It's hard work finding the best hardshell jacket. To help you make an informed choice, we researched over 65 of the best models before purchasing 15 of the industry's top models, putting them through our rigorous field testing. We commuted in the rainy Pacific Northwest, went ski touring midwinter, headed up high for fall backpacking trips, and climbed dripping waterfall ice for a range of conditions and climates. We found out which jackets allowed us the best freedom of movement, breathability, and which ones were the burliest and would keep us warm, or at least dry, through a blizzard. This comprehensive review breaks down the pros and cons of each model to help you find your perfect hardshell jacket.
The Best Hardshell Jackets for Women
|Price||$238.83 at REI|
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|$550.00 at Backcountry||$431.19 at REI|
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|$224.19 at REI|
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|$173.93 at REI|
|Pros||Highly versatile, breathable, lightweight||Lightweight, breathable, fully featured, durable||Great range of motion, light weight, great weather protection, versatile||High quality, lightweight, durable, great value||Lightweight, supple, breathable, versatile|
|Cons||Expensive, still made of lighter and somewhat less durable fabric||Not the lightest on the market||Shorter torso length, some features overdone||Less features, somewhat less versatile||Thinner fabric, less features|
|Bottom Line||The Beta SL Hybrid retains an impressive focus on light weight while introducing key features to make it highly versatile.||An incredibly versatile model that is competent for a wide range of adventures.||The Beta AR is an excellent all around shell jacket for most mountain uses, including long alpine climbs.||A great value; it is light, durable, and useful on many types of adventures.||The Drypoint is an excellent hardshell, lightweight and comfortable, which performs well for a variety of activities.|
|Rating Categories||Beta SL Hybrid||Norrona Trollveggen Gore-Tex Light Pro||Beta AR Jacket||Zeta SL||Drypoint GTX|
|Weather Protection (20%)|
|Specs||Beta SL Hybrid||Norrona Trollveggen Gore-Tex Light Pro||Beta AR Jacket||Zeta SL||Drypoint GTX|
|Category||Light weight, athletic fit||Mid weight, Regular fit||Mid weight, Regular fit||Mid wieght, regular fit||Mid/ light weight, regular fit|
|Length of back, from base of neck to bottom (inches)||26||28||26||27||27|
Best Overall Women's Hardshell Jacket
Arc'teryx Beta SL Hybrid - Women's
The Beta SL Hybrid from Arc'teryx is an excellent upgrade to their non-hybrid version which won an award in this review last year. Arc'teryx added pit zips and a bit more durable fabric to make this a fully featured, versatile, all-mountain hardshell jacket. These features allow us to use it jacket in a variety of climates, as it can cope with a broader range of temperatures and aerobic output levels. It also inspired more confidence on our mountaineering and climbing trips where durability is tested through lots of friction (from rock or backpack straps) and by sharp objects (like crampons and ice axes).
The Beta SL Hybrid is still not a jacket for expedition use. It uses relatively lightweight fabric that breathes well (in part, because it is thinner), but might feel too cold in subzero subpolar blizzards. A thicker option like the Arc'teryx Alpha SV might be a better option. But for the majority of you urban, suburban, and mountain adventures, the Beta SL Hybrid is likely to be a great fit.
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 hard shell jacket for an impressively low price. It has replaced our previous Best Buy winner, the Beta SL. The main difference really seems to be a simple rebranding of the jacket into their hiking and trekking category. This is an excellent fit for the jacket, as it is simple, streamlined, lightweight, and durable—but not as fully featured for mountaineering purposes.
The update is also slightly less optimized for climbing movements with the sleeve design (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, lightweight, and comfort, we even liked this jacket for backcountry ski tours!
Read review: Arc'teryx Zeta SL
Top Pick for Multi-Sport
Norrona Trollveggen Gore-Tex Light Pro - Women's
The Norrona Trollveggen is an excellent all-around hardshell jacket. This one seemed particularly well suited to a variety of winter activities. It is easy to layer over warm jackets, but still slim fitting enough that the material doesn't get in the way of your movements. This made it highly versatile, both regarding activity type and also 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, but overall we found it to be 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 on shorter missions in milder climates. This jacket is an excellent investment for all around alpine climbing.
Read review: Norrona Trollveggen
Top Pick 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 science teacher and endurance athlete Amber King. Lyra guides mountains all over the world, teaches avalanche courses all winter, and has additional training with the American Mountain Guides Association. She calls the Pacific Northwest her home "basecamp." Amber is originally from Canada, and ended up in southwest Colorado after completing her B.Sc. and B.Ed. degrees. Here she discovered trail running, completing her first half, full, and ultra marathons in one year. When she's not busy training as an endurance athlete, splitboarding, or pack rafting, Amber teaches high school science.
To begin this comparative study of women's hard shell jackets, we combed through the industry's leading models and debated the pros and cons of each. From a pool of over 65 models, we selected a dozen that looked most promising and put them to the test. We spent at least 3 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. We established our set of performance metrics outlined below, and graded each on a scale of 1-10 to compare them to each other, and assemble an overall performance score. We hope this information provides thorough and useful information to steer you toward your ideal hard shell jacket.
Analysis and Test Results
To find the best of the best hard shell jackets, we first established a mutually exclusive, collectively exhaustive list of assessment metrics. After much deliberation, our team settled on these seven: Weather Protection, Mobility, Breathability (including venting), Weight, Features, Durability, and Versatility. Read on to see how we assessed the jackets in each category, and how they compared to one another.
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.
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 hardshell 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 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, 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 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.
In general, lighter jackets tended to feel more mobile. The OR Clairvoyant, for example, has a soft fabric that moves 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 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.
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 Zeta SL and the OR Clairvoyant for comparisons of these two fabrics.
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.
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. 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 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. For a fully featured and ultralight shell, check out the Outdoor Research Optimizer.
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 really liked the feel of the Patagonia Cloud Ridge and thought it performed well for inbounds skiing and snowboarding as well as for 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—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 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.
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?
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 Hybrid is a very simple and lightweight jacket, so it got very high marks because it has a streamlined but handy feature set. If you want an ultralight hard shell with plenty of pockets and adjustability, check out the Outdoor Research Optimizer. 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.
When considering purchasing an ultra-expensive hardshell, 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 Flylow Vixen. 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 hardshell 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.
— Lyra Pierotti & Amber King