Best Hardshell Jackets: A Buyer’s Guide

If you regularly hike or climb in winter or enjoy skiing, then you know that staying dry and warm can be a challenge. To ensure that you keep the rain and snow out, while keeping the warmth in, a hardshell jacket may be just what the ticket.

This can be a pricey addition to your gear so it’s worth taking some time to make sure you get one suited to both your needs and your budget. We reviewed some of the best hardshell jackets on the market and also put together some key info you need to know before making your choice.

Jacket

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Our Rating

Mountain Hardwear Torsun Jacket

Best combination of features vs price

Arcteryx Alpha SV

Top rated but pretty pricey

Columbia Alpine Action Jacket

Great for budget-buy

Arcteryx Alpha FL Jacket

Full-featured lightweight jacket

Helly Hansen Alpha 2.0 Jacket

Excellent ski jacket, very warm

Outdoor Research Axiom Jacket

Good features for the price

Westcomb Shift LT Hoody Jacket

Not as full-featured and a bit pricey

*Below, you'll find our detailed reviews and a buyer's guide, but you can also click the links above to see current prices or read customer reviews on Amazon.

What is a Hardshell Jacket?

Best hardshell jackets for climbing

It’s important to understand that a hardshell jacket and a rain jacket, or rain shell, are not the same thing.

While rain jackets are just as waterproof as hardshell jackets, they aren’t breathable.

Hard shell jackets are completely waterproof while also exhibiting good breathability, making them excellent for use on the slopes.

The cleverly designed outer and inner layers that make this possible are also what makes hard shell jackets cost so much more than regular rain jackets.​

Hardshell Jacket Layers

The best hard shell jackets, like the ones we’ve reviewed below, use a 3-layer technology that provides better weather resistance, breathability and durability.

Each manufacturer will have their own special combination of weave and membrane materials that they normally give a name like Gore-Tex, EVent, DryQ, etc…

For the most part it comes down to the following 3 layers:

​Outer Layer

Hard shell jackets have a specially designed DWR (Durable Water Resistant) coated outer layer to provide a waterproof shell.​

Middle Layer​

The middle layer is a specially designed membrane that gives the jacket its waterproof breathable capability and is designed to quickly move moist air from your body to the surface of the jacket.

Inner Layer​

The inner layer protects the membrane while providing a comfortable, low friction layer that goes against your skin or thermals.

If you need a warm, breathable and waterproof jacket that will survive days of skiing, or rough winter hiking, then you’re going to need a good 3-layer hard shell jacket.

Some cheap hard shell jackets use a 2.5-layer technology. These are lighter and still exhibit good waterproof breathability while sacrificing some durability.​

​Mobility

Hardshell jackets for skiing

If you’re going to be climbing or skiing, then mobility and the weight of the jacket is very important.

The recent trend is towards producing lighter hard shell jackets by using lighter face fabrics and membranes.

In an effort to lighten jackets even further some manufacturers have also sacrificed extra pockets or zippers.

The cut of the jacket will also affect mobility. For maximum mobility make sure you choose a jacket that is cut short enough so that your waist is unencumbered.

Durability

If you enjoy climbing then you know the value of being able to reduce the weight of what you’re carrying. Reduced weight jackets come at the expense of durability though.

If you want something that will last a lot longer then you’ll need to sacrifice lightweight for durability. That being said, some of the jackets we reviewed exhibit great durability while being a lot lighter than some of the jackets from a few years back.

Breathability

Hardshell ski jackets are often described as being waterproof-breathable. The key difference between these and softshell jackets is that they really are waterproof, and not just water resistant.

To achieve this the outer layer is a far tighter weave so they’ll never be quite as breathable as a soft shell will. The really good jackets will have a decent DWR coating applied to the outer layer.

This coating makes the water bead off the surface of the jacket leaving the surface dry and makes it easier for the fabric to breathe.

If you just want something to put on during a downpour then a rain jacket will be a better bet. If you need something you can wear throughout a day of climbing or skiing then you’re going to need something that breathes and you’ll have to go the hardshell route.

Weather Resistance

hardshell jacket for cold weather

The nature of the surface layer of a hard shell jacket makes it completely waterproof and windproof.

Eventually the DWR application on the surface will wear off due to abrasion and washing.

Once the DWR coating wears off the jacket will still be both water and windproof but it won’t be breathable anymore.

This is because the water now coats the surface rather than beading off. The surface now “wets out” and blocks the movement of moist air to the surface.

This DWR coating can be reapplied though and there are some good spray options that make this fairly easy to reapply. (1) Products such as Revivex, which is a water-based DWR treatment, work well.

Some jackets focus more on being waterproof while others focus on being more breathable. If you’re going to be skiing or fast climbing then go for a lighter, more breathable jacket. If you’re going to be up against ice or expect a lot of rain then go for a heavier, more waterproof jacket.

Features

The features you look for in a jacket are really dependent on your activity and personal preference. We like jackets with 2-way zippers because it enables you to unzip the lower part of the jacket to make belt adjustments or access pants pockets without unzipping the whole jacket.

If you anticipate rain or snow then a storm hood is a good option to go for. Make sure that the jacket you choose has enough pockets in the right places for the things you want to keep close at hand.​

We had a close look at a number of hardshell jackets and narrowed it down to these top rated jackets.​

Arcteryx Alpha FL Jacket


If you want maximum mobility in a lightweight hard shell jacket then this one is hard to beat.

Climbers and skiers will love how well this jacket fits and the excellent weather resistance it provides. The 3-layer Gore-Tex Pro membrane offers excellent breathability and improved durability from the previous versions of this jacket.

We really liked the storm hood which fitted well without reducing visibility.

This is a very well constructed jacket and, despite the high quality, was cheaper than a lot of other similar jackets. It only has the one pocket on the chest so it may not be a good option if you’re planning on carrying a number of things outside of your pack.

You’ll have to wear some gloves because there aren’t even any hand pockets. Despite this, if we were looking for a hard shell jacket that was light, comfortable, and weatherproof then this would be on top of our list.

Fabric: 100% Nylon, GoreTex Pro

Weight: 11.5oz, 325g​

What We Like

  • Helmet compatible storm hood 
  • 1 external chest pocket
  • Velcro adjustable cuffs
  • Articulated elbows and gusseted underarms for good mobility when skiing or climbing
  • Removable inserts prevents jacket riding up under harness

What We Don't Like

  • Only has one pocket
  • Fabric is a little noisy

Outdoor Research Axiom Jacket


This lightweight jacket is great for fast and light climbing or skiing.

The Gore-Tex Active fabric breathes better than most other hard shells but sacrifices some durability in the process.

The hand pockets are well placed and are high enough to be accessible while wearing a harness.

We were really impressed with how waterproof and windproof this jacket was. The zippers on the pockets are only water resistant though so don’t keep anything too sensitive in them.

The athletic fit felt very comfortable and the fabric has good stretch. Even if it feels a little snug you’ll find that you still have complete range of motion.

If you want to retain that mobility while adding layers for warmth you should consider going a size up from your usual size. The headphone port in the top pocket is a nice touch if you want to listen to some tunes without having to route your headphone cables up past your neck.

Fabric: 100% Nylon, GoreTex Active

Weight: 14.5oz, 411g​

What We Like

  • Headphone port in chest pocket so you don't have to have loose wires
  • 2-way front zipper for easy adjustments
  • Good stretch and underarm panels for extra mobility
  • Internal front storm flap prevents water getting in
  • 1 zippered chest pocket, 2 zippered hand pockets makes storing your small items easy
  • Seams are fully taped so no water can get through

What We Don't Like

  • Front zipper was a bit fiddly
  • Pocket zippers only water-resistant, so not very good for sensitive items in heavy rain
  • No women-specific version

Mountain Hardwear Torsun Jacket


If you’re a serious climber and need maximum waterproof performance and great breathability then this is a good option.

The 3-layer DryQ Elite technology keeps you bone dry and warm and is very durable. A lot of waterproof-breathable fabrics need you to generate quite a bit of body heat before they start to breathe.

The DryQ Elite technology transfers moisture vapor at all body temperatures so the jacket breathes as soon as you put it on. This makes it a good choice if you perspire easily.

This is not an extremely lightweight jacket but the articulated elbows and fit allow for a great range of motion. The side pockets are nice and deep and are ventilated so they act as core vents when the zippers are open.

Fabric: 100% Nylon, DryQ Elite

Weight: 1lb 2oz, 516g

What We Like 

  • Velcro adjustable cuffs to ensure a perfect fit
  • Helmet compatible, 3-way adjustable hood
  • Great breathability for high-energy skiing or climbing preventing perspiration build up
  • 1 outer chest pocket, 1 internal chest pocket, 2 hand pockets - all zippered for easy storage of small items
  • 2-way front zipper 
  • Articulated elbows for improved mobility
  • Price

What We Don't Like 

  • Felt a bit snug under the armpits
  • Hand pockets felt a little high

Westcomb Shift LT Hoodie Jacket


This lightweight jacket combines the protection you get from a hard shell with the comfort and versatility you get from a soft shell jacket.

The 3-layer Polartec Neoshell technology is very waterproof allows for 2-way air exchange for maximum breathability. Being lightweight it isn’t going to be the warmest jacket.

It’s more like a breathable rain shell but the fit allows for comfortable layering if you want extra warmth.

The chin guard comes up high enough to keep water from getting in through the top and is nicely lined so it feels comfortable when zipped all the way up.

To keep it really lightweight they didn’t add too many pockets so you’ll be reaching into your pack more often than you might want to. Despite that, this is a great jacket for fast climbing or high activity winter hikes and skiing.

Fabric: 40% Nylon, 30% Polyester, 30% Polyurethane, Polartec Neoshell

Weight: 12 oz / 340g​

What We Like

  • Articulated elbows for great mobility, especially when skiing or climbing
  • Adjustable helmet-compatible hood
  • Lined chin-guard to keep your neck warm
  • Adjustable cuffs for maximum comfort and fit around your wrists
  • Very lightweight, great for high-energy activities
  • Internal media pocket, chest pocket

What We Don't Like

  • Could have done with more pockets
  • For slower-paced activity in very cold temperatures, this would be a little bit light
  • No women-specific version

Arcteryx Alpha SV Jacket


If you insist on climbing in the absolute worst weather then this is the jacket for you.

Rain, sleet, blizzard and wind. This jacket will have you covered. It seals tight all over for maximum protection from wind and water.

The 3-layer Gore-Tex Pro material provides excellent durability and abrasion resistance while still breathing really well.

It has loads of watertight zippered pockets that are well placed for easy access, even when wearing a harness.

It doesn’t have an integrated insulation liner but the fit allows for comfortable layering.

This jacket costs a lot more than other hard shell jackets but it is absolutely bomb proof when it comes to foul weather protection.

Fabric: 100% Nylon, Gore-Tex Pro

Weight: 1 lb 1.3 oz / 490g​

What We Like

  • Serious weather protection for the worst winter conditions
  • Helmet compatible hood
  • High collar with chin-guard to keep the warmth in and the weather out
  • 2 external chest pockets, 2 internal pockets, 1 bicep pocket, 1 internal dump pocket
  • Articulated patterning and gusseted underarms provide good mobility
  • Highly durable and abrasion resistant
  • Armpit zippers for venting
  • Adjustable cuffs

What We Don't Like

  • Expensive

Columbia Alpine Action Jacket


This is a great budget option if you’re looking for a waterproof jacket for snow sports.

The synthetic insulation and Omni-Heat thermal-reflective lining make this jacket really warm without being bulky.

In fact, if the sun starts to come out you may find it a little too warm. It could have done with some armpit zips for ventilation.

The hood doesn’t have any Omni-Heat lining in it so you’ll need to wear a beanie underneath to keep your head warm.

In spite of the lower price tag it has a good quality look and feel about it with some solid construction and exhibits great water and wind resistance.

If it’s a little rainy and cold but you still want to hit the slopes then this jacket will do the trick nicely.

Fabric: 100% Polyester, Omni-Tech

Weight: 1lb / 454g​

What We Like

  • Omni-Tech thermal reflective inner layer minimizing heat loss
  • Removable, adjustable hood
  • Zippered chest pocket, zippered hand pockets, internal security pocket, goggle pocket
  • Snap back powder skirt is great when skiing
  • Adjustable cuffs for comfortable fit
  • Very warm!
  • Cost - good for budget

What We Don't Like

  • No underarm vents
  • No Omni-heat lining in the hood, so you'll need a beanie to keep your head warm

Helly Hansen Alpha 2.0 Jacket


If you want a jacket that is really light but provides great warmth while skiing or snowboarding then this is the one you want.

It has a beautifully tailored fit but still allows for comfortable layering underneath.

The DWR coated outer shell and fully sealed seams provide excellent waterproofing.

The Elastene in the fabric has allows for 4-way stretch and provides for really good mobility.

It has plenty of pockets for good storage and they’re well placed for easy access.

The thing that really sets this jacket apart is how well it breathes. The insulation provides great warmth but the H2Flow mechanical venting system makes this jacket really comfortable once you start to work up a sweat.

Fabric: 85% Polyamide, 15% Elastene, Helly Tech Professional

What We Like

  • PrimaLoft insulation makes this jacket really warm
  • Good ventilation for when you work up a sweat or the sun comes out
  • 4 way stretch fabric for excellent mobility
  • Fully sealed seams ensuring it stays waterproof
  • Articulated arms and elbows for maximum mobility when skiing or climbing
  • Detachable, helmet-compatible hood
  • 2 hand pockets, 2 chest pockets, 1 internal goggle pocket, internal media pocket, ski pass pocket

What We Don't Like

  • Could do with underarm zippers for maximum ventilation
  • No women-specific version

We love snowboarding, skiing and ice climbing but staying dry and warm is key to that enjoyment. The jackets above are all great options and ultimately your choice comes down to how extreme the weather is and the size of your budget.

We’d be happy to have any one of the jackets we reviewed hanging in our wardrobe. If you’re looking for the best hardshell jacket for the money these are the ones you want to be choosing from.

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