A reliable hardshell jacket is one of the pieces of clothing to wear or pack when embarking on an outdoor adventure or going to have fun in the snow. The beauty of this type of jacket is that it offers excellent protection from the elements without weighing you down.
To help you find a windproof and waterproof yet comfortable hardshell jacket, this buying guide breaks down the 10 best hardshell jackets on the market and outlines everything you should look for so you can choose a jacket that will help you enjoy your favorite outdoor activities to the fullest.
How To Choose A Hardshell Jacket – Buying Guide
Suitability and Use
To choose the perfect hard shell jacket for the intended use, it’s best to shop with the intended use in mind. This will help you determine the suitability of any jacket you come across.
Do you want a stylish hard shell for commuting and everyday wear? Do you want a rugged and comfortable waterproof jacket for outdoor activities like hiking or skiing? Do you prefer an all-around jacket you can use for outdoor activities as well as for everyday rain protection?
If you’re buying a ski jacket, you want a waterproof and snow proof shell jacket that breathes well and can fit over insulating base layers. Additionally, the hood should be helmet-compatible and the jacket should include a powder skirt. For hiking and climbing, the jacket should be lightweight and flexible to give you a full range of motion.
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Waterproofing and Breathability
Good hardshell jackets strike a balance between waterproof and breathable performance. Waterproofing makes sure that no water from the outside is going to pass through the shell. On the other hand, breathability allows perspiration to leave the jacket so you don’t get wet from the inside. Hardshell jackets usually have three layers to help achieve this.
To show how waterproof a fabric is, a Hydrostatic Head (HH) rating is used. A cylinder is held against the fabric and filled with water to a certain level (in millimeters), and then you need to check for leaks. A fabric with at least 1000mm HH rating is considered waterproof with the best hard shell jackets even going over 10,000mm.
To improve its waterproof performance, a Durable Water Repellent (DWR) coating is applied to every hardshell jacket. This finish prevents moisture from seeping into the jacket. Instead, water forms beads and rolls off the surface. Because of this, the material won’t get soaked and you can stay dry inside.
For the jacket to be fully waterproof, it needs to have waterproof seams. Waterproof jackets come with either welded or taped seams. If manufactured well, both options are good and guarantee that not even a drop of water can get inside.
Keep in mind, however, that it’s very difficult to get both excellent water protection and breathability from the same material. For example, fabrics made from nylon can be completely watertight but prevent vapor from escaping so you’ll get sweaty inside. On the other hand, materials like Gore-Tex and eVent are great from both aspects but tend to cost a lot.
Since a hard shell jacket is made for use on the go, it should be flexible enough to allow a full range of motion. This depends on the fabric as well as the design of the jacket. In relation to this, heavier jackets can influence movement, so manufacturers try to make them lighter for this reason.
In addition to this, an elastane component provides a stretchy fit that doesn’t limit your freedom of movement. An articulated design also ensured your jacket won’t get in the way of your activities. As for the fabric, nylon can be very rigid when it’s thick, so pay attention to this when choosing.
Durability mainly depends on what the jacket is made of, and most hard shells are made to be very tough and durable. The nylon or polyester material used for the outer layer (face) needs to be as strong as possible. Fabric quality is measured in Denier, and a higher number means thicker fibers. Keep in mind that stronger fabric is heavier, so lighter jackets won’t be as durable.
Other features such as the zippers should also be strong enough to handle repeated use and exposure to harsh elements. It’s certainly a plus if the zipper is waterproof and comes with a storm flap cover that protects it from outdoor conditions and physical damage. Durability also depends on how you take care of your jacket – if you maintain it properly it will certainly last longer.
Thanks to the materials used and the design itself, a hardshell is your number one choice against nasty weather. It keeps rain and snow out, and also prevents the chilly wind from reaching your bones.
Like many other features of hard shell jackets, the level of weather resistance a jacket provides varies from one jacket to another. This is why it’s important to pay close attention if you plan on putting your new hard shell to a serious test.
As we’ll explain when we discuss the materials a bit later, the fabric quality is the single most important factor when talking about weather resistance. Sophisticated materials like Gore-Tex and eVent top this list, but they are somewhat expensive which is why many people look for alternatives. High-denier nylon and polyester also do a great job, especially if the material surface is treated with a water repellent like DWR or something similar.
Even though keeping you toasty warm isn’t one of the functions of a hardshell jacket, it’s still an important consideration especially if you will be wearing it in alpine conditions. For this reason, many models come with a looser fit so you can wear base layers underneath to stay warm.
On top of this, if you need rain protection during warmer months, you can just wear the jacket over a t-shirt to enjoy protection from the elements without overheating. Keep in mind, however, that the hardshell is only a barrier that provides you protection against the elements. It doesn’t come with any type of insulation or warm lining, so you can count on it to retain your body heat without additional layers.
Fit is one of the more important things to pay attention to because it influences the performance of your jacket. While the jacket should fit you snugly, you will often need to wear some layers underneath, so the jacket should allow for this.
It shouldn’t be too loose though or it will feel baggy and possibly allow wind and water inside. The best hardshell jackets are adjustable at the hood, hem, and cuffs. This allows you to tighten the fit and seal out the elements or loosen it for better air circulation if you feel warm.
Carefully measure your proportions and then check the sizing so you can be sure to get the best fitting jacket. If you have the opportunity, try out the jacket before buying it, or read the hardshell jacket reviews by customers to get an idea of how the jacket fits.
A jacket that doesn’t fit you well will either be uncomfortable if it’s too small, or let water and cold air inside. Because of this, we advise that you pay close attention to all the factors when buying.
Weight and Packability
The weight of your new jacket can be more or less important, depending on your situation. Hard shells generally have acceptable weights, so you most likely won’t have a problem with this.
You may opt for a lighter jacket if you want to pack it and want your backpack to be as light as possible. Some shell jackets weigh as little as 10 ounces. However, a lighter jacket often means fewer features and reduced robustness because something had to be sacrificed to minimize the weight.
As for packability, this type of rain jacket is generally easy to pack because it’s not bulky. When packed, some models are larger than others though so it’s an important aspect to consider if packability is a priority for you.
Hardshell jackets are usually composed of two to three layers. Manufacturers normally use either nylon or polyester as the outer layer. Both are synthetic materials with great durability, and solid wind and water resistance. Nylon is more common because it’s lightweight and excellent for waterproofing.
The middle layer is where the magic happens – it’s a special membrane that is fully waterproof but still has tiny pores that allow vapor to pass throughout the jacket. You will come across materials like Gore-Tex, eVent, and NanoPro. This membrane is sensitive and can get clogged with dust, dirt, and oils.
For this reason, there is an inner layer that protects the membrane and makes the jacket more comfortable to wear. It consists of a thin polyurethane layer next to the membrane. Jackets with 2 and 2.5 layers also exist, and they have a different design. They are somewhat lighter, but less durable and with reduced versatility.
For additional protection, the outer layer (jacket face) is made from the mentioned materials and coated with DWR. This layer repels water and gives additional strength to the jacket. However, it can get worn out over time, so you may need to re-apply it if you want to maintain the same level of water protection.
Furthermore, for the jacket to be fully effective, it needs to have waterproof seams. They are necessary when connecting fabric, and they need protection too – otherwise, water can come through. Waterproof products come with either welded or taped seams. You should certainly check this when buying a jacket. If you notice a problem, you can buy a seam sealer and fix the leak yourself.
Quality zippers are just as important as the jacket material. A hardshell jacket is no good if the material is waterproof but the zippers are leaking. Besides smooth operation, the zippers should be waterproofed to keep water out.
The zipper can be coated with rubber, or the jacket can have a storm flap over the zipper. Jackets with coated zippers are usually lighter, but often more expensive. As an added feature, some jackets have two-way zippers. These allow you to unzip from the bottom if you need to adjust your pants or use the pockets, which is very handy.
When talking about the construction, zippers are usually made from high-quality plastic and rarely from metal. Some jackets use zippers from well-known manufacturers like YKK to make sure they don’t malfunction even if they are under a lot of stress or get exposed to harsh weather conditions.
Many added features are available, depending on the model and manufacturer. While these aren’t absolutely necessary, they can make the jacket a lot more functional and enjoyable to wear.
The first thing that we want to mention here is the hood. You can find it on most if not all the best shell jackets. Some hoods are removable, while others can be rolled and packed into the collar. Beyond this, some hoods are helmet-compatible. Not only do hoods keep your head dry and protected, but they also prevent water and cold air from getting in through the collar.
For extra ventilation, some jackets have pit zips (underarm vents) you can unzip to allow air to freely circulate and cool you down during intense activity or when the temperature rises. This is particularly useful in changing weather conditions, as well as for dynamic activities like trail running or climbing.
Pockets are a necessity, and almost all jackets have them. Besides the standard hand pockets on each side, most jackets have a chest pocket while some even have pockets on the sleeves, and even on the inside. Make sure the jacket you want offers enough pockets for all the things you need at hand. Also, good placement allows quick access to what you need.
One more addition that we really like to see on a hardshell jacket are adjustable cuffs and hems. These allow you to tighten the jacket so it fits perfectly around your wrists and waist. This effectively prevents snow and wind from getting inside the jacket, allowing the base layers inside to keep you warm more efficiently.
Q: What Is A Hardshell Winter Jacket?
A hardshell jacket is a specially designed outdoor jacket that is windproof and waterproof, but at the same time breathable. This makes it suitable for many situations when you need rain and wind protection but don’t want to get sweaty.
It’s called a hardshell because the outer layer is somewhat rigid compared to other jackets. The performance and comfort depend on the type of materials used to make the jacket, and paying a bit more is often worth it if you’re going to use the jacket frequently.
Q: What Is The Difference Between Hardshell And Softshell Jackets?
Hardshell jackets are fully waterproof, while softshells are just water-resistant. Hardshells are designed to perform well in very harsh weather. On the other hand, a softshell jacket is made for moderate weather and isn’t the best option for wet conditions with a lot of rain and snow. If you wear it in heavy rain, it will get soaked and you will get wet.
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However, an average softshell jacket is certainly more breathable than an average hardshell, which makes it more comfortable to wear in warmer weather. It allows moisture to escape, preventing you from getting soaked in your own sweat. As for rain jackets, they are fully waterproof but aren’t particularly breathable so they can become very uncomfortable after some time.
Q: How Do I Get The Most Out Of A Hardshell Winter Jacket?
Think about when and where you’re going to use it most often, and choose you accordingly. Get a standard fit so you can wear something underneath when it’s cold. If you don’t mind spending an extra buck, get a jacket with arm vents so you can comfortably wear it in higher temperatures too. Finally, don’t forget to maintain and clean it properly.
Q: Will A Cheap Hardshell Be Enough For Me?
When going down in price, you probably won’t get many extra features or top-tier fabrics. However, some excellent cheap hardshell jackets can give you the protection you need without breaking your budget. If you only need basic protection and won’t use your jacket in harsh conditions, a budget-friendly hardshell might be the best option.
Q: How Can I Repair A Hardshell Winter Jacket?
If your jacket tears, you may be tempted to just sew a patch on it. This is not a good idea, though, because the needle will create holes in the waterproof material. If you choose to sew it anyway, you should put a seam sealer over the patch so it doesn’t leak.
The most effective way to repair a hardshell jacket is to apply a Gore-Tex repair patch using an adhesive. You can also send the jacket to a licensed repair center and let a professional take care of it.
Q: How Do I Properly Clean And Care For A Hardshell Winter Jacket?
The best way to clean and care for your hardshell jacket properly is to follow the instructions on the label. Most hardshell jackets are machine washable but you should only use a mild detergent and make sure to rinse it off properly. You can hang the jacket to dry or use low to medium heat in a drier. Make sure that the jacket is completely dry before storing, otherwise it might become moldy and smelly.
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If you notice the DWR coating is worn out and no longer effective, you can re-apply it. To do this, spray the DWR finish evenly on the jacket while it’s still wet then either put it in a dryer or iron it to activate the coating. Doing this will boost the weather protection and prevent water from soaking in the fabric.
Q: How Should The Jacket Fit?
A hardshell jacket should fit snug without being restrictive. This kind of fit enables it to seal out the elements effectively. A standard fit is best as it fits well over base layers but doesn’t leave too much room inside where cold air can get in. If you’re very active and want your jacket to move with you, choose a jacket with a snug yet stretchy fit.
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A hard shell jacket is an excellent addition to your outdoor gear. You will get unsurpassed versatility from an article of clothing that can protect you from all types of weather. It will protect you from rain, wind, and snow while allowing you to add a base layer underneath it if you need additional warmth.
After going through our hardshell jacket reviews and buying guide, we hope that you can easily choose the best hardshell jacket for your activities.
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Have you tried a jacket that made it onto our list? How effective is it? Are you comfortable wearing it? Is it durable? Please share your experience with us in the comment section below.