Best Overall Hardshell
Arc'teryx Alpha FL
N40p-X GORE-TEX Pro 3L | Weight:
11.8 oz. (L)
Bombproof weather protection
Packs away small into included stuff sack
No hand pockets
Limited venting options
Short fit in the front
The ideal characteristics for a hardshell jacket are bombproof weather protection and unconstrained mobility combined into a simple, lightweight design. The Arc'teryx Alpha FL is a near-perfect manifestation of these attributes in a jacket form that we believe is the best overall. Even without pit zips, the Gore-Tex Pro membrane keeps this jacket highly breathable.
We realize fast and light isn't everyone's top priority, and this trimmed down hardshell is lacking a few features some folks will miss. There aren't any pit zips, and even our ounce-counting testers took a minute to adjust to the lack of handwarmer pockets. The absence of both of the features, however, is what helps the Alpha FL be so light and pack away into a tiny included stuff sack. Over time, our alpine climbing testers also grew fond of the lack of hand pockets because it eliminates irritation from zippers while wearing a harness. For all these reasons and more the Alpha FL retains its position as our Editors' Choice for the eighth consecutive season and it will assuredly see plenty of action in the mountains this winter.
Read review: Arc'teryx Alpha FL
Best Bang for the Buck
Outdoor Research Interstellar
AscentShell 3L | Weight:
11.4 oz. (L)
Inexpensive for a waterproof/breathable jacket
AscentShell membrane is stretchy, waterproof, and breathes great
Stuffs into its pocket
No pit zips
DWR coating wears off quickly
Fragile compared to other hardshells
The Outdoor Research Interstellar is not your average hardshell. Other waterproof/breathable jackets are often heavy, hot, bulky, and expensive. The Interstellar is light, super packable, and quite affordable. Its use of the OR proprietary AscentShell, an air-permeable membrane that is woven out of tiny polyurethane fibers, combined with the thin and light 20D stretchy face fabric, provides awesome mobility at a very light weight. It's a good match for dry climates such as Colorado, where chilly wind or blowing snow is common. The super breathable AscentShell membrane and mesh-backed pockets for increased ventilation make this a fine hardshell for aerobic action like uphill skinning. The result is our Best Buy award.
One place where this jacket doesn't excel is in our features & design metric. Handwarmer pockets are uncomfortable for storing items while wearing a waistbelt or harness. The DWR treatment wears off quickly, and while this doesn't affect waterproofness, it does increase drying times. Finally, the AscentShell fabric is ultra-breathable but not particularly durable. If you can look past these minor gripes, the Interstellar is a screamin' deal.
Read review: Outdoor Research Interstellar
Top Pick for Harsh Conditions
Mammut Nordwand Advanced
Gore-Tex Pro 3L 100% nylon | Weight:
1 lb. 1 oz. (L)
Serious weather protection
Long waist and long sleeves enhance mobility
Impressive DWR finish
No hand pockets
Below average breathability
The "light and fast" attitude is definitely taking hold in the hardshell scene, but there are still plenty of occasions when better weather protection is worth a few extra ounces. The Mammut Nordwand Advanced HS is for those occasions. Its extraordinary weather-proofness harkens back to a bygone era when scaling a big north face required weeks of suffering rather than hours of sprinting. Like several other jackets we tested, it's made with bombproof 3-layer Gore-Tex Pro fabric. The Nordwand, however, has a DWR finish that was still beading water months after some of its rivals had started to wet out. This jacket also boasts a low hem, a snug hood, looong sleeves, and strong wrist cuffs that together ensure moisture doesn't sneak in from anywhere.
The Nordwand's biggest problem is its exorbitant price tag. It's also six ounces heavier than the lightest options and doesn't breathe very well during sustained exertion. Nevertheless, if you can stomach the price and shoulder the added weight, the Nordwand is our Top Pick for the Harshest Conditions. Most users probably don't need a jacket this burly, but we think it's the best choice for winter expeditions or anyone who refuses to let a bad forecast spoil their plans.
Read review: Mammut Nordwand Advanced HS
Top Pick for Backcountry Skiing
Gore-Tex Pro with C-Knit backer | Weight:
15.6 oz (L)
Thinner Gore-Tex breathes great
Pit vents and two-way main zipper
Lots of pockets
Bad wrist cuffs
Long waist drawstrings
Backcountry skiing presents a special challenge for a hardshell jacket. It must provide protection for all sorts of mountain weather (snow, rain, wind, and sun), but also keep you dry and cool on the inside as you work up a big sweat on your way up the mountain. A long list of hardshell predecessors have tried and failed, but the Dynafit Radical is an impressive success. Its Gore-Tex C-Knit Backer fabric feels slightly thinner and more breathable than standard Gore-Tex Pro. The Radical also has a pair of pit zips and a two-way main zipper to give you additional venting options when you're charging uphill. When it's time for the downhill, this jacket seals up nicely with two waist drawcords and an effective hood. There's also a pair of internal mesh stash pockets for drying soggy gloves on your third lap.
These impressive features come with a price, plus the Radical is not the lightest hardshell out there. We are also disappointed with its stylish wrist cuffs that wouldn't seem to stay closed. And we don't recommend it for serious alpine climbing where durability is an important issue. But for those days when powder keeps falling, the Radical provides the best combination of ski-friendly features and weather protection, making it our Top Pick for Backcountry Skiing.
Read review: Dynafit Radical
Why You Should Trust Us
To search down the very best hardshells, we put together a strong team consisting of Jack Cramer, Matt Bento, and Andy Wellman. Jack is a National Outdoor Leadership School alumnus and climber whose resume includes more than a dozen alpine first ascents. His specialty is scrappy mixed routes, where a combination of melting ice and coarse rock provides an ideal testing environment for any hardshell. As a previous member of Yosemite Search and Rescue, Matt learned to abuse technical gear in a professional setting. Additionally, the ten years he previously spent as an itinerant climber enhance his critical eye for hardshell design. Andy completes the team, bringing extensive outdoor experience of all kinds. He's traveled throughout the world, climbing everything from high altitude mountains in South America to boulders back home, and formerly owned a climbing guidebook publishing company.
The work of finding the best in hardshells began with simply looking at the wide selection that is available. We initially considered 70 models before choosing 9 for hands-on testing. This is the eighth year we've tested hardshells, and with over 85 jackets tested to date, this review is a culmination of what we've learned over that time. Testing took place while climbing, skiing, and ice climbing in Colorado's San Juans, the Columbia Mountains of British Columbia, and California's High Sierra. We supplemented this field testing with controlled experiments of water resistance, weight, and breathability. For example, we stood in the shower for three minutes with the hoods drawn to carefully compare water resistance among models, and wore the jackets on a stationary bike, with controlled base layers, heart rate, and run time, to compare ventilation and breathability properties.
Related: How We Tested Hardshell Jackets
Analysis and Test Results
You'll need a great hardshell jacket if you hope to rise from the sofa and explore the hills in challenging weather. Our pursuits of snowy adventures and top-notch reviews give us some brand new entries to this season's line-up, like the impressive Mammut Nordwand Advanced HS. Read on so you'll be able to shell up properly before the season is over, or be ready to jump on early spring sales.
Related: Buying Advice for Hardshell Jackets
The jackets in this review all include three-layer waterproof/breathable membranes, which we consider to be mandatory for a "hardshell." The three layers consist of 1) a face fabric, the outermost layer of a jacket, 2) a waterproof/breathable membrane as the middle layer of the sandwich, and 3) an inner backing that protects the membrane and aids in sweat-wicking and vapor transfer. Three-layer hardshell jackets are some of the most technologically advanced, and expensive, pieces of outdoor clothing you can buy. Hardshells differ considerably from rain jackets, which commonly cost less and use thinner face fabrics in a 2 or 2.5-layer construction.
The Editors' Choice award winning Acr'teryx Alpha FL living up to its reputation for unrivaled weather protection for winter climbing.
We graded each of the products in this review based upon five metrics that we believe to be critical to the performance of a hardshell jacket: Weather Protection, Weight, Mobility & Fit, Venting & Breathability, and Features & Design. For each metric, we give a score of 1-10 and weighted each parameter based on their contribution to the overall performance. For example, weather protection contributes 30% to the overall score, while Wweight accounts for 20%. In all cases, we awarded scores in comparison to the performance of the other products.
For skiing deep powder like we found in the Montana Bowl near Revelstoke on this fine day, you will want a hardshell jacket.
Getting your hands on a hardshell jacket isn't cheap. These are among the highest-tech pieces of clothing available, and the price tags reflect that. One of our favorites among the group is the Arc'teryx Alpha FL. With a price near the average among an expensive field of competitors, we feel its impressive performance presents a good value. Not unlike the Alpha FL in defying convention, the Outdoor Research Interstellar scored well, yet is one of the lowest-priced options, and took our Best Buy award for an outstanding value.
Nothing is more important when considering a hardshell jacket than how well it protects you from foul weather. After all, if it weren't for the weather, you wouldn't need a jacket. Hardshell jackets are different than softshells because they are meant to be fully waterproof, keeping you dry even in a downpour. On the other hand, softshell jackets are designed primarily to be breathable. Hardshells are also different from rain jackets. Both are designed to be fully waterproof and breathable, but hardshells are typically more durable and able to resist punctures from climbing sharp rock or skiing tight trees to some degree.
Most of the jackets described in this review come with a Durable Water Repellent (DWR) coating applied to the outside of the jacket. This hydrophobic coating is applied to keep the outside of the jacket dry by causing moisture to bead up and roll off a jacket rather than soaking in.
The Mammut Nordwand Advanced HS has an impressive DWR coating, seen here still easily beading water after two months of testing.
While the waterproof/breathable membrane sandwiched into the middle of the jacket ensures that the jacket should remain waterproof in all conditions, keeping the face fabric of the jacket dry is necessary to allow the fabric to "breathe" and let humidity generated by your body escape. Essentially, manufacturers apply a DWR coating to the jacket to facilitate this breathability.
We used all of the jackets for a couple of months before performing a shower test of their weather protection. With the initial DWR coating partially worn off, all of the hardshells showed some signs of wetting out, particularly in the shoulders where backpack straps rub and across the back of the neck where it is exposed to dirt and oil from your hair. To avoid this wetting out you need to keep your jacket clean and maintain the DWR coating by reapplying new treatments periodically.
The vast majority of the time you don't need real weather protection. But during the brief occasions when you do, it's extremely important.
The more significant factor when it came to weather protection, and one that helped us differentiate the jackets, is the design and fit of the jacket closures. The most important feature in keeping water out, especially in a downpour, is the hood closure. Some hoods, like the Arc'teryx Alpha FL's, worked magnificently in the shower, while others, like the REI Co-op Stormbolt GTX, proved not to have enough of a bill on the forehead for optimal protection. The height and looseness of the collar when it's fully cinched also plays a role in how well a hood kept water out.
In past years, we encountered some poor designs, including a few instances when water ran straight off the sides of a hood and poured down the neck like a rain gutter spout. Luckily, hood designs have improved, and we didn't encounter anything particularly awful in this year's testing. Another hood closure that can be a source of problems is the wrist cuff. All the jackets we tested feature adjustable cuffs, but we were disappointed that the cuffs on the Dynafit Radical wouldn't stay closed reliably.
Living out powder pillow fantasies on the rocky treed slopes of Roger's Pass was a great way to test the weather protection of these jackets. They did a great job keeping the snow where it belonged, on our faces.
In the shower test, we also examined the main and pocket zippers. All of the jackets had watertight main zippers. Accessory pockets, however, showed some minor flaws. As the most critical metric in assessing a jacket's performance, weather protection accounts for 30% of each product's final score.
Many of the jackets did an outstanding job protecting us from weather, but one, in particular, provides noteworthy performance compared to their competitors: the Mammut Nordwand Advanced HS. This jacket features thicker Gore-Tex fabrics, an ergonomic hood, and reliable cuffs that you can trust to keep you dry in the worst conditions.
The jackets selected for this year's review have a wide range of weights. Three jackets tipped our scale under 12 ounces: the Outdoor Research Interstellar and the Arc'teryx Alpha FL. Each of these models has been stripped of features to save weight — all lack pit zips or a two-way main zipper. The Alpha FL is notable, however, because it achieves its low weight while still being made of burly Gore-Tex Proshell fabric. Its lightweight rivals, in contrast, use propriety 20-denier fabrics that don't provide close to the same level of durability.
We didn't see a 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 like. So while wearing a hardshell jacket that feels as light as an extra shirt is preferable to wearing a model that feels like you donned a movable tent, you may want to consider whether choosing to cut the ounces is really worth it. Additionally, a lighter jacket is usually less durable, so a heavier model is more appropriate for users who will be working outside every day or on long expeditions.
There are many activities when weight is critically important. Big wall climbing isn't one of them. And the same is true for side-country and resort skiing, so consider your planned activities before factoring in weight too heavily.
How much weight matters is also a subjective preference. As gear and materials have evolved, manufacturers have continually looked for ways to produce gear that matches the "light and fast" demands of elite alpinists. But most hardshell owners are not elite alpinists, and weight is not as critically important to these users. It is thus important to note that the difference between the lightest and heaviest jackets in the review is less than 10 ounces. In other words: not much. For many, other performance characteristics besides weight will be more important.
Another performance area that's closely related to weight is packability. Although we didn't make it a full performance metric, many users will appreciate a jacket that packs down smaller. For the hardshells we believe packed size corresponds closely to weight (ie. lighter jackets pack smaller). The Arcteryx Alpha FL comes with its own handy stuff sack. Meanwhile, the Outdoor Research Interstellar and the Patagonia Galvanized stow away inside one of their own pockets.
The L5 LT Futurelight packed inside its included stuff sack with the inspiration for The North Face logo in the background.
Mobility & Fit
Another critical component of hardshell jacket performance is the fit, including how mobile it is.
The new school of hardshells features fabrics that are waterproof and stretchy, allowing for a slimmer fit without compromising mobility. The Outdoor Research Interstellar and Patagonia Galvanized can all boast great mobility thanks to their stretchy face fabrics. While these designs continue to improve every year, we feel the stretchy models tend to lose their DWR treatment quicker than the traditional, non-stretchy hardshells.
Fit testing during the latest hardshell update, from left to right: The North Face Futurelight L5 LT, Outdoor Research Interstellar, Rab Latok GTX, Mammut Nordwand Advanced HS, Arc'teryx Alpha SV, Norrona Falketind, Mountain Hardwear Exposure 2, Arc'teryx Alpha FL, and Dynafit Radical.
The best jacket we tested in terms of mobility and fit is the Patagonia Galvanized. It is athletically sized, with long sleeves and a low hem that our slim testers really appreciated. It also has stretchy fabrics that allow for a full range of motion. Mobility and Fit accounted for 20% of a product's final score. The REI Co-op Stormbolt GTX, in contrast, has a baggier fit, which can make climbing more difficult, but less stifling for wider folks who also want plenty of room to layer up.
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 powder that last night's storm dumped, a high waist hemline will likely lead to snow filling the inside of the jacket or pants. Lastly, both skiing and climbing require you to be able to see your feet, and a baggy jacket front can obstruct this view. Any or all of these things caused us to dock points for fit, and their absence made us very happy. In general, the jackets we tested this year showed a marked improvement over models we have tested in the past.
The "right" fit depends to some degree on the activity. Climbing and backcountry skiing demand a slimmer, athletic fit because big insulating layers are generally worn on top of a hardshell during belays and transitions. A baggier fit may be more desirable for lower intensity activities when insulating layers are worn underneath.
Venting & Breathability
The hardshell jackets we tested all purport to be waterproof and breathable, so it only makes sense that we examine them for their breathability. While an interested reader could spend days reading about the science of breathability on manufacturers' websites, the sweaty outdoor enthusiast slogging is likely to notice that these jackets don't seem very breathable. So what gives?
First, there is no doubt that these jackets DO breathe, just try walking uphill in a garbage bag and you'll see how match sweatier you get in a non-breathable shell. Nevertheless, our testers found it extraordinarily difficult to definitively state which hardshells breathes the best. We considered relative humidity monitors and duck taping the cuffs and hem tight to test the breathability of the membranes alone, but then that wouldn't translate well to the actual user experience. There is also the fact that some of our testers just don't sweat much, while others quickly urn the inside of any jacket into a rain forest. However, after considerable testing it became apparent to us that jackets that are air permeable performed better than jackets that used solid-state diffusion such.
We believe hardshells are mostly only required for serious winter activities, but after you add one to your closest they can prove useful for mellower activities on rainy days when you might otherwise stay inside.
The air-permeable model is the Outdoor Research Interstellar, while the rest of the field with Gore-Tex fabrics use solid-state diffusion. The most obvious conclusion drawn from the stationary bike test was that to produce the correct atmosphere inside the jacket for breathing to occur, the user is going to feel uncomfortably hot and moist. It also helps if conditions outside the jacket are cold, dry, and windy.
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 stationary bike test proved what hardshell wearers have long known: venting excess heat will keep you more comfortable than keeping your jacket zipped to the chin and relying on the breathability of the fabrics. So, while breathability is an important characteristic, it is 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. The best option, however, is to avoid getting wet and sweaty in the first place by venting.
On a steep, powder covered skin track that goes on for hours, like this one, venting is far more important than breathability, cause you are going to be sweating no matter what! We opened all the vents for this grunt fest, but were still pretty hot and moist inside our Radical jacket.
Features that allow one to ventilate include the standard pit zips and two-way front zippers that allow you to unzip the front of the jacket from the top or bottom. It seems to us that manufacturers are also getting more creative with their use of venting zippers as well. The pockets on the Outdoor Research Interstellar, for example, use a simple mesh lining to allow better airflow and venting.
In general, the more venting options, the better, but all those zippers and any extra fabric is going to add to a jacket's weight. The Arc'teryx Alpha FL doesn't provide the best ventilation but makes up for it with lightweight packability and weather protection. In fair weather, the best way to avoid turning the inside of your jacket into a swamp is to take it off before you get too hot. This may force you to stop briefly, but take it from our sweatier testers, it's worth it. Preventing moisture before it forms is much better than dealing with it after. Venting and breathability accounted for 20% of a jacket's final score.
The Alpha FL cuts weight by eliminating handwarmer pockets and pit vents but still has one waterproof chest pocket.
Features & Design
We chose to weight our "features & design" metric as just 10% of a product's final score because this metric felt more subjective and indirectly related to a jacket's overall performance. The features, however, that a jacket includes and how well they function can make the difference between smiling with appreciation or frowning with annoyance every time you wear your jacket. 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 number and quality of the features, as well how well they were designed together to meet the jackets advertised use. With its abundance of skiing specific features that performed as well as advertised, the Dynafit Radical is one of the highest-scoring jackets. We also loved the nearly perfect features found on the Patagonia Pluma.
Below is a short description of some pertinent features and how they perform on a hardshell jacket.
The Norrona Falketind has a pair of nice chest pockets but they can be tough to open with gloves on because the zipper pull tabs are so short.
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 certain; 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" breast pockets that live high on the chest and allow crossover access with the opposite arm. We also like interior non-zip stash pockets that store bulky accessories like gloves, a hat, or skins while on the downhill.
We find less use for hip-height hand pockets because they tend to sit underneath a waistbelt on a backpack or a climbing harness. Of the jackets tested, the Dynafit Radical had the most pockets at five, while the lightest jackets generally have only a single chest pocket, such as the Editors' Choice winning Arc'teryx Alpha FL.
The best design and location for hood draw cords and buckles, shown here on the Pluma. The pull cord lives on the outside of the jacket where it is very easy to pull and adjust with the collar zipped up. The Cohaesive cord lock buckles, highlighted with the grey circle next to the cheek, are optimal due to their low profile and easy release.
A Hood can make or break a hardshell. Our favorite hoods have a stiff brim to keep the rain off and enough adjustability to perform well with or without a helmet on. The best hoods feature a cinch in the back to keep it in place while you look to the left and right, plus a cinch on either side of the collar to adjust the position of the brim. Without these cinches, a hood slides around, gets in our way, and can be ineffective at keeping the rain off.
The waist drawstring on The North Face Summit L5 LT is horribly long when cinched. It annoyed our testers by snagging on branches and getting tangled in their harness carabiners.
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. Many jackets have switched to cord locks that reside inside the fabric, operating smoothly with a one-handed pinch; this type of cord lock is our favorite and is the most natural kind to work with gloves on. Regardless of the type of lock, the Dynafit Radical lost points because its waist drawstrings were excessively long when cinched.
The Dynafit Radical has a section of its cuff cut out. It looks pretty cool but greatly reduces the surface area contact and reliability of the closure.
All of the jackets in this review use the same system for wrist enclosures: Velcro or a non-branded "hook and loop" alternative. These wrist cuffs, however, are not all made equal. Some of the Velcro was not very sticky, and some models had Velcro swatches that were too small. In general, the Arc'teryx model jackets (the Arc'teryx Alpha FL and the Arc'teryx Beta AR) had the best quality wrist enclosures. The Dynafit Radical cuffs, in contrast, are stylish but don't stay closed reliably.
On the bottom edge of the hand pocket zippers on the Mountain Hardwear Exposure/2 there is a significant gap. We easily fit a few pine needles through this hole and noticed an annoying leak during our shower test.
Zippers these days are tight — watertight. All the main zippers we tried are fully waterproof, but we particularly love those that allow two-way opening, like those found on the Mammut Nordwand Advanced HS and Dynafit Radical, because they give easy access to the top of our pants or harness and also allow for easier venting.
Wearing a hardshell in the cold wind and intermittent snow, even while breaking trail through a foot of fresh. Here being teased upward into the alpine on Roger's Pass, BC.
When it's storming, you will want your jacket zipped all the way up, and that's when you notice whether the collar works properly or not. The good ones ride comfortably high up, to the edge of your nose, but aren't tight and don't restrict the movement of your head. They also feature a soft micro-fleece lining that doesn't chafe. The bad ones fail in some regard, either causing a claustrophobic nightmare or a loose closure that doesn't keep precip out. 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 Alpha FL combines a great fit, awesome mobility, perfect weather protection, and great features. We loved using it to ski the fresh bounty of powder at Revelstoke, BC.
Hardshell jackets are among the most expensive pieces of outdoor clothing one can buy, so it is important that you make the correct choice the first time. With hundreds of options available, that can be a difficult task. We have greatly narrowed down the field to assist you, but the first step is for you to decide what you are going to use your hardshell jacket for. After determining this, you will be able to understand which factors and grading metrics described in this review are the most important for your particular needs. If you pair the perfect hardshell with suitable layers no weather can shut you down, and you may discover the solitude of winter to be the most rewarding time to spend in the mountains.