Hard shell buying guide: How to choose the best jacket

hard shell jacket buying guide hiker in
If you browse for a new hard shell jacket either online or at a retail store you might be overwhelmed by the vast number of products and featured technologies. What is the difference between a shell that costs $100 and one that costs $700? When should you go with Gore-Tex? Do you need a two-layer jacket or a three-layer jacket, and what does that even mean? Well, we’ve put together a comprehensive guide highlighting the ins and outs of hard shells, so you can get a better understanding regarding the fabric and waterproofing that goes into each product offering.

What is a hard shell?

A “hard shell” is an outer layer of waterproof — as opposed to water-resistant — clothing worn to protect yourself from heat-sapping natural phenomena like wind, falling water (in its various states), or miserable and hazardous combinations thereof.

Hard shells exist in contrast to “soft shells,” which offer light protection from mild weather in fair conditions but typically are not seam-taped and without an inner membrane or coating. Hard shells often feature fully-taped waterproof seams along with a beefy outer layer of chemically-treated nylon designed to repel water, as well as an inner coating or membrane of waterproof fabric that will help prevent precipitation from soaking through the jacket.

Hard shells are also made to withstand whatever nature can throw at you while soft shells are made for light protection in fair weather.

What is a waterproof breathable membrane?

A “waterproof breathable membrane” is a piece of fabric designed to allow sweaty perspiration to “breathe” out through the jacket as water vapor while keeping more dense liquid rain and solid snow out. The high-end “pro-sumer” shell market is led by Gore-Tex-branded products that make use of lifetime-warrantied, buy-it-once, chemically inert expanded polytetrafluoroethylene WPB membranes. Competing membrane technologies include the air-permeable eVent and NeoShell, but all of these PTFE technologies will keep the rain and snow out.

hard shell jacket buying guide goretex image 1

Without added pressure such as contact with the straps of a heavy pack, a product with a number at or larger than a 10,000-millimeter hydrostatic head rating — a measurement of how tall a literal column of water can be placed on a piece of fabric before water seeps through — is considered properly waterproof in moderate rain or snow, and you will be hard pressed to find any PTFE hard shell rated below that.

Instead of using a pricey, name-brand membrane to justify a high price, entry-level consumer shells often feature a proprietary “house brand” polyurethane coating as the primary waterproofing. Polyurethane coatings provide a lower cost to the consumer but have lower moisture vapor transmission rates (MVTR) under high exertion. Lower MVTR translates into reduced ability to prevent condensation on the inside of a jacket that is supposed to be keeping you dry. Moisture build up on your insulating layers can lead to hypothermia in certain situations and the wet-out mitigating, high MVTRs found in PTFE products are a major reason to consider shelling out the cash for their loftier prices.

hard shell jacket buying guide goretex image 2

It is important to have reasonable expectations about the so-called “breathability” advertisers mention on a product description page or hang tag of both PTFE shells and PU-coated shells. While most modern shells allow vapor transfer at a much greater rate than a trash bag or rubber coat of old, even the most expensive hard shells will leave you soaked from your own sweat if you try a hard workout in them.

How many layers?

Jacket manufacturers use different numbers of material layers on their products to create a range of shells that offer the right mix of durability, packability, and weight for your intended use. Two-layer jackets are less durable but usually lighter in weight than 2.5 or three-layer shells, and offer only an outer layer of abrasion-resistant material and an inner waterproof layer.

Most 2.5-layer products are a common middle ground offering that use a printed pattern of protective material on the inside layer to prolong the long-term weather protection of the product while keeping the bulk low and the price down.

Outdoor guides and power users who live in their shells should look to three-layer products that sandwich the WPB membrane between two layers of protective material to resist abrasion and membrane-clogging oils and sediments from both the skin of the user and the outside world.

Outer face fabrics?

The recent trend among hard shells targeting users in agile, high-mobility sports is to use a dynamic, stretch fabric instead of a traditional static nylon exterior fabric. These come in two flavors: A two-way unidirectional stretch, and a four-way “all-direction” stretch for comfortable wear for climbers and trekkers. Stretch fabrics are found more often on athletic-fit shells, and offer an increased range of motion for your appendages without using a baggier arrangement of fabrics in the shell.

Shell shoppers with durability in mind will want to pay attention to the “denier” or “ounce per square yard” weight of the fabrics, which are used to gauge the ability of the fabric to hold up to real world use. Denier is the mass in grams of 9,000 meters of a given fiber, and is often displayed as a number followed by the letter “D,” as in “90D.” Ounce per yard is the weight of a 1 x 1-yard piece of the fabric. Both metrics can be used as general indicators of the durability of a fabric when you’re choosing between products.

Bombproof hard shells like the Arc’teryx Beta SV feature a burly 80-denier nylon exterior that’s built to withstand bumps into jagged rocks and sharp ice, while the Patagonia Alpine Houdini uses a lighter 20-denier face for easy “just in case” carrying. For help comparison purposes, consider that the popular workhorse Marmot PreCip Jacket uses a 2.2 ounce per square yard fabric whereas the super packable ZPacks Challenger Ultralight Rain Jacket uses a barely-there 1.62 ounce per square yard material.

Which hard shell is right for my activity?

Have you done all the research you can stomach but still aren’t sure what sort of shell to buy? Think of the activity you are realistically going to spend most of your time doing while wearing the hard shell. If all you plan to do is wear the shell to the bleachers at a November football match, you will stay dry in any waterproof shell you put on, but may appreciate a wider fit for comfort when wearing winter layers underneath.

Are you more of a distance runner or a general minimalist in need of emergency protection? The Arc’teryx Norvan SL offers no protective face fabric, no pockets, and no pit zips, but it provides a scant 4.2 ounce of waterproof protection.

hard shell jacket buying guide arcteryx lifestye image 1

Bleeding-edge, ultralight backpackers who need material that is both light and durable should take a look at the made-to-order ZPacks Challenger Ultralight Rain Jacket, which uses an exotic three-layer construction of eVent on the inside for breathability, protective nylon on the outside, and lightweight but super strong Dyneema threads sandwiched in the middle.

If you plan on skiing or snowboarding at a resort, consider an option like the Trew Cosmic or Stella, both of which offer a helmet-compatible hood and RECCO reflective inserts that bounce signals back to a corresponding receiver and help resort staff locate you under the snow in case of an avalanche. Do you expect to see equal parts wintertime and summertime activity with your shell? You may benefit from a detachable powder skirt, which will allow you to keep fresh snow out during the colder months and shed the excess weight during the warmer parts of the year. Planning on wearing waterproof hand protection along with your jacket? Be sure the adjustable wrist cuffs on your jacket are wide enough to accommodate your gloves or mittens.

Emerging Tech

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: Write music with your voice, make homemade cheese

Check out our roundup of the best new crowdfunding projects and product announcements that hit the web this week. You may not be able to buy this stuff yet, but it sure is fun to gawk!

Here are 15 of our favorite iPad Mini cases, covers to protect your tiny tablet

We take a look at the best iPad Mini cases and covers on the market. We have cases in a range of styles and prices, with all sorts of distinguishing features. If you have an Apple iPad Mini 4 or iPad Mini 5 then get a case now.

Safeguard your Sony Xperia 10 smartphone with one of these cases

If you're looking for some protection to keep your Sony smartphone safe, or you want a different style, we've got you covered here with a list of the best Sony Xperia 10 cases. There are clear cases, rugged cases, wallet cases, and more.

Walmart to launch it’s own low-priced tablet, powered by Android 9.0 Pie

Walmart will soon launch its own low-cost, kid-friendly tablet, which will be powered by Android 9.0 Pie. The price and release date for the device are still unknown, but it will reportedly feature a MediaTek processor with 2 GB of RAM.

Topgolf’s new driving range tech tracks ball trajectory just like they do on TV

Using the same technology shown during PGA tournaments, Toptracer is looking to make the driving range a more modern practice and party facility by offering statistical insights, along with plenty of games for more casual fans.

Shimano’s trail-ripping eMTB tech will make you ditch analog bikes altogether

Shimano makes some of the best electric bike tech in the world, and its new mountain bike components flex that technological muscle in a big way. We’re in love.

This ebike is so good it won a prestigious design award

The Gazelle Arroyo C8 Elite ebike picked up a prestigious IF Design Award, scoring high marks for its comfort and balance, while also looking good and offering excellent range at an affordable pice.
Home Theater

Get loud with the best outdoor speakers to rock your party in any weather

From rugged, solar-powered backwoods listening companions to floating pool party jam boxes, the best outdoor speakers partner with your lifestyle to let you listen to your favorite tunes wherever you go.

App schools fishing fans on the best time and place to hook that dream catch

Fishbrain, a fishing social network and forecasting app, has introduced BiteTime, a new feature that takes the guesswork out of when and where you are most likely to catch a certain species of fish.

Hyperlite’s new 2-person tent weighs slightly more than two bags of marshmallows

Hyperlite Mountain Gear took the wraps off its new ultralight Dirigo 2 tent. Weighing only 28 ounces, the Dirigo 2 is the company's first self-contained, three-season, two-person shelter.

REI cuts prices on Osprey, Patagonia, and The North Face backpacks

Whether you're hiking, camping, or traveling, you're always going to need a decent bag to carry your things in. And with REI's Outlet sale going on right now, it's is a perfect time to pick one up for cheap.

The best budget-friendly GoPro alternatives that won’t leave you broke

Cold weather is here, and a good action camera is the perfect way to record all your adventures. You don't need to shell out the big bucks for a GoPro: Check out these great GoPro alternatives, including some 4K cameras, that won’t leave…

Yamaha’s Wabash ebike takes on gravel, single track, and more

The Wabash gravel ebike from Yamaha gives riders a versatile and powerful option for riding trails, pavement, mud, sand, dirt, and more, with plenty of range and power for all-day adventures.

Under Armour HOVR is more than a running shoe, it’s a fitness tracker

Under Armour HOVR running shoes bring more to the table than just a comfortable fit. With UA's Record Sensor technology, you can track distance, duration, and even the path you take as you run.