Updated March 2017
While Arc'teryx maintained its position at the top of the jacket heap overall, our latest round of testing revealed some new award winners for specific applications. For example, we gave an award to the model that best protects from rainy weather, as well as the top model for moderate to high levels of aerobic activity. We were surprised that the highest prices in this category did not translate into the highest scores this year. For more clarity, we added graphs and charts to show every model's performance score in each metric.
Best Overall Hardshell Jacket
Arc'teryx Alpha FL
Great storm hood
Superior construction quality
Crinkly and noisy
Only one pocket
No pit zips
The Arc'teryx Alpha FL
continues to beat back the competition in 2017. In six years of testing hardshell jackets, 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 won our Editors' Choice award, we would recognize 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.
Read full review: Arc'teryx Alpha FL
Best Bang for the Buck
Outdoor Research Axiom
Good weather protection
Front zipper can be difficult
Drawstring buckles hard to manipulate
No pit zips
The soft, supple fabric and athletic trim of the Outdoor Research Axiom
make it the most mobile and top fitting jacket in this review. At only $389, it is nearly the most affordable jacket in this review, second only to the Top Pick Award-winning Outdoor Research Furio
. The Axiom remains the same remarkable design that inspired us to award it our Top Pick for Skiing in last year's review. We have tested it countless times backcountry skiing and not once did we wish we were wearing another jacket. It also proved to be great for resort skiing and ice climbing. Design features, like the headphone port in the upper chest pocket or the two-way front zipper for easier harness or pant access, show that OR thinks of all the little things. Why change something that works? We commend Outdoor Research not only for their thoughtful designs but also their commitment to making them among the most affordable models. We happily recommend the Axiom
as our Best Bang for the Buck winner.
Read full review: Outdoor Research Axiom
Top Pick for High Exertion Activities
Rab Latok Alpine Jacket
Great venting ability
Highly breathable membrane
Useful and practical features
Good weather protection
DWR coating not as durable as some
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.
Read full review: Rab Latok Alpine Jacket
Top Pick for Rainy Climates
Outdoor Research Furio Jacket
Amazing ventilation options
Uses areas of Paclite 2.5L Gore-Tex to lower cost
Some features do not work very well
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. 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.
Read full review: Outdoor Research Furio
Top Pick for Resort Skiing
The North Face FuseForm Brigandine 3L Jacket
The North Face Fuseform Brigandine 3L
Good features for skiing
Supple and comfortable material
Hood doesn't protect well from rain
Heavy & bulky
Very warm with few venting options
jacket is unique to this review in that it is optimally designed as a resort skiing jacket, one of the most popular uses of a hardshell. While The North Face
mentions all the trendy tag-words on their website — "low-profile…lightweight…skinning uphill"
— we aren't buying it. This is the second heaviest and bulkiest jacket in this review and runs hot with only lip service paid to venting. That said, its weight means it is warm, a useful attribute in the arctic winds of Loveland, Colorado, the highest (and coldest?) ski resort in North America. It's also equipped with an arsenal of features that almost seem gluttonous — forearm pocket with goggle wipe, thumb loops, a powder skirt with buttons and clips for attaching pants, double internal stash pockets, hand pockets, and
napoleon pockets, a smartphone pocket with headphone port accessible from both inside and outside the jacket– you get the idea. While it scored poorly due to its weight, warmth, bulk, and a hood that didn't keep rain out, most of its attributes make it ideal for resort skiing where weight doesn't matter, warmth is appreciated, features are a bonus, and you hopefully won't encounter rain. With many of the same attributes and a similar design, we liked this jacket better than The North Face Free Thinker Jacket
, due to its supple and mobile fabric and fit, and much lower price tag. If the slopes at Vail or Park City are your primary reason for owning a hardshell, then we can recommend this one as our Top Pick for Resort Skiing.
Read full review: The North Face Fuseform Brigandine 3L
Analysis and Test Results
Choosing a hardshell jacket can be daunting, especially given that these jackets are some of the most scientifically advanced garments in the industry. Many of them also have high price tags, so you'll want to make sure you end up with the right one. All the products we tested have three-layer technology (one, the Outdoor Research Furio
has a combination of three-layer and two-layer membranes); by comparison, all the rain jackets that we test in our rain jacket review are constructed with two- or 2.5-layer technology.
Generally speaking, this means that hardshells are more durable and protective than their cheaper rain jacket cousins. They also wick moisture faster. We recommend hardshell jackets for activities like backcountry skiing, ice climbing, and alpine climbing, where you need protection from the worst weather but might also work up a sweat while wearing them.
Stephen comes rocketing out the bottom of the steep, rocky gulley. While the snow was still a bit shallow, the fresh powder was very nice! Hardshell jackets thrive in cold, alpine environments like these.
When thinking about which hardshell might be best for you, consider what activities you participate in. For ice climbing, you might prioritize mobility; for light and fast alpinism, you might prioritize weight; for backcountry skiing, you might prioritize venting and breathability. Also, consider the weather conditions you're likely to encounter; although all of these jackets will keep you dry (we'll get to that below), some do a better job than others.
Our reviewers have put thousands of days into testing hardshell jackets over the past seven years, and this extensive testing allows us to make strong conclusions about waterproof/breathable technology. Without a doubt, these jackets ARE
waterproof, and without a doubt, these jackets ARE
breathable. The differences between models does not lie in whether they work or not, but rather how well they protect you from the elements and how comfortable you will be on the inside.
Glory! The Alpine Shell serving us well while skiing the super stable high altitude powder after another amazing storm.
As the number of outdoor enthusiasts grows, the development of new, proprietary waterproof/breathable membranes has turned into big business. Represented in this year's test were six different membranes: GORE-TEX Pro, GORE-TEX Active, GORE-TEX 3L with C-knit backer, eVent, GORE-TEX Paclite 2L, and The North Face DryVent. When shopping for a hardshell jacket, it is helpful to know about the different membranes, and we have detailed each in our Buying Advice Article
. However, as mentioned, they all
serve a purpose, and so it is better to focus on the jacket that will best serve your needs, rather than obsessing over membranes. We put more stock into the fit, mobility, weather protection, venting ability, weight, and features of a jacket than in the specific membrane used within. We believe this is the most practical way to purchase a jacket.
This light and fast jacket is designed for the biggest alpine ascents. Although not the "biggest," this climb (Bird Brain Boulevard) and its technical chimneying on both rock and ice put the Alpha FL to the test. We were happy every minute with our choice.
Criteria for Evaluation
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, Venting and Breathability, and Features. We weighted each of these categories based on their importance to the average hardshell user. Our testing included extensive use while backcountry skiing, resort skiing, ice climbing, and doing manual labor in winter conditions. We designed tests to measure the characteristics of each jacket head-to-head. In each category, we gave a jacket a score from one to 10, combining that score with the weight of the category, and adding the scores together to determine our final rankings. A detailed description of each category, as well as how we tested it, is described below the following comparison table.