Updated March 2017
Staying on top of the hardshell market, we added information about the recent design updates to the Arc'teryx Alpha FL and the Outdoor Research Furio. This 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
No pit zips
2017 Alpha FL Now Available
Arc'teryx recently updated the Alpha FL, which features several design updates intended to make this already awesome jacket more water resistant, easier to adjust, a touch lighter, and overall even higher performing. It also comes in three new colors, one of which is pictured above, and a $25 price increase. We detailed all the key differences between the 2016 and 2017 models in the individual review.
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 below-average price tag, the Alpha FL is still
the best overall option on the market.
Read 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 $399, 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 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 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. 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. For full-body protection, consider completing the ensemble with the $345 Outdoor Research Men's Furio Pants
Read review: Outdoor Research Furio
Analysis and Test Results
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.
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.
Nothing is more important when considering a hardshell jacket than how well it protects you from the weather. After all, if it wasn't for the weather, you wouldn't even need a jacket. Hardshell jackets are different than softshells because they are meant to be waterproof, keeping you dry even in a downpour. Softshell jackets are designed primarily to be breathable
. Hardshells are also different from rain jackets
because they have waterproof/breathable membranes designed to allow moisture building up on the inside of the jacket to transfer through the jacket, so it can evaporate. All of the hardshell jackets in this test include some sort of waterproof and breathable membrane.
No matter what kind of membrane technology is used, every one of these jackets is waterproof. Since we tested these jackets during the Colorado Rockies' winter, we encountered snow more than its non-frozen cousin, rain. In order to be sure these jackets were 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.
There is no doubt that this jacket offers fantastic protection from the blowing snow and wind found on this backcountry tour, although it can get real toasty skinning uphill while fully zipped up.
Hardshell jackets also come with a Durable Water Resistant (DWR) coating applied to the face fabric. This chemical coating is designed to repel water when it hits the outside of the jacket and leads to the "beading" effect you notice when water hits a new jacket. The water has no chance to soak in, so it beads up and falls off. The reason why the DWR layer is important is because it improves the breathability of the membrane. Without it, the jacket will "wet out," meaning that the water no longer beads and falls off but soaks the face fabric instead. In this case, the jacket still retains its waterproof qualities because it still incorporates a waterproof membrane below the face fabric, but the breathability of this membrane becomes impaired.
Testing the Refugitive's ability to stand up to the harsh cold and rigors of multi-pitch ice climbing on the second gully above Eureka in the San Juan Mountains.
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 had also lost 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.
Investigating all of the various ski options from the top of the mountain. A relatively windless storm meant the powder was undisturbed and hadn't formed into a dangerous slab. This jacket was the perfect choice for such a perfect day.
The bigger factor when it came to weather protection, and one that really helped differentiate the jackets, was the design and fit. The most important feature in keeping water out of a jacket, especially in a downpour, is the hood design. Some hoods, like the Arc'teryx Alpha FL
's, worked magnificently in the shower, while others proved to not have enough bill for protection (the Patagonia Refugitive
). The way that the collar was designed when fully zipped also played a role in how well the hoods kept water out. In the worst cases, water ran straight off the sides of the hood, pouring down the neck like a rain gutter spout, like the The North Face Free Thinker Jacket
. In the shower test, we also noticed that all of the main front and pocket zippers of every single jacket passed the test, stopping leaks. This year we were also happy to report that none of the pit zips leaked.
Despite only having a single draw cord in the back to adjust and tighten, the hood on this jacket did a great job of protecting our face and the collar from allowing water in.
The final part of assessing weather protection came from our field testing. Wipe out 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.
As the most important metric in assessing a jacket's performance, weather protection accounts for 35% of each product's final score. 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
Testing hardshell jackets in some great early season powder. The slide shown here was remote triggered from across the slope while uphill traveling on the ascent. Even though it wasn't actively snowing, the wind was frigid and made us happy to have hardshell protection.
Weight and Packability
To test for weight, we measured each jacket straight out of the box and ignored what the manufacturer's website said the item weighed. However, we found that due to changing sizing among many manufacturers, we needed to order men's large jackets for some brands, and men's size medium in others, complicating our weighting metrics. For that reason, we also made note of the manufacturer's stated weight in our specs table.
The jackets selected for this year's review had a wide range of weights. The lightest jacket was the Arc'teryx Alpha FL
, weighing in at a mere 11.4 ounces for a size large. This jacket has been stripped of many features, such as underarm ventilation and hand pockets, all in the name of weight savings. 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.
A select sample of the differences in packable size between jackets. On the bottom is the Arc'teryx Alpha FL in its stuff sack. In the middle, almost as small, is the Black Diamond Helio Alpine Shell rolled into its hood -- again, very small. On the top is the heavy and bulky TNF Free Thinker jacket, more than double the size and weight of the one on the bottom.
How much weight matters is subjective. As gear and materials evolve, manufacturers continually find ways to produce gear that matches the "light and fast" demands of elite alpinists. But not everyone is
an elite alpinist, or even aspires to be one, and so for those people, it is important to note that the difference between the lightest and heaviest jacket in the review was only about 14 ounces, or close to a pound. In other words: not much. For most, other performance characteristics may be far more relevant.
There is no clear correlation between weight and overall jacket performance. Besides differences in fabric, manufacturers typically save weight by cutting out extraneous zippers and pockets, features that many users demand. So while wearing a hardshell jacket that feels as light as an extra shirt is far preferable to wearing a jacket so heavy it feels like you just donned a movable tent, there are other factors to consider when choosing to cut the ounces.
Our Editors' Choice winner, 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 wind breakers
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.
Showing the relative differences between sleeve length, hem length, and hood fit over a helmet. From left to right: Arc'teryx Beta AR, Arc'teryx ALpha FL, TNF Fusform Brigandine 3L, TNF Free Thinker, Marmot Cerro Torre, Rab Latok Alpine.
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.
Showing the relative difference between sleeve length, hem length, and hood fit with the arms stretched overhead. From left to right: OR Axiom, Patagonia Triolet, OR Furio, Patagonia Refugitive, BD Helio Alpine Shell.
The more we tested these jackets in powder and on ice, the more we realized that some of them simply didn't fit their intended purpose. Not only did we want them to move well and not inhibit our range of motion (Mobility
), we also wanted them to keep us covered no matter what position we were in (Fit
). Three things drove us crazy when it came to fit: short sleeves, high hemlines, and baggy chests. When a climber raises their hands above their head to swing their tools, they need the sleeves to stay put by their wrists, not ride down to the middle of the forearm. Likewise, when skiing through the glorious bounty of powder that last night's storm dumped, a high hemline can only lead to snow filling the inside of the jacket. Lastly, both skiing and climbing require you to be able to see your feet, and a baggy jacket front simply gets in the way. Any or all of these things caused us to dock points for fit, and their absence made us very happy.
Displaying the issues with finding the correct fit. Obviously, the sleeves of this jacket were a few inches too short.
Sizing Your Jacket
Over the last few years, the sizing of garments for many companies has changed. In years past, we could count on ordering a men's size large and having it fit, but now a size large often means a wide fit in the torso. It seems that companies now cater to two different types of people — the slim mountain person who is annoyed by the bagginess of his jacket but probably represents a small market share, and the "average American" who still wants a technical jacket but feels stifled by an athletic fit. For this review, we paid close attention to the companies' sizing charts before placing our orders but still encountered short hems and sleeves in mediums and baggy torsos in larges. What gives? On the bright side, most Canadian and European companies seem to have stuck with the traditional athletic fit, so you may check one of them out if you want a jacket in tall and slim.
The best jacket for Mobility and Fit
was the Outdoor Research Axiom
. It is athletically sized, has long sleeves and a low hem, and the fabric is supple and quiet, leading to great mobility and a perfect fit. The Arc'teryx Alpha FL
also has a great fit and mobility, docked only by its loud, crinkly nature. On the other hand, we found that both the Patagonia Triolet
(size M), and the OR Furio
(size L), had sleeves that were too short, while the Patagonia Triolet
was too tight and constrictive in the shoulders, arms, and chest. Mobility and Fit accounted for 20% of a product's final score.
Venting and Breathability
The hardshell jackets we tested all purport to be waterproof and
breathable, so it only makes sense that we test them for their breathability. While an interested reader can spend days reading about the science of breathability on manufacturers' websites, the sweaty outdoor enthusiast slogging up a mountain might notice that these jackets don't seem
very breathable. So what gives?
Fresh snow and blower powder, perfect conditions for a day of "work" in the mountains testing hardshell jackets.
In years past, we attempted to accurately test these jackets for breathability by running in them on a treadmill in a controlled environment and making notes of the differences. We came to a few broad conclusions. First, there is no doubt that these jackets DO
breathe, but it is virtually impossible for our testers to definitively state which one breathes the best or the worst. The second obvious conclusion drawn from the treadmill test was that in order to produce the correct atmosphere inside
the jacket for breathing to occur, the user is going to feel uncomfortably hot and moist.
Due to the laws of physics, a certain amount of heat and moisture must be generated before an efficient transfer of the moisture from the inside to the outside of the jacket will take place. Our treadmill test proved what longtime hardshell wearers have long known: venting and airflow will keep you more comfortable than keeping your jacket zipped to the chin and letting it breathe for you. So, while breathability is an important characteristic, it is really more useful as a backup, meaning if you get wet or sweaty inside your jacket, it's nice that it will work to dry you out. However, the first option to avoid getting wet and sweaty in the first place is to ventilate.
Displaying the full length side zips for ventilation on this jacket, as well as the ability to go "full cape mode." This feature allowed for awesome ventilation while staying protected from the rain, which is why we named it our Top Pick.
For that reason, we chose to ditch the treadmill test this year and instead focus our energy on field testing these jackets in hot environments. While on the uphill in the backcountry of Colorado, we almost never choose to wear a hardshell, as we will almost always end up too sweaty way before we reach the mountaintop. But for three months this winter, we donned our hardshell for every uphill, testing out how effectively we could regulate our temperature while working hard. Besides the ubiquitous front zipper, most of these jackets featured pit zips of varying lengths and were easy to open and close.
A couple jackets, such as the Rab Latok Alpine Jacket
, our Top Pick for High Exertion Activities, and the OR Furio
, featured much longer and more effective arm or side zips, originating in the arm pits. The Furio
even had mesh-backed pockets and a two-way front zipper. These attributes helped us stay relatively cool. While the Arc'teryx Alpha FL
and OR Axiom
did not have any pit zips, they were thinner and lighter than most, meaning we didn't heat up as quickly. Our testing indicated that the two North Face
jackets were heavy, thick, hot, and had very small pit zips that didn't help us regulate temperature while traveling uphill. Breathability accounted for 15% of a jacket's final score.
This jacket, the Latok, was our Top Pick for High Exertion Activities such as backcountry skiing, where most of your time is spent working hard skinning uphill, due to its great venting options that allowed us to stay dry and cool.
We chose to weight our "Features" metric as just 10% of a product's final score, as features are far less important to a jacket effectiveness when compared to the other metrics described here. However, the features that a jacket includes and especially how well they function can make the difference between smiling with appreciation every time you wear the jacket or frowning with annoyance every time you have to screw with something that doesn't work. All the jackets we tested share features like pockets, collars, wrist enclosures, zippers, and drawcords, and so the quality, placement, and how well they function is an important characteristic to consider.
We assessed this metric based on the quantity of features (because more is always better, right?), as well as the quality of the features. The Rab Latok Alpine Jacket
ended up with the highest score, as it had a perfect blend of practical features that worked well, including some not found on other jackets, like the Velcro hood stow strap and full arm zips. The Patagonia Refugitive
also had good feature sets. The lowest scorers were the Alpha FL
and the Black Diamond Helio Alpine Shell
; both jackets were intentionally designed with few features to save weight.
Below is a short description of some pertinent features and how they perform on a hardshell jacket.
Pockets come in all shapes and sizes: hand pockets, breast pockets, interior pockets that zip or don't, sleeve pockets
you name it. One thing is for sure, pockets are handy for holding things. With this in mind, we love pockets that hold stuff in convenient-to-reach places. Our favorites are "Napolean" style breast pockets, that live high on the chest and allow crossover access. We also like interior non-zip stash pockets that store bulky accessories like gloves or a hat or even a water bottle.
We find less use for hip-height hand pockets because they tend to sit underneath a waist belt on a harness or waist strap on a pack. Of the jackets tested, The North Face
jackets had the most pockets, while the lightest jackets tended to have only one chest pocket. The Editors' Choice winning Arc'teryx Alpha FL
only has one napoleon-style pocket, while the Black Diamond Helio Alpine Shell
has two napoleon-style chest pockets.
To save weight, this jacket has only two exterior pockets, shown here as cross-over napolean style pockets. We find these to be easier to access and more practical whether climbing or skiing, when handwarmer pockets are often trapped or inaccessible beneath pack straps or harnesses.
All of the jackets in this review use the same system for wrist enclosures: Velcro. However, they are not all made equal. Some of the Velcro was not very sticky, and some models had Velcro swatches that were too small. A couple had wrist enclosures that simply wouldn't shrink down tight enough for our tiny wrists, like the Marmot Cerro Torre
, while others were too bulky to easily fit our gloves, like The North Face Free Thinker Jacket
. In general, the Arc'teryx model jackets (the Arc'teryx Alpha FL
and the Arc'teryx Beta AR
) had the best quality and size of Velcro wrist enclosures.
Our biggest complaint with this jacket was the seemingly misplaced Velcro tabs on the wrist enclosures. Although hard to see here, the two pieces of Velcro do not line up, meaning its pretty hard to secure these wrists tightly.
Drawcords are used liberally in all of these jackets to tighten openings around the face and the hemline. The positioning of the pull tab end of the cord and the quality of the buckles that hold the cord taut make a big difference in performance. We loved hood drawcords that have the pull tab on the outside of the jacket, rather than the inside, so we didn't have to unzip the jacket to find the tab (if we wanted to tighten the hood, we usually wanted the jacket to stay zipped up!). We loved the buckles that we found on the Patagonia Refugitive
and the Black Diamond Helio Alpine Shell
because they released simply. Most jackets used buckles that were very small, making them hard to grip and squeeze to release with gloves.
The Cohaesive embedded cord lock system on the Refugitive was the single best draw cord buckle that we found on any of the jackets. It releases by simply pushing on the circle and was easily to manipulate with gloves on.
When it's really storming, you want your jacket zipped all the way up, and that's when you notice whether the collar is awesome or not. The good ones ride comfortably high up, just under your nose, but aren't tight and don't restrict movement of your head. They also feature a soft micro-fleece lining that doesn't chafe. The bad ones do the exact opposite. Then there are the collars that are so rad they make you realize you never paid attention to collars before. The internal collar that lives inside the hood on the Arc'teryx Beta AR
is, without doubt, the most comfortable and protective collar available.
The hood tightens on the front with these two external pull cords. Also notice the way the collar is a separate piece of fabric inside the hood. This was the best collar design in the test.
Zippers these days are tight — watertight. In our shower testing and use in the field, we didn't encounter a single instance of zippers failing or leaking. We loved two-way front zippers, like those found on the Rab Latok Alpine
, OR Furio
, and Marmot Cerro Torre
, because they allow easy access to the top of our pants or harness, and also allow for easier venting.
This two-way front zipper also has a button at the bottom that holds the hem of the jacket together. Venting in this manner keeps the jacket in place, protecting from precipitation better than if it's simply wide open, as generally happens with a single zipper.
Skiing doesn't get any better than this. Perfect fresh snow with no wind effect enabled skiing some great alpine runs mid-season, a rare treat.
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.