Hardshell Jacket versus Rain Shell
The first question you should ask yourself when shopping for a new jacket is whether you need a hardshell, or whether a rain shell might serve you just fine. When they're new, hardshells and rain shells are equally waterproof. Making a fabric waterproof is easy. What's hard is making a fabric waterproof and breathable, and making the material durable enough to retain its water resistance and breathability over a long period.
Hardshell jackets, which represent the best of waterproof/breathable technologies, are made with better materials and construction techniques than rain shells. Choosing between a hardshell (which costs an average of $400) and a rain shell (roughly $150) comes down to two factors: durability and breathability. Do the activities you participate in, and the places you go, warrant a more durable jacket? If so, then consider a hardshell. Do you need simple rain protection in warm climates or seasons, or is staying dry in sub-zero temperatures of critical importance? If you need a breathable jacket, we recommend the hardshell.
We believe that rain jackets will be best for the "average user" because they provide reliable waterproof protection and reasonable durability at a more affordable cost. If you find yourself sprinting to the car or the coffee shop in the rain more than you find yourself thru-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail or alpine climbing, then a rain jacket is likely a better buy. Rain jackets are more than adequate for extended backpacking trips, and some of our testers have brought them on extended travel trips to places like Antarctica. On the other hand, a hardshell jacket is ideal for hardcore users that travel through high abrasion environments or who spend extended periods (weeks to months) outside in harsh weather, especially in winter. They are unquestionably a more technologically advanced piece of gear and do a much better job of moving heat-generated moisture from the inside to the outside of the jacket. They are made from better materials, are constructed with more advanced techniques, and have higher quality and better-designed features (hoods, pockets, zippers, adjustment cords).
Construction of Hardshell Jackets
The shells we tested for this review are all constructed with three layers. Three-layer shells consist of 1) an internal material that protects the membrane and reduces friction by allowing your undergarments or base layers to move freely beneath the jacket, 2) a "waterproof/breathable" membrane, and 3) an external face fabric made of nylon or polyester that protects the jacket and user from the outside. Three-layer hardshell jackets are the heaviest, most durable, most expensive, and also the most comfortable waterproof jackets available. Regarding construction, the main difference between the jackets tested here are the type of proprietary waterproof/breathable membranes that they incorporate. The specific membrane types are described in greater detail a bit lower.
For comparison, shells with 2.5 layers (which are not included in this review) have a face fabric, membrane, and non-textile coating "painted" onto the inside. These shells tend to be a bit cheaper, but again, not nearly as durable. Most two-layer shells have a face fabric and coating; they're the lightest, cheapest, least durable, and fall squarely into the rain jacket category. All waterproof/breathable shells have durable water resistant (DWR) coatings applied to the outside of the shell that aims to prevent the outer face fabric from "wetting out," or becoming saturated with moisture, which compromises the fabric's breathability.
Below is a rough and general breakdown of the function of the three layers that make up a waterproof/breathable hardshell jacket:
Also known as the face fabric, this layer is what you see on the outside of a jacket. It is made of nylon or polyester fibers woven together to provide a durable protective layer. The thickness of these fibers and tightness of their weave is known as denier, and the higher the denier number (i.e., 70-denier or 70D) means a thicker, heavier face fabric. All face fabrics are coated in a DWR, or Durable Water Resistant, chemical application which helps repel water on contact, causing it to bead up and fall off the outside of a jacket. The denier of the face fabrics in this review falls within a vast spectrum. The lowest is 20D, found on the super light Outdoor Research Realm, as well as the Mountain Hardwear CloudSeeker. On the other end of the spectrum is The North Face Summit L5 FuseForm GTX, which uses a super durable and sturdy 90D Cordura face fabric, which is obviously incredibly durable.
Sandwiched in the middle is the membrane that gives the jacket its waterproof and breathable attributes. The membrane is waterproof because it is woven so tightly that water droplets are not able to penetrate it. It is also breathable because at the same time there are holes in the weave so tiny that nothing but water vapor can pass through to the outside. There are many different proprietary membranes on the market today, but for decades this niche has been dominated by products designed by W.L.Gore, known as Gore-Tex. Most of the jackets we reviewed used some form of Gore-Tex membrane, of which there are now many different varieties, although a few used competing membranes, which will be described in further detail below.
On the inside of a three-layer jacket is a fabric designed to add durability to the membrane by protecting it from abrasion and body oils. It also reduces friction and allows inner garments to move easily against one another, and in some cases helps wick moisture away from the body and toward the membrane. Gore C-knit backer, made by W.L.Gore and paired with their standard three-layer Gore-Tex, is one such fabric that is used as an inner layer, although there are many.
Durable Water Resistant (DWR) Coatings
All the jackets described in this review come with a Durable Water Resistant (DWR) coating applied to the outside of the jacket. This DWR coating is designed to keep the outside of the jacket dry by causing moisture to bead up and simply roll off the jacket. While the waterproof/breathable membrane sandwiched into the middle of the jacket ensures that the jacket will remain waterproof in all conditions, keeping the face fabric of the jacket dry is necessary for the breathability of a jacket to function. Essentially, manufacturers apply a DWR coating to the jacket to aid in breathability.
However, a DWR coating is simply that: a coating. When it wears off (which can happen in a surprisingly short amount of time if the jacket is regularly used), then the face fabric will "wet out" when exposed to water. Wetting out means that water droplets no longer bead up and roll off of the outside of the shell, they are instead absorbed into the face fabric, making the outside layer of your premium jacket, well, wet. (Don't worry, when this happens, you still stay dry thanks to the waterproof membrane).
Unfortunately, both for your comfort and your wallet, all DWR coatings eventually fail due to abrasion, dirt, body oils, and prolonged use. This inevitable failure (which could come in as little as a month of use) is the downfall of waterproof/breathable technology. Waterproof shells are only breathable when their face fabric is dry. (Water vapor that passes from within the jacket through the membrane will condense into liquid form when it hits a wet face fabric.) What this means is that a waterproof/breathable product will not breathe if the face fabric has wetted out. Thus, you must clean your hardshell jacket and restore its DWR coating regularly for it to breathe correctly (see the bottom of this article for advice on cleaning your hardshell jacket and reapplying the DWR coating).
Waterproofness and Breathability
One obvious conclusion from our testing is that the specific waterproof/breathable technology matters less than the design, weight, fit, and features of your jacket. All of the waterproof/breathable membranes on the market work, and have a heap of marketing money standing behind them to try to prove their "superior" technology to you, the consumer. The reality is that even after months of daily hands-on testing, it is nearly impossible to determine exactly which one works the best. All the evidence is anecdotal and dependent on the varying conditions of the day.
Even when conducting our "stationary bike test," where conditions were normalized for every jacket, it was challenging to definitively tell which technology was the best. Basically, a hardshell's performance is as much (or more) a factor of an individual's metabolism, weather conditions, and product specific features such as sizing, ventilation, and the ability to resist abrasion, body oils, and dirt, as it is a product of the materials used in its waterproof/breathable membrane. That said, we'll briefly discuss water resistance and breathability.
Although the industry lacks a uniform testing system that would provide comparable results, water resistance can be quantified with the water column test. That procedure measures the height of water that can be held vertically in a column over a fabric swatch before the inherent pressure causes the fabric to leak. The majority of hardshell jackets tested here have water column ratings of 20,000mm, which far exceeds the pressures found in environmental conditions. Hurricane force rain, for example, produces the equivalent pressure of 7,000mm and a fire hose held at 30ft., 11,000mm. Thus, all of the shells tested here are functionally waterproof.
Breathability is the ability of a fabric to allow moisture vapor to be transmitted through the material. It's a function of the difference between the relative humidity (rH) inside the jacket compared to that outside (when actively exercising, the rH rapidly rises close to or to 100 percent inside the jacket, which can be uncomfortable). Laws of physics dictate that masses of air with different temperature, pressure, and moisture content will always attempt to equalize themselves. So, the vast body of cool air outside of your jacket will draw out the warm, moist air within your jacket, through the millions of microscopic pores in the breathable membrane. This happens faster when the differences in atmospheric conditions are most significant.
The best "breathing" conditions for a jacket are when you are very hot and sweaty, and the air outside is frigid, dry, and even windy. The worst conditions are when it is warm and humid outside; a jacket likely won't breathe at all in a temperate rain forest, because there is almost no difference in conditions inside your jacket and outside of it, which is needed to create the equalizing, breathing effect. Similarly, when it is very cold and humid outside, warm moist air inside your jacket can condense when it encounters the cool liner of your jacket, causing liquid to build up on the inside of your jacket (the coke bottle effect), and inspiring you to swear at the inadequacy of your expensive clothing. With these physical limitations, be happy you are not charged with trying to design the perfect breathable membrane!
Specific Waterproof/Breathable Technologies
As we stated above, we do not think that specific waterproof/breathable technologies should be a starting point for determining which hardshell jacket to buy. However, for the curious, we have done our best to briefly describe the various technologies available on the market today.
The standard Gore-Tex 3-layer membrane is found in mid-level jackets, hardware, and footwear. Garments using this technology are marketed as being "durably waterproof, windproof, and highly breathable." In this year's review, only one jacket uses the simple 3-layer Gore-Tex membrane, The North Face Summit L5 FuseForm GTX.
The Gore-Tex Pro membrane, formerly Pro Shell and XCR (Extended Comfort Range) before that, is the company's premium product that offers a 35%+ increase in breathability over its standard 3-layer Gore-Tex. It also provides the company's best abrasion-resistance-to-weight ratio. Pro is W.L. Gore's most expensive membrane. All jackets that feature it have three layers and are designed for professionals, such as athletes and guides, who spend extended periods (weeks to months) outside. Both the Pro and Standard 3-layer consist of an outer face fabric, an ePTFE membrane, and a microgrid liner fabric. The Pro membrane is air permeable, whereas the Standard 3-layer membrane has an ultra-thin polyurethane (PU) layer that is not air permeable.
Gore-Tex Pro jackets must be paired with face fabrics of at least 40 denier for higher abrasion resistance and longer durability. This was the single most popular membrane used in the jackets we tested for this review, with five of them incorporating it into their design. These are the Editors' Choice award-winning Arc'teryx Alpha FL, its cousin, the Arc'teryx Beta AR, the simple and sleek Dynafit Radical, the Patagonia Pluma, and the Marmot Speed Light.
Gore C-Knit backer technology was new for winter of 2015/16 and was only used on one jacket that we tested that year. Last year we found it used in conjunction with most of the Gore-Tex 3-layer jackets we tested, although this year it is once again found in only one product in our review. C-Knit is not a new type of membrane, but rather a new type of laminate that comprises the inner of the three layers. The laminate uses a new "circular knit form" (hence C-Knit) that according to Gore allows layers to be up to 10% lighter and 15% more breathable using less bulky construction. The Dynafit Radical uses this backer as its inside layer.
Gore-Tex Active is W.L. Gore's newest, lightest, and most breathable membrane. It is an improved, three-layer version of PacLite that is intended for high output activities of shorter duration (weekend backcountry ski trips, fast and light alpine climbs). It is not designed to be worn under a 70 lb. pack. Active Shell achieves its lower weight and increased breathability through improved construction; the polyurethane layer serves as an adhesive that bonds the inner lining to the membrane, a process that uses less glue than Gore-Tex Pro. Additionally, the Active membrane is thinner than Gore's other membranes, so it weighs less. Our stationary bike test was not able to quantify that Active Shell is more breathable than Pro, but anecdotally it sure feels that way, and it is noticeably more mobile and supple, and less crinkly and loud when moving inside the jacket. The Outdoor Research Axiom is the only jacket in this year's review to feature a Gore-Tex Active Shell.
Finally, all W.L. Gore membranes have oleophobic properties — they resist body oils, which tend to build up in the neck, shoulders, and hood areas. Each type of Gore membrane has the same film and liner and manufacturers choose from different face fabrics. In general, higher denier and tighter weaves increase the face fabric's, and thus the jacket's, price.
All waterproof breathable technologies are different. Gore-Tex 3-layer membranes contain over nine billion microscopic pores per square inch. These pores are 20,000 times smaller than a water droplet, but 700 times larger than a water vapor molecule. Contrary to popular belief, water vapor does not pass through this type of Gore-Tex. Instead, the shell's membrane's thin PU (polyurethane) layer forces moisture to move through the membrane via solid state diffusion — the PU layer absorbs water vapor which moves through the film as water droplets until it reaches the outside when it can then return to water vapor and evaporate. While this process most certainly does work, but it can be uncomfortable to experience the 95% relative humidity levels that may be required on the inside of the jacket to force solid state diffusion.
Another thing that differentiates W.L. Gore from its competition is the company's role in the design and construction of every garment that bears its name. Any company that uses Gore-Tex is required to use W.L. Gore-certified factories and machinery. The fabric maker is also closely involved in the design and production processes. Every product must adhere to specific, often controlling, standards set by W.L. Gore. For example, if a company wants to make a jacket with Gore-Tex, the process works roughly like this: W.L. Gore sends the company material samples and the company designs and assembles the product. W.L. Gore then approves its style. It analyzes things like zippers, seam tape, hood design, wrist closures, etc. (For example, all Active Shell products must have a trim fit, few pockets or mesh lined pockets, as little seam tape as possible, and must weigh under 14 oz.)
After style approval, W.L. Gore subjects the gear to rigorous water resistance, wind resistance, and durability testing. If it meets all qualifications, W.L. Gore gives the go-ahead for production, but not without branding — every product that uses Gore-Tex must have a large hang-tag and W.L. Gore logo. Though costly and time-consuming, this system has a dramatic consequence: there are no "bad" Gore-Tex products. Every W.L. Gore hardshell jacket we tested is well-constructed and reasonably well-designed. Better yet, all Gore-Tex products come with an unconditional lifetime warranty. You can return any product at any point if you're dissatisfied with its performance. This includes all issues that pertain to water resistance, durability, and breathability. No other waterproof/breathable manufacturer offers the same warranty.
Mountain Hardwear Dry.Q Elite
To separate their products from Gore-Tex, Mountain Hardwear launched Dry.Q, a family of air permeable waterproof/breathable fabrics whose technology comes from the same brains as eVent's. There are several different versions, with Dry.Q Elite representing the top of the line. To create Dry.Q, Mountain Hardwear bought the "film" layer, or middle membrane layer from GE, owners of eVent. So essentially the technology is the same as eVent, but Mountain Hardwear chose to develop its face fabrics, liners, and laminating processes rather than use the ones GE does to create eVent.
Like Gore-Tex and eVent, Dry.Q Elite pairs with different face fabrics for specific end uses. Mountain Hardwear claims that Dry.Q "prevents the wearer from getting soaked from the inside by their perspiration at all levels of exertion." Our testers found Dry.Q Elite to be relatively breathable, but it was almost impossible to discern any real world difference between the breathability of Dry.Q Elite and the other membranes tested. For this review, we tested the Mountain Hardwear CloudSeeker, which features a Dry.Q Elite membrane paired with a thin and light 20D face fabric. Despite its apparent breathability, the CloudSeeker was the heaviest jacket we tested. The Mountain Hardwear warranty covers defects in material and quality for the life of the product. Think seams and zippers, but not necessarily the fabric itself.
Outdoor Research AscentShell
AscentShell is a proprietary membrane owned by Outdoor Research and used in some of their hardshells. It is the membrane found in the Outdoor Research Realm jacket, which seemed to put it to good use. This membrane is made up of microscopic polyurethane fibers created by adding an electrical charge to liquid polyurethane, before weaving them together into a "matrix" and sandwiching them in the middle of a three-layer hardshell. We will admit to not understanding the physics behind what seems to be a pretty unique new fiber, but we can attest to the results of this technology.
The main benefits seem to be the fact that it is air-permeable, meaning that it causes sweat and water vapor inside your jacket to dry by being exposed to air that passes through the jacket, and doesn't need the relative humidity inside the jacket to be extremely high to force solid-state diffusion. There is a fine line between allowing air to pass through the membrane while still maintaining waterproofness, but AscentShell seems to tread that line quite well. In our controlled stationary bike testing, it was very apparent to us that we stayed drier and cooler while wearing the Realm jacket than we did in competitors' Gore-Tex Pro jackets, although we didn't have the lab technology needed to quantify these results.
The other advantages to AscentShell are that it can be made stretchy, which is an excellent quality that adds to the mobility of the Realm, and that it can be produced cheaper than Gore-Tex. In the case of the Realm, the savings was undoubtedly passed on directly to the consumer, as this was the most affordable jacket in this review, retailing for $120 less than the similar Outdoor Research Axiom, that uses a Gore-Tex Active 3L membrane.
Pertex Shield+ 3L
Pertex Shield+ 3L is another polyurethane laminate three-layer membrane that purports to have the same waterproof/breathable attributes as the other membranes described above. We conducted a fair amount of research to attempt to understand this membrane but had a nearly impossible time finding anything more than the standard marketing jargon. Pertex Shield+ has been around for quite some time, but within the last few years has undergone a remake to become even lighter. It comes in 2-layer, 2.5-layer, and 3-layer versions, and is marketed as being one of the lightest waterproof/breathable membranes available today.
That said, at least one source we found quoted breathability ratings that were a fair bit lower than those found on Gore-Tex Pro, Gore-Tex Active, and other membranes such as eVent. Due to its remarkable thinness, there are plenty of concerns about its long-term durability as well. The only jacket in this review that featured Pertex Shield+ 3L was the Rab Firewall, which weighed in at 1 lb. 1.4 ounces for a size large. Frankly, this was not nearly the lightest jacket we tested, but it is still fairly light because it has four pockets and full arm-length ventilation zippers. It also comes with other advantages, like a stretchy face fabric and a relatively low price point of $290.
Choosing the Right Hardshell Jacket
The first step in deciding what is the best hardshell jacket for you is determining what the intended use will be. Are you more of a Fast & Light or All-around user? If you are alpine climbing on big mountains, or you live in a relatively warm and dry climate, and your jacket may live in your pack as often as on your back, then be sure to prioritize weight and packability in your selection. On the other hand, if you are just as likely to wear your jacket at the ski resort or around town as you are out climbing, or you need an insanely durable jacket that you want to live forever, weight might not be such a big deal.
Another significant consideration is what type of weather your jacket will be subjected to on a regular basis. "Normal" weather is entirely different in the Cascades than it is in the Rockies. If heavy rain is a regular part of going into the mountains for you, like it often is in the Cascades, then you may want to look at a shell which features Gore-Tex, which is probably going to be more waterproof than an air permeable waterproof/breathable shell. On the other hand, if you live in Colorado, where it seemingly never rains and then only in very short spurts, absolute waterproofness may not be your biggest concern and an air permeable shell may serve you better.
Also be sure to consider the outdoor activities where you will need your hardshell jacket. Backcountry skiing is intrinsically aerobic (you spend 90% of the time moving and sweating), so a lightweight, air permeable shell will probably keep you dryer from within. On the other hand, ice climbing tends to be a colder activity with long periods of sitting or standing still and potentially getting dripped on. In this case, a heavier Gore-Tex shell will most likely keep you dryer from the outside and warmer.
The products described in this review range from $279 on the low end all the way to $650 on the high end. Unlike most things in this world, we found that price does not accurately correspond to the best product when considering these hardshell jackets. In fact, two of our award winners were under $425 retail, signifying that perhaps the desire to create more affordable jackets has contributed to more innovative designs and materials. In general, hardshell jackets are worth the money they cost if you need one! For the especially budget conscious, you may consider checking out our Rain Jacket Review. In many circumstances, these layers can serve your needs, and if they wear out too quickly, you can often buy another one for cheaper than one hardshell.
Once you have narrowed down the field a bit by considering your intended use and price range, the final deciding factor will probably be an individual jacket's specific features and its fit. Does it have pockets where you want them? Does the hood cinch down well enough to keep out the rain? When you put on the jacket, can you raise your hands above your head without the sleeves falling to your forearms and the hemline riding up above your waist? These considerations will end up being far more important than membrane type for most people because features that don't function perfectly or a jacket that is too tight or loose will end up bothering you every day you use it.
Most hardshell jackets come in an extensive range of color options. While our head tester used to exclusively prefer colors that would help him blend in with the natural environment, helping him fulfill his "mountain ninja" fantasies, there is a very compelling argument for wearing the very bright and highly visible colors that are in vogue these days. Backcountry skiing and alpine climbing are inherently very risky activities.
The threat of being caught in an avalanche or taking a fall high on a mountain are genuine and possible, and there is no doubt that highly visible colors will significantly assist your friends and search and rescue operations should something bad befall you, increasing your chances of being seen and subsequently rescued. So next time you are thinking of buying a (gasp!) white, black, brown, or navy jacket, consider whether it might not be more prudent to be wearing bright red, electric blue, or neon yellow out in the hills instead, your life might end up depending on it.
Waterproof Breathable Care Tips
A key part of maintaining the breathability and weather resistance of your hardshell jacket is keeping it as clean as possible. Dirt and abrasion are your shell's enemies. Both will wear away the DWR coating and fray the face fabric, which in turn reduces the shell's breathability. Without a healthy DWR finish, the face fabric will absorb more water and become heavier and less breathable.
Wash Your hardshell frequently
Body oils that accumulate in the hood, neck, and shoulder areas will reduce the membrane's performance. Machine-wash warm (104° F/40° C), powder or liquid detergent, no fabric softener. ReviveX Synthetic Fabric Cleaner, Granger's Performance Wash, and Nikwax Tech Wash are tried and true soaps. The excellent video below describes how to wash a hardshell jacket.
Restore the DWR coating
A fabric's DWR coating has worn off when the fabric "wets out," i.e. starts absorbing water instead of shedding it. Restoring the DWR will improve breathability and user comfort. Do this after washing the jacket. Spray-on or topical DWR restoratives are better than wash-in treatments because they don't affect the garment's breathability. Nikwax TX Direct Spray-On and ReviveX Spray-On are both good options.