To start off our journey, there are a couple of big questions to address. The first one that comes to mind is…
Should I Buy a Hardshell Jacket?
Depending on where you live, what you intend to use your jacket for, and how much you want to spend, it's important to consider why you need a hardshell in the first place. These jackets are built to keep you protected from the grossest weather that mother nature can throw your way. Wind, sleet, hail, and snow are no match these jackets are bomb proof. Plus, they are constructed with very expensive breathable membranes that are designed to keep you from sweating while they repel the elements. In general, they are tailored for alpinists who need protection in wetter and sloppier conditions. Not only that, but they are incredibly durable - lasting up to 10+ years on average. This is a big reason why folks choose to invest in a jacket like this versus a flimsier rain jacket or softshell.
With all the good there are a few deterring trade-offs. The biggest, leaving a knot in our throats, is the price. Running up a bill anywhere from $299 (Patagonia Piolet - Women's to $675 (Arc'teryx Alpha SV Jacket - Women's), you end up paying for the extra durability and weather protection that you get. The fancy welded membranes that allow superior weather protection require special care to retain their integrity over the years. Also, even though the fabrics are more breathable than when hardshell jackets first made their appearance in the outdoor industry, they are still not as breathable as your classic rain jacket or better yet, a softshell.
Alternatives to a Hardshell: Softshells and Rain Jackets
Now that you have an understanding of the pros and cons of a hardshell jacket, it's time to consider if you need to purchase one. If you aren't somebody who is planning on visiting super wet and sloppy weather, consider an alternative shell that will provide you with more breathability at a lower price. Softshells and rain jackets offer some of the protection of hardshell jackets, without the higher level of durability and fancy fabrics that remain weatherproof for a longer period.
Softshells have a flexible outer shell with a higher level of breathability. They tend to be a tiny bit heavier and provide decent wind resistance. You can layer them underneath or above an insulated jacket to provide a wind barrier. Although they are fairly wind resistant, they are not wind or waterproof. The fabric will repel water for a short period before "wetting out." Their biggest plus is mobility. Mountain guides in areas like the San Juans in Colorado tend to use softshells versus hardshells because they can move a lot easier without the 'swish swish' and less rigidity. The weather is also drier, producing snow that is light. However, if you were a guide in wetter climates, like Washington State coast, for example, a hardshell would be your best friend. The snow there is heavy, wet, and would most likely soak a softshell if it got gross out there. To read more, check out our Best Softshell Jacket for Women Review.
Rain jackets are the best alternative to buying a hardshell jacket. Like their burly, more expensive cousins, rain jackets will protect you from wet, rainy weather, but they are typically composed of a more breathable fabric (the outer tends to be a lot thinner). They also pack down better and incorporate fewer fancy features. To top it off, they are less expensive but you should not expect your rain jacket to last as long as a durable, high-quality hardshell jacket. You might find yourself in a rain jacket versus a hardshell if you are planning on long hikes, mountaineering, and skiing in drier climates, or if you're looking for a wind block on more aerobic days. To learn more, check out our Best Rain Jacket for Women Review.
Now, if you are looking for something that will last - longer than a softshell or rain jacket - and can hold up in the worst wet weather, then you should buy a hardshell jacket. This largely encompasses those in alpine environments where the weather changes quickly and you need fantastic protection.
These jackets offer significantly more durability and weather protection than a softshell or even a rain jacket. With its heat-sealed seams and welded membranes, these layers are constructed with burliness in mind. To start, we will begin by examining the shell membrane the most important (and expensive) addition to making these jackets weatherproof.
We have come a long way since the age of nylon outers that were big, beefy and offered little to no breathability. We have come so far that manufacturers have been able to fabricate jackets that are both breathable AND waterproof. Even though it's very improbable we will create a jacket that is as breathable as a mesh shirt AND as weatherproof as a yellow rubber slicker, shell fabrics have been quickly evolving. GORE-TEX fabrics, specifically, are created by laminating a proprietary membrane to high-performance nylon and polyester face fabrics. If you spend time in your local mountain shop, you will see the renowned logo on many products including Arc'teryx, Outdoor Research, and Patagonia. Though Gore-Tex has been dominating the market for years, many other companies have developed other types of fabrics that are more flexible, and just as waterproof. To learn more about that, check out Best Hardshell Jacket for Women Review. But, for curiosity's sake, let's ask an overarching question how do these membranes work?
The Make-up of a Shell Membrane
Different types of textile technology use different membranes, which allows for various levels of performance. In each membrane, several molecules work together to create an active transport system that effectively moves moisture away from the body, and out into the environment. For example, Gore-Tex utilizes a polymer called polytetrafluoroethylene (ePTFE) that is non-toxic, biocompatible, non-soluble, and water repellant. It is very porous with a rigid structure that allows air to move through the fabrics (for breathability) but still keeps water out. Pore size and quantity in different types of jacket materials is a big reason why some shells may be more breathable than others. For example, those with larger and/or more pores, like Dry.Q.Elite (Mountain Hardwear Torsun - Women's), will be more breathable. Those lacking those pore sizes or numbers will result in a less breathable shell (Arc'teryx Beta AR Jacket - Women's). Check out this video to learn about air permeability with different types of membranes and how different fabrics performed.
Any fabric that utilizes ePTFE (because of its continuous structure) will be also be more rigid due to the continuous structure of the ePTFE molecule. There are other fabrics out there utilizing different polymers or materials that make the fabrics more flexible. While this is highly weatherproof, these fabrics tend to be pretty rigid with less mobility as a result of the "continuous" structure of the ePTFE. Some fabrics will utilize other polymers like eVent technology. They forgo the use of the ePTFE and use a high performing Polyurethane or Polyester membrane instead. This is thinner with more stretch. This creates a similar amount of weather protection, but without the rigidity of a typical shell.
Membrane Layers: How many layers do you need?
As we discussed above, membranes come in many different types and price ranges. Though, a good hardshell jacket will utilize either a 2, 2.5, or 3 layer fabric with the laminated membrane. So which do you choose? The more layers = more weather protection and durability, and sometimes less weight.
Two-layer fabric jackets, like the Patagonia Piolet use a separate fabric lining, making the jacket heavier, while three-layer fabrics, like those found on the Arc'teryx Alpha SV and Arc'teryx Theta AR - Women's have all the layers and the lining welded together. In many cases, manufacturer use 2 and 2.5 layer technologies for rain jackets. So which do you choose?
Most outdoor recreationalists will be just fine with a 2 or 2.5 layer shell. They provide ample weather protection and are functional whether you are on your favorite ice climb, climbing another mountain in the Adirondacks, or simply going out to the ski hill for the day.
Three-layer shells are only really necessary if you're trying to eliminate as much bulk as possible, and are preparing for some of the worst, wet weather that you have been through. So don't go blowing your next paycheck on a three-layer shell, when all you really need is two-layer one.
To add to the fabric's weatherproofing, all seams on are "heat-sealed" so that any holes created from stitching will not become a weak point allowing water inside at any time. Just another reason why hardshells are great at keeping the elements out.
Stand Out Features
Hardshell jackets come with a plethora of features to keep you safe when mother nature throws you a curveball. Below, we outline what to look for on the hood, hem, and pockets to stay dry and comfortable in even the worst conditions.
All of these jackets will have an adjustable hood. If you are going to do anything with big fat gloves on, look for a hood that is helmet compatible (all jackets reviewed here are), has a pull tab large enough to work with your gloves, and has opposite adjustments that allow you to loosen in one pull.
Tabs that require two hands to undo, like the Outdoor Research Clairvoyant are inconvenient and hard to adjust if you have your gloves on. We would recommend staying away from those.
Wrist closures are important for keeping out snow, wind, and other elements that will leave you cold when you're hunkered in at a cold, icy belay. Look for wrist closures that are thick (=longer durability) and have enough velcro to wrap around your whole wrist. This is important when fitting full length gloves over top, or if you need to open them up to fit them underneath.
Pockets are of huge importance if you are going out on a long mission or if you're just hanging out in the ice park. It's important that they are deep enough to fit your essentials (i.e. energy bar, phone, money, etc.), and positioned properly to ensure that you can do the things that you love. All the jackets in this review had hand pockets that were high enough so you could wear a harness or backpack waist strap over top of the jacket and still have access to your pockets. Another bonus is having a chest and/or interior pocket to store things for easy access. If you find a jacket without pockets, reconsider and look elsewhere.
It's of utmost importance that your shell has a high and roomy collar to accommodate nuzzling down when the weather turns bad. It keeps your face warmer and helps to avoid frostnip if it's frigid outside. Also look for microsuede on the inside collar - this will keep your skin a little less sensitive with the elements. If you try on a jacket and you can't nuzzle in, send it back.
Ways to Wear your Hardshell Jacket
When most folks think of how to wear a shell, they tend to assume that it always goes on top. Though, there is another option for different activities and situations. Read on to learn more!
- Wearing your insulated jacket over top of your shell: When the weather isn't bad, and you're trying to mitigate the amount of heat that you're generating, this is a great method to utilize. Just wear your insulated jacket over top of your shell in between bouts of activity. For example, in alpine climbing, when it's your turn to swing the picks, stash your insulated jacket. When it's time to belay, put it back on for warmth. The shell stays on to keep the wind and water out at all times.
- Wearing your insulated jacket underneath your shell: Optimal for nasty, wet, and bitterly cold conditions. Keep the warmth inside your jacket and all the elements off of you.
Tips to Revive and Renew your DWR Finish
Even though these jackets will take the brunt of it all, they need to be cared for to maintain weather protection as the years go on. There are a few simple tips for you to do just that.
Test to see if you DWR has worn off
Take a few water droplets and gently sprinkle them onto the fabric. Do the water droplets bead up? If so, your DWR coating is OK. If your water droplets don't bead up but instead sit on the fabric and make their way into the fibers, then your DWR needs to be brought back from the dead.
A clean jacket is the first step to reviving your DWR. Follow the washing instructions on the label, making sure to avoid heavy duty laundry detergents.
When you expose your garment to just a little bit of heat, it can help coax your DWR back to life. Simply throw your jacket into the dryer for 10 to 15 minutes on low to medium heat.
Reapplying your DWR Finish
So you've taken all the steps above and your jacket is still wetted when you apply water to it. Then it is time to reapply the DWR treatment. This will eventually happen as you expose your jacket to natural wear and tear in the outdoors and just around town. So what do you do? You need to go out and buy a DWR revival product such as Nikwax or Granger's. Follow the instructions, and you will be on your way to a new water-resistant coating!