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Published Jul 26, 2022 2:48 PM

People who know their way around the backcountry dress in layers, and that all starts with the best hardshell jacket for the job. Protecting yourself against the elements should be a top priority. Insulated mid-layers and moisture-wicking base layers are important, too, but they can’t help you if the wind and rain get involved. Your outermost layer has an outsized effect on how well you’ll do in the wild.

We combined personal experience with online research to nail down exactly what separates good hardshell jackets from substandard ones. Then, we combed through the best backcountry and alpine apparel brands to find jackets that meet that criteria, factoring in enough variety to satisfy different needs. Somewhere in the gear guide below is the best hardshell jacket for you.

Best Overall

The Patagonia Triolet is a regular on hardshell jacket buying guides, but it’s not usually at the top — there’s a reason those publications don’t think as highly of the Triolet as we do. This jacket gets dinged by testing focused on hiking, skiing, or climbing because it isn’t ideal for any one activity, but that makes it far more versatile than other hardshells on the market. The grab-and-go demeanor makes the Triolet ideal for people like you, who might be enjoying a casual day at the range today and pushing into the backcountry with your three-day bag tomorrow.

Unlike other high-end hardshells, the Triolet doesn’t use multiple materials to reduce weight. It’s 75-denier Gore-Tex or nothing. That means it isn’t as breathable, flexible, or light as some of the alternatives, but the tradeoff is a jacket that’s beefed up to handle wear and tear better. There are still value-adding features like four external pockets and one interior pouch, zippered armpit vents, oversized zipper pulls that are easy to use with gloves, and an oversized hood that fits over a ski helmet.

So, what’s missing? Skiers should know that, while the hood will fit over a helmet, the Triolet doesn’t have a powder skirt for steep and deep days. The three-layer Gore-Tex makes this an excellent waterproof shell but it’s not very breathable and you’ll notice extra weight compared to jackets designed for more intense physical activity.

The Triolet is a versatile all-arounder and a great cold-weather companion. The boxy fit provides ample room for insulating layers and we appreciate the rugged construction. At $400, it’s also a solid value. If you want one jacket that you can hang by the door and feel confident in regardless of what life throws at you, this is it.

Why It Made The Cut

The Triolet is a versatile hardshell jacket that can take whatever you dish out. It’s not as specialized as our other picks, but it does everything well.

Product Specs
  • 75 denier
  • 1.2 pounds
  • Gore-Tex waterproof material
PROS

Simple and versatile; down for whatever you have in mind

Don’t pay for features you don't need

Overbuilt and capable of taking a beating

CONS

Noticeably heavy compared to the alternatives

Breathability and mobility suffer in the pursuit of toughness

Wait, isn’t there a hardshell jacket that costs half as much on this list? You’re not wrong — the Black Diamond HighLine Stretch Shell is twice as expensive as The North Face First Dawn you’ll read about next — but this is also about twice the jacket and packs far more value and utility.

A quick rundown of consumer priorities reveals why the HighLine Stretch Shell deserves your attention. It earns praise from owners for breathability, which keeps temperatures under control when you’re exerting yourself so you aren’t a sweaty hypothermia risk at the end of the day. The material is also very stretchy, which is critical to maintaining your mobility. The BD.dry fabric is naturally hydrophobic, so it won’t need rain repellent to be reapplied with wear.

As with any value-first product, there are some concessions to keep in mind. Black Diamond’s BD.dry waterproofing is an admirable attempt at keeping you dry, but it’s not going to convert Gore-Tex loyalists anytime soon. The HighLine also had to incorporate some thinner panels to keep weight down, and that means certain areas will be more susceptible to physical damage than others.

The HighLine Stretch Shell’s greatest asset is its price. There are other jackets that move with you, stay cool, and keep you dry, but it’s hard to compete with Black Diamond’s MSRP of $300. This is one peeve of budget-friendly gear you don’t have to be self-conscious of or handle with kid gloves.

Why It Made The Cut

Black Diamond offers professional backcountry gear that won’t break the bank, and the Highline proves that premium features don’t have to be out of reach.

Product Specs
  • Material thickness not specified
  • 0.8 pounds
  • BD.dry 3L waterproof material
PROS

Three-layer BD.dry is lightweight and waterproof

Pit zips and breathable fabric are great for fast-paced adventures

Features punch above the price point

CONS

Black Diamond’s waterproofing isn’t on par with Gore-Tex

Compromises some durability in favor of lightness and breathability

Best Lightweight

If your outlook on shedding weight from your pack looks like Adam Driver screaming, “More!” in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, you’ll love The North Face First Dawn. This hardshell jacket is uncompromising in the pursuit of lightness.

Keeping ounces to a minimum starts with 40-denier fabric that’s a fraction of the thickness of the material used by other jackets on this list. That’s not necessarily a good thing in the backcountry, but it’s a significant advantage for runners and hikers who need to keep the pace up and calorie expenditures down. This fabric is also extremely breathable; layer it over a moisture-wicking base to keep sweat and condensation under control. Its 2.5 layers blur the line between hardshell and softshell, which should give you an idea of what to expect from the First Dawn.

When you place this much of a premium on keeping your gear light, you’re going to have to make some sacrifices. Heavy-duty fabric? Forget about it. Adjustable sleeves and a powder skirt? No chance. Hell, there aren’t even pockets on this thing. While these drawbacks sound preposterous to a lot of people, they’re music to the ears of those who want to stay light and move fast.

The First Dawn is a fantastic option for people in warmer climates who need a lightweight insurance policy against bad weather. It’s also perfect for runners who need to keep their gear light and don’t have time to rummage through pockets, anyway. The fact that this jacket folds into its own storage compartment also makes it a great travel option.

Why It Made The Cut

This is the ultimate lightweight hardshell, plain and simple. If you can live without other features, add this featherweight to your pack and be prepared for unexpected weather.

Product Specs
  • 40 denier
  • 0.4 pounds
  • DryVent 2.5L shell with a non-PFC DWR waterproof coating
PROS

The ultimate lightweight hardshell

The least expensive hardshell jacket on this list by far

Just because it’s light doesn’t mean it’s flimsy

CONS

Behold: a jacket with no pockets

Sacrifices a lot of features in order to save weight

Leave it to the Norwegians to build a killer ski jacket worthy of shredding not just some of the gnar, but all of it. The Helly Hansen Elevation Infinity 20 is the greatest hits collection of features that skiers and snowboarders love, all backed by build quality that will have you donning the jacket for many seasons to come.

Helly Hansen’s LIFA Infinity Pro fabric is breathable and naturally waterproof with no chemical treatments required. This hardshell jacket was developed by skiers who made sure that all the pockets could be accessed while wearing a backpack, the hood can fit over a helmet, and a RECCO reflector got sewn in to save your bacon should you find yourself on the bad end of an avalanche recovery. They were even considerate enough to add an insulated pocket to preserve your phone’s battery in cold temperatures. Of course, pit zips and a powder skirt are included, as well.

All this goodness isn’t cheap; the Elevation Infinity 20 retails for $750 and you’ll still need insulating and base layers to go underneath it. Color selection is also limited to orange or black. Aside from that, there’s really nothing to complain about.

The price tag will scare off most people, but this hardshell isn’t for most people. It’s for skiers and snowboarders who want to chase powder, even if it takes them outside the limits of the local ski area. Those of you who make the investment in the Elevation Infinity 20 will be rewarded with one of the best ski jackets on the mountain.

Why It Made The Cut

Helly Hansen equipped the Elevation Infinity 20 with skiing-specific features that make it a beast in the backcountry — or the lift line at your favorite resort.

Product Specs
  • Material thickness not specified
  • 1.7 pounds
  • LIFA Infinity Pro waterproof material
PROS

Packed with every feature a skier or snowboarder could want

Built to tackle the harshest alpine conditions

Breathable, flexible, and still very tough

CONS

The heaviest jacket here

Very, very expensive

Best Mountaineering

For serious mountaineering, it doesn’t get much better than the Arc’teryx Alpha SV. Arc’teryx calls this its “most durable Gore-Tex pro alpine shell for severe conditions,” and that’s saying something because the Alpha SV is in extremely good company alongside some of the most sought-after premium outdoor apparel on the market.

Three-layer Gore-Tex Pro is waterproof, breathable, and reinforced in high-wear areas for improved durability. It’s waterproof on its own, but Arc’teryx left nothing to chance. It gave the Alpha SV a durable waterproof repellent treatment. The jacket is designed to accommodate helmets and climbing gear while providing a full range of motion. There’s plenty of accessible storage, too, with high chest pockets, an interior zippered pocket, and an interior pouch. Pit zips are high under the arm for optimal ventilation and all zippers are waterproof. It even has a RECC reflector built in for avalanche recovery.

This is peak hardshell technology, folks; there really isn’t a lot of room for criticism. All we can say is the $800 price tag is steeper than most of the ascent you’ll complete in this thing. If you love the Alpha SV but can’t justify overpaying for features you don’t need, the more versatile Beta AR is a solid alternative.

So, who is this beast for? The Alpha SV was built for climbers, backcountry skiers, mountaineers, and alpine explorers whose adventures take them way, way out of bounds. If you push deep into the backcountry in the worst kinds of weather, this is what you need. Don’t think of it as an expensive jacket; consider it a cheap life insurance policy.

Why It Made The Cut

The Alpha SV is the severe weather hardshell from Arc’teryx. It delivers on that promise with beefy construction and the flexibility to keep you mobile and cool during alpine ascents.

Product Specs
  • 100 denier
  • 1.1 pounds
  • Gore-Tex Pro waterproof material
PROS

All the bells and whistles

As rugged as it gets without adding weight

Peak performance for mountaineering and alpine adventure

CONS

A price to match those breathtaking mountain views

Overkill for most people

Best Mountaineering

We like to imagine ourselves on a never-ending adventure, blazing a trail with our lensatic compass and getting a chance to use every piece of gear we’ve stuffed into our go-bag during the year. The truth is that most hardshell jackets will spend most of their lives commuting to and from work. If they escape on a weekend camping trip every so often, that’s gravy. Fjallraven must know this because it gave us the Keb hardshell jacket that’s comfortable around town and tough enough to handle the mountains.

The Keb’s soft material makes it quieter and more comfortable than other hardshell jackets, but it still offers three layers of waterproof and windproof protection against the elements. The sleeves and hem can be tightened to keep wind and rain at bay, or you can unzip the side vents (they’re placed too low to be armpit vents) for better airflow. The exposed zippers are waterproof, as well. If you do take the Keb for a hike, high chest pockets and a small upper arm pocket remain accessible when wearing a pack.

At more than a pound, this is one of the heavier hardshells out there. It’s a bit like the Patagonia Triolet in its single-material construction and simplicity, though not quite as rugged. The treated Eco-Shell can’t hang with Gore-Tex in terms of breathable waterproofing, either.

While you probably don’t want to hike for days on end in the Keb, it has its place. It looks great around town and has legitimate chops when it comes to weather protection. If you need an everyday jacket for life in a harsh climate, this is an excellent choice.

Why It Made The Cut

Fjallraven was considerate enough to build a hardshell that’s fully capable without making you look like you’re on a wilderness excursion every time you need to walk the dog.

Product Specs
  • Material thickness not specified
  • 1.1 pounds
  • Eco-Shell waterproof material
PROS

Waterproof shell is soft and comfortable

Everyday style isn’t excessively outdoorsy

Nice selection of understated colors

CONS

A little heavy for hiking and climbing

Pretty expensive for something you’ll mostly wear around town

Things to consider before buying a hardshell jacket

Materials

One of the first differentiators you’ll notice is the denier rating of various fabrics. A higher denier rating indicates thicker material, which you may or may not find desirable. Manufacturers also use different methods of shell waterproofing. Gore-Tex is the most well-known (and for good reason), but other proprietary treatments like Black Diamond’s BD.dry, Patagonia’s H2No, and The North Face’s Futurelight also exist. Your needs will determine which is best for you; a winter hiking jacket for Colorado and a spring hiking jacket in the Pacific Northwest are very different things, after all. Something as simple as color may affect your buying decision. Do you want to stand out on the slopes or blend into the forest? That’s up to you. 

Fit

Just like any other piece of clothing, hardshell jackets fit different body types, well, differently. Fortunately, outer layers tend to be pretty forgiving because they’re intended to be worn over at least one other layer with a loose fit. Other considerations include hoods that can fit over a helmet and pockets that are high enough to access over your pack’s hip belt. Active lifestyles also require jackets that stretch and bend with you rather than binding up and holding you back.

Weight

If you’re in a region that has variable weather, you’ll likely be moving your hardshell jacket from your body to your pack and back again pretty regularly. The less you wear it, the more you’ll care about weight. Backcountry jackets that spend a lot of time riding shotgun in your pack should be light and compact. The ones that you need to wear all the time can afford to be a little more robust.

FAQs about hardshell jackets

Q: Do hardshell jackets keep you warm?

A: Hardshell jackets protect against wind and rain, which will help you stay warm, but they don’t have insulation. Your hardshell jacket should be large enough to fit over an appropriately insulated mid layer so you can add and remove layers throughout the day as necessary. 

Q: What’s the difference between hardshell and softshell jackets?

A: Think of hardshell jackets as an evolution of the rain jacket. Softshell rain jackets might use two layers of material to create a waterproof barrier, but they aren’t very durable. Hardshell jackets usually use three layers of material and are built to take more physical abuse. If you’re just going to be running from the car to work in the rain, save some money and get a lightweight softshell jacket. If you’re going to be breaking trail in the mountains, you need a hardshell jacket. 

Q: Are hardshell jackets windproof?

A: Yes, hardshell jackets are windproof and waterproof. They also hold up well against pokes and scrapes.

Q: What is the most eco-friendly hardshell jacket?

A: Making the best products for the environment isn’t always about sustainable materials and efficient manufacturing processes. One of the best things you can do is keep products out of the landfill. Patagonia is making that easier than ever by offering its already environmentally-friendly products available as used items that deserve a second lease on life. Check them out and save some money with the Worn Wear program.

Q: Is a hardshell jacket worth it?

A: Hardshell jackets are an investment. If you plan on hiking, camping, skiing, or otherwise spending time in unforgiving environments, a hardshell jacket will earn its keep in no time. If you spend your free time in town, it’s probably not necessary.

Final thoughts

Cutting-edge features and design are great, but sometimes you just need a solid piece of gear that’s well-built, up for anything, and — above all else — effective. That’s exactly what the rough-and-tumble Patagonia Triolet is. If you want a more specialized hardshell jacket, the rest of our picks have you covered.

Methodology 

A lot of the gear we test at Task & Purpose can have life-saving implications, but the apparel that stands between you and the elements is particularly important. Product selection for this gear guide was informed by my experience in the military, camping, and skiing. I also consulted fellow gear testers with extensive backcountry credibility. Finally, to minimize our collective blind spots, I spent hours reading up on lesser-known brands and new product releases to crowd-source even more knowledge. 

In addition to the brands that made the final cut — Arc’teryx, Black Diamond, Fjallraven, Helly Hansen, Patagonia, and The North Face — I considered hardshell jackets from Eddie Bauer, Kuiu, and Mammut, Outdoor Research. All contenders were evaluated on waterproofing, materials, durability, fit, features, price, and intended use. The brands that didn’t get included offer great jackets as well, they just don’t have the combination of unique features and audience-specific benefits needed to knock one of my picks off the list for Task & Purpose readers.

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