Best Hard Shell Jackets for Winter Hiking

Hard shell jackets are a burly type of rain jacket used for winter hiking as a windproof and waterproof clothing layer. They have a richer set of temperature regulation and storage features than warm weather rain jackets to help you avoid perspiration and carry extra gloves, hats, and navigation instruments.

Hard shell jackets are also heavier and thicker than many rain jackets, especially minimalist rain jackets where the emphasis is on low weight. In addition to better durability, a thicker hard shell jacket will be significantly warmer than a thin rain jacket which you’ll appreciate on cold days.

Recommended Men’s and Women’s Hard Shells

Men'sWomen'sPrice
Arcteryx Alpha SVArcteryx Alpha SV$800
Arcteryx Beta AR JacketArcteryx Beta AR Jacket$600
Fjallraven Keb Eco Shell JacketFjallraven Keb Eco Shell Jacket$500
Patagonia Triolet JacketPatagonia Triolet Jacket$399
Montbell Storm Cruiser JacketMontbell Storm Cruiser Jacket$349
Rab Kinetic Alpine 2.0Rab Kinetic Alpine 2.0$295
REI Stormbolt GTXNot currently available$279
Outdoor Research Foray II JacketOutdoor Research Aspire II Jacket$225
REI XeroDry JacketREI XeroDry Jacket$169

What then are the most important features to consider when buying a hard shell jacket for winter hiking?

Hard Shell Jacket Guide

The following features are especially important for winter hikers and backpackers to look for in a hard shell:

  • Fully adjustable hood
  • Hip-belt compatible pockets
  • Lots of large zippered pockets
  • Temperature management features
    • Pit zips or torso zips
    • Two-way front zipper
    • Adjustable hook and loop (velcro) wrist closures
    • Drawcord hem closure

Fully Adjustable Hood

When choosing a hard shell for winter hiking try to avoid ones that are “helmet compatible”, unless you have a huge Godzilla-sized head.  Unfortunately, the majority of hard shell jackets are intended for skiers and climbers who wear protective helmets not winter hikers. Oversize hoods rob your head of warmth, they can be difficult to control in the high wind, and retard your side vision.

What you should look for is a fully adjustable hood with a rear volume adjustment so you can shrink the hood size to fit your head, side pulls so you can adjust the size of the face opening to block the wind, and a high collar that covers your neck and mouth. All of these features will help protect your face from frostbite and help you stay warmer.

Hipbelt Compatible Pockets

Additionally, look for hard shell jackets that have chest or side pockets that are higher up in the torso so you can access them when wearing a backpack hip-belt. This can be a hard feature to find on hard shell jackets, so look carefully. Hard shell jackets from Outdoor Research and Rab are often pretty safe bets in this regard, but be sure to check before purchasing one.

Lots of Zippered Pockets

You can’t have too many hard shell pockets in winter. They’re great for carrying spare gloves, and hats, and keeping navigation tools within easy reach. They’re also good for keeping snacks from freezing if stored next to your body.

I view my hard shell jacket pockets as an extension of my backpack because the extra storage cuts down on the number of times I have to stop to get clothes or food out of my pack. You have to keep moving in winter to stay warm and to get to your destination before nightfall.

Temperature Management Features

In winter, you want to limit the amount you perspire by actively managing your warmth level. The key to doing this involves venting excess warmth by venting or removing layers. A good hard shell should provide several ways for you to dump excess heat without having to take it off completely, including:

  • Pit zips or torso zips that you can open to release excess heat so you sweat less.
  • Adjustable hook and loop wrist closures: These help regulate the body heat at your wrists where the blood flows close to the surface of your skin. You can open them to let cold air reach your wrists or pull your sleeves up to vent heat. If you’re cold, you can wrap the closures around the gauntlets of your gloves to prevent heat from escaping.
  • Two-way front zipper: If you pull the bottom half up, you can dump a lot of excess torso heat, poncho-style.
  • Hem drawcord: Cinch it closed to keep the wind or snow from blowing up between your legs and robbing your torso heat.

What about Breathability Ratings?

Your mileage may vary, but I don’t think premium breathability ratings are all that important on winter hiking hard shells if you get a jacket that has good temperature regulation features and you actively manage your warmth and perspiration level when hiking. High levels of breathability can’t hurt, but I don’t think paying extra for them is really worth it. If you get too hot, venting your hard shell is going to keep you a lot drier and a lot faster than waiting for water vapor to move across a breathable membrane.

Moreover, getting a hard shell that’s NOT made with a waterproof/breathable fabric is virtually impossible these days. Just remember that the features on these jackets are far more important than their breathability ratings. Stay focused on that and you’ll get yourself a good hard shell jacket that you can hang onto for a while for winter hiking and backpacking.

Purchase Advice

You can spend an arm and a leg on a winter hard shell jacket if you want. But if you’re willing to forego the allure of Arcteryx’s overpriced jackets, you can find comparatively less expensive shells that have fully adjustable hoods, lots of pockets for storing extra hats and gloves, and temperature options like pit-zips or torso zips.

We think the jackets from Outdoor Research provide the best balance in terms of features and price, but everyone has different preferences and sizing needs. No jacket is perfect in all respects, so you’ll probably have to make some tradeoffs during your selection process.

About the author

Philip Werner has hiked and backpacked over 8500 miles in the United States and the UK and written over 3000 articles as the founder of SectionHiker.com, noted for its backpacking gear reviews and hiking FAQs. A devotee of New Hampshire and Maine hiking and backpacking, Philip has hiked all 650+ trails in the White Mountains twice and has completed 8 rounds of the 48 peaks on the White Mountains 4000 footer list with over 490 summits in all four seasons. He is also the author of Backpacking the White Mountain 4000 Footers, a free online guidebook of the best backpacking trips in the White Mountains in New Hampshire and Maine. He lives in New Hampshire. Click here to subscribe to the SectionHiker newsletter.
SectionHiker is reader-supported. We independently research, test, and rate the best products. We only make money if you purchase a product through our affiliate links. Help us continue to test and write unsponsored and independent gear reviews, beginner FAQs, and free hiking guides.

7 comments

  1. I have both the OR Aspire (my rain jacket) and the Arcteryx Beta (ski jacket). I own both only because of after-season sales ($600 for a jacket is insane). Pretty sure I will die before the Aspire does, even though it goes on sea kayak expeditions as well as every hike. And I love the full-body pit-zips. The Beta has a tough life on the slopes but the prior Beta (also bought on sale) lasted me about 10 years before the fabric started to wear through. I think the Beta is better for skiing than for hiking – non-adjustable hood, few pockets – but they both get my recommendation.

    • Sounds like you have an old version of the Beta AR, because the current one has great hood adjustment controls including the front opening and rear volumes controls. While it is helmet compatible, you can shrink it down to human proportions with those controls.

  2. For my lanky friends, the best hardshell for hiking I’ve found is the Arcteryx Zeta AR. Long torso length and pretty long sleeves as well. Normal hood (not helmet-compatible), pit zips, and hip belt-compatible pockets.

    It was discontinued (for men), but I believe a comparable version is the Arcteryx Beta Long.

  3. Phillip, have you looked into the Arc’teryx Beta jacket (its not the Beta AR or Beta SV). They used to call it the Zeta, I believe and changed the name this year. 10.6 oz gore tex C-knit. Seems like maybe comparable to OR Foray. Significantly lighter than than the AR. https://arcteryx.com/us/en/shop/mens/beta-jacket#search=1

    • I wouldn’t recommend this for winter hiking and its not really comparable to the OR Foray II at all. It doesn’t have pit zips for one and no adjustably face opening so the wind will zip right in. It’s really designed for skiing and wearing a huge ski helmet.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *