Looking for a hardshell jacket? We can help. We evaluated the 30 most popular hard shells on the market today and reviewed the 11 best, which we subjected to a side-by-side comparison. From cold rain to blizzards to splitter bluebird conditions, our expert reviewers compared these jackets for all major outdoor activities and sports. Through our comprehensive analysis, we identify the optimal hardshell jackets, as well as the most appropriate models for your favorite winter activities. Whether you’re looking for the perfect combination of lightweight and all-weather defense or the top performance-to-price ratio, we have your needs covered.
Read below to understand our picks.
Best Overall Hardshell Jacket: Arc’teryx Alpha FL
The Arc’teryx Alpha FL continues to beat back the competition in 2019. We still haven’t found a model that performs better across the board. It has proven to be lightweight and nearly indestructible, making it the ideal product for winter sports that punish shells, such as alpine climbing. Indeed, if it hadn’t already been our choice for the best overall jacket, we would pick it as our Top Pick for Alpine Climbing.
The low hemline and long sleeves are designed with climbing in mind, and the storm hood provides ultimate protection. While casual users might find it to be lacking some features (no hand pockets or pit zips), its pared-down approach maintains a low weight and maximizes mobility. As a lightweight and packable model, it can even double as a practical summertime rain jacket, and the GORE-TEX Pro membrane has proven to be very durable. Simply put, we love doing everything in this jacket and, especially considering the $399 price tag, the Alpha FL is still the best overall option on the market.
Best Budget Jacket: Outdoor Research Axiom
The Outdoor Research Axiom uses soft and supple fabric along with an athletic trim to produce the best jacket for mobility and fit that we tried. In truth, everything on this jacket seemed to be well thought out and executed to create a jacket that would perform amongst the best while skiing. We used it many times backcountry skiing and not once did we wish we were wearing another jacket. We also loved it while resort skiing and ice climbing. Little design features like the headphone port in the upper chest pocket, or the two-way front zipper for easier access to the waist of your pants, show that OR was thinking of all the little things. It also features two standard hand pockets. We think this jacket represents an excellent value and would recommend it to anyone looking for a fantastic winter hardshell jacket.
Top Pick for High-Intensity Activities: Rab Latok Alpine Jacket
- eVent 3L fabric
- Helmet compatible hood, wired peak and tricot lined collar with roll down anti-snag velcro tab
- Full venting YKK AquaGuard Escape Artist pit zips
- Anti-snag velcro adjustable cuffs, wait and hem drawcord, reflective trim
- Weight: 517g
Hardshells are defined by their three-layer, waterproof/breathable membranes that serve to keep you dry from the outside as well as the inside. While attention is given to the type, quality, or innovation of the membrane, the reality is that breathability is a backup strategy to help you dry out once you’re soaked in sweat. However, copious sweating is anathema to a climber or skier’s hydration strategy and an easy way to end up dangerously chilled.
To combat overheating in a hardshell, air vents are key, and the Rab Latok Alpine Jacket has innovative zippered vents to keep even the hardest working uphill athlete dry and ventilated. Instead of the usual pit zips, Rab extended the zipper on each arm all the way out the forearm, ending close to the wrist. They also include a two-way front zipper with buttons at the bottom of the jacket to allow for venting of the chest and torso without the jacket flapping in the wind. Through lots of uphill skinning, our tests revealed that this jacket’s features vented better than any other in this review, making it our Top Pick for High Exertion Activities, when staying dry and cool are of primary importance.
Top Pick for Rainy Climates: Outdoor Research Furio Jacket
- Double-Sliding TorsoFlo Hem-to-Bicep Zippers
- Fully Adjustable Hood Fits Over Helmet
- Zippered Internal Pocket with Media Port
- Hand Pockets Set Above Hip Belt Or Harness
Based in Seattle, Washington, Outdoor Research understands what it means to tackle mountain objectives in the rain. Whether you’re plodding to the summits of Mt. Rainier or Mt. Baker, or searching for powder in the North Cascades, the threat of rain is a constant. The Outdoor Research Furio jacket is the most versatile model in this review, keeping you comfortable on windswept summits and in soaking rain during the approach bushwack. It features a mix of both three-layer (hood, shoulders, arms) and two-layer (back, front) Gore-Tex membranes designed to minimize weight and maximize protection. Since we originally reviewed this jacket, the construction materials are updated to be slightly more durable, weatherproof and comfortable (you can find more info about this upgrade in the main review). You’ll also notice that OR made some small cosmetic changes to the chest zippers and color blocking design lines.
Like the Outdoor Research Foray jacket, a two-layer rain shell, it also has full-length side zips and a two-way front zipper that give the greatest possible amount of venting options without exposing you to the elements. While all hardshells should keep you dry in the rain, the Furio does the best job of also keeping you dry and cool on the inside, and so is our Top Pick for Rainy Climates.
How to Choose the Best Hardshell Jacket
In order to decide which jackets performed the best, we compared them side-by-side based on five separate criteria: Weather Protection, Weight and Packability, Mobility and Fit, and Features. We weighted each of these categories based on their importance to the average hardshell user. Our review included specific uses, like backcountry skiing, resort skiing, ice climbing, and doing manual labor in winter conditions. We measured the characteristics of each jacket head-to-head.
No matter what kind of membrane technology is used, every one of these jackets is waterproof. Since we wear our jackets at the Colorado Rockies’ winter, we encounter snow more than its non-frozen cousin, rain. In order to be sure these jackets are indeed fully waterproof, we zipped each jacket up, tightened down the hood and wrists, and stood under the downpour of a shower for three minutes. All of the jackets were waterproof, and not a single one showed signs of water permeating through the membrane. However, the type of membrane and face fabric are not the only things that keep you dry.
We performed the shower test again after three months of winter testing and noticed that all of the jackets showed slight signs of wetting out, meaning that the friction and abrasion of our activities had worn off some DWR coating. In most cases, the wetting out occurred in predictable patterns: the mid-back, shoulders, and front waist, all places where pack straps ride or rub. Some models lose their coating on the sleeves, another high abrasion area. It is well known that DWR coatings wear off over time, and in order to keep your hardshell jacket both waterproof and breathable, you must wash it and reapply a DWR coating. As a result, we did not penalize jackets that suffered from DWR wear but made a note in the individual reviews how they fared.
The final part of assessing weather protection came from our field testing. Wipeout in powder often enough or climb enough dripping ice pillars, and you will see where a jacket lacks or has you covered. Of course, our powder wipe-outs were purely intentional, you know, for testing purposes (wink). A big offender here was hemlines that were too short and rode up above the waist with arms overhead or, worse, allowed snow up when skiing. Another problem encountered was sleeves that were too short for the size, especially when lifting the arms overhead or to the sides.
Many of the jackets did a very good job protecting us from weather, and since we couldn’t choose one over the others, we gave the Marmot Cerro Torre, Arc’teryx Beta AR, Arc’teryx Alpha FL, and the Outdoor Research Furio, each 9 out of 10 points for weather protection. On the other end of the spectrum were jackets with hoods that allowed water to run down our necks: both Patagonia jackets, as well as both of The North Face jackets.
The majority of the jackets fit in the range of 14-20 ounces, hovering close to one pound. Then there were the two North Face jackets, which both weighed in at close to 25 ounces, fully five ounces heavier than any other jacket tested. These jackets proved to be great choices for resort skiing, where weight doesn’t matter but didn’t make much of an effort to truly trim ounces.
Our top pick, the Arc’teryx Alpha FL is a fast and light jacket that does forgo some features, including hand pockets, in order to cut down weight. If you’re looking for a high-performing jacket with more features, consider our Best Bang for the Buck winner, the Outdoor Research Axiom.
Packability is also considered into the weight metric. Climbing or skiing in good weather or warm climates means that the jacket will often live in the pack, and so having one that packs small and doesn’t weigh a ton is a bonus. Unlike lighter and smaller windbreakers or rain jackets, these jackets don’t stuff into their own pockets. We typically rolled them up and stuffed them into their hood for compact packing and to protect their DWR coating. Weight and packability accounted for 20% of a product’s final score.
Mobility and Fit
As important as a jacket’s weight is how well it fits and how easy it is to move in. We aren’t using these jackets to watch an arctic football game in Buffalo, NY — though they would stand up to the test. No, we are using these as our outer shells for climbing up and skiing down mountains. They need to move as we move, and they need to fit like a perfectly designed suit of armor.
The best jacket designs used membranes and face fabrics that were soft and supple, and in the best cases, quiet. The Patagonia Refugitive used stretchy material under the arms and along the sides, ensuring that no matter how we moved, our jacket didn’t stop us. We looked for an athletic fit around the torso, a hood that didn’t constrict our view (even with a helmet on), a collar that was as comfortable as it was protective, and fabric quiet enough that we could hear ourselves thinking while moving inside the jacket.
Donning your new hardshell jacket is a great feeling, even though picking what to buy can be daunting. Getting the features you desire, the weather protection you need, at the weight you want, all while keeping an eye on the price, is a tricky balancing act. However, we hope our tests and analysis of these jackets will have you on your way to finding the right product for your cold-weather activities and your budget.