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How to Buy a Hard Shell Jacket for Winter Hiking

Winter Hiking Hard Shells: When selecting a hard shell for winter hiking you want an adjustable hood, hip-belt compatible pockets and adjustable wrist
Winter Hiking Hard Shells: When selecting a hard shell for winter hiking you want an adjustable hood, hip-belt compatible pockets and adjustable wrist cuffs. Jacket show here: Outdoor Research Foray Jacket.

Hard Shell Jackets are best used in winter conditions as a windproof clothing layer and an extension of your packing system, with lots of pockets that provide easy access to gloves, hats, snacks, and navigation instruments so you don’t have to stop and take bone chilling rest breaks. While hard shell jackets are usually made with waterproof/breathable fabrics, they’re too heavy, too warm, and over-featured for use as hiking rain jackets in warmer weather and you’d be far better off with a minimalist rain jacket like the Outdoor Research Helium II and a Frogg Toggs Ultra Lite Rain Jacket.

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

Hard Shell Features

There are a couple of features that are especially important for winter hikers to look for in a hard shell:

  • Fully adjustable hood that’s NOT helmet compatible
  • Hip-belt compatible pockets
  • Lots of large zippered pockets
  • Layering Features
    • Two-way front zipper
    • Adjustable hook and loop (velcro) wrist closures
    • Drawcord hem closure

Fully Adjustable Hood

When choosing a hard shell make sure the hood is NOT helmet compatible, unless you have a huge Godzilla-sized head. The majority of hard shell jackets are intended for skiers and climbers who wear protective helmets. 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, a wire or shapeable brim to shield your eyes from wind and snow, 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.

Hip-belt Compatible Pockets

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 shells 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, hats, and keeping navigation tools in 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.

Layering features

In winter, you want to limit the amount you perspire by acting managing your warmth level. They key to doing this involves venting excess warmth by removing, or venting layers. A good hard shell should provide several ways for you to dump excess heat without having to take it off completely. Here are some of the most important features to look for when comparing different jackets.

  • Adjustable Hook and Loop (Velcro) Wrist Closures: These help regulate the body heat at your wrists where the blood flows close to the surface of your skin. They can be worn under gloves or over them depending on your preference and the glove type.
  • 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 from blowing up between your legs and ribbing your torso heat.

Breathability Ratings

What should you look for in terms of breathability ratings when looking at hard shell jackets?

Pit zips and torso-length venting, like Outdoor Research's Toro flow feature trump breathability claims any day.

To be honest, I don’t trust the breathability ratings published by manufacturers because they’re measured in ideal laboratory conditions that have little to do with actual use.

Pit zips and torso-length venting, like Outdoor Research’s Torso Flow (shown here) feature trump breathability claims any day.

If you get too hot, venting your hard shell is going to cool and dry you off far more quickly than waiting for water vapor to move across a breathable membrane.

But 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.

Where to start? Check out the hard shells listed here from Outdoor Research. OR is the best and virtually only outdoor manufacturer that has a good selection of jackets with the features I list above. I’ve been using the OR Foray myself going on 5 years and still think it’s an awesome winter shell that checks all the boxes.

Updated 2018.

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  1. How appropriate are these jackets to other outdoor activities in the winter? I’m concerned with the cost for something that isn’t used very often (not planning a lot of winter hikes) But it might be worth looking at if, for example, they could be used for activities like snow cleanup, dog walking, playing with the kids, etc.

    I currently use an 18 year old Helly Hanson shell for most winter activity, but it is really in need of replacement. The idea of something that works for just about any winter activity is attractive. (I’m not into Ice Fishing, so I don’t think “sitting around in the cold” is a need at this time, although I guess with the proper base layers would likely work.) I’m interested mainly so that I have something that also works well with a pack on when needed.

    Would one of these hard shells work well for multi-use or is that just wishful thinking?

  2. During the five years you’ve had your OR Foray jacket have you re-treated with DWR?

    • Maybe once. I almost never wear it in rain so there’s really no point. All factory DWR’s wear off eventually, usually after 50 *uses* of your jacket unless you stuff and un-stuff it a lot in which case it will degrade even faster. Abrasion is the culprit.

  3. In winter (when weather never gets above freezing) I find I prefer shells that don’t have a membrane. Most membranes end up with any moisture condensing and then freezing on the inside. I have found a classic windshirt, or a heavier duty shell (I really like jackets made with Epic and Equilibrium) work very well. I am sure Paramo jackets would be great but never used one.


    • Mark – Great to hear from you!
      I find thin jackets/wind shells too cold myself, but wear them down to about 20-25 degrees over a heavy fleece to block the wind.
      A thicker hard shell suits me more, but I can’t say I’ve ever had frost form inside one while wearing it.
      I have worn a Paramo jacket and hated it. Way too hot and heavy. Really heavy. I was surprised.

      • I guess I do run hot. richard nisley laugh about it… when active I seem to need around 1/2 to 2/3 of the insulation he (and theoretical models) suggest. frosting inside almost always happened to me when engaged in heavy exertion combined with temps around 0F. Paramo has always been too heavy / warm for me. The reason I like EPIC and Equilibrium) is that the freedom of moment, no sense of of weight, and that they are just blocking wind.

  4. One feature you didn’t mention was internal water bottle pockets.

    I have a mountain hardwear hard shell and an REI soft shell. Both have internal pockets for water bottles. While the soft shell keeps my water warmer, I find it much more comfortable to carry the bottles in the hard shell.

    • That falls under the *lot of pockets* category.
      I’m not sure the pockets you’re referring to are “designated” water bottle pockets. While you can use them for that (I have a friend who melts snow in a bottle in such a pocket), they’re pretty general purpose for gloves, hats, food, GPS, PLB, etc.

  5. “make sure the hood is NOT helmet compatible”
    I agree with you on this, but that’s awfully hard to find. The Beta, Theta, and Axiom you list above all have helmet compatible hoods. In my experience, even if the hood is adjustable down from helmet size, it will never fit as well as a smaller hood would.

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