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Our slaydies have been testing women's hardshell jackets for the past seven years, comparing more than 40 of the top models the industry has to offer. For this review, we bought 5 of the best hardshell jackets for women to see which ones performed best in a variety of environments and conditions. We wore them backpacking, ski mountaineering, ice climbing, hiking, and even running. To assess each, we took notes on their relative breathability, weather protection, mobility, and comfort. Testing centered in the reliably stormy Pacific "Northwet". Nope, that's not a typo – it's just the perfect environment to test these jackets!
A hardshell jacket is designed to be just that: a shell to be worn as your outermost layer. These jackets are meant to be properly layered, depending on your activity and the weather. For shoulder-season backpacking trips, these jackets pair perfectly with a fleece layer or base layer. When the weather turns snowy, these hardshells fit perfectly over down jackets for activities like skiing or ice climbing. A high-quality hardshell jacket can be just as waterproof as a rain jacket – and don't be afraid to match this jacket with a pair of rain pants when it's particularly soggy outside.
Editor's Note: This review was updated on May 9, 2022. We removed some discontinued jackets from Marmot, Flylow, and Arc'teryx and confirmed that the rest of our selection is up to date with the best products on the market.
The Norrona Trollveggen Gore-Tex Light Pro shell 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're generating more heat.
The Trollveggen is well suited to mountain adventures and will also perform well during urban activities or hiking and backpacking. It has a slightly looser fit and is impressively versatile, not to mention it's 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.
Materials:3-layer Gore-Tex Active Shell | Category: Light to Midweight
REASONS TO BUY
REASONS TO AVOID
No underarm zips
Less burly for high altitudes or extreme cold
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.
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.
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 through our in-depth testing process. 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 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.
After testing extensively in Pacific Northwest storms and cold inland climates while ice climbing in Montana, we found the Mammut Nordwand Pro 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.
Hardshell jackets are not notoriously soft and supple; that's why we love softshell jackets. Hardshells tend to be stiffer, and they are not necessarily known to be a go-to for comfort and ease of movement—they're to keep you alive in terrible weather. That said, technology is improving dramatically, and while the materials remain stiff, the paneling design can significantly improve the mobility of these jackets. To assess each jacket's mobility, we climbed steep ice, went backcountry skiing, scratched up mixed climbs, and hiked in inclement weather, running each jacket through the proverbial wringer.
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 Beta AR, specifically designed for technical climbing.
Our top choice, the Arc'teryx Zeta SL, 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.
When it comes to fabric breathability, we found that the Gore-Tex Paclite Plus technology provided the most breathability. However, this is only a 2-layer fabric. Gore-Tex Active fabric is close behind Paclite for weight, but it is a 3-layer fabric.
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.
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.
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.
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 Alpha SV is a burly hardshell with many 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! Another 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 niche 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.
Whether you need an all-around rain jacket or one suited...
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GearLab is founded on the principle of honest, objective, reviews. Our experts test thousands of products each year using thoughtful test plans that bring out key performance differences between competing products. And, to assure complete independence, we buy all the products we test ourselves. No cherry-picked units sent by manufacturers. No sponsored content. No ads. Just real, honest, side-by-side testing and comparison.