip of elastic that seals it tightly around your face. It also has a good amount of nicely sized pockets and is helmet-compatible. All of the zippers are waterproof (except the side arm pocket).
Adjustability is a significant feature for a weatherproof hardshell jacket. This concept overlaps with the Weather Protection metric, but goes a step further: how easy was it to adjust with warm gloves on?
Last, but not least, we considered how the full set of features matched the best application of each jacket. The Arc'teryx Beta SL Hybrid is a straightforward and lightweight jacket, so it got very high marks because it has a streamlined but handy feature set. The Arc'teryx Alpha SV, however, is a burly, big-mountain-ready hardshell with many more features, so it matched the utility of the model very well.
Durability is taken into concern when purchasing an ultra-expensive hardshell, and you'll want to know the level of durability it offers. As guides and outdoor professionals, we have extensive experience with the materials used in these jackets. We first researched each fabric type to be sure of its durability rating and weave. Then we took it out ice and alpine climbing to see how easily it would snag on sharp tools or get scratched up on rock faces.
At the end of our field testing, we looked at the fabric again and searched for any signs of wear. In this manner, we were able to assess real-world durability issues. To better 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.
The Arc'teryx models earn top marks for durability. Their construction is superior, with elaborate stitching and welded overlays that ensure the shell will last close to a lifetime. Many Arc'teryx owners gloat about the strength of their purchases, yet there is a massive trade-off — the price tag. 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 this is not the case with the Arc'teryx models in this review; however, the price does come up in, well, literally cost. Arc'teryx products are expensive! So if that's a dealbreaker for you, but light weight is not, we love the performance that the Flylow Vixen provides. And of course, an excellent choice for all-around quality and durability is the Norrona Trollveggen, made of rugged Pro Gore-Tex.
It's nice to have a hardshell jacket that you can take with you on all your favorite activities that require bomber weather protection, from resort skiing, snowshoeing, running, hiking, ice climbing, mountaineering, and all else in between.
To test this metric, we took each model with us on these activities. We noted which shells were suited better for one purpose and which offered 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 hardshell jackets.
We found that the most versatile models were the more breathable ones. The Norrona and Arc'teryx garments earned awards because you can use them for pretty much any activity, from skiing to ice climbing to hiking and even running. In our assessment, versatility ties directly into value, 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 Arc'teryx Norvan throws a wrench in our concept of versatility. This jacket is very nichey and is best for trail running and on first analysis, not much more. But it breathes so well that it is also totally reasonable to leave your wind shirt at home on your next ultralight adventure. Now that's awesome.
A hardshell jacket is a hard nut to crack. It needs to be tough enough to keep out the weather, well-featured to suit your activity of choice, and breathable enough for you to climb, hike, paddle, ski, etc. at your pace. This means the jacket needs to keep water out, and then it needs to wick water vapor out as you sweat; that's a lot to ask when you really think about it. In this review, we identified several nichey models for sport-specific athletes, as well as more general-use hardshells that will work for a variety of adventures. We hope this review will help you navigate to the best shell jacket for you and your adventures.
— Lyra Pierotti & Amber King