A great men’s hard shell jacket is absolutely crucial to your success in the back country. Designed to retain the maximum amount of warmth while keeping you dry, to block the wind and elements, and even sealed against spindriff and powder; these jackets are made for adventure!
I have used high quality hard shells across the world, from sea level to 7,000 m.s.m, in every imaginable terrain or situation. While I prefer a rain jacket for most low altitude or three season adventures (check out my top picks for Best Men’s Rain Jacket here!) a winter shell has no equal when I am in the back country battling extreme conditions, pursuing extended fourth season adventures, or climbing at high altitude!
Arcteryx Hard Shell; Summit of Cerro Rincon, Argentinian Andes (5,315 m.s.m or 17,438’)
HARD SHELL VS RAIN SHELL
Hard shell jackets differ from rain jackets concerning a few key characteristics. I like to think of a hard shell as a step up from the rain shell, a shell that can do everything a rain shell can and more. This is the next level in protection!
These are thicker shells meant to function in a high-abrasion environment with heavy use. Where a rain jacket might wear and lose it’s DWR (durable water repellent) or waterproofness after a few month, when properly cared for a hard shell can last for years.
A hard shell is designed to work best with a layering system. Most will come with integrated closures for the wrists and incorporated powder skirts. The most common waterproof, breathable membrane used is GORE-TEX® but when we get to my choices I will include some other laminates that can be just as effective yet cost less.
The hood of a hard shell is almost always better suited to use with a helmet and the pockets are larger to stash the bulky accessories one might use in the fourth season. The design is functionally more efficient and moves with your body in an easier fashion, the pockets more accessible and zippers generally a higher quality and more durable for the stress of heavy use.
The waterproofing used for a hard shell lasts longer than traditional rain jackets or rain shells. This increase in durability comes with an increase in cost, so in comparison to the average rain jacket, the average hard shell will cost considerably more. I will include some economy options with my top picks but a quality hard shell will easily cost 2-3x more than it’s comparable rain shell.
I literally lived in a hard shell for three years of my life during a thru-hike of South America, during which time I laid a line of footsteps between the geographical extremes of the continent and successfully summited the highest peaks in the Americas. I used specialty shells for mountaineering, other models for ice climbing, and being that my budget was limited, I also learned to care for the shell in order to get the most out of my purchase. But before I purchased my first shell, I did an incredible amount of research into the companies producing the highest quality products on the market!
HOW ACTIVE ARE YOU?
Before choosing to purchase a hard shell jacket, a question you should ask yourself is what conditions you will be using this jacket in and what your level of activity will during use.
• Hard Shells are meant to be used with a layering system; they are not insulated and generally only used as a stand-alone jacket when in high activity situations
• Hard shells represent a sizeable investment; if your activities consist mainly of low altitude, three season adventuring, it will be tough to justify the investment or the extra weight a hard shell brings to your inventory (vs a lighter rain shell).
• Check out my section on GORE-TEX® below to make sure you choose the right laminate for your hard shell!
A WORD ON LAYERING
As I mentioned, a hard shell is meant to be used with layers. I have spent years perfecting my layering system and would like to go over what I use. This has served me well from thru-hikes of the Appalachian Trail to the summit of Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the Americas.
Before you decide on the hard shell you would like to invest in, you need to test the shell with variations of your layering system.
BECAUSE MOST WATERPROOF, BREATHABLE MEMBRANES PERFORM AT THE SAME LEVEL, ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT CRITERIA IS HOW THE JACKET FITS.
We are all made slightly differently, and I promise that there will be a hard shell option to fit you like a second skin! However, make sure your layering system is on point before you test the jackets; you need to be able to adapt to a variety of situations in the back country and having the ability to insulate at different levels and/or thicknesses will be a major contributor to your comfort level while pursuing that isolated mountain peak!
Arcteryx Hard Shell; Summit of Aconcagua (6962 m.s.m or 22,838’)
When immersed in a high altitude mountaineering situation I am running hot almost all the time. In the photo above I have a simple three-layer system for high activity and a down vest (not pictured) to throw on for lengthy breaks. In the photo above I am comfortable on the highest mountain outside of Asia in this system!
THE IDEAL LAYERING SYSTEM
After decades of climbing, skiing, long-distance hiking, and generally living the outdoor sportsman dream, I have determined the best layering system than embodies a efficient trade off between functionality and overall trail weight. I am a solo climber and backpacker; each piece of equipment is carefully measured to determine if the weight justifies the inclusion in my gear inventory.
This is the layer closest to your skin. This layer should contain absolutely zero cotton! Cotton might feel nice to the touch, and it is certainly the cheapest material clothing is manufactured from, but it does not wick sweat. This detail is unavoidably important. Choose a synthetic blend of polyester and spandex, this will ensure your base layer keeps its form and does not sag. I generally wear a pair of compression shorts, then add a full-length synthetic base layer over this. The compression shorts can be easily washed or changed; an extra pair of compression shorts weighs far less than an extra pair of full-length base layer pants.
This will rest on top of your base layer and many people I meet underestimate it’s importance. The key to layering is to create pockets of air between the layers. This air is what keeps you warm! I like to add a loose synthetic blend t-shirt on top of my base layering system.
INSULATION IS CLUTCH!
After your middle layering you will need insulation for periods of low activity when you are not producing much body heat. I am a person who always runs hot; I prefer a synthetic vest as my first layer, and a down jacket or two as my second insulating layer. I generally steer clear of down parkas; these function well in extremely high altitude situations (7,500 m.s.m+, think climbing in the Himalaya) or when a low level of activity is expected (city use, snowmobiling, etc).
This is where the hard shell comes in to play! I have often dreamed of having impermeable skin to roam the world at will. The right hard shell will provide this!
BUT IS ALL GORTEX CREATED EQUALLY?
The short answer is NO. GORE-TEX® membranes have evolved into THREE activity-specific forms. For a great discussion on how something can be waterproof and breathable at the same time, check out my article on rain gear here.
Let’s talk GORE-TEX®!
• GORE-TEX® - This is the flagship, a laminate used in many general purpose gear items with variations in layers. A subset of this is the PacLite® 2.5 layer ultralight option, which makes for a incredibly light packable shell!
• GORE-TEX® ACTIVE – This is a variation on the standard laminate that allows for the maximum breath-ability. This is used in high-activity situations when you are generating a ton of heat, like free riding or skinning up a back-country run.
• GORE-TEX® PRO – This is the most rugged, durable option from the product line. This is for guides, multi-week expeditions and long haul climbers, and those who need the absolute most out of everything they carry!
BEFORE WE GET TO MY TOP PICKS, LET’S TALK CONSTRUCTION!
The way a jacket has been manufactured has a lot to do with its performance. Looking for “waterproof, breathable” will not suffice to find the right jacket in this situation! If you are looking outside of my TOP PICKS, I will give you some criteria to evaluate in order to make sure you find quality jacket!
• CHECK THE ZIPPERS! The zippers on a quality hard shell should flow up and down their tracks like liquid. They should be larger than the standard zippers.
• SEAMS ARE PIVOTAL! In the manufacturing process, there are many fabrics and consolidation techniques. If the seams are not taped or heat sealed, they will leak eventually. All of my TOP PICKS are seam sealed properly.
• All hard shells should use a 3L laminate system for maximum durability.
• Choose the jacket based on your activity; if you are spending half your time belaying your partner on ice in the Pacific Northwest, an ultralight GORE-TEX® Active shell might not serve you as well!
• Although technology has advanced to the point that almost all laminates and membranes are created equally, there is still much variation in the cut and design. A decision on which hard shell to buy is not to be based on the raw specifications because the FIT is everything!
OK, now that we have a good idea of what to look for, let’s get to my TOP PICKS!
The Best Men's Hard Shell Jackets
1. THE ARCTERYX SABRE
The Arcteryx Sabre is a technical ski/snowboarding hard shell that performs incredibly well in any circumstances I meet with in the back country. This jacket uses a traditional GORE-TEX® membrane for waterproofing and has a couple of additions that make it my top choice!
Arcteryx is a company I have been a fan of for many years. Their products are expensive; they also provide the highest quality option of almost every product they manufacture. Arcteryx customer support is simply legendary and if there is any issue with your purchase, they will make sure you have what you need to keep going on your adventure, no matter where it might be in the world!
The Sabre comes with a flannel backer, super soft and slightly insulating; for my outdoor activities this makes the difference between needing an extra layer to stay warm! The cut is loose, allowing plenty of room for my down jacket, and the integrated powder skirt also functions to keep in heat while wind is trying to sneak in from the hem.
- Loose fit, designed to flow with your movements
- Laminated brim and high collar works with or without your helmet
- Flannel backer gives slightly more insulation than the standard hard shell
- GORE-TEX® lining stays waterproof yet breathes in any environment
- Perfect venting under arms and with ample front pockets
- Zipper pull is slightly less durable (however, easily replaced)
- Expensive; be sure to check sales and discounts for a great deal!
2. THE OUTDOOR RESEARCH AXIOM
Outdoor Research is another company I have been using for many years. The products they manufacture are absolutely expedition quality. The Outdoor Research Axiom is no different; this is a jacket meant for those of us who push ourselves to the limits of our endurance each and every time we hit the back country!
The Axiom is manufactured using GORE-TEX® Active, which is slightly different than the traditional GORE-TEX® laminate you might be accustomed to using in your equipment. This particular membrane is built to breathe more freely than traditional GORE-TEX® and so is better suited to high activity situations, such as skinning up your favorite back-country run or rocking a double black at sunset.
The Axiom is also the winner of the prestigious Outside Magazine’s “GEAR OF THE YEAR” award!
- INCREDIBLE breath-ability, ready for any stress you can put it under!
- Great design for your helmet
- Weighing in at 14.9oz, this jacket is whisper-light!
- Around ½ the price of my #1 pick – if this suits your activities, this is the jacket for you!
- 20D nylon is not as durable as heavier fabrics, less resistant to tears
- Athletic fit; size up for adequate layering
3. THE RAB LATOK
RAB is a company I have respected for a long time and for good reason. This company might not be as well known as Arcteryx or Outdoor Research, but their products are absolutely on point with the highest quality products on the market today.
I was climbing and hiking in the Wind River Range in Wyoming one summer and found a partner from France I amiably referred to as “Iron Man.” We were poised at the base of the small glacier leading up to Knapsack Col and just before we struck out across the ice we found ourself pounded by a violent hailstorm. We were crouched in the lee of a massive boulder, waiting for the hail to stop so we could climb, and I can still remember the smile on his face as he remarked,
“I have a friend who studies thunderstorms, yes? She says the atmospheric instability can only last so long. We will be climbing in no time!”
I laughed, and came back with the fact that I was freezing (we were both shivering as we held our backpacks above our heads to deflect some of the pea-sized hail), and he had this to say.
“I have another friend who is a Buddhist, yes? He says the cold is only in your mind. So if we think we are not cold, we will not be cold, yes?”
As we huddled, shivering under this pitiful little lee of a shelter, I noticed his jacket with some envy. He was wearing a shell that had been so masterfully produced that the water was bouncing off of the top of the fabric. After I had admired this for a moment, he told me about the company and how almost everything he used was from their product line. That was my introduction to RAB!
- Amazing quality and design!
- Use of eVent® technologies as a more economic (but fully functional) GORE-TEX® alternative.
- Double YKK zipper on main pull means you can vent the bottom while keeping the wind off your chest!
- Awesome drainage for the chest pockets! (this is clutch! When the snow enters the pocket and melts, where does it go? I think this is one of the greatest options on the LATOK!)
- Heavier than average; reinforced high-use areas*
- Technical climbing jacket; does not incorporate a powder skirt, rather a draw-cord hem
4.THE ARCTERYX ALPHA SV
The Alpha SV is one of the most advanced hard shells that Arcteryx manufactures. I have been a fan of Arcteryx for many years and the Alpha SV is consistently at the top of every independent gear review I have ever read!
This hard shell will do it all; utilizing GORE-TEX® PRO (the toughest, most durable laminate produced) this jacket is waterproof, breathable, and ready for the toughest conditions Planet Earth has to offer.
Arcteryx is also a company who stands behind their products. I have used and worn many Arcteryx items over the years and any time I have not felt I got a fair amount of use from an item, they have replaced it quickly and without too many questions.
Of course, fair use is relative! If you are purchasing a hard shell to use during skiing season, and expect to rock groomed runs and rarely wear a pack or harness, this shell will last for decades!
- High-end Arcteryx model with all technical aspects covered
- STORMHOOD® molds to your helmet and makes sure you are kept dry on the roughest ascents
- Excellent ventilation with chest and pit zips
- Does not include powder skirt
5. THE MILLET TRILOGY GTX
Millet is another company I have respected for a long time. They have consistently created high-end, high quality products for alpine mountaineering and I have yet to find any major flaws.
On Everest, there are a couple of brands one might encounter often; Millet is one of these brands. I tend to think of this company going above and far beyond the industry standard; each product they manufacture is going to exceed expectations by leaps and bounds. The Triology GTX is no different!
- Heat-sealed seams make this one of the most watertight hard shells in the world!
- Hip-length cut is sure to reach and retain under your climbing harness
- High ceilings and head room for the tallest campers.
- Micro-grid ripstop backer works with the membrane to pull sweat from your body
- GORE-TEX PRO Astree 3-layer membrane, ready for whatever you have planned!
- High quality, but comes with a high price tag
- Alpine fit might not work with heavy layering system, runs small
6. THE OUTDOOR RESEARCH MAXIMUS
This is the high-end model from Outdoor Research, the aptly named MAXIMUS. This jacket is ready to face the toughest conditions in the world and still keep coming back for more. Three layer GORE-TEX® PRO construction puts this hard shell in a very elite category. If you are looking for a great hard shell to last for years of adventuring, the Maximus is your pick!
Outdoor Research is another company we have seen multiple times on my list of Top Picks and for good reason. I remember one climbing season that I looked down and realized my shell pants, my gaiters, my expedition mitts, my shirt, and my bivouac were all from Outdoor Research! I had not meant to do this, but when choosing the products I felt would serve me best for this particular season, it just worked out that way. I had great success over the course of the season and I am sure the Maximus will do the same for you!
- GORE-TEX® PRO 3-layer laminate is the toughest on the market
- Movement-mimicking stretch panels allow this jacket to move with you
- Great all over venting
- Wire-brimmed hood sheds powder and rain alike!
- Does not include a powder skirt
7. THE ARCTERYX BETA AR
Again we see Arcteryx in my top picks! There is a good reason – these hard shell jackets are simply industry standard. The Arcteryx Beta AR is no exception; this is a more economic option from Arcteryx in comparison to my other choices.
- Even though this is a more economic option, the Beta AR still uses GORE-TEX® PRO!
- True hand warming pockets
- Independent collar for draft protection
- Watertight underarm zips for venting
- Shorter hem means potential to be drafty on taller climbers.
- Hood needs a hat or helmet to sit correctly
8. THE HELLY HANSEN ODIN
The Helly Hansen Odin is one of the top choices for guides and professional mountaineers across Planet Earth! This shell incorporates all of the skill and experience of those industry professionals and will suit you in any condition, in fair weather or foul, with an emphasis on move-ability and functional waterproofing.
- Tested around the world, from the Himalaya to Antarctica
- Great design, plenty of pocket space
- Helmet-friendly hood design
- Fully endorsed by the Nordic Gods 🙂
- Lighter denier and backer might feel thin
- Hood cinches somewhat difficult to manipulate with winter gloves on
9. THE PATAGONIA M-10
I am including this Patagonia M-10 as my BEST MID-RANGE/ECONOMIC HARD SHELL JACKET. While this might not pack the options one of the higher-end models I have highlighted does, the M-10 does a great job as a step up from the economic options that might not perform as well as you need for extreme conditions the hardest shells are put through.
- H2NO® 3-layer technology will keep you dry and comfy, even under high stress!
- Welded Seams
- Outer Finish with extra DWR
- Shorter Hood Brim
- Narrow seam-sealing
OK, LET’S TALK CARE!
Purchasing a Men’s Hard Shell for your adventures represents a sizable investment; with consistent care you will be able to enjoy this item of gear for years!
When you first purchase your hard shell, the water will bead on the surface – I love to see this because I know the membrane is working well. However, after some heavy use, the first places to stop being as waterproof will be the high abrasion areas. Your hard shell will provide protection anywhere you can dream of exploring, but you need to care for it properly!
Cape Froward, Chile; Straights of Magellan; Looking west to the Pacific!
The high abrasion areas will be places where your climbing harness or backpack straps rub, your elbows, perhaps a wrist where an ice ax loop might rub constantly, or any other area you put under high stress.
SO MY HARD SHELL IS LOSING IT’S WATERPROOF QUALITIES, CAN I REALLY FIX THIS?
YES! What is occurring is that the first layer of the GORE-TEX® membrane is being worn off – with the proper treatment you can replace this outer layer and begin to see the water bead once again!
I have sucessfully used high-end hard shells for years, over the course of thousands of hours of adventuring. This piece of equipment is crucial to a successful expedition and when you are caring for it, there are no short cuts. This is technical gear and there is a specific chemical needed to properly care for your hard shell.
I like to work on my hard shell with two easy steps.
STEP ONE – WASH PROPERLY
A hard shell should NEVER be washed at high temperatures, or with traditional laundry soaps; these stresses can actually remove more of the DWR or membrane you are trying to replace.
I like Nikwax and the package above contains both Tech Wash and TX-Direct Wash-In (to replace that valuable membrane). The Tech Wash will remove the dirt and oils without removing the DWR or laminate!
INSIDER TIP: There are two ways to replace the DWR and waterproof membranes on your hard shell jacket; a “wash-in” option that is used in the machine when washing and a “spray” that is layered on and allowed to soak in. BOTH OF THESE PRODUCTS USE THE SAME CHEMICALS; the wash-in option is more concentrated as it is assumed it will be diluted in water while in the machine. I like to buy this and dilute it myself, then use it as a spray.
In Argentina, while climbing in the High Andes, the guides have a saying they use. “Suerte” (the Spanish word for “Luck”) is used when a person looks ill-prepared, when the chance for a successful summit is very low. “Exitos” (the Spanish word for “Success”) is used when a person is prepared and the chance for success is obviously very high.
So now that you have your hard shell and you know how to care for it, go have a great adventure! EXITOS!