Best Hardshell Jackets for Women of 2021
Top 8 Products
Best Overall Hardshell Jacket for Women
Norrona Trollveggen Gore-Tex Light Pro - Women's
The Norrona Trollveggen is an excellent all-around hardshell jacket, particularly well suited to various winter activities. It's easy to layer over warm jackets but still slim fitting enough that the material doesn't get in the way of your movements. This makes it highly versatile when it comes to activity type and 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 well suited to mountain adventures and will also perform well during urban activities or hiking and backpacking. However, it does have a feature set and slightly looser fit; it's also 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 in milder climates on shorter missions. It's an excellent investment for all-around alpine climbing.
Read review: Norrona Trollveggen
Best Bang for the Buck
Arc'teryx Zeta SL - Women's
The Arc'teryx Zeta SL is a phenomenal hardshell jacket for an impressively low price, and it replaces its predecessor, the Beta SL. The main difference seems to be a simple rebranding of the jacket into their hiking and trekking category. It provides an excellent fit and is simple, streamlined, lightweight, and durable, but not as fully featured for mountaineering purposes.
The update makes it slightly less optimized for climbing movements; 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, light weight, and comfort, we even like this jacket for backcountry ski tours.
Read review: Arc'teryx Zeta SL - Women's
Tried and True High Performance
Arc'teryx Beta AR Jacket - Women's
The Arc'teryx Beta AR is a highly versatile shell jacket. It has been a top-scoring hardshell in this review for years and a popular one in the mountains as well. The unique collar design gives an excellent seal against the elements, and the helmet-compatible DropHood seals nicely around your noggin. There are two fabrics used in this jacket, both 3-layer GORE-TEX, but the arms are made of a more durable version for the higher wear and tear, leaving the core to be a bit more breathable and helping keep the jacket a little lighter weight overall.
The main con to all these pros is the cost. As with any Arc'teryx jacket, the Beta AR is pricey. Given that this one has been a mainstay in their product lineup since the year 2000, we're pretty sure folks are finding it to be worth it. This is an excellent investment for your adventure wardrobe given the excellent durability and versatility for cooler weather adventures.
Read review: Arc'teryx Beta AR Jacket - Women's
Why You Should Trust Us
For this review, our expert review panel is comprised of AMGA Certified Rock Guide and Mountaineer Lyra Pierotti and science teacher and endurance athlete Amber King. Lyra guides mountains worldwide, teaches avalanche courses all winter, and trains athletes as a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist. 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 hardshell jackets, we combed through the industry's leading models and debated the pros and cons of each. From a pool of over 40 models, we selected over a dozen that looked most promising and put them to the test. We spent at least three 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.
Analysis and Test Results
Phase one of testing involves thorough research into the product, brands, and available models. After learning as much as possible about the details of fabric technology, we selected what looked like the most reliable or high-value models. We polled a broad network of outdoor professionals to see what holds up over time and then ran our selection of jackets through rigorous field tests. We tested the jackets and took notes on seven mutually exclusive, collectively exhaustive metrics: Weather protection, mobility, breathability, weight, features, durability, and versatility. Read on to learn more about how we assessed each jacket for each quality.
We might be a bunch of gear-heads here at OutdoorGearLab, but that doesn't mean we like wasting our money on bogus new gear just for the sake of newness. We are critics at heart, and we take our jobs as seriously as our play. We have high expectations and a lot of resources to cut through the hype of marketing. Our rigorous selection process cuts through most of the weeds, and then the jackets get a thorough field testing to confirm or deny our original hypothesis (that is to say, the hope that we were purchasing a decent hardshell). This is a helpful visual assemblage of our opinions of each product compared to the cost.
First and foremost, a hardshell jacket must be weatherproof. This is our first and most important metric because, ultimately, this layer is critical for your safety in a changing environment. To fully assess each jacket for its ability to weather any storm, we tested each one in inclement weather (rain or snow, depending on the intended use of each jacket). The standards are high for hardshell fabrics, so we look critically at anything that can compromise the jacket's weatherproof performance. This can include sleeves or torso lengths that are too short or a poorly designed 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 faired better 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 burly fabrics to save weight or improve breathability. The next level down on the weatherproof spectrum would be the Arc'teryx Beta AR with GORE-TEX Pro fabric, followed by jackets made using the lightest 3-layer fabric, Gore-Tex's Active line, such as the REI Drypoint GTX.
The Arc'teryx Beta SL Hybrid jacket impressed us with the use of 2-layer Gore-Tex Paclite Plus technology, which was still plenty stormproof and impressively light and breathable, but not a go-to hardshell like the Alpha SV. After testing extensively in Pacific Northwest storms and cold inland climates while ice climbing in Montana, we found the Mammut Nordwand to be the burliest for weather protection; this is an excellent shell for use in cold regions. However, the Arc'teryx Alpha SV is also impressive and burly.
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 Alpha FL, specifically designed for technical climbing.
Our top choice, the Arc'teryx Beta SL Hybrid, is a versatile, "most-mountain" (not quite "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 diffusion 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 jacket 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 airflow by opening two smaller vent holes at the inner arm and torso.
This year's winner, the Arc'teryx Beta SL Hybrid, is made with GORE-TEX 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. The REI Drypoint is also a high performer in this metric; it does not have pit zips, but the high hand pockets have a mesh interior which allows them to double as core vents, so you can still shed heat in a hurry.
If you're looking for an ultra-durable shell to take with you on long, multi-day adventures, it's important that it balances burly weather protection with relative lightweight. You might sacrifice an ounce or two for extra durability and weather protection; however, technology is increasingly 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 high-performance, alpine climbing shell, we are thoroughly impressed with the Arc'teryx Alpha FL. This is made of 3 layer GORE-TEX Pro fabric that is game for some serious high mountain adventures yet remains impressively lightweight through the simplicity and thoughtful application of features.
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 mountaineering and alpine climbing.
Sometimes the little things can make a big difference. When looking at features, we considered 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 are 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 jackets.
The most essential, standout features include, roughly in this order: hood quality, pockets (especially chest), and adjustability features. A hood needs 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 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 Nordwand Pro is packed full of alpine and snow features, like a snow skirt, pit zips, and a strip of elastic that seals it tightly around your face. It also has a good amount of nicely sized pockets and is helmet-compatible. All of the zippers are waterproof (except the sidearm pocket). This jacket set the bar for a full feature set.
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 straightforward and lightweight jacket, so it got very high marks because it has a streamlined but handy feature set. However, the Arc'teryx Alpha SV is a burly hardshell with many more features, so it matched the utility of the model very well.
Durability is key for a garment that is supposed to keep you alive in the worst conditions. Not to mention, these jackets are expensive, so they had better last a while. As guides and outdoor professionals, we have extensive experience with the materials used in these jackets. We first researched each fabric type to learn about its denier rating and weave. Then we took the jackets out on a variety of sketchy… er… scratchy adventures, like ice and alpine climbing, to see how easily the fabric would snag on sharp tools or get scratched up on rock faces. Or bush-whacking. But we don't want to talk about that.
At the end of our field testing, we looked at the fabric again and searched for any signs of wear. In this manner, we were able to assess real-world durability issues. We polled industry professionals for input on certain fabric types and manufacturing styles to better answer this question. 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.
The Arc'teryx models earn top marks for durability. Their construction is superior, with elaborate stitching and welded overlays that ensure the shell will last. Their stiffer fabrics hold up much better to friction and abrasion, such as 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 this is not the case with the Arc'teryx models in this review; however, the price does come up in, well, literally cost. Arc'teryx products are expensive! So if that's a dealbreaker for you, but lightweight is not, we love the performance that the Flylow Vixen provides. And of course, an excellent choice for all-around quality and durability is the Norrona Trollveggen, made of rugged GORE-TEX Pro.
It's nice to have a hardshell jacket that you can take with you on all your favorite activities that require bombproof weather protection, from resort skiing, snowshoeing, running, hiking, ice climbing, mountaineering, and all else in between. To test this metric, we took each model with us on these activities. We noted which shells were suited better for one purpose and which offered 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 more breathable ones. These garments often earned awards because you can use them for pretty much any activity, from skiing to ice climbing to hiking and even running. And in our assessment, versatility ties directly into value 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, and last for a while, too.
A hardshell jacket is a hard nut to crack. It needs to be tough enough to keep out the weather, well-featured to suit your activity of choice, and breathable enough for you to climb, hike, paddle, ski, etc. at your pace. This means the jacket needs to keep water out, and then it needs to wick water vapor out as you sweat; that's a lot to ask when you really think about it. In this review, we identified several nichey models for sport-specific athletes and more general-use hardshells that will work for a variety of adventures. We hope this review will help you navigate to the best shell jacket for you and your adventures.
— Lyra Pierotti & Amber King
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